I am a white person, and a Settler in the unceded Coast Salish territories currently known as Vancouver, BC, and I am writing this piece today as an open call to boycott SlutWalk Vancouver this year and in the future. The event is set to take place for the third time in its short history, this year on June 2nd, in an glaringly misguided effort to “raise consciousness” about rape culture —but apparently, only the aspects of rape culture that impact white women, no matter how disproportionately women of colour are impacted by all that remains unacknowledged. By its very name, and regardless of the event’s specific geographic location, SlutWalk announces itself as inaccessible to and unsafe for women of colour. This is especially true for indigenous women in Vancouver, Edmonton, and in municipalities neighbouring the Highway of Tears, due to the explicit targeting of indigenous women by multiple heinous serial murderers in these cities—places across the country where not only has the justice system failed indigenous women yet again, but law enforcement simply idled by or even enthusiastically denied the prospect of justice to the women most disproportionately impacted by these crimes. Since the last SlutWalk in Vancouver, the Missing Women’s Commission and Inquiry (hereafter referred to as MWCI) into police apathy in the Robert Pickton serial murder case has graduated these claims from blood-chilling rumours to statements of publicly acknowledged objective fact. Thus, the criticism against SlutWalk Vancouver in particular is especially enunciated.
This criticism has already been offered directly to the organizers of SlutWalk Vancouver, both during and after the first and second year, on several occasions, and in several distinctive forums including social media and community gatherings specifically called for to air and address this very issue. Both women of colour and white women have spoken out against this issue, directly to the organizers of the first and second runs of this event, and yet nothing has changed. The abundance of unchecked white settler privilege, colonialism, and racism inherent in the name of the event alone is a loaded and complex issue that the organizers cannot possibly claim to be unaware of. They lost the right to make that argument at the 2012 Women And Media Vancouver Conference (hereby referred to as “WAM! Vancouver”) that followed the first instalment of SlutWalk Vancouver, a year and a half ago. This claim isn’t merely a rumour either. I was actually at that conference and witnessed first hand as the first year’s organizers were called out on their privilege-blindness, before speaking out myself in solidarity and support of indigenous women. I also later shared this experience, my further-developed insights from it, and this open letter from Black women to all SlutWalk organizers (answering the problem shortly after the first year), directly with the new organizers of the second Vancouver SlutWalk. Still, the organizers of SlutWalk Vancouver refuse to even change the name. I am therefore going to go deeper into this issue here, as part of my open call to boycott the event.
The Criticism: The Word “Slut” is Heavily Racialized
White women and women of colour are all called sluts for similar behaviours that have nothing to do with how many sexual partners they currently have, had had, or intend to have in the future. Thus, it can be legitimately argued that slut-shaming (such as the inciting event itself, in which a woman seeking justice after being raped was blamed for it because of what she was wearing) effects white women and women of colour. But this is an extremely superficial understanding of sexism. It completely ignores the role of divergent social constructions of race in the greater dialogue about rape apologetics and rape culture. It completely ignores the wildly disproportionate distribution and escalation of sexual violence against women of colour, compared to that experienced by white women. It also completely ignores the role of race/ethnicity in the uneven distribution of justice to rape survivors and women who have lost their lives to sexual violence (most of whom are women of colour), and against rape perpetrators—who can expect a higher likelihood of charges even being pressed at all if they are men of colour whose victims were white, and who can also expect harsher sentencing relative to white men who have committed the same crimes. But most importantly, the very superficial understanding of slut-shaming promoted as “grassroots feminism” by SlutWalk Vancouver is very actively ignoring how deeply the word “slut” has become steeped into greater over-arching structures of colonial violence against women of colour from all over the world.
At the 2012 WAM! Vancouver conference, one indigenous woman (who I readily confess I continue to deeply admire for several reasons) confronted the first SlutWalk Vancouver organizers with this information. The organizers had claimed that women in the Downtown East Side (i.e., abbreviated here as DTES) simply didn’t want to take part in SlutWalk, despite how powerful an opportunity this effort could have been for the healing of their community in the wake of the Pickton trial and MWCI. But this indigenous woman, who had been working doing community outreach directly in the DTES for years, called their bluff. She plainly stated that no one from SlutWalk Vancouver had come into the DTES to enquire into how they could get the indigenous communities involved in their action; but rather, that their approach to this aspect of their event was to wait for women of the DTES to come to them and ask to be involved. “And why would they?” she asked. “The word ‘slut’ is heavily racialized.”
She explained to them that by choosing to call it “SlutWalk”, the Vancouver organizers had automatically excluded the possibility of involving indigenous communities because by virtue of its name alone, it was unsafe to even consider participating in it. By incorporating the word “slut” into its branding, its name is a thoughtless reflection of a lifetime of being treated as being sexually available simply for existing while visibly racialized, from a very early age. By promoting the idea that the purpose is to “take back the word slut”, the organizers had extinguished the prospect of involving women of colour and their communities, because the word “slut” is not theirs to take back—for it was never theirs to begin with. For women of colour and especially indigenous women, she told them, clothing has nothing to do with their experience of slut-shaming. They are branded as “sluts” on the basis of their skin colour alone, no matter how they are dressed and no matter even how young they are. These sentiments are echoed by the open letter published by Black Women’s Blueprint, undersigned by hundreds (if not thousands) of feminist organizations for the advancement of women of colour.
Why I Side With Women of Colour Here
Though I am not a woman of colour, what the indigenous woman said at that conference directly resonated with my experience—of incest, going as far back as I can remember (thus, beginning even before I had a vague conception of my gender or sexuality), and persisting for ten years. I had already harboured a profound feeling of internal conflict when I initially heard about the event, and became outraged when white women in my communities began promoting it as if it were a pride parade for women who identify themselves as “sluts”. But I couldn’t put it into words until an indigenous woman confronted the organizers with the experience of being branded a “slut” simply for existing. And while she was speaking to her own experience (shared by all women of colour, especially if they are visibly racialized), I felt my blood pressure sky-rocket. My heart started pounding against my chest wall and my skin turned flush with rage from my crown to my navel. I could suddenly identify — directly to the organizers themselves — why I would not be participating, despite how clearly and legitimately I am invested in standing up against rape culture. And so, as enraged as I was and despite how humiliating this disclosure could be in the front row of a room containing dozens of complete strangers of mixed genders, I stood up for myself. Out of solidarity with the women of the DTES, indigenous women all across the country, and all women of colour, I decided not to participate as long as it’s called “SlutWalk”. I repeated this gesture the second year, when new organizers pretended to need to be educated about what the issue is—after they had already started advertising it as “SlutWalk”.
A Very Concise Rebuttal of the “Branding” Counter Claim
Here’s what the organizers of SlutWalk just don’t seem to get: the “branding” issue isn’t whether or not they change the name. The “branding” issue is their continued defence of flaunting of white settler privilege while pretending that blatantly ignoring these gravely serious criticisms isn’t explicitly racist and colonialist. The “branding” issue, therefore, is the branding of racism and colonialism itself, as if it was “inclusive” of women of colour and their experiences. If SlutWalk organizers were actually committed to “raising consciousness about rape culture”, their event would not only be actually inclusive of women of colour but be actively promoting awareness of and challenges to the disproportionate and escalated nature of sexual violence against racialized women. There wouldn’t be a “debate” about the “SlutWalk brand” because it would be clear that taking an aggressively anti-oppressive stance against racism isn’t a “debate” — except perhaps in the collective consciousness of the white supremacist movement.
The Benefit of the Doubt & Why You Should Boycott SlutWalk
SlutWalk organizers were very generously given the benefit of the doubt in the first year. Despite the fact that Robert Pickton had already been arrested, charged, and put through an internationally acknowledged criminal court trial for serial murder; and despite the fact that Thomas George Svekla (who is believed to have viciously murdered more Edmonton-area women than even Pickton boasted about in relation to his victims from Vancouver’s DTES) had also already been arrested, charged, and put through a criminal court trial for serial murder; SlutWalk organizers all across the country were given the benefit of the doubt that perhaps their knee-jerk response to the inciting incident didn’t permit them the privilege of thinking through the impact of calling their action “SlutWalk”. Despite the fact that it is reasonably well-known that indigenous women are up to eight times more likely to be exposed to sexual violence than white women in this country, SlutWalk organizers were given the benefit of the doubt. Despite the fact that it is legitimately clear that both Canada and the US are continued colonial occupations of the ancestral homelands of indigenous peoples; and that it is reasonably well-known that in order to establish these “countries”, indigenous women were not only explicitly targeted for sexual violence, but stereotyped as wildly promiscuous in order to legitimate these attacks upon them, were colonized through mass rape and sexual slavery, and have been persistently targeted for eugenicist “experiments”, SlutWalk organizers were given the benefit of the doubt. And despite the fact that this is a clear and distinct repetition of history that had already played out in the colonization of Africa, the Middle East, and Asia, by many of the same European colonial powers, SlutWalk organizers were given the benefit of the doubt. Despite the fact that virtually no colonial government has ever been held accountable for these horrendous atrocities against women all over the world, SlutWalk organizers were given the benefit of the doubt. I could continue in this very same vein, but at this point, literally everyone who is sufficiently literate and with an active social conscience should already see the point.
When Vancouver organizers in the second year decided to continue calling it SlutWalk, they were given the benefit of the doubt that because they were all new organizers, perhaps they weren’t present for or aware of the confrontation with the organizers of the first year. Perhaps they were right to be concerned that if they changed the name just a couple of months ahead of time, after they had already begun organizing and advertising it, they would lose important social impetus and physical support from the resulting confusion. But now, in its third year and after several community discussions which aired and addressed this very issue, they can’t possibly justify continuing to call it SlutWalk. Now, since the explosion of highly visible, highly public, and sometimes even highly disruptive (though non-violent) indigenous resistance—especially since the launch of Operation Thunderbird and the sudden escalation in horrific sexual violence against indigenous women in direct response to the increasingly visible indigenous nationhood movement—SlutWalk organizers have absolutely zero excuses remaining for continued ignorance of the role of their racial and colonial privileges in the naming of their event. Now it’s just racist and colonialist. Now it’s just time to boycott SlutWalk entirely, to send them the message that their simultaneous privilege-flaunting and tragically ironic complacence with systemic violence against women of colour is just not acceptable in any way.