"Am I Troy Davis? A Slut?; or, What’s Troubling Me about the Absence of Reflexivity in Movements that Proclaim Solidarity
Sister/Comrade Stephanie Gilmore, who spoke at SlutWalk Philadelphia, is, to the best of my knowledge, one of the ONLY anti-racist White Feminists who has PUBLICLY SUPPORTED the IDEA/PREMISE of SlutWalk while PUBLICLY CHALLENGING its CURRENT RACIST REALITY.
With her FULL PERMISSION, I have re-posted the text of her essay so that people who are not on facebook will be able to read it in its entirety.
“Am I Troy Davis? A Slut?; or, What’s Troubling Me about the Absence of Reflexivity in Movements that Proclaim Solidarity” by Stephanie Gilmore
On September 21, 2011, I joined hundreds of my friends and millions of people around the world to watch, through tears and in abject horror, as Troy Anthony Davis was executed by the State of Georgia. In the twenty years between Davis’ trial for the murder of police officer Mark McPhail and his execution, Davis maintained his innocence while witnesses recanted the testimony that sent Davis to death row. Despite conflicting testimonies and inadequate evidence, the state put aside lingering and longstanding doubt and instead, put Troy Anthony Davis to death.
On Facebook, Twitter, and other media outlets, I saw virtual and real friends declare that “I am Troy Davis.” They changed their profile pictures to a picture or image of Davis, or a black box, all in an attempt to articulate a sense of solidarity, a stand against the injustice of the prison industrial complex and a state thoroughly entrenched in the murder of a man who may not have committed the crime of murder. I agree wholeheartedly that the state was wrong in executing Mr. Davis and I grieve for his death as well as that of Officer McPhail. But in the weeks since Davis’s execution, I have been wondering if people really understand how and why Davis came to be murdered at the hands of the state. People insist that “I am Troy Davis,” but what does that mean?
In many ways, I am not Troy Davis. I am a middle-class, 40-something-year-old white woman. According to a 2008 Pew Center on the States report, one in 36 Hispanic adults is in prison in the United States. One in 15 Black adults is too, a statistic that includes one in 100 Black women and one in nine Black men, age 20-34. Although one of my parents spent time in prison, and through incarceration joined the swelling ranks of 2.3 million imprisoned people and many more in the system of probation, halfway houses, and parole, I and my white peers do not face systemic racial injustice in the structures of imprisonment. And it does not begin or end with the prison system. Black children are suspended and expelled from school at 3 times the rate of white children. Racial discrimination in funding for education also affects children’s success in school, as cash-poor school districts are also overwhelmingly Black and Latino neighborhoods. Schools have been and remain a pipeline to prison for many Black and Latino children, and generations of families, prison is a reality. One in 15 Black children currently has a parent in jail. People say that the system is broken, but I (along with others in the prison abolition movement) admit that the system is working exactly as it was set up to do. Can I really say, “I am Troy Davis” without giving serious consideration to the realities of racism in the prison industrial complex? Does that just become little more than the adoption of a slogan and a picture, without a real awareness of the racist realities of the prison industrial complex?
On August 6, 2011, I joined Slut Walk Philadelphia. It was a beautiful day and hundreds of people moved through Center City to end up at City Hall, where even more gathered to speak out against sexual violence. I had been following Slut Walks with great delight because I see the people power in the sheer numbers of women and men who are fighting back against sexual violence. So when I was asked to participate, and to stand with queer people of Color in a more racially inclusive Slut Walk than I had seen to date, I said “yes” because the fight to end sexual violence is my fight. And fighting against a culture that perpetuates and promotes rape; cheers on rapists; and diminishes, humiliates, and silences victims through law, education, and entertainment will demands knowledge that the system, again, is not broken. It is doing the very work it was constructed to do – sexual violence is a tool of ensuring white status quo. And if we are to end sexual violence, we must acknowledge how it operates.
I have struggled to accept a movement that does not acknowledge the very problematic word “slut” and how historically many women have not been able to shake the label of “slut.” I participated in the struggle – the movement as well as my own internal struggle – because I wanted to engage in, create, and sustain dialogue. Indeed, many criticize the apparent move to claim “slut” – how can you pick up something you’ve never been able to put down? Black women have been most vocal about the longer legacy of sexual violence done onto their bodies – often against the backdrop of slavery and colonialism — simply for being Black. But I continued to push into these bigger conversations and analyses. I listened and engaged when Crunk Feminist Collective challenged Slut Walks, when BlackWomen’s Blueprint issued their “Open Letter from Black Women to Slut Walk Organizers,” and when individual women of Color (and only women of Color) spoke publicly about racist actions within individual marches as well as racism within the larger movement. White women I know made private comments about different expressions of racism, but never spoke up to challenge individual actions or larger frameworks of analysis, leaving me to wonder “why?”
And then I saw the sign from Slut Walk NYC bearing the words “Women are the N*gger of the World.” I don’t care that the quotation is from John Lennon and Yoko Ono. I don’t care that the woman was asked to take down the sign – although I certainly do care that a woman of Color had to ask her to do so while white women moved around her, seemingly oblivious. I am angry when I continue to see so many white women defending it expressly or remaining complicit in silence, suggesting that “we” (what “we”?) need to focus on sexual violence first, as if it is unrelated to racism. And I wonder, can I really claim to be a part of the nascent Slut Walk movement without giving serious consideration to the realities of racism within very publicly identified facets of it? Can I be a part of it when so many women – my very allies and sisters in antiracist struggle – are set apart from it, or worse, set in perpetual opposition to it?
My question is, how can we be in solidarity when we are not willing to be reflexive and to check ourselves, check each other, and be checked? Bernice Johnson Reagon acknowledged that coalition building is hard work, made even harder by people who come to coalition seeking to find a home. My sense, or perhaps one sense I have, is that many people came to the “I Am Troy Davis” momentum or the Slut Walk marches looking for a home, a place where they can sit back and feel comfortable in their hard (very hard!) work, and comforted by others who pat them on the head and tell them “good job.” This is not to dismiss genuine concern for the state of our world. Perhaps we’re all lonely, as the realities of social justice work have taken on different and palatable forms since WTO and 9/11. So many people are down for the immediate issue – the indefensible execution of Troy Davis, the indefensible perpetuation of sexual violence — and that matters. But I worry that many white people aren’t paying attention to the larger structures in place. They are not being reflexive about the realities of racism that undergird prison incarceration, death penalty, and sexual violence.
I am not Troy Davis; I never will be. A system built on the foundation of racism ensures that I will not confront the realities of prison incarceration in the same ways as Black and Latino people. I am a strong advocate against sexual violence, but I cannot fight in and for a movement that is not interested in the realities of racism and the ways that racism undergirds sexual violence, and instead so blindly employs racist language. (The “Occupy Wall Street” actions call for me again the realities of racism and its necessity within the existing structure of capitalism – and the insistence among white people that people of Color indulge a luxury of time and money to sit in with them is untenable and racist. Many others have pointed out that the language of “occupation” is inherently problematic because bodies and lands have been historically occupied, often through sexual violence and criminalization. The movement itself needs to be decolonized.) Even as I support openly the prison abolition movement, the end to sexual violence, and the uprooting of a socioeconomic system that ignores the 99%, I cannot do so without deep awareness of racism that is operating within and among these movements. It is my work as a white activist to speak to and be aware of these legacies and histories of racism. Women and men of Color need not be alone in the front lines of identifying racist action and reaction within the movement. Insisting that people of Color have a voice only when it comes to identifying racism perpetuates, rather than alleviates racism. As I look at the actions of some people within these movements, I am reminded again that the racism of the supposed left is even more damaging and hurtful than the naked racism of the right.
If we are to work together in solidarity, we must do so reflexively, conscious of our actions and the potential outcomes before we act. This is not a call to focus on criticism and self-reflection to the point that we are inactive. That is unproductive, to be sure. But it is a call to be mindful and vigilant about racist action and reaction, to come to terms with the fact that we must do the work of understanding racist underpinnings of prison incarceration, the death penalty, and sexual violence if we are to make significant progress. Undoing racism must be at the core of our collective work across movements. To echo Dr. Reagon’s statement, we need to be honest and ask if we really want people of Color or if we’re just looking for ourselves with a little color to it. So much of the movement work, as it stands, seems to be looking for a little color, when we need to be exploring the realities of racism as part of the problem, not an additive to the “real” issue. In the absence of reflexivity about the structural forces that are keeping us apart, we will never be able to engage in real coalition work that will be required if we are to take seriously our goals of ending sexual violence and the death penalty. These movements as they are going now may continue, but they will not do so in my name and certainly not without my consent.
So no, I am not Troy Davis. I am not a slut. I am not an occupier of Wall Street or any street. The fights are my fights, but the current methods and analyses are not mine. I cannot sit by and listen to people debate the efficacy of the death penalty without understanding that it is the larger complex of incarceration and the “elementary-to-penitentiary” path that tracks and traps Black and Latino youth by design. I am done with the handwringing and “white lady tears” of so many white women who keep defending racist approaches and actions and, at times, respond with violence when confronted and challenged. Such behavior only reinforces the fact that these movement spaces as they are currently defined are not safe. My friend, colleague, and sister-in-spirit Aishah Shahidah Simmons said it best when she commented, “It’s sobering to observe how White solidarity is taking precedence over principled responses…. ” Sobering, indeed. I will most assuredly fight to end the prison industrial complex, sexual violence, and unbridled capitalism, but I will do so from a space that centers the racist roots of incarceration, criminal “justice,” capitalism, and sexual violence. Thankfully, those spaces already exist – even if they remain peripheral in the mainstream media (and in much of what is left of the lefty media). But it is time to pivot the center. Without reflexive analysis of racism and coalition work grounded in antiracist movement, we miss the real root of the problem as well as real opportunities to create change.
Stephanie Gilmore is a feminist activist and assistant professor of the women’s and gender studies department at Dickinson College. For the 2011-12 academic year, she is a postdoctoral fellow in women’s studies at Duke University. She is completing “Groundswell: Grassroots Feminist Activism in Postwar America” (Routledge, 2012) and has started a new research project on how students negotiate sexual violence on residential college campuses in the United States.