Am I Troy Davis? A Slut?

1. 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 20 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 and 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 white woman. According to a 2008 Pew Center on the States report [PDF], 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, ages 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 three 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. Schools have been and remain a pipeline to prison for many Black and Latino children, and for 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?

2. On August 6, 2011, I joined SlutWalk 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 SlutWalk 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 require 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. 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 to their bodies–often against the backdrop of slavery and colonialism—simply for being Black. But I continued to push into these larger conversations and analyses. I listened and engaged when Crunk Feminist Collective challenged SlutWalks, when BlackWomen’s Blueprint published its “Open Letter from Black Women to Slut Walk Organizers” and when individual 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 are only now speaking up to challenge individual actions or larger frameworks of analysis, leaving me to wonder “why?”

And then I saw the sign from SlutWalk 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 SlutWalk 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?

3. 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 SlutWalk 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, the 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 recall for me again the realities of racism and its necessity within the existing structure of capitalism; plus, 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 percent, 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 on 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 Bernice 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 added 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. 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 to the center. Without reflexive analysis of racism and coalition work grounded in an antiracist movement, we miss the real root of the problem as well as real opportunities to create change.

Photo of  SlutWalk participants from Flickr user cecooper under Creative Commons 2.0

Comments

  1. Thank you for writing this piece. You were able to articulate many of the feelings and concerns I’ve felt and just couldn’t quite explain. I want to support these movements and I do agree with them in principle but there needs to be a more concentrated effort (or any effort at all) to be inclusive, respectful, and look outside of our (white majority) needs and experiences.

  2. It won’t be easy, but the rewards will be worth it. Thank you for an important essay.

  3. Interesting to read something from the perspective of a passionate activist who has opted out of the main-stream protest, and done so for principled reasons.
    I would only caution that to say that “the racism of the supposed left is even more damaging and hurtful than the naked racism of the right” runs the risk of placing the author smack-dab in the middle of those people crying “white lady tears.” Such a sentiment is inaccurate and oddly privileges lefty racism – her hot-button issue – using a technique the author rejects when others (SlutWalk, Occupy Wall Street) try to privilege their own issues. Furthermore, I think it is tricky, and probably factually incorrect, to imply that the problems of the “prison-industrial complex” are a product of the racism of the left. I, too, wish that the left would do more to fight these injustices, but I think that the root of the problem lies pretty squarely in ugly old “naked racism.” So, yes, let’s look to the racisms of the left. But let’s not pretend that racism is the domain of liberal whites; to make such an implication is to risk implying that liberal whites alone have the power to solve the problem. And that, alas, is not the case.

  4. Mimi Seldner says:

    Thank you for writing this sensitive, careful, intelligent piece…I hope it will help to end the offensive, hurtful, undeserved attacks on “white feminists” as some sort of united, ignorant, N-word loving catch-all group within SlutWalk discourse. Just because we all share the common thread of being born beneficiaries of white privilege, does not mean that we are all guilty of embracing or perpetuating it….

    Your work has made “white feminist” feel a little less insulting.

  5. This post is simply amazing. Thank you for taking the time to write it all out. I feel the same way about what has been going on, you just wrote it out in a concise manner.

  6. As a black female this is why I am so exasperated with feminism. White women who don’t know a thing about race or racism thinking they do. White women who really don’t give much thought to racism within the feminist arena. And still others who think issues of race need to take a “back seat” until issues of gender are “resolved.” Feminism is just another tool of oppression.

  7. Thank you for your article. I live in Brooklyn, NY and have been active in public relations for non profits for 13 years as well as a teen advocate in one of Manhattan’s largest and troubled high schools, and finally as an educator in the ESL and college educational system. I am also a writer and workshop facilitator, founder of Workshops by Wolford (http://workshopsbywolford.vpweb.com/), who uses my purpose as encourager to find ways to mend, blend, and spread the message that “it is all about love.”

    I have heard racist talk from whites, blacks, hispanics, and on and on. I’ve attended functions primarily gay-centered that I’ve been excluded from once it is known I am straight, and I’ve witnessed misogyny from people of all ages from young to nearly 100. I’ve walked home in my neighborhood and heard groups of young black teens so loud I had to cover my ears. I’ve been in schools where the classrooms were overflowing with loud students and the ones who really wanted to learn (various ethnicities) were forced to sit in stunning silence, losing time and opportunity. I’ve stood in front of hispanic grocery clerks who spoke in Spanish, using curse words I know, and talking about me as though I wasn’t there.
    I’ve been subjected to misogyny from males and females of all ages and walks of life and color. And I could be wrong, but I thought Yoko wrote “Woman is the Nigger of the World.” I loved the message back when it was written and it has taken a couple of decades to sink in…women are treated as inferior and worse, it is in our bones of handing down generations after generations and no blame can be planted except that we must take it out into the light and openly address it.

    I’ve also been blessed to meet people from the world who treated me as a goddess because I was their teacher, and because I offered myself to them. I call nearly all of my ESL and urban students (black, white, hispanic) “the salt of the earth.” My daughter is gay and I have been included in some of the most creative, lovely groups of my life because of her associations. I’ve marched in pro-choice, anti-war and marriage equality walks. I’m a single parent, white, twice degreed, and a desert girl who lived on the border of Mexico and the US for nearly 30 years.

    I facilitate a memoir work to senior citizens – white and aged from 70 to 100 – and they have taught me about emotional resiliency, and when I hear, if there are any, remarks less than loving about a race, I note that it is not something I want to ever adopt.

    Lastly, thank you for your detailed and heartfelt article. I think what I am expressing in my comment here is to say we all must meet the “shadow” in ourselves and pull out what is burrowed down and forgotten in there, and reroute the hatred, bias, or shame. Once it finds light, it is gone and all that remains is a desire to do right, make the right choice, and do better again and again and again.

    No one is to blame for all the injustice and hatred. We all are responsible to harness it, put it in major time out, and to reenter the task at hand that we all own the need to take complete responsibility for our actions and choices. Once we have raised that value on the flagpole of our lives, there will be an opportunity to eradicate any “fights or wars against” and instead, simply, to build, heal, recover, and relive the harmonious world we know is here, now.

    I’ve witnessed and been subject to the most utter acts of generosity and humility as well as confronted with the worst ludicrous scenes of hopelessness and abandon. I want to meet them all in the middle as Rumi said. I want to talk of love and its power and overwhelming healing affects. I want to become whole with them and laugh once we realize the school known as Earth has gotten the best of us, but not for long.

    • Jennifer Moule says:

      @Sheela I admire your eloquent, whole-hearted comment. I worry about some of the problematics embedded in it however. I think that it’s important to recognize the particular structural challenges encountered by people of colour and avoid arguments of “reverse racism,” which are often called on to reinforce comfort in White privilege. I really like the spirit you seem to have behind your point of view but I worry that it buys into a kind of colourblindness that might run counter to your aims, and how you seem to embrace the message of women as the N***** of the world, thus smoothing over the gross variants in inequality among woman.

      I am also concerned about painting “loud” students as problems and in counter to students who “really want to learn” – this may reflect the different forms of being young people (which may stretch across culture, race, class, ability etc. but also may not) which are attributed different values based on an education system that was originally formed to produce a certain kind of (White) citizen and “save” the children of colour and/or immigration.

      I post this comment because I genuinely value the self reflection you promote within your message and believe feedback and discussion is the most productive way to create spaces for self reflection. While I believe it’s true that “Key” individuals can’t be blamed for the inequalities in society, I believe that it is specifically important as people from dominant groups (such as myself, a 25-year-old White, straight, cis-female from a middle class family in Canada) to acknowledge, take responsibility for, and seek to challenge the ways in which we embody and enact our histories, as well as perpetuate them in the present through undeniable participation in dominating others for our own benefit.

      That being said, thank you for your personal honesty and sharing your experiences! They have been valuable in my own personal reflection.

  8. Katie Presley says:

    Thank you for this piece, Stephanie. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I’m wondering if you can elaborate on some of the forums in which you find safe spaces for anti-racist activism as the keystone to other platforms for activism. What/where are you reading? What organizations do you work with? I value local connections above all, and am continuing the search here in Austin, but plugging into national resources would also be invaluable to me.

    Thank you again!

    Katie

  9. em westerlund says:

    this piece is excellent – succinctly tying together three movements/actions that have incited national and global participation by young activists, with a poignant eye to the role of white privelege, the history of oppression, and the righteous anger of marginalized groups.

    these movements/actions over the past few weeks have given me faith that my generation and my country are finally speaking up about the prevalent injustice that marks life in our country for so many people. it’s easy to feel touchy-feely when you see thousands storming new york and more than 200 other cities in america, protesting the ways the lower 99% have been exploited for corporate profits. the same is true for slutwalks – seeing women (and men) coming together with fire and passion about ending violence against women, it feels inspiring. but it’s so, SO important to take a closer look – and i see that now, especially as a white woman, just how important an understanding of my privelege and the disempowerment of others is imperative. it’s impossible to have the warm fuzzies when you read the ignorant comments of other white feminists in response to the concerns of their black and brown sisters on crunkfeminist or any of the other posts that have highlighted the inherent racism within the feminist movement. i want us all to have warm fuzzies, and that’s not happening when white FEMINISTS feel comfortable tossing around the N-word.

    thank you for this well-written, honest, and desperately needed piece that pushes the reader to consider the rose-colored glasses they might be wearing…

  10. Looking at the numbers, it would have been more apt to say “[...]I and my female peers do not face systemic injustice in the structures of imprisonment.”, but I guess that would have ruined the point of the article…

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