Personally, SlutWalk is not something that appeals to me. That is, I absolutely respect and support other people who are doing it or who want to do it; I myself will not be attending the Sydney SlutWalk for a variety of reasons, primarily because I’d like to conserve my energy for exam time, thanks. So I’m not really interested in getting involved in a discussion about the politics of SlutWalk. I am interested in how some critiques are playing into wider narratives around race.
(This is not really a post about SlutWalk at all. It’s a post about biological essentialism.)
There’s been a lot of critique of SlutWalk for being white-dominated, or for appealing primarily to white women. Okay, fair enough in some respects, a lot of what is going on here is not much to do with my experience, either. “Slut” has not been an enormous part of the way my sexuality, as a woman of colour, as a woman of many other intersections, has been policed. I don’t think it’s fair to call SlutWalks white events or what have you because of that – I think it’s actually pretty disgusting to by default call women of colour who get something out of SlutWalks white – but okay.
But now let’s look at this critique of white SlutWalk majorities in the Australian context. It does not make a whole lot of sense to critique SlutWalk for being mostly white in a country with a population that is popularly thought of as being about 90% white*. Folks, seriously. A majority white turnout is a given. That’s not disproportion, that’s just logic. I can’t help but think that this particular critique is lifted off those from other, particularly US, contexts, where it doesn’t really work for an Australian one.
I have a bigger problem than this, however, which is when this “critique” is made on the basis of media images. To take an example from, fittingly, a non-Australian context, the example that started this train of thought, see SlutWalk: A Stroll Through White Supremacy by Aura Blogando. There’s an image immediately underneath that title of some SlutWalkers. Now, for a start, as Lauredhel and I have discussed, I’m not a fan of pulling out an image of a few people just doing their thing as symbolic of white supremacy.
But there’s more than that: there are people in that photo who have features coded as distinctively non-white. As much as I have issues with some randomly picked people being made to represent white supremacy, I have a much bigger issue with non-white people being made to represent white supremacy. Most people who can see that image are going to be reading the person to its far left, for example, as East Asian, yes?
So how does this happen? Well, if you’re just taking a quick look at the image, just going by skin tone – or just skipping past it after having already been told by text that everyone in it is white – you’re probably going to be taking skin tone on as the definitive feature of white identity.
However. White people, as we know, do not have a monopoly on light skin tones – and not all white people have light skin tones. Skin tone, moreover, is not a reliable way of sorting racial identity, that old construction, and never has been. It’s presently fashionable – particularly in contexts like, as long as we’re on this theme, the United States – to take skin tone as a primary marker of racial identity.
This is as much biological essentialism as any other picking out of “essential racial attributes” you care to name. In Victorian times, it was popularly thought that Irish people were of the same racial classification as black people. Except, wait a minute, who was a black person, according to English sensibilities in the nineteenth century? People of African descent and near location were routinely put into different racial groups, sorted by skin colour distinctions that wouldn’t figure in contemporary England and other features we, here and now, wouldn’t even mention.
My point is that skin tone may be presently fashionable as a dominant way of determining racial attributes, but its new and likely temporary prevalence in talking about race is as fabricated as any Victorian racial science. Moreover, forcing people into racial boxes they don’t themselves claim is a long game. Do you really want to be the latest to play it? Are we really going to do this?
Racial identity is about history, culture, family, and ethnicity as well as appearance. You can’t tell all that from most images.
Next time: how all this plays into the history of lightness and whiteness in Australia, with particular attention to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, and how incredibly inappropriate conflation of whiteness and lightness is in this context.
*The actual statistic from the Australian Bureau of statistics is 90% of European ancestry, which is generally cited as 90% white, and why I’ve inserted a qualifier. I am reluctant to conflate these two terms because, well, read the rest of the post, and also because whiteness is so temporally (and geographically!) variable.