The Pitfalls of Privilege: OWS, Social Justice, Intersectionality
The various nuances and complexities of leftism can be broadly unified under two core beliefs: that economically, the many need to be protected from the few; and that socially, the few need to be protected from the many. All modern leftist movements can locate their central concern in one of these tenets, and the majority are inclined to see the two as inextricably linked.
The official mission of the Occupy Wall Street movement is to challenge the excesses of capitalism – its central concern with protecting the many from the economic exploitation institutionally wrought upon them by the few is reflected in its most famous slogan, “We Are the 99%”. Like many modern leftist movements, however, OWS also officially committed to equality in all its forms, beyond those pertaining to class and economic standing. Issues such as feminism, race relations and other issues of identity politics have been widely recognised as components of the existing capitalist system, which need to be challenged alongside economic exploitation. Consequently, discussions on identity politics have become an important part of the movement.
For some Occupiers, these discussions have been positive. Manissa McCleave Maharawal and a group of protestors of colour challenged the Movement when they discovered that OWS intended to release an official manifesto, declaring that Occupy protestors recognize themselves as ‘being one race, the human race, formerly divided by race, class [etc.]”. She writes that she and the other people of colour felt strongly that:
… [t]his movement was about to send a document into the world about who and what it was that included a line that erased all power relations and decades of history of oppression. A line that would de-legitimise the movement, this would alienate me and people like me, this would not be able to be something I could get behind. And I was already behind this movement and didn’t want to walk away from this.
In this instance, the objections was heeded, and the statement about “being one race” altered. However, although this incident ended positively, the process by which this came about reveals the fact that when marginal groups point out the trivialisation of oppression, many otherwise well-meaning people simply do not understand what the fuss is about.
Although Manissa celebrates this event as a positive step for the movement, she also notes that dissenting black and minority ethnic (BME) people had to fight hard to get their input acknowledged, arguing long into the night with white people who believed that they were refusing to show solidarity. She describes the frustration of having to explain privilege to the privileged when vastly outnumbered by them.
Occupy is of course, like any leftist movement, a microcosm of the wider society from which it arose. And privilege can negatively impact good relations among various groups and factions, even within movements which are officially committed to equality. OWS demonstrates the potential pitfalls here, among its achievements. Despite the commitment to intersectionality shown by many, there have been myriad complaints from women and people of colour about their treatment within the movement. Many of these deal with the silencing and dismissal of their concerns about their treatment as ‘pet issues’, which if indulged will subsume the ‘real problem’ of capitalism.
This is far from a new problem. Acknowledging intersectional differences between those involved in activist movements is commonly dismissed by the majority as divisive, meaning that the concerns of marginal groups within them become muted among the clamor of the majority. The growing recognition of the importance intersectionality remains an ongoing process, and privilege betrays itself in the commonly-espoused idea that activists of different sexes, genders, races, orientations and backgrounds must simply “pull together” and “get over” their differences, for the greater good.
What this often means in practice, of course, is that the comparatively privileged members dominate the focus of the group, in the ways that the very mainstream they stand against has conditioned them to. Second Wave Feminism made this mistake by limiting itself to the concerns of middle-class straight white women, often treating women of colour and gay women little better than patriarchy had treated they themselves. As did certain male sections of the Gay Liberation movement, which used misogynistic rhetoric in their mission to destigmatize sexual relationships between men. The structures of oppression are deeply ingrained, often to the point of invisibility to those who have never been on the receiving end.
The growing theoretical mistrust of colour-blind, gender-blind approaches, stems from the fact that dismissing these differences and saying “I just see people”, does nothing to confront the subtler, and often completely unconscious, structures of oppression that dominate social discourse (studies suggest men are overwhelmingly more likely to interrupt women than one another, for example – and that for the most part, they do this unknowingly). And so, if active steps are not taken to promote intersectionality and ensure that they are heard, the silencing of marginal members often continues unnoticed by more privileged members, who for their part genuinely believe that they are just “treating everyone the same”.
The author of online blog Feminist Armchair Regime, who writes under the pseudonym Liberate Zealot, recalls witnessing an incident that demonstrates such privilege in action at an OWS meeting:
Friday Night the GA had a discussion about how often Occupy Wall St was represented almost solely by white men when they interacted with outside media and that the working groups should endeavor to make sure they were equally represented by women and people of color…. The next two hours were filled with white guys saying this would equal silencing them. One white guy went off about how there is “no black or white, we’re all people of color.” Many seemed to feel that acknowledging and representing the differences among the members… would hurt Occupy and silence the male members.
Often the invisible structures of oppression that dominate the mainstream are maintained even in groups committed to equality: here, white men are able to argue against allowing women and people of colour a proportional voice, under the heading of the very silencing that their doing so perpetuates.
Such disturbing examples of overprivileged behaviour are, unfortunately, far from the worst OWS has to offer; some of the reported complaints pertain to outright violence – including allegations of rape and sexual assault in Occupy camps. I’m of the mind that it is not alarmist to relate such extreme incidents to the larger issue of privilege. The social structures that silence and marginalize women and people of colour are the same that make rape culture and racism possible, by promoting (often unconsciously, as is the nature of privilege) the idea that they are lesser, their viewpoints and personhood subordinate to those of the comparatively powerful. Such incidents of violence are mere escalations of the acceptance of these groups’ oppression as natural, to the point of invisibility, rather than deviations from the norm.
It’s not all bad news, of course. Despite this article’s focus on the reported problems within the movement, progress has been and will hopefully continue to be made. Despite the bad behaviour of some, the last year has seen positive reports on increased intersectionality within the movement, including accounts of measures (such as “step up, step back”) put into place by the movement to deal with such complaints. These included the increasingly popular tactic of allowing women and BME activists priority in discussions, in an attempt to recognize and avoid the mainstream’s silencing of these groups.
But the problems within OWS should not be underestimated, because they are the issues of change-centred movements in general. An important reason why the left has yet to go as far as many of us would like it to is because fragmentation is inevitable when it comes to how this change should be implemented. It’s easy for people with different opinions on a variety of topics to unite under a general heading of “we want everything to stay like this” (or possibly even roll back a few years). Saying “we want things to change” is much more complicated, because tailoring that change to redress the wrongs of the current system involves listening to people from a wide variety of backgrounds, positions and experiences.
Nothing exists in a vacuum, including the left – problems of marginalization in leftist movements have historically been a product of just how deeply that conservative mainstream they emerged from goes. Progress can be slow and tortuous, because the mainstream is very effective at conditioning us to accept oppression and defend our own privilege. So it pays to remember that not all of this conditioning is immediately apparent: maintaining intersectional lines of communication and receptivity with comparatively marginalised members is the only way to make these movements a reminder that if social justice is not for everyone, then it is not justice.