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.



  1. August 17, 2012 at 3:28 pm · Reply

    Rape and sexual assault in the encampments was not merely an allegation but a nasty reality that Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and its counterparts really struggled with. The first wind I got of this problem was within week one of the occupation, before OWS swelled into a truly mass phenomenon.

    Sexual assaults were largely blamed on the homeless and mentally ill people who were attracted to the park after Occupy got going, but this is inaccurate and it is a way of scapegoating people who are themselves victims of the system to avoid dealing with the thorny problem of creating a safe encampment, with agreed-upon rules, and an authority to enforce the community’s rules when individuals violate them and each other.

    The difficulty in dealing with this problem revealed a clash between the anarchist ideal (be the change you want to see) and reality (how does the community protect its individual members from each other when they are the opposite of the change we want to see). At first, they tried to handle it completely internally without filing reports with the hated NYPD (giving lie to the notion that OWS was ever “pro cop” or “naieve” about the role of the police in capitalist society). The only acknowledgement of the problem of how to deal with rape/sexual assault on the ground I saw on the socialist left was to repeat the “line” put out by OWS claiming that this problem was being handled internally, processes were in place, the situation was under control and so on, but a lot of that was face-saving for the public on the part of OWS and there was no critical examination of these claims versus reality on the ground by the Marxist wing of OWS (such as it is/was).

    Eventually a decent solution was developed — communal instead of individual tents — but there was not enough space for all females (leading to fighting over scarce resources), plus there were cases of men being sexually assaulted men, so they had to create LGBTQ-safe spaces as well.

    And then the evictions happened. I was planning on writing up something extensive on this question after having spoken to a lot of OWSers (male and female) and to forcefully raise it since to me it seemed like no one wanted to address it honestly and openly but the evictions made it a moot point. Here are the relevant links I collected on the topic for anyone who is interested in the goings on in the park:

    My point here is that this problem is not simply structural, intersectional, or related to politics or even privilege (can we really say a straight white man sexually assaulted by another man [of any color is experiencing] “male privilege” or “heterosexual privilege”?). People move into revolutionary struggle with all the garbage and baggage they’ve grown up with, that has been forced upon them, and that they reproduce in their own lives. Look at what happened to Lara Logan in Tahrir Square.

    And it doesn’t help things when oppressed people react like this ( when they are challenged in political debates by heterosexual white men, many of whom are really struggling to come to grips with things they are constitutionally incapable of experiencing. This kind of thing just exacerbates and deepens the already hurtful divisions and oppressions and makes overcoming both through unity and solidarity extremely difficult if not impossible.

    I’m glad this piece was written and I have to say I’m disappointed by the lack of commentary/comradely debate on the Feminist roundtable. A lot of compelling, relevant stuff has been put on the table by Cansdale, Canton, and Ramiro. Maybe that’s a reflection of the mostly male makeup of people who comment and their reluctance to weigh in on “women’s issues?” That is something of a wise instinct but successfully challenging and pushing back sexism is going to require a lot of male participation in one form or another.

  2. jason harris OWS
    August 18, 2012 at 1:29 am · Reply

    From the outset, and I will write more if asked.. excuse my easy bluntness.

    Are the privileged actually privileged ???? Perhaps the frame is wrong off the rip, is now entrenched and needs to be examined, undone completely? I personally, like so much in our society and models know it is a taught falicy.. Anyways who produced this thinking again??

    Because simply,

    If you struggle with race and cannot identify with a majority of the population of the planet..

    If you struggle to see for centuries the direct deep connection between all life and yours.

    If you study for years and can’t without synthetic intention find and see clear contradictions within many areas of our society.

    If you struggle with empathy and compassion, at its variuos levels, and cant offer it or provide it to another (even within the development of our larger systems) or call on it appropriately when needed for fellow humans as another compassionate human being.

    If you are unaware and struggle with ideas of the clear oppresion of other people and your participation in that oppression for centuries.

    If you struggle with equality.

    If you are unable, with little to No ability to identify oppression intuitively and are only able to ID it when pointed to by others thru overthought synthetic means.

    If you struggle with the female and other genders to the point where you hurt when you don’t have or need to and have to consciously make synthetic attempts and adjustment for those shortcomings. Not hurting “less priviledged” people.

    If, over the course of ones life, one (let’s say a court judge) remains unable to reach deep questions as to the nature of ones life and profession on the the impact on one environment and people.

    If you are able and easily function, navigating well and with success a brutal system and work in enviroments that are horribly oppressive (arguably the most oppressive in global history) which have and continue to destroyed life and land in the uncountable ways.

    If you struggle with self awareness, general awarness and an inability to understand the condition of your brother/sister, countrymen and citizens of the world as you walk down the street…

    If the methods of created social product deeply affect others to behave in the above patterns globally in systems constructed by the “priviledged” in this manner.

    Just to start..

    ARE YOU Privileged??

    Are you priviledged?? If that is priviledged I would never want to be it. If that is priviledge I would prefer not to exist or challenge myself to change. If that’s priviledge perhaps people should become fearlessly willing to ask themselves NOW what is the true spiritual, enviromental human condition/malady of a creature that is described above.

    I don’t believe priviledge is the proper frame to begin with. Perhaps if we reversed the frame we might find our beginning.

    Priviledged people are not priviledged they are deeply ill.

    Start with a reframe perhaps folks will ask themselves different questions about their condition..

    message sent from my lunar module. #

  3. August 21, 2012 at 3:03 pm · Reply

    Pham Binh – thanks for the extra background info on the rapes & sexual assaults. I agree that it doesn’t help when people who are being silenced or otherwise oppressed react with anger & vitriol; that said, I can definitely understand why they do. Rage of this kind is often directly proportionate to the amount of rage-inducing bullshit around, in my experience, and I can’t say I blame people for thinking, “You know what, I’m not your bloody mother, and it’s not my bloody job to teach you about basic decency towards your fellow humans” and snapping. Unhelpful, for sure – but deeply understandable, I think. Taking the high road is always going to be hard.

    Jason – thanks for your thoughts. The main issue I’d take with your point here is that you seemed to me to be conflating bigotry with privilege, when they’re not necessarily the same thing (it could be that I’m misunderstanding you, but when you talk about privileged people being “deeply ill”, that was what you seemed to me to be saying).

    I think this article is a good example of how it’s possible to be blindsided by your own privilege without being any kind of -ist: – I mean, this guy is no bigot, and does actually demonstrate a fair and reasonable sensitivity to the problems facing poor black kids – it’s just that his privilege stops him from realising that it’s all well and good to go “Well, I’d just educate myself”, when you’re from a family who values education, but doesn’t seem to realise that not every child HAS that base value in their life to give them the starting point he seems to view as available to all. Privilege doesn’t have to make you bigoted, or ill; sensitive, intelligent and well-meaning people can and do fall prey to it pretty frequently, IMO.

    Also, I absolutely disagree that privilege is an illness which (by implication) those who have should be pitied. There seems to be a case to be made for extreme bigotry overlapping with mental illness at times (especially the massively paranoid kind involving conspiracies, e.g. certain extreme anti-semites who genuinely believe that The Jews Run Everything). But I really struggle to see privilege as a form of illness, because it’s not remotely noxious or damaging to the person holding it (except, arguably, in a moral sense), as illnesses are – only to those on the receiving end.

    Straight privilege, male privilege, able-bodied privilege, white privilege etc., are not illnesses – they’re sets of conditions that dictate how society at large responds to individuals, which make the lives of the privileged easier and more comfortable. (Obviously it’s not as simple as “You are male/white/w/e, therefore you have it made”; I really like John Scalzi’s definition, which accounts for this complexity: For that reason, I strongly disagree that reframing privilege as pathology would be more helpful than calling it what it is: a golden ticket to a comparatively easy life.

  4. Janet Weil
    August 21, 2012 at 10:58 pm · Reply

    An interesting essay with even more interesting comments. Sophie, I regret that you made no mention here of the Feminist GAs that have happened now at several occupies including the recent National Gathering in Philly; no mention of NYC’s Women OWS group; and no mention of how women’s “safer spaces” came to be while the OWS encampment was still in place. The systemic sexism flushed out in GAs and other spaces, often crudely shown by people at GAs not responding to “Mic Check” when called out by women, or women’s voices not being repeated as loudly and consistently as men’s when using the People’s Mic, has called for creative responses by women and transpeople in the occupy movement.

    Please check out this tumblr for photos and voices of women in the occupy movement:

    • August 22, 2012 at 1:45 pm · Reply

      Thanks for the link, Janet. The main focus here was more on the potential pitfalls of privilege in general using OWS as a current example, rather than the specific measures put into place by this particular movement to combat this – that seemed like a whole other article to me, albeit an interesting one. But I take your point that these measures might’ve been worth a brief mention.

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