Four Basic Principles That #OWS Can Implement to Address its White Privilege, Colonialist, White Supremacy [First Draft]
I requested to post the following in this space to maintain anonymity and I’d like to thank the mods of this space for allowing me to do so. I also want to acknowledge that this is a first draft and that changes may be made. I would also like to thank those who helped me edit this piece and those who sent me resources. Any desired contact with the author can be sent here and they will reach the author. I wrote this quickly and small edits will be made to this post, so please check this space for the most recent versions. Please do not repost outside of tumblr without permission.
Edit: Backstrory I was asked for permission to use my thoughts after an email exchange with Colin Frangicetto of Circa Survive. I want to thank him for referencing to this piece in his excellent essay "Finding Occupy Wall Street: Democracy, Elephants and Jackassery" over at Alternative Press. It is definitely worth the read.
As it stands now, both in my personal experience of visiting a local camp, following user created media and information sharing, mainstream media, and speaking with people in my communities, OWS has a white, cis male, able-bodied face and agenda. But before I get to that, I want to acknowledge and honor that there have been people of color (POC), lgtbq people, people with disabilities and many other people who experience oppression every day that are fighting to have their voices heard within this movement and who have been doing the work that is necessary to make this an inclusive movement. What I am now proposing is that those people in a position of privilege do the work necessary to make OWS across the country a safe space for more people to participate. Here are some ways that aren’t easy, but are necessary to have progressive change and a truly inclusive space and movement.
1) Recognize your individual and systemic white privilege. White privilege plays a major role in the OWS movement for a lot of different reasons. White privilege is experienced by white folx and plays into the large problem of heteronormativity, ableism, hierarchicy. Because we live in a society that values white people more than anything else, we must acknowledge and recognize that addressing white privilege is addressing all other forms of oppression. If the movement can find a way to call out and fight against white privilege, we are fighting against the larger issue of oppression. Recognize that OWS remains a “white peoples movement”, operating under a system that plays preference to the white experience and within the confines of white supremacy. We are still coloring within the lines allowed to us by the 99% and the 1% using only one color and one method, and sometimes the crayon may be held by a different hand, but we are still required to follow the directions.
2) Change the name. From the beginning of OWS, has had some adamant voices who have been against using the term “occupy”. Occupy Wall Street uses language that is oppressive. The term “occupy” is rooted in privilege because of the assumed right to take a space over. Many Natives and non-Natives have expressed extreme disapproval of the use of the term “occupy”. All non-Native folx have already been occupying this land without permission for over 500 years. Communities of color also have a history of experienced occupation through colonialism and gentrification. To use that rhetoric isn’t fighting back against the white supremacy of the 1%, it is reinforcing it. Using this term has allowed for the continued oppression of Native people and has given the movement a face of exclusion. It has perpetuated a colonialist mentality that allows people to think that it is okay to “occupy” a space without regard to the past history of that space and the people who that space really belonged to. As an example, in Oakland, the camp set up in Frank Ogawa Plaza and renamed it Oscar Grant Plaza. It allowed for the erasure of one person of color and renamed it after another person of color without regard to how this might create tension among people of color. Using the term “occupy” sets up a dialogue and action that is dismissive of people of color from wanting to participate, it changed the dialogue and the actions that has been occurring and will occur. If and when the name is changed a larger dialogue can begin on how to decolonize the minds.
3) Recognize that all forms of participation are valid. I want to acknowledge briefly class privilege, which is also white privilege, which exists within Occupy Wall Street. When the movement first began, many people who had the privilege to recognize they were being oppressed, were doing so because they were college students who now had a tremendous amount of debt. For many of them, this was probably the first type of oppression they have experienced. The middle class and “lower” middle class were finally waking up. There has been inherent class privilege because many people don’t have the opportunity to even attend college or take out loans. So that leads to a space that is only safe for the few. Many cis women, queer, trans*, disabled, and people of color have not been able to feel safe in the camps. I have felt this first hand. I chose not to take part in many of the actions that Occupy Oakland has done because I didn’t want to make myself a target to police AND I also didn’t want to make myself a target to white cis men. I finally decided when and how I would participate and made sure that it was safe for me to do so. This leads me to my point: we should not place a hierarchical value system on the work the individual is doing. There has been work many people are doing outside the camp, among their own circle of friends, among co-workers, blogs and other online media and space, and in their own communities that may not require them to set up camp somewhere but does allow them to start and continue dialogue in safe spaces. Another reason this is necessary is to combat ableist sentiments. Allowing people to think that the only way to contribute is to attend a General Assembly, march in a rally, and/or set up camp, is not recognizing that there is much more work to be done and many ways to do it. It dismisses peoples concerns over creating and existing in safe spaces and inclusive spaces. This also means that we must acknowledge that not everyone in the movement will be non-violent and non-destructive. Many people, especially communities of color, have long been experiencing police brutality in all forms and “violence” will be a method that some choose to use in response to police brutality. To disregard and devalue violence is to devalue the individual experience of police brutality. Combating against ableism, not placing a value system on the work people are doing, and not having negative sentiments towards what is being labeled an “anarchist” actions among OWS, is creating a more inclusive and safe space, and expanding and creating a progressive movement. Also, the movement must continue to ask how they are including the “working class”, the unemployed, the homeless and the undocumented into the movement.
4) Know and learn perspectives of history outside of the white, male perspective; respect individual history. Don’t question the individuals on the validity of a claim that something is racist, ableist, promoting colonialism, white supremacist, trans*phobic, homophobic, and/or when they call you out, is wrong or incorrect sentiment-especially when they are speaking about it from a personal perspective. Valuing the history of individuals and of communities is essential to moving forward. Recognize that all oppressed people and communities have been experiencing their oppression for a lot longer than OWS has existed, and that work has been happening to fight back against privilege for a long time. Comparing this movement to other movement of the past, when this one is led by white folx, is not understanding or respecting the struggles of other communities. Many people of color have been doing all types of activism work, social justice work, fighting back against tyranny for a lot longer than OWS has existed. While OWS may be doing some things that can be labeled as revolutionary, some of the tactics that OWS is using are rooted in communities of color, therefore, not being inclusive isn’t just hurtful to POC, but detrimental to the community and movement as a whole. Not only that, but when white activist use the methods of communities of color, they automatically change that method to the white persons experience, so while it may seem the same, in a sense they are appropriating and devaluing the work of communities of the past and present. All individuals who experience oppression are already fighting every day against this oppression by merely existing. So to exclude these individuals from the movement is not fighting back against a 1%, it is empowering the system to continue.
My critique is by no means a dismissal of the movement. It is a challenge to the white, cis, able-bodied, privileged individuals to do some much-needed self-reflection on how they operate within the movement. Questions that white privileged people within OWS should be asking themselves:
1) How am I operating within this space?
2) Am I making this a safe space for EVERYONE? Why? Why not? When? When not? How? How not?
3) How does my personal lived experience give me privilege?
4) How do I experience oppression?
5) How is my history one of oppressing?
6) How is the history of communities I am a part of been exclusive?
7) Am I listening when I need to? Learning when I need to? Staying quiet when I need to? Allowing myself to be open to the experience of others?
8) How do I play into a system of white supremacist, heteronormative, colonializtion?
9) Am I making myself uncomfortable by questioning my own existence in order to grow and learn?
10) How am I showing solidarity to other communities that are also present here?
11) Where can I be right now to learn more?
12) Is my presence in this space welcomed? Is my presence hindering the dialogue?
13) How am I documenting this? Should I be writing, recording, what I see happening to make sure the media doesn’t make it look differently? Am I writing from personal experience without making generalizations and assumptions about something I am not?
14) Am I giving other people the tools to openly express what they feel and their experience?
15) How is my being asked to share my experience on any platform playing into heteronormative, ableist, privileged, colonized thinking?
16) How am validating or invalidating other people’s experiences?