The 99% Isn’t Me: Being the Minority in the 99%
Another issue I have with the 99% concept is that it smacks of the rhetoric we black and brown people heard from the Left back in the 70’s, that we’re all just people and we need to be colorblind, and that we are all being oppressed by the same people and on and on… Those thoughts are valid, kind of if you ignore much of American history. My oppression as a black man in America is very, very different from that of a poor white person. Yes we both ended up poor and without food or a job but he doesn’t get called a nigger or have to deal with the very real reality of racism. Although the white middle class who’s central to the Occupy movement are right about Wall Street and politicians they fail to see that the struggle is different if you’re a woman, gay, Black, Latino, Native American, etc. Many of the aforementioned groups have been in the gutter for…. Um… ever. Actually yea really forever since this nation was created many of us have been at the bottom of the pile. With that said I think it’s a serious problem when someone tells me that my struggles are the same as theirs and I should get behind a movement that I had little part in creating. This is what the relationship (especially in places like my hometown of Buffalo) between the occupation and oppressed minorities has been since the beginning. It smacks of the reductionism that we have seen from the likes of the 10’s-40’s communist / socialist movement and its dealings with black people and how the movement has almost always dealt with women (aka sexism as a secondary issue). (…)
To many people the Occupy movement is strictly about economic inequalities and Wall Street not about race, gender, or class although they have no problem welcoming black people, women, or the unemployed as supporters. It’s indicative of a lack of recognition of race, gender, or class (and other issues) in the occupation (and its connection to capitalism and economics) and any felt need for the creation of spaces to deal with these issues in any real way.
What counts as “common ground?”
I got into my local Occupy movement at least partly hoping to prove to myself that arguments like this were baseless. They’re not baseless. This is what it looks like to the people who’re told that the issues of privileged people are “common ground” and the issues of marginalized people are “divisive.”
If you’re thinking reading what I just wrote, “Cripes, Xeno, that’s basically everyone, because everyone’s getting screwed somehow,” you’re right, and you’re beginning to see the depth of the problem and how many people can be alienated to a lesser or larger degree by it.
For example, what I face as a white person is common ground, and I can bring that up without anybody calling me divisive for centering a conversation on my experiences of the economy or governmental/law enforcement abuses. Whether I say, “I as a white person…” or not, these are experiences which are shaped and changed by my race and what that prompts people to assume about me. These are white experiences whether I label them or not, because they are so distinctive to people who present like me and would have been very different were I any other color.
However, I might want to talk about being a woman, and once in a blue moon I may talk about being LGBT (though the latter is something I feel less qualified to discuss due to the fact that I’m cisgendered and benefit from straight privilege in a lot of ways). Despite the fact that I am the same person whose plight was “common ground” in the previous discussion, suddenly now we’re talking identity politics. Suddenly an experience I have had that is unique to my circumstances is divisive.
But I’m the same person I was in the first case. I’m not any more privileged or oppressed than I was when I was speaking to a particular (white) experience of our economy and culture. I’m still me. There are just parts of me and my experience that are not considered an “occupy” issue.
That’s why, no matter how much we may say that women and people of color and LGBT people are welcome and no matter how sincerely and deeply felt that sentiment might be, as long as some people have to shut a door on part of what probably brought them to Occupy in the first place, we’re not living up to that promise.
I also think that Richardson made a great point here:
“Too considering we’re (as in women, blacks, latinos, etc) are the ones suffering the most shouldn’t the movement come to us and put us in place to contribute versus us having to shoehorn our stuff to their? It’s their movement not ours and if they want it to become our’s too they are going to have to move towards us.”
It’s not merely our job at this point to open the door and say, “You are welcome to join us.” We have to do that and then actually allow conversations about their unique experiences, or else what we’re really saying is, “You’re welcome to join us as long as you pretend your struggles aren’t different.” In that latter case, we’re setting a very high price on participation by demanding that they be less true to their experiences and needs for the privilege of being accepted even at the margins.
That’s why even groups that really sincerely want to be inclusive often still have at the fore and at the core the same demographics that’ve been at the fore and core of everything else in power. It’s because until we start listening to what the people who aren’t getting included are saying will make them feel welcome, no matter how hard we try we simply will not know how to get that done.
What makes this especially hard to climb up out of is that if a movement’s face is not diverse, people who benefit from diversity and suffer from its lack will not always come sacrifice their time, money, and precious energy (of which we all only have so much) to be that diversity. I know that when I see an organization that is run entirely or almost entirely by men, I consider where the women went, because surely there’ve been at least some. Why didn’t they stay? What happened to them that I can’t see from here? Do I love this cause enough to risk finding out the hard way?
Getting personal for a moment.
To give an example that is not necessarily intended to translate here but merely to illustrate one example that I walked in with, I used to be involved with an activist organization. It was progressive in its politics toward the poor, its stated attitudes toward LGBT people and women were extremely forward-thinking, and the attitudes of all of the individual members I spoke to about racism were strongly in favor of creating a society where people of color did not disproportionately suffer.
And yet its upper management was run by all white men with the exception of one white woman. I didn’t know enough at the start to wonder what the disconnect would be. Fast forward a year. After a year I’d seen hiring practices that weeded out nearly all people of color immediately, so that when higher positions were pulled from the ranks, the ranks had already been cleared of racial minorities. After a year, I’d seen a culture that shelters sexual assault by pressuring women who experienced it to avoid making a fuss for fear of damaging the organization’s ability to do its worthy work. Essentially, after a year, I saw exactly why women and people of color were absent: they’d been driven out or had fled for their own safety and sanity.
Consequently, now I look for the signs. When I see a movement that isn’t diverse, I hang back. I don’t hang back out of a lack of love for the cause. I hang back because I learned why women and POC were absent from an organization that I loved very much whose work I am proud to have been part of to this day. I am still proud of the work this organization does, which is why I am not saying their name (though I will if you contact me privately).
(As an aside, if anyone reading is thinking, “Oh my god. Their hiring and retention practices were racist and assault victims were pressured to keep it quiet and you’re still protecting them? What’s wrong with you?” then I hope you are taking care to police this kind of thinking in yourself when it comes to Occupy. If you’re not comfortable with what I just did, then please let it be a lesson about how ugly this reasoning is and how hard it can be to overcome even for people who’ve personally suffered because of it.)
What does that have to do with us now?
That experience is why I look at the Occupy movement, at the diversity problem we have in my city, and am willing to immediately assume that the problem is not people of color or LGBT people or women not caring enough. I am willing to assume that the problem is us. Unfortunately, it’s hard to address this problem. My difficulty has been that so many of my city’s occupation supporters are unwilling to make that first step of saying, “Maybe it’s something we’re doing wrong,” that I never get to the point of having any other conversations.
It’s like… remember how when all this started, OWS got flak for merely stating problems and not making demands? Remember what we told them? We told the press and our friends and our families that until enough people understand that there’s a problem in the first place and until enough people understand what that problem is, we are not ready for a conversation about the solutions.
So! For those of you who are sick and goddamn tired of hearing about this problem because nobody is telling you how you can fix it, here’s what you can do to help us fix it: Have these conversations yourself. Explain to the people who listen to you and respect you that there’s a problem, because odds are they don’t even realize there is one yet. Explain to the people you have personal relationships with that the problem is that we are doing something wrong. Get them up to speed. Get everyone up to speed. Get them ready to be part of the conversation about solutions.
Then we can really sit down with open minds and honest hearts and find a solution. Until then, there’s no point. We’re not there yet.