A barrier to fighting oppression?

March 22, 2012

David Judd responds to the arguments made in a document circulating in the Occupy Wall Street movement titled "Checking Your Privilege 101."

ACTIVISTS TALK a lot about privilege, and for good reason. We live in a massively unequal society, in which different people are systematically oppressed in many different ways.

But there is a way of thinking and talking about privilege that, while seemingly radical, at a certain point actually poses a barrier to the fight against oppression. Although done in the name of recognizing the impact of every form of oppression, these politics can push people away from effective action--against either concrete instances of oppression or the global system that lies behind them.

That system, capitalism, needs to be confronted, and we need to understand forms of oppression in relationship to it--and in relationship to other forms of oppression--in a way that helps us tackle them with a collective strategy, rather than individual moralism.

A document titled "Checking Your Privilege 101" that recently circulated on some Occupy listserves in New York City is an example. It's worth considering not because it's especially egregious, but because it shows how a problematic framework can hide behind simple common sense: If you're working to end social injustice, shouldn't the first step for activists be to look at your own social role?

Occupy Wall Street demonstrators march across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City
Occupy Wall Street demonstrators march across the Brooklyn Bridge in New York City (Brennan Cavanaugh)

"Checking Your Privilege 101" was produced by the Transformative Justice Law Project of Illinois (TJLP), which says it is "a collective of radical lawyers, social workers, activists, and community organizers."

It starts by defining privilege as "an unearned advantage that a dominant group has over marginalized groups." It continues, "A key aspect of privilege is that, due to its unearned nature, those who have privilege often do not realize they have it. In other words, they don't see the access and opportunity being a member of a dominant group affords them."

It then asks, "Who has privilege?" and answers with a list of types of privilege, each with a brief explanation: U.S. citizenship, class, race, education, gender, gender identity, age, body size, able-bodied, life on the outside [of prison], "passing," religion and sexuality.

The piece concludes with a call to "constantly [check] our privilege," and a list of action steps. The list starts with "1) Acknowledge that the privilege exists" and ends with "8) Call people out and embrace being called out about privilege."

THE PROBLEMS with "Checking Your Privilege 101" are mostly about misleading implications and omissions, not clear misstatements.

For example, two questions are hinted at by the document: Do members of a "dominant group" ultimately benefit or lose out materially from the fact that others are subordinate? And what is the distinction, if any, between a "dominant group" and a ruling one? These questions aren't directly answered, but are addressed in misleading ways.

Generally, the authors use the phrase "a dominant group" to refer to categories such as whites, males, the cisgendered, etc., but occasionally, they refer to "the dominant group" (for the first time in the third sentence). The one-word change subtlly portrays the "dominant group" as a ruling class--one defined by the absence of oppression in its ranks, rather its specific position of power in the structure of society.

So a straight, white, male worker making a good union wage might be a member of "the dominant group," but a Black CEO--or a Black president--wouldn't be.

"Checking Your Privilege 101" also contains no discussion of anything that might connect different oppressions at their root. Its authors pay a lot of attention to the intersection of different oppressions in how they're experienced by the people who suffer from them--for example, how "a body type that is celebrated and considered 'beautiful' by the dominant group...is thin for women and muscular for men, in addition to reflecting other dominant norms such as whiteness and able-bodiedness."

However, at the causal level, there is nothing--except a passing reference to "root systems" (plural, not singular).

Together with the structure of the piece, which defines a category, privilege, and then lists individual instances, the effect is to leave the reader with the impression that oppressions are related like intersecting circles. Any one might simply be removed--either in analysis by abstraction or in real life by social change--while leaving the others in place.

We see the implications of this view of oppression in the brief section on "class privilege." Class privilege is defined as "the privilege of being a person raised with financial stability and access to financial safety nets through family or other assets. Class privilege can also apply to someone who has accrued wealth over time."

So the document defines class in very conventional terms as a matter of family background, or at best income. Marxists, of course, have a very different view of class.

Karl Marx argued that the fundamental class divide under capitalism is between the capitalist rulers, who control the factories and machines and resources used to produce wealth, and the workers, who don't own the means to produce what they need to survive, and therefore need to work for the capitalists for wages. Workers, the vast majority of people in society, have common interests and common enemies, even as they are divided and made unequal by different forms of oppression.

This understanding is excluded if you believe instead that society is divided into the poor, the "middle class" and the rich, whether the criteria is cultural lines ("family background") or percentiles of income. The problems are the same whether the division is made by mainstream politicians trying to pander to "Middle America" because they don't like to mention the poor, or by activists contrasting poverty with "financial stability" while failing to mention the ruling class.

Without an analysis that understands class in relationship to social structure, not only are we missing a tool to understand history, but we're also left without any basis for solidarity other than a self-sacrificing ethical stance.

It's worth contrasting the document's definition of class with the section on "race privilege," which correctly notes that "institutional racism is structured into our politics, our economic system, our geography, our educational systems, our social institutions, etc."

WHEN YOU consider the section on class privilege, it shows how the politics represented by "Checking Your Privilege 101" are a step backward from the Occupy slogan "We are the 99 percent"--which gets at the importance of both uniting the 99 percent and opposing the common enemy, the 1 percent.

The ideas put forward in the piece aren't only a step backward from the point of view of Marxism. They're a step backward from the point of view of practical organizing against different forms of oppression.

The "action steps" listed in the piece suggest that activists must "move away from immobilizing guilt." But they don't include any suggestions for actually mobilizing. They start and end with "acknowledgements"--acknowledging your own privilege and embracing a culture of "calling out" when you or somebody else fails to do so. The closest the document comes to recommending action is phrases like "educate," "be an ally" and "use your privilege to benefit" others.

There's a nod to "the root systems that give you privilege," but we are called on to "understand" them, not to do away with them. It's easy to see how an anti-oppression training session fits in with the framework expressed in the document, but harder to see how a mass march for immigrant rights does.

The focus on self-education to the exclusion of everything else is a logical consequence of the theory that solidarity is a purely moral, altruistic act. If we're fighting against our own interests when we challenge privilege, we should expect a never-ending internal struggle. There's little hope of eliminating oppression if there's no central structure to tear down, and no material motivation for the majority to join the struggle.

In some hands, moreover, the demand to acknowledge privilege can become a tool for shutting down debate--when acknowledging privilege is asserted to mean that a particular theoretical framework must be accepted.

The New York City SlutWalk coalition saw politics like those of "Checking Your Privilege 101" play out for the worse. The actual SlutWalk march on October 1 was large, vibrant and in most respects successful, after a series of organizing meetings that brought out as many as 60 people on a regular basis in the lead-up, many of them new to activism.

However, a young white woman--not an organizer--brought to the march a sign which read, "Woman is the n****r of the world" (quoting a John Lennon/Yoko Ono song). One organizer, a member of the International Socialist Organization, went up to the woman to explain why the sign was racist and not in the spirit of the struggle, and the woman put it away and did not carry it on the march.

But this sign became part of a debate about whether Black women were marginalized by the organizing. The debate could have been healthy, but rather than prompting the coalition to expand its antiracist activism, the debate triggered, as the SlutWalk NYC website refers to it, a "long, introspective hiatus," an abandonment of the SlutWalk moniker as "a privileged name" and the splintering of the group.

The woman who brought the racist sign wasn't there for any of the anti-oppression trainings or study groups that were organized--nor was anyone else not already an organizer. While the coalition was certainly always imperfect, it's hard to see how the struggle against either rape or racism was advanced when it fell apart.

The Occupy movement isn't at any short-term risk of the same fate. Activists have been enthusiastic about expanding Occupy to take up the fight against oppression, in the form of protesting police brutality and fighting evictions in communities of color.

But just as the movement needs a greater emphasis on opposing all kinds of oppression, we need theories that aid us in the fight for liberation.

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