It is crystal clear that white supremacy exists. It seeps through every pore in our society. It infects every social relationship. It obviously affects Occupy Wall Street.
Everyone knows the wealth divide, the incarceration numbers, gentrification, the education gap and more are part of the class and racial oppression of the United States. All this is obvious. More politically contentious matters are the social interactions, which are racialized in negative ways in society and specifically in OWS. It is always painful, because at best we hope movement spaces are places where people can finally engage with one another on universal-human terms. However, it is not a surprise that even in movement spaces people experience white supremacy. Our society is saturated with it, so to expect non-racialized human relations in the movement would be utopian.
The combination of structural oppression based on race and class, the history of white supremacy and capitalism, and how that affects people’s interactions with one another, has led to a school of thought called Privilege theory. Privilege theory recognizes structural and historical oppression, but has an undue focus on individual behavior and thoughts as a major way of addressing white supremacy (and other oppressions, but I will tend to focus on white supremacy and class). Privilege theory has a set of basic principles: a) Privilege theory argues that movement spaces should be safe for all oppressed groups. One way to make such a space safe is by negotiating one anothers’ actions in non-oppressive ways. For example, this means straight white men should talk less or think about the privileges they have when discussing an action or political question. b) Privilege theory justifies that militancy and political sophistication is the domain of a privileged elite based on class, gender and racial privileges. c) Privilege theory roots political and strategic mistakes in the personal privileges that people bring into the movement. d) Privilege theory seeks to deal with these issues primarily through education, teach-ins and conversations. This piece will point out key failures in all four principles of Privilege theory. It will tentatively lay out some ways forward, while recognizing more research and, more importantly, more struggle is needed to resolve some of the outstanding problems facing the movement.
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