In 1968, during the occupation of Columbia University by the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), female protesters were given the lofty task of serving the other protesters tea. During the civil rights movement, the leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), Stokely Carmichael, once reputedly said that “The only position for women in SNCC is prone.” During the anti-vietnam war movement, women at rallies were greeted with calls like, “take her off the stage and fuck her.”
Surely we are beyond the days of such odious sexism within our own organizations, affinity groups, and movements, right?
If history is any guide, no matter how well-intentioned or focused previous social movements have been, diverse issues of privilege and oppression have often served to undermine, weaken, and disrupt organizing work. What these past failures demonstrate is the need to continuously examine and address issues of racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, etc., within social movements. This should not be surprising. We are all socialized within a specific cultural context and the messages, meanings, and values we have internalized do not simply disappear when we join with others in common struggle. Indeed, unless we intentionally address such issues directly and continuously, we are bound to recreate within our own groups the very oppressive structures we seek to oppose.
Past experiences within Occupy NOLA confirm the necessity of addressing internal dynamics of privilege and oppression. At the encampment, it seemed to be disproportionately men who disrupted assemblies and meetings. To name just a few examples, one female facilitator was nearly brought to tears by a male participant who would not stop interrupting her, another active member took thirty seconds of silence during a General Assembly to acknowledge the fact the she was one of the few, if not the only, women in attendance, and another long-standing working group member, a woman, left after being verbally assaulted by a man at the encampment.
While some of these examples may seem like the fault of a few individuals, a truly robust and just organization would have structures in place to prevent, minimize, and respond to such dynamics and incidents. Sadly, such structures were absent or not fully developed.
But why were such structures absent or underdeveloped?*** To begin with, there was not insignificant resistance within Occupy NOLA to addressing issues of racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression in addition to issues of economic justice. Put another way, there was a lack of appreciation for intersectionality–or the complex and subtle ways in which forms of oppression interact.
For example, in the context of OWS, the issue of race and racism is virtually unavoidable when discussing economic justice. After all, communities of color were disproportionately targeted for sub-prime mortgages during the housing bubble, they lost a greater percentage of their wealth when the bubble burst, and the unemployment rate is (and has been) much higher for communities of color than other communities (not to mention the racial wealth gap (pdf) is fucking 20:1).
However, some claimed that discussing issues of racism or sexism was divisive and diversionary. This is completely backwards. As the examples above show, it has been by ignoring the intersectionality and the internal dynamics of oppression that movements for social justice are disrupted and weakened.
In addition, it seems likely that resistance to addressing oppressive dynamics is partially due to a lack of appreciation for how privilege and oppression play out on an individual and organizational level. For example, in a male-centered (read: patriarchal) society, men are used to being the center of attention (e.g. gender bias in the classroom). This internalized sense of of superiority can lead men to dominate discussions and thereby drive away those who feel their voice is drowned out. Unfortunately, we cannot just check privilege and oppression at the social movement door. Therefore, unless we take pains to address how our socialization plays out in our everyday lives, our collective actions to build a better world will be frustrated.
Unless we men or male-identified folks examine our own internalized superiority and privilege, deconstruct common conceptions of masculinity, take responsibility for our own intentions and actions, and assist in developing organizational structures to address internal dynamics of privilege and oppression, we will never build the vibrant, capable, and durable movements that we desire.
***This statement is in no way meant to minimize the amazing work of those in Occupy NOLA’s anti-racist working group and other individuals.