Some of us who watch in awe and delight at the incredible well of energy, perseverance, and hope of the Occupy Wall Street movement are getting word of anti-racist critiques of the language and organizing strategies, particularly around declarative statements released on the Occupy Wall Street website and dispersed to media outlets. It is important to note- as the organizers do- that “demand is a process” and the new day voice of the community-in-process emerges continually without necessarily being pinned down by the bulletin board messages of the passing day. The voices of people of color, it seems, are being heard and integrated, though not without the fearless contributions of people of color sometimes in the face of serious resistance. I want to highlight some of the discussion as it is occurring mainly through articles and online forums not, as some might fear, to disparage the movement but rather to learn from the anti-racism discussion in progress.
For the sake of utmost transparency: I am a woman of color who approaches movement work predominantly led by white people with a hermeneutic of suspicion and, while I have gotten some word on the happenings in Occupy Boston, I have not gone to see what’s happening on the ground there since it officially started this past Friday. (I do plan to go down there with a faith community of which I’m a part sometime in October.)
As I have seen it, the anti-racist critiques of the movement have been leveled against two aspects of its language and ideology. First there has been concern over the use of the language of a single human race as opposed to the importance of coalition building among diverse peoples in the context of the intersectionality of oppressions. In my experience, it is usually white brothers and sisters who insist that because we are all of equal value, we should be described as one body 1. It is usually sisters and brothers of color who insist that because we have different histories, cultures, relationships with oppressive and friendly bodies (states, religious organizations, ally groups and counter-protestors), agendas, and strategies that we be acknowledged in our multiplicity. It occurs to me that white folks defining what all people are (one race!) and what is good for all people (to be called one race! That’s scientific and the highest moral good!), even in the name of justice, entangles them in the insidious threads of the powers and principalities which serve to silence non-white voices. I have faith that they are being used by systems of injustice to ends they would not desire to serve, if only they could see the ties that bind them. I have experienced that when they do see those ties and struggle to be free of them, they no longer take that tact. Both perspectives (one and many) are vital to building healthy communities and we should ward against the whitewashing of any one perspective on the basis of unequal power in the community to define who “we” are and what is good for “us.”
The second concern has been with the frequent concurrent omission of the fact that Wall Street itself is already on occupied Algonquin land and that the graves of thousands of Africans lay beneath the financial district in New York underscoring, in a historical allegory of biblical proportions, the fact that “American” wealth was built on African blood. I would concur with others that rather than finding hope in reoccupations of Turtle Island by new groups of white freedom fighters, we might find hope in decolonizing land, systems, minds, colonized first by some of the earlier waves of white freedom fighters on this land. I cannot imagine that these ideas are controversial to any of the Occupy Wall Street organizers, though it is possible that their importance was not felt as starkly by them as it was by others. They would have to speak to why they were originally omitted from certain declarative statements and would probably have different insights into the writing and editorial process.
As I have seen it, friendly and modest people of color and white people against racism have been asking for clarifying amendments to the language of the movement to make their perspectives and basic historical facts evident. It is my understanding that the Occupy Wall Street movement began mostly among young white people (Yay for young white radicals! Good idea, pals!) which has meant that it started pre-Occupied by a particular context and set of commitments. Due to a complex set of factors (the relative ease of networking among those of similar race/class, the influence of original organizing strategies, agendas, and language, the concentration of privileges making it easier for some to protest and risk being arrested) the movement is continuing to be led mostly by young white people as it nationalizes. Some have been supportive of the work to end the original pre-Occupation and decolonize the mind of the movement while others are concerned that bringing up such issues will cause it to fracture.
In fact people of color and white people against racism have not been creating factures in the perfect unity of the movement but rather are pointing to the fracture lines in its false unity. America is quickly becoming a majority nation of people of color and any movement claiming to represent the 99% will have to reflect that shift. Making minor editions to statements (many of which are already agreed upon by all- i.e., the historicity of occupation and enslavement) and opening up space for dialogue where a diversity of views persists could only prove that this is a movement of a new Spirit with the self-reflectiveness and elasticity to avoid becoming dry and brittle under the winds of self-righteousness, as some movements before it. For organizers in New York and nationwide to hear and learn from these requests (as they already have in some cases and will, I have faith, with greater openness and understanding) would only heighten the movement’s momentum. While discerning collective truths in diverse communities is challenging, naming global truth from the location of any one person (or people) is impossible. True “unity” will not emerge alone from a universalizing recognition of God’s spark in all people. It will be wrought from a healthy respect that this spark, this equal access to Spirit and Truth, should help us build communities where all peoples are heard in dialogical movements of change capable of making room for one more at the table.
- In 1970, Vine Deloria Jr. wrote in his seminal We Talk, You Listen: New Tribes, New Turf, “a generation ago white children were taught to look directly at black people and pretend that they didn’t realize that they were black. Viewing such behavior today with our experiences of the civil rights movement behind us, it appears to be the most unsophisticated and racist behavior imaginable. But at the time it was a sincere effort by an ignorant white populace who were truly concerned about equality to express equality by pretending that differences did not exist” (26) ↩