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Isms of Occupy: Some Do's and Dont's

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Whenever the impact of the Occupy Movement is positively spoken of it is said that we brought consciousness of class disparity into the public discourse. This has become such a matter of course that people seem to forget that the 1% were nearly invisible before the advent of that useful colloquial phrase.

But we have fallen short when identifying other forms of disparity that play out far more visibly, not just in the systems we seek to change, but in the structures we've set up for ourselves. It's not surprising that intersections of race, gender, age, nationality, able-bodiedness, and sexuality have not been at the core of our outward messaging when these conversations often happen amongst us in a simplified and perfunctory way.

Occupy shone a spotlight on the existence of those with a miniscule amount of debt, and a great deal of power,but what about the other 99%?

Who are we? Did the rhetoric ever ring true....beyond identifying who we are not?

The idea that a mass of people can stand up and take power is not new. However, for those who believe we exist in a post-racist and post-feminist era, the notion that this group is an egalitarian one may be particularly appealing. The push to herald such a new dawn came early on in Occupy; The Declaration of the Occupation, when brought before the General Assembly in late September, referred to "one race, the human race", ostensibly no longer divided by all those messy -isms that fractured "The People" into pockets ruled by identity politics. Fortunately, a small group vocally opposed this language, which would have surely marginalized all who did not feel, in Liberty Plaza or elsewhere, that we had attained such an egalitarian existence. That version of the declaration was blocked and then rewritten to omit the utopic phrasing.

But the rewriting also entailed a lot of explaining and was a painful reminder for many that even with shared ideals and visions our prejudices and privileges were not checked at the entrance to the park. Defending one's position on matters that are obvious because you live them every, single day is emotionally exhausting. Probably more so than insisting on the existence of discrimination that you do not personally experience. As a white person, when I remind other white people that racism is pervasive inside the culture of Occupy, I am being thoughtful and fair-minded, and at worst, seen as giving myself a pat on the back for being politically correct. But I've never had my position discounted; not the way I have when, as a woman, I remind men that sexism is also running rampant through the culture of Occupy. I usually have a number of examples to share, but such testimony is often taken as proof that the issue at hand is too "personal" and "emotional" for me. The evidence I take the time to present is quickly interpreted as proof of my own bias and baggage, not as lived proof of discrimination, otherwise spoken of in the abstract. It's as if I seek out the feeling of being patronized and tokenized, simply to justify my embrace of bell hooks and Judith Butler, and not the other way around. As if patriarchy lurks somewhere in the shadows and there's just no way to know when and how it's going to jump out.

When discrimination is spoken of as if it is theoretical, ways of addressing it can seem similarly abstract. Take for example, the practice of progressive stack in which traditionally and typically marginalized voices are given priority in meetings and assemblies. (I know I've only mentioned race and gender here, but I'm also talking about age, class, nationality, able-bodiedness, homelessness, social capital, and all the other signifiers we use to accept or write each other off, often without realizing it.) So what happens when a group of people with the outward facing message of a united 99% acknowledges that within that population there are gross power imbalances? Often times it feels like a temporary adjustment, or even patronizing lipservice. So what are the well-intentioned to do? I think first off we all, myself included, need to stop focusing on what our intentions are and talk about how things actually play out. Beyond that, I have some questions I've been thinking about for those who are not female-identified and consider themselves feminists. This obviously touches upon one small piece of what I am talking about when I talk about addressing disparities within the 99% and Occupy. I hope to see more questions about other pieces as we move forward, which brings me to my first inquiry:

Men who edit or write for publications that cover Occupy, have you ever solicited an article from a woman or person of color? How about someone who has not already been interviewed or published? And if you say that media spin makes the role of spokespeople irrelevant, do you still look for photos of yourself on the Huffington Post the day after an action?

Men who have asked a woman or a person of color to co-facilitate with them: What is it that you admire about that person's facilitation skills? Also, where did they grow up and and why did they become a part of Occupy?

Men who like to point out that there are some situations in which it is culturally advantageous to be a woman: How often is the advantage gained by seeming submissive or relinquishing control? How have you felt when put in that position?

Men who are careful to allow female-identified folks to speak first in meetings: How often do you find yourself interrupting women in casual conversation? Your close female friends or partners? What about soft-spoken or hesitant people in general?

Occupy has not escaped the sexist tropes of the larger society, and even here, outspoken women are deemed "aggressive." At the same time, I've heard men who proudly boast of their own aggression pine for the presence of more "alpha females," you know, women who act like men, but are still clearly women. This problematic gender binary flips back and forth so quickly it will leave you dizzy, and maybe even make you throw up a little. These men insist that they are ready and willing to make ample space for women to step up and assert themselves; but allowing others to act in the same manner you do isn't the kind of paradigm shift I hope all of us are working towards.

While I appreciate the importance of believing in abundance over the myth of scarcity, the truth is that some things are finite. There is only one planet earth as far as we know, and the span of our lives is not unlimited, right? Which means it's not enough to allow others some power, it means giving up some power of your own.

But here we have arrived at another seemingly abstract notion. Maybe what I mean is: Re-imagine what power can be. Once, a man was frustrated with me for wanting to take notes rather than be his co-facilitator during a meeting. He couldn't believe that I would take on such a meek, secretarial role. I told him that whenever he spoke during meetings I changed what he said to what I thought he should have said, and then sent those notes out to hundreds of people. That would, of course, be manipulative and I've probably never really done that. But what I meant was that he needed to stop accepting others only when he recognized his own strengths in them, when they altered themselves to adapt to his ideas of efficiency, effectiveness, and relevancy.

So, you might conceive of talking less and listening more, not for the sake of appearing thoughtful, not even for the sake of making others feel comfortable in the space as if its your space to share, as if its yours to make others feel comfortable in.....but because there may actually be solutions, tactics, and strategies not yet thought of, inside that quiet!

Space should not be given so that others can catch up to where you stand, it should be shared so we can go somewhere else entirely.

And oh yeah, the next time a reporter pushes through a crowd to interview you, the tall, white, powerful man, don't give an interview about the rage of the 99% and later complain about the sexist, racist media. Become aware of your own surges in testosterone and adrenaline. Give those surges a moment to quiet. Listen to that quiet. And then tap in to someone who doesn't look or sound like you. Don't shove them in front of the camera against their will. You might merely suggest to the reporter that that person over there might have something to say.

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