3/15/2012: Some responses to this piece here
This piece was written by Will, a close comrade to many members of Black Orchid Collective.
Notes on Privilege Theory
Introduction: White Supremacy Lives on
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.
There is certainly a long history of people of color facing white supremacy inside the movement. However they have tended to focus around programmatic and organizational critiques. Areas where deficiencies could be more easily seen and addressed. For example, if a group does not organize around Black prisoners, it can be addressed by having political discussions, changing the program of the group, and making an organizing orientation towards Black prisoners. Privilege theory addresses this by claiming that someone’s privilege creates a blind spot to the reality of incarceration of Black men.
Another aspect of oppression Privilege theorists tackle are social interactions. However, it becomes much harder to objectively assess if a white man’s glance objectifies a person because of the color of their skin; if a white man yelling at a person of color is due to race, if it is a non-racialized-gendered reaction to political differences; or if a white man is taking up a lot of space because of his privilege or because he needs to speak because he simply has something valid/ important to say.
There is no doubt that in any organization or movement, where this is common behavior, people of color will either not join or leave after some time. But at the same time, any movement/ organization which spends tons of time on this will no longer be a fighting organization/ movement and eventually people of color will leave. It will become talk shops or consciousness raising circles. In a period when the NYPD are killing Black and Latino men with impunity, schools are being closed in POC neighborhoods, anti-Muslim propaganda is rampant, and immigrants are deported every day, few will join a group which only focuses on inter-personal relationships. They key is to understand the tension and get the balance right.
At the same time it is undeniable that that many POC believe this to be a serious way to deal with white supremacy. That many believe a movement can be built from Privilege Theory’s political and strategic claims. Privilege Theory has come to be the dominant trend under specific historical circumstances, which I will briefly address. I believe this to be a false strategy, ultimately failing to actually solve the problems Privilege Theory wishes to address.
Probably every person of color has experienced some variety of interaction described above. First, lets discuss the complexities: when this happens, even amongst people of color there is disagreement over the perception of what the interactions meant. Understanding the seriousness of the charge is tied up with the white militants’ past behavior or track record. People of color are also coming in with their own experiences with white supremacy. This certainly affects how they see social relationships. Lastly, some agreement has to be found that as a general rule people who join the movement are not white supremacists. This should be a fundamental assumption, otherwise, we are left with the ridiculous and suicidal political reality that we are building a movement with white supremacists. So that leaves us dealing with racial alienation or white chauvinism by people who we assume are against white supremacy. That seems to be a crucial point that needs to be recognized.
Usually people of color want acknowledgement that something fucked up happened. It is true that generally, most white militants flip out. On one hand the white militants grasp the seriousness of the accusation, but on the other hand, in their defense, they fail to give recognition of how another person of color perceived an event. The white militant usually acts as if the theory of white supremacy infecting everything stops with their mind and body when they are accused of anything. This is understandable, as no serious militant should take such accusations lightly.
This is particularly important as people of color, based on all the shit that happens to them, tend to see the world differently, and are obviously sensitive to racial slights. The lack of recognition usually escalates the situation as the person of color tends to feel, what is “objectively true” falls back on how the white militant defines reality. At such a point, productive conversation usually breaks down.
Lastly things are more complicated today because white supremacy is much more coded today in language and behavior. No one in the movement is going to call anyone nigger. People actually did so in the 1910s, 20s, and 30s. No one is going to say that a person of color should not speak because of their color of their skin. Things are not that clear. This is partially a sign that struggles of people of color have forced white-supremacy’s anti-POC language to take a different form. However, white supremacy still exists. In the media for example talk of crime or poverty is code word for lazy Black or Latino people who ruin paradise for the hard working great white citizens of America. Exactly how white supremacy works in coded language and behavior in the movement is still something that needs to be investigated.
While the difficulties of being a person of color militant in movements is difficult as hell, there are certain odd problems of being a white militant in the movement. People of color enter the movement expecting better racial relationships. This is certainly fair. This usually means that white male militants are expected to take up less space, talk less, etc. Every personal interaction, while always influenced by the weight of history, cannot be judged solely by that dimension alone. For example, Black people have been slaves in the US and specifically servants to white masters. Extrapolating that historical past to the social interaction when a Black man or woman gets a white friend a cup of water would be ridiculous. There is always agency and freedom in the actions we participate in today. They are always shaped by race, class gender, sexuality and history; but we are not completely trapped by the crimes of the past either. Otherwise friendship, love, camaraderie would be impossible. The very possibility of any form of human social relationship would be destroyed. We would be parroting the past and dogmatically replicating it in the present.
Usually, after acknowledgement, things can be left at that. However, sometimes deeper organizational and political issues come up. Especially if a person of color says there is a pattern/ history of such behavior. If this is the case, it should be dealt with in terms of organizational and political dynamics. The limitations of privilege politics in dealing with such situations will be spelt out later.
Fanon, Black Liberation, and Humanity
The most sophisticated traditions in Black liberation have struggled to deal with such problems. Revolutionaries such as Frantz Fanon in Black Skin and White Masks (BSWM) used the philosophical tools of Phenomenology to explore the experience of consciousness/ lived experience of people of color. This tradition in the movement is sadly dead. In light of his investigations of Phenomenology, there is strong evidence in Fanon’s writings and practice in his life showing that conversation cannot solve such racialized experiences; only the most militant and violent struggle can cleanse racialized human relations. The United States has not experienced high levels of struggles in over 50 years. Major problems develop because of the lack of militant struggle in the country.
Fanon also left a puzzling legacy by writing Black Skin, White Masks, which often is used to justify privilege theory. However, two problems exist with such a treatment of BSWM. The first is that this book was part of Fanon’s development; his working out of problems he saw and experienced. Second and more importantly, almost all privilege theorists ignore the introduction and conclusion of the work. This is strange considering those two chapters are the theoretical framework of the book. In these two chapters Fanon expresses equality with all of humanity and denies anyone demanding reparations or guilt of any kind for past historical oppressions. What else can Fanon mean by, “I do not have the right to allow myself to be mired in what the past has determined. I am not the slave of the Slavery that dehumanized my ancestors. I as a man of color do not have the right to hope that in the white man there will be a crystallization of guilt toward the past of my race.” The gendered language aside, this stands in stark contrast to privilege theory.
Fanon stands at the heights of attempting to reconcile the experiences of oppression with the need to develop human interactions and the necessity of changing them through militant struggle. There is no doubt that Fanon’s attempt to have human interactions with white people constantly clashed with white people’s racialized interactions with him. In other words, white people do talk to people of color in condescending ways, dismiss POC issues as secondary, ignore POC etc. The issue is how to address it when it happens and in that realm Privilege theory fails.
Privilege theory puts too much weight on consciousness and education. It ends up creating a politics of guilt by birth. At the same time, there is no doubt that more education is needed on the history of white supremacy in the United States and on a global level. Furthermore, the relationship of white supremacy and its effect on consciousness is vital and a legitimate field of politics and philosophical inquiry. W.E.B. Du Bois, James Baldwin, Michelle Wallace, Frantz Fanon and others have all made vital contributions in the United States regarding this tradition. Re-framing the debate along such a tradition is vital.
New social relations can only be forged in collective struggle of the most militant character. No amount of conversation and education can form new relationships. It is only the mass involvement and struggle of oppressed people which can ultimately destroy white supremacy, re-establish the humanity of people color, and create social relationships between people as one among humans instead of the racially oppressed and white oppressor.
The Failure of Privilege Theory
Privilege theory seeks to redress and describe the huge inequalities which materially, psychologically, and socially exist in society. While it is often accurate in its sociological analysis of such inequalities, it fails in crucial realms of actual struggle. Privilege theory ends up being a radical sociological analysis. It ends up not being a theory of struggle, but a theory of retreat. Privilege theory’s main weakness are a tendency towards reformism, a lack of politics, and a politics of retreat.
Privilege theory tends towards reformism or at best the radical politics of a group of people who seek to act above the oppressed. The latter is especially important. We have lived through a century of where people claiming to represent the masses claiming revolutionary politics acting above them: Hugo Chavez, Fidel Castro, Jawaharlal Nehru, Weather Underground, Josip Broz Tito or Julius Nyerere are just some figures who have fallen in this trap. Today the names are not so grandiose, but things are not so different.
There is no doubt that certain groups are more likely to be targeted by the police during political actions and that the repression they face will be greater, not to mention they might have less resources to call upon in their defense. These are all fairly obvious realities of white supremacy. These factors certainly hinder greater struggle. At no point should they be underestimated. At the same time, these factors are exactly the forms of oppression which must be defeated. These movements must find ways to deal with these issues politically and organizationally. Who will defeat these forms of oppression and how? If the liberation of oppressed people must be carried out by oppressed people then the tasks of liberation remain in the hands with the people who have the greatest risks. If white supremacy can only be defeated by mass and militant action and not legislation or pithy reforms then the style of struggle is fairly clear as well. What is privilege theory’s response to these two fundamental premises? Privilege theory ends up in a dead end.
According to its arguments, the most oppressed should not struggle in the most militant ways because they do not have the privileged access to bail money, good lawyers and not to mention their racial status which will surely guarantee extra punishment. This leaves only one group of people who can possibly resist: those with a set of privileges who have access to lawyers, have the spare time to struggle, etc. This is in sharp contrast to the revolutionary tradition which has argued that the defeat of capitalism, white supremacy, patriarchy, homophobia, imperialism etc are the responsibilities of billions of oppressed people. This is exactly the group of people Privilege theory tends claims has so much to risk.
No doubt huge gaps exist in speaking, writing, confidence etc amongst movement activists based on race, class, and gender. Privilege theorists are at the forefront of acknowledging this reality. However, where the task is to make sure that everyone in the movement has roughly the same skills, privilege theorists are rarely clear on how to address this, other then reminding the privileged of their privilege. Privilege theorists so far have not demonstrated how this can be dealt with.
Privilege theory in a partially correct way grasps that people of color do not participate in many of the militant actions precisely because they face greater risk of arrest and more punishment. But instead of finding ways to get around this problem, privilege theorists fetishize this problem into a practice of demobilization and reformism.
Lastly, Privilege theory has no response to the rich history of oppressed people who struggled in the past. In Privilege theories on words, these were some of the most under-privileged humans and yet their theories and actions were at the front of militancy and revolutionary politics. What makes the situation any different today is not clear.
Lack of Politics
Privilege theory de-politicizes most discussion from their most revolutionary potentials. Privilege theory has no political program other then a sociological analysis of who is more likely to be imprisoned, shot, or beaten in protests, strikes, and rebellions.
The past struggles have been over communism, anarchism, nationalism, Maoism, anti-colonialism, African socialism etc. These struggles have fought for the defeat of capitalism, the state, patriarchy, white supremacy, and homophobia (or at least they should have fought for all their defeats if they failed to do so in actuality). The point is that the greatest struggles of the oppressed rallied around mass struggle, militancy, and revolutionary theory. Privilege theory de-centers all three.
In the United States, generations of militants, since the defeat of the 1968 current, have developed with little revolutionary theory and organization, and even less experience in mass struggle. This has meant extremely underdeveloped politics. And at the university setting, where political theory resides, it has been generally dominated by middle class, academic, and reformist tendencies. There is little thinking through of this dynamic in the movement. At its worst, there is a sloppy linkage between any theory–even revolutionary theory — and academia, which only destroys the past tradition of oppressed people who fought so bravely to acquire the freedom to read, theorize strategies of struggle and liberation on revolutionary terms.
Privilege theory is completely divorced from a revolutionary tradition. I have yet to meet Privilege theorists who hold classes on revolutionary politics with unemployed people, with high school drop outs, with undocumented immigrants etc. Privilege theory’s fundamental assumption exposes its proponents class background when they claim that theoretical-political knowledge is for people who come from privileged backgrounds. That is true if the only place you develop that knowledge is in universities. Privilege theorists have not built the schools the Communist Party did in the 1930s or the Panthers did in the late 1960s. These were not official universities, but the educational institutions developed by the oppressed for the oppressed.
They claim that to act in militant ways or to theorize is the luxury of the privileged. This actually leaves no solution for freedom for the oppressed. The theory that the oppressed cannot theorize or struggle militantly is the theory of an elite who see the oppressed as helpless and stupid. It is the oppressed who must theorize and must eventually overthrow capitalism. They actually have the power.
Political mistakes as seen by Privilege theory roots in the privileges a given person has. Usually the person is asked to check their privileges as a way to realize whatever political mistake. This obscures political and organizational conversations, instead diverting the conversation into unmeasurable ways of addressing politics. How do we know this person has checked their “privilege”? By what political and organizational means can we hold this person accountable?
The more important tasks are what is the political program, what organizing does the group actually do, are people of color (or any other oppressed group) developed as revolutionaries and through development they too are leaders of the group/ movement.
The Politics of Retreat
Privilege theory has only come to dominate the movement in the last twenty years or so. In the United States the last forty years has been a period of massive retreat in militancy and revolutionary politics. The rise of privilege theory cannot be separated from the devastation of mass movements. It is in this context that privilege theory has risen.
Privilege theorists are a generation who have never known mass and militant struggle. They are a generation who have never seen the masses as described in Frantz Fanon’s Towards the African Revolution. They have never met an oppressed people who have simply stated, I will either live like a human or die in struggle. I do not know if they have been in rebellions where very oppressed people choose to fight the police and other oppressors risking imprisonment and much worse. Have they seen such a people? Is there any doubt it is only a people who are willing to go this far who have any chance of defeating white supremacy?
Privilege theory thrives off the inactivity of the masses and oppressed. They seek only to remind the masses of its weaknesses. Instead of immortalizing fallen sheroes they only lament of the tragedy of the dead. Perhaps it is better to be beaten and killed in struggle then to die on your knees like so many have in the past 50 years. Who does not live on their knees today? Humiliation by the police, humiliation by the boss, humiliation everywhere we go.
Ironically these privilege theorists who claim to be representatives of the underprivileged tokenize and trivialize the struggles of the past. They name drop past struggles only to argue that the conditions are different today. They fail to recognize that “the conditions are not right for struggle” is an old argument going back hundreds of years constantly reminding the oppressed to delay revolution and mass struggle. Who is willing to tell the oppressed, “the system sees you as a dog. Only when you struggle on the terms of life and death will you achieve humanity.” Every fighter in the past has known this. The privilege theorists are afraid to accept from where human freedom comes from.
Every struggle for freedom carries the risk of death imposed on the oppressor or the oppressed. It is a universal reality. There was a time when Harriet Tubman simply told all slaves that. Ironically, she is lionized today, but her life and wisdom have no practical political lesson for revolutionaries other then tokenizing this brave Black woman.
I simply state: those who speak of privilege are reformists. Their only task is to remind oppressed people of what it cannot do and what it has to lose. The privilege theorists have not lived in an era of rebellions and revolutions. They are far removed from the days when Black and Brown worker-unemployed militants shook 1968. Such privilege theorists cover their own tracks by hiding behind the risks which the proletariat must take. No doubt, deportation, imprisonment, and certainly death are at stake. Is the price of freedom and human recognition be any else?
When any militant action or militant politics is proposed in a meeting, privilege theorists are the first to stand up and remind those at the meetings that only those with such and such privilege can participate in such and such militant action. That the oppressed has no such luxury in participating in militant actions.
Gone are the days when revolutionaries such as Harriet Tubman simply stated that human live was meant to be lived in freedom or not at all. That existential proclamation of humanity has been lost to fear and political degeneration. Those are the stakes. There is no denying that militancy and revolution are a grave risk for the oppressed. The struggles of the past are littered with corpses and destroyed lives.
If capitalism, patriarchy, white supremacy, imperialism, ableism, homo and transphobia can only be destroyed by the most violent, militant, and revolutionary means, what other option then all out struggle do oppressed people have. What say the Privilege theorists? Is there any other strategy? Voting for the Democrats?
My experiences in the POC Space
The People of Color Working Group at Occupy Wall Street in New York City was certainly a testing ground for the effectiveness of Privilege theory. One of the most contentious issues was the question of Queer politics where some members of the working group argued that being Queer had nothing to do with being a person of color. The argument tended then to dissolve in people saying those members did not recognize their straight or male privilege. This ignored the reality that not all straight men of color agreed with the anti-Queer politics put forward, but more importantly that there should been a discussion of program and organization.
In terms of program, the working group could have struggled to put out a document which stated that the POC Working Group is against anti-Queer politics. That seems simple enough. And in fact, if memory serves me correct this was eventually done. However politics must always be enforced or otherwise they are just empty words on a piece of paper.
This brings us to the organizational dimensions of the discussion which as far as I am aware of were never discussed. Once a group of people agree to something, what are the repercussions when someone violates that set upon agreement? This is a question which has no easy solutions. In a tightly knight organization, the person could be kicked out. But OWS has a very open and fluid organizational structure. Hell, it cannot even be called an organization in sensible way. This poses serious problems. At the same time it seems OWS can ban people from the space as seen in the discussion around the Spokes Council and the decision to ban folks who are violent.
Another problem in the POC Working Group was that few if any people had a revolutionary pedagogy in teaching others about the relationship of Queer oppression to POC oppression. Attempts to address the question were left to accusations that some were not recognizing their straight privilege, or informal discussions with little historical or theoretical discussion of the questions. It simply was not enough to bridge the political differences. The inability to come to terms with such questions seems to have alienated many people, further hampering whatever possibilities of unity in the POC Working Group.
A Concrete Example and a Possible Alternative
There is no denying that if Graduate students from Columbia or NYU demanded that workers at a McDonald’s go on strike for the upcoming May 1st meeting it would be a preposterous politics. Grad students at these two institutions have huge autonomy. If they are not teaching or if they have class on May 1st, missing it is going to be of little or no consequence. If they teach, cancelling class is also an option with much less consequences for going on strike. It is absolutely correct that the stakes are different for workers at McDonalds. At best they can request the day off, but that is hardly in the spirit of going on a one day strike. If they do not go into work that day and they were on schedule, they could risk losing their job in an already poor economy.
Privilege theorists would focus on the privilege the Grad Students have which blocks them from recognizing the political or organizational problems. It is almost as if the Privilege theorists are divorced from concretely thinking through the organizational and political tasks required to ultimately have McDonald workers going on a general strike. That is the point of organizing isn’t it? So, yes the dangers of going on strike are huge for McDonald workers. How do we make it so that the McDonald workers can enforce their class power on the boss and the company? That is something you never hear the Privilege theorists discuss.
I am not a full expert on the rise of Privilege theory in academia. But one can wonder if people like Peggy McIntosh or Tim Wise have ever had to organize. Obviously many organizers today are major Privilege theorists. Instead of finding militant and political solutions to problems of the most oppressed, I see them pointing out sociological realities as I mentioned earlier. Unfortunately, organizing is not a Grad School sociology class. Organizing means class struggle–with all its different subjectivities– and revolution.
The implications of Privilege theory run much deeper then what has been addressed in this small essay. While they have not been addressed, some of the best readings regarding this are the works of Frantz Fanon. He sharply dealt with the very question of being a human being in light of the color of his skin, in relationship to the anti-colonial struggle, and the desire to forge a common human-bond.
The purpose of this essay has been to challenge the framework of Privilege theory. This theory fails in its ability as a theory of struggle and actual emancipation of oppressed people. In fact, it locks in people in the very categories capitalism assigns them by only focusing on their oppressed category: whether it be Black, woman, Queer, worker or student. It fails to develop actual politics, organizations and strategies of liberation, because it was never meant to do that. Privilege theory is the politics of radical sociology attempting to struggle.
Privilege theory forces serious discussion of revolutionary politics, organization and strategy out. Forms of oppression obviously mean different risks depending on who you are, but what solutions does Privilege theory offer? It is only the revolutionary tradition which offers a way forward so oppressed people, through their own militancy and politics, can destroy all the things which oppress them.
Our generation has few older revolutionaries to learn from. Their wisdoms are largely being forgotten as they pass away. For this purpose, I paraphrase a conversation I recently had with an ex-Black Panther. I outlined the basic points of this article and his responses were the following. They are brief, but I believe outline some important questions revolutionaries of our generation should think through. At times there are contradictory pieces of advice, but helpful none the less.
First this Panther was against politics of guilt. The Panther felt that privilege theory created such a situation and people who are guilty are not good revolutionaries. The Panther off handedly also mentioned the politics of guilt are the bedrock of the Catholic Church.
Second, the Panther said that you should just “fuck’ em” when negative racial incidents happen. It is about remembering people who make you feel that way do not deserve your respect and attention–so “fuck’em”. This could also be read as simply having thick skin.
Third, the Panther said that one should not focus on the little things. That the goal of politics is to achieve big things: general strikes, smashing the state, getting rid of the police, ending patriarchy etc. Perhaps the Panther was also saying out organize such people. Make them irrelevant by your organizing skills.
Fourth, the Panther said that there has been a rightward shift in all aspects in the United States for over thirty years. Such interactions are bound to happen. People are a part of this society.
Last, the Panther went on to explain the importance of keeping your dignity. It was not clear why the Panther brought up this point. The Panther said if someone is ignoring you because of your gender, class, or race; clear your throat, or directly go up to them and say, “excuse me, but I believe we have the following things to talk about.” But keeping your dignity seemed important.
The following works influenced the writing of this piece
Black Skin, White Masks by Frantz Fanon
Towards an African Revolution by Frantz Fanon
Wretched of the Earth by Frantz Fanon
A Dying Colonialism by Frantz Fanon
Frantz Fanon by David Macey
Frantz Fanon and the Psychology of Oppression by Hussein Abdilahi Bulhan
Fanon In Search of the African Revolution by L. Adele Jinadu
Frantz Fanon Colonialism and Alienation by Renate Zahar
Existentia Africana by Lewis Gordon
Fanon and the Crisis of European Man by Lewis Gordon
Fanon’s Dialectic of Experience by Ato Sekyi-Oto
Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History by Susan Buck-Morss
Caliban’s Reason Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy by Paget Henry
Naussea by Jean-Paul Sartre
Black Orpheus by Jean-Paul Sartre
Anti-Semite and Jew by Jean-Paul Sartre
The Colonizer and the Colonized by Albert Memmi
Discourse on Colonialism by Aime Cesaire
I am a Martinican Woman and the White Negress by Mayotte Capecia
White Man, Listen by Richard Wright
Black Boy by Richard Wright
Richard Wright by Hazel Rowley
Stirrings in the Jug by Adolph Reed Jr.
Notes of Native Son by James Baldwin
Baldwin’s Collected Essays by James Baldwin
German Ideology by Karl Marx
Grundrisse by Karl Marx
Yes, I was hoping someone would write about the insanity that can occur when “revolutionaries” become *primarily* concerned with policing “safe(r) spaces” (as if overthrowing the State, or creating sustainable, counter-power institutions, should — above all else — just be an occasion for therapy sessions). Therapeutic analysis *per se* in interminable, by definition. Wholeheartedly agree that “The key is to understand the tension [between internal group dynamics and activity/organizing with *whomever*] and get the balance right.”
Whoever wrote this is a genius. This piece is an enormous advance for the US left. The “privilege” discourse has a few good insights, but it has developed into an ideology and political movement which are objectively counterrevolutionary. I would actually argue that Privilege Theory itself, as practiced by many white activists, is often racist because it elevates the politics and action of *certain* (liberal, usually middle-class, reformist) activists as the only legitimate expression of resistance by POC, while ignoring not only the history of revolutionary movements led and built by POC, but also the more revolutionary POC organizations and initiatives of today. And fuck Tim Wise and every other “professional” antiracist, seriously. What greater privilege could there be than to get yourself a full-time job in the movement while the rest of us schmucks actually work for a living in shitty conditions. Privilege theory has turned into yet another way for white activists to exempt themselves from the class struggle and still feel good about themselves.
“Organizing means class struggle–with all its different subjectivities– and revolution.” I find this statement very ‘problematic.’ This constant desire (fetish almost) to squeeze revolutionary theory into the tiny box that is class struggle, always makes me feel uneasy. Perhaps the erasure of race, gender, and sexuality from this statement makes me uncomfortable to say the least. Also, as far as his premise is concerned: Privilege theory is nothing more than sitting at home complaining about how under privileged people of color are, is simply oversimplification of a HUGE process. I agree that the people of our generation have not been privy to “real struggle” and are one (or perhaps even two) generations removed from “true revolutionary” action however in some respects this seems to romanticize what revolutionary action and real struggle would look like in 2012. Recognizing privilege has the capacity to have huge revolutionary effects if understood and used properly. There is nothing more basic than making the personal political. As I have mentioned in the past: if mama is at home cleaning the house and taking care of your child while your out “fighting for the revolution” but haven’t washed a dirty dish or wiped your child’s snotty nose in a week then you have NO business fighting for anything. If you cannot recognize the oppression in your own home how the fuck are you going to fight it out in the world? If you cannot recognize the politicized nature of your own life then what the fuck are you fighting about? Yes, the struggles of the past where brave people of color, men, women, children fought under deathly circumstances for liberation should be honored and remembered but these struggles too were characterized by oppression. Have women always been engaged in the struggle the same as their male counterparts, no. Privilege theory (or whatever he’s calling it) is not the end all be all but merely a process of understanding the historical underpinnings of our colonized state, its about becoming conscious of these historical connections that have us calling each other “people of color” in the first place. We need to be conscious of these things as we develop new strategies for fighting not only capitalism but the white supremacy that forged it.
What was the purpose of mentioning Jawaharlal Nehru? Wasn’t he the same guy who said “The Sikhs are lawless people and a menace to the law abiding Hindus… The Government should take strict measures against them.”
@RA: Not sure if you read that section carefully, but Nehru is mentioned in the list of “people claiming to represent the masses [but actually] claiming revolutionary politics acting above them,” i.e., as someone “acting above” or just “in the name of” the oppressed, vs. with and alongside. (What’s a little funny, IMHO, is that your reaction of just shame-quoting him, without understanding the — disapproving — context in which he’s actually mentioned here in the first place, is just another example of the “privilege theory” default mindset at work…)
This is a very interesting piece and I sympathize with a lot of the points it makes.
Thanks for pointing out the way many kinds of “anti-oppression” politics are developed by and reflect the experiences of middle class radicals and really fail to speak to the complexities of working class life and struggle.
Likewise it is absolutely necessary to attack the idea that militant resistance is somehow inherently privileged. It seems that some “anti-oppression” activists have taken to race baiting folks into accepting legality and reformism. As the author points out folks of color have always been at the forefront of militant resistance on this continent. The idea that folks of color don’t have the privilege to fight is insulting and ahistorical.
That said, I wonder to what extent the category of “privilege politics” is a straw person. Sure liberals invoke privilege to bait folks into accepting their politics, but the concept of white privilege was initially developed by revolutionary communists seeking to analyze the nature of class struggle in the United States. Lots of folks use analyses of privilege as a tool in developing lots of different kinds of politics. To lump them all in together in a common ideology of privilege politics seems misleading and unfair.
While I agree it is essential to respect everyone’s humanity, and that not every conflict can be reduced to privilege, I think that white supremacy, patriarchy, etc. do socialize folks and influence how they act and interact in very personal and intimate ways. I do think that white folks, men, etc. have a responsibility to check themselves around how this plays out in the ways they act in the world. While I agree that political organizations need to act in the world and not be navel-gazing therapy/process vortexes, the way people treat each other matters a great deal. Too often folks are marginalized and hurt in the name of getting shit done. While revolutionary politics is not a “safe space” it seems important to me that we do strive to embody our values and vision in the forms we fight for our freedom.
Thanks for taking the time and the risk to put this controversial piece out. Much of it reflects some of my own concerns over the years with liberal middle class “anti-oppression” politics. While I disagree with a great deal of what’s written here, and some of the tone of it, I appreciate this work as an opportunity for humble and comradely discussion of how we fight white supremacy, rebuild a revolutionary left, and win a free world.
These sorts of attacks on people of color who raise movement critiques and remark on white privilege have a fairly long history. I think ‘genius’ a big stretch. Probably one of the longer pieces to quote Fanon without actually reading his writings, it seems.
Come on, Ernesto. This article isn’t an “attack on people of color who raise movement critiques”. That’s not fair.
Fanon didn’t show up to France and tell the whites to quiet down, now. He has JP Sartre write the introduction to Wretched of the Earth, and helped transform the consciousness of the French (mainly) by supporting (real, actual) revolution in Algeria.
@ Lina: I hear you on your concern about what is class struggle. Or more importantly who is in the class struggle. One place where I am coming from is Sex, Race and Class by Selma James. In my defense there is nothing I said at any point in this post, which erased any of the dynamics of white supremacy, patriarchy, sexuality etc. It probably comes down to how different traditions understand class. My mother was an immigrant-Muslim working class woman. The moment I heard class struggle, her picture comes up, not inherently some straight white man. But beyond personal histories, only the most crass people believe the working class is separate from gender or any thing else. I mean, just look at a place like India where the world’s largest general strike took place. Who was involved in that?
I also understand the historical baggage of class struggle. There was a time when the Socialist Party (USA) basically saw class struggle in very narrow terms. But so much has developed since then ranging from the IWW, to the African Blood Brotherhood, and various struggles which involved all subjectivities. So I am not sure why in 2012 we should keep having this debate. Are there SP people running around saying all power to the class=white straight male industrial worker? My point is that the revolutionary contributions of oppressed people changed what everyone thought was the class struggle. Why are we still having a debate which our own people ended? Why are we debating things like the SP is still in control of the movement? (I am being a little polemical to draw out the point. At times, I have seen this debate worth while.)
I also think it is vital to see race, class, gender, religion, nationality, sexuality as dynamic processes which work upon one another. For Lina, I ask, do you see class separate from any of those subjectivities?
Here is one latest example of what I believe to class-Queer struggle: https://blackorchidcollective.wordpress.com/2011/10/29/queer-liberation-and-class-struggle-at-decolonizeoccupy-seattle-2/
Next, I never said privilege theorists sit at home. My point is that they do not sit and home and that they actually engage the movement, but it is on the terms of radical sociology and not revolutionary politics.
Lastly, I strongly agree with your point about Mama being home. But as I stated in the piece, privilege theory is trapped in sociology, while revolutionary tradition submerges sociology in a theory of struggle and actually deeper analysis of the dynamics of oppression. There is no doubt the dynamics you talk about regarding the Mama being home should never be tolerated. I argue privilege theory fails to overcome those dynamics in actual life. Privilege theory’s job is to simply state what exists and that too on a shallow level. The job of revolutionaries is to grasp the depth of oppression and in the most militant and social way to struggle to change those dynamics.
@ Rooh Afza
I believe B said it well.
On the origins of privilege from the communist tip. I agree with that and that needs to be written about more in-depth. But I wanted to tackle the form/ content of privilege politics today which is very disconnected from that tradition.
Lastly on the tone thing. The post was meant to be polemical, while still respectful. I wrote about privilege politics not trying to create a straw man so I could pummel him for the fun of it, but through my own experiences in the movement for about 11 years. Again and again I saw the same dynamics, in Detroit, Seattle, and NYC. So I thought to put the experiences/ conclusion down on paper.
In areas where the post is wrong, I hope folks raise their critiques as ya’ll have, making me go back to the drawing board.
Thanks for reading and having a productive/ challenging debate.
A couple of notes:
First, I’d really like to see a version of this article that has been significantly edited for readability — there are a number of places where the typos and convoluted sentence structure made it really hard for me to figure out what the precise argument was. And I think with this topic, the argument demands the utmost in precision.
Second, for the most part, I agree with the critique advanced here. “Privilege” started out as a very useful concept for critiquing, for instance, the tendency for white, straight, male radicals to monopolize the fun and important parts of organizing while leaving the shitwork and the house-work and all those other boring little details to women and queers and people of color. I don’t think it does that anymore. When I hear people talking about “privilege”, what I see is groups that are overwhelmingly composed of white, educated activists running each other down to score points with their friends and enhance their own egos. How the hell does that improve the lives of people of color? Or make more space for them to be revolutionaries? Or present any kind of threat to capital and the state?
Third, this dichotomy between “anti-oppression” and “insurrectionary” anarchists (which is implicit in the tendencies this article seeks to critique) is the same thing that’s been paralyzing our work since the days of Emma Goldman and Johann Most. How can you be an insurrectionary without opposing oppression? How can you think that the many oppressions that are functioning within the context of capitalism will ever be destroyed except by insurrection? Back in the early 1990s we talked about “lifestylist” vs. “social” anarchism, pace Murray Bookchin. It’s the same stupid dead-end road. Abandon it now!
Fourth, ferchrissakes, when’s the last time we won anything? Seattle? Sort of? People who aren’t already on our side don’t have a lot of respect for losers who valiantly support completely lost causes and actions that are doomed to failure. And that’s pretty much all we’ve got to offer anyone right now. Over the last year we saw an amazing amount of revolutionary activity around the world, a real awakening where a lot of people who had been complacent and content to “go along to get along” finally came around to seeing a lot of things our way. Did we take advantage of this? Did we fuck. Instead of figuring out ways we could really support those people and offer our help, we mostly sat around playing these privilege games with ourselves, alienating the exact people who would have been most receptive to what we had to say. Put yourself in the place of one of those newly-minted activists, of any race, gender, sexual orientation or ability, and consider whether you’d rush to be part of a movement where everyone was constantly policing your speech and denouncing you for a slip of the tongue or a behavior that you weren’t even aware of. Sound like something you’d want to be a part of?
Sad but true commentary. Re: Emma Goldman, I think her famous quote re: dancing needs to be updated to something like, “If I can’t legitimately enact post-ressentiment, I don’t want to be part of your revolution.”
seconding the request that you get someone to tighten wording + fix typos! it may seem bourgeois or whatever but it really matter for getting taken seriously & for improving clarity, especially for non-native english speakers!
I just wanted to add an important modification which I overlooked as I rushed to write a response. It is a clarification along the lines of what I wrote, ” Why are we debating things like the SP is still in control of the movement?” I do think that in broader society and amongst the working class the struggle to define what/ who is the working class is still vital. For example, I think too many white workers and white middle class people look at undocumented workers as ‘illegal’ immigrants and not another crucial layer of the working class. Another example is how Black prisoners and ex-cons are looked at. They are criminals–period. No class status for them.
I am not sure what flippant remarks produce for critical engagement. Furthermore, nowhere in the piece do I say that white supremacy or any other form of oppression should be side stepped in the movement. The question is what is to be done about it and how to analyze it. Without repeating my entire argument, my point is, I do not think privilege theory is militant or theoretically sophisticated enough to actually solve the problems it sets out to do. I think that is a fair point of contention and should be debated on the successes and failures of Privilege Theory instead of saying I have read Fanon or not have read Fanon. Again, what is the point of such a claim? I think you should demonstrate where my readings of Fanon are flawed. Demonstrate where I mis-characterize Privilege Theory. Demonstrate where my own arguments might possibly fail to destroy white supremacy or anything else inside the movement and in the broader world. I think that is pretty fair of me to ask.
What is funny is that the central theoretical piece of the work, which revolves around Fanon, but more broadly what I understand to be, the Revolutionary Black-Humanist tradition, is actually pretty weak. As others have pointed out there is no engagement with the revolutionary tradition on privilege a la Lenin, Luxemburg, Mao and so on. I have also felt that something needed to be said on the insurrectionary anarchists and the race/ class politics around that. I bring them up specifically because the privilege question is brought up whenever a militant action is discussed. And since I brought up the insurrectionary anarchists, I feel it is my obligation to mention that NGOs and academia should have been slammed hard in the piece as well.
Either way, there is plenty of criticism to go around on the piece. I just hope not snide remarks and what not. This blog has been a place where real intellectual discussion and growth can happen. I hope we can continue that.
Lastly, from feedback I have gotten from some folks, I get the sense that folks read this piece as justification to not do multi-racial organizing with the white working class. After all the piece does say that oppressed POC working class must liberate themselves. I believe that to be true, but I also believe building organizations with white workers and revolutionaries to be vital. Again, I hinge this argument around that broader Revolutionary Black-Humanist tradition.
I think this is really good article, Will. I think some of these things need to be said rather than accepted as default radical leftism which they have been for far too long.
I’ve seen some criticism that you didn’t mention specific theorists or organizations and have thus created a straw man to tear down. The academic-nerd political polemic guy in me thinks it would have been good to quote specific individuals or organizations, but I realize this wasn’t neccesary. What you’re describing exists independently of these groups and people. I do not read the theorists, follow the blogs, etc, but I know exactly what you’re talking about, having been involved in the radical left since 2008 and been a part of a couple POC/multiracial caucus, white ally caucuses and anti-oppression trainings.
Possibly outside your scope (or agreement), I think the way privilege politics determines what these caucuses/spaces look like is detrimental also. I agree that sometimes it makes sense for certain oppressed people to organize autonomously/independently of wider bodies, but what I’ve seen is these spaces become poisonous to any forward motion. For the POC caucuses, these politics often elevate a sense of ‘noble victim’ and for the white ones it encourages ‘walking on egg shell paralysis and guilt’. Neither one is helpful for any kind of revolutionary movement, in my humble opinion.
Anyway, I’m glad you wrote this, for a while now I had flirted with writing something similar, but wasn’t up for dealing with the assault of privilege politics warriors circling the wagons around me nor white class reductionists/’social war’ reductionists missing the point when they say they agree with me…
This is too black and white for my liking… it creates a false split between ‘Privilege Theory’ and ‘Revolutionary Theory’, and fails to negotiate the intersection of the two. There’s no doubting the problems inherent in some approaches to privilege, but to say all of it is reformist is way to simple. A little complexity, please!
This text, written by a comrade in Beyond Resistance, is worth a read on this topic: http://libcom.org/library/oppression-within-oppression-response-%E2%80%9C-question-privilege%E2%80%9D
I forgot to add there are many good points dealt with in this text, and it may be more typical of a US experience to what we here in NZ experience of privilege ‘politics’.
I really appreciate this post, Will, thanks for writing it.. Like Conatz I’ve been hesitant to get into any of this because of not wanting to be part of a fight between those different types he mentioned.
because we’re comrades I’ll be honest, I thought the tone was overly polemical and that’s not my thing. For example, I think “those who speak of privilege are reformists” is an overstatement or at least a point worth saying in more detail. It seems to me that there are some sincere radicals or would-be radicals who speak of privilege. That aside though I think the substance of the points made here are really important and the post is thought provoking.
“we hope movement spaces are places where people can finally engage with one another on universal-human terms” Yes. And it’s really frustrating when we can’t. How to deal with that frustration and what to do in various situations when our movements and groups fall short on this is an important issue, and one I’d like hear/read more about.
“white supremacy and its effect on consciousness is vital and a legitimate field of politics and philosophical inquiry.” I definitely agree but I also wonder if we should distinguish macro-level stuff (general consciousness and culture) from micro-level stuff (the face to face and small group scale that we all live in). As in, it’s one thing to say that there are large scale tendencies for white supremacy to exert pressures that encourage and discourage behaviors and ideas, and it’s another to say “this action right here by this person, this snapshot, that’s unambiguously white supremacy.” Also on macro vs micro, I’d like some clarification on this, you wrote “No amount of conversation and education can form new relationships.” I assume this means something along these lines – remaking society into a just one, including racial justice, is not going to happen simply through a gradual process of peaceful dialog. If so, I agree. But at the micro level, it seems to me that sometimes individual people really can and do form new relationships interpersonally through conversation and education (and interpersonal conflict). I’m thinking in part of my own experiences doing Take Back The Night for several years as a young straight man with a lot of typical baggage about women and queer people; older female comrades played a big role in me becoming a different and better person, through a combination of education, conversation, and being direct with me but without telling to just hit the road.
I like your point that a core “task is to make sure that everyone in the movement has roughly the same skills.” I also agree that “reminding the privileged of their privilege” and “a sociological analysis of who is more likely to be imprisoned, shot, or beaten in protests, strikes, and rebellions” has at best a limited contribution to make to that organizational and movement task. I also think this is a really good clear statement that has wide application: “recognize that “the conditions are not right for struggle” is an old argument going back hundreds of years constantly reminding the oppressed to delay revolution and mass struggle.”
“creating a politics of guilt by birth” is a great phrase and a good statement of how a lot of this stuff has felt to me when I’ve encountered it. I’ve also run into people making a lot of assumptions based on what people look like. In my experience with regard to privilege-talk among white radicals I feel like it often amounts to white people talking with white people about their whiteness. That has a place I guess but it’s pretty limited, and I feel like it often involves people saying “we” in ways that make me deeply uncomfortable. I’m from an inter-racial family and have had a lot of experiences that are really emotionally charged regarding race, and there’s some longstanding unresolved issues in my family in general. The privilege stuff I’ve run into has felt really inadequate to my and my family’s experiences. The emotional nature of all that has made me mostly just clam up, because I haven’t wanted to get into any of that personal stuff with people within the vocabulary and concepts that the privilege conversations felt like they were operating with. And to be frank at least some of the time the privilege thing has felt partly like a way for activists to play one-upsmanship games. Not that it’s always and only that, I think a lot of people are sincere in reaching for those ideas, but a lot of the uses of that stuff have been counterproductive, as your article gets into.
I like the piece for pointing out the problem with analyzing power dynamics within movements as an end in itself. It is a debilitating problem when we fail to move because there are imperfect elements that we feel we have to root out before we go forward. I take it for granted now, for example, that there will be folks on our side that don’t understand that women take longer to come forward and speak up in groups because of a whole host of conditions related to patriarchy (no need to spell them out here.) But I believe that there are ways to change both the dynamic of women holding back AND the dynamic of people not understanding why that happens WHILE we move. In fact I think that’s the only way we can do it (I guess I am an “action precedes consciousness”-type of person!)
The piece makes a point that I have been trying to articulate for a while now – that it helps to assume that the folks who show up to organize with us are not bigots, but are people with good intentions who are at least half-way right-on, and if they don’t “get it” now, I have confidence that they will “get it” when, as we organize side-by-side, we have the ongoing opportunity to learn from one another and build mutual respect. At least, this has been my experience from working on both sides of the “privilege divide” with a wide variety of people and running up against many difficulties as a woman organizing with men, as a straight person organizing with queers, and as a white person organizing with people of color and indigenous people.
I think this has something to do with the “dignity” that the ex-Panther speaks of in the piece. In other words, I feel it is important to my dignity and the dignity of my sisters and brothers to not allow someone else’s ignorance to drive me away, shut me down, or distract me. I am not inspired by the practice of compiling lists of grievances, and of falling into the trap of what I call the “beautiful loser” syndrome, where I can justify my disaffection from a struggle by cataloging all times things don’t measure up to the ideal. I want to be cautious, though, about veering into individualist arguments about how we all need to prove ourselves or just “suck it up”- that’s not what I mean, and I believe in the ways we collectively encourage ourselves and one another forward to take greater risks and step out of our comfort zones in struggle. But I don’t think we can do this by blasting people for their “privilege” and shutting down comrades through shame and guilt, or applying demobilizing -rather than constructive – analysis to the ways that all the fucked up shit in society impacts our relationships to each other and to struggle.
I’m not a big fan of privilege theory, starting from the very simple point of the word “privilege” which is ironically enough a political/academic jargon term that doesn’t mean what it sounds like to the vast majority of unprivileged people called out for their perceived relative privilege.
That aside, it’s grown on me over the years and I see value in the concept, if not how it’s often expressed or acted on.
What strikes me most about the piece, though, is what I see as a strong emphasis on inward focus, to a lesser extant on the part of the author and to a larger extent on the people he is critiquing.
I was kind of waiting for him to bring it up, but it just came in as a brief note in the appendix: “Perhaps the Panther was also saying out organize such people. Make them irrelevant by your organizing skills.”
That is really the key. But using the case of grad students and McD’s workers, what is “organizing”? Mobilizing is good, but putting a lot of effort into mobilizing McD’s workers and getting them to participate in militant actions that you’ve planned isn’t really out-organizing anyone, even if you successfully mobilize large numbers. “Organizing” implies reaching out to people, finding what their issues are, helping them link up with others with similar issues, and giving them skills and a space where they can decide on their own what actions are appropriate.
In that sense, it seems to me that an argument between two organizers about whether an action is appropriate for the people being organized based on their level of privilege is missing the whole point. The privilege theory hand-wringing suggests the organizer is speaking for the people being organized without asking and listening to them. On the other hand, the organizer arguing for more militancy is talking to the wrong person. And anyway, they too should be doing more listening than talking.
I get the sense that this debate highlights a fundamental problem with the OWS organizational model, which the author touches on but doesn’t present much in the way of an answer: “But OWS has a very open and fluid organizational structure. Hell, it cannot even be called an organization in sensible way. This poses serious problems.”
I don’t claim to have an answer to that question, and really I have little involvement with Occupy, so I can only speak to its problems as a largely uninvolved outsider. But it does seem to me that the important question, with or without Occupy, is how can we organize the unorganized?
Also, I’d add that I agree with Nate’s “often amounts to white people talking with white people about their whiteness” — and that if there are concerns about organizing people of color, there are few things more alienating.
This is a welcome addition to an important discussion. The quotes by Fanon are astute, and very much a part of the discussion. Must the slave be free to be a slave or be free from slavery?
Oppression isn’t just what someone does to you. Lack of education isn’t something simply “done to” a people. So long as you are “done to” you aren’t free.
The lowered horizons of the privilege theories turns the energy inward among activist groups and gains much more play among transient “activist communities” than in, say, organized labor or cadre organizations. Where informality rules, the habits of academia with it’s endless jockeying for departmental position and stress on “discourse” tend to run roughshod.
When the discussion turns towards who has the right or authenticity to speak, we are lost. We don’t need another reason to shut down, or turn against each other. Lots of folks I know outside the movement are way ahead on these matters. Reactionary leftism is what defeat looks like inside our movements, where managing these “activist communities” and networks is more important than what they were created to do.
It’s easier to “call out” some racist (or ignorant or arrogant or whatever) white activist than to deal with the complete and total inability of resentment politics to organize anyone to do anything. Where has privilege politics built a movement, won reforms, waged a revolution? Nowhere.
At Occupy, I met a young white radical who told me he was a writer, but didn’t try to get his writing out because “white people talk too much.” Really? White radicals talk too much in America? Since when? Here is a guy earnestly trying to overcome white supremacy, and what he learned was not to speak. Amazing. That’s reactionary, and the opposite of what a liberating method looks like. We don’t need to shut people down, we need to open them up. Equating the relative privilege of white Americans with the ruling class is absurd.
One thing I will say about Occupy Wall Street is that it switched the script: instead of arguing over who has the “right to represent” — the movement demanded participation. Don’t say someone else is saying it wrong, speak motherfucker! Act. Organize. Fight. Watching the various leftists and movement pros try to make themselves necessary, some dragged out this same series of “critiques” in order to shut the movement down.
The decolonize/occupy debate was a perfect example. How dare people challenge the ruling class! Change your vocabulary or you are a white supremacist (whether you are white or not). Etc. Some even claimed the very use of the term “occupy” was racist, ignoring the AIM occupation of Alcatraz (and Pine Ridge) or the Young Lords occupation of a Harlem hospital as key events in the development of revolutionary movements among people of color in the US.
Revolutionaries aren’t trying to stuff us into the boxes this system demands. We are here to blow open the doors and build a new world. Do we come with baggage? No doubt. But toughen up. Deal with actual politics and method. Demand of ourselves an outward orientation. Because the action is with the people, not in the fevered accountability sessions of identity politics (which never goes anywhere). We can be reactionaries, but we don’t have to be. It’s always easier to point the finger than to deal with the problem.
The majority of people in this country are fed up with the situation, and lefty activist culture is in sorry shape. Occupy opened a door. Let’s go through it and stop being governed by the failures of the past.
so the people who write this? are privileged people with a fetishized construction of insurrectionary struggle that erases the lived experience of oppressed people and the multiple ways in which survival, for the most oppressed, is often a radical act. Their particular construction of revolutionary insurrection is limited to confining the boundaries of struggle to pitched battles in the street with police, and then condemning those who cannot or will not join them. they lack the contextual analysis to understand that the anarchist insurrections & mass uprisings in places like greece or egypt were multiple generations deep and through acts of redistribution and reappropriation gained the support and trust of the rest of their communities, acts of solidarity which required those who engaged in them to actively relinquish their privilege. vangardism is a an archaic form of marxism, of anarchism. we are oppressed at the level of our libidinal economies, how we construct our ‘selves’ our hatreds, our desires. radical liberatory action is rooted in a multiplicity of approaches leading up to sustainble communities that are then defensible. protests and barricades, being in the streets is necessary, but there is much, MUCH other work to be done between and within our ‘selves’. decolonize.
well this is probably the most nuanced and interesting engagement with ‘privilege politics’ from a revolutionary perspective that I have seen yet, aside from the piece by Hana that garage collective posted above (written in response to a horrifically simplistic piece on the same topic). I think the situation here in Aotearoa (New Zealand) is unlike North America in that we don’t have any groups operating within/around the left-communist tradition that have more than a fleeting interest in struggles that aren’t workerist. Some members of our collective (Beyond Resistance) are working on this!
I don’t know what the situation is like where you are, but we are struggling to contend with a really polarised environment where one side says it’s all about class (and although they don’t just mean men in overalls it’s not heaps more inclusive than that) and the other says its about a whole lot of intersecting struggles but tends not to ground these struggles in the material conditions of people’s lives and is not much interested in participating in/imaging the kind of mass movement that would make transforming those struggles possible.
Anyway, within such a situation, a polemic like the one you post above would prob be unhelpful, because the more communist groups desperately need the experience of people working within a less materialist tradition… they are the people holding all of the experience and politics of working on feminist and queer politics (in terms of anti-racist and anti-colonial work there is beyond an acknowledgement that it is important) and dismissing them effectively means dismissing feminism as an (somewhat) organised force in this country and starting over. (as well as various other important knowledge that they are holding – ways of working together, historical memory etc).
I gained my feet as an activist in the kind of scenes you are describing and which are dominated by the kind of ideas and practises you talk about. Yes, they are extremely limited and I got really sick of it, but. I also learned heaps and here at least i feel like there is a process you have to go through to gain entry to the more communist milieu where you have to disavow your affiliations to the ‘other side’.
All of this to say… I realise that you are working in a different context to me. And to admit that part of what I am responding too is not your article but a conversation happening in a different country!
Pretty much every critique you have of those scenes seems pretty spot on for here as well. It’s tricky because while I agree that all those tendencies exist, creating a name for them and putting them in the ‘privilege theory’ box and railing against it seems unproductive and too sectarian. I agree that the separation of an analysis of power from militant struggle is due to a low ebb of struggle, but when the tide rises what I imagine is not that the people of the ‘politics of privilege’ persuasion will simply see the error of their ways and rejoin the great tradition of revolutionary struggle of which left-communist groups are keeping the flame alive… but that both of these traditions (and others too of course) will overflow the forms in which they are currently contained and will give rise to entirely new and previously un-imagined modes of struggle. (I’m getting poetic on it!) And I feel like we may as well start learning to work together now.
Well, I appreciate your writing. It is really nice to read something on the matter which is as careful and nuanced as this. The piece Hana was responding to in the link garage collective posted was just horrifically simplistic.
Phillip the stuff you write here is exactly the problem with privilege politics, you write off the entire anarchist movement in Aotearoa as being workerists who are mostly about men in overalls, just because they disagree with you, and you presume they have no experience of feminist/ queer /anti racist organising. It is simply not true. Some of the people that you and your supporters were so upset with (in a recent split in the Aotearoa/NZ anarchist scene) have been involved in all those struggles for up to thirty years, yet you dismissed them because they didn’t agree with your “privilege” theory, and you are doing the same here.
Jesse Jane, quick clarification, ‘decolonise occupy’ claimed ‘Occupy’ was racist not because of the word but because of who was saying it. It’s one thing for Indigenous people to ‘occupy’ their own land that has been stolen from them, its another thing for a predominantly white group of people to ‘occupy’ stolen indigenous land (whether they were part of that stealing or not). Just to pre-emptively defensively draw it out a bit more…
This is a prime example of something that non-indigenous people might feel guilty about. It might, conceivably, lead to a kind of paralysis, the kind that kept that young white poet from publishing his poems. I think it is important that the responsibility for this doesn’t get laid back with the indigenous people who raised the point in the first place. I think the point is to have modes of struggle that can deal with such issues constructively…
This points to another complication of the ‘politics of privilege’ in that there are some, quite privileged people who are paralysed (or allow themselves to be paralysed) by it. There are also people who use it as a way to try and make space for themselves in the struggle who really don’t want self-flagellation by prvileged people as the outcome.
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Thanks for drawing out the clarification, Philip. And that’s exactly the point: the idea that “who” says something changes what “it” is. It’s anti-democratic and pretends we are all too weak to talk to each other like grown-ups. It demands we be captives of category, reinforcing white supremacy in the name of challenging privilege.
When a radical movement of participation and solidarity challenges the ruling class frontally — it is reduced (by tired activists trying to justify their own existence) into an exercise in “white supremacy” for the simple fact that many of the people involved are white. GET REAL.
This country has 200 million some-odd white people. That millions have responded to Occupy with enthusiasm broke the racist tide of the Tea Party. You know, the actual white supremacists…
Of course there are privileged people. But to put the onus on the individuals trying to do something is a recipe for paralysis and the continuation of stifled activist “communities”.
I have dealt with some SERIOUSLY entitled people in the course of Occupy. So what. They aren’t the boss of me. And I won’t make them my better by pretending to be too crippled to engage the movement on better terms and BUILD the kind of movement we need. I won’t turn other activists into “objects” in which to make a “general” point.
A lot of people outside the movement are a hell of a lot more advanced on this shit than the professional activists. I’ll tell you that.
The concept of Privilege does and will always fuel all that the post-agrarian social human does. This is because all human existence is based on not just white or male supremacy, but upon Human Supremacy over all other plants,fish, insects, birds and mammals. If you are going to deconstruct social problems,best to identify the real roots of the ‘entitlement’. There is no ‘white’ supremacy in China or Iran. But in those places or in Western countries, it is accepted almost without question that the earth is for the humans to do what they please upon it and that all natural resources are what we are entitled to use. Even ‘greenie’ ‘environmentalists’ tend to argue more about curbing our behavior based on preventing potential harm, not morality; hence even the people that oppose human supremacy, do so usually without addressing the horrible sense of entitlement humans assign themselves. I recommend you read ‘The Story of B’ for the appropriate deconstruction of this reality.
Thoughtful article, much appreciated.
Having gone to Catholic schools where American black history was taught alongside immigrant history along with an attempt to have empathy for why people had their prejudices (instead of painting them as all evil), I have always wondered why black history is not regularly taught as absolutely necessary to an understanding of US history. But to understand US history people would also have to put taught the concept and operation of a constitutional/liberal democracy, that is, a bourgeois democracy, in its positives and negatives, and its prime legal mission of protecting private property, especially big, corporate property as well as some individual human rights. With people growing up in the US without regularly being exposed to a thoughtful version of US history, what can you expect?
But I have lived too long, and among too many different types of people, to ignore the humanity of anyone I encounter. And sorry, as an old white male I enjoy free wheeling conversations, and have learned so much from my friendly conversations with poor Afro-American neighbors, Mexican neighbors, old white women, non-white relatives, Afro-American, Latino and white teenagers, angry white conservatives, thoughtful conservatives, literary people, good-hearted liberals, communists, anarchists, spiritual people of different backgrounds, and even some rich people. I would not want to confine my conversations and interactions to movement people. In the few years I have left I will continue to dwell on our common humanity as well as the need to do away with our current economic system and especially the mean-spirited libertarian and laissez-faire “philosophy” that now prevails.
How history and then humanities are taught makes a big difference. I learned so much from a high school course taught by a French priest who was a member of the Communist party. It focused on the history of the French church and its relation to the working class from a Marxist/Existentialist point of view. I also learned do much of what is wrong with capitalism from a priest who was a big fan of Proudhon and anarcho-syndicalism. Needless to say today’s US education seldom allows for the kind of imagination and analysis that takes you genuinely beyond the provincial parameters of US middle class or elite life (I also lived in a poor, “bad” inner city neighborhood and enjoyed how we lived and helped each other out). Did my classically formal education, or my “underprivileged” background, make me an effective organizer? Yes and no. I mainly had to focus on holding a job and getting some sort of pension so I wouldn’t be living on the streets. But occasionally I worked on projects that produced some good results. Frankly, if I were younger, I would be active n the organizations that are introducing organic farming to inner city neighborhoods. Our food supply, and the monopoly of agribusiness, is a menace that is far worse now than 50 years ago. And getting worse, except for the islands of local and organic food growing aimed at poor people as well as the prosperous.
You rightly lament the lack of mass militant actions in the US. Some of this prudent clinging to safety comes from the huge increase in the sophistication and repression capability of our militarized police who know that one form of effective policing is to instill a realistic fear in the defiant. The only aspect of the movement that has developed an effective direct action (that is, not an appeal to politicians) counter-attack is Anonymous, God bless them. Another reason for this lack of direct action is that many people really are good-hearted, and ask, “Can’t we all just get along?” If you are not personally oppressed, or are oppressed in a manageable way, there is a tendency not to go out and pick fights. The Egyptian Spring did not come from theory or even a love of democracy or being involved in a radical group. It came from poor women sick of watching the price of food skyrocket and their families not have enough to eat. Did they know that food prices had skyrocketed due to agribusiness’s shifting so much food cropland to bio-fuel cropland and the follow-up speculation in food futures brought on by things such as the Goldman Sachs Food Index? Probably not, but they knew their families were hungry and the elite were living large, and this is a wrong way for human communities to be.
May main point is: alternatives to the standard grade school, high school, and university educations now prevalent in the US will greatly increase the ability of “mass” movements to be truly mass movements. How can this happen? I do not know, but it needs to happen. Even the middle class is oppressed by an education that puts blinders on them and limits the possibilities of their imaginations and their humanity.
i wanted to get something quick in:
there’s an element of Invisible Man’s essay that i think through, considering this essay is a partially an engagement/response to the debates inside the Occupy spaces, and that is that only an objective movement of Blackness, Latinoness, womanhood, etc. in which it/they rupture with their state as commodities.
privilege theory doesn’t do this. privilege theory chases around the white, the man, etc. it focuses on whether or not these oppressing relations choose to stop oppressing them, instead of focusing on their own movement towards freedom. in other words, it asks to be freed rather than taking the task of liberation into its own hand. (i know i’m going to catch hell for this statement because i’m not giving this argument the time or space it needs, but i’m going to move on anyway.)
from what i’ve observed, Occupy in many if not most places is objectively a movement of the downwardly mobile white middle and working classes. it is NOT a movement of our racialness rupturing with their state as commodities. in light of this, a ‘privilege’ approach seems to be objectively necessary — however politically damning it is — and it will be, to an extant, objectively encouraged.
lastly, the caucus has been the organizational form of choice for privilege theory. i won’t go into a whole lot of why right now –i’ll leave that for others to do — but it adds another to dimension to the discussion of if and how we can break with privilege politics in both theory and practice. should the caucus be abandoned, or are there contradictions within in that will allow us to transcend privilege politics in both form and content?
*** in the third paragraph i meant to say that a ‘privilege’ approach is in some ways objectively appropriate — not objectively necessary
“Privilege theory” (a term, by the way, I never heard before this posting) maintains only (1) that divisions among the exploited class, in particular divisions between black (not “POC”) and white workers were not the result of ignorance or brainwashing but rested on a system of privileges enjoyed by white workers which led them at crucial moments to cut separate deals with the exploiters at the expense of the rest of the exploited and which were ruinous to the all those who were part a class seeking to create a new world, and (2) that working-class unity could not be built by relying on or appealing to whites to reject “racism” in a struggle for common demands but required directly addressing the race differential that underlay the divisions. It was never intended as “a theory of struggle and actual emancipation of oppressed people,” nor was it intended to solve the internal problems of revolutionary organizations. That some individuals have drawn upon some of its language to guilt-trip comrades, or that some people have built academic careers based on appropriating some of the insights developed by those who pioneered and popularized the notion of privilege should no more lead anyone to discard the notion than the rise of academic Marxism should lead people to reject Marx. Contrary to what Will says, the reformists are not “those who speak of privilege,” but those who do not, because they are avoiding one of the most important conditions that have led many militant and promising struggles to accommodate themselves to capitalist rule.
What does “directly addressing the race differential that underlay the divisions” look like in practice?
that’s great, Noel, but Will’s essay is responding to a real practical problem that is pretty wide spread, that is both reactionary and debilitating for organizers.
regardless of how you and others developed the ideas of privilege, the use of the term today by many organizers carries with it opportunistic and anti-class struggle consequences. it needs to be addressed head on and combated, and this essay goes a long way towards that.
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Jubayr, I entirely agree with what you say here. That therapy and guilt-tripping stuff has to be defeated. My concern is that in the process of defeating it, people will fall back into denying the material basis of working-class disunity. Do I need to remind people on this site that Ted Allen spoke of the white-skin privilege in 1966 and that STO employed the notion as an aid to class struggle over twenty years before Peggy McIntosh published her essay and thirty years before Tim Wise built his little kingdom?
There is another issue I think needs to be addressed: to what extent has the notion of white-skin privilege lost its value as a description of the present when the unions and other elements that maintained the white-supremacist compact have collapsed? I would like to have that discussion without prejudice, aware that times have changed but also that the past is never dead.
Finally, I question the value of “POC” as an analytical category.
Can we talk about these things?
Sarahtopz, you asked what directly addressing the race differential would look like in practice. What do you think of the movement that has developed in response to the killing of Trayvon Martin, particularly as it broadens out into a campaign against the police, courts, prison system, etc.?
Noel, I am not familiar with the works of STO nor Ted Allen. Is there something that you can refer me and other readers to to gain more insight to the history of the aforementioned? Also, I hear you on the issues with using POC as an analytical category. I tend to use it out of habit but I have seen how in some circles it has been used in a way that detracts from recognizing the divisions among “POC” in terms of class, gender, sex, etc. Would you care to elaborate on your reservations around this?
Also, the question concerning the relevance of notion of white skin privilege is important. Though it still exists in many ways I think it’s crutial to recognize that new pacts have and are being created with oppressed groups on a class basis which uphold new forms of white supremacy. In cases such as this simply using white skin privilege as a way to explain white supremacy/privilege etc is shallow. I can elaborate if need be. Would you like to explain your position on this further.
I think the work that ya’ll did in Sojourner Truth Organization around white skin privilege and class was crucial, and we draw a lot from it. Especially your essay Black Worker/ White Worker from the Workplace Papers. I was also personally influenced quite a bit by Race Traitor when I was younger, but I have a lot of critiques of it now in retrospect (that’s another whole conversation). But yeah, I don’t think our criticisms of privilege politics negate the basic historical truth that white skin privilege has been used to buy off a section of the working class in North America through institutionalized white supremacy. We agree with the work ya’ll did combatting that. The question is how to go about overthrowing that racial compact today? How to destroy white supremacy as a central part of the process of communist revolution? What Will diagnoses as privilege theory fails to do that. So does any call of “black and white unite and fight for a workers’ world”. Any call for multiracial unity that doesn’t recognize the need to attack white supremacy head on is just as reactionary as privilege politics, if not more so. I think we agree about that.
I also am very much interested in discussing how white supremacy is changing forms today. For example:
a) is there a contradiction between the historical legacy of the colonial setter state of the USA and the broader needs of U.S. imperialism today? With the needs of the global capitalist class today? Is it possible that former colonial settlers could loose their settler status very rapidly as sections of the U.S. are expelled from 1st world status? Are the borderlines between the core and periphery becoming more complex, as Don Hamerquist has suggested in this essay? http://threewayfight.blogspot.com/2010/01/barack-badiou-and-bilal-al-hasan.html If so, what does this mean for the relationship between race and class in the U.S.?
b) We probably all agree that the economic crisis is hitting Black and Latino workers harder than white workers, but is the relative “privilege” of white workers increasing or decreasing with the economic crisis? How is the crisis affecting white workers, and how they see themselves racially?
d) What does this mean in terms of their potential rebelliousness? If they start rebelling, what are the prospects for communist rebellion, and what are the prospects for fascism or right wing white populism?
e) Are race and gender the only caste divisions within the U.S. working class today, or is the system manufacturing new ones? For example, in Michelle Alexander’s New Jim Crow book she argues that a new caste is emerging, what she calls the undercaste – the group of people who are legally discriminated against because of criminal records. This overlaps but is not identical to the Black proletariat. Is this new caste dividing the Black proletariat? Does it function like race functions – meaning, is the goal for Black workers to look at Black folks in the undercaste and say “I have it bad, but at least I’m not them?” Is it a new form of divide and conquer that maintains race and white supremacy, while undermining and splitting Black solidarity? If so, how can this be overcome through struggle?
If you have the time, I think it would be great if you were to write an essay addressing some of these questions, clarifying your current positions on these questions, and differentiating them from both the Time Wise crowd and from folks who might cling to simplistic or dogmatic interpretations of more dynamic stances you yourself took the past. This would be really powerful, and I think it would be extremely helpful for folks out here debating these questions in the movement today.
I think the article is a good one, but it leaves out one central point. Racism hurts all workers. It divides the working class, allowing the capitalist to super exploit workers of color while intensifying the exploitation of white workers. Racism can not be defeated unless white workers take up the fight as one that is in their class interest. Unfortunately the OWS movement does not see the strategic importance of fighting it. Building a multiracial movement to take on the issue of racism has to be our number one priority. The old communist movement contributed much to the anti-racist fight around the world. But unfortunately it often saw fighting racism as a tactical issue, rather than a strategic one. this was particularly true when it dropped the fight to integrate the US military at the start of WWII.
Hi Mike, you might want to check out my response to Noel Ignatiev (see above), it addresses this point. I agree racism divides the working class and that it’s in the interest of white workers to participate in overthrowing white supremacy. However, we can’t just say “Black and white unite and fight” like the old Communist movement used to say. Unite on who’s terms? The Communist Party USA used that line then sold out Black militants, as you suggested – there are many more examples. Instead, unity needs to be built around the struggles of the most oppressed layers of the working class, in a way that directly confronts institutionalized white supremacy and the “white privileges” it produces and reproduces. As one of our comrades here in Seattle puts it, “Black Power – Power the Proletariat!”.
Thanks for taking the trouble to write. Your response is helpful to me.
You are concerned that talk of privilege leads to sterile guilt-tripping, self-flagellation and political paralysis; so am I. I am concerned that abandoning the notion of privilege leads to appeals for working-class unity that leave existing inequalities intact; so are you.
Both of us are saying, “I agree with you but…” Like two people pulling on opposite sides of an old-fashioned two-person crosscut saw, perhaps together we can cut down the tree, or at least move toward an understanding.
Let me respond to your four points (I think you skipped a letter, but to avoid mix-up I will use your letters):
a) I agree with the general description of changes Don put forth. What this means for the relations between race and class I am not sure.
b) I agree that the economic downturn is affecting all, and is affecting different groups differently. I am not sure whether the race gap is widening or shrinking. It is probably shrinking in some ways (the loss of the guaranteed union job) and widening in others (relative unemployment for black and white youth, numbers in prison, death by epidemic diseases, etc.) Research is needed.
d) Probably increases the chances of both. One thing for sure, “the center cannot hold.”
e) I agree. New divisions are constantly being produced and old ones refashioned. How to overcome them? I think that the answer will be on the basis of the general principle, an injury to one is an injury to all. (More on this below.)
You asked me to write an essay on this issue, but I’m not prepared to do that, partly because there are so many things I am not sure of. I am attaching the introduction I wrote ten years ago to a new edition of Richard Wright’s 1940 classic, 12 Million Black Voices. [This will not come across on the Black Orchid site.] It addresses some of your points. It is somewhat dated (pre-Obama) but I think on the whole it stands up pretty well. Even if I cannot comply at this time with your request for a comprehensive essay, I do want to raise some questions.
One of the arenas where old-style racial distinctions continue to operate is official and unofficial violence. The Trayvon Martin killing and the execution of Troy Davis have both brought out large numbers of whites carrying signs saying I am Trayvon Martin or I am Troy Davis. While I think it is a good thing that so many whites have expressed outrage at those events, and while I do not dismiss their actions as of little consequence or even reactionary, I can’t help but think that some black youth might shake their heads in disbelief at the claim of whites to have shared directly the black youth’s experience. Is there a way to welcome white support, and encourage it, and help the whites grow politically, without forgetting about actual differences? The key may be in the injunction (cited by John Garvey in his April 6 letter to T-H, which I liked), Remember them that are in bonds as bound with them. That was John Brown’s favorite biblical quotation, and it served him well. Brown did not claim to be a slave, but he acted as if he was one. William Lloyd Garrison, notwithstanding his commitment to nonviolence, followed the same course, looking at politics from the standpoint of the slave; at the same time he said he never rose to address a black audience without being aware of his color and what it represented. Can revolutionaries bear in mind both aspects of the reality?
Kingsley told me of a recent exchange he had with an Afro-American TV commentator who told him he was tired of being sent to film skittles and hoodies while meanwhile he, the commentator, not young, not wearing a hoodie and not eating skittles, felt physically unsafe on an assignment in an all-white area of northwest Indiana. (If the hoodie becomes a badge of opposition like the black skin, so that the cops and white vigilantes start feeling free to shoot whites wearing them the way they now feel free to shoot any black person, then the “whites” wearing hoodies would be justified in claiming to be Trayvon Martin. But we aren’t there yet.)
What conclusions flow from this small insight? First, a reminder that someone needs to take up the challenge of breaking up whatever remains of white solidarity, and that the duty probably falls especially on the people conventionally classified as white, since they are the ones most able to do it. (I was in a communist group in 1958 in which one of the black members argued the need to reach out to white workers even if it meant, as he put it, that we would have to leave flyers on their doorsteps in the middle of the night and run like hell. He knew there would be no revolution without them; his courage and internationalism inspire me yet.) If the TV commentator Kingsley spoke with has to face danger in the ordinary course of his job, is it too much to expect “white” revolutionaries to run the risks of showing solidarity with Trayvon Martin and Troy Davis outside of safe and orderly demonstrations? One idea that might be worth trying is to ask the whites who turn out to Trayvon Martin rallies, together with any others who are willing, to form a contingent to march in white working-class areas.
Another suggestion: a black man is currently serving a life sentence in Georgia (which has a Stand Your Ground law like Florida’s) for killing a white man who intruded on the black man’s property and threatened him and his teenage son. What about a campaign to free him? http://www.salon.com/2012/04/11/when_stand_your_ground_fails/
I think I haven’t offered very much by way of program, but maybe what I have offered will advance the discussion.
Noel (Kingsley wants it known that he agrees with the above.)
Reblogged this on Thabomophiring's Blog.
This is an interesting piece that raises a lot of good questions. I particularly like taking it in combination with some of the excellent comments here.
I think one barrier people might have to this is the positing of something called ‘Privilege Theory’, since if such a thing exists it does not appear to be well-known. What you are calling a ‘theory’, seems to be more a collection of cobbled-together ideas and practices that have evolved over time and are transmitted organically rather than as a coherent doctrine. It’s more a movement culture than a theory. However, I think your summary of the main features and practices of this culture seems pretty accurate. As the comments suggest, many people, including myself, know exactly what you are talking about.
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haven’t read it yet, but this might be a good contribution to this discussion.
Thanks for this, Will, and thanks to others who have been contributing to a lively debate. I’m only sorry that I’m chiming in this late. I agree with what many have said above– that the initial post creates a bit of a straw man, bending the stick a bit too far in an effort to defeat a very real threat to revolutionary movements in the guise of professional privilege-mongers who use the concept as a weapon to a.) reinforce their own positions of authority (here the role of many nonprofits in the Oscar Grant rebellions should be on our minds), and b.) conceal their own collaboration with the state against more radical forces.
I think the straw man comes out of your oscillation: at one point, privilege politics “tends” toward reformism, whereas in the title it “is reformism.” Here Noel is correct to show that many people who use the concept of privilege are not reformists, are engaged in struggles, and don’t fit the image you’ve presented. In other words, your claim that “those who speak of privilege are reformists” is objectively false. I would go so far as to wonder if there is even such a thing as “privilege theory” in the way you present it: there are a shit-ton of people using the concept in a negative way today, and there are a shit-ton of people with class-reductionist and insurrectionist politics rejecting the idea that it matters at all. Especially in Oakland (esp. in the decolonize debate), the two have been yelling past one another, and while I’m glad the debate is moving, and while I recognize polemical assertions are often the best way to get debates moving, we need a better way to navigate dialectically between the two.
I agree wholeheartedly that Fanon is a good place to start for doing so, but not in the way you present him. You’re right that BSWM is a complex piece, and that the intro/conclusion set a far different tone from the rest, but it’s an error to focus on those at the expense of the heart of the book, especially the 5th chapter (which in the intro Fanon himself points to as the most important section). To put it as simply as possible, Fanon would love nothing more than universal love among all humanity, but what is driven home to him repeatedly (and which he documents in his experience, phenomenologically) is that it doesn’t matter what he wants. He reaches out with universal love and it’s thrown back into his face, he tries again with the same result, and so on and so on.
The importance of the 5th chapter is to show that the only way to the universal moves through black identity (although he would later supplant this with national identity in WOE for reasons that complement, not contradict, BSWM). He doesn’t bind his own future to the past or bind white people to guilt, but if we’re talking about white allies, we need to talk about Sartre, as close a white ally as Fanon had in the intellectual world. And yet Sartre betrays him when he reduces the “particular” of black identity to the “universal” of class. Sartre stole his “black zeal,” which was his only weapon to fight for the universal. And this because the Hegelian dialectic of master and slave doesn’t function smoothly and symmetrically where race is in question: there is no basis for recognition, and this has to be created through revolutionary self-assertion.
This same logic is at work in WOE: national identity emerges initially as a friend-enemy distinction that is often based on race. Later, as the struggle moves forward, these categories loosen up, but precisely as a result of the struggle: the two-sided impact of struggle on the oppressor (forced recognition) and the oppressed (revolutionary self-confidence and unity). Malcolm would make a very similar argument later.
We need a way to navigate these debates dialectically, which means recognizing that there is such a thing as white privilege, that as you correctly state the best way to combat this is in struggle, but that we don’t do so by throwing the baby out with the bathwater: by dismissing anyone who uses the term, by insisting that the struggle comes first and that individual feelings are set aside, that we hope (as Fanon did) to struggle side-by-side, but we recognize that there are perfectly valid reasons for revolutionary nationalism. As CLR James, also a universalist (more so than Fanon, even) sharply put it in 1945: “The Negro is a nationalist to his heart and is perfectly right to be so.”
Finally, I disagree with Noel’s suggestion that white skin privilege has lost its analytical value, precisely because the white privilege compact was never primarily rooted in the unions, but instead in policing, imprisonment, and other geographical structures of containment and exclusion. To answer Noel’s open question about the recession: according to pretty much ANY measure, the race gap is widening (I hope to put out a more systematic piece on this soon).
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On white privilege: privileges whites have should be turned into universal rights. If we include things like the ability of whites to kill non-whites with impunity within the category “privilege” this is a misnomer – white racist violence is a category beyond privilege. …Or are white supremacy and white privilege synonyms? Privileges are things that give whties advantages in a society that claims to operate on “free competition”, such as favoritism in hiring, insuring somewhat against unemployment, and less scrutiny from police allowing whites to face less incarceration. Privileges such as these should be made into rights so that there are jobs for everyone with affirmative action type policies to make sure that jobs of all categories are distributed equally, and so that the police have their powers diminished overall (emphasizing of course the areas where reductions in police power are needed most such as black and brown communities). Struggles for this type of thing, however, would fall within the category “reformism” that diminishes the caste-like nature of the proletariat, striving to establish more of a material basis for class-wide solidarity. Revolutionaries should incorporate democratic reforms within their overall program and find a way to synthesize it with ultimate goals such as smashing the state. Rosa Luxemburg’s piece “Reform or Revolution” speaks to how we might do that.
On the racial gap: its not true that by any measure, the gap between whites and blacks is growing. Blacks account for 1/4 of all new college diplomas, whereas whites account for 1/5 for example. But the factors indicating racial gaps in their totality would probably point to a widening trend (the narrowing having reached a peak in the early 80s I believe…). That said, what should we advocate – that whites have the advantages taken away so that they are reduced to the level of blacks or that white advantages be generalized so that blacks and browns are increased to the level of whites? Anyways, can we try turning the lens toward gaps within non-groups? For those of us who want to break up white supremacy as a component of the fight for dictatorship of the proletariat as a whole, we should concern ourselves with building up solidarity amongst non-whites because that where the power lies. Gaps between blacks and latinos for example, contribute to the weakness of of-color-anti-racism. Its telling that whites are possibly the most represented racial group at these hoodie/skittle actions other than blacks. You don’t see hundreds of Asian youth out there for example. We are focusing too much on what whites should and should not do, and too little on what latinos, blacks and other non-whites should do. I think this is one of the main efforts that “Notes on Privilege Theory” makes. Unfortunately, responses reproduce the problem that Will is calling out…
On breaking up white solidarity: it was suggested that efforts at turning this Trayvon marches toward white working class areas. This is a good idea. However, if the tone of the march assumes white racism and thus support by whites for the murder of this innocent black youth, it would run the risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Anyway, in any major city, there are hundreds of thousands of working class whites, but they are generally politically liberal and don’t tend to have their own exclusively white neighborhoods. In Oakland for example, white neighborhoods = rich neighborhoods, although many working class whites live dispersed amongst black and browns. Those whites would 100% convinced already of the racial injustice the murder of Trayvon represents, so its not much of a battle there. Im sure in the suburban and rural areas the whites are less sympathetic, but the problem of exporting a protest from its urban base to outlying areas is logistically a barrier. The barrier isn’t political, as I think most radical whites would really love the opportunity to politicize “their people” more. Unfortunately, forward-thinking whites dont usually live around backward ones… Enough working class whites understand the injustice involved, I think, to approach them with a comradely tone (btw whites do experience brutality, harrassment and even murder by cops. a white man was killed on BART last year. another white man was killed police in Long Beach a year or two ago. I have seen many whites be harrassed in public for no good reason except their poverty, and at protests, whites are brutalized regularly). On another tip, could Noel or someone else explain more why whites having solidarity is bad? To me it seems the crucial part is what they have solidarity for. Most of the left is whites in solidarity with each other, for the cause of some sort of socialism, with a pretty high degree of commitment (even if simply verbal) to anti-racism. Perhaps most of what the “white left” has done over the last couple decades has been anti-racism and not class-against-class reductionism as the stereoptype would have it. Most of the anti-Iraq and -Afghanistan Wars movement was whites in solidarity with each other against imperialist war, for example. Again, I think the more crucial area to focus on is increasing black, latino and other non-white group’s solidarity within themselves and across groups. There is a critical mass of whites in the USA that are anti-racist yet objectively segregated away from people of color enough for solidarity with other whites to be more or less their only option. Nationalistic tendencies within non-white groups offer little opportunity for white solidarity to be broken up through integration into existing black and brown political formations. Can Noel or someone else give a list of white movements demanding exclusively white rights that did not already have other whites represented heavily in the opposition? Examples of white-wide supremacy are the exception to the rule in this milenium; the trajectory over the last half century has been for a widening political gap amongst whites, a polarization that we need to recognize rather than parrot formulae from a pre-hip hop era. So what exactly does “breaking up white solidarity” mean beyond what already exists? Building solidarity rather than breaking it up seems the priority at this time. The question is one of programmatic content, that is, what are the solidarities aiming to achieve?
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