I hear the word privilege tossed around a lot at OccupyLA.
Often with tremendous irony.
I can't speak for what gender privilege means to women, aside from a rudimentary sort of sympathy. I have no clue what it would be like to return to my life after a betrayal by my adoptive nation, that had kept me in limbo for years on end, due only to its irrational paranoia about my ethnicity. Being labeled a terrorist, or otherwise held suspect by racial profiling is well outside my range of experiences. Having my sexual orientation or gender identity condemned as a grotesque abomination, and a crime against nature (and applicable religions)—or a disease to be "cured"—is not something I've had to personally worry about. I don't know what it means to cope with the gruesome reality that I'd have to reconcile my acceptance of living in this country with a family history that includes ancestors being owned by other people—or their having been beaten or executed by mobs of despicable bigots, while law enforcement looked away (or participated).
I readily admit my ignorance. I understand that no matter what I do I can't claim to understand every perspective, however I might try.
I have used the images of civil rights icons, like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, and Malcolm X, in graphics illustrating this country's history of civil disobedience, and the hypocrisy of celebrating it in the past, while condemning it now. But I'm neither a historian, nor African American. There's no individual or group I can ask the approval of in utilizing these images for my own agenda. I say this because I know that in the past (and even in the present, though less often) even well meaning people of privilege, ethnic or otherwise, have thought themselves enlightened because some of their best friends are xyz—thinking they could alleviate their liberal guilt through some token act of recompense.
(It doesn't work that way, kids. A few tears for the Seminoles doesn't get their land back, or reverse their decimation. You're not personally responsible, but don't pretend to get it unless you're living with the direct, negative and marginalizing, consequences of America's genocidal history.)
There is the ugly fact that I am arguably annexing and co-opting something I have little right to. I think drawing parallels is appropriate to civil disobedience, but though there have been consequences then, and now, they're not equal in severity. They are, in many ways, not equivalent situations. I hope that comes across, but I have to acknowledge the uncertain footing I have in this.
Do I feel bad about it? Not really. Listen: that doesn't help. You can cry all you want for shit you didn't personally experience, but that doesn't make your claim to someone else's pain any less counterfeit. (If someone wants to yell at me for what I've done, they have the right. I'll consider their opinions.)
Now the irony comes into play. Some people—of privilege—have so little in the way of their own persecution that they wind up incorporating someone else's into themselves. They chastise themselves into identifying so strongly with another culture that they lose any sense of who they actually are. That's fine, some people might say. While it's their right to do shit like this, it's also the height of irony, hypocritical, and contrary to their alleged intentions.
Because what follows is that they suddenly graduate from speaking of the people who've been oppressed, and transgress into the presumption of speaking for them. Taking such a liberty is as disempowering and offensive as any slur.
I'm not going to beat around the bush here. I have an axe to grind. I have a personal grudge that was inflamed by tonight's GA. Some weeks ago, this person who I loathe introduced a proposal. He said we should change the name of OccupyLA to include decolonization as some sort of subtitle. He groped at some description of the US's imperial advances into other nations. He said that OccupyLA should move from the negative connotations of occupation (which I'd always considered an ironic jab at the imperial power of Wall Street, but what the fuck do I know), and into—somehow, in ways not satisfactorily explained—the concept of decolonizing Los Angeles. The first thought that came to my mind was that the only thing we could do that would fulfill that claim would be leaving. He went on, saying that the US itself was a decolonization, in that it shook off its bonds with Britain. As you can imagine, this pissed off anyone remotely aware of what the establishment of this country really entailed, and what negligible justification it would have to the term decolonized.
He persisted, rambling incessantly, beyond his time, in vain rationalization of his thesis (indicative of the blind exercise of privilege). Luckily I wasn't alone in my objections—and object I did, this proposal meriting the first—and only—hard block I felt strongly enough about to maintain and verbally justify. I asked whether this had been developed with the involvement of the Indigenous Peoples affinity group. It had not. That infuriated me.
Ultimately, the proposal was consigned to the ideological vacuum from whence it came.
If only such an attitude were limited to a single person. But it's a disorder among many liberals. Many people of color, or other minorities, see through such disingenuous bullshit. It does not earn you any points. You are not bonded to anyone by tourism in their identities. Anything one can simply walk away from; any kind of elective feeling of oppression, is an exercise of privilege. It's robbing the truly oppressed of a defining aspect of their lives and family histories. Wearing a cast to see what it's like doesn't impart the feeling of a broken arm.
Taking the position as privileged savior to a marginalized group doesn't free them from oppression, it masks it—and thus makes it even more difficult to root out and truly destroy. The more insidious expression of ethnic/gender/etc. condescension, rather than outright—and arguably more honest—hatred, is not an enlightened position.
You want to help fix things for minorities? With all due respect, fuck you. They have a better idea of what's best for them than you do. Get out of their way. Get other people who are obstructing them out of the way. That's all you can do. Don't fuck with them, and don't let others fuck with them.
An example in practice? I don't directly relate to it, but I believe in a woman's right to choose among her options in pregnancy. I want to block and repeal any laws that obstruct this right. That's it. That's the end of my understanding and involvement. I have no further suggestions. If abortions were rather imposed by the state or churches, and the right women fought for was to prevent that and give birth instead, I'd support their stance. Because it ain't my body.
If you haven't been subjected to the oppression specific to a group, you don't have a claim to represent it. Good intentions, combined with misguided ideas, make you a Sunday school teacher in an imperial occupation. The gentler of the cultural plunderers—the gracious and patronizing educator of the heathens!
IMO, the only help most people need is facilitation for their own ideas about their freedom (in the removal of deliberate obstructions imposed by more willfully malevolent assholes of privilege), and non-voting background support of the initiatives taken by the oppressed people themselves.
No, I can't claim to speak for everyone (maybe some minorities love condescending, appropriationist bullshit), but as a Hapa, I've had many conversations about this with more obviously Asian/Pacific Islander friends and family who have experienced, or witnessed, different manifestations of racism. While I've been subject to some forms of discrimination throughout my life (just for looking the way I do), my understanding remains thoroughly entrenched in my own life experience, and isn't some universal barometer of oppression.