by Anonymous Guest Contributors
We—two white men—write this letter conscious of the fact that the color of our skin means we will likely be taken more seriously. We write this knowing that because people of color are thought to be too biased to speak objectively on issues of race, our perspective in this context will be privileged. We write this aware of the history of colonization, genocide, and slavery upon which this country stands, which has created this oppressive reality.
We write this letter to the organizers and participants (ourselves included) of #OccupyWallStreet out of great love for humanity and for the collective struggles being waged to save it. We write this letter because of our support for this nascent movement, in the hopes that with some self-reflection and adjustment, it may come to truly represent “the 99%” and realize its full potential.
#OccupyWallStreet has shown itself to be a potent force. The movement—which we consider ourselves part of—has already won great victories. New occupations spring up across the continent every day, and the movement for true democracy and radical social change is gathering steam worldwide.
According to the main websites associated with #OccupyWallStreet, it is “one people, united,” a “leaderless resistance movement with people of many colors, genders and political persuasions,” and an “open, participatory and horizontally organized process.” In other words, it professes to be the universal protest against the greed and corruption rampant in our society, open for anyone to join and shape.
But a quick survey of the movement so far shows that that the good intentions outlined do not reflect the reality of the situation. There is indeed an organizational structure and a core group that makes leadership decisions in #OWS (and we think this is a good thing). They are the media team at the media command center, the committee facilitators and the people who have been actually occupying the park for the past three weeks. One only needs to take a good look around to see that the leadership and the core group—which has managed to attract enormous national and international media attention—is overwhelmingly white (and largely male), and as a result the voices and perspectives of #OccupyWallStreet reflect that reality more generally.
Luckily, some people who have felt excluded or erased from “the 99%” have spoken up, alerting us to the notion that the anti-corporate occupation in Liberty Park may not be as welcoming to all as its image of consensus-bound activists, non-hierarchical structure, and free food has suggested to many (see http://bit.ly/q9q10C; http://bit.ly/oABMbQ; and http://bit.ly/oTBcfs for some examples).
One striking example of the marginalization of non-white voices within the movement was seen at the march on Friday against police brutality. Because this march was organized by activist groups in conjunction with #OWS, it was by far the most diverse rally yet. But towards the end of the march, when organizers were speaking to the group at One Police Plaza, a black woman near the speakers was clearly agitating for her voice to be heard. Despite the line of white people speaking before her, a white #OWS organizer spoke to the crowd and informed them that within a few minutes, the march would be over and everyone should leave peacefully. Of course, that meant that as soon as he was finished speaking everyone got up to leave. As the black woman (the lone black voice speaking in a march against police brutality) got up to speak, her voice was lost because by that point no one was paying attention.
In this case, the marginalization was not intentional: a PSA was made to inform people to ensure the rally’s peaceful closure. But most racial marginalization is indeed “unintentional.” In this case the silenced black woman was going to speak about her close relative, who was killed by police. She was the only person speaking with a personal relationship to police brutality at a level almost unimaginable to the people occupying Zucotti Park, and her voice was not heard.
This unintended marginalization is occurring daily at #OWS. We know this may be hard for some people to understand. Of course, who could expect us to understand what it is like to be reminded of your skin color every time you leave your home? Who could expect white people to understand that the spaces we feel so comfortable in may feel exclusive or even hostile to people of color? After all, we are never told; we are not forced to learn that our skin color is related to our social status; and we are not taught black and brown history, so many of us do not know how we got here–and cannot imagine it any other way.
But as Audre Lorde wrote, it is not the responsibility of the oppressed to educate the oppressors about our mistakes. White people may not be to blame for the privileged position we occupy, but we must be accountable for the liberties and benefits we enjoy at the expense of our black and brown brothers and sisters.
We would like to add our voices to the chorus of constructive critiques coming from communities of color. We believe the white people of #OccupyWallStreet need to understand something: the feelings of economic insecurity, political powerlessness, and lack of support that have brought so many of us to the protests at Liberty Park have been lived by many of the people of color in this country for centuries. Without an active effort to address racial issues from the core of #OccupyWallStreet, the protest will fail.
The People of Color / Unified Communities working group at #OccupyWallStreet was created on October 1, 2011. Their e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org, their website is pococcupywallstreet.tumblr.com and they meet every Sunday at 3pm in Zucotti Park. Let’s be truly revolutionary allies and firmly support them to bring a racial analysis to the core of one of the most potent people’s movement in our country today—before it is too late.