An Open Letter From Two White Men to #OCCUPYWALLSTREET

by Anonymous Guest Contributors

Occupy Wall Street

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 unified.ows@gmail.com, 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.

  • Pingback: Readings for Nov 6th « cocbloc

  • Pingback: Readings for Nov 6th « cocbloc

  • Sibbo

    I’m pretty sure that means since most white people around today did not create the systematic (unconscious?) racism that continues through today they cannot be blamed. But since they are a part of it they must be accountable as this still effects POC and they still reap benefits of privilege. 

  • http://progressivepoc.com/ princss6

    Nice letter.  

  • http://simon.kisikew.org/ Simon L’nu

    good. gets tiring to to remind people. i’m glad that you folks are bringing it up for a change ;). in order for people to be aware, they need to be aware of *everything*, as much as possible. deep understanding, or grokking, is a good thing.

  • Pingback: Race, Colonization and Occupy Wall Street: Challenges for Occupy Toronto « Wanderings

  • Pingback: 29 things from past week | Metatunal Metaxis

  • Pingback: A racial justice case for economic competency | The Firebrand :: A Magazine of Counterculture & Politics

  • Pingback: #OccupyWallStreet, SlutWalk NYC and Racial Blind Spots: Editors’ Picks, 10/2-10/8 : Ms Magazine Blog

  • Sahiabear

    a beautifully well written post.

  • http://www.examiner.com/family-in-new-york/rahela-choudhury RCHOUDH

    Thank you for your post and your perspective on the matter. It’s good to see that you recognize the inequalities  POC’s face and are trying to rectify them within the OWS movement. With that said, it was disheartening to read how the black female speaker was treated…it’s hard enough relating a personal story in public in order to make a larger point but when you’re not even listened to it feels like you wasted your time and made yourself emotionally vulnerable for nothing…

  • http://theczech.wordpress.com Havlová

    I’m so glad that conversation around race and racism is happening at OWS.  I’m happy that some white men are owning their privilege and trying to educate other whites.   The truth is, whites will never be perfect allies.  Some whites will never “get” the concept privilege… but there will always be some trying.  So at what point are we able to have a multi-racial movement?  If it is a given that whites will make mistakes, and that some will continue to hold fucked up racial notions, how can any movement ever be multi-racial?

  • Pingback: Weekly link share goodness « umsu.wom*n's

  • James Dunet

    I suspect that a great many white people only pity non-whites and do not really want a racially diverse society.  They may pay lip service to the idea of it, but they have no intention of living in a truly racially integrated society.

  • Pingback: Weekly Feminist Smorgasbord: Inclusive Populism, Domestic Violence Awareness, & Hyde Turns 35 |

  • http://twitter.com/mike_barber Mike Barber

    “White people may not be to blame for the privileged position we occupy” … If white people are not to blame, then who is? We whites may not as individual chose to be privileged—we certainly cannot divorce ourselves from it—however it is precisely because of our ongoing complicity in the reenforcement of white supremacy that such privilege continues.

  • Drhiphop85

    The most interesting thing, for me, that is revealed by this open letter, beside the content itself, are the potential reactions to it. Of course everyone is entitled as social actors in the active interpretation of language and meaning. So some will always find problems with things said to them on topics that are so visceral to people, like race or gender and so on. The problem is, and it isn’t an issue so far in the comments, that even when someone has the best of intentions and open themselves up to self-reflection and a discourse, they run the risk of having their point de-legitimized because they belong to another group. We want to believe our side is the diverse one while the other one is just one big type (fallacy of monolithic identity). Not very constructive

    And that’s what bothers me most about modern racial (or gender, sexual orientation, or even political) discourse. For the most part, people on either side are not open to acknowledging that their interpretation of the world is socially constructed and so is the other sides of the argument. Many of us talk as if we are objective but are completely biased without acknowledging it (but are very quick to call out the “other” on this). Not only that, but we focus only on our view and stance (egocentric). We only care about what something means to us and that our POV is respected (and not caring about disrespecting the other side). We hear a dissenting opinion and attack the speaker or delegitimize them as just stupid or as a “hater”. Of course I blame all of this on the modern notion of being too sensitive and not wanting to have good exchanges of ideas with people of different perspectives…But I’m rambling…

    Great post…

  • kfook

    hmm it could be whiteness v. white people thing? i mean, whiteness as a hegemonic force was for sure created, perpetuated, sustained, and so on by white folks, but now it’s more about the larger system [whiteness] of structures, norms, and so on that we all participate in, than the individual white folks who benefit from it… or… maybe it was just an unintentional defensive slip of tongue haha.

  • JD

    Thank you. What you wrote resonates with what I’ve seen (as a white genderqueer person) on my visits there and at that policy brutality protest.

  • Pingback: The Wednesday Weigh-in: Occupy Wall Street and confronting privilege

  • Anonymous

    I appreciate the letter, but this paragraph really bothers me…

    “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.”

    I’m positive they’re trying to acknowledge and sympathize with the fact that POC (and other marginalized folk) deal with things on the daily that white people can be ignorant of their entire lives. However, the “we are never told/taught” logic makes it sound as if it’s someone else’s responsibility to inform them of their privilege. They follow it up with that Audre Lourde line, but… If this letter is addressed to POC, why even include that paragraph? POC are well aware that white people have trouble recognizing their privilege (even after we tell you our anecdotes and teach you the history).

    I don’t know, I’m probably just nitpicking — yay for active outreach — but this particular bit leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    • Ry

      From what I can see it’s not addressed to POC but as an Open Letter. Presumably one white folks will read as well. Therefore, maybe that paragraph was meant as a nod to white activists in the OWS group that while they may not be aware of their marginalizing activities within the movement, they should be. I think the Audre Lorde line is problematic as well. If white folk should be held responsible for their privilege (as Grace says above) once made aware of it, but it’s not POC’s responsibility to educate them, then who will do it? You yourself say that no matter how many times POC tell white folks anecdotal stories and teach them the history of oppression they still can’t grasp  their privilege (sounding as though POC have taken on the educating responsibility). I imagine it is the responsibility of the white people of conscience to educate other white folk, no?

      • Anonymous

        I totally agree that this was the intent behind the paragraph, but something about what follows undermines that intent. Above I try to break it down, but at a certain point I realize I’m probably doing a bit more close reading than is fair…

        And I think you’ve touched on what actually upset me. On one (positive) hand, I don’t think they’re suggesting POC should educate them. On the other hand, I think implications of this paragraph are  that white people are incapable of naturally interacting with/realizing their privilege. I mean, we’re right here, being oppressed on the daily right in front of you — why do you need to be taught or told when it’s happening right in front of your eyes?

        Even as I’m writing this, I realize I’m asking for a rather high level of self-reflection — especially from someone who might not realize anything is wrong — but yes, I think that’s why it bothered me.

        • Ry

          ” I mean, we’re right here, being oppressed on the daily right in front of you — why do you need to be taught or told when it’s happening right in front of your eyes?” I’m glad you bring this up because this discussion of recognition of oppression applies across the board of inequality and oppression everywhere, but in the context of racial oppression, white privilege operates in such a way to not appear at all to that vast majority of white folk. “Forgive them lord for they know not what they do.” The question is how does one hold another accountable for things they simply aren’t aware of? It seems to me that in answering that question we have to turn back to who’s responsibility it is, which is problematic because it tends to try and assign/ abdicate the responsibility along racial lines. Whereas in my honest opinion, the responsibility of educating lies with those who recognize oppression. Once oppression is identified (by whatever means) it is the responsibility of those people to complicate other peoples’ world views by drawing attention to the oppression all around us. Unequal power distributions surround everyone, whether they see it or not, and therefore it is the responsibility of those us who recognize to hold it up for the world to see. 
          You’re right, it does take an extremely high level of self-reflection to make oneself recognize oppression. So difficult, it’s impossible. Impossible without some prior to knowledge of oppression to build off of. But to gain that initial knowledge that will hopefully enable the individual to build a consciousness that identifies oppression, there has to be a starting point that makes that person reassess their worldview. Its starts with us.

    • S_Morlowe

      I interpreted that as not so much “someone should have told us” but rather “we should have taken initiative and educated ourselves”.

      • Anonymous

        I definitely think that was the intent, but I think it could have been better executed. Maybe if they had combined the Audre Lourde paragraph with the following one and been a bit more immediately explicit about their willingness to educate themselves. They also go from saying “us” to “white people,” which in my obsessive mind comes off as distancing themselves (the authors) from culpability.

        Basically, I want them to hire me as a POC copy editor ;)

    • streamfortyseven

      I grew up in my grandmother’s house, at least for the better part of my childhood. She was the widow of a wealthy man and she had servants, a cook/live-in maid and a driver, both African-American. I can tell you directly what white privilege is: when you go to a restaurant, when you’re white, you can walk into the restaurant and sit down and get your food at your table; if you’re not white, you go to the back door and get your food in a sack. I saw this, and numerous other things like it when I was being driven around to various places, to school, back and forth to the train station, and so on. If I didn’t see it directly, I was told about it, too, and it always made me uncomfortable at least – hearing the driver be called “boy” even though he was over 50 years old and an adult – whose instructions I was to follow, according to my grandmother, just as if he were a parent. Getting to see it firsthand in a Midwest city in the 1960s was quite an education.

  • http://DeadAmericanDream.blogspot.com AngryBroomstick

    very good post. as a Deaf activist and as a woman of color, I haven’t been to any of the #Occupy Wall Street protests in any major cities yet, but I am curious to know– are the protests accessible to Deaf people and people with different disabilities? (blind, crippled, etc..) ? Are there ASL interpretors available for Deaf protestors, and are there accessible entrances for activists in wheelchairs? I’ve been wondering about this from Day One.

    • Guest

      I have seen ASL interpretors at many, but not all General Assemblies.

    • The Blue Dream

      Actually as an additional response I found out there was a Diversity committee whose most active member (since there aren’t any official “heads”) was a woman of color. I told her my issues around the lack of accessibility and she included me and is trying to work with me to address them. I know that no one should have to go find a “Diversity committee” to feel included, but if there is one it’s because people marginalized on these axes felt the need to create one. If there’s one at your local Occupy it may be worth talking to to address those issues if you feel so inclined.

  • DukeManning

    Fully agree, what can we do to encourage, allow, more diverse folk (and more women) to have a voice. Where is our responsibility? 

  • http://commentarybyval.blogspot.com/ Val

    “White people may not be to blame for the privileged position we occupy…”

    I’m not sure I understand this statement. Who then is responsible? Didn’t whites create a system that favors Whites? And don’t whites perpetuate that system?

    And POC had to create their own group within this movement? Wow. That says a lot.

    Very interesting letter. I learned a few things. Thanks.

    • Mbprice

      I interpret it as saying that any particular white person isn’t personally to blame for their privileged circumstances — that is, they didn’t choose to occupy the privileged white position. Also, there’s a difference between responsibility and blame; I think the writers addressed the fact that whites are responsible for their privilege.

    • Grace

      Hey, I interpreted it to mean that the white folks of today didn’t create the concept of race and the relative associations to each socially constructed group; they simply benefit from the creation of race.

      With that I would most certainly agree. I would NOT agree, if anyone were ever to suggest it, that once white folks are aware of the fact that they have privilege, they shouldn’t take responsibility for that knowledge.

      • Ry

        “White people may not be to blame for the privileged position we occupy…” Yes, and I agree that, “white folks of today didn’t create the concept of race and the relative associations to each socially constructed group; they simply benefit from the creation of race.” However, if “as Audre Lorde wrote, it is not the responsibility of the oppressed to educate the oppressors about our mistakes” and it is also true that, “once white folks are aware of the fact that they have privilege, they shouldn’t take responsibility for that knowledge,” then who is to teach the oppressors about their mistakes other than the enlightened oppressed? 

        • BSK

          Ry-

          While it is not the responsibility of POC to enlighten whites, they certainly may opt into the discussion.  Saying that POsC are not responsible does not preclude POCs from educating those they see fit to educate in the manner they see fit to use.  However, in the end, if the dicussion is not happening, if the unenlightened remain in the dark, and the uneducated remain uneducated, they have no one to blame but themselves.  Of course, there is plenty of room for whites to educate one another, though this is rarely comprehensive.  White folks can also lean on the conversations and education that POCs are already engaging in within their own communities, presuming they are open to such “kibbitzing”.

          • theTHINKER

            BSK- 

            when POCs attempt to educate whites it’s not taken seriously because in many white peoples opinion all we talk about is race and injustice.  No matter how liberal the person, there seems to always be a point when they say “now come on, is it always about race”.

            with this in mind it is up to Whites to educate themselves… your suggestion of leaning on the conversations and educations that POCs are already engaging in within there community is perfect.  We would always be open to such “kibbitzing”.  We are trained very early to treat all new comers with respect.  If you ever go to a predominantly black church you would be amazed at how you were treated and welcomed.  That being said, I’ve been to several predominantly white churches where I’ve been ignored.

            In many cases, its not the POCs who keep the whites out of their communities but very often the POCs are kept from white communities.  Knowing this, there must be extra effort on that of white people in order to seek out the truth concerning racial injustice.

          • BSK

            I agree wholeheartedly.  I do think there are whites who are capable of genuinely listening to the stories, perspectives, and wisdom of POCs without dismissing it.  Of course, there are many more who won’t.

            Expecting POCs to do it just adds a greater burden to an already marginalized, oppressed group.  Asking for and being grateful and gracious for their help is another matter entirely.

    • MsDeb2u

      This country, the Constitution and basically all laws that formed this country were fwritten by older white men wanting to protect their property  … and the basis has never changed. We rebel against it periodically .. the women, the people of color, but it still remains the same .. the ones making the rules and holding the power (with their boots on our heads) are the wealthy, majority of which are white.

    • MsDeb2u

      This country, the Constitution and basically all laws that formed this country were fwritten by older white men wanting to protect their property  … and the basis has never changed. We rebel against it periodically .. the women, the people of color, but it still remains the same .. the ones making the rules and holding the power (with their boots on our heads) are the wealthy, majority of which are white.

  • permazorch

    Well done! Real change requires FULL participation.