A brief interlude of reality on the “privilege” conversation

An article seems to have been making waves among people who esteem themselves as forward thinking radicals.

Who Is Oakland: Anti-Oppression Activism, the Politics of Safety, and State Co-optation

A powerful image for a powerful article.

I have a lot of respect for this article that’s a good hour-and-a-half time sink of a read. There is one subject I want to clarify on, and it’s the idea of privilege analysis and its place within organizing and activist circles.

The article starts out quickly stating:


[This] is a critique of how privilege theory and cultural essentialism have incapacitated antiracist, feminist, and queer organizing in this country by confusing identity categories with culture, and culture with solidarity. This conflation, we go on to argue, minimizes and misrepresents the severity and structural character of the violence and material deprivation faced by marginalized demographics.

According to this politics, white supremacy is primarily a psychological attitude which individuals can simply choose to discard instead of a material infrastructure which reproduces race at key sites across society – from racially segmented labor markets to the militarization of the border. Even when this material infrastructure is named, more confrontational tactics which might involve the risk of arrest are deemed “white” and “privileged,” while the focus turns back to reforming the behavior and beliefs of individuals. Privilege politics is ultimately rooted in an idealist theory of power which maintains that psychological attitudes are the root cause of oppression and exploitation, and that vague alterations in consciousness will somehow remake oppressive structures.

Let me state briefly and simply that I feel people are making a big deal out of something that is relatively simple: not everyone wants to bring down the system.

So yeah. As an example, some people push statistics on representation for specific political means like opening up access to the university to communities who are commonly pushed away from that by the public K-12 education systems. If these stats on “proportional representation” are taken to the extreme, all it means is that race and ethnicity is spread out proportionally across the oppressive, hierarchical, and capitalist institutions. “Proportional representation” is a form of politics that compares the racial/ethnic demographics of the general population to the demographics of people in places such as universities or prisons.  It’s a lens of analysis that can be used for many means. Articles like the one posted are written by people I’ve seen constantly push a politic that says having a critical race analysis is equivalent to being a statist who wants queer people of color in high offices and CEO positions. This is understandable exactly because this seems to be exactly what some people desire.

Pushing statistics that show people of color populate a higher percentage of the prison population than they do in, say, the general population, and a far lower percentage in university should give us a keen insight into the real life effects of white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. Some people will push these stats to say this is what the system can only ever produce and thus it needs to be replaced. Other people only will say this is exactly why a reform of the criminal justice system is needed and call to address poverty since it is historically linked with crime rates. The difference should be noted that one is radical, while one is liberal.

Some people use privilege analysis to silence conversation and basically be a big baby about things to center everything around them and guilt the person in the “oppressor” role in the room. Pretty annoying. But even more, it’s debilitating! It stifles and brings all movement and conversation to a standstill when all people want to do is guilt someone into shutting up so they can be put on a pedestal. Granted, the guilt of being an oppressor is something that many if not most of us have to deal with internally and reckon with. 

And on the other hand there are people who don’t want to address their domineering tendencies because “that’s just how they are” as if growing up within this system could not have affected them. This includes self-proclaimed anarchists who say they prefer non-hierarchical, horizontal organizing structures, yet have no problem openly engaging in dominating spaces with their politics and voice.

We need to find a balance between the liberal co-optation of privilege analysis as well as the radical reactionaryism to the co-optation. People seem to have forgetten that “identity politics” and anti-oppression were pioneered by militant women in the black liberation struggle– anti-oppression politics was supposed to EMPOWER people in their revolutionary struggles. It was a response to men of color ignoring (queer) women of color in revolutionary movements.

Today’s identity politics/anti-oppression has been extremely co-opted in many areas, changing the language of empowerment to the language of “safety” and reform.

We need to get back to the original intention behind privilege politics– to EMPOWER those in oppressed positions to throw off their chains, and to EDUCATE those in privileged positions into being their accomplices (i.e. white “race-traitors” who assist militant movements i.e. Subcomandante Marcos)

As much as people try to posture as being “more radical than thou”, sometimes its absolutely necessary to engage in the political system for a specific end. Each person and group will decide for themselves when it is necessary. I definitely know some down folks who work to open up access to higher education for working class people of color by navigating the system with this kind of language.

I close my entrance into this fray with a raw insight (rant) There Are No Safe Spaces

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