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

I haven’t been down to Occupy Wall Street yet, although I’m joining the march with unions and community groups later today. But I’ve been reading a lot of the reflections and critiques as the protests continue to gather steam.

Among the unfairly dismissive criticisms, there have been a lot of folks grappling with important questions about who OWS represents–and how it can truly become the powerful populist movement it’s aiming to be. For example, Kai Wright wonders if the protests will really reflect the voices of those people, often black and typically ignored in the political discourse, who are most affected by economic injustice.

Matt Stoller has said that OWS is, above all else, a “church of dissent,” a public space where meaning is created. And it seems like one of the most deliberately and radically democratic spaces I’ve seen. The crowd communicates through the “people’s mic.” The progressive stack seeks to elevate marginalized voices. The official Declaration of the Occupation was agreed upon by consensus after weeks. I mean, that’s amazing.

Of course, like any space–especially a truly progressive one, I’d argue–it’s a contested one. At Racialicious, Manissa McCleave Maharawal explained how she and her “radical South Asian contingency” fought to get a single problematic line changed in the Declaration of the Occupation.

And this is the thing: that there in that circle, on that street-corner we did a crash course on racism, white privilege, structural racism, oppression. We did a course on history and the declaration of independence and colonialism and slavery. It was hard. It was real. It hurt. But people listened. We had to fight for it. I’m going to say that again: we had to fight for it. But it felt worth it. It felt worth it to sit down on the on a street corner in the Financial District at 11:30 pm on a Thursday night, after working all day long and argue for the changing of the first line of Occupy Wall Street’s official Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. It felt worth it not only because we got the line changed but also because while standing in a circle of 20, mostly white men, and explaining racism in front of them: carefully and slowly spelling out that I as a women of color experience the world way differently than the author of the Declaration, a white man, that this was not about him being personally racist but about relations of power, that he needed to, he urgently needed to listen and believe me about this, this moment felt like a victory for the movement on its own.

As Manissa says, that shit is hard and painful and real. Sometimes it doesn’t feel worth it and sometimes you just shouldn’t have to do it. But sometimes it feels like a victory.

When have you confronted privilege in a movement you believe in? Did it feel like a victory? When was it energizing and empowering and when was it just plain frustrating?

St. Paul, MN

Maya Dusenbery is executive director in charge of editorial at Feministing. She is the author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm: The Truth About How Bad Medicine and Lazy Science Leave Women Dismissed, Misdiagnosed, and Sick (HarperOne, March 2018). She has been a fellow at Mother Jones magazine and a columnist at Pacific Standard magazine. Her work has appeared in publications like,, Bitch Magazine, as well as the anthology The Feminist Utopia Project. Before become a full-time journalist, she worked at the National Institute for Reproductive Health. A Minnesota native, she received her B.A. from Carleton College in 2008. After living in Brooklyn, Oakland, and Atlanta, she is currently based in the Twin Cities.

Maya Dusenbery is an executive director of Feministing and author of the forthcoming book Doing Harm on sexism in medicine.

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