Recently the Occupy Movement has been divided over Black Bloc. Chris Hedges wrote an article attacking Black Block. I felt the article misrepresented black bloc tactics. I feel his article has been properly addressed by OLA AntiSocial Media’s piece COLONIZER: A Postcolonial reading of Chris Hedges so I wont be addressing it now.
What I would like to address here is privilege, and how the power structure uses it to control both the privileged and the oppressed.
Full disclosure – I am a white heterosexual male living in an upper middle class town full of privileged “progressive” white people. In the course of my life I have been poor, working class, lower middle class and upper middle class. I have lived in White upper class neighborhoods, Black middle class neighborhoods, poor Black neighborhoods and Hispanic poor neighborhoods.
Perhaps because of this, I was not surprised at the predictable responses to Hedges article by different social/racial/economic classes within the Occupy Movement. What I observed was most middle class White people agreed with it and most poor and working class people (who were primarily but not entirely people of color) disagreed with it.
The reason for this I believe is the power structure grants special privileges to people considered “white.” These privileges blind them to the reality people of color and other marginalized groups in the United States experience every day.
According to Noel Ignatiev whiteness is “a system that confers privileges (and burdens) on people because of their color. It is not fair skin that makes people white; it is fair skin in a certain kind of society, one that attaches social importance to skin color.”
As a white person, I am more likely to be treated as a law abiding citizen by the police than a person of color, regardless of my propensity to break or not break the law. I am also free to wander the streets of main street America without arising feelings of fear or animosity from the general public.
The average white person in the United States is unconscious of these privileges and assumes they are more or less the norm for everyone. Aren’t we taught that the United States was established on the basis of freedom for all? Aren’t we also taught that slavery was an unfortunate period in American history perpetrated by a few bad apples in the South and alleviated by Abraham Lincoln?
Of course any serious student of American history knows these ideas are laughable. The “Founding Fathers” were elite Anglo-Saxons who did not consider Celtic or Slavic peoples White at all. In fact it was normal for Celtic indentured servants to revolt with Black slaves against their Anglo-Saxon Masters.
Regardless of reality, White privilege coupled with the most sophisticated propaganda system ever developed work together to shape White people’s perception of America as a place where every one has a fair shake and people who work hard get rewarded.
As a kid growing up in upper middle class white America I believed this myth myself. It wasn’t until circumstances in my life forced me to live in poor neighborhoods with Mexicans, Filipinos and Blacks that I began to see that the America I believed in was a lie.
I began to witness police (mostly but not entirely White) treat my Black and Mexican friends horribly while treating me fairly (They often told me I should quit hanging out with bad people, i.e. non White people)
Eventually it became clear that society treated me different than my friends simply because I had white skin and they had brown or black skin.
By the time the average White person turns 18, he/she is deeply indoctrinated into the lie that the United States is a land of opportunity for all regardless of skin color and Capitalism is the best economic system to guarantee these opportunities. At some point a significant portion of White people begin to notice that this isn’t true. What usually happens is the White person succumbs to the syndrome known as “white guilt.”
This is where they personalize the oppression of people of color perpetrated throughout American History by the Power Structure/Ruling Class but refuse to give up any of their privileges to fight it. This leads to an apathetic state of mind known as “liberalism” or “progressive-ism” in which well meaning White people do token gestures to alleviate their guilt such as the recent outbreak of self-righteous indignation towards Joseph Kony, who is said to be responsible for the deaths of 30,000 innocent people.
As you may know, millions of White Americans are now outraged by his atrocities and are demanding President Obama do something about it. But oddly, these same White people who demand Joseph Kony be brought to justice for his crimes against humanity are simultaneously considering voting for Barack Obama, who is responsible for far more murders than Joseph Kony ever will be.
The reason for this contradictory behavior is white privilege. Americans have been given the choice between accepting a corporate fascist (Obama) as their leader or a right wing fanatic (whoever gets the Republican nomination). Given these two choices it seems rational to reject both and take to the streets and demand change by any means necessary. This is where white privilege steps in to govern the behavior of Whites.
As a white person who has confronted State/Corporate Power I know from experience that once I do this the police will stop being my friends, the FBI will start to harass me and the comfortable world I live in will begin to collapse.
This is, I believe, what happened to Chris Hedges. When push comes to shove he sided with the Power Structure/Ruling Class (or “1%” to use Occupy terminology) and turned on the most oppressed members of Occupy.
If Chris Hedges was to join the Oakland Commune and fight the Ruling Class on the front lines in the streets of Oakland California he would no longer be allowed to have a nice journalist job and live in a nice house in a nice neighborhood where the police wave at you instead of flashing a light in your eyes and patting you down.
But in the end, it is this fear of losing our privilege by stepping out of line that sabotages our attempts to create a better world.
If white people really want to side with the 99% and create a world based on cooperation and mutual aid, we must confront our unearned privilege and work to destroy the system that perpetuates it – Capitalism. This will not be fun. It means we will no longer enjoy the unearned privileges of white skin. But it is only by doing this that White people can truly become part of the “99%” and join the fight against Capitalism with our Black and Brown brothers and sisters.
Until White people are willing to do that, we are not truly part of the 99% but a sort of buffer between the ruling class and the people most oppressed by them.