Friday, June 24, 2011

On Grassroots, Privilege and Taking the Next Step

Something I have been thinking and reading a lot about lately is how to take the next step after learning about privilege and acknowledging your own. I have been harping on about privilege for about two years now, but I still haven't figured out how to turn it into something that is useful for people who don't have it. I read this article by Courtney Martin about how we move past the guilt and into the real work (go read it; it's excellent) and I started to put it into the context of my own life and work.

My place in the (progressive/leftist/radical/whatever) struggle is fraught with potential pitfalls. I have not gumbooted, for example, since a friend called me out on Facebook for the culturally appropriative nature of a group of white women using a traditional South African dance - born of slavery - to express our message (even if it was a message of resistance and solidarity). I am still thinking about that. I want to gumboot. But that's not a good enough reason. And I think a lot of progressives who are privileged can relate to the experience of being afraid to help, afraid to reach out and be an ally because there are so many ways you can fail.

I am lucky then, in my oppression as a woman. At least I have some frame of reference for what an ally needs to be. I want men to keep trying to be feminists - even when they fail. The men in my life trip up every day, but still it means more to me that they are trying, that they're on my side. So I have to hope that when I fuck up as an ally, I am still allowed to keep trying.

What I really want to talk about is the nature of activism and work and how people like me go about it. I think I have been working under the assumption that the best, safest thing to do is to fight the oppression(s) I directly experience, and then once we have those beaten I'll turn around and work on the ones that I don't experience - racism, transphobia, poverty, etc. It has just now started to dawn on me that this "trickle down" style of organizing is ridiculous. I recognized that all oppressions are linked, but I figured that meant once I was free of mine, I could help those worse off than me. It never occurred to me to approach from the opposite end - that perhaps once the people worse off than me are free, my own oppressions will no longer be there.

In Canada, the movement for suffrage began around the start of the 20th century. But it wasn't until 2002 - NINE YEARS AGO - that universal suffrage became a reality. Nine years ago. And when you think about why that is, you can look back and see the history of it - first we had to fight for white women to get the vote, then people of different races, then First Nations people, then prisoners. Bit by bit, oppressed group by oppressed group - white folks first of course. And of course this struggle is valuable, but we can see in our history that even a progressive struggle for suffrage has upheld the hierarchies of kyriarchal system. White ladies fighting for the vote, getting it, and then maybe turning around and helping black folks isn't nearly as awesome or as progressive as if they had just said from the beginning: "We're all human beings, we all get a say in this democracy, everybody gets the vote. Full stop."

I know that such an approach might not have been as effective or as fast as what actually happened. But it's the only way it's fair. I'm just using voting as an example because there's a clear history, but look at any other progressive struggle happening right now. There is such a disparity in the distribution of rights around bodily autonomy and reproductive justice, for example. For many people in this country, the Morgentaler decision may as well have not happened, because without the elimination of systemic barriers like racism, regionalism, colonialism and class, it hasn't made a difference. And there's always challenges to it, always another fight for urban middle-class white women to protect the rights that their less-privileged sisters don't even have yet, that we have to ask: when exactly is it that we will be free enough to turn around and help everybody else?

So, maybe the way to use my privilege is not necessarily to work on my own struggles while giving little more than lip service to being an ally to others. Maybe the way to do it is not trickle down; to stop forming groups and then waiting for women of colour to sign on. Instead I think the key is to be the one doing the signing on; to listen and find out what the concerns are a couple rungs below me on the privilege ladder and start working on those. In other words: grassroots.

I think the first step after acknowledging your privilege is asking those who don't have it: how can I use this to help in your struggle? To exercise the ACORN model: go to every disadvantaged, oppressed or otherwise marginalized person, door by door, and ask what issues are you fighting in your day to day life - and how can I fight them with you? And then, step back and let the people living that reality lead the fight. Just because we are the privileged ones doesn't mean we should naturally be the leaders. (Another organization that is great at this is the Stephen Lewis Foundation. They find groups and collectives that are already organizing to fight HIV/AIDS, and use the privilege of "first world" respectability and fundraising experience to get the money and the attention straight to the grassroots).

So this is why I'm going to be spending less time and energy on things like pay equity and electoral reform, and more time and energy on - well, whatever is needed right now the most. It's not that I don't think those concerns are important; it's just that once we address the more urgent, more radical concerns, I have a feeling the other stuff might just take care of itself.

No comments: