Wednesday, February 23, 2005

Power, Privilege, and Coalition

Tonight I got sucked into writing a comment to a post on another blog, and it turned out to be long enough to be worth posting here too. It is a comment in response to this post on the blog of Hugo Schwyzer (found via Feminst Blogs) which talks about coalition of and participation in diverse political groups, including those we don't completely agree with. Here's what I wrote:

Interesting post. I value a non-puritanical approach to politics, and I think our movements are strengthened by some or all of us not being what they -- the general public, elites, the media -- expect us to be.

My concern is that the way the issue is framed seems to be grounded in privilege in a way that isn't brought out and examined. What political spaces we go into and who we do or don't work with is cast, in this post, as a matter purely of principle. That's obviously part of it, but I think that leaves some important things out, specifically an explicit integration of power and privilege analysis. It's not just an issue of will or won't with respect to being present in different political spaces, but of can and can't, and what that latter two terms mean for the first two.

For example, it doesn't matter if I have some consciousness around trying to be an ally to women and people of colour and queer people, I still don't experience racism or (hetero)sexism. That means that there will be social spaces and political spaces and employment spaces which I can exist in with relative comfort which will drive away many people who experience those oppressions and who may be politicized in resisting them. It is easy to dismiss these absences as "choice" or "a matter of principle", but that is unfair: it can be a matter of basic emotional and mental health to avoid such spaces. Staying silent in the face of an oppression that you experience bears a psychological cost; speaking up usually generates resistance or even material consequences, and dealing with that also bears a cost. That means that there are lots of spaces out there that I can be in with much less difficulty than some friends, loved ones, and allies.

And I'm obviously not talking about the Klan, here, or something ridiculous and horrible like that; I'm not even necessarily talking about spaces as divergent as Hugo lists; rather, I mean even many progressive social movement-related spaces exclude in these ways, as do many non-political spaces. I mean groups that, themselves, might be organized to oppose some aspect of racism or sexism or poverty or war, as well as those which have no explicit progressive orientation whatsoever. In other words, the groups and organizations and spaces we are in are structured not just by choice but also by power, privilege, and oppression.

So I think there are additional questions that those of us with any privilege based in class, race, gender, sexuality, or ability need to ask ourselves:

  • What does it mean if it is only one's privilege that makes one capable of existing in the divergent spaces in which one exists in order to feel whole?

  • What are our obligations to people who experience oppression and to whom we are trying to be allies when we decide to be in spaces or work with groups that are, functionally if not explicitly, impediments or even hostile to their liberation?

  • When do we forgo our own wish to be in a particular space, organization, or action based on the experiences and voiced wishes of those whose struggles we try to support?

  • When we are in such spaces, how do we let the ways in which we function there be guided by the experiences and voiced wishes of those to whom we are attempting to be allies?

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