The various “Occupy” developments around the country have opened the long-neglected and marginalized question of economic equality, and the power of concentrated income and wealth over the nation’s nominally “democratic” political system. Nothing could be more welcome. At the same time, the historic struggles of various “identity groups” for their place in the sun is off-stage in this new conversation, though there is growing acknowledgment by various Occupy groups of the need to “diversify.”
When mostly-“white people” are in motion around their own economic interests, and when they are framing those interests in the language of democracy and justice, there is a special opportunity for people who have been doubly excluded/marginalized/exploited–both in terms of their economic interests and a particular identity (race/ethnicity, physical ability, age, gender/gender orientation, etc) to build bridges that can lead to new alliances and reformulations of past-held “isms.” The trick in doing this, from my point of view, is not to hit someone over the head with “white privilege,” but to be in relationship with him or her so that human stories can be told that make clear what double- and triple-exploitation are about. In this way, “divide and conquer” tactics become more than an abstract or theoretical discussion; they are given flesh and bone and made human.
Coming at it from the other side, when “white people” are asking how to engage more people of color, there is an opportunity to suggest that they directly ask people of color what it would take to get more of them involved. White homeless, unemployed or foreclosed upon people do not need to acknowledge “privilege” to talk with, for example, people of color. They can, however, learn the particular histories of exclusion or exploitation that have been imposed upon people of color. In the course of common struggle, reflection on the meaning of that struggle, sharing of stories, and internal education there is the possibility for white people to discover their past complicity in the “ism” evils. To start at that point, however, is likely to be an end to the conversation. It is in the solidarity that is built upon/emerges from concrete human relationships that there lies the greatest possibility for significant change on these matters in the thinking of large groups of people.