A few weeks ago, people on Facebook and Twitter were sharing a call to arms: Gen Y is entitled to its unhappiness and anger because we are living in an economic hellscape.
It was everywhere. Finally someone was articulating the legitimate angst, fear, and anger experienced by a generation that—as the author points out— has seen ballooning student debt, stagnant wages, and a general lack of stability in the workplace.
By someone, of course, we mean a white man. With a publishing job. And a college education, and an ivy-league one, no less.
It is time for a privilege check. Here’s a list of pointers for the next time you try to critique this, yes, economic hellscape which is, yes, much worse for some of us than its for others.
1. Feeling poor is not the same as being poor.
An economic hellscape produces all sorts of feelings — anger, for instance, seems justified. But the author makes a very interesting statement: “I don’t feel special or entitled, just poor.” While the author makes clear to all readers why he feels that way, the fact remains that there is a difference between “feelings” of poverty and the actual experience of it. It is a stretch — to say the least — to suggest that an ivy-league-educated editor, who also admits to feeling exhausted at the end of a long wordsmithing session, understands or can even conceive of the harsh reality of poverty for millions of people, in the US and around the world.
So the next time you feel the urge to say that you “feel poor,” please consider whether what you’re feeling is really poverty, or if you’re just having a small fit of middle class angst over not living in the 1950s. Because the two are not one in the same.
2. Your nostalgia for the 1950s is not going to work.
White college educated men used to be able to count on America’s white supremacist system for something – wealth, prestige, or, at the very least, comfort. Faced with none of these promised goods, the author reacts in the only way he knows how: nostalgia for the good ole days, where an editor could earn an “honest” living. In a particularly touching move, the author laments how hard he works when compared to his professor, who was able to earn two-thousand dollars for a thousand-word essay in the 1970s. The Village Voice sure doesn’t pay what it used to, but that doesn’t mean that you’re poor — it just means that it might feel that way if you are nostalgic for the 1950s.
But more importantly, this kind of nostalgia is not helpful; it’s reactionary and dangerous. Instead of envisioning new economic futures and possibilities — not to mention critiquing the racialized and sexualized systems of labor inequality in place now — it places the focus on an idyllic and supposedly prosperous past. The problem, of course, is that this fabled prosperity only applied to certain group of people, people like the author of this article: college-educated white men. Our energy shouldn’t be spent lusting after a time before Civil Rights, Stonewall, and the sexual revolution — nor should that be the basis for a movement. Our energy should be spent dismantling the material systems and the arrangements of desire that made that time and this one possible.
3. Colorblindness based on economic critique is still colorblindness.
Nowhere in his entire critique of the “economic hellscape” does Weinstein mention gender, race, or sexuality — not once, and he systematically refuses to consider the way that same system is set up to disproportionately affect vulnerable persons (e.g. not white college educated men). The problem with perspectives like Weinstein’s is that without reflection he makes himself — his experience and his problems — the center of the universe. But the economic collapse doesn’t make a level playing field, and it definitely doesn’t make us all the same — catchy slogans about the 99% aside.
To engage in a real conversation around this economic, white supremacist, patriarchal hellscape, we are going to have to be willing to abandon ideologies of colorblindness and ask tough questions about white supremacy, and yes, even our activism. Questions like, why do articles like this get so much play in our social media? Why does a white, college-educated man’s feelings of impoverishment matter more to us than the bodies of lives of people forced to endure actual poverty? Why are we willing to sleep outside for abstractions like corporate greed and student debt, but not for a 12% unemployment rate for black Americans? Until we are willing to ask these questions and listen for answers based in hard self-examination and renewed action, our economic critiques fall flat.
Allow us to address some responses that we anticipate:
1. My white, middle-class problems are still real problems.
Nobody denied that. We said that white middle class problems can’t be the center of what we’re doing, that they’ve gotten enough air time, and no broad-based movement will be built on them.
How many times have we heard politicians offer middle-class tax cuts in lieu of addressing structural inequality — not to mention the military and prison industrial complex, the fact that the US executes a black person every 28 hours, the criminalization of undocumented people and the militarization of the border, the systematic disenfranchisement of people of color, the harrowing expansion of US military violence, torture in illegal prisons domestically and abroad, the recent decimation of food stamps and the freeze on WIC (which includes 53% of US infants), and the list could go on and on…
Should white middle class problems really be the primary focus?
2. You are being divisive! We need solidarity with each other, not divide-and-conquer of the 99%!
You’re right! That’s exactly what we need: solidarity. But if you are a white, middle-class person responding to a critiques of your racism, classism, and sexism by saying that “we need solidarity,” you’re undermining your own potential to be in solidarity with anyone except for people who move through the world just like you. You’re probably whitesplaining, mansplaining, straightsplaining, etc.
The problem with an article like Weinstein’s is that the total lack of critical reflection or engagement with his own social location make a praxis like solidarity impossible. This isn’t solidarity; this is white middle-class angst asking everyone else to get on board with it. An author who wants a return to the decades of white, middle-class hegemony is not your ally. Some voices have had enough time at the table — and have too often acted like they own this table by setting the terms of the solidarity that they think happens there — and need to stop taking up so much room.
3. But feelings are important, and you’re writing mine off! Feelings mobilize politics!
This is not about your feelings. Too often, self-proclaimed “allies” in “social justice struggles” use the legitimacy of hurt feelings to derail conversations where they might have to be self-reflective about their privilege and abuses of power. Conscious or not, this is a derailment tactic that functions to derail structural critique.
Let’s do a thought experiment. Imagine the response by Occupy Wall Street if the CEO of Bank of America had made a statement to the protestors: “Your protests and accusations are painful to me, and also to my family. Just because I am in the 1% does not mean that I deserve this kind of spite from so many people. My company donates a portion of its wealth to charitable causes!”
Actually, his intentions and feelings don’t matter at all. The issue is one of institutional policy and structural violence — which he is still participating in, no matter what his intentions are, what kinds of abstract desires he has, or what kind of father or husband he is. We would see those appeals for what they are: utter bullshit.
If you are a white person, you are participating in and benefiting from white supremacy whether or not you intend to and regardless of how racism makes you feel. The question is not how you feel about it, but rather, What are you going to do about it?
4. Your CEO example fails because he is working for Bank of America, unlike me. Even if I have privileges, I am an activist and an ally to social justice causes. There’s no way that this CEO is even close to that.
First of all, folks in positions of power within movements don’t get to decide if they are allies. In fact, there are very good reasons to abandon that term altogether — given the extent to which it is overused as a means of denying and obscuring actual, ongoing collusion with white supremacy and heteropatriarchy.
So let’s continue our thought experiment. Imagine that our CEO were to have an epiphany, quit his job, and join Occupy. His class privileges — including his educational background, the kinds of access and networks he’s had throughout his life, his vocabularies, his safety nets — would follow him there. And it would be important for everyone else to point those things out and force some reflection and action on them.
Furthermore, given his history and his endowment in and through systems of structural violence, wouldn’t he be expected to shut up and listen for a while, notwithstanding his feelings? Wouldn’t it make sense for people with ballooning debt from predatory BOA loans — which, by the way, his decision to quit his job does nothing to resolve — to be very, very, very suspicious of him? Wouldn’t he be excluded from some — if not most, if not all — planning meetings, at the very least for a long time, until he proved that he was For Real, at which point his inclusion would be probationary? Wouldn’t ALL of these actions be obvious minimal steps, and also fairly generous ones, given the situation and the systems that our former CEO benefits from and represents?
White people: we are not entitled to the label “ally” or the designation of being “in solidarity with” simply on the basis of our personal feelings or self-perceptions.
5. You are destroying my hope. How are we going to build a movement with all of this critique and negativity?
Spot on. We’re not going to build this movement on critique and negativity, but we’re certainly not going to be building it on articles like the one discussed here. We’re going to build a movement only through action (not “dialogue,” not feelings). That said, critique is an integral part of morally engaged action, insofar as it helps identify what is wrong with the system that we’re in and be reflective about our collusion with it.
Dear white, college educated Gen Y’ers: If we want to be part of a viable broad-based economic justice movement, we will not be its leaders. We will prove our commitment, again and again, by showing up. We will do a lot less talking and a lot more listening and self-educating. We will put our feelings on the back burner. We will stop acting like living in an economic hellscape is self-evident proof of collective solidarity for the 99%, and we will start addressing the systems that give us power within it.
Hard? Yes. It’s hard to live in an economic, white supremacist, heterosexist hellscape. It’s harder to do the work to dismantle it.
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