Is Anti-Oppression Work by the Privileged an Oxymoron?

Posted on December 4, 2010


Recently, a friend brought my attention to an article by Kil Ja Kim from the Chicken Bones journal: “The White Anti-Racist is an Oxymoron.” I had a viscerally oppositional reaction to both the title and the introduction, below:

I received an annoying e-mail about white people and their struggle to do anti-racist work.  I keep reading and hearing white people talk about their struggle to do anti-racist organizing, and frankly it gets on my nerves.  So I am writing this open letter to white people who engage in any activist work that involves or affects non-whites.  Given that the US social structure is founded on white supremacy, and that there is a global order in which white supremacy and European domination are at large, I would challenge any white person to figure out what movement or action they can get involved in that will not involve or affect non-white people.

That said, I want to begin with what has become a realization for me through the help of different politically conscious friends.  There is NO SUCH THING AS A WHITE ANTI-RACIST.  The term itself, “white anti-racist” is an oxymoron.  In the following, I will explain why.  Then, I will begin to detail how this impacts non-white people in organizing work specifically, along with how it affects non-white people generally.

Kim goes on to explain passionately that whiteness is an insurmountable  structure of domination, and that the white activists who claim the label of “anti-racist” are only reifying mainstream power structures through self-congratulatory frameworks and “economies of gratitude.”  Ze posits that these activists perpetuate white privilege with their insistence on the necessity of white people everywhere, even in destabilizing racism.

Now I can easily identify why the argument troubled me.  First, I have several white friends in the activist community who are deeply engaged in anti-racist organizing.  Second, Kim’s rhetoric does attack my work personally, as I organize as an ally of groups with which I do not identify.  But I can still understand how useful, and under-voiced Kim’s perspective really is, because I can identify the supremacist attitudes in my own internal dialogs.  I am not a white person, so I obviously can’t use that example, but I am a human, so let’s consider my anti-speciesist positions instead.

Kim’s essay has me reflecting on what it means to be impactful, or an ally.  I am a vegan, and I try my best to practice compassion in my consumptive choices: from what I eat to what I wear to what I use to wash my hair.  I’ll admit (at the risk of embodying vegan stereotypes of preachiness and elitism) that I sometimes feel this places me in a more morally righteous position than my peers who also have the choice not to consume nonhuman animals, but do so anyway.  But that isn’t really a viable position.  Think about it–how ridiculous does that idea sound?  I am not righteous because I choose not to support the systematic eugenicization, torture, and slaughter of 10 billion animals per year in the United States. If anything, that choice puts me in a close-to-central position, only marginally better than omnivorous human animals.  That choice doesn’t make me kind to animals, it makes me kind of less bad for animals.  In other words, I can not legitimately claim any superiority over omnivorous humans because my very existence places me in a category of privilege that continuously undermines the stability and well-being of nonhuman animals.  Because I inhabit a society that destroys wildlife homes and because I buy goods and services from providers who also support large-scale rape and murder in factory farms, I am dominating and oppressing nonhuman animals by living. Even when I express support for lessened speciesist cruelty, I do so using infrastructure such as paper or computers whose creation requires the release of toxins into the environment and habitats.

A similar argument could be made for other privileged groups.  I know my existence as cisgendered and middle class makes life more difficult for trans and lower class individuals.  Likewise, white people, even when they are speaking out for communities of color, are inhabiting and using (and therefore perpetuating) white privilege and domination at every moment.

This argument can be read two ways.  It’s possible that we could become overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude and institutional power of privilege, and leave the oppressed to organize for change.  Or (and I think this is an option Kim misses, and the point at which I deviate from hir ideology), we could take the fact that those who have privilege have so much fucking privilege that it is not just “nice” or “kind” of them to participate in anti-oppression work, but a necessity.  It is a necessity because if these individuals (and I’m one of “them”) do not dispense their privilege in meaningful, thoughtful, and humble ways, they will be not just bystanders or pawns, but co-conspirators of these institutions of oppression.  To make my point even more obvious, and answer my initial question: no, anti-oppression work by the privileged is not an oxymoron–it’s an obligation.  Yes, as Kim points out, it’s incredibly difficult not to remanifest problematic power structures within activist circles; the fact that we’ll never experience a privilege-free interaction is not a reason, however, to sit out the effort, but instead to try as hard as we possibly can, and then try harder.

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