4 Ways To Really Push Back Against Your Privilege

Mia McKenzie is a fab QPOC writer, but her post on “4 Ways to Push Back Against Your Privilege” totally irked me. The premise was great. She explains that privileged folks sometimes get as far as acknowledging their own privilege, but then think that is all they need to do. What was more difficult for me was that the strategies she outlines are very self-focused, they focus on reducing your privilege as if it is a private stash of social capital, instead of actually dismantling the structural systems of oppression we actually need to dismantle in order for things to change. The problem with seeing your own privilege as a guilty stash of opportunities that just need to turned down is that a whole lot of well-meaning, academically-educated, left leaning folk can do exactly that and the only tangible effect will be that they feel less guilty. The systems that bring about structural inequalities will still be in place. So here is my poor Pacific queer woman version of how you can really push back against your privilege.

1. Fight The Power

McKenzie’s first method to push back against privilege is to “Relinquish Power”, which on the surface seems quite good. I’m all for white, able-bodied, straight, cis-people thinking about the ways that the social ease they are given produces rewards they don’t really deserve, and then figuring out ways to redistribute them. My problem with McKenzie’s explanation is that it shifts privilege too simply into something which can be given up by an individual. She gives an example of a white manager “pushing back” by taking on the opinions of her POC workers. My problem with this is that even when white managers take on the opinions of POC workers, the structural inequalities that so often hierarchically position white workers above POC workers are intact. There is no real challenge to structural racism, or to global capitalism as a system that produces racialized hierarchies. If you really want to push back, you can’t just turn down the advantages that forms of privilege give you and think that you are doing enough. Why? Because structural inequalities (via gender, race, class, ability, sexuality or gender identity) reproduce forms of violence and harm for some at the same time as they reproduce privilege for others. The real issue is recognizing that when you are being privileged someone else is being harmed. And even when you are privileged by a system, that doesn’t mean you are the only winner. Class privileges middle-class, first world kids, but the real winner is capitalism. You can turn down your labelled clothing or your entry ticket to a top-notch university, but unless you are doing more to protest against multinational corporations, trade deals, the pervasive spread of neoliberalism or poverty, you are still part of reproducing the status quo.

2. Speak Out.

McKenzie’s second point is that when you have access to something that others do not, just don’t go. She gives the examples of not going to an event which isn’t wheel-chair accessible when you are able-bodied, or to a woman’s event that excludes transwomen. She’s pointing out that privileged people need to sacrifice things that they are used to being given automatically. And this is a fair call. But really, it’s not going to undermine privilege in any way because privilege is often institutionalised, and reproduced through long histories of exclusion. And while you might have the luxury of not going and therefore feeling good about your cis-privileged and able-bodied self, people who are marginalized don’t have the same opportunities to be heard. So instead, complain loudly to everyone who will listen about how such-and-such event is unjust. If an event you are interested in doesn’t have disability access, email the organisers and complain. Don’t just leave it to people with disabilities to have to fight for their own right to be included. Exclusion is about everyone.

3. Name it and Figure out how to Change it. Dialogue.

Okay, so this is really reiterating the last points. McKenzie suggests that people with privilege “Shut up” in those spaces where their privileged voices carry more weight. And I think that’s a great start. But so often what I find really challenging is when power dynamics are at play and one person or groups systematic advantage is not named. It’s not enough to be quiet. Here’s why. The way I’ve really witnessed male privilege being reproduced is when “nice, average guys” stay quiet and don’t name the way sexism or misogyny is playing out. Staying quiet can work covertly with the way privilege is made invisible. Recently in Aotearoa, there has been a lot of ongoing public dialogue about rape culture. It’s frustrating to me that women have been having to bear the brunt of this by talking out about our experiences of rape culture as survivors, while men have stayed relatively silent about the impact of rape discourses on their own actions.

4. Be careful about what ideas and structures you reproduce.

McKenzie’s final point is to “Be careful what identities you claim”, arguing that you shouldn’t claim a marginalized identity if you don’t have a marginalized experience. She uses this unjustly to challenge “white-presenting” POC who apparently:

” claim POC but by their own admission don’t experience oppression based on race”

This statement is scary enough to me that I’m considering writing a whole blog-post about oppression and being a fairly pale POC (admittedly as a Pacific woman in Aotearoa we are discussing very different contexts), but what I want to focus on here is the way that making sense of racial or ethnic identity as solely based on skin-color buys into the system of imperialism, colonization and racism that we are trying to undo. Like McKenzie, I think attending to marginalized experience is really important. But sometimes even in well-meaning activist talk, categories of people get reproduced in very binary, rigid and stereotypical ways. We need to be careful that we are not reproducing violence through perpetuating a system of meaning that was created by the oppressors. I get really frustrated with how well-meaning Pakeha (white New Zealanders) sometimes talk about the negative social indicators connected to “Pacific peoples” in ways that seem to reinforce messages of social futility. Likewise when middle-class people talk about people living with poverty, or when straight cis-privileged people talk about diverse gender expression in ways that naturalize heteropatriarchy. For example, it’s not ” respecting gender diversity” to give a masculine-identified trans-kid a toy gun. It’s reinforcing the heteropatriarchal ideas that masculinity is about the ability to use violence, and that force is a valid way to solve conflict.

Finally, challenging oppressive structures takes a lot of hard work over time, often for small gains. So often what we really need to do is to build a critical counter-public, and it’s hard to know how to work together. I’d love to get some feedback about these ideas and how to practically challenge privilege and the systems that produce them.

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Yeah, Nah: On Satire, Survival and Why Good Allies Sometimes get it Wrong.

So social media is abuzz with Metro’s unfunny joke, and their explanation that it was satire aimed at drawing attention to the unjust way women and girls are blamed and shamed for rape, see: http://metromag.co.nz/editors-blog/on-satire-and-rape/#comment-1393.

So we asked, in our regular 20 Questions column: “After the Roast Busters saga, should there be a new criminal charge: ‘Drunk in charge of a vagina?’”

 I believe Simon about the intent. I found the previous editorial on rape culture perceptive and interesting (apart from the Taliban line, but that’s a whole different issue). In social justice speak, I definitely see Simon Wilson and Metro as an ally. I get that the intention was to satirize the conservative voices of those that victim-blame.

Here’s a deconstruction what left me uncomfortable. As a person with a vagina.

1. The humor relies on the shock factor of the word “vagina”. Most humor relies in someway on the unexpected, or an unusual juxtaposition. The phrasing “Drunk in charge of..” cues a vehicle, and the funny bit is vagina. Except, you now, vaginas aren’t so funny if you have one, because you are used to it being a part of your body. And you are used to misogynist culture where vaginas are seen as funny. And you know how funny vagina sounds to some people is probably because vaginas are often represented as being a bit gross.

2. You are used to the way mainstream popular culture has linked cars and women’s bodies, which are both represented as play things for men.

3. You notice “Drunk in charge of a vagina” has a disembodied woman in it. A woman who is just a vagina. You are tired of just being a vagina.

4. You know the joke is partially at police culture. You have heard the stupid stuff the police here and elsewhere have said that perpetuates victim-blaming. But it sticks in your throat when you have experienced it first-hand.

5. And if like me, you are actually a rape survivor, you might imagine someone else chuckling “Ha! Drunk in charge of a vagina. Good one, mate.” But the line seems to reverberate in your body. It echoes with the other things people say about rape, and the things that have been said to you. When am I going to get a sense of humor about rape? Yeah, probably not in this lifetime. Not when I live with the effects of trauma in my daily every day life.

What this issue highlights for me is the gap between being an ally, and being a woman or rape survivor on the receiving end of rape culture. Metro was well-intentioned, definitely not one of the bad guys. But the joke was still blinkered by the routine experience of male privilege, that is – men’s experience often stands in for what is considered “normal” or universal, and women’s experience is bracketed. He just didn’t anticipate that others might experience the joke differently, or have valid reasons for finding it uncomfortable.

It feels really hard to criticize the good guys, which is partially what prompted me to write this. Because rape culture is perpetuated by everyday sexism, and lot of it is not intentional or malicious. It’s just underpinned by gendered discourses that have different effects on men’s and women’s lives. We need to get more comfortable talking about how good folk do stupid stuff. And allies need to start asking how they can be good allies.

Anadarko Poem

Oh Anadarko

what a villain you are to our Antipodean ears!

Riding in with your 10 gallon hat

slick words for dark waters.

You come from Texan sun

stolen land,  where dust flies.

Maybe worth is harder to recognize.

John Key says we are just a few hundred people                            wandering.

He is a nervous Cowboy

waiting by the rodeo     for a tin star.

It reminds me                                  words      are weapons.

Oh Anadarko,

your feet are                        too heavy.

Benefit Cuts Poem

1. Wear your old jeans. Wear the matted navy jumper that is too short in the arms, and your hair in jagged waves that might drop intrepid surfers. Your bones will be a metronome for time spent waiting.

2. In the Queen St WINZ office, they have hired Pasifika girls to sit in rows and stare at monitors. It will make you feel ashamed to tell your story to a girl that knows your ‘aiga or that went to your school. Notice that she is averting her eyes. Notice that she can only enter words that will fit on the screen. Most of your words will spill away unaccounted for.

3. So offer the caseworker some beauty or some truth. Imagine truth like tiny purple violets, like felt hearts on tender stems or dragon eyes. Truth is something she can’t recognise.

4. Notice the two security guards. Notice the space around them, how they face towards the applicants like keepers. One has knotted fingers. While he talks, he drums his long fingers on his slacks like a tell.

5. Notice we are all a little dirty. There is a man wearing his best shirt. There is a girl with a beautiful rash bursting like a flower on her chest and neck. There are older, Pasifika men wearing the suits they wore to their weddings. There is a blonde kid saying he has been going to church, he wants to change his life, his whole attitude. All the while, his hands grasp his arms, and he rocks in his thin, white tee-shirt. Know that there no boxes on the screen that his story will fit into.

6. Know that we are first world poor. Let it roll on your tongue. That kind of unlucky generates it’s own disdain.

7. Ask to see the manager.

8. Ask to see Paula Bennett. Ask how much she spent to come up with the three new categories. Ask whether alongside the flagrant messaging,  we can have royal blue balloons and ticker tape too. Suggest that if we put on some country music and bought in some tumblers of gin, we could have a desperation party.

9. Notice how everybody shakes.

10. Ask to see the Donkey King. Ask him politely whether he believes in hubris.

11. Keep your head full of Katherine Mansfield. The trick with being a beneficiary is too hold tightly against the roaring tide.

Where is Our Anger? Neoliberalism and the Energy Deficit for Social Activism.

In a blogpost called Where is Our Anger? Steve Gray points out that prior to the 1990’s there were more marches in Aotearoa. Neoliberalism has meant the anger and energy needed to organize has been sucked into the struggle of day-to-day survival. He challenges our political left to challenge National more effectively, saying:

“Our anger is being directed at surviving”

Steve Gray’s words resonated with me, and so this is a more reflective blogpost honoring the multi-layered impact of social injustice and energy deficit in my own life at present.

In the last few weeks I have been coming to terms with the news that someone close to me is seriously unwell (To respect her privacy, I will refer to her as Zoe). This news has been interrupting my thoughts and my sleep. It’s been tugging the kite strings of my heart back towards home. And when news items come across my screen – the social or political issues I might usually blog about – I can’t summon the sustained presence needed to draw the different nuances together. I am in shock, and my body is working at slowing down the reverberations. So I am in energy deficit. I can’t muster energy for my usual critical thinking or social activism as well.

Alongside her illness, Zoe is having to deal with the institutionalized cruelty of WINZ. She went to WINZ and applied for a sickness benefit. There have been a number of delays, including WINZ requesting more evidence from her doctor. This meant more time without money and unnecessary doctor’s fees. The sickness benefit is only $219 per week. I don’t know how anyone is supposed to live on that in Auckland.

When I say institutionalized cruelty, I mean that the culture of beneficiary bashing that is pushed by Paula Bennett is so endemic to WINZ that WINZ staff are only able to deal with people through a prejudicial lens of doubt. The number of forms and sign-offs and requirements for evidence are a bureaucratic nightmare – they serve the purpose of keeping the costs down by leaving people waiting for weeks during the unofficial stand-down period of evidence collecting – but they certainly don’t assist those who are unwell and under considerable stress. Paula Bennett and her ilk are driven by neoliberal ideology and global austerity. And yet people who are unwell deserve dignity and compassion.

So in this context, I found it hard to swallow last week’s mention of John Key’s chummy relationship with David Cameron, the man who has managed to entirely mangle the NHS in Britain. Meadows says, 

Key recounted texting his British counterpart David Cameron, the world leader he was “best mates with”, to point out that the deficit in Cameron’s budget was bigger than New Zealand’s entire GDP.

“It gives you a sense of perspective.”

 

Well, it gives me a sense of perspective.

So, thinking about Zoe and the need for her to simultaneously negotiate both the waiting times our under-resourced health system and WINZ has been making me sick. And angry. But it’s a useless whirlwind of late night angst because I am both geographically distant and too emotionally involved to manage any effective advocacy. Imagine this angst multiplied by all the people in Aotearoa with loved ones who are seriously unwell. From space we probably look like little bonfires burning away into the darkness.

Ironically, the lack of justice for Zoe has given me moments of fear that I might lose the love that I usually feel for Aotearoa/ New Zealand. I know it probably sounds old-fashioned – not to mention airy-fairy – to talk about loving the place you are from. And yet, my love for Aotearoa and the Pacific feels tangible to me, it’s what drives my writing and my need to be part of broader social change. But this week I’ve wondered if the bitterness I feel at the thought of Zoe suffering – and others not helping her – might blunt my ability to do social justice work and writing. To keep facing towards humanity with the same hopefulness and naked optimism. I write about fairly bleak topics. You need to have a fairly resilient sense of purpose to sustain that.

So at the moment I need other people to think critically and advocate. I need other people in Aotearoa to write placards and stand outside WINZ offices. I need other people to dream up better, fairer policies for supporting our most vulnerable. So that I can focus on refocusing my energy, and emotionally supporting Zoe and her other family.

And yet, neoliberal capitalism is fundamentally effective at keeping people busy at both ends of the production chain. As workers, we are underpaid, underemployed, and working long hours to sustain a living. As consumers,  we face the endless onslaught of advertising and the need to buy things. It doesn’t give anyone much time or energy for thinking outside their immediate lives, let alone for thinking critically about political and social issues and for acting on them. There is nagging, pervasive energy deficit even when you are not in crisis.

I don’t know what the answers are. I’m not in the right space to find them. I hope wherever this finds you, you find ways to resist the energy deficit and dream up ways of healing all the bones where we are collectively broken. Imagine all of us make up the body of a sleeping giant. The bonfires we light from our own suffering can be collective consciousness; the giant’s soul.

 

 

I Don’t Buy (it) Joe Fresh: The Bangladesh Factory Collapse and Why Sorry Isn’t Enough

CTA News has reported this morning that Canadian retailers are meeting today in Toronto to discuss the work conditions of third-world factories, following the tragic factory collapse in Bangladesh that has killed over 380 people. The meeting is being hosted by the Retail Council of Canada, and Loblaw Co Ltd (the company responsible for Joe Fresh is participating).

No doubt the global fashion industry – including Joe Fresh – is responding to mounting media attention on factory conditions. A recent article by Ron Nurwisah in The Huffington Post pointed out that CBC journalists tweeted out a photo from the Worker’s Rights Consortium, showing a Joe Fresh garment lying amongst the rubble. Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker’s Rights Consortium, acknowledges that the company had admitted it had garments produced in the factory, and urges it to move promptly to aid those harmed and improve safety conditions moving forward.

I’ve had a look at the Joe Fresh website this morning and they have a condolence notice expressing their sadness at the tragedy, saying that they helping impacted employees and families, and explaining that they are consulting with government (via the Ministry of Foreign Affairs) and labor organisations (including the Canadian Maquila Solidarity Network).

It will be very interesting to see what steps emerge out of the meeting of Canadian retailers. A key part of the Joe Fresh apology has been it’s claim that despite not yet addressing the structural conditions of it’s factory buildings,

‘Loblaws Inc. Vendor standards are designed to ensure that products are manufactured in a socially responsible way, for a safe and sustainable work environment. Our audits align with those of industry around the world…’

Here’s where it gets gritty. Their audits align with those of the manufacturing industry, that is the people making the money. Julhas Alam and Kay Johnson, Associated Press, have pointed out that since 2011, Labour groups have been pushing for a safety proposal drawn up by Bangladeshi and international unions. The safety proposal argued for independent safety inspections, recognising that local officials and government are too influenced by industry demands. It would also be legally binding. This proposal hasn’t been taken up by big companies because of the costs involved.

So let’s get real. Clothing is a $ 1- Trillion dollar global industry, of which Bangladesh represents around $20 billion. There are 4000 factories in Bangladesh alone. Workers killed in the collapse of the Rana Plaza were earning as little as $38 a month.

Clothing companies manufacture garments in Bangladesh because it’s cheap. Cheap labor means more profit. So when Joe Fresh argues that it’s factory audits align with industry standards, it means the standards considered adequate by an industry based on extracting cheap labor.

Whatever steps emerge out of the meeting of Canadian retailers today, I’m going to be a bit cynical about the extent of this for progressing fair and safe work environments. Why? It’s like assuming a room full of cats could come up with safety measures for mice. Retailer’s financial stake in this tragedy is ensuring that bad press about factory conditions doesn’t drive down share prices or profit. That’s not the same stake as factory workers wanting for personal safety and security, and fair wages.

At a minimum, I think Joe Fresh needs to sign up to the Bangladesh Building and Fire Safety Agreement

BUT Joe Fresh also needs to be more transparent with the Canadian public about what it it paying Bangladeshi workers.

Joe Fresh’s website has those generic photos of thin white women wearing this season’s spring colors. A peasant top. A mint green pencil skirt. I couldn’t help imagining what the website would look like if they included photos of their Bangladeshi workers, and maybe grieving family members, alongside the free-and-easy gambit of their white model. Canada, lets stop pretending to be the good guys. Lets own our part of this, as consumers, as a nation. Because isn’t it really about how we can all look at clothes, even by brands that claim social responsibility, and forget that there are other people – equally human – working long hours in factories to earn less a month then the cost of a peasant shirt.

If you are moved by this, you can sign a petition calling on the Bangladesh government to remove laws that restrict freedom of association (meaning that most workers can’t unionize) and demand minimum wage for garment workers. You can check out Manquila Solidarity Network. Or you can email Joe Fresh.

What Spaces Harbour Social Justice? Reflections on the Closing of Rhizome Cafe in Vancouver

In my three months in Vancouver, one of my favourite places has been Rhizome Cafe, on West Broadway. Jaimie, my partner, went there before I arrived from Aotearoa and knew I would love it – not just because of it’s deep orange walls and inexpensive organic food and fair trade coffee. But because Rhizome Cafe is set up as a social justice hub. They host around 200 community events a year, and are committed to encouraging community dialogue and letting marginalized voices be heard.

They are filled with community events pretty much every Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They are undoubtedly a queer space, Jaimie and I recently went to an all genders swing dance class there (Jaimie doesn’t dance usually so this was my big opportunity 😉 )

Rhizome have just put out a community letter saying that despite the good work of ‘Friends of Rhizome’, they just can’t keep up with rising costs and stay true to the Rhizome ethos. They will be closing mid July.

I feel sad about Rhizome on multiple levels. Firstly, because it’s friendly and diverse atmosphere is one of the only places I’ve felt at home in yet. Being a non-white queer migrant in Vancouver is hard! And yes, I know I’ll find more places, but Rhizome was really wearing it’s credentials on the outside, with it’s big colorful rainbow heart pinned to it’s sleeve. I also felt the ease of not being judged on a couple of days when I took my laptop there and wrote for a few hours and only bought coffee.

Secondly, Jaimie and I had already been fantasizing about one day having a cafe/ social justice space like Rhizome in Auckland. Because the thing I’ve noticed on a really practical, pragmatic activist level is that it can be really hard to get the places where you do social justice stuff to meet up with the places where you just hang out, and where people gather so that you get the right kind of momentum and energy. And obviously, there are commercial places that act as social justice hubs informally – like the brilliant Alleluyah in St Kevin’s Arcade in Auckland – but they have their limitations in terms of being able to get big groups together for classes or anything. And then, you have a whole lot of lovely “community” venues like old halls in Ponsonby and Grey Lynn in Auckland, but apart from the afternoon or two days where you are there working on your particular issue, you don’t get the momentum effect of foot traffic and cross-pollination. With Rhizome, you can effectively go there and bump into an issue or group you are interested in. It creates an organic sense of community-building.

The hard part is relying on commercial venues to build community. And yet, so often I’ve been at ‘community events’ at public venues where the idea of community is unworkable, and the space feels forced, or we are only preaching to the converted – people who already have a high level of commitment to the issue at hand. I’ve experienced this myself with events I’ve organized – not to mention the number of times I’ve reinvented the wheel when some other activist group will have already solved something similar.

So I’m left wondering what kinds of spaces let activism grow and flourish? And how in these dangerous neoliberal times will we be able to build ourselves strong enough to push back without them? There’s heaps of dialogue about online activism, but it seems to me that one of the challenges in overcoming slacktivism is figuring out how to shift people from engaged online conversations to actions that occur in the real world.

Vinaka vakalevu to Rhizome for the work well done, I hope your future permutations are successful, and that the new shoots will not be too far away.