Hyphen magazine - Asian American arts, culture, and politics

Race-ing Occupy Wall Street

Two weeks ago in The American Prospect, Kenyon Farrow wrote of “Occupy Wall Street’s Race Problem.” He attacked what he perceives to be a movement dominated by “white protesters” as well as the rhetoric used by white progressives, citing a protest sign that read "DEBT = SLAVERY" as well as a quote by writer-politico Naomi Wolf expressing her anger that she, a well-dressed white woman, could be arrested for simply standing on a street corner.

Farrow was evidently annoyed by the hyperbolic signage and Wolf's lack of self-awareness, but it sounds like he hasn’t spent much time with OWS. In the early days of the movement, I might have echoed his easy criticism of privileged white grad students and limousine liberals, or punks and anarchists stinking up a park with bad hygiene and immature politics. But as I’ve learned through direct involvement, Farrow's critique -- that Occupy Wall Street’s offensive rhetoric alienates African Americans and other people of color from the movement -- draws far too many conclusions from too little evidence.

One hears many such excuses, many distancing memes: its too white, those people are so privileged, they dont speak for me. Even bracketing the illogic of applying “privilege” to militant activists drenched in rain and freezing temperatures, these are flimsy apologetics. Occupy Wall Street has already inserted itself into every conversation in America, and it's this level of rhetoric -- we are the 99% -- not the odd poster, that should concern us. If you don’t agree with the messaging, it’s on you to change it. If you feel it’s not diverse enough, add your body to the mix. In this consensus-based process, participation is our most valuable critical faculty.

One should also recognize the instability of OWS as observable spectacle. It’s an evolving, self-made, messy space whose signs, statements, and local demographics change day to day, hour to hour. This is, on the one hand, a beautiful strength, a real chance for imaginative dialogue in what Slavoj Žižek rightly calls a deeply ideological time; on the other hand, as The New Yorker's Hendrik Hertzberg cautions, we have yet to see whether this young, loosely organized movement will bear political or policy fruits. Each trip to Zuccotti Park means a new reveal: one day it's a cacophony of agendas, yet overwhelmingly white; the next, it's single message and as diverse as New York City itself. This was true at dawn on Friday, October 14, when tens of thousands of us gathered in Zuccotti Park to prevent New York City from evicting the occupiers under the guise of “cleaning.” It has also been true many Fridays since, the park “occupied” by South Asian activists protesting war and police brutality. 

Racial-justice activists will be irritated by white leftists, who still seem to dominate the nightly General Assembly meetings. But all of us will be annoyed and offended by plenty of different people we encounter at OWS. This is inherent to the jagged, sloppy process of horizontal movement-building, and it shouldn’t be a dealbreaker. While I believe the space must be diverse to succeed, I also appreciate the white occupiers who, in a brave exercise of genetic prerogative, put themselves at the front lines of interactions with police and the wintry elements. To be sure, Zuccotti Park would have been wiped out a long time ago if the encampment were all brown and black radicals. More people of color need to lay claim to OWS, as do the immigrants’ rights and anti-war movements -- and here we East Coasters can learn from Occupy Oakland -- but it's important to remember the real, disproportionate threat posed by law enforcement to racial minorities and non-US citizens.

Moreover, the story of OWS cannot be told simply through what is seen. Among its many behind-the-curtain committees are a People of Color Working Group and an Immigrant Workers’ Rights Solidarity group. Terrific, critical coverage of OWS is readily available at Racialicious and the infrontandcenter blog, and even the New York Times has noted the increased involvement of people of color, namely the critical intervention by South Asians for Justice to force revision of the Declaration of the Occupation of New York City. This rather dramatic episode, first recounted by Manissa Maharawal, meant vocalizing racial-justice concerns to a General Assembly crowd of 400. Thanu Yakupitiyage, who was present that night and is active in several OWS working groups, recalls, “Learning to articulate the nuances around our politics was really important, particularly in a movement where lots of different people are getting involved. And communities of color need to be involved. You can’t talk about the greed of corporations and financiers without talking about, for example, how the financial and housing crises specifically impact communities of color.”  

As Rinku Sen has written in The Nation, the question is really, "How can a racial analysis, and its consequent agenda, be woven into the fabric of the movement?" The answer begins with activists of color, whose participation at Zuccotti Park itself or in the less apparent, tireless gatherings animating OWS serves as the best retort to Farrow’s critique. The Immigrant Workers' Rights Solidarity group, in which I've been active, has met many consecutive Tuesday nights. Our membership and attendance have grown at a rate any community organizer would envy -- and with little in the way of centralization. Ten minutes with this group should allay any skepticism about OWS’s commitment to issues of difference. It is one of the most diverse, committed coalitions I've ever been a part of, and we are already injecting the movement with the concerns of immigrants and low-wage workers. Despite my cynical resistance to the hand signals sometimes used in consensus-based decisionmaking (and maligned brillliantly by Steven Colbert), I was enthused enough the other night to twinkle my fingers -- both in agreement and protest.



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L Tam wrote 3 years 37 weeks ago

To follow-up Colin's comment

I wanted to completely support and agree with Colin's comment that it's crucial for any of us who identify as Asian and who are economically, linguistically privileged--passing and performing well in white spaces--that we cannot co-opt and assume we encounter the same struggles and the same histories of colonialism and genocide as other differently situated racialized communities.

It seems your piece argues for the politics of inclusion and solidarity-building without elaborating greatly on the explicit work that has been done around transforming the analytical thrust from which OWS moves. Besides the obvious relationship between austerity measures and poor housing infrastructure for poor POC, there is the fact that white and racialized settlers on this land are already occupying a colonized space and lands dispossessed from Indigenous nations (the different histories of Asian-Native and Black-Native relationship-building and connected colonial practices/genocides notwithstanding).

How can we build a movement where we not only work across "differences" (in color, in ability, in gender identity, etc...), but a movement that recognizes these differences cannot be taken for granted as natural, but are ordered through the governing structures of white supremacy. That disabled POC have been labeled as such by institutions (mentally incapable, etc.) through the racist logic of public health....

Bronx_Advocate wrote 3 years 41 weeks ago

Try this

I read recently in academic literature about the notion of 'decentered unity', in which several groups of varied interests combine force to effect political change. This is common in Right-wing politics - see fundamentalists and Tea Partyers, for example. I was under the impression that this was happening in the #OWS movement. Despite differences, if we maintain a focus on goals we can build unity. Discussions across differences related to ideologies and social issues may ensue. As we stand next to each other, elbow to elbow, we are bound to become more cognizant of multiple perspectives. But we must keep our eyes on the prize.

Colin Ehara wrote 3 years 41 weeks ago

the anchors of whiteness

Greetings Sister Tammy Kim,

Thank you for putting so much thought, time and energy into writing this. I appreciate your pushes against what you perceive to be false critiques or arguments rooted in hopelessness. There is nothing more frustrating to me than a critique of any movement that essentially states, "why even try?" and I can tell that you are someone who is passionate about social justice and angry about corporate greed and fiscal irresponsibility.

After reading both your and Mr. Farrow's pieces what concerns me is the ways in which you appear (in my biased mind) to not identify your own biases as an Asian (Korean?) American who is neither white nor Black. It is my personal opinion and life experience as a Japanese/white American male, raised working-class in the predominantly of-color community of Richmond, California, that we as Asian Americans (East Asian and/or fair-skinned in particular) are setup to play an albeit small, but still integral role in creating and reproducing systems that dominate and exploit Black communities and maintain structures of racism and white supremacy.

If Mr. Farrow's piece is critiquing a lack of acknowledgment amongst white activist circles in the occupy movement in being able or willing to identify racism, I find it problematic that a Asian American woman and person of color's first response would be to come to the defense of that majority. In my frame of reference as an Asian American man, I know that each time things have become better for Black folks in this country, things have improved for Asian Americans. I know that whenever the patriarchal bombardment that happens in the lives of women and queer folks is lessened, the less bullsh*t I have to deal with as a skinny East Asian brother who has and continues to be emasculated in this country. I personally find it troubling for a number of reasons, that your response to a Gay Black man’s critique of his perceptions of racism and white entitlement in the occupy movement, is one that I would argue seems to ask him to simply quit complaining and get over it. This stance feels unoriginal and in many ways reinforces the myth of our position in society as a “model minority.” This myth creates psychological and physical violence because it makes Asian Americans who don't possess the resources to reach their high/racist expectations invisible, and it also is a direct insult to Black, Latin@ and Native American communities.

I realize completely that the harshness (no doubt usually rooted in love and wishes for prosperity) we are often treated with by our Asian elders as young people in America, can at times translate into indifference to those we perceive to not be working as hard as we are. However, and with this being said, in the same way you are asking Mr. Farrow and anyone who feels the way he does, to push towards self-reflection/critique in efforts to grow/mature/develop, I feel we as Asian Americans (esp. those of us who are relatively or absolutely assimilated into the dominant culture, fair-skinned, middle-class, college-educated, etc.) have to be willing to do the same.

While Asian men have and continue to be emasculated in this country, we must never become so engulfed in historical amnesia that we forget that Black men were lynched by the thousands and literally emasculated/neutered by individuals and/or mobs of conformist white-supremacists. Asian sisters around the world are forced into sexual slavery every day in the same way Black women once were by law in the U.S. and when we are able to connect the dots that come back to the dehumanization of people of color, women, lgbtq folks, poor/working people, the elderly, children, the disabled, etc. it feels imperative to me that we as Asian Americans use the relative privilege we occupy (no pun intended) as a “model minority" to disrupt these systems in any way we can.

While I feel your ability to shed light upon and problematize any sweeping generalizations Mr. Farrow put forth is undeniably intelligent, my personal (biased) wish is that your genius and talent was used in the direction of asking, “why does this brother feel this way?”

If Asian Americans are viewed by "common sense" understandings as possessing functional culture while being perpetually foreign, and Black folks are viewed as possessing dysfunctional culture while being authentically American, it appears that our two groups are the anchors that keep whiteness ("culturally functional AND American") and white supremacy afloat. As a biracial Asian American who neither deifies nor demonizes white people, and actually believes that white supremacy harms the majority of white people by keeping them stuck in conformity, complacency and/or cowardice, my stance is that to not work towards coalition with other communities of color is counterintuitive at best.

In any case, thank you for writing this and for allowing me this space to articulate the thoughts that followed after I read your piece.

With gratitude,

LTE wrote 3 years 42 weeks ago

It's getting to the point...

... the Occupiers are no fun anymore.
I admit to a laugh when your crowd starts the OUR oppression is worse than YOUR oppression.
Pity you missed the 60's Tammy.
I get down on my knees and pray... we don't get fooled again
The Who, 1971 (looking back at the 60's)

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About The Author

Tammy Kim

Tammy lives in Brooklyn, where she writes, works as a social-justice lawyer, and teaches. She grew up in Tacoma, WA and was educated at Yale and NYU.

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