Identifying as “the 99%” is sure to appeal to a diverse group, but the Occupy Wall Street movement has been dogged by issues of diversity. “Occupy Wall Street is a men’s movement,” blasts a recent brochure from feminist blog RadFem-HUB. Women’s interests are being pushed aside, it declares, and men are assuming positions of power. Chauncey DeVega says he is “concerned that white group interests, white experiences, white politics, white understandings of the good life, white history, white humanity, and white concerns, remain normalized by OWS” (also see Tim Wise on the Rachel Maddow Show). Still others report, “On multiple occasions, we have witnessed the exclusion of trans people from spaces and groups affiliated with Occupations…We have also encountered transphobic hate speech within the movement. This must not be allowed to continue.”
In a movement targeting the financial titans of Wall Street, a movement fundamentally about economic inequality, categories of race and gender may seem unrelated but they are in fact critical for the 99%. As Tina Dupuy writes,
“Occupy is really a microcosm of the greater culture at large…America’s gender conflict fault-lines are making a familiar reappearance inside Occupy, with results both predictable and novel.”
Many occupiers recognize these problems and are working to address them through committees, working groups, and spin-off organizations (e.g., People of Color Working Group, Occupy the Hood, Immigrant Worker Justice, Women Occupying Wall Street, Queering OWS). There are some indications that their efforts may be paying off.
In theories of social movements, categories of race, class, and gender are subsumed by such concepts as collective identity, collective grievances, and framing. Participation, for example, is more likely if one identifies with a movement and if its grievances resonate with one’s own experiences, beliefs, or values. For that reason Manissa McCleave Maharawal and a South Asian contingent in Zuccotti Park insisted that the Declaration of the Occupation be made more racially inclusive. African Americans have been turned off by banners equating debt with slavery and calls to “take back our country,” a country that they feel dispossessed of. The language of “occupation,” if not the tactic itself, strikes many Native Americans as callous and has led protesters in New Mexico to rename their encampment (un)Occupy Albuquerque. Unless OWS takes steps like these to make race and gender more central to its calls for economic justice, something many have advocated for, it will struggle to mobilize a diverse constituency.
As social movement scholars, we too should ask ourselves whether race, class, and gender should be more central to our analyses. The experiences of OWS suggest that their relevance may go beyond collective identity, grievances, and framing. No amount of strategic framing will guarantee that the white males purportly in charge will recognize, understand, or act on issues of race and gender. For Olson, this is the crux of the issue:
“The key obstacle to building the 99% is left colorblindness, and the key to overcoming it is to put the struggles of communities of color at the center of this movement.”
Nor is a racial or gendered collective identity sufficient to explain how people see and make sense of the world. As feminist scholars have argued, we must consider how race, class, and gender intersect to shape our experiences and worldviews. It’s not a question of whether race and gender are related to OWS, it’s a question of how.