pacifism and privilege

August 28, 2007 at 5:04 am (anti-oppression, anti-racism, Uncategorized)

today i am thinking about what is violence and non violence. maybe this is because i have had in the past month a few conversations with activists by telephone and email who tell me that their pacifism is central to the community work that they want to do.

well i dont consider myself a pacifist although i have worked side by side with them. and i am not sure i would call myself non-violent. there are plenty of times that i have seen and can imagine when direct physical violence maybe the most nonviolent choice available. sometimes the most nonviolent thing you can do is throw a rock at a tank.

both of these guys are white young–they have spent alot of their adult life trying to understand their christianity and their role in the world and they feel that through this discernment that pacifism is their path. but i think that white pacifism first world pacifism has a lot to answer for itself.

why is a boy with a rock more violent more destructive in these guys view than the racism and sexism that they perpetuate and support daily? i know what these guys would say, to be fair, that they are white and male, they were born that way, and yes they have privilege and so they have to ask themselves what is the best way to use their privilege? since they can’t get rid of it.

but i think that that conclusion by these guys is suspect. i mean the reason that pacifism seems so viable to these guys is because they are white and male and straight, the world has been created and shaped and constructed and destroyed in order that they will succeed. everything is constructed to make it as easy as possible for them to feel safe and secure and protected. they can’t really see it because they have been told that this is natural , the divine order of the universe, etc.

to be fair, i dont have a problem with people deciding not to pick up a stone. (the stone is a metaphor for the entire physical violence pantheon.) but i do have a problem with a first world guy, traveling to the third world and refusing to work with people unless they are nonviolent. my question is: who defined nonviolence? why is it okay to work with organizations or communities which are sexist or racist as long as these org’s and com’s choose to never pick up a stone and throw it? what if the community says yes it is nonviolent and of course it will defend itself. what if it is time that we discovered a new definition for nonviolence.

i mean a definition of violence. i think that the worst and most pernicious types of violence are structural. racism sexism heterosexism classism. i mean poverty kills more people than war. the lifetime effects of racism and sexism in individuals are all the symptoms of post traumatic stress disorder. a hypervigilance, flashbacks, lower self-esteem and worth, etc. but it is isnt even post traumatic stress disorder…it is continuing stress disorder. the experience of oppression by poc and women and queer and poor and others is the experience of being in a war, in a cold war, in a cold guerrilla war when your enemies are invisible but deadly. and you hear through the grapevine about a woman has been attacked, a struggling family, a life stolen and you know that could have been you this time. and it reminds you to ‘smile pretty and watch your back’. it reminds you to stay vigilant. you know the enemy would rather that all your people be dead than have authentic power in the world. you watch a white guy walk down the street and you study him to see if he has a gun, if he is a cop.

so it feels to me that white boy pacifism has its priorities wrong. white boy pacifism tries to use all their privilege to stop colored people from being violent. and isnt that what being a white boy is all about?

it is like the michael vick hullabaloo. all of a sudden when a rich talented black man is cruel to animals, everyone is on the side of the dogs. where did all these animal rights activists come from? when did so many journalist suddenly become peta members? what do they think the animals are treated like before these journalists sit down to their atkins approved meal of tortured animals of different species.

when you use michael vicks cruel and violent treatment of dogs as the rationale to perpetuate the dangerous image of blacks (no matter who financially successful) as essentially violent scary uncivilized–then you have used racism (and your white privilege) to protect the animals. and as audre lorde said there is no hierachy of oppressions.

here is the problem: everytime we use our privilege to get in the way of violence, we are splitting communities.

what do i mean by that? well, let me give an example: imagine you are a white boy, living in a community of color, and you see the cops harassing a black boy. so you go over to the cops and you are hoping that because you are white, the cops will leave the black kid alone once they see that you are watching. maybe you even talk to the cops try to show them that violence is not the answer. lets say your tactic works and the cops drive away. the black kid says thank you you saved his life. and you have done a good deed for the day. everyone wins right?

well, im not so sure: you just taught everyone there a lesson. that white skin is power. and is white power really a lesson that you are trying to teach?

so if you use your whiteness as a tool of nonviolence you may want to rethink your tactic. that is if you arent comfortable advocating for white power.

yes you can get rid of your privilege. but there is no quick fix. it is a long and arduous process. i used to think that you could never get rid of your privilege. but you can. you can de-center yourself your race. you can imagine new ways to build relationships and empower communities. i have seen glimpses of this in people. you can stop trying to find ways to hold onto your privilege by telling yourself that your privilege helps people who have less privilege than you do. peoples and communities are authentically empowered when we decolonize our lives, dismantle privilege, and meet them as equals. you cannot save lives with your privilege. you dont save lives. people save their own lives. sometimes they are willing to use you as a tool temporarily. sometimes they pick up a rock.

they may agree to be nonviolent and thus you are willing to work with them. but they want you because of your whiteness, because of all the violence that your represents. and they want you despite your whiteness, despite all the violence that you represent.

i have been to some pretty weird meetings, where white boys stood up and talked about nonviolence as the only way to a peaceful society, when they were the most violent person in the room.

maybe white boys can think of nonviolence as the new ‘n’ word. everyone gets to say it but you.



  1. cal said,

    so if you use your whiteness as a tool of nonviolence you may want to rethink your tactic. that is if you arent comfortable advocating for white power.

    i think that this might be the most succinct and clear you have said it!

  2. John Stephens said,

    > i think that this might be the most succinct and clear you have said it!

    I agree, even though I know plenty of white boy pacifists who wouldn’t be able to swallow it. I don’t exclude myself from your caricature. As a heuristic model, it is very instructive.

    Here you talk about de-centering yourself from privilege, and your words seem to evidence personal experience. Some time ago you posted a link to Damali Ayo’s “I CAN FIX IT” guide to racism. How do you evaluate that as a guide to dismantling white power and privilege? Do you have additional advice or warnings?

  3. John Stephens said,

    I realize I didn’t include much in the way of my own thoughts. Maybe it was better that way. But I the previous message feels a little hollow.

    I think this is an good introduction to the ideas of structural violence, from my own struggle with insolvency and poverty. Structural violence is a subtle and elusive concept to grasp when it invisibly supports your whole way of life. I’ve been studying trauma a lot, and perpetration-induced trauma doesn’t act only on people who have committed horrible crimes — it can unify a whole society when that society has its basis in horrific violence, and like other kinds of trauma, it can be transmitted transgenerationally. Perpetration-induced trauma is a great defense mechanism against acknowledging structural violence. The cure is confession and restitutional repentance.

    In this regard, I think that Damali Ayo’s guide is a valuable map suggesting the way forward: you can’t be healed until you confess and repent and bond with others into real and not conjured community. I especially like her sense of humor. But like your essay above, it is very difficult to offer this resource to the people who need it. The plainspoken style is both off-putting and essential to the integrity of the message.

    I say Damali’s piece is a valuable map, and it suggests a way forward. Your essay suggests several domains of further exploration, but explorers might require further information to adjust for declination.

    If you were publishing this, I would suggest that you strengthen or cut the theme of poverty/class. Your portrait of the white boy pacifist illustrates violence on the vectors of race, sex, religion, and sexuality, but not wealth. And as you know, some of us (white boy pacifists) live paycheck to paycheck struggling with many of the same issues of identity and cold war stress that you describe very aptly above. Being white boy pacifist doesn’t automatically connote wealth (if so, please tell me where I can get an advance share so that I can pay my overdraft fees); you should mention it along with their religion in the beginning in order to establish the contrast.

  4. dark lily said,

    dear john,
    you are correct. the class component needs to be strengthened. i will work on it in a later post. i love damali’s guide for its simplicity and directness. also it is very action-oriented and thus can break through the guilt paralysis of alot of white people. (the i dont know what the right thing is to do i should just not do anything at all and thus i wont make it worse).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: