Elizabeth Yeampierre is a commanding speaker. The executive director of Uprose, Brooklyn’s oldest Puerto Rican community-based organization, and champion of the environmental justice movement, took to the podium at last week’s People’s Climate March meeting and stole the show with a thundering performance.
The pretext for her speech was the upcoming demonstration in Washington, D.C for climate justice, and how the gathered New Yorkers could build towards it. Yet it soon became clear that her real target were those activists who, in her view, hijacked movements started by those less advantaged them themselves. Put simply, it was a message to wannabe do-gooders to “check their privilege.”
Yeampierre asked the audience – which was, like many recent organizing meetings I had attended predominantly white and undoubtedly fairly wealthy – what their commitment was to supporting the frontline leadership of the environmental justice movement – which was neither. “How do you share power? How do you step back in your privilege and use it to lift instead of supplant? Do you appropriate, or do you fetishize people?”
She went on to cite the trouble Water Protectors at Standing Rock faced combating their enemies on one side and meddling allies on the other: “Our [indigenous] communities [at Standing Rock] are stuck between an administration that I believe wants to eliminate us, and well-intentioned allies who went for the experience and the inspiration without asking if they were needed or what was needed.” The warning was clear: allies could be more of a hindrance than a help.
I understand and respect Yeampierre’s conviction. As she explained, she has fought for justice every day of her life. Her record of community service and achievement is astonishing, even more so considering the institutional and normative roadblocks that typically stymie such breakthroughs by people of color. I am in contrast a white man with a healthy income still wet behind the ears when it comes to community organizing.
There is a difference between being asked to check your privilege and being told you are part of the problem
And yet I felt slighted. I had come to the meeting to pitch in. I wanted to join another front in the Resistance. The event was branded as an “organizing meeting” but it seemed as if Yeampierre saw the gathered activists as potential double-agents for the very forces they wanted to fight against.
“We are very clear about how this movement is going to fail,” she said. “We are stuck between people who want us out and people who are so ensconced in their privilege that they have to go to through this long process before they can even give a $5000 grant for people [Uprose] who have transformed the landscape in their community…we’ve got [lots of] things going on and we are doing so much with so little while people are racing to the front…because they are addicted to celebrity or addicted to the mike.”
I understand the importance of checking one’s privilege. I do not see it as the insufferable burden that alt-right outrage merchants and certain left-wing blowhards make it out to be. It is simply the act of recognizing one’s own context in contrast to others and how this dictates one’s interactions within a movement, organization, or conversation. It is not an imposition; it is a fundamental courtesy – it is an essential courtesy that has to be extended by all who wish to participate in transformative social movements.
Yet there is a difference between being asked to check your privilege and being told you are part of the problem. It is alienating. I do not expect to be invited to an organizing meeting and told that my intentions may not be honorable. That I am after celebrity or the mike.
I am happy to pass on a leadership role for a cause that is not my own or an issue I do not understand. Within the Resistance I am content in the role of a footsoldier, using my privileges – money, networks, free time, a media platform – to support those rightly leading the charge. If that’s all a movement that I care about wants from me, that’s fine – come out and say it. Do not, however, say I am welcome to help organize a march, a movement – whatever – in service of a cause I do understand and do own (we’re all living on the same planet after all) and then assume my involvement will be problematic. That I haven’t considered my privileges and will seek to appropriate the cause for my own ends. That’s the way towards losing allies altogether.
And as Winston Churchill once said, the only thing worse than fighting a war with allies is fighting a war without them.