On a Thursday night when I showed up at Occupy Wall Street from a community meeting with some South Asian friends, we were handed a sheet of paper with a working draft of the Declaration of the Occupation.
The night before, I’d heard the Declaration read aloud at the General Assembly and turned to my friend, Sonny, after noting the line that hit me in the stomach: “As one people, formerly divided by the color of our skin, gender, sexual orientation, religion, or lack thereof, political party and cultural background…” Initially we’d shrugged it off as a rhetorical flourish. Then we realized this was about to become the Declaration of the movement, sent out to the world as a defining document of the occupation. The proposed text ignored people from countries that have been colonized and communities right here where democratic participation is anything but a given. It was not something I could get behind. But I couldn’t walk away from the document, or from this movement, either.
So our radical South Asian contingent stood up. My friend Hena addressed the crowd of hundreds with our concern, and we were told to send an email that could deal with it later. Hena persisted, and again the facilitators at the General Assembly tried to bypass our grievance and push it off until later. They warned us that to “block” the Declaration was a serious act. We knew it was a serious act. And that is why we did it.
It is intimidating to speak in front of hundreds of people, but it is even more intense to speak in front of hundreds of people with whom you feel aligned—and to whom you are saying something that they don’t necessarily want to hear. We told the General Assembly that we wanted a small change made to the language, but that this change represented a larger ethical concern. To erase a history of oppression in this founding document, we said, was not something that we could allow to happen. We proposed that they cut out the line, and after minutes of debate they accepted our change. We withdrew our block. My friend Sonny looked me in the eye and said, “You did good.” I had never needed to hear those words as much as I needed to hear them then.
After the assembly concluded, I spoke with some of the men who had written the document. Let me tell you what it feels like as a woman of color to stand in front of a white man and explain privilege to him. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. Sometimes it is exhilarating. Every single time it is hard. Every single time, I get angry that I have to do this; that this is my job, that it shouldn’t be my job. Every single time, I am proud of myself that I’ve been able to say these things because I used to not be able to, and because some days I just don’t want to.
In that small circle following the assembly we did a crash course on white privilege, structural racism and oppression. We did a course on history and the Declaration of Independence and colonialism and slavery. It was real. It was hard. It hurt. But people listened. Sitting there on a street corner in the Financial District at 11:30 p.m., talking with 20 mostly white men, it all felt worth it. Explaining the way that women of color like me experience the world — and the power relations, inequalities and oppressions that govern that world — felt for me like a victory.
A victory not only for myself and others who feel the way I do, but a victory for the movement. As I biked home that night over the Brooklyn Bridge, the world seemed somehow, just a little bit more, in that moment, to be mine. It seemed somehow like the world that could be all of ours.
This article, an adaptation of a Facebook note by the author, was first published in our third print issue on October 11, 2011.