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malheur wildlife refuge standoff and the deeper implications of privilege

January 4, 2016

Apparently this happened while we were on the coast. My initial reaction is that this is a great example of privilege, one with deep implications:

Privilege in and of itself is difficult to talk about since it makes a lot of people uncomfortable, especially those in privileged positions. Nobody likes to think that they have some kind of natural advantage in life over others, that they have it slightly easier than someone else just because of who they are. I like how Roxane Gay puts it in Bad Feminist:

We tend to believe that accusations of privilege imply we have it easy, which we resent because life is hard for nearly everyone. Of course we resent these accusations. Look at white men when they are accused of having privilege. They tend to be immediately defensive (and, at times, understandably so). They say, “It’s not my fault I am a white man,” or “I’m [insert other condition that discounts their privilege],” instead of simply accepting that, in this regard, yes, they benefit from certain privileges others do not. To have privilege in one or more areas does not mean you are wholly privileged. Surrendering to the acceptance of privilege is difficult, but it is really all that is expected. What I remind myself, regularly, is this: the acknowledgment of my privilege is not a denial of the ways I have been and am marginalized, the ways I have suffered. (17)

And since privilege is relative, it’s not easy to see, often going unnoticed because it manifests itself as a lack of discrimination that isn’t always readily apparent until we take a broader look at society as a whole. We are, in effect, often blind to our own privilege, or that of others, until we take a closer look at how different groups are treated in similar situations.

In this case, a group of armed, white men who feel entitled to public land and more lenient sentencing for poaching and arson have taken over a federal wildlife refuge building and are currently being given a wide berth by authorities. Would the same be true if it were a group of Blank Panthers or Muslims? How about the Black Lives Matter movement? I sincerely doubt it. No other group in the US could occupy a government and have such a measured response. No other group would get such subdued and even somewhat positive media coverage, let alone a modicum of public support. If it were any other group, that just wouldn’t be the case.

Muslims are automatically labelled terrorists in the media whenever they do anything, violent or otherwise. Black men, thugs. But a white man shooting up a Planned Parenthood or movie theatre? Possibly mentally ill. And armed white men trying to expropriate public land and threatening violence if they’re confronted? Well, they’re simply patriots, militia men, anti-government protesters, etc. And police seem to show remarkably restraint when it comes to armed white men, like the recent Planned Parenthood shooter, Robert Lewis Dear, who was apprehended alive after killing 3 people and wounding 9, or James Holmes, who killed 12 and wounded 30, but not so much when it comes to a black kid playing with a toy gun alone in a park.

But I digress. It’s not just about racial privilege, it’s also about political privilege and social power in the form of capital accumulation. As @nerdosyndical points out, “The armed white people trying to dissolve a national wildlife refuge are not practicing terrorism, they are practicing enclosure. They are trying to privatize public (not common) space for personal and private accumulation of capital.” Land is part of the dispute. Who gets to use it and for what. Grazing and hunting rights seem to underlie some of this, which hints at the history of US settler colonialism and process of enclosure, where common land is ‘enclosed’ and thereby restricted to the owner. These men feel entitled to this land, and they’ve taken drastic steps to assert that perceived right.

But what of Native American claims to land that was taken or promised, many of which are supported by treaties that the US government never honoured? What about Palestinians who are being forcibly removed from their land by Israeli colonizers? These are some of the questions that this incident should raise as I think they point towards the heart of the problem, capitalist class relations and how they manifest themselves.

The relative privilege that white men currently enjoy, for example, has its origins in the socio-economic paradigm the US (and arguably most of Western society) was founded upon, which from the start was created by, and mainly for, white, heterosexual, Christian, male property owners. And while there’s certainly been progress towards a more egalitarian society, the structural roots of socio-economic inequalities that create hierarchies of privilege are still buried deep within the makeup of our society and culture, hidden in plain sight. This is merely an exaggerated illustration of historical processes that have been taking shape for centuries.

The real focus, then, shouldn’t be their gender or their race so much as the underlying socio-economic framework that’s made these things the focus for so long—a complex system of social relations forming the material basis on top of which oppressive and exploitative hierarchies are built, a foundation we must recreate if we’re ever to transcend privilege and oppression.

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