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(en) Canada, A&S*, Upping the Anti #1 - Roundtable on Anti-Oppression Politics in Anti-Capitalist Movements - Edited by Sharmeen Khan

From Worker <a-infos-en@ainfos.ca>
Date Mon, 25 Apr 2005 09:07:35 +0200 (CEST)


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The modes of resistance and struggle that came out of liberation
movements in the latter part of the 20th century gave rise to anti-
oppression organizing and politics. Anti-oppression arose out of the
left's failure to develop a nuanced approach to questions of oppression
and to consider various forms of oppression as "class issues."
In recent years the rise of the anti-globalization movement
has influenced, and been influencedby, anti-oppression analyses, as
the movement sought to address the effects of global capitalism on
different communities and peoples, and to understand the varied effects
of power, privilege and marginalization in individual communities, as
well as in national and international contexts.
Among social justice activists organizing around anti-oppression
politics, many questions have come up as to how to envision and create
a transformative politic around issues of racism, sexism, heterosexism
and able-ism within an anti-capitalist analysis. The current separation
of identity politics from class struggle does not speak to the experiences
of marginalized and exploited people in our communities, and we need
ways to discuss and organize around the connections between various
oppressions and capitalism. As anti-oppression activists, we need to
develop a critical discourse that connects the socio-historical contexts
of capitalism and class to race, gender, sexuality and ability.
To the annoyance of some leftists who argue that capitalism and
class form the fundamental basis of all oppression, anti-oppression
organizing seeks to understand the connections between racism,
sexism, heterosexism, colonialism and class. Anti-oppression politics
have the potential to provide a useful antidote to reductionist
perspectives which leave out the fundamental roles of patriarchy and
racism in determining both capitalism and class relations.
But is this happening? Or are anti-oppression activists repeating
the same mistakes made by proponents of identity politics in the
1960s and 1970s, and being co-opted by the claimed multiculturalism
of the Canadian state? Do anti-oppression politics expand the analysis
of radical organizing, or are they merely "reinventing the wheel" by
addressing individual behaviors? Can anti-oppression politics provide
a model for a multi-faceted analysis that addresses oppression and
class exploitation as distinct but nevertheless intimately interrelated
social relationships?
The dynamics of anti-oppression politics often reinforce notions
of oppression that we should be trying to debunk. People of colour, for
example, are often deemed anti-oppression "experts," and are expected
to do anti-oppression work for primarily white organizations. What
are systemic issues then become problems stemming from individual
behaviour, which can lead to the de-politicization or political paralysis
of activist groups. As the radical roots of anti-oppression in feminist,
anti-racist and queer movements become co-opted, the education
model developed by anti-oppression activists is being taken up by
mainstream, "multiculturalist" and liberal discourses.
The following is a roundtable discussion based upon interviews
with three activists who have engaged with anti-oppression politics in
the context of radical political organizing. These interviews address
the relevance, influence and problems of anti-oppression politics for
these activists. We encourage feedback and further discussion on
the ideas expressed here. If you would like to write us with your own
observations on these questions, or contribute an article for the next
issue of our journal, please get in touch with us.

UTA: Please introduce yourselves.
Kirat Kaur: I am a young, able migrant woman of South Asian
descent. I am currently an organizer with the Bus Riders Union and
a board member of the South Asian Network for Secularism and
Democracy (SANSAD).
Junie Désil: I am a Haitian-Canadian feminist community
organizer and writer. I was born in Montréal, but I now live and work
in Vancouver, where I provide training in the area of facilitation (using
an anti-oppressive framework), community development, as well as
working at the Vancouver Status of Women, a women's centre in East
Vancouver.
Gary Kinsman: I got involved in the revolutionary left in the
early 1970s and, shortly after, came out as a gay man and got involved
in queer organizing.1 I come from a white middle class background and
I am now a university professor. I have been involved in the Sudbury
Coalition Against Poverty and Autonomy and Solidarity.

UTA: What has been your experience with anti-oppression politics?
Kirat: My experiences with anti-oppression politics have been
varied, and, initially, led me to find it a problematic discourse. I was
first introduced to this kind of politics in my training for a local rape
crisis line's volunteer peer support work. The training was done in an
anti-oppression framework, with the second half of it broken up into
workshops that dealt with each individual oppression. In particular,
I remember the workshop on `class oppression' to be not much
more than making sure people were not engaged in `poor bashing'
and discussions about how we should not `discriminate against poor
people'. At this time in my political development, my class analysis
was weak, and so I accepted that definition of `class oppression' as
a starting point from which my understanding of class developed
(although my class analysis did not grow from within that particular
organization). Moreover, even then, I found that particular brand of
anti-oppression politics to be very much focused on inter-personal,
individual change, with no attention paid to systemic issues and to
fighting collectively for systemic change.
Since then, through my involvement with revolutionary grassroots
organizations, I have come to realize that most anti-capitalist organizing
does not integrate a strong analysis of other forms of oppression such
as race and gender oppression. Through my organizing with the Bus
Riders Union, I have come to see that a strong anti-racist, anti-sexist,
anti-oppression framework is integral to the success of social justice
movements.
Junie: I have been involved in anti-oppression politics for
some time, though in the past 4 or 5 years, I would say I have really
come into my own. Having said that, my work and anti-oppression
politics continually evolve, and will always be a "work in progress."
I first started as a young Black woman dedicated to anti-racism at
the University of British Columbia. In my involvement with various
student groups, I started to become self-aware and politically involved.
Such spaces were critical for me as they validated my existence and my
experiences as a racialized woman, but sometimes these spaces only
validated one or two experiences at a time. I started to find "single
issue" politics and organizing problematic; they only addressed one
issue or discrimination at a time and did not necessarily take into
account the multiplicity of locations myself and others around me
experienced.

Somehow, quite by accident really, I started to facilitate "diversity
and inclusion" workshops, which let's be honest, tend to focus
on "celebrating" difference, having (white) people feel good, and
providing no actual space for participants to reflect on or acknowledge
their privilege, or "see" the systemic discrimination and oppression
marginalized groups experience. I started going through the pain of
giving such workshops, and I had to start reconfiguring what such
workshops should look like.
Two experiences stand out that really solidified my resolve to
change my approach. The first involved my being contracted to do a
three workshop series for youth at a youth resource centre. The youth,
by outsider and social service standards, would be deemed "at-risk." I
was asked to do anti-oppression workshops, and to particularly talk
about homophobia, white privilege, etc. The youth were primarily
First Nations between the ages of 13-24, and there were a few white
youth as well. The sessions were hard and intense given the nature of
the workshops, the wide range of ages, the life experiences and status
these youth occupied. Halfway through the second session, one fairly
young attendee interrupted the workshop and said, "why do we have
to learn about racism when they're the ones who have problems with
us?" I remember being floored, because, to a large extent, he was right;
we had forgotten that this was an anti-oppression workshop that was
supposed to examine all forms of inequality. But I was also floored
because we were talking about different kinds of oppression (not
just racism), and how they interconnect. For many of the youth, the
workshop was about anti-racism and nothing else. I had to ask myself;
"what was I (not) doing for this understanding to sink in (or not)"?
The second experience, which was an ongoing struggle, was my
paid work, where I was working with a new regional organization that
focused on how youth were affected by violence, using photojournalism
as a medium. Part of my work was to do leadership-training workshops
for youth. At the end of the training, youth were supposed to be able
to go out to schools and into the community in order to talk about
their experiences with violence. There were a number of problems
with the model, one being that speaking from experience is fine, but
without context it risks being misunderstood. For example, many of
the youth experienced violence as a result of their sexual orientation
(whether perceived as queer by their peers or consciously out). Others
experienced violence as a result of their ethnicity and race. Thus talking
about violence devoid of such contexts was problematic. I prepared a
12-week curriculum, and asked guest speakers from Women Against
Violence Against Women, women's centres and other community
groups to come in while I covered the "presentation" basics. My efforts
to contextualize the violence that some of the youth experienced
as a systemic problem, as an institutional problem rather than an
individual experience, were repeatedly thwarted. Those experiences
made me realize that I needed to shift my politics or at the very least
my framework. That realization and the fact that mentors and other
like-minded activists in my entourage could show me an alternative
really helped focus my anti-oppression work.
Gary: My first grappling with anti-oppression politics in the
context of anti-capitalism and the left took place around queer
struggles and queer liberation as we struggled to have lesbian/gay
liberation integrated into the politics of the Revolutionary Marxist
Group, and later, the Revolutionary Workers League in the 1970s.
There were years of battle against the notion in much of the left that
gay/lesbian liberation was a `marginal' or `peripheral' issue compared
to the `centrality' of a narrow political economy notion of class and
class struggle.
In the context of this struggle, I also became profoundly affected
by feminism and later by anti-racist movements. When it became
clear to me that the Leninist left was not going to be able to learn
in any profound way from feminism and the queer movements I left
it in 1980. For a period of time (and still), I was very influenced by
Sheila Rowbotham's socialist feminist critique of Leninism developed
in the book Beyond the Fragments. One of the main points developed
in this book was the inability of the Leninist left to be transformed
by feminism and other movements coming out of experiences of
oppression, and how feminism could provide at least part of the basis
for a new left that could move beyond the fragments.
For the next sixteen years I was a left activist in the gay liberation
and AIDS activist movements with a little bit of anti-war organizing
at the time of the first Gulf War. I was involved for a number of years
in Rites magazine, which attempted to develop a more radical queer
politic by making links between different forms of oppression, as well
as between oppression and class. I also worked with Gay Liberation
Against the Right Everywhere (GLARE). I was involved in the
resistance to the police raids on gay men's bath houses in the early
1980s in Toronto, and later in AIDS ACTION NOW! I learned a lot
from my involvement in these struggles and movements.

In the mid-1990s, in the context of the Mike Harris neo-
liberal `common-sense revolution,' I once again joined a radical
left organization. This time it was the New Socialist Group, which
I thought held out some promise for developing a broader class
struggle politics that could include feminism, queer liberation, and
anti-racism. In the context of this group I again tried to help facilitate
learning from feminist and queer struggles with some success. At the
same time, this project was limited by the fact that a lot of feminist
and queer struggles that were at one point extremely radical had been
transformed into more moderate movements. In relation to queer
organizing, this had to do with a shift in the class composition of
queer movements with a new professional-managerial queer strata
gaining hegemony. A critical class analysis was now necessary to grasp
what was going on in queer movements and community formation.
The more recent focus on same-sex marriage as the end-game of our
struggle has made the moderate direction of the mainstream queer
groups very clear. For me it is almost impossible to be a queer activist
anymore given the connections that need to be made with class and
other social struggles if these struggles are to be made radical again
­ radical as in getting to the root of the problem.

UTA:What, in your opinion, has been the greatest influence
of anti-oppression work in anti-capitalist movements? How
has it contributed to the consciousness of anti-capitalist
activists?
Kirat: I think that to some extent, anti-oppression work is
really the articulation of long-standing criticisms of anti-capitalist
movements in the First World (i.e. that their class analysis ignores
other forms of oppression, that their leadership is white male-
dominated, and that this is precisely what has shaped the inability
of anti-capitalist movements to organize the different sectors of the
working class). Like it or not, class is lived through race, gender and
other forms of oppression, and no, these will not magically disappear
`after the revolution.' In fact, we have seen historical examples of how
a revolution has not, in fact, automatically eliminated gender and race
oppression in places like Nicaragua and Cuba. Also, while it is true that
race is often used to divide the working class, simply ignoring these
racial divisions that already exist will not make them go away. Anti-
racism is not the same as colour-blindness. I think it is about time
that anti-capitalist movements start to develop a more sophisticated
understanding of the intersections of the different oppressions, and
how we must fight against all the forces of oppression together in the
fight for a more socially just world.
Junie: One of the greatest influences that anti-oppression
politics has had on the anti-capitalist movement is the understanding
that power and privilege cannot go unexamined in the fight against
capitalism. Additionally, we must recognize that capitalism affects
different groups differently, that different groups have been exploited
in different ways in order to advance capitalism, and that most
importantly, it is no mere accident that these groups bear the brunt
of capitalism. Despite that influence, I still find that individuals and
groups who have difficulty understanding their power and privilege
are unable to share power, and feel the need to speak for marginalized
groups and often dominate anti-capitalist groups and movements.
There seems to be a basic inability to understand that anti-oppression
politics is a framework that informs how one organizes, how one shares
material and information, how one participates, how one invites other
groups to participate.
Good anti-oppressive feminist politics need to form the foundation.
For example, a number of anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist groups exist
in Vancouver. Organizing, educating, protesting and rallying are some
of the activities these groups engage in. Yet many groups are left out
as a result of the lack of a nuanced anti-oppression understanding and
framework. Thus protests and/or rallies are planned quickly with little
consultation, a lack of representation of people, issues and interests,
a lack of acknowledgement of the fact that we are organizing on
unceded indigenous territory, a lack of planning for accessibility, for
interpretation, for making the spaces safe/accessible for children, etc.
If none of these considerations take place at the basic level of coming
together, of planning and educating, how then can we consider our
politics to be anti-oppressive? While many of these groups are making
changes, the changes are slow. However long these changes take, anti-
oppression frameworks and politics can strengthen the anti-capitalist
and anti-imperialist movement.
Gar y: While I have learned a lot from feminist and anti-
racist movements, I have also become committed to a politics of
responsibility in relation to fighting oppression. This is far more than a
politics of solidarity based on learning to support other social struggles
and learning from these struggles. We need to recognize our own
social locations and our implications in social relations of oppression
and to begin to challenge white and male privilege. As someone who
identifies as male and white, this has been especially important in
trying to develop a politics of responsibility in challenging patriarchal
and white hegemonic relations from within my own social location. In
addressing my own implication within, and responsibility for, white
hegemony, the following quote from Himani Bannerji's Thinking
Through (in which she refers to white academics she has worked with),
has served as a useful starting point;
"And sitting there, hearing claims about sharing
"experience," having empathy, a nausea rose in me.
Why do they, I thought, only talk about racism, as
understanding us, doing good to "us"? Why don't they
move from the experience of sharing our pain, to narrating
the experience of afflicting it on us? Why do they not
question their own cultures, childhoods, upbringings,
and ask how they could live so "naturally" in this "white"
environment, never noticing that fact until we brought it
home to them?"
For me a politics of responsibility is crucial to developing anti-
oppression politics. Those of us who participate in producing relations
of oppression need to challenge them from our locations to open up
more space for those who directly experience oppression. We don't
have to wait to be asked to act against oppression, we can take our
own initiatives and begin to undo oppression from our places within
it.

UTA: How do you feel about anti-oppression politics
and education now being used by hierarchical and capitalist
institutions such as union bureaucracies and the state? What
are some of the contradictions and problems you have found
with anti-oppression politics?
Kirat: It has been easy to depoliticize and de-radicalize anti-
oppression in capitalist institutions, which is of course their aim,
whether conscious or unconscious. It would not really be in the interests
of the state or capital if people were to really start understanding and
acting upon their analysis of oppression, would it?
So a lot of the language and ideas have been co-opted, stuck in
the realm of `identity politics' and rendered useless. However, I think
there is still room to see that as a starting point in people's political
development, although there is so much out there to keep people
stuck in that world-view and not develop their understanding
As I mentioned earlier, one problem is that it is easy to get
stuck in the interpersonal, and lose sight of the systemic. While
both aspects of oppression are important, we need to find ways to be
constantly evaluating our personal and interpersonal relationships to
each oppression, in the context of systemic forces, in order to unite in
collective struggle.
Another problem that I find with anti-oppression politics is that
there is a tendency to diffuse each kind of oppression as happening on
an equal footing. I do not believe this to be true; I believe that class
is the central contradiction in the world today. This is not to say that
other forms of oppression do not act on people's lives independently.
For example, Maher Arar's status as a middle class person did not
stop his deportation from Canada to detention and torture in Syria.
My point though, is that an anti-oppression framework can fall into
being too simplistic, kind of like a checklist, where the more kinds of
oppressions you fall into, the more oppressed you are, when really, all
other kinds of oppression are experienced through class. For instance,
an upper class disabled person will have far more access to resources
and far less experiences of marginalization and of struggle than
a non-status migrant from the Third World who can't even receive
disability benefits. Also, being classified as a member of more than
one oppressed group does not just have an additive effect, but implies
entirely different conceptions of people's lived realities.
My best experiences with anti-oppression have been organizing
with the Bus Riders Union. The BRU's strategy involves building an
anti-racist and anti-sexist organization of the multi-racial, mixed-
gender working class. We fight to win concrete gains for transit
dependent people, the majority of whom are women, people of
colour, and Aboriginal people, while building a long-term movement
for social justice. We recognize that it is precisely those who are the
most marginalized who have the most to gain from fighting for a more
just world. Thus, the BRU prioritizes the education, training and
leadership of working class women of colour and Aboriginal women,
and looks to Third World movements for inspiration and guidance. My
worst experiences of anti-oppression have been when the framework
has fallen into all the traps I have talked about earlier and become de-
politicized, tokenistic and destructive.
Junie: Anti-oppression politics, however empowering and
liberatory, does have its drawbacks. It's now the new buzzword in
the social activist/education scene, and is quickly being co opted and
absorbed into mainstream spaces. In my paid work, I receive phone
calls from organizations, unions, school boards, and university student
groups asking for anti-oppression workshops. Others call wanting to
find out what an anti-oppression framework would look like and how
it can be implemented, as if doing so will only take a phone call, or the
workshop time requested. On the one hand, the recognition that such
work and education is important, that anti-oppression politics are
integral, makes one feel excited at the idea that change is happening.
On the other hand, a number of problems arise both in terms of
understanding anti-oppression politics and how we do our work.
First, anti-oppression education is a lifelong commitment. No
amount of workshops will make one an expert. Second, the nature of
anti-oppression begs one to re examine one's power relations, one's
privilege(s) in relation to other groups, to consider how our multiple
locations may shift and change depending on the spaces we occupy.
Sherene Razack in Looking White People in the Eye, argues that a politic
of inclusivity, of adding up oppressions, so to speak, is simply not
enough. Rather, a politics of accountability needs to occur, where we
not only look at how we are differently affected, but also how we are
complicit in the subordination of others. Because anti-oppression
education is not comfortable and is challenging (as it should be), it
does not follow the script of "let's all feel good, and celebrate our
differences, our foods and dances." Thirdly, the very same people
affected by these dominant systems of oppression are the same ones
facilitating or doing anti-oppression education work. The emotional
toll, the price we pay is extremely high. We put ourselves, our bodies,
on display as we stand in spaces where participants may not reflect
our experiences, where often we prove, yet again, that oppression does
and continues to exist.
This brings us to the fourth problem with anti-oppression work;
that we need to regroup and figure out what exactly anti-oppression
work is about. Too often the anti-oppression education that is taking
place becomes a space where participants from dominant groups
become the centre of attention and focus, and the centre of education.
This inevitably leads to the question of who should be doing the
educating. I would invite readers to ask instead, "when and where are
appropriate spaces to do anti-oppression work?" Ask yourselves and
others, "how can I/we take on the work? How can I be an ally?" Fifth,
as anti-oppression educators, we need to be connecting with our allies,
and allies need to be stepping up to the plate to educate those privileged
communities. While there is the understanding by some that it is not
up to those that come from marginalized spaces to teach privileged
"dominant cultured" individuals or groups, at the end of the day, many
of us are in fact educating these privileged groups. There is also the
concern that many of those individuals doing ally work using an anti-
oppressive framework are not in fact doing so. Instead, individuals
facilitating these workshops leave their privilege unexamined. Sixth,
anti-oppression politics need to get out of academia. Many of us,
(myself included) come in with a set of language and vocabulary that
not only reifies the activist/academia divide, but also ignores the work
that many have been doing in academic spaces.
Lastly, a conversation needs to occur between the anti-imperialist,
anti-capitalist and anti-oppression movements. Pitting one against
the other is not useful, but, given the focus of these three movements,
the head butting is understandable. Each one needs the other, but
I see the anti-oppression movement from a feminist perspective as
integral to any organizing and education work. Perhaps it is necessary
to have these three spaces to talk about the systemic injustices that
are experienced by marginalized people and communities. If that is
the case, each of these spaces needs to become much more nuanced
in their approach to organizing and educating. The anti-oppression
movement seems to be headed in that direction, but perhaps needs
to be much more explicit when it comes to anti-capitalist and anti-
imperialist education; I would argue that it is not entirely lacking that
analysis. Each of these spaces needs to understand that the systems of
power rely on each other to maintain themselves. Capitalism cannot
work without imperialism; they go hand in hand. Capitalism and
imperialism cannot work without the hegemonic, racist, sexist, ableist
and heteronormative spaces that define our world.
Gar y: While there have been major insights in anti-oppression
politics as they have been developed there are also major contradictions
and limitations. Each form of oppression has its own specific social
character ­ its own autonomy so to speak ­ and there is a danger of
flattening out the differences in the social organization of the various
forms of oppression in developing a common anti-oppression politics.
Sexism is not racism and is not heterosexism, even though they are
made in and through each other and are connected to class relations
in a broad sense. Each specific social form of oppression requires its
own autonomous movement and struggle, while at the same time we
have to see how forms of oppression and class exploitation mutually
construct each other. It has been understandable that in response to
the narrow "class first" politics of much of the left, activists rooted
in movements against oppression have developed a distinct politics
separate from class and anti-capitalist politics. At the same time,
this also opens up space for the deployment of new strategies of
regulation and management of movements and communities of the
oppressed including formal legal equality (which is not the same as
substantive social equality), multiculturalism, strategies for producing
layers of a middle class elite that can speak for and be the `legitimate'
representatives for various communities, and various strategies of
integration into the existing order of things (same-sex marriage as the
end-game of our struggle being one of these strategies).
Often this revolves around a politics of inclusion and representation
which poses the struggle as one of representation within and
integration into existing forms of social organization rather than a
radical transformation of existing social relations. These strategies
of regulation construct a rigid separation between social identity and
community and a radical critique of capitalism, thus denying the social
and historical connections between community formation and class
relations. This helps to create the space for the emergence of middle
class elites in various communities and movements to rise to the top
and shift politics in a more pro-capitalist direction. We have to reject
this separation, and discover instead how to build a broader notion of
anti-capitalist and working class politics that includes anti-oppression
struggles at its core. Anti-capitalist politics cannot currently be
developed without addressing its links to the various struggles against
oppression.
In my view, this is the only way that anti-capitalist politics can
be made actual as a revolutionary praxis. Anti-capitalist politics needs
anti-oppression politics and radical anti-oppression politics needs a
broader anti-capitalist perspective.
While anti-racism and feminism have been far more successful
than queer politics as forms of radical anti-oppression, they (along
with anti-disability and anti-ageist forms of organizing) are all crucial
to the development a new anti-capitalist politics that addresses
oppression as central to class politics. Most recently, I have found
currents within autonomist Marxism (see my article "Learning from
Autonomist Marxism" in this issue of Upping the Anti), that develop a
broader notion of the working class and anti-capitalism that includes
the struggles of housewives, students, and peasants. Broadening
notions of working class struggle is very useful in bringing together
anti-oppression and anti-capitalist politics. Autonomist Marxism has
also grasped the need for the autonomous struggles of working class
women against patriarchy, people of colour against white supremacy,
and queers against heterosexism. While not resolving the problems we
face, autonomist Marxism can provide us with tools that are key in the
development of an anti-oppression politics that is at the same time
anti-capitalist. Until we have broadened our understanding of anti-
capitalist politics and working class struggle, it is vital to stubbornly
hold onto anti-oppression politics (despite their imperfections), and
to prevent them from being subordinated to a narrow notion of anti-
capitalism. At the same time, on the level of forms of organizing
and tactics, some of the acquisitions of the global justice movement
(including direct action politics, affinity groups, spokescouncils, etc.),
can also help us create the basis for a radical anti-capitalist anti-
oppression politics.

NOTES:

See Gary's interview with Deborah Brock for Left History called
1
"Workers of the World Caress" on organizing around queer questions
in the revolutionary left in the 1970s at www.yorku.ca/lefthist/online/
brock_kinsman.html).

=============================
* A&S - Autonomy & Solidarity is an anticapitalist antiauthoritarian
revolutionary network in Canada.]


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