Working with Privilege and Difference


Return to Conscientious Objection: A Practical Companion for Movements

In this chapter, an activist whose main experience has been in the UK’s intersectional feminist and student movements takes a more general look at privilege and difference, and suggests some practical ways of working with these.

We have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretence that these differences do not exist.1

These words were spoken by Audre Lorde, a black lesbian feminist from the USA, in 1979. How to work with difference is not exactly a new problem, then. More than that, how to work creatively with our differences, rather than merely tolerating them, is an issue with which every movement should be grappling, if the full potential of all participants is to be engaged. Lorde wrote mainly about the differences between women in the US feminist movement of the seventies and eighties, but many of her insights can have a more general application too.

Acknowledging that differences exist is obviously the first step, but the crucial thing is to acknowledge what they mean. Differences tend to be marked as superior or inferior to each other: some ethnicities, genders, nationalities, religions and so on, are popularly and often unconsciously imagined to be ‘better’ than others. Assumptions and behaviours which reflect this still persist, even in situations where everyone is nominally considered equal. Indeed, these assumptions and behaviours can be harder to address in such situations, because it is easier to pretend they are not there.

As Lorde put it: ‘for as long as any difference between us means that one must be inferior, then the recognition of any difference must be fraught with guilt’.2 And I have to personally admit that it can be hard for me to acknowledge that I belong to a group of people which is unduly privileged over others, as this means I benefit from their oppression, whether I want to or not – privilege and oppression are always relative to each other, they are each other’s inverse measurement.

It also means I have to acknowledge that this privilege of mine may account for things I enjoy which I would prefer to think I deserve on pure merit. In my personal case, for example, I can’t claim that any luck I have had in areas such as education and employment – or, in the context of activism, the way my contributions are received by others – is entirely down to who I am as an individual: it also helps that, in my case again, I’m white and middle class. When I’m confronted with the fact that not everybody has these privileges, despite ‘white’ and ‘middle class’ being what we might call ‘default markers’ in my society, as well as markers of imagined superiority, this can feel like a blow to my self esteem. Then the fact that I’m also a woman, which is neither a default marker nor a marker of imagined superiority, can make this feel quite galling: the fact that, in some ways, I have to overcome oppression to enjoy my ‘luck’, will be much more obvious to me than the fact that my privilege helps me in other ways. If I am used to battling against being marginalised, because men, with their imagined superiority over me as a woman in the eyes of my society, are given more of a platform than me in our joint activism, and their contributions are received as more authoritative than mine in any groups to which we belong together, then I may balk at doing anything that feels like giving away what authority and platform I have managed to gain.

But to borrow again from Lorde: ‘i I participate, knowingly or otherwise, in my sister’s oppression and she calls me on it, to answer her anger with my own only blankets the substance of our exchange with reaction. It wastes energy. And yes, it is very difficult to stand still and to listen to another woman’s voice delineate an agony I do not share, or one to which I have myself contributed’.3 Equally, however: ‘the angers between women will not kill us if we can articulate them with precision, if we listen to the content of what is said with at least as much intensity as we defend ourselves against the manner of saying’.4

Working with difference will obviously be a challenge, but there are practical things that can help, some of which are outlined here (see also the introduction to consensus decision making in chapter 9). In an inclusive and egalitarian movement, nobody should have to battle for a platform in the first place: meetings and so on – every meeting – should be structured with opportunities for everyone to have their say built into them. Going around the group periodically asking everyone for their thoughts, for example, instead of just letting people jump in ad hoc, can be a good idea. Asking everyone to be self aware about how much they are contributing is also important, but those who are used to in fact having too much of a platform – the more privileged – may feel ‘marginalised’ when they have any less than they are used to, so asking for self awareness is unlikely, by itself, to be enough.

Similarly, being marginalised will not necessarily feel like it to everyone – particularly those people who are used to being marginalised – and not everyone will feel the need to take advantage of opportunities to make themselves more heard than usual, though missing out on their insights would still be a shame for the group. Nobody should, however, be pressured into making contributions if they don’t want to. Making it possible to contribute in a variety of ways – via written proposals in advance as well as during meetings, for example, or in smaller working groups – can help with this dilemma. It is also, in any case, a more creative way of working than simply going along unthinkingly with a pregiven way of doing things, though it is important to pay close attention to who is actually devising these alternative ways of working: if they are the same people who already benefited from the pregiven way, then they are not too likely to be drawing in the greater variety of contributions they are meant to draw in. The option of making written proposals, for example, may appeal to those who find public speaking anxiety inducing, or who come from an educational background which didn’t prepare them for it, but equally, the same kind of educational background may be required in order to feel confident in writing a proposal.

Sometimes smaller groups or caucuses of people from similar backgrounds are necessary so that those groups can collectively recognise their own needs and devise their own ways of working with them, which they can put to the rest of the group together. Such smaller groups can also have their own value as support networks in the face of shared oppression.


A feminist group gathered in solidarity with women at Yarls Wood immigration detention centre in the UK, under a placard which reads 'Women 4 Women'.

Difference and the associated privilege or lack thereof is not only relevant to our organising in so far as it affects willingness or over eagerness to contribute vocally during meetings, then: difference also means different needs. Lorde asked white women in the US feminist movement of the late seventies and eighties: ‘how do you deal with the fact that the women who clean your houses and tend your children while you attend conferences on feminist theory are, for the most part, poor women and women of Color? What is the theory behind racist feminism?’1 Conscientious objection movements could do well to ask themselves a similar question: do the terms of participating in the movement structurally exclude anyone, for example those who have caring responsibilities and cannot afford to pay someone to take them over for the time it takes to attend a meeting? Are some people facilitated to attend at the expense of others? Are men expecting their wives, mothers and girlfriends to take care of housework and childcare while they go out and work for the glorious revolution? Do better off women have similar expectations of poorer women, especially better off white women of poorer women of colour (or women from the dominant ethnic group of women from other ethnic groups)?

Of particular relevance to this book: is any expectation of the kind on the part of men abetted by a sense of entitlement which stems from being treated like heroes for taking such a brave stand as conscientious objection? For antimilitarists, it can be useful to compare our movements to what we are struggling against: if the people who are front and centre of our movements are the same kind of people whom the military would rate highly in terms of desired personnel – almost always young, heterosexual men without disabilities, and, for the higher ranks, those from the dominant ethnic group and a privileged socioeconomic background – then we know we are doing something wrong.

Some other ways in which movements may or may not be structurally exclusionary are listed in WRI’s Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns:

Where does your group meet? Is it accessible by public transport? Does it have facilities which make it friendly to people with disabilities? Is it an open, comfortable setting generally? Meeting in someone’s home or a pub/ bar/ cafe may make sense for some groups, it also may create barriers or unhealthy dynamics for others. Some people may not feel comfortable around alcohol, or others may be on a limited budget, or ideologically opposed to consumption, so buying a refreshment may seem like an imposition, among many reasons.2

The importance of listening to those who articulate needs which differ from the presupposed needs of the group majority is often stressed, but it is equally important to be mindful of what having to articulate certain needs may cost the person doing so. Lorde described the expectation that women should educate men, Black women should educate white women, and lesbians and gay men — and other sexual minorities — should educate the heterosexual world, as a constant drain of energy and a primary tool of oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master’s concerns.3 The same can be said when it comes to a myriad other exchanges: commonly, for example, between people with disabilities and people currently without. Alongside being receptive and accommodating when unforeseen needs are articulated therefore, it is also important to consider in advance the kind of needs the movement may have to accommodate. This is especially important because of how sensitive some of these needs may be: Wendy Barranco, in her chapter on the role of veterans in the peace and antimilitarist movements, describes the retraumatising effect of being expected to recount her traumatic experiences as a soldier, some of which preclude taking part in certain forms of action, such as loud marches, for example.

Scheduled workshops about the different needs of, and obstacles faced by, given groups of people, are likely to be preferable to those people being expected to educate on demand, or on a case by case basis every time they come up against an obstacle. Such workshops also enable others who do not face these obstacles to take on the burden of education in future. It is important, however, that those others do not go on to present or think of themselves as the ultimate authority on the needs and obstacles about which they are educating on behalf of the people who actually face them. As individuals, we can also do what we can to educate ourselves.

None of this is easy. But doing whatever is easiest is rarely the most creative way to work. And working in a way that does not accommodate difference neither accommodates the reality of the world in which we live, nor the hope of the world we wish to create. This should be particularly clear to the antimilitarist movement, as uniformity is, very literally, one of the key features of any military: if we recognise that militaries are inherently oppressive, then this gives us a clue as to what our movements should strive not to look like. One of the aims of this book is also to draw out the ways in which militarism relies on gender, or patriarchal constructions of gender, which privilege men. To continue privileging men in our movements, therefore, is clearly counterproductive. Patriarchal constructions of gender are not the only nor the main pillar of militarism however, and others such as class, racism and (dis)ableism4 are also discussed in this book. If these uphold militarism, they should clearly not be upheld in our movements.

1 Lorde, Audre 2007, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches by Audre Lorde, (New York: Random House), p112.

2 ibid. p112.

3 Denise Drake and Steve Whiting, ‘Working in Groups’, in Handbook for Nonviolent Campaigns, 2nd ed. (London: War Resisters’ International), p91.

4 Lorde, Audre 2007, pp113, 115.

5Disableism is a British term derived from the social model of disability, in which 'disability' is seen as stemming from social expectations that people will have certain kinds of bodies and minds: minds that are not depressed, for example, or ears that can hear unaided. A mind that is (sometimes) depressed is not seen as an inherent disability in this model. Ableism is an American term referring more broadly to prejudice and discrimination against, as well as lack of accommodation for, people with disabilities.

6 ibid. p118.

7 ibid. p128.

8 ibid.


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