Frederick Douglass said something I deeply agree with: “Let he who is wounded cry out.” I take this to mean that members of a given oppressed group have the prerogative to define, lead, and strategize movements for their liberation.
Naturally, sincere people of privilege can join such movements and participate meaningfully. White communists did important unionizing work with Blacks in the South and provided much-needed media attention and legal defense to Black victims of white violence in the 30s and 40s; White (and Black) Hollywood entertainers coordinated successful fundraisers and lent their star appeal to the Civil Rights Movement, and white liberals supported with their feet, voices and wallets.
Anti-racism activist Tim Wise speaks forcefully against white privilege; Mark Anthony Neal has challenged what he sees as oppressive aspects of masculinity; Actor Woody Harrelson commits class suicide whenever he speaks out against corporate greed and exploitation; In 1990, renown legal scholar and key theorist of critical race theory, Derrick Bell took a leave of absence from Harvard University to protest its failure to have any tenured Black female faculty members.
There is evidence then, which highlights how privileged people’s participation (individually or collectively) benefits social justice or liberation movements. Such cooperation and activism from members of the privileged class in attacking the sources of their own privilege can be very useful to liberation movements by bringing in much-needed resources and attention. Such individuals prove equally effective in educating, organizing and deconstructing the hegemonic practices and institutions of their fellow privileged peers.
But there are also dangers involved when members of a privileged class champion the oppressed and join movements for their liberation. Often times, privileged people impose their sensibilities, methods and normative standards upon the very people they claim to fight for, thus mirroring the hegemony and arrogance practiced by the powerful forces they presumably oppose.
Additionally, there are cases wherein the oppressed became dependent on the funding and other resources of their privileged supporters, and this dependency alters the goals and tactics of the movement, giving privileged people far too much influence and leading the oppressed to become back-seat drivers in their own liberation struggle. For example, in his famous “Message to the Grassroots” speech, Malcolm X explained how white liberal elements compromised the objectives and content of the 1963 March on Washington (see below):
Lastly, members of the privileged class have the luxury of joining and later abandoning liberation movements out of fear or changing political currents.This was certainly the case with the populist leader Thomas Watson who first advocated equality for poor Black farmers during the late 1800s, then later promoted white supremacist ideals to appeal to Southern white voters in the 1900s. Referring to the Black man, he would later write, “We have to lynch him occasionally, and flog him, now and then, to keep him from blaspheming the Almighty, by his conduct, on account of his smell and his color.”
All liberation movements can benefit from sincere allies including those from the privileged class. However, as Douglass noted, “Those who are wounded should cry out.” Men defining themselves as “feminists” can confront their brethren on patriarchy and male privilege. Whites can do anti-racist work in their churches, schools, and community organizations. Affluent but class-conscious folk can work to educate and organize their wealthy peers. But ultimately, the oppressed must maintain and protect their right to self-determination. They should define their goals and objectives, leadership, and methods, and they should always be the recognized authorities of their own movements.
Women should primarily lead, define, and orchestrate movements against sexism, people of color should primarily lead, define, and orchestrate movements against racism, and the working class and poor should primarily lead, define, and orchestrate movements against corporate/class exploitation. Again, others can join and even help to lead, but they should not dominate or be depended on for resources.
And, If non-oppressed people are uncomfortable following the lead of the people most impacted by oppression, exhibit an obsessive desire to control or dictate policy, and refuse to confront the hegemonic ideas/practices of themselves and their own peers (who are most responsible for oppression and who most benefit from it) we have to question their usefulness and relevance to our liberation movements.
Agyei Tyehimba is a former NYC public schoolteacher, co-founder of KAPPA Middle School 215 in the Bronx, NY, and co-author of the Essence Bestselling book, Game Over: The Rise and Transformation of a Harlem Hustler, published in 2007 by Simon & Schuster. Agyei has appeared on C-Span, NY1 News, and most recently on the A&E documentary, “The Mayor of Harlem: Alberto ‘Alpo’ Martinez.” Last year, Agyei wrote, “The Blueprint: A BSU Handbook,” to teach leadership principles to Black Student Unions. Mr. Tyehimba is a professional consultant and public speaker providing political advice and direction for Black college student organizations, community activist groups, and nonprofit organizations. If you are interested in bringing Agyei to speak to your organization, contact him at email@example.com.