Though well-intentioned, the practice of “centering” oppressed voices in left circles threatens to become an end in and of itself.
Anyone involved in activism during the last five-eight years is likely familiar with the practice of “centering” marginalized voices at rallies, protests, and demonstrations. This practice entails placing the voices of oppressed people—African Americans, Muslims, women, immigrants, LGBT people—front-and-center during speeches or pre-march rallies. The practice is sometimes referred to as “Passing the mic.”
In theory, “centering” is a well-intentioned concept designed to give space to oppressed individuals who often are denied a platform to speak publicly or whose voices are generally ignored.
But, alas, the “road to hell…” as they say…
The problem with “centering” is its complete disregard for the actual content of the speakers’ speeches. Protest organizers often assemble their multi-ethnic/multi-racial/gender-“non-conforming” panel of speakers with little to no concern for what, exactly, they are going to say at the event, or how a panelist’s views may differ from those of the host organization.
As a result, you wind up with black speakers who encourage participants to divest their money from corporate banks like TD, Bank of America and the like, and participate solely in “black banking,” or only patronize businesses owned and operated by African Americans.
Again, this is an understandable and well-meaning idea. But as a socialist I have to ask: How does shopping exclusively at “black businesses” in any way threaten or undermine the system of capitalism?
Answer: It does not.
Indeed, this strategy strikes me as all too similar to the naïve liberal belief that shopping exclusively at “small businesses,” or “buying local,” can create a more egalitarian world. While I certainly prefer shopping at a locally-owned coffee shop rather than at Starbucks any day of the week, the small businesses in my neighborhood are no less motivated by profit than a giant corporate chain is. Likewise, the baristas at the local coffee shop are no less exploited as workers than those at Starbucks.
(Voters in Portland, Maine defeated a referendum in 2015, put forward by the Portland Green Party, to raise the city’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. Most of the opposition came not from chain stores or corporate retailers, but from the city’s myriad “small” businesses and restaurants.)
But, as a white male, I am prohibited from offering this counter-argument to the “black business” strategy. That is because the practice of “centering,” in its effort to raise the voices of marginalized people, often excludes those of white, straight men, entirely. Protest organizers tend to be quite explicit about this. Your role at these demonstrations if you are white, male, straight or all of the above, is basically to sit down, shut-up, and defer entirely to people of color, women, LGBT folks, etc.
Other times, the speakers assembled will not express any coherent political philosophies or strategies at all. They will just rant.
The need to rant about racism, homophobia, sexism and “The System” at large, is no doubt an entirely natural, human desire—especially for those who must endure such pernicious forms of oppression on a daily basis. We all need to rant at some point. It is, I suppose, a necessary form of catharsis.
But merely ranting about the system will not change it. In order to do that, we need carefully thought out political theories, philosophies, strategies, and views. And we should debate those views among each other in a comradely fashion. Selecting speakers based on their gender, gender-identity, race or sexual orientation, rather than their political views, denies leftists this opportunity. As a result, leftists are less knowledgeable about how, precisely, to go about creating a world devoid of sexism, racism, ableism, and capitalist exploitation.
Finally, if the goal of centering is to provide a platform for those routinely denied one, why are poor or homeless people (of any race, ethnicity, gender, etc.) rarely among the speakers featured? Poverty is, after all, a form of oppression.
Socialists are often accused of “class reductionism,” or focusing exclusively on class while ignoring or downplaying the significance of other forms of oppression. This was the chief complaint among liberal women and people of color about Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Yet, these accusations of sexism and racism were—particularly in the case of the former—cynically stoked by the Hillary Clinton campaign, in order to discredit Sanders and his platform of democratic socialism.
Leaving aside the fact that socialists have historically been at the forefront of struggles against sexism, racism, homophobia and the like, identitarian liberals are rarely accused of class reductionism’s inverse: identity politics. The point is, just as oppression based on identity cannot—and should not—be ignored, neither can class.
As Sanders said in a widely mischaracterized speech during a post-election book tour last November, “It goes without saying that as we fight to end all forms of discrimination, as we fight to bring more and more women into the political process, Latinos, African Americans, Native Americans—all of that is enormously important, and count me in as somebody who wants to see that happen.”
“But,” Sanders went on:
“… It’s not enough to say, ‘I’m a woman! Vote for me!’ No, that’s not good enough. What we need is a woman who has the guts to stand up to Wall Street, to the insurance companies, to the drug companies, to the fossil fuel industry.”
These limitations beg the question: At what point does centering become little more than a politics of representation at best—or a cynical form of tokenism, at worst?
This is not to suggest there is no value in sitting back and listening more—especially for those of us (white men, mostly) who, admittedly, tend to do most of the talking. And marginalized people should tell their own stories, and lead their own movements. But centering—like all forms of identity politics—threatens to become an end in and of itself.
It is time for the left to move beyond the practice of centering and toward an orientation of solidarity. Our orientation should be the old labor slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.”
This is not to suggest we abandon the practice of centering, altogether. I do believe it has some value.
But if we are serious about ending racism, sexism, xenophobia, homophobia—and, ultimately, the capitalist system that perpetuates such forms of oppression in the first place—then we need to, in the words of the rap group, The Coup, “pick a bigger weapon.” And that weapon, in my opinion, is socialism.
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