That U. Penn Teaching Assistant is not the problem, she’s the symptom of a greater rot in the progressive movement and academia
The “progressive stack” is a method to order speakers and participants by race and gender along a “social justice” hierarchy. Women “of color” come first, men “of color” next, then white women, and at the back of the line, white men.
The progressive stack is all over the news the last few days because a graduate student Teaching Assistant at the University of Pennsylvania, Stephanie McKellop, bragged on Twitter about using the progressive stack in class, as we reported in U. Penn Teaching Assistant Calls on White Male Students Last, Because “Social Justice”:
The reaction is shock and amazement that such a racist, misandrist method would be used so openly, but those of us who have followed the progressive movement and campuses are quite familiar with the progressive stack.
Occupy Wall Street – Started the Progressive Stack?
I first learned of and wrote about the progressive stack in connection with the Occupy Wall Street movement in October 2011, Saturday Night Card Game (Dominant progressive white males in the #OccupyWallStreet mist):
But this story (h/t Publius) caught me by surprise, although in hindsight, it’s no surprise.
In the mist of Zuccotti Park, progressive white males are dominant (hence, the mocking of the protesters as “overwhelmingly white“)…
Since having white males dominate was unacceptable, the participants came up with a solution, a race and sex-based pecking order, with white males speaking only after others have spoken:
The concept of the progressive stack at Occupy Wall Street was described at the time at Feministing Blog:
Occupy Wall Street’s General Assembly operates under a revolutionary “progressive stack.” A normal “stack” means those who wish to speak get in line. A progressive stack encourages women and traditionally marginalized groups speak before men, especially white men. This is something that has been in place since the beginning, it is necessary, and it is important.
“Step up, step back” was a common phrase of the first week, encouraging white men to acknowledge the privilege they have lived in their entire lives and to step back from continually speaking. This progressive stack has been inspiring and mind-boggling in its effectiveness.
This chart is one example of the hierarchy of identities:
This video shows how the progressive stack was implemented at Occupy Richmond:
Truth-Out, after describing the many indignities perpetrated on the women of Occupy Wall Street by the men of Occupy Wall Street, further explained the logic behind the progressive stack:
Another check on structurelessness comes in the form of the “progressive stack,” in which the “stack-keeper,” who is in charge of taking questions and concerns from the audiences at general assemblies, is given the ability to privilege voices from “traditionally marginalized groups.”
In other words: women and minorities get to go to the front of the line. Yesenia Barragan, 25, a Columbia student and longtime activist, notes that in reality, progressive stack often means, “my partner, who’s a white man, has to wait twenty minutes or more to say his piece. That’s how it works,” and how it should work, she says. “We need to address those power relations.”
The progressive stack, added to a “step up/step back” policy that encourages those who have spoken to let others speak, and those who have been quiet are asked to share their thoughts, ensures that a diversity of voices are foregrounded.
The progressive stack method was proposed for Wikimedia by one author in November 2011, though there’s not indication it was used, Three Occupy Wall Street tactics the Wikimedia movement should copy:
As I watched the General Assembly [at the Occupy Wall Street protest], held at seven every evening, three things struck me as useful for the Wikimedia movement:
The “progressive stack” notion could help Wikimedia combat systemic bias in our projects. I want to immediately note here that the progressive stack is not uncontroversial in the Occupy movement: the New York General Assembly has agreed to use it, and is using it, but a couple of facilitators openly expressed ambivalence towards it. I am well aware that anything hinting at a progressive stack would be generally disliked in the Wikimedia movement, for lots of reasons.
The progressive stack is based in the premise that people who come from culturally dominant groups have throughout their lives been encouraged to speak, and rewarded for speaking, whereas people from other groups are more likely to have been ignored or silenced. Therefore, when GA participants line up in a “stack” to speak, the movement has agreed to privilege the marginalized by moving them forward, ahead of others. In practice this means that women, people of colour and gays and lesbians may get to speak before straight white men. You can read more about the progressive stack in this article from The Nation, this Feministing article, this discussion on the Occupy San Jose site and this discussion on Occupy Nashville.
I don’t flat-out love the progressive stack either: it’s obviously problematic. But it does strike me that it’s got application for the Wikimedia projects and our problems with systemic bias. I wouldn’t advocate that we give people from underrepresented groups a louder voice than others, or that they be given particular extra privileges of any kind. But I would recommend that if for example we’re arguing about a topic related to India, and there’s an Indian person in the conversation, given that we know Indian people are underrepresented on the projects, it would make sense for us to listen to that person extra carefully, since he or she would be bringing information we’d otherwise be likelier to miss. Same goes for women, and other underrepresented groups in our community.
Progressive Stack Becomes Part of Left-wing Activist Organizing
Although the Occupy Wall Street movement went away, only recently to be reincarnated as Antifa, the racist stack kept on going as part of progressive identity politics. Whether the progressive stack started in academia or moved from Occupy Wall Street to academia is something of a chicken-and-egg problem. But the progressive stack concept clearly took hold in parts of academia, as this 2013 book Without Borders or Limits: An Interdisciplinary Approach to Anarchist Studies reflects:
The progressive stack became part of the fabric of activist organizing, without much controversy. This 2016 article by a CUNY graduate student describes the progressive stack as a key component of organizing, Creating Spaces for Conversation: Three Strategies:
A few weeks ago, I was asked to facilitate the question and answer period for an academic event about supporting female teachers, particularly those who are teaching undergraduate humanities classes. While we often think that question and answer sessions just magically happen, these conversations often reproduce dominant hierarchies of privilege and power, especially in terms of who gets to speak and have their voice heard. Below is an except from my opening remarks on the importance of challenging these dynamics and two strategies, “progressive stack” and “step up, step back,” both of which I learned from the Occupy Wall Street movement and have since helped me in my efforts to create more inclusive environments, including in classrooms.
Taking “stack” just means keeping a list of people who wish to participate—offer a question or comment—during the Q & A. Rather than anxiously waving your hand around and wondering if you’ll be called on, if you would like to participate, signal to me in some way (a gesture, a dance move, a traditional hand-in-the-air, meaningful eye contact, etc.) and I will add you to the list.
However, we’re not just going to take stack, we are going to take progressive stack in an effort to foreground voices that are typically silenced in dominant culture. According to Justine and Zoë, two self-identified transwomen who were active in the movement, progressive stack means that “if you self-identify as trans, queer, a person of color, female, or as a member of any marginalized group you’re given priority on the list of people who want to speak – the stack. The most oppressed get to speak first.” As I take stack, I will also do my best to bump marginalized voices and those who haven’t yet had a chance to participate to the top. As you might already be thinking, taking stack is an imperfect method, especially because it relies on the perception of the person taking stack. For that reason, while I’ll start us off by taking stack, if at any point someone else wants to take over, please feel free to do so.
The progressive stack now is considered part and parcel of creating “safe spaces” for progressive organizing and meetings:
Here are some ways you can take steps towards safer meeting spaces, as a facilitator:
* * *
Use a Progressive Stack: A stack is a term that refers to keeping track of who wants to speak next, so folks don’t have to keep their hands up forever and so everyone doesn’t speak at once. It’s literally a list, sometimes even written down, that keeps track of who is next to speak. A progressive stack is a stack that prioritizes voices that are less likely to be amplified. So, for example, if two people have their hands up and one person has already participated a lot and the other hasn’t, the facilitator will call on the person who hasn’t spoken as much. Or, if there are a bunch of people with their hands up, the facilitator will call on those who are of underrepresented or those of marginalized identity/ies first.
What Happens In Ithaca, Doesn’t Stay In Ithaca
The progressive stack is not just theoretical or academic. The progressive stack was used in Ithaca, NY, at a Black Lives Matter rally in January 2016, as I reported in At anti-racism rally, Whites allowed to speak only after People of Color:
A rally is planned in Ithaca, NY, for January 9, 2016, against allegedly racist violence by police, specifically the non-indictments in the deaths of Sandra Bland and Tamir Rice, and the deaths of Betty Jones and Quintonio LeGrier.
The event is taking place at the Ithaca Commons, a public space in the center of town.
Here’s part of the description from the public Facebook Event Page….
I learned about the protest a few days ago, but didn’t write about it because I thought one of the conditions placed on who could speak at the protest might be a hoax.
Why would I think so?
Because “people of color” will be given preference in speaking over whites. At an anti-racism rally. Seriously….
Can you imagine the public outcry if the racial roles at the event were reversed?
But this is Ithaca, so there will be no cognitive dissonance….
Welcome to the Ithaca progressive bubble, where fighting racial discrimination justifies their own racial discrimination.
In response to my report and the attention on the racial prioritizing of the event, the lead organizer, former Ithaca College student Dubian Ade, accused me of being a white supremacist:
The same racial stacking was used again at protest organized by Dubian Ade in July 2016, as I reported in #BlackLivesMatter rally segregates speakers by race, quoting the Ithaca Journal report on the event:
About 400 people marched from the Southside Community Center to the Ithaca Commons Friday night and called for an end to systemic racism and police killing black people.
[Black Lives Matter Ithaca organizer Dubian] Ade addressed the crowd once the march ended at the Bernie Milton Pavilion. He said people of color would get priority on the megaphone.
“If you are not a person of color, please wait,” he said. “We prioritize our voices since we are the ones who are the most affected, and our voices are usually the ones that get pushed out”
In both of the events in Ithaca at which racial stacking was used, Cornell Prof. Russell Rickford was a featured speaker, a reflection of the intersectionality between campus and off-campus activism.
Jews Don’t Stack Up
In the progressive movement, Jews are considered privileged and “white,” putting them low on the progressive stack spectrum. Standard anti-Zionist polemics portray Israel as a white-supremacist state, even though most Israeli Jews are refugees from or descendants of refugees from Arab countries. Israel also has rescued Jewish communities from non-white regions such as Ethiopia.
Jamie Palmer, writing at The Tower in April 2016, astutely points out the ugly side of the progressive stack, and how it is used against Jews:
A lot has been written in recent months about the unwelcome resurgence of political correctness and identity politics and the exasperating doctrines of the social justice Left. I will simply make the curt observation that the progressive stack—an organizing principle designed to foreground the voices of those deemed to be “marginalized”—has not been kind to Jews.
This is partly because those in charge of arranging ethnicities into a hierarchy of oppression are still trying to decide whether or not Jews should to be considered “white” and therefore “privileged,” and, as such, undeserving of the social protections from racism afforded to other minority groups (as though it were within their rights to define the Jews in the first place). This problem is, of course, exacerbated by the Livingstone Formulation.
But there is a further problem with the way racism is conceived and understood as a structural problem by social justice activists. According to the precepts of critical race theory, racism only results from a combination of prejudice and power. Since anti-Semitism is a conspiracy theory about the malign influence of a powerful and mendacious world Jewry, it essentially holds that the Jews are experiencing hatred on account of the power they hold. Anti-Semitism, therefore, is not racism at all, but something more akin to resistance.
We’ve seen those progressive stack politics used by people like Linda Sarsour and anti-Israel LBGT activists who seek to drive Jewish supporters of Israel (who are the vast majority of Jews) out of the progressive movement, as detailed in our prior posts:
U. Penn TA is a Symptom, Not the Problem
So to sum up, progressive stacking is nothing new. It has been a core part of progressive and academic organizing at least since the Occupy Wall Street protests of 2011. You just didn’t notice it until a U. Penn graduate student Teaching Assistant bragged about it on Twitter.
That U. Penn Teaching Assistant is not the problem, she’s the symptom of a greater rot in the progressive movement and academia.
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