Tax Team Members Reflect on Posting Their Pictures

Mac and Sophie are members of the RG/Wealth For the Common Good Tax Justice Campaign. Each of them created a sign and photo to post on the tumblr blog westandwiththe99percent and then changed their facebook profile pictures as well to promote the November 17th day of action (organized by OWS). After uploading, they asked each other about their experience:
What was your biggest fear about changing your profile picture?
Sophie: That people in my extended network, people I barely talk to (who are my facebook friends), would see me as a silly little white girl with guilt issues. I didn’t want it to seem like I was posting a sort of confession in order to be forgiven for my “sins”—internalized racism and classism. It’s important to keep reminding myself that you can’t ever expunge that internalized stuff through any kind of activism. I was also worried that posting the picture would seem like such an insignificant gesture—not only useless from an activism standpoint, but actively snatching the spotlight away from where it needs to be—the stories of the 99 percent and those who have suffered the most in this economic crisis.
Mac: For better or worse, I have been slow getting into facebook. I intentionally limited my friends to people who I don’t have a better way of keeping in touch with—mostly people who live in other places and a lot of extended family. I don’t have a huge number of friends and, initially, my fear was that the photo would not have as much impact and exposure as it could.
I also imposed a deadline on myself that allowed me a limited amount of time to fret about it. I spent a few days writing out signs and getting feedback from my housemates and my brother. I also looked through the wearethe99percent tumblr, noting what posts were most meaningful to me and why. I wanted to tell something personal and honest, but also felt compelled to say too much. In many parts of my life and activism, I worry about oversimplifying. When I wrote “I am healthy” even that felt like a lie because my diabetes is a daily struggle and the times that I feel unaffected by the disease are so few, though I am undeniably less limited by it because of the team of doctors and stockpiles of insulin I have—but how could I possibly fit that on my piece of cardboard?! When I wrote “I am the 1 percent,” I wanted to say instead, “I identify as the 1 percent because of the immense privileges I have had in my life because of class, race, education, medical care, confidence, social networks, legal support, encouragement and safety nets; I do not have assets in my name that would qualify me as the 1 percent but someday may.” While the second statement is true and can be an important part of the work of re-writing how we think and talk about privilege and wealth, this was not the forum.
A roommate—who also held the camera and took the photo for me—gave me some great advice while I was struggling to edit. She said “Mac, you are already telling people something they didn’t ask to hear. Keep it short.” That felt like a really appropriate check on my desire to take up space and over-share. And a reminder that my choice to post this photo is very personal, but this is about a bigger message. Holding up a sign that says “I am your ally” probably doesn’t mean so much if I am not checking my entitlement…
What were you hoping to accomplish?
Sophie: Start conversations! Get people talking about privilege and the U.S. economic system. Inspire others to come out about their privilege and use it for social justice.
Mac: Rich kids telling their stories and advocating for redistribution and equitable taxation is one of the most clear-cut example of solidarity and good “ally-ship” that I can think of. We are privileged people organizing our OWN communities for social justice—something that the world has been asking us to do! (Feels so much better than joining in and risking “taking over,” hiding, wandering aimlessly, wondering what my role is…)
What was the most positive response you got? Most negative?
Sophie: People I know who are NOT part of the 1 percent have been really positive. Maybe they’re just being nice. But they’ve said some really great stuff about how important it is to start these conversations. As for negative: that would have to be the people who say that they don’t think Occupy is accomplishing anything; that the tactics (occupying public space, clashes with law enforcement) are not going to effect change. But that’s not really aimed at me—more at the movement in general—and I’ve learned a lot from my conversations with people who feel this way. There are probably people who don’t like what I did who aren’t telling me—who knows?
Mac: The response was OVERWHELMINGLY POSITIVE and the support seemed to come from ALL corners of facebookland. People shared the photo all over the place with flattering comments saying how proud they are. I got positive feedback from friends in other cities I haven’t spoken to in years, distant cousins on the East coast, exes, friends organizing around OWS and those organizing other movements for social justice. People I thought to be apolitical shared it, and old friends who are outspoken anarchist punks even posted it with love. Furthermore, even outside of cyberspace, I had friends, family, activists, and a friend-of-a-friend in a bar mention that they saw the photo, looked at the blog and support what I am doing.
I can also say that my dad saw the photo and was upset. I have been talking to him about my work with the Tax Campaign and it usually degenerates into an argument. But something about me sharing that photo in particular (maybe because other family members saw it?) really made him defensive. He told me he saw the photo and he felt attacked. When I talk about my privilege and how different that looks from most of the 99 percent, he thinks it is meant to make him feel badly about his life—especially the parts of his life he is most proud of. And on an even deeper level for him, this feeling reminded him of arguments he and my mom had when they were married.
I’m sure there are many more arguments to come, but it was nice to hear that this (classism, talking about money, redistribution, and my work) IS personal for him, too and is not just a repeated talking point from Fox News.
I’m sure that there are other people out there who do not like and/or do not understand my picture. But that’s okay and part of the process, right?
Would you do anything differently? What would you change about your sign or picture, if anything?
Sophie: I don’t mention taxes OR being in the 1 percent in my sign! The first was a mistake—I need to go back and insert a piece about the tax system in there! But not identifying as the “1 percent”—that’s a little more complicated. I certainly grew up in the 1 percent. But right now, I live off my salary and have no trust fund or other sources of wealth. There are many mitigating factors, of course: my health! My lack of debt! The free meals from my parents whenever I want them! But the 1-percent privilege I enjoy now is more wealth privilege than financial wealth. So I’m not sure I identify as the 1 percent RIGHT NOW. But denying my association with the 1 percent feels dishonest, as I am still very connected to many networks of privilege BECAUSE of growing up the way I did. So maybe “Grew up 1%, standing with the 99%” works better.
What I would do differently: I would think a little more strategically about how I am using my facebook profile—to keep up with friends? To spread the word about activism and political events? To attract potential employers? I think the dynamic part about this activism is that it can and should spread across several networks—friends, colleagues, strangers you meet randomly—but it’s important to frame it as a project that you are working on and want to share with others, rather than as solicitation. For the future, I’m committing to thinking more intentionally about the online presence I put forward, and how to preserve my honesty, integrity, AND professionalism.
Mac: I would have liked to change my profile picture at the same time as other young people with wealth. There is no way of knowing how many people would have recognized this change as being coordinated, but I wish there had been a clearer way for me to show that not only am I trying to stand up for equitable redistribution of wealth AS a person with wealth, there are others doing the same thing…many others! (wink*nudge* post your pictures, friends!!)
I wouldn’t re-do my first attempt. It is OK to make mistakes! And it is worth acknowledging the way that class privilege often softens the consequences of making mistakes. In the future, I want to push myself to talk about my privilege without talking about my disease. Talking about my type 1 diabetes and access to medical care feels useful in the fight for affordable, universal health care, but I don’t want to rely on the parts of my identity that are victimized by the system in order to talk about the parts of my identity that are favored by it.
I have also amended the words in my sign somewhat—continued to shorten it, mostly.
My roommate and I took the picture outside in the garden one afternoon so the lighting feels a little bit like a Glamour Shot…
What’s the hardest question you’ve been asked since this whole online activism push started? When you’re not having those conversations…when you’re just going about your everyday life…what thoughts come to mind about all this?
Sophie: One question that keeps coming up is: “Why give more money to the government, an inherently racist, classist, imperialist institution?” Good question. I’d like to figure out how to campaign for tax reform WHILE determining where that extra revenue will go. AND making sure that 1 percenters are not the only ones making those decisions. But I think what we’ve done is an important first step. There needs to be a shift in the way we approach the stockpiling of wealth in this country, and a FUNDAMENTAL shift in popular mythology about all wealthy people having “earned” their money. It’s great that westandwiththe99percent is getting all this attention. But 1 percenters have always held the media spotlight because of our privilege, and I think that we on the tax team need to use that attention strategically to shift awareness to where it belongs: the most disenfranchised of our society. People need to be working on immigrant rights, and safety for sex workers, and raising the minimum wage for those in the service industry…
Mac: Same for me! “Why give more money to the government while the government is responsible for so much oppression and destruction?” This is both the question that I most often struggle with in my own head and also the hardest question I have been asked by others. This is hard because I think it is extremely valid to have passion and dedication for creating community-based solutions that do not rely on amorphous, centralized, racist, hierarchical governments. AND it’s totally rational to feel deeply betrayed and distrustful and angry when it comes to government. However, I try to focus on a few things: 1) the government ALREADY possesses the infrastructure to act as a redistributive tool—which is something our society badly needs. 2) My class privilege has conditioned me to divest from social systems when I am dissatisfied, rather than INvesting more time, money and love to improve systems for all of us. It is worth it to push against that conditioning. Furthermore, studying, discussing and fighting to change tax policy forces me (and my family) to look at how our lives depend on others in very concrete ways. 3) I want to believe that our government can and will someday make rational decisions about how to spend public money. I really do think that addressing where it comes from is part of the solution. And I am hoping the Tax Team’s efforts will help those who are also doing the important work of reducing/ending military/prison spending, fighting for reparations and building sustainable systems in their own communities.