I’m celebrating Christmas this year in London with a few friends from undergrad. It’s our first holiday away from home. Working with a student’s budget, we rummaged presents from bargain bins, chipped in to buy a full turkey for roasting, and painted a Christmas tree to paste on the wall. After dinner on Christmas Eve, we went to midnight mass at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The streets were mostly deserted on our walk to the cathedral. As we got closer, I could see the remnants of Occupy London camped out on the sidewalk around St. Paul’s. There were maybe 60 to 70 tents, a smattering of signs encouraging passerby to “stop banks” and re-direct funds toward social programming. Some of the Occupiers came out of their tents to watch the throngs of people streaming into St. Paul’s.

During the night’s sermon, the bishop encouraged parishioners to use Christmas as an occasion to reflect on our best selves and work toward embodying this ideal. He urged us to reflect on how our actions connect to a wider society, to consider the sustainability of our collective lifestyle. Although he did not mention the protesters camped literally at the doorstep, I couldn’t help but think about all Occupy protestors around the world who have taken to the streets because they believe in their vision for a better world.

I’ve been a bit obsessed with the Occupy protest movement this semester, tracking the progress of Occupy protests in cities across the U.S. From New York City to Hartford to Anchorage, American citizens have taken to the streets in numbers that very few thought were possible. When the Occupy protests first started getting big, I had a long conversation with fellow American students also studying in Italy. Someone asked if we would participate if we were back in the U.S. My automatic response was “yes, of course I’d be there.”

Nearly three months later, I don’t know if my answer is so simple. I read stories of people joining these marches whose houses have been foreclosed, who can’t pay their medical bills, who served multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and can’t find post-war work, who are homeless with children, who have insurmountable levels of student debt, who are working eighty hours a week and still can’t pay the bills.

Photo via The Guardian

The more I read about the stories behind this fall’s wave of protests, now spread to cities throughout the world, the more I feel my own privilege. The obvious appeal of the slogan ‘We are the 99%’ is the ability for a huge array of people to rally behind it. I certainly don’t represent the 1%. But I am starting to think a bit more critically about divisions within the 99% itself.

One of the major criticisms of the Occupy protests is over-representation of young, white perspectives. Occupy the Hood was begun as a supplement to and critique of Occupy Wall Street – as a way to bring more non-white perspectives to the table and to spark more critical discussions about the intersection of race and class. In the U.S. 46.2 million Americans live below the official poverty line – of these the majority are black and Hispanic. Access to wealth has a strong correlation to ability to obtain a bachelor’s degree. According to 2010 statistics, students from families in the highest income brackets are almost eight times as likely than their peers in the lowest income brackets to receive a degree. At the same time, America has the highest incarceration rate in the world (2.5 million incarcerated in 2008), while 47% of inmates are black (although they represent only 12% of total U.S. population).

On a global scale, divisions within the 99% are even starker.  According to the World Bank’s Development Indicators,  80% of the world’s people live on less then $10 USD a day, while the poorest 40 percent of the world’s population controls only 5 percent of global income. According to a study by Harvard and the Asian Development Bank, 6.7% of the world has a college degree.

As a young, white, college-educated American woman I am the global 1%. Within my own country, I am pushing the upper limits of the 99%.

As an undergrad, I spent a lot of time in campus and community dialogue events. A major component of these initiatives was learning how to be an ally – how to put your own perspective in check and listen to marginalized voices, how to analyze the intersectionality of our struggles and ultimately use this common ground as a way to build. The Occupy movement is making me rethink what it means to be an ally.

Is “We are the 99%” a useful expression of solidarity or a way to gloss over examination of our own complicity in global dynamics of inequality?

The Occupy movements have been criticized as unfocused and unproductive. I think this misses the point. At their best, protests shake us up, make us think differently.  They help us to visualize our best possible world.

As I walked out of St. Paul’s on Christmas Eve, I stopped to look at the Occupy encampment one last time. One of the Occupiers was singing Ave Maria in a flawless soprano. A few church-goers stopped to listen.  I walked home feeling grateful for my bed, for my friends, for all the papers waiting for me back at school, for a lot of things.

I have three semesters left at grad school. I want them to be about figuring out how I fit into the bigger picture, how to translate my privilege into action.