Post the Eightieth or Why “Oppression Olympics” is Problematic

In the relatively short time that I have been an activist and an organizer, I have often come across this concept of Oppression Olympics. Folks often say, “Let’s not make this a game at the Oppression Olympics.” The assumption here is that all oppressions are equal and that to compare them against each other is divisive and fails to the see the point. The point being here that we all need to work together regardless of the different oppressions that we struggle under because at the end of the day we are all the same. It is pointless to compare them or talk about the difference because they don’t matter in the work that we do.

This is problematic for two reasons.

The first reason is who often employs it and for what reason. In my experience, and in the greater context of the phrase, it seems that folks with relatively more privilege use it to silence the concerns of those with relatively less privilege. For example, I got into an argument the other day with some folks on accountability and the importance that allies be held accountable for unintentional acts of oppression. After the argument, someone that I really look up to said that we can’t be wasting our time with Oppression Olympics because there are more important issues to deal with. This really frustrated me because she, an older white lesbian, was basically telling me, a queer trans woman of color, that my concerns were not valid because they were divisive and they were divisive because they compared my experience with others. I felt silenced and put down. Because there are greater concerns, why are you bothering us with yours?

The second reason why this is problematic is because it ignores the very real differences between people and the oppressions they experience. It flys in the face of all intersectionality theory. It ignores the fact that folks exist in different social locations. Statistically speaking, people of color are poorer than white people (and yet are less likely to be on welfare). Statisically speaking, men of color are more likely to be gunned down by police than white men. Statistically speaking, queer and trans youth of color are more often homeless than white queer and trans people. Statistically speaking, trans women of color are more likely to be murdered than white trans women. In almost all cases, if the only difference between two people is race, the person of color will have a harder time of it. These are facts. And the different privileges that we hold mitigate the ways in which we experience oppression. So while a rich person of color might not have it as hard as a poor white person, that rich person of color still has to deal with being oppressed because of her race.

And yet the claim that we shouldn’t make something into the Oppression Olympics would seek to erase those differences. It would have us all believe that we experience oppression in the same way and that to talk about these differences lead to further problems. But as Audre Lorde said, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.” Colorblind ideology does not work. Assuming that we are the same does not work. Assuming that homogeneity is the only catalyst for unity doesn’t work.

What does work is a frank and honest appraisal of where we all are. What does work is acknowledging that we are all different and that our experiences are informed by the space that we occupy. What does work is understanding that we all need to be accountable for the ways that we benefit from systems of power and oppression. What does work is understanding that theories of oppression need to be grounded in the material reality of the folks living those lives.

What does work is giving space for all voices to be heard.

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About witchymorgan

I'm a 22 year old womanist, sex positive, pansexual, polyamorous, queer, bruja, transwoman. Social justice activist by day, social justice activist by night. Fun! View all posts by witchymorgan

16 responses to “Post the Eightieth or Why “Oppression Olympics” is Problematic

  • biyuti

    Of course it is always those with relatively more privilege who never wish to hear of the ways they may be better or above others. Why bother with a complex analysis that recognizes the nuances between different people and the intersecting oppressions we face?

    Nope. Just oppression olympics. :/

    • witchymorgan

      Right. I would rather not be bothered by the way you experience life. I would much rather pretend that we are all the same. Stop making a scene! We will get to you when we take care of my problems.

      So frustrating >.>

      • biyuti

        The ‘we’ll get you later’ thing always kills me. Like. If I’m drowning and you grab the person with a life jacket and tell me that you’ll be back… how likely is it that you’ll actually find someone still there when you return?

        Not very…

      • witchymorgan

        How likely is it that they will return at all?

        Not likely.

  • dolceviognier

    I just came across your site. You really should write a book. I think you explain things in such a crisp, precise way.

    I think the reason why white folks are dismissive is not just because of the arrogance and upbringing, but also because they have no one to explain why their behavior can be offensive. They literally think they aren’t doing anything wrong. But, in their defense, I have met many who rise above their anger so that they can avoid rhetoric and puerile behavior. It needs to be explained in a logical and fed to them like a news feed. I think you could do this.

  • dolceviognier

    Edit* I meant to write that I haven’t met many who can get over their anger, and talk pure information. While it’s hard to control emotions, I really think that once people get angry, they don’t listen. Also, by setting examples, through some of your experiences, you really showed why it was. You made clear point that could be understood by the other side.

    • witchymorgan

      Its so interesting the many ways that folks can read and interpret my writing. I can’t tell you how many comments I’ve gotten telling me that the way I write isn’t conductive to an education conversation.

      But let me be the first to assure you, I am not over my anger.

      • Constantina GK

        I like how we need to get over our anger, instead of the privileged parts of society getting over their ignorance.

        Oh that was a really flameworthy way to put that but I couldn’t figure out a nicer way to say it.

        By the way, your blog is fantastic.

      • witchymorgan

        Sometimes, there is no nice way to say it and it just needs to be said.

      • dolceviognier

        Constantina

        I never said anyone has to get over their anger. I’ve only said that I’ve met some who weren’t able to get over it. I’ve only said the way witchymorgan writes things is very clear, and without too much emotion clouded wording.

        Yes, keeping angry sounding words at a minimum is very important to communication, even though it’s hard to do. Think about it: When a person come at you with an attitude, what’s your first reaction?

        I’m guessing it’s to get nasty right back. When people get nasty with each other, the first thing they do is shut each other out. They stop listening.

  • w4shp0st

    I think of Oppression Olympics as the competition over who’s got it worse. POC or queers? Latin@s or Blacks? Deaf people or lesbians? I don’t think that’s a useful discussion to have, in the sense that different kinds of oppression take different forms.

    But you can call out bad behavior without saying, “My oppression’s worse than yours!” You can say, “You just did something oppressive,” or “I don’t think you understand my oppression, and I want you to,” or “Ouch,” or “What the hell?” It doesn’t have to be, “You just oppressed me, and you don’t understand it because you haven’t suffered as much as I have.”

    • witchymorgan

      I feel like you missed the point of this post. We need to be talking about those differences if we want to challenge them and liberate all people. We need to be aware of the different ways that we are oppressed.

      PoC have had it harder than white queers. Queers of color have had it harder than straight people of color. Intersectionality demands that we understand how different forms of oppression work in concert with each other so that we can paint an accurate picture of what is really happening.

  • Matt Smith

    Maybe I did miss the point – not sure. Or maybe I made mine badly. Let me see if I’m hearing you right.

    When you say, “POC have had it harder than white queers,” do you mean being a POC is harder than being a queer person? Or do you mean, queer POC have it harder than queer White people?

    The former is what I call the Oppression Olympics – trying to compare two different forms of oppression, which makes it sound like one’s not such a big deal. I have a problem with that.

    I believe the latter is what you wrote about in your post – telling someone on the privileged side of a particular identity, aka allies, that they messed up and oppressed you, and there’s something about your oppression they’re missing. I don’t think that’s the Oppression Olympics. It should be obvious that racism+hetero/cissexism is worse than either oppression by itself. It shouldn’t be considered divisive to point out oppression to allies, whether they have some oppressed identity or not.

    So if I read the original post right, what I was trying to say was, I take issue with that critique of you. I don’t think you were engaging in the OO’s, and I do think it’s valid to object to oppression, or tell someone they’re ignorant about something, or they hurt you. You can make those points without making light of their own experience of oppression.

  • Matt Smith

    I thought of a better way to say it. I don’t believe it’s useful to compare two different oppressions, as though it’s a competition for who’s suffering most, and that’s what I call the oppression olympics. But I think you were comparing your oppression with someone’s privilege; or your oppression+oppression with someone’s oppression+privilege. That’s 100% kosher, IMHO.

  • acidicimpish

    Agreed! I remember Riley (dumbthingsstraightpplsay) once said, paraphrasing here, “people only make accusations of ‘oppression olympics’ to silence black folks.” Can’t get more concise and on-point than that, it seems…

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