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.