“Oppression Olympics” Isn’t a Thing

Well-meaning folks who assert that we shouldn’t do “oppression olympics” often say this as a call for solidarity. The logic is that comparison can breed contempt, as folks can end up feeling that their own hardships have been erased, their own concerns minimized. Mutual recognition is the goal, so we shouldn’t place a hierarchy on experiences with oppression.

But this assertion has two effects (aside from its intent): it diminishes the extent to which certain forms of oppression (for example, anti-blackness) are unique in degree and in kind within the American context, and promotes the idea that visibility will lead to less racism (i.e. the more people see it, the more likely they will stop engaging in it interpersonally and institutionally).

The problem is there actually is not a competition like the phrase denotes—some experiences with oppression are demonstrably worst. For example, mounds of research shows that both historically and currently, Native Americans suffer some of the largest racial inequities in education, income, housing, health, sexual assault, etc., with Black people not far beyond in some areas, but exceeding in others.

Some folks reading this might see mentioning the above is in and of itself a form of “oppression olympics.” What’s odd about this claim is though some experiences with oppression are in fact similar, they simply are not the same. Essentializing those difference can be problematic, but a solidarity built on the idea that pinecones and pineapples are the same because they are both grow on trees is tenuous. Recognition is important, but recognition can’t be sustained by acting like two isn’t greater than one.

Though there is a level in which systemic oppression is conceptual, it certainly is not entirely so—we can actually be empirical about this, choosing whatever measure we want. The internment of Japanese Americans was bad. The genocide and forced relocation of Native Americans was worse. Indentured servitude by poor early European settlers to the Americas was bad. The enslavement of Africans was worst.

The Holocaust is often considered the worst genocide in human history by Western thinkers. In ways that are both fair and problematic, most subsequent atrocities will inevitably be compared to it. But we actually don’t have to adjudicate whether or not the Holocaust was the worst to concede that “worst” is by definition a comparison—in order to establish a superlative, we have to compare it to other things. Just as Michael Jordan can’t be considered the best basketball player if no one else has played basketball, any form of oppression can only be deemed the worst in the context of other forms of oppression.

In my personal experience, I don’t think I’ve ever seen or heard anyone tell someone who was discussing the Holocaust to stop doing “oppression olympics.” I more often than not hear the term evoked in discussions between Black and non-Black people about systems of anti-Blackness and disagreements on how to dismantle them.

To be candid, when I hear it brandished, I often interpret it as way to slip Model Minority mythology into the subtext of a conversation. Especially in progressive spaces, it’s the most polite and effective way to say either “My grandparents came here with nothing and built a life for themselves. Why can’t yours?” or “I’m tired of hearing about how bad Black people have it. What about my people?”

This is my biggest issue with the term “oppression olympics.” It’s so often used to undercut the establishment of systemic anti-blackness and anti-Indigenousness as unique from other forms of oppression, and to flatten all experiences as the same. It imbues a level of disunity and self-centeredness to those accused of partaking in it, while obfuscating the “what about me?” from the accuser. Those who use it are often not self-reflective about the extent to which their issue is not necessarily about the hierarchy of oppression, but their level of visibility within it.

But it highlights the challenge of empathy with progressive politics—the egalitarian impulse within an unequal social and political community. The Left is generally more diverse in a myriad of ways, and tying together the competing and intersecting identities, interests, concerns, etc. is not small task.

While visibility can be beneficial (I would argue that more visibility on issues related to Native Americans could help alleviate their experience), we have to be clear about its limitations (for example, it would be hard to find any evidence to support that claim that increased visibility of anti-Blackness has made the number of Black people killed by police decrease). It wouldn’t be too crazy to surmise that the most marginalized among us would trade in every ounce of their visibility if it brought an end to their marginalization.

In our current popular discourse, it’s easy to scoff this off as the excesses “identity politics,” but it’s harder to stay mindful of the ways in which our search for recognition can diminish that of another if we aren’t careful. There are specific problems men inherit growing up in a patriarchal society that they did not create, but it might not be the best time to bring this up when women are talking about sexual assault.

The extent to which the term is intended to troll progressives is a topic I’m not necessarily interested in writing about. But for the folks who use it as a way to call for solidarity, I would humbly argue that they should stop using the term. It isn’t helpful, and does a kind of work that is exactly opposite of its intention.

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