About Those Oppression Olympics   4 comments

The term “Oppression Olympics” refers to the claim that the oppression faced by one group of marginalized people is somehow worse than the oppression faced by another group. Competing to see who’s more oppressed is rightly viewed as counterproductive and a derailing tactic in social justice activism. Aside from the general futility of such arguments, competitors in the Oppression Olympics ignore the reality that many people face intersecting oppressions. Therefore it’s far more helpful to think of individuals as privileged in some ways and disadvantaged in others, rather than attempt to create a hierarchy of oppression in which the most oppressed is considered the winner.

One thing I’ve noticed is that feminists are more likely than other social justice activists to call each other out for “engaging in Oppression Olympics.” However, most of the people called out for this offense aren’t saying sexism is worse than other *isms. What they are usually saying is that sexism is considered more normal and acceptable than some other types of bigotry. Simply pointing to the success of another social justice movement and asking, “How can we learn from that?” is enough to get feminists accused of playing Oppression Olympics (interestingly, several of the commenters in the Feministe thread making the Oppression Olympics charge are serious competitors in the games themselves).

As I’ve mentioned before, the male hosts of our local radio station’s morning show are unabashedly sexist. In fact, that’s true for the hosts of every single morning radio show I’ve ever had the misfortune of hearing. They may very well be racist too. I suspect that they are. But they know better than to make racist jokes on the air. Not because racism is a thing of the past, but because the anti-racism movement has succeeded in making racist on-air pronouncements more or less unacceptable. I’ve noticed the same thing slowly starting to happen with anti-gay jokes, thanks to the work we’ve been doing in the LGBTQ rights movement. Sexist and misogynist jokes, however, remain as acceptable and noncontroversial as ever. But we’re not supposed to talk about that? Or we can talk about it only if we neglect to look at other social justice movements that have been more successful to see what we can learn from them? No wonder we’re not making more headway.

Another reason someone may compare sexism to other types of bigotry is that hatred of women is so acceptable in our society, many people fail to notice it or see anything wrong with it even when it’s pointed out to them. This became very apparent again recently when many of those outraged by the racist video made by female UCLA student Alexandra Wallace responded with an avalanche of sexism and misogyny. Several people pointed out that fighting bigotry with more bigotry doesn’t work, but they didn’t get very far. Without a hint of irony, commenters argued that “the bitch had it coming” and that this kind of hate speech wouldn’t be allowed to stand. To drive home the point that misogyny was wrong no matter how reprehensible Wallace’s bigotry had been, someone asked if racist slurs would be acceptable against a black man who made a misogynist video. That, of course, quickly got them accused of engaging in you-know-what.

An argument against comparing oppressions is that even without an explicit claim that oppression X is worse than oppression Y, the implication is there. I’m not sure I buy that. For example, if a rapist targets me because I’m having a sexual relationship with another woman and calls me a “fucking dyke” during the attack, there’s a better chance that my rape will be considered a hate crime than if I’m targeted because I’m a woman and called a “fucking bitch” by my rapist. That’s a fact. It doesn’t mean that gay/bi women have it easier than straight women. Nor does it mean that the rape of a gay or bi woman is more likely to be taken seriously than that of a straight woman. While her rape is more likely to be considered a hate crime (if the victim is in a reasonably progressive jurisdiction, that is), she runs the risk of having to deal with investigators, prosecutors, and medical personnel who have homophobic preconceptions in addition to their sexist ones. But when it comes to hate crime status, I’m better off if my attacker is seen as having targeted me because of my sexual orientation as opposed to my sex. That’s ALL that statement means. And why make such a statement? Simple. The example illustrates that women are targeted because of their sex in much the same way gay people are targeted because of their sexual orientation, but the latter is widely considered a hate crime and the former isn’t (but should be).

There’s something else I’ve noticed about the Oppression Olympics charge in the (online) feminist community: Argue that bigotry against marginalized group X is more likely to be acknowledged or taken seriously than bigotry against women, and people will call you out on your participation in the Oppression Olympics in a New York second. Argue that the oppression faced by marginalized group X is more serious than the oppression faced by most women, and there’s a good chance you won’t be called out at all. For instance, the first time I saw someone state that white privilege trumps male privilege and that consequently white women have it far easier than men of color, I waited for the usual Oppression Olympics charge. Nothing. And I can’t even count the number of times I’ve seen trans activists and their allies argue that women who had male privilege and gave it up (i.e., trans women) are far more oppressed than women who never had male privilege at all.

This leads me to believe that certain feminists don’t so much have a problem with comparing different oppressions or even with arguing that marginalized group X is worse off than marginalized group Y. What really seems to bother them is the argument that the oppression of women is at least as serious and deserving of attention and activism as the oppression of other marginalized groups. I think many third-wave feminists are deeply uncomfortable with the idea that women are oppressed as a class. That’s why there’s so much emphasis on other types of oppression. You know, the ones that men experience too. The ones that matter. And so it is that the oppression of poor women is considered a serious concern. And the oppression of women of color, and trans women, and fat women, and disabled women, and so on. But what about a woman who is none of those things, who isn’t part of any other oppressed group? Is she oppressed at all?

An argument I come across with alarming frequency is that women are so different from each other and experience oppression in so many different ways that there’s really nothing that unites us. No common ground. The class “women” is so varied as to be meaningless. Therefore feminists should concern themselves with fighting all forms of oppression equally and that will automatically benefit women. Besides, it’s just selfish to put the needs of “women” (usually interpreted as meaning class-privileged white women who are viewed as the main beneficiaries of feminism) ahead of other marginalized people.

Of course the same arguments could be made for every other oppressed group and corresponding social justice movement. Do these women believe all gay people experience homophobia precisely the same way–regardless of sex, gender, class, race, age, religion, disability, size, physical attractiveness, education, nationality, etc.? Do they think all black people experience racism the exact same way? Of course not. These groups are just as diverse as women, but no one is arguing that they have nothing in common and that their gay rights or anti-racism platform is selfish and should be abandoned in order to fight for all marginalized people equally. Only feminists do that.

Let’s face it, as women we’re socialized to put the needs of others ahead of our own and to feel guilty when we do things for our own benefit. Putting our own needs first is considered particularly egregious. It’s one thing to do things for yourself as long as you do the same for others, but a woman placing her own needs ahead of others’ makes many people profoundly uncomfortable. I think that’s why the Oppression Olympics charge is so common in the feminist community and why it’s usually leveled at those who suggest that women are getting a raw deal because sexism and misogyny are less likely to be acknowledged, let alone taken seriously, than other forms of oppression that also affect men. Moving beyond that socialization can be very difficult, even for feminists.

But it’s important that we do. If there’s one thing history has taught us it’s that we can’t count on men–even those who call themselves liberals or progressives or allies–to fight our battles for us. For the vast majority of dudes, injustices affecting men will always take precedence over those resulting from sexism and misogyny. If even feminists aren’t prepared to prioritize sex-based discrimination and abuse, women’s oppression will forever remain an afterthought.


4 responses to “About Those Oppression Olympics

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  1. As far as comparing how mainstream society reacts to different sorts of hate crimes and bigotry, I can sort of understand why African Americans get tired of always being the example of “the bigotry everyone takes seriously.” Of course, I can also understand why people use the example.

    I remember getting in a discussion at Corrente a long time ago where Damon, an African American, was annoyed at the use of this kind of example, and I was (iirc) the only person more or less seeing both sides — yes, it would be great if people took hate crimes against women as seriously as they took hate crimes against black people, and racism *IS* the one “ism” that nearly *everyone* in America takes seriously (the exceptions being limited to people who basically segregate themselves from mainstream society), at least in public discourse.

    OTOH, I’m sure it’s kind of strange to be part of an oppressed group where everyone else is going “look how good you have it compared to us”; I can see it rubbing people the wrong way the same way as the comments about “privileged white women” in the feminist community are irritating, albeit those latter comments are usually made with a truckload of condescension and/or hostility (despite most often being made by fairly well off white women, as far as I can tell), whereas I’m not seeing that w/the comments about racism; there, the reaction is more like “here is what we aspire to” while I suspect a lot of African Americans are probably thinking “we are not in a position anyone should be aspiring to, just yet; please quit implying we have it made when we don’t” Or possibly I’m entirely wrong. Tho I do wish I had thought of that in time for the aforementioned Corrente comment thread.

    • Hmm, good point. I can see how it would be extremely irritating to constantly see racism used as an example of bigotry that is taken seriously and that people can’t get away with–particularly when these statements are made by individuals who don’t actually experience racism themselves.

      I remember my amazement when a black male friend told me he wished racial harassment in the workplace was taken even half as seriously as sexual harassment. I think I was speechless for like a minute (okay, half a minute). That’s because virtually every woman I’ve ever known who’s experienced sexual harassment in the workplace ultimately had two options: put up with it or go find another job. But from where my friend was sitting, it looked like it was all sexual harassment prevention training and million dollar verdicts. Meanwhile I had been thinking of racially based workplace harassment primarily in conjunction with sexual harassment where a combination of sexism and racism is used against women of color. I hadn’t given much thought to workplace harassment that is purely racial in origin and that affects men of color too. It’s easy not to see problems when they don’t affect us directly.

      That said, I still feel some comparisons are legit. In the case of Alexandra Wallace, for instance, the message that it’s wrong to fight Wallace’s racism with sexism and misogyny wasn’t getting through. People were all like “Oh, cry me a river; that stupid bimbo brought it on herself.” Totally unable to see that we object to the misogyny not because we “feel bad” for Wallace but because this shit hurts all women. Asking if it was okay to subject a black man who’d made a misogynist video to racial slurs was appropriate in this context, not because everyone understands that doing so would be racist and that racism is wrong, but because people who were outraged by Wallace’s racist rant presumably do.

      A problem that we frequently run into as feminists is that many people don’t believe women are oppressed at all. Maybe in the past, maybe in the third world, but not here and now. Incidentally that’s why so many people have trouble seeing feminism as a legitimate social justice movement. By contrast, everyone but white supremacist types agrees that racism is a real problem, even though people may disagree on exactly what constitutes racism, how serious it is, and what should be done about it. So when feminists point out that the way women are singled out for unfair treatment or subjected to abuse and violence because of their sex is no different than targeting racial minorities because of their race, what we’re saying is that sex-based oppression is real and should be taken seriously. And when someone responds to this by arguing that sexism should never be compared to racism, it sure as hell feels like what they’re saying is that sex-based oppression is not real, that sexism may be a trivial annoyance but certainly not a serious human rights violation.

  2. I found your blog via your comments @ Reclusive Leftist. Very interesting!
    I wonder what you think of Violet’s argument from the comment thread of the post you linked that female oppression IS different because women arent a natural community? Because there are no “women’s communities”. Not only are women part of every community but those communities are often in opposition to each other. It seems to me this would have to impact women’s oppression and make it different from other forms of oppression.

    • I haven’t had time to keep up with the comment thread at Violet’s past the first two dozen or so comments, but I’m familiar with the argument. It’s certainly true that, generally speaking, women don’t have their own communities or neighborhoods (lesbian communes and the like notwithstanding). Moreover, the majority of girls are raised in family units that include the oppressor class and may even grow up to give birth to children that are members of the oppressor class. Additionally, most women partner with members of the oppressor class. So the argument is that the bond women share with their partners, children, families, and perhaps even their neighbors is stronger than their solidarity with other women–particularly when those other women are part of communities that have been hostile to theirs. Therefore feminism faces unique challenges and can’t be compared to other types of oppression. Do I have that right?

      My response is that several other marginalized groups (e.g., trans people, fat people, disabled people) face the same issues. In other words, this problem is not unique to women. Even gay people who do have their own communities in large cities usually grow up in hetero families and have primarily hetero children. Most live and work in predominantly hetero environments. And, needless to say, gay people are just as diverse a group as women. Of course there are some differences. Gay people don’t partner with members of the oppressor class, and, perhaps most importantly, one’s sexual orientation–unlike one’s sex–isn’t immediately obvious in the vast majority of cases.

      What’s of particular interest to me is that the gay rights movement has benefited enormously from the fact that gay people are part of all these other communities. It’s one thing to laugh at anti-gay slurs, advocate discrimination, and shrug off hate crimes when you can think of gay people as “those people” over there, but it’s quite another when you count gay people among your friends, neighbors, and family members. Of course gay and bi people have always been part of all these different communities, but it wasn’t until we started coming out of the closet in large numbers that our families and communities realized that some of the people they care about deeply aren’t straight. That gay joke suddenly becomes a lot less funny once you realize your uncle Jake, and your best friend’s daughter Tami, and that nice couple down the hall who always ask the old lady next door if she needs anything before going to the store are gay. I believe nothing has had greater impact on the progress we’ve made with regard to gay rights and acceptance than gay people coming out of the closet and straight people realizing that the individuals being denied equal rights and attacked for their sexual orientation are members of their own community and their own family.

      Which begs the question of why this isn’t working for women. Women are also part of all these different communities and our families also include members of the oppressor class. The men in our lives supposedly care about us. So why don’t they realize that their sexism hurts us and stop? The answer is complicated and something I may explore in detail in a future post. For now, my point is that being part of many different communities–communities that include the oppressor class and that may be in opposition to each other–is not necessarily a hindrance in the pursuit of social justice and equality.

      Conversely, having one’s own community and families that don’t include the oppressor class is not necessarily a plus. To give an example, working class and poor people generally live in communities that do not include middle class and wealthy individuals (gentrified neighborhoods being an–often temporary–exception). Moreover, the vast majority of working class people are raised in working class families, have working class friends and neighbors, partner with other working class people, and eventually have children who will also grow up to be working class. This should result in excellent class solidarity–and in some places, it does. In the US, however, working class and poor people have been taught to believe that their low income is their own fault, that if only they applied themselves more and worked harder, they, too, could be rich–or at least middle class. Never mind that they’re already working two or three jobs and that class mobility has largely been a myth for over three decades. So rather than fighting for their own interests, many working class people advance the interests of the wealthy in the hope that they or their children will be rich one day. And they are quick to find fault with other poor and working class folks while giving a pass to those who exploit them. That’s because social conditioning and cultural mores ultimately trump group solidarity–particularly when members of the group in question are socialized to regard each other with suspicion, as is the case with both women and poor people.

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