Down in Rio, the 2016 Summer Olympics are underway. Meanwhile, in Cyber Land, another type of Olympics are well underway and have been for decades. These would be the Oppression Olympics, a “competition” of sorts in which groups of oppressed people vie for the title of “Most Oppressed.” Ever. Always. Yeah.
As a privileged white lady, I make the disclaimer that I’ve competed in this silly game. Though not necessarily for the team you’d think. I tend to think racism, at least in the United States, takes a heavier toll than sexism. I say that as an unwavering, fiercely-loyal feminist and one who also tries to eschew the Oppression Olympics. Still. It’s hard for me to not get sucked in to this comparison game sometimes and think, on some level, that racism wreaks more havoc than sexism does in the US. Maybe it’s because I’m female. Let’s face it, women of all races, though especially women of color, tend to downplay their own needs, which leads to a tendency to say “Oh, its not so bad for me.” And well maybe that plays a role in my conviction… But more than that, it’s likely because I am aware that racism is a huge part of the US’s foundation and that I have a very comfortable life, even as a woman, because of my white skin.
So that’s a disclaimer to this post. Perhaps a hypocritical one and perhaps one stemming from some unchecked white guilt. Still, I wanted to put it out there. And now I have.
That said, the overall point of this post is to say that even if there is one oppression that is more harmful than the others, does it really matter? At the end of the day, it’s all oppression and it’s all injustice and all of it has to stop. And sooner than later.
So what are some of the concerns that have come up for me in regards to the Oppression Olympics? Well, one concern is it can lead to dangerous beliefs that “more oppressed people” cannot cause “real” harm to more privileged people. Case in point is this everyday feminism post. There are many layers to an example mentioned in the post in which the writer recalls telling a friend, who is of color, to stop abusing his white boyfriend. The layers are that yes, DV is a form of oppression against women because it would not exist without patriarchy but yes the notion of controlling your partner to get what you want has spread to the LGBTQ community and yes it’s just as harmful then and yes the individual referenced in the post is a disenfranchised person using a tool developed by misogyny in his relationship with a man, and yes, in this individual situation, said individual’s abuse of his white partner is not systemically supported… but it is still abuse. Got that? Well regardless, more on that in other posts – past and present.
The thing is that we, as humans, really need to embrace the idea that none of us have the right to harm someone else. No matter what. This idea is about more than “violence is not the answer” and “you can’t fight fire with fire.” It’s about a deeper recognition that justification of any violence paves the way for justification of any and all violence. If there’s truly no excuse for violence then it is significantly less likely that the cycle of violence will spin on. Look when I started doing DV work, it was easy for me to fall into revenge fantasies. It was a means of coping. These were fantasies, mind you, ones I never would have actually done. And yet, ultimately I realized how unhealthy this type of coping is – for many reasons. But not the least of which is that by having these fantasies I was dehumanizing people who abuse their partners. And it is precisely dehumanization that enables batterers to abuse, to justify their violence. And while I would never have done IRL what I dreamed of doing, harboring those beliefs was unhelpful, unhealthy and ultimately counterproductive. And it wasn’t just ‘oh I can’t stoop to their level’ – because even that is dehumanizes them. It’s a richer belief than that. Because even after all batterers have to done to their partners, if there is no justification for violence towards them then there is no justification for their violence either. And this does not signify, by any means, that batterers are not to be held accountable. It just means we never lose sight of their – or anyone’s – humanity.
And yes, sometimes we need to defend ourselves but we also need to seriously ask ourselves, how often are we defending versus how often are we avenging? True self-defense does not involve the dehumanization. It involves a need for survival and a lack of any other options.
The other concern is that out of the Oppression Olympics comes the idea that people who belong to a marginalized group but also belong to a very privileged group are only kinda oppressed or are not oppressed at all. I take issue with these arguments and, as a white, straight woman, can speak more accurately to the claim that white women aren’t oppressed but rather suppressed – which if you look those two words up are defined essentially the same way (see links on each word above). I can see how saying white women are oppressed may sound like an implication that there is some form of oppression that white women experience that other women do not. It’s important recognize that white women are oppressed because they’re women but they’re privileged because they’re white. I absolutely agree that the damage caused by racism and sexism to women of color is ten-fold to what white women have experienced and that there is a hellish level of inhumane cruelty that is unleashed on people who live at the intersection of multiple oppressions. Also white women must recognize their white privilege and that we have historically been very brutal to women of color. And yet, sexism oppresses all women, even white women. I say this because like all women (even if to a lesser degree) white women fight to be safe in their communities and especially to be safe in their own homes; free from the violence of rape, street harassment and domestic violence. We’ve fought, and continue to fight, for bodily autonomy and to be viewed as more than vessels for future human lives. We’ve fought to vote and to be equal to, not less than, men. We fight to not be second-class citizens and not be relegated to marginalized roles and restricted personalities and abilities. We’ve fought to be viewed as humans and not sexual objects. We’ve fought for independence from men, which when you consider the frequency of DV and rape that occurs in intimate partner relationships and that this violence disproportionately impacts women, you can see that our quest for independence runs deeprer than simply being able to work and earn money. Though those abilities are important too… And all this said, women of color experience all these same issues severely compounded by racism.
I must point out here because it would be ignorant and dismissive not to that the article I linked to above was written by a black woman. The article IMW(hite)O, makes really good points. There just were a few aspects of the article that bothered me. And I wish I had some other articles to reference. There are many other examples I’ve come across written by men, by white women, by transgender that have brought up the same concerns for me. And yet that article is the ones that most stuck with me – perhaps because of my privilege and some unchecked entitlement. And for that, I am sorry.
Another one of the absurdities that most irks me are people’s tendencies to take a single example or single form of oppression and use it as “proof” that one oppression is worse than the other. We saw this when Obama won the nomination in 2008 and plenty of people (mainly white women) claimed this meant that sexism hasn’t been as easily vanquished as racism. What the what?!
There are countless other examples of this – that men of color first sustained the right to vote but white women have never been blocked from voting the way people of color have. And while this is true, it is one example. You could also say that white women haven’t had voting their rights denied (which is true) but all women’s right to bodily autonomy continues to be threatened via attacks on places like Planned Parenthood (although it’s also true that reproductive issues aren’t unique to women as black men had their reproductive ability thwarted through pretty disgusting practices). The Civil Rights Act was enacted more than 50 years ago but it’s also debatable how effective it has been because of the War on Drugs. Still. The pro-woman legislature of The Equal Rights Amendment was never enacted at all (thanks White Lady, Phyllis Schlafly). You could also point to the fact that while white women don’t often experience domestic violence by men of color, the reality is that patriarchy wins out in (straight) intimate partner relationships and so if a man of color is abusive and dates a white woman, he will be able to effectively dominate her. So a-ha! The smoking gun, patriarchy trumps white supremacy. Except for the fact that white women are usually abused by white men but white women are conditioned to fear black men and black men have been scapegoated repeatedly and treated in ways that are inhumane no matter what crime may (or may not) have been committed. But wait, lest we forget that women of color are harmed by all of this.
Wow, so I don’t know about you, but I feel like I’ve just been on a never-ending, high-speed merry-go-round. And that was only “comparing” sexism and racism – just think of all the other oppressions we could add in there! Not to mention, I’ve yet to throw in any of the realities of intersectional oppression. Oh joy… (sarcasm).
Then sometimes I wonder if maybe what is blocked more for any given group is what the dominant group perceives to be the most powerful right for that group. The one that might give them the best shot at overcoming oppression. Like how people of color are blocked from voting and women are blocked from abortions. But once again, the people most screwed over by this are women of color who are impacted by both systemic attempts to stifle their right to vote and right to choose.
But in the end, does it really matter? Should you really compare types of injustice? If one is more harmful than another… then what? Do we ignore or take less seriously the “less bad” oppression(s)? I mean, it’s all oppression – it’s all harmful and degrading. It’s all based on the notion that one group is superior to another and the group deemed inferior is deserving of maltreatment and restriction of rights. And honestly, it’s kind of supremacist to categorize and stratify humans. Human needs are human needs and human rights are human rights. These are humanitarian issues – ones which should not be checked off, put in a box and placed in some sort of hierarchy.
So what to do? Don’t buy into it. When someone is speaking of their experience, don’t interrupt them. Don’t try to one up them. Don’t say “well the same is true for me because I’m… x, y and/or z.” Even if that’s true just hear that person out. Support them. Comparing, judging and assuming – none of that is supportive and none of it is helpful.