Re-Examining the Phrase “Oppression Olympics”

by Latoya Peterson

Yesterday’s conversation on the article in the Nation has an interesting set of comments revolving around the use of the term “the oppression olympics.”

In our comments policy on Racialicious, we state:

Let’s avoid oppression olympics please. I’m not saying it’s never something to be discussed, but generally speaking, bickering over who has it worse off, or who’s more racist, is really kind of useless.

However, Black Canseco said:

Okay, can i just say that i hate the term Oppression Olympics? It implies that it’s bias and bigotry is some sort of game, almost comical and anytime someone attempts to discuss issues of race, gender they should never be taken seriously.

In her comments, Persia explains:

Black Canseco, I have used “Oppression Olympics” in the past, referring specifically to circumstances where someone compares racism to sexism in a way that implies that one is somehow worse, or more acceptable, or– what have you– than the other. I’ve always used it to call out a technique I feel is used as a distraction from whatever the issue is at hand– for example, just because sexist attacks on Clinton happen doesn’t make racist attacks acceptable or any less important to criticize.

It’s precisely because I think those tactics trivialize the whole debate that I’ve used the term. Now I have to think twice about it.

Sewere noted:

I don’t expect you or tasha will change your minds nor do I expect Drispe or Black Conseco to change theirs, but one thing I’m certain of is your willingness to downplay racism or sexism to shore up your candidate is a disturbing version of the Oppression Olympics and it is annoying as shit. No matter how you spit-shine it, it’s still shit.

And I agreed, generally with his comments. I have unsubcribed to certain blogs because of what has come out because of the elections. People who I usually hold in high regard seem to be bending over backwards to excuse the bad behavior of their candidates and finding all kinds of ways to justify their opinions. Quoting Roseanne Barr like she’s a prophet? Off my blog roll.

However, after Sewere’s comment, things got a bit heated. I asked Black Canseco directly:

If you don’t like the phrase “oppression olympics,” BC, what phrase do you suggest we use to describe that obnoxious phenomenon when people try to use phrases like “no one has suffered more than African-Americans” or “since gender issues affect 51% of the world, those are the most important issues?”

He replied:


i offered my opinion on the phrase, nothing more. people will use whichever term they feel works to make their point. not sure why a phrase is needed at all. Some comparisons may work, others are rooted in a lack of understanding viewpoints beyond your own, others still are patently stupid, myopic and self-serving.

why not call it on a case by case as opposed to dumping everything in a bucket, which helps no one?

but what do i know, apparently i’m gender biased.

As I was moderating this comment exchange, I was also digging into some new reading material.

Specifically, Andrea Smith’s essay “Heteropartiarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy: Rethinking Women of Color Organizing.”*

And interestingly, Andrea Smith also disagrees with the term, but for a different set of reasons.

In her essay, Smith outlines three scenarios in which people of color are coming together to organize and meet with conflict. One scenario revolves around a group of women and whether or not Arab and Latina women should identify as women of color if they are classified as white in their countries or pass as white in the states. The next scenario describes some of the arguments put forth when discussing Native Americans (i.e., “since tribes now have gaming, Native peoples are not longer ‘oppressed.'”) The last scenario involves a multiracial coalition which wants to stop the “black/white binary” of racial discussion but “rel[ies] on strategies and cultural motifs developed by the Black Civil Rights struggle in the United States.”

Smith then breaks it down:

These incidents, which happen quite frequently in “women of color” or “people of color” political organizing struggles, are often explained as a consequence of “oppression olympics.” That is to say, one problem we have is that we are too busy fighting over who is more oppressed. In this essay, I want to argue that these incidents are not so much the result of “oppression olympics” but are more about how we have inadequately framed “women of color” or “people of color” politics. That is, the premise behind much of “women of color” organizing is that women from communities vicitimized by white supremacy should unite together around their shared oppression. This framework might be represented by a diagram of five overlapping circles, each marked “Native women, Black women, Arab/Muslim women, Latinas, and Asian American women, overlapping like a Venn diagram.

This framework has proven to be limited for women of color and people of color organizing. First, it tends to presume that our communities have been impacted by white supremacy in the same way. Consequently, we often assume that all of our communities will share similar strategies for liberation. In fact, however, our strategies often run into conflict. For example, one strategy that many people in US-born communities of color adopt, in order to advance economically out of impoverished communities, is to join the military. We then become complicit in oppressing and colonizing communities from other countries. Meanwhile, people from other countries often adopt the strategy of moving to the United States to advance economically, without considering their complicity in settling on the lands of indigenous peoples that are being colonized by the United States.

Consequently, it may be more helpful to adopt an alternative framework for women of color and people of color organizing. I call one such framework the “Three Pillars of White Supremacy.” This framework does not assume that racism and white supremacy is enacted in a singular fashion; rather, white supremacy is constituted by separate and distinct, but still interrelated, logics. Envision three pillars, one labeled Slavery/Capitalism, another labeled Genocide/Capitalism, and the last one labeled Orientalism/War, as well as arrows connecting each of the pillars together.

Smith then goes on to discuss each pillar in depth. I highly recommend reading the whole piece – it is short and direct at eight pages long.

Now here’s an example Smith sites that jumped out at me the most (and I think comes closer to what Black Canseco was trying to get at in the comments):

Our organizing can also reflect anti-Black racism. Recently, with the outgrowth of “multiculturalism” there have been calls to “go beyond the black/white binary” and include other communities of color in our analysis. First, it replaces an analysis of white supremacy with a politics of multicultural representation; if we just include more people, then our practice will be less racist. Not true. This model does not address the nuanced structure of white supremacy, such as through these distinct logics of slavery, genocide, and Orientalism. Second, it obscures the centrality of the slavery logic in the system of white supremacy, which is based on a black/white binary. The black/white binary is not the only binary which characterizes white supremacy, but it is still a central one that we cannot “go beyond” in our racial justice organizing efforts.

If we do not look at how the logic of slaveability inflects our society and our thinking, it will be evident in our work as well. For example, other communities of color often appropriate the cultural work and organizing strategies of African American civil rights or Black Power movements without corresponding assumptions that we should also be in solidarity with Black communities. We assume that this work is the common “property” of all oppressed groups, and we can appropriate it without being accountable.

Damn right. As we get deeper and deeper into the feminism debates, I notice a couple of bloggers who do espouse these anti-black sentiments while using the civil rights movement as a foundation to stand on. Particularly, those bloggers who continually refer to “the blacks” or “the black feminists” and the power of our numbers, as if every time we complain, something is granted and we never worked to be recognized or acknowledged in mainstream feminism. These bloggers are not white. But they are not black either. And it would be foolish to think that if someone is non-white, then they must be allied with black women, or a larger movement that advocates for the rights of women of color.

But that’s a discussion for another time.

For today’s discussion, let’s take a critical look at the phrase “the Oppression Olympics.” How do we feel about the use of the term? And in light of Andrea Smith’s take, does that change your views around using the phrase? And finally, if you feel that the term is outdated, how does one suggest we describe these kinds of situations?

*via WOC PhD by way of Coffee and Ink

(Picture taken from Bint Alshamsa’s blog.)

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Racialicious is a blog about the intersection of race and pop culture. Check out our daily updates on the latest celebrity gaffes, our no-holds-barred critique of questionable media representations, and of course, the inevitable Keanu Reeves John Cho newsflashes.

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