If you’re active in the diverse book community online, you may have noticed something referred to as “Oppression Olympics.” According to Wikipedia, Oppression Olympics “are a one-upmanship dynamic” wherein people argue about who is “more oppressed” based on identity politics and intersectionality.
I’ve seen it happen when marginalized activists or writers call out a (usually white) person or people by basically claiming that they aren’t marginalized enough to complain. It’s often as subtle as pointing out that white online activists don’t receive the kinds of threats that POC do. It can also be a subtle as erasing bisexual, pansexual, or ace-spectrum folks from the Queer conversation—because we may not face as overt discrimination as out gay, lesbian, or transgender people.
There are plenty of examples of this type of Oppression Olympics happening on Twitter. I’m not going to cite specific examples, because I’m not here to bash anyone. I’m here to talk about why this particular kind of conversation is harmful—particularly in regards to mental health.
First off, let me state that I am a mostly privileged person. I am white. I’m college-educated. I’m cisgender and able-bodied. I am high functioning on the mental health scale. And while I identify as bisexual, I am not really out to people in real life, in part because I’m in a coded straight relationship. I recognize my privilege and my goal in participating in online communities is, in part, to listen to marginalized voices and check my own privilege as much as possible while recognizing ways that I’ve personally benefited from oppressive systems.
I am most certainly not here to host a pity party for myself or claim in any way that I’m more marginalized than anyone else. I’m here because I want to talk about why having conversations about who is more marginalized doesn’t get us anywhere.
I have personally been harmed by these types of conversations. Because I’m coded straight in my offline life, I’m often left out of the queer community. I have straight-passing privilege, which means that in real life everyone thinks I’m straight, and I don’t often correct them. However, the fact that my fiancé is a straight cis man doesn’t make me any less bisexual—something I’ve been coming to terms with more recently.
Additionally, I live with clinical depression; fortunately, I’m high functioning, which means that most people don’t know that I’m depressed. What this means is that when I confess to people that I struggle with mental illness, they often don’t believe me. They minimize my pain because it’s not apparent, because I’m not overtly discriminated against, because I have yet to spend time in a mental institution, because I’m lucky enough to survive without medication or (right now at least) therapy. When I “come out” to people as depressed, they don’t understand where it comes from, which in turn makes me question myself and feel guilty for my own depression.
Conversations about who is more marginalized are harmful for multiple reasons.
#1: Oppression Olympics conversations invalidate other people’s feelings, which is just never okay in my opinion. In online communities, I’ve noticed that there’s this perception of a kind of threshold for seeking help from others. In order to reach out for help online, apparently, you have to really need said help. Granted, having yourself or your work as an artist slandered online isn’t “as bad” as receiving death threats or doxxing. But what good does it really do us to judge other people for reaching out? The bottom line is, you never know what another person is really dealing with, online or offline. You never know who is dealing with mental health issues and keeping them under wraps. You never know what another person’s breaking point is—and it’s not anyone’s right to police what someone else’s breaking point is. Everyone deserves to seek help when they need it.
#2: These conversations erase intersectionality by prioritizing certain marginalizations over others. When we think of intersectionality, we often think it means being inclusive of less well-publicized marginalizations. What intersectionality really means is recognizing the various parts that make up any one person’s identity. When we prioritize one type oppression as bigger than another, we’re erasing the fact that most people are marginalized in multiple ways, and those ways interact with each other. The way that a straight POC is marginalized is different from the way a queer POC is marginalized, or a queer disabled person, etc.
#3: These conversations drive people apart rather than aligning people with each other. We are all different, absolutely. As humans, we seek out people who share our backgrounds as well as our interests. But what good does it do to isolate ourselves into tiny groups based on how we’re oppressed? When we isolate ourselves into sub-groups, we miss the opportunity to listen to people who are different from ourselves—which, in my opinion, is the foundation to change. When we focus our energy on who is more marginalized, we lose the opportunity to work together for change, whether it’s change in an online community or change in the world at large.
As always, of course, these are my opinions. I’d love to hear what you guys think. Have you encountered the Oppression Olympics, online or in real life? Do you agree/disagree with me? Let’s talk in the comments.