"The women of Bikini Kill let guitarist Billy Karren be in their feminist punk band, but only if he's willing to just "do some shit." Being a feminist dude is like that. We may ask you to "do some shit" for the band, but you don't get to be Kathleen Hannah."--@heatherurehere

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

Oppression Olympics: To Run or Not To Run?

Kameelah has a great post over at Black Looks about the 'Oppression Olympics'. What I like most about this post is that it quickly covers a lot of bases, but doesn't oversimplify the complexities involved in understanding and living within systems of oppression. Kameelah says:
Why are we obsessed with winning the award of the most oppressed? Why are we so fixated on positioning our pain and suffering above that of others? Do such self-congratulatory acts validate an authentic existence? What award is there for the oppression olympics? Does your voice become more legitimate when you engage in what ultimately is a narcissistic act that does discursive and real violence to the lives of others? Do we all want to be card carrying members of the “Most Oppressed”?

With all these questions, I must admit that when middle and upper class White women try to equate their experiences as women with that of being Black I do get upset. I am upset not because I do not deny the struggles of being a woman in any context, I get upset because in the assertion of oppression and equation with my life, they deny, obscure and make unimportant the advantages they reap (and take) as moneyed, white folks.

As a man who identifies as a feminist, I think a lot about the oppression olympics, in part because my place(s) within feminist discourse and activism always involve my understanding, to whatever degree I am able, my places of privilege. But also, I am always trying to better understand the oppression of others, trying to empathize with the feelings that oppression brings, by noting the places in my life where I am not the person with the *most* privilege. This is a dangerous business, because one has to avoid the temptation, which is sometimes really non-conscious, to equate one's experience of not-being-privileged in a certain respect with being oppressed in another respect. That is, I have to also be constantly aware that my experience as a man who tends to cry in private and public from time to time (say), and who therefore doesn't experience as much privilege that comes with traditional masculinity, may provide me some insight and empathy, it also will not compare in some important ways with most of the ways people experience oppression.

It's interesting, and Kameelah makes me wonder about the fact that both of the following seem true:
1. The Oppression Olympics seem to reinforce traditional hierarchies of power, and should be avoided.
2. We must recognize that oppression is a shifting, complex sort of thing, laced by interesectionality--and that the (say) American Xtian who claims he is oppressed because people don't say "Merry Xmas" to him, but instead say "Happy Holidays," is full of shit if he makes a claim of oppression in comparison with how, for instance, Muslims are maligned more and more often in the US.

So it seems that the Oppression Olympics must be avoided, but we must also point out that not all oppressions are the same. Which is a tough place to be, conceptually.
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