Magnitudes of marginalization and the Oppression Olympics

By Frederick Sparks

There’s a quaint but common assumption that those belonging to a group subject to discrimination and inequality have an automatic sympathy for others in the same boat.  History has not proven this assumption consistently true.  One need only watch the end of Gangs of New York, where working class white immigrants violently take out their frustrations on New York’s African-American population, to get a refresher. For  downtrodden white ethnics, the response to marginalization was not sympathy but a fierce determination to define themselves as white in contradistinction to blacks, who were clearly the lowest of the low.

As a black gay man I observe this phenomenon from the cat bird seat when it comes to the discussions of racism in the (white) gay community and homophobia among African-Americans.  “Black people can marry each other, they aren’t legally discriminated against, and people aren’t beaten in the street for being black. Besides I support your issues (I voted for Barack Obama) and you don’t support mine (Black people are responsible for prop 8)”, says the white gay.   “You can’t choose to be black, but you can choose to be gay,  the police don’t shoot you because you’re gay and you aren’t followed around department stores because you’re gay. And besides, the bible says that’s wrong/homosexuality is a European perversion that didn’t exist in pre-colonial Africa”, says the black straight.  Of course one of the many flawed assumptions in this us vs them dialectic is that all the gays are white and all the blacks are straight.

The blind spot towards the privilege one enjoys (which is the hallmark of said privilege) is exacerbated when one enjoys privilege on one dimension of ontology yet experiences marginalization on another dimension. The accusation of bias is somehow seen as a marginalization of bias endured by the accused.  So when a black gay writes about the lack of coverage of Trayvon Martin in the gay media or about the marginalization of blacks within the larger gay community the response is often along the lines of incredulity and counter-accusation of bias.  The same can be said of discussions of racism within the feminist movement or the ongoing conversation about the blind spot to social justice issues in the white male dominated secular/atheist milieu (because of course white male secularists experience their own marginalization…)

Then we get into the Oppression Olympics…who has had it worse.  My freshman year in a college, a Jewish woman professor in a world history and culture class stated that the holocaust was the worst crime ever committed against a race or group of people, “including slavery” (making it a point to look at me, one of a handful of black students in the class, when she said that).  Now if I were the same person then as I am now, class would’ve ended differently that day, but at the time I could only feel insecure and ponder why it was important for either side to “win” that battle, even if the two were quantitatively comparable.

So that is what constitutes out group privilege…an assumption that experiencing discrimination makes one immune from bias, a defensiveness when said bias is raised, and an impulse to counter accuse bias/and or to win the Oppression Olympics.  None of this leads to an actual examination of biases and privileges and leads to narrowly focused conceptions of political movements related to gender or racial or sexual orientation equality that do not incorporate a prioritization of broader social justice issues.


Magnitudes of marginalization and the Oppression Olympics

18 thoughts on “Magnitudes of marginalization and the Oppression Olympics

  1. 1

    This is so true. I am neither black nor gay. But I am a
    double minority nonetheless (a middle eastern immigrant who happens to be an atheist). It is often the reality that even groups subjected to injustice and discrimination are not sympathetic to issues not affecting their own group. We need more articles like this to shed light on the problem.

  2. 2

    My freshman year in a college, a Jewish woman professor in a world history and culture class stated that the holocaust was the worst crime ever committed against a race or group of people, “including slavery” (making it a point to look at me, one of a handful of black students in the class, when she said that).

    *facepalm* What is that I don’t even.

  3. 3

    I’m mixed, gay, and atheist. I hate playing the Oppression Olympics (love the phrase, btw). Gays, women, Jews, blacks, atheists, etc have all suffered discrimination, bigotry, and violence. It’s *all* wrong. Period. I don’t even know how you would try determine which group has (or had) it worse. More to the point: I don’t care to do that. Point to someone being discriminated against because of their gender, sexuality, race, ethnicity, religion, politics, disability, nationality, gender identity, etc*** and I’m going to be vehemently opposed to it. Others can waste their time trying to figure out who has it worse. Me, I’m going to be vocal about my opposition to discrimination in *all* its forms.

    ***a question for all: is there an acronym or a blanket term for the various groups (that currently exist and *might* exist in the future) covered under anti-discrimination laws (I live in the US, but really any country applies)? Rather like using ‘queer’ in place of ‘LGBTQ’.

  4. 4

    Wow, thanks for this post. I just always think it’s counterproductive how people turn who is oppressed more into some kind of pissing contest.

    And I agree with you 100% Tony, I don’t see why this should become a contest, and turning it into one just turns groups of people against each other while they all get discriminated against. In some ways it’s a clear divide and conquer tactic, the way lots of right wing white politicians have been keen on finding Black preachers to express disdain for homosexuality.

    And as for the holocaust being the worst crime, my brother lives in China and lots of Chinese people get pretty pissed that the crimes of the Nazis are so widely referenced and discussed whereas the atrocities committed in their nation during WWII barely get a mention. Plus, the Nazis put homosexuals and Roma (gypsies) in death camps as well.

    It’s good to think about how just being marginalized in some area does not make one immune to bias, and sometimes can make you feel more enlightened than you really are.

    1. 4.1

      Yes, because apparently, someone NEEDS to be the scapegoat. Look at Ireland, where everyone is probably related, and on the basis of religion, they killed each other. Of course there was also the Tutsis and Hutus, the Balkans and on and on and on. As long as people can find a difference a ‘leader’ can get them worked up over, there will be genocide. At some point we need to mature enough as a species to say enough is enough.

  5. 7

    It’s like your professor missed the next logical step in her thinking. She realised that people could experience oppression because of their race or ethnicity because her group had experienced. She should then have moved on to realising that if her group can experience oppression, so could other groups. Instead she turned it into an occassion for privilege denial.

    That’s basically what’s going on when people use their own experiences with oppression to minimalise what happens to others, yes?

  6. 10

    Powerful, excellent post. Thank you.

    Hank Aaron, about surpassing Babe Ruth’s home run record: “I don’t want them to forget Ruth; I just want them to remember me.”

    Still learning,


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