Most people working in Diversity, Equity and Inclusion will at some point have heard or used the term ‘Oppression Olympics’. Many won’t know – including myself until a few months ago – that it is a term coined by Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez in 1993, who in so doing claimed unequivocally that there should be “NO Oppression Olympics!”. Well what does ‘no oppression olympics’ mean? Martinez tells us that it is “the general idea [that] no competition or hierarchies should prevail” when solving for oppression.
And most folks who use the phrase “oppression olympics” are using it to emphasise that we should not create hierarchies or competition between oppressions. While this is a common and principled position, we still see across mainstream DEI conversations assertions that “this oppression must be the starting point”, or “that oppression is foundational to all other oppressions” or that ‘this oppression is worse and more deserving of our efforts”.
At Fearless Futures, we actively refuse and resist falling into the trap of hierarchising oppressions and playing the oppression olympics. We will not do it. This is not always a respected, appreciated or even tolerated position to have in DEI, or social justice spaces, conceptually or practically. As such, we are making the bold move to share ten reasons to resist the oppression olympics. A position rooted in a deep principle for the type of world we want to build and be a part of.
1. Hierarchising oppressions presumes it’s possible to quantify which oppression is worse. And we cannot do this. There is no metric that quantifies a group’s pain. The other method to quantify what’s worse, might be to count the numbers of people impacted by an oppression. But beancounting never leads anywhere just, not least because some groups by definition are simply small in number – and that’s no reason to delegitimise their pain and suffering. What about duration of the oppression? Well some oppressions may arguably be “older” than others – for example, sexism – and yet that also should not be a valid reason to deny another group’s suffering or to move them down the pecking order. Why? Well not least because central to challenging oppression is recognising that the identity categories produced to justify oppressive systems are in fact socially constructed, and therefore some will just have been originated later than others – such as Race.
2. Hierarchising oppressions uses the very logic of oppression. A central logic of oppression is that some communities are more worthy and deserving of their humanity than others. That is to say that oppression creates ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ groups of people within any given system of oppression and ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ groups of victims too. If our anti-oppression work simply uses the same oppressive framework but with different groups placed through the hierarchy, it isn’t anti-oppression. As Audre Lorde famously told us “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”. When any of us make a claim that one oppression is more uniquely deserving of attention, we are doing precisely this.
3. Hierarchies of oppressions pit communities against each other and do not allow us to build coalitions of solidarity. This position ignores and invisibilises the shared roots, generators and mechanics across different systems of oppression. This doesn’t mean that the way oppressions manifest are the same – of course, differences exist. But any meaningful analysis shows us there are deep, inherent and very strategic interactions and connection points between oppressive systems. Our solutions, demands and actions will be stronger and more effective in building power when we tackle these shared roots across oppressions. The failure to recognise shared roots of inequity and oppression for different communities and groups enables oppression to continue. As long as we are caught up in “debates” about the fallacy that equity and justice for Transwomen is opposed to equity and justice for Ciswomen, we will fail to see how the Gender-binary and Gender essentialism are a shared source of oppression.
We are deeply committed to recognising the shared roots of oppression at Fearless Futures, which is why we adopt a problem solving method in our Design for Inclusion programme that is about ‘Issue Over Identity’. Taking an issue-based approach to solving inequity enables us to explore simultaneously – and therefore without hierarchy – the ways that multiple and all oppressions may be exacerbated within a particular issue. This could mean, in the workplace, looking at how your promotions process may currently enable multiple oppressions and then working to solve for these together. Outside of the workplace, it might look like taking the issue of the lack of affordable housing and examining the ways that this issue impacts Disabled folks, Working Class communities, Women, People of Colour, Trans folks and so on – simultaneously. This creates a meaningful and productive container to bring people from across these communities into a shared endeavour for change. When we resist hierarchy it allows us to think creatively about how to deliver the deepest impact for the most marginalised people. This is time, energy and resource efficient.
On a related note, when communities are pitted against each other, there are winners – and the winners are the oppressive systems themselves that serve and benefit specific people and communities.
We understand exactly where this desire comes from to assert one’s experience of oppression as more serious or severe than another group’s. We know it is from a space of pain and trauma in most cases – a desperation to find solutions to long standing group suffering in a world that tells us there are not enough resources. In a world where the oppression communities experience is outright denied on the whole (that is how systems of oppression are designed to function, and they do so very effectively), this framing can also come from a space of simply trying to gain recognition and acknowledgement.
There may also be a belief that an oppressed groups lets other oppressed groups down because they too frequently align with the logics of the oppressive systems. And of course we know why people would align themselves with oppressive systems (even when those oppressive systems don’t serve their interests!) – because folks falsely assume it will afford them some greater level of safety. When we critique the equally oppressed group instead of critiquing the oppressive system that produces these dynamics and behaviours, we misdirect responsibility for the wider conditions people are operating under. Which means we misdirect energy and focus on what – and who – needs to change. And how. In addition, for any example of a marginalised group of people aligning with oppressive systems, we will be able to find through history and in the present that very same marginalised group fighting in solidarity with other oppressed groups. Whenever we point fingers at individuals/communities first – rather than the oppressive system that has disproportionate responsibility for producing particular behaviours and outcomes – we miss out on illuminating opportunities for how we can best effectively challenge systemic oppression.
Pitting our oppression(s) against another group’s oppression is simply reproducing the classic oppressive tactic of ‘divide and conquer’. When anti-oppression work deploys the very same tactics of oppression, it is by definition not anti-oppression. A central principle we believe we must honour when we are doing anti-oppression work therefore is to acknowledge that there is space for us all, enough for us all and while it is deeply hard, divest from the scarcity framework that oppression has us believe is the only way things can be.
4. Hierarchising oppressions means we exceptionalise and elevate a particular group’s struggle which can ultimately be utilised to position members of that group or the group itself as beyond responsibility for how they may themselves further oppression(s). This happens frequently because of a person/community’s membership of the singular identity category that they or others may deem “most oppressed”.
An example of how this can be wielded can be found in the example of journalist Sonia Sodha, who used another Woman of Colour’s identity as a Woman of Colour to deflect attention away from Sodha’s, and the Woman of Colour in question’s, transphobia – instead shifting the conversation to allege racism and sexism instead. Of course, both could be happening at the same time in all directions. Yet, in this case, the clear perpetuation of transphobia was attempted to be outmanoeuvred by stating that critiquing a Woman of Colour’s philosophy was in and of itself racist and sexist – and by definition, more important than the transphobia in action.
We have seen this increasingly in conversations around diversity, equity and inclusion in the mainstream and in social justice spaces, where one’s ‘identity’ is a credential used to afford an authority that extends beyond one’s personal experience (on which of course each person is an authority!) to wider framings of how to understand a particular injustice. This manifestation – where a person must be agreed with on a particular matter because of their identity – has also recently been termed ‘deference politics’ by philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò.
Hierarchising oppression also means that we implicitly presume that if someone experiences an oppression that is deemed most important, severe and therefore worthy, then this person or the group – automatically cannot engage in furthering oppressive ideas, whether that of the oppression they experience, or other oppressions. The logical conclusion of course is representation politics. Placing ‘new faces in high places’ under the assumption that just by being of a particular marginalised community means there is a substantive commitment to societal transformation.
It’s also the case that exceptionalising and elevating a particular experience of oppression can be used as a silencing technique. For example, in the anti-Trans movement, anyone who is a Cis Man who stands up for Trans Women is labelled a misogynist by anti-Trans Cis Women. This is because the anti-Trans lobby is determined to present a false dilemma between safety for Cis Women and safety for Trans Women. This is only possible within a hierarchy of oppressions framework. It prevents us from seeing the shared roots of pain and harm that Trans Women and Cis Women alike experience in a system that insists on a Gender binary rooted in Cis Men’s supremacy. This silencing technique on the basis of identity alone is dangerous for solidarity, dangerous for justice. This is because we need many voices, including those who do not experience a particular oppression, in concert with those who do, to build power for deep change.
It’s not hard to see how hierarchising oppression along with credentialising one’s oppressed identity (or what I call ‘the identitisation of social justice’) can have perverse outcomes interpersonally and institutionally. Not least because it can act as the smoke and mirrors that may interfere with the conditions required for accountability.
5. Hierarchising oppressions also ignores the ways that anyone who experiences an oppression may also be structurally advantaged by other oppressive systems at the same time. It’s what Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò calls ‘elite capture’. What he is describing with this term is the way in which a person from an oppressed group who ends up in an influential or powerful room where important decisions get made – may not necessarily or by ‘default’ share nor advocate for the concern(s) of the wider oppressed group to which they belong. This may be because of their Class position – because perhaps they are extremely wealthy. Or it might be because of their Gender, because they are a Man, or their Sexuality, because they are Heterosexual etc (it may also be because – as is anyone’s right irrespective of their identity – that they simply hold other political or philosophical beliefs that are antithetical to equality). However, by uplifting an oppression above all others, we end up, again, credentialising or valorising one experience of a particular oppression – over all the other aspects of a person’s social identity that can (though not always) inform their perspectives, decisions or behaviours. This can be dangerous for the decisions or solutions that are developed or devised, mistakenly thinking that one person may speak for all.
6. Hierarchising oppressions also ignores that every community that experiences a particular oppression, will have those within it who experience other oppressions at the same time. Acknowledging the reality of experiencing multiple oppressions simultaneously and the lens or analytical framework that affords us this, is what has been termed ‘intersectionality’ by Kimberle Crenshaw. The very point of this framework is to illuminate how oppressions work in tandem and are interconnected in ways that produce distinct realities for folks who exist at the intersections of multiple systems. It is telling us that we cannot remove the sexism a Black Woman may experience as distinct from the racism she experiences. Or remove the racism she experiences from the sexism. They are both present and not discreet or distinct and that when they come together they intersect to produce specific and compounded oppression.
And yet, we still see a mainstream rejection of this in wider DEI discourse, even as intersectionality has become an ever more popular ‘buzzword’. Honouring the deservedness of disrupting oppressions equally – whether situated within an individual’s experience, or between groups, means we must ditch the hierarchy.
7. Hierachising oppressions ultimately reproduces global geo-political hierarchies as well as global cultural and political hegemonic patterns. What does hegemony mean in this context? As Jeremy Gilbert tells us, hegemony is most commonly used to describe the domination or influence of one nation state over another. Hegemony also describes settled situations of power. In the context of DEI, understanding global cultural and political hegemony can support us to realise why we may come to focus on one struggle over another. And it may be that this prioritisation is due to global geo-political power formations. One example of how geo-political realities inform DEI conversations is when the US Supreme Court overturned Roe V. Wade in June 2022. As this happened, many multinationals who had never before considered abortion rights or reproductive rights were wondering what they should now do by way of company policy. This is obviously not inherently bad – in fact of course it’s brilliant they were considering reproductive rights as an issue through which they could challenge sexism (and maybe even cissexism and heterosexism for some). However, many of these multinationals already had staff living within geographies where abortion access was limited (for example just in Europe there would be Northern Ireland in the UK or Poland, and with so many more places around the world where limits exist). Yet it only came into focus when something happened in the US because of the US’ position as a global superpower. Of course, we must also see the layers of prioritisation even when we take this global lens. While the issue of reproductive rights was elevated to many
English-speaking countries because there was an issue in the US, we also know that the issue was largely understood through the singular lens of sexism. The realities of limited bodily autonomy for Trans and Non Binary folks, or for people of Colour, for example, pre-the overturn of Roe v Wade was not a concern for many whether in the US or worldwide. We therefore have two simultaneous axes of power operating at the same time, both rooted in hierarchy. None of this is, of course, to be totally clear, a result of ordinary individual Americans’ actions – but as individuals, it’s worth consistently reflecting on how geopolitical realities inform our individual social justice/DEI lenses and priorities. What is it that we do not need to ever know based on our country’s geopolitical power status?
Conversely, while Roe v Wade being overturned was covered in UK news such that this sexist reality became a concern for some outside of the US, other news is markedly absent. Geo-political power formations that inform hierarchies of oppression also tell us who globally is less important. It’s precisely the reason why the genocidal Islamophobia harming Uighurs is rarely central to ‘Western’ so-called progressive media outlets (except often in order to further anti-Chinese racism). It’s also why the imperial realities that led to the Iraq War were possible, as Angela Davis tells us. We see here how we cannot disentangle whose struggle we ultimately deem most important from wider geo-political patterns of power.
Any commitment to anti-oppression must be internationalist, honouring and equalising in importance the various struggles against oppressive realities that people are involved in across our planet (as well as how our global location may inform who and what we think merits resources and focus). Anything less is to engage in (inherently hierarchical) imperialist and colonial modes of operating.
8. Hierarchising oppressions leads us to asking people whether they are “oppressed enough” within a particular category of oppression. This emerges because hierarchising oppression relies on an assumption that there exists an ‘essential’ quality in one’s identity that qualifies a person to be a part of that oppressed group. For example, that there is something biologically distinct, or some specific and definitive set of experiences, that allow one to be within the group of Jewish people or Women or Lesbians or Muslims and so on. Of course there may be shared oppressive experiences among Muslims. But there may also not be for some. There are also many, many ways to be Muslim. What then follows from this essentialisation is that because a person needs to be situated within a certain system of oppression over others to gain attention and resources, not only do they need to be part of the qualifying group, but they also then still need to be demonstrably high enough up within the (false) hierarchy of that group to get resources. Practically, this looks like the question: “are you Disabled enough?” or “are you Black enough?” or “are you Woman enough?” to warrant specific support or resource or even to be in community. This is extremely dangerous. The denial and invalidation at the root of these questions is – you guessed it – also central to how oppression works anyway. Disabled people are frequently denied access to care and resources they need because of arbitrary thresholds – in these cases established through the mechanics of disablism – to prove what they need, which any person on the side of justice would agree is bad. Hierarchies of oppression end up reproducing these very same logics.
9. Hierarchising oppressions is often used by those who do not belong to the oppressed group in question to perform their commitment to be in solidarity with a group. This is a sad reality, but happens often, because in certain spaces folks who may be on the other side of a system of oppression – e.g. White people when it comes to racism, non-Jewish folks when it comes to antisemitism etc – have a desire to ‘do’ and ‘say’ the right thing. It also may be that those who wish to be in solidarity with marginalised folks, from a place of privilege, do not want to be labelled as ‘a racist’ for arguing that the racism Jewish people, Black people, or those racialised as Muslim experience is equally harmful, equally deserving of disruption and in fact rooted in the exact same myths of racial difference (with specific contours, of course). Encouraging and amplifying the elevation of a particular oppression over others by someone outside of that group may appear as the ultimate act of allyship, however it only reveals the absence of principle.
10. Hierarchising oppressions in the workplace creates a vicious cycle of hierarchy. Which oppressions get attention in a particular context can become self-fulfilling in our workplaces. If there is a perspective that specific oppressions are more worthy of recognition or intervention in a company context (because of who is in the company in the first place or how vocal a group at a particular moment is etc) activity is generated to resolve them. This may look like excavating data about the oppression(s) in question. Data isn’t neutral. Because there is then data related to one oppression over others, there is then value judgement about which so much else follows at the company. Because there is data in some areas where there isn’t in others – it is assumed it is because one oppression is more worthy of attention than others. We see the viscous cycle is self serving.
Playing the ‘oppression olympics’ is extremely tempting for any of us who experience oppression (as well as those who don’t!). And we know exactly why this happens. In a world where oppression is longstanding, seemingly impossible to overturn, and where the necessary resources are almost always out of reach, hunkering down to ‘protect one’s own’ seems entirely logical, indeed, it may also be a deep belief that it’s the right thing to do. And yet, this approach, fails us on so many levels as we hope this blog shows. Principled resistance to the oppression olympics articulates a world, and in so doing is the starting point for building a world that prioritises abundance, abundance in acknowledgment, recognition, solidarity and resources. And that’s the kind of prioritisation at Fearless Futures that we can intentionally get behind.