In my personal experience, the term “oppression olympics” comes up every time somebody walks into a conversation about privilege or oppression and gets told that the conversation isn’t about them. If it gets used in other contexts, I’m not surprised, but for the most part it’s a term I’ve seen in the arsenal of people who really really hate the idea that in the broader perspective perhaps they might actually have some responsibility toward those others who suffer. Yet, rather than just recognize that in some contexts they are the ones with an advantage they should consider using for good, they recoil in horror and disgust at the idea that sometimes other people’s experiences need to be talked about, and what they call this terrible circumstance is “playing oppression olympics.”
In fact, I just saw someone refer to this as them being oppressed by the most disadvantaged in their culture because they’re being silenced by, like, trans people of color. This isn’t an isolated accusation either; it’s puzzling how many people seem to be completely convinced that the poor, the disabled, people of color, trans people, and women have the power to oppress them (with, I guess, an ever-increasing ability to silence others the less cultural clout they have? idk). I have a fair number of privileges myself, but I have somehow managed not to, like, accuse people with very little social power of oppressing me by showing where I am in the broader system of “Let’s help some people and screw others for totally goofy arbitrary reasons! Yesterday race determined our winners! Today gender will matter! Tomorrow we spin the wheel again! Wheeeeee!” It seems to me that in this case, it’s not the oppressed people who have a problem with the idea that other people suffer too.
So who is actually saying, “STFU because there are starving kids in (country that racists consider full of savages) who would love your ‘oppression’ stfu stfu everybody stop talking?” Who are those people? Whose interests do they serve?
I mean, yes, there is a contingent of people who pull a Dear Muslima and say, “As long as anybody suffers more than you do, you have to shut up forever,” but those people–in my actually rather extensive experience both as a newb on some issues and a Social Justice Warrior (tri-toooone!) on others–tend to be the ones who don’t want privilege getting discussed and want to shut down all conversations of oppression rather than the ones who just want more-privileged people to stop kicking the less-privileged away from the table because they’re stunned that they’re not being discussed.
Everybody has room to talk about how stuff is crap for them. What’s not cool is when people with Privilege A come into a conversation about Oppression A and say, “yeah yeah I’m real sorry for you and imma let you finish but reverse-A is the worst oppression of all time and if you disagree with me you’re a silencing bigoted oppressor,” which may not seem common but actually really really is.
‘splaining (whitesplaining, mansplaining, etcetera, known more generally as privsplaining or condesplaining) is a thing privileged people often do as a result of a culturally-ingrained expectation that their opinion is inherently valuable regardless of actual expertise
Perhaps even more commonly, people with Privilege A will try to tell people with Oppression A what it’s like to experience Oppression A and why it happens and what should be done about it, to the point of trying to argue down the people whose life experience is actually being discussed. In this latter case, yes, people get told to check their privilege.
If you’re a white person in a white supremacist culture, and you wanna tell people of color what racism is like, how to tell when racism is happening, and how people experiencing racism ought to respond to it (for an example, look up white criticisms of the Black Panthers), you really do need to check your privilege, because that sense of innate expertise and self-importance is the only reason someone would think their opinion of someone else’s life is more valid than that of the person themselves.
If you’re a cis man in a misogynist culture, and you wanna tell non-guys what misogyny is like, how to tell when misogyny is happening, and how people experiencing misogyny ought to respond to it (for an example, watch cis men on the US news talking about legislating the reproductive options of uterus-havers), you really do need to check your privilege, because that sense of innate expertise and self-importance is the only reason someone would think their opinion of someone else’s life is more valid than that of the person themselves.
If you’re a cis person at all, in fact, and you wanna tell trans people what transphobia is like, how to tell when transphobia is happening, and how people experiencing transphobia ought to respond to it (for an example, see every cis person who demands trans people avoid referring generally to “cis people” negatively), you really do need to check your privilege, because that sense of innate expertise and self-importance is the only reason someone would think their opinion of someone else’s life is more valid than that of the person themselves.
If you’re an abled person, and you wanna tell disabled people what ableism is like, how to tell when ableism is happening, and how people experiencing ableism ought to respond to it, you really do need to check your privilege (for an example, see the many people without mental illness encouraging people with mental illness to just… will or pray themselves out of it somehow), because that sense of innate expertise and self-importance is the only reason someone would think their opinion of someone else’s life is more valid than that of the person themselves.
Different people will be in a different position with these at different times, too! If you’re an abled black person, people need to not whitesplain to you, but you need to not able-splain to disabled people. If you’re a an old money rich trans person, cis people don’t get to tell you what transphobia is like but you don’t get to tell poor people what classism is like. For me personally, I have to try not to do this to trans people, to people of color, or people with disabilities, but dudes should try not to do it to me. See how that works? Nobody is the bad guy all the time; nobody is just Privileged or just Oppressed. It’s not about sides. It is about context.
Or, to put it super succinctly, there’s a great meme called Privilege Denying Dude. Look at this guy.
So basically, when people say “check your privilege,” they mean that you (general “you”) are seeming like this guy here. That is what they mean. Sure, like… (*pulls statistics from rectum*) 5-10% of the time they will be being unreasonable, unfair, and misreading you. Sadly, 90-95% of the time, you actually are being rude and hurtful and you just don’t realize it. So just… do the same things you presumably always do when you hurt someone accidentally. Stop.
Really, that’s all “check your privilege” actually means when it comes down to it. It means, “You are thoughtlessly hurting people right now because your privilege blindspot is acting up. Since we assume you give a crap whether you hurt people, this is your cue to stop doing it.” Personally I think it’s a little generous to act under the assumption that all people who are hurting people because of a blind spot actually do give a crap whether that’s what they’re doing, but this is politics and we have to err on the side of assuming the best about people or else they’ll use that as their next excuse not to care whether we live or die, and also to actively derail conversations in which other people might be convinced to care about it.
Those are the people who’ll say, “There are starving children/oppressed women/suppressed religious minorities in this country full of savages who are usually coincidentally not white, so shut up about all your problems forever,” and considering that they’re walking in to those conversations specifically to damage them, it’s a little saddening to be confused for the people trying to shut us up so that they don’t have to think too hard or feel weird about their own position and what responsibilities it might mean they ought to have.
I’m sure this is not the only way in which the term “oppression olympics” gets used, but for some reason this is how I am seeing it used a lot. Yes, equating or even in a lot of cases comparing oppressions is pretty tacky and gross and downright destructive, but in my corner of the internet, the people who are most likely to be accused of doing this are… well, what they’re really doing is trying to keep a conversation off-topic without letting privsplainers derail the crap out of it.
Maybe my corner of the internet is atypical, but I keep seeing this over and over and it’s getting tiresome.