How the Oppression Olympics work

24 May

A new, landmark study [by the Applied Research Center] on the relationship between racial justice organizations and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) communities finds… [that t]here are damaging perceptions about LGBT communities and racial justice groups, specifically that LGBT identity and politics are for white people and that communities of color are disproportionately homophobic (

As a consequence, two parallel social inclusion and equity movements are effectively exclusive of each other. Ironic and ineffective, no?

The ARC study concludes, “When racial justice groups, including those focused on LGBT people, take on the intersection of race and sexuality, they can build enduring political power to make the policy and practice changes that improve communities nationwide.”

Intersectionality studies the relationships among social groups and issues in order to address the forest of social injustice, rather than hacking away at a single tree of inequality.

ARC locates critical resistance to intersectionality in misperceptions and “myths” between race and sexuality justice groups, and I’d underscore or add a particular myth: the notion that the social justice movement is better off as a competition of special interests (aka the Oppression Olympics).

I’m going to go out on a limb and speculate that despite the popularity of intersectionality (anyone who wants you to know that they know something about social justice will drop the “i” word), it’s still more of a concept than a heartfelt and practice-proven tent of social justice. In a culture of “I,” it is tough to cultivate an authentic, valued sense of the “we.” As an example, just the other night, I spoke to some middle schoolers about social justice, and one of their takeaways was that I was a Communist. I totally understand the impression, because when you start with capitalist “I” ideology, the notion of equitable access for unequal people sounds suspicious. (And granted, these were sharp 8th graders, but the distinction between equity and equality can be hard for most adults to grasp). Conversely, if you start with the lens of social justice, then capitalism, communism… all of these social systems -isms begin to look both possible and limited.

Fundamentally, thinking as “we” (aka thinking through the lens of intersectionality) is a challenge because of the fundamental fear that there’s only so much to go around, and if you get some, I must lose some. But, of course, social justice is not like a pie. There’s not a fatter or thinner slice to be had. There’s either social justice or there isn’t. “Some” social justice isn’t justice–it’s just privilege.

So I’m glad to read more on the push for intersectionality, and I hope to learn more about the reasons such an obvious concept is such a hard sell to the social justice community.

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