The Oppression Olympics: Live on NBC…

I was watching Saturday Night Live the other night (yeah…that would be Saturday) and Chris Rock opened the show. I want to comment a little bit about what he said.

First off, it should be obvious that I’m writing from a white-guy, feminist-identified perspective; and I recognize that there is messed up, offensive stuff on SNL all the time so there is this question of why I am going after Chris Rock of all possible targets, but at the same time it was just such a clear example of Oppression Olympics (that is, arguing over who suffers worse under the system), and it was showcased as the opening of the show (the “live from New York” opening) so it really just got me worked up.

Basically, the sketch was him just sitting at a desk with a suit and tie, basically doing a stand-up routine about the Democratic primaries. He talked about how this Obama vs. Hillary thing is really becoming a suffering contest, over who has suffered more: white women or black men. He then proceeds to say that there is really no way we can compare the suffering of white women to black men.

I don’t remember many of the specifics, but he definitely brings up history like lynching and says that white women were never lynched…and talks about how white women couldn’t vote for like a second. And he says that white women are actually the majority so they could have had a woman president like decades ago…then proceeds to say something like along the lines of “bi***es, what are you complaining about.” He also talks about how everyone LOVES white women. He wraps up by saying that for these reasons he believes that Obama will not only be the nominee, but will be the next president, and the first black president…and ends with an ablist “retard” joke about Bush (which, in fairness, is standard for SNL).

Now, I’m not outraged or anything. I’m just sad. As a middle-class white guy, having certainly grown up with something of the perspective of the powerful, I believe that this kind of joking, talking, thinking is what serves the powerful — white guys like me, and the richer ones — best. Divide and conquer, you know. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised if white guys are the folks who end up most appreciating Rock’s piece…because, contrary to what Rock says, everyone does NOT love white women, and many white men frankly don’t really miss an opportunity to hate on, dismiss, humiliate white women (and women of color as well, for sure). Rock has served their interests nicely.

What’s also sad is the inaccuracy of it. Officially, black men had the vote before white women AND women of color, especially outside of the South….which really is only to say that basically the system sucked for all of these folks for a long, long time, and still does.  Also, before, during, and well after the times of legal slavery, white women actually suffered “legal death” after marriage…that is, they officially, legally and culturally lost their identities and legal rights, become essentially the property of their husbands. And though white women weren’t historically lynched (and neither were women of color, proportionally…does that mean they had it easier than the men?), they were burned alive as witches (and we’re talking THOUSANDS of women in Europe!) and still are beaten, raped, killed by (mostly white) men on a daily, hourly basis. AS ARE WOMEN OF COLOR. To think that white women are loved and have it easy because they often share the homes and beds of the white male power structure is a mistake. Being closer to the oppressor doesn’t necessarily make one safer around the oppressor (as women of color working in white homes have known for centuries).

So, what’s my point? That white women have it worse? Nope, I fundamentally reject that game. And I regret that Rock or anyone else would play it.

Let’s be simple, in order to be clear: Black men, men of color are oppressed under white supremacy. White women are oppressed under patriarchy. Women of color are doubly oppressed under both systems and in the interactions between them. I believe that to go down the road of denying others’ oppression in order to bolster the case for one’s own oppression will always end up serving the powerful.

I don’t think that’s what Chris Rock meant to do…to serve the powerful…but it’s actually not the first time that he’s inadvertently done that with his comedy. I remember all of my white high school friends repeating his “I love black people, but I hate n****rs” joke with glee after his HBO special came out. Just like in the movie Bamboozled…privileged people eat that stuff up. White America also did the same thing to Chappelle, by the way…but to his credit I think he saw it happening and got out while he could (and thanks to Alisa for pointing me toward that analysis).

And so, the winner of this event in the Oppression Olympics: the system. Like always.

Edit: Here’s a link to the Chris Rock sketch.

Currently Reading:

-Dispersing Power by Raul Zibechi

3 comments

Interesting post, thank you. However, I’ve always hated the phrase “oppression olympics.” I think of oppression as a broad thing, not a thing that can be added up arithmetically (let’s add up all the things white women experience, and all the things black men experience, and see who comes out the worst). Though you want to undermine this kind of thinking, I think your analysis ultimately promotes it. Ironically, arithmetic approaches to understanding oppression happens more when people aren’t willing to be flexible about the fact that sometimes, given context, some oppressions are more significant than others. And sometimes, racism and colonization is more significant than sexism and patriarchy. If you believe in intersectionality (as I do), then you might say that racism is informed by sexism, and vice versa, so it doesn’t make sense to talk about which one is most significant. However, even those folks experiencing intersectional oppressions may feel, at times, that some oppressions play a much bigger role than others. For example, though the treatment of African women during slavery times was certainly gendered and informed by patriarchy, seems like the reality of white supremacy as a motivating force to enslave Africans is simply more significant. That is to say, black people (women, men, and children) were enslaved and white people (women, men, and children) were not. Sure, white women had it very hard – so did white poor people and white lgbt folks and so on. But they weren’t chattel slaves. It’s important to not be confused about this. Thus, it is legitimate, at times, to do what you call “oppression olympics,” but what I call being clear about the difference of experiences. If you take away this option, then you get yourself into a really sticky situation where, instead of having complex analyses about the way oppression works, you start trying to show why “oppression olympics” don’t work by trying to show that one group *did* have it worse, like you do with the voting argument.

(With all due respect, your voting argument is pretty specious. Black men may have gotten the constitutional right to vote before white women, but, after Reconstruction, they weren’t actually allowed to vote until the Civil Rights Movement. So, white women were in fact voting for forty years while nary a black person could cast a ballot.)

Or, when you write: “To think that white women are loved and have it easy because they often share the homes and beds of the white male power structure is a mistake. Being closer to the oppressor doesn’t necessarily make one safer around the oppressor (as women of color working in white homes have known for centuries).”

It seems pretty messy to compare white women who have white power to women of color who don’t. White women are often loved and very often have it easy often because they share the homes and beds of white men. They are oppressed, sure, but the white power structure is also constructed in the domestic sphere. They’re experiencing both the oppression of patriarchy and the power of white supremacy in both the domestic and public spheres. You’re right that being closer to the oppressor doesn’t necessarily make one safer, but being the oppressor necessarily makes one more powerful. Your error is forgetting that white women have white supremacist power. You can be feminist-identified and get this point too.

My point is not that Chris Rock is right and black men have it worse than white women. That’s a silly claim and you are right to say that having a generalized argument like that is unproductive. But, I challenge the move to completely dismiss the option of critically comparing experiences and recognizing that some things are sometimes more significant than others. Life is contextual, oppression is contextual, it’s important to not just horizontalize everything.

Thanks for the post, though!

-P

I agree, I agree, and thanks for writing! (Do I know you?)

Overall, I think you pushed what I was saying in a better direction than where I was heading. I do agree with you that it is important to be able to acknowledge and be honest about where one oppression really is more significant than another, and that this can be done intersectionally, rather than arithmatically. I really appreciate you writing about this, because I think it pushes me toward that complexity of thinking that I was trying to model as well, but fell short.

It’s interesting because as I was writing the post I could feel myself with this urge to try to “make a case” that white women have had it bad, too, and that thus Chris Rock was mistaken…which is exactly the game that I was trying to argue against.

So yeah, I actually agree with each paragraph you wrote, including your points abut voting, sharing beds with the oppressor, etc. And fundamentally I agree with your last point, that oppression is contextual and we shouldn’t just horizontalize everything…

That is a tendency that I have definitely had, mostly from seeing the history of conflicts within movements and seeing conflicts between people I care about in my activist communities, and so having that dangerous tendency of wanting us to look past our differences and to unite against the system.

I think that tendency was evident in some of the phrasing of my arguments…so thanks for challening some things in there.

And just thanks for the response!

Some more thoughts:

Your points also raise some questions that I think about a lot, which I would like to explore further on this blog…as much as I can from my particular identity, etc.: namely, if we are interested in forming multiracial, multigender, cross-class alliances in order to transform this society (which I’m interested in, but won’t assume of you, P, because I don’t know you), then what are the implications of acknowledging different levels of oppression within our organizing? I’m specifically thinking about the vital work of trying to heal and also to validate each other in knowing that we’re not crazy in this world.

Let me be more specific: In my organizing in the Pacific NorthWest, I have worked with many white feminist women who have wanted to share the truth of their experiences and to be validated as a fundamental part of their organizing…it has been something that has been vital for them for their own sanity and ability to stick with the movement. I agree and have learned so, so much from their struggles to find that space in what are traditionally meetings and movements that are “all business.”

At the same time, many of these white women have been really reluctant, often annoyed at the idea of making space for white men’s pain in the process of organizing…because white men have taken up enough space, etc. A position I totally understand…but…I still need to cry somewhere. If not in the movement, then where?

Further, beyond my white background, I have seen and heard from women of color who I have organized with who have been frustrated with white women taking up space, crying, etc. when these women of color have wanted their space to speak out and be validated, as well.

So we have a situation in which those who are oppressed are often not interested in hearing or dealing with the oppression and pain that their oppressors have experienced. Yet, I believe that in the United States, as it is, to organize in effective, sustainable, revolutionary ways, this oppression and pain needs to be talked about by all of us. And probably, eventually, all of us together.

So what do we do (and at this point I’m not just writing to P, but just to anyone…I’m not asking you, P, to answer me or anything…)?

In the past my simplistic notion has been to work with a kind of intersectional theory that encourages us to recognize that we are all fucked up, in different ways, and on different levels, by this system…and that to change it requires a radical unity, which means learning to listen to each other and work together across the barriers that the system has built.

But at that level of simplicity, there is no recognition of levels of privilege, margins and centers, etc. It’s almost a guarantee that white folks, dudes will take up the space…so, clearly we have to acknowledge the specific contexts of privilege and oppression, and acknowledge that different folks have different responsibilities…but what does that look like in organizing, without creating fucked up, almost robotic structures of “oppressed people always in the lead” with people with privilege then in single-file behind them? This kind of organizing doesn’t work for me, although I appreciate the social analysis that spawns it…I just don’t think of leadership in that way.

So, do we just separate and decentralize? Do we just have movements of identity caucuses where the more oppressed don’t have to listen to the less oppressed, and the less oppressed don’t have to make space for the even less oppressed? So do I just try to find straight middle class white non-trans dudes to listen to me and validate me…and then be just “all ears” when I’m working with other, more oppressed folks? Does the deep significance of white supremacy in our society, and its uniqueness in relation to patriarchy, mean that there really isn’t a place for white women, for example, and women of color to both share their experiences together in movement space? Are the gaps between us too large? Or is it perhaps that we’re not there yet…that the more privileged folks need to get our shit together and get some of our shit out together before we go burdening other folks with it?

I’m not sure, but I think about it a lot. I don’t believe our movements will be successful until they are large and allied together…and I don’t think we’ll have movements like that until we have movements that we can bring our whole selves to…and that includes some kind of space for me to talk about what it was like being taught white masculinity by the older boys at school…etc.

So far, up here in Seattle, the answer has been that the gap between identities, especially racial identities, is too large…and so almost all the organizing is identity-based.

And, well, sometimes it just worries me. I don’t see much bold movement building happening here. I think we probably can come up with some better models.

Interested to hear what anyone thinks!