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oppression olympics part II: gloria steinem weighs in

January 15th, 2008     by Thea Lim     Comments

Last week we had a really interesting discussion on the topic of oppression olympics - i.e. when one marginalised group vies for prize of “we have the hardest time!” over all others - following Stacey May’s post on the rough time Hillary Clinton is having with her campaign.

In turns out we’re not the only ones noting how easily “Obama VS Clinton For President Elect” can turn into “Black Men VS White Women for Most Oppressed.” Famed 2nd-wave feminist Gloria Steinem wrote a piece for the New York Times last week called Women Are Never Front-Runners. In it, she invents a fictional female version of Barack Obama for the purpose of arguing that “gender is probably the most restricting force in American life”, saying that the sex barrier is not taken as seriously as the racial one.

I tell you, it hurts me when old time feminist heroes express ideas that to me, feel darn counter-productive - and that in addition, reinforce stereotypes that feminism is just for middle-class white ladies. It’s hard for me to understand why Steinem feels it necessary to use Clinton’s troubles as a springboard to say that women have it the worst. I don’t understand how this argument is useful, or for that matter even true.

Jennifer Fang for the blog Reappropriate (which I found through Racialicious) dissected Steinem’s stance most excellently, saying in her post Pitting Race Against Gender that:

How can one compare racism to sexism - and if one tries, where do those of us who are disadvantaged both by our race and by our gender fit in?…In truth, the juxtaposition is disingenuous, divisive, overly simplistic, and ultimately harmful, because it redirects our attention away from efforts to break the White male patriarchy that excludes all the Others, but towards in-fighting where we all compete to see both who’s more oppressed, and who will make it out of that “Oppression Box” first.

Fang goes on to say this, which maybe gets to the heart of why I find oppression olympics so exhausting, silly and sometimes hurtful:

Ultimately, however, Steinem’s piece (intentionally or unintentionally) draws a line in the sand between people of colour and women, essentially disregarding the everyday racism faced by Black and Brown people, and claiming the Oppression Olympics gold medal for women. Further, by casting the debate as between Black men and White women (despite her imperfect creation of Achola Obama), Steinem renders the woman of colour invisible, reaffirms the binary Black-White paradigm of race, and demands we take a side in the epic battle between race and gender. Is it no wonder, then, that women of colour have long felt alienated by feminists like Steinem?

Damn right!

The point is not that Clinton is not having a hard time, but that extrapolating from this one competition between a white woman and a black man in order to determine who has it worst is just not helpful, for so many reasons. Come on now, anti-racism and anti-sexism activists need to work together, or we’re never gonna get anywhere. This is especially true for those of us who happen to be both.

Tags: media savvy, race and racism

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