There’s No Liberation in Oppression Olympics

By Sarah Merriman, If/When/How Legal Intern

The 2017 Leadership Institute with If/When/How was my first experience in convening with reproductive justice-focused law students. It was a transformative space, where attendees came from across the country with their experiences and their passions, to stand in community.

As part of seeking justice, attendees were asked to examine their privileges; at one moment, we were all asked to share our racial identity and gender pronouns in a multi-racial, collaborative space. A noticeable trend emerged: many chose to share other identities of oppression, most especially their queer or gay identities, while stating their privileged identities as white or white presenting people. This struck me as odd.

I am a white-presenting bi-racial person. I am both privileged by my whiteness and erased from my Arab heritage in my appearance, but importantly, I can put on and take off my privileges and my oppressions like hats — a privilege in and of itself. In spaces like the Leadership Institute, spaces populated by “our good people” working on racial and reproductive justice, it often feels tempting to center our own oppressions. When you are struggling to confront the extraordinary advantages that whiteness gives you while wanting to combat white supremacy, you run right up against the chilling fact that you often benefit from an imbalanced system yourself. None of us want to be labeled racist, and many struggle with this uncomfortable reality; however, just for being born “white,” you are benefitting from this system, whether you asked for it or not. This doesn’t mean that you can’t work to dismantle these systems alongside and in supporting people of color, nor does it mean that you aren’t also hurt by those same systems. In fact, your real or perceived whiteness makes it an imperative to dismantle these systems using those very privileges, both for others and for your own stake in liberating your identities of oppression.

The title of this article, “oppression Olympics,” comes from a term I first heard in college, a way to name and humorize the trend of how activists, uncomfortable with how their privileges could separate them from their social justice work (and from other activists), would name their oppressions in an attempt to be the “most oppressed,” the most deserving of being “in the club.” This behavior is a distraction from the work, and it relieves superficial discomfort so that these folks do not have to do the (very, very difficult) work of reaching inwards and feeling accountable for their own problematic actions.

In examining privilege, we must consider how these “oppression Olympics” often comes up in law school, where our identities play second fiddle to “legal values.” For most law students, for myself, we’re taught to value perfectionism, respectability, and arguing from a place of “authority” instead of lived experience. In the quest for impartiality, law school can attempt to erase who we are. The thing is, though, those of us with white privilege have an easier time conforming to those values, of squeaking through school, invoking them when we “need to,” than do most students of color.

Therefore, as I did at the Leadership Institute, I am asking all of us to reflect on why we often seek to center our identities of oppression when we have the ultimate privilege of whiteness in America. Can you swap around your identities like a hat, centering what feels most comfortable in the moment? Or do you have no choice — are your identities and your presentation inextricably intertwined? Can you see how having a choice of hats makes it imperative that you first use your privilege to center and support those without a choice, most especially students of color, who are routinely disadvantaged in law school and in the legal system?

No matter your advantages and disadvantages within the legal system, all law students have a stake in liberation — let’s race towards it, instead of hiding from our own discomfort.


The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views or position of If/When/How.