Oppression Olympics—the Cost of Comparison Has No Benefits | Opinion

Measuring the effects of racial trauma is an impossible task.

The recent decision by a California judge to drastically reduce the jury-awarded verdict of $137 million to a former Tesla contractor who sued on charges of racism and harassment to $15 million is possibly the latest example of literally measuring oppression. Owen Diaz, the former Tesla elevator operator, was denied an appeal and is seeking a new trial.

This case exemplifies the problematic dynamics of what some term, the "Oppression Olympics" and how to measure the cost—literally and in terms of dollar amounts, but also in trauma and mental health.

First coined by Elizabeth Martinez in a 1993 conversation with activist Angela Davis, these "Olympics" are when people from marginalized populations compete to determine who has it worst based on their overall experience of oppression.

To be sure, no one wants to earn a gold medal in this competition. There are no winners here.

The late Audre Lorde, self-described Black, lesbian, mother, warrior and poet, stated, "There can be no hierarchies of oppression," yet they exist.

As a psychologist, I conduct workshops on healing from racial trauma where it is not uncommon to hear Black people describe the negative experiences they have with law enforcement, in the workplace, and in everyday places like stores and restaurants.

I also hear people of color who do not identify as Black say, "At least Black people are seen, albeit negatively." Others say it is often "their own people" who discriminate against them, a phenomenon known as interminority racism. This conversation gets even more complicated when adding intersecting identities such as sexual identity, religion, ability, neurodiversity, age, geography or education.

According to Pew Research, the majority of Americans say there is at least some discrimination against different societal groups, including those who are ethnic minorities, LGBTQ+, Jewish, Muslim or disabled.

If most agree that experiences of discrimination will occur if you are not a white, cis-gender, Christian male, then the focus can be on how to change this dynamic, not on who has it worst.

The need to compete is fueled by the belief that there is a scarcity of resources when it comes to reform and progress; and, they must be saved and only used for the most dire situations.

All situations of oppression, bias and discrimination are dire.

Exploring the negative mental health impact of discrimination, a review of literature published between 2013-2019 on discrimination showed, "discrimination was positively associated with increased risk of major mental disorders and inversely related to positive mental health outcomes such as life satisfaction and self‐esteem. The accumulation of experiences of discrimination over time was associated with increasing risk of mental health problems."

Minority stress is the relationship between minority and dominant values and resultant conflict with the social environment experienced by minority group members, first utilized within the sexual minority health arena. In a review of 85 studies on transgender and gender diverse individuals, external stress, expectations of rejection, and concealment were significantly associated with increased depression, suicidal ideation, and suicide attempt.

A protester holds a hand painted sign
A protester holds a hand painted sign of hearts. Ira L. Black/Corbis via Getty Images

When examining the discrimination experienced due to intersecting identities (such as racism and heterosexism), mental health consequences persist. A critical review of literature on discriminated groups revealed these groups exhibit higher risk for mental health problems, particularly depression symptoms and suicidality.

Similarly, LGBTQ+ youth of color also experience depressive symptoms and suicidal ideation. Intersectional minority stressors such as interminority racism and discrimination are detrimental to physical and mental health.

When the struggles of some are denied acknowledgement, it leads to complicity in reinforcing white supremacy. A 2021 article in the Harvard Political Review noted, "In pitting subjugated groups against one another, the Oppression Olympics not only reduce the store of resources to which groups and movements have access, but also breed intersectional bitterness that facilitates further injustice."

The solution is to coalesce and collaborate, as individuals and communities, and to urge policymakers and large institutions to do the same.

Lilla Watson, Australian Indigenous artist, academic and activist, former President of the Aboriginal and Islander Child Care Agency, and founding member of the Brisbane Indigenous Media Association, told the U.N. Decade For Women Conference in 1985, "If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."

It is urgent to create and sustain cross-minority alliances that breed allyship, not enemies. When minority groups are able to collaborate, instead of compete, bi-directional validation occurs. Both groups reap the benefits of feeling felt. Being seen, understood, and validated will work to improve overall mental health outcomes.

When multiple minoritized groups band together, they harness their collective power to make systemic change by pooling their resources and capitalizing on the privilege and platform of groups with momentum to amplify and uplift groups without it. When liberation is connected to collaboration, mental and physical wellness is possible for all.

Dr. Summer Rose is a licensed psychologist in Texas and a Public Voices Fellow through The OpEd Project.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.