Oppression Olympics

Nneka E. Akukwe, Syracuse University

The division between African Americans and Africans within the larger black community has always been an anomaly to me. I’ll never forget the day myself and an African American friend played into that narrative as we got into a heated argument about the level of severity the effects of slavery, imperialism, segregation/ Apartheid, and the use of the n-word had on Africans versus African Americans. Despite us both being able to reconcile our differences, the experience not only challenged how I understood the painful history and legacies of imperialism and slavery in Africa, but put into perspective how I and other members of the black community treat our black counterparts with varying identities in sensitive situations such as the one my friend and I were in.

The term “Oppression Olympics” was first introduced to me in passing during my junior year of high school when two friends of mine had gotten into a heated argument. The quarrel was about the injustices they face as a result of them being a member of their respective marginalized group. As I attempted to calm both of them down, I began to wonder why some members of marginalized groups feel the need to diminish the residual effects of painful history other groups outside of theirs faced? It was not until 3 years later when myself and a close friend found ourselves in the exact same situation did the answer become evident to me.

As both my friend and I took jabs at each other during the entire duration of the heated argument, I began to realize that we were participating in an Oppression Olympics similar to my friends in high school. As a West African and African American woman, I have seen firsthand how both parties ostracize one another from the larger black community. The use of the n-word by Africans and wearing of country attire by non-Africans are just a few examples of how both parties heighten the divide between each other. Ironically, it was also why my friend and I initially started arguing.

Scholars, philanthropists, poets, and millennials alike have all deliberated about the use of the n-word in today’s society. Prior to the legacies of white supremacy (i.e. slavery, colonialism, Jim Crow, and Apartheid), the crude word possessed a different meaning as a sacred word closely related to “god” by ancient Egyptians. Since the discovery about its origins, its use by black millennials has been less protested as a way of reclaiming its meaning. Yet, notable writers and influencers alike still argue about its use. For example, the late poet Maya Angelou repeatedly stated that the use of the word was both vulgar and dangerous.

As members of our community battle among themselves discussing the appropriateness of the use of the word among blacks, they also discuss its use among non-African American blacks. During the argument between my friend and I, this became a prevalent issue as she believed that Africans had zero ownership of the word, despite its ancient origins, because it was never used directly towards them. Although historically the racial slur was created during the 19th century in America, its use has no limits and still affects non-African American blacks. As a result, I do not understand why some African Americans rather choose to exclude other marginalized ethnic groups within the larger black community who are all negatively affected by the slur as opposed to focusing on eradicating the use of the word entirely.

Similarly, as some African-Americans limit the use of the n-word among non-African American blacks, some Africans prohibit African Americans from wearing traditional country attire. As both my friend and I argued about this issue as a form of cultural appropriation, the exclusion of Africans from the use of the n-word, and more, I began to realize the reason why members of our community and other marginalized groups participate in Oppression Olympics. It is to remind one another of the validity of the emotions we share about aspects of our painful history, despite this method having an adverse effect on one another. Although my friend and I were able to reconcile our difference, this is not always the case for those who engage in these types of sensitive arguments. If we simply seized the need to compare our histories between one another, we would lessen the divide within our community.