Oppression Olympics and White Speak

facebookLast week I blogged about LEGO and their bias towards featuring only white children in their pictures. Another person posted a similar thought on LEGO’s Facebook page. Wow, were some of the comments rude and racist. My favorite racist comment was “If I wanted to see little brown people, I’d buy Nat. Geo. [National Geographic].” The comment was reported to Facebook and subsequently deleted, but not before this screenshot was taken. Racism runs free on Facebook, but we already knew that. [Update: Looks like the LEGO post was deleted.]

We also need to acknowledge the US missile attack on Syria in response to the chemical attack the Syrian government launched on the Syrian people. While all of this is unfolding, we have to be ready to open our borders and services to immigrants and refugees from the country, and work to continue protecting our current immigrants. The Trump administration has made it clear they do not value immigrants, so we must continue to push and resist bad policies and work hard to create a welcoming environment.


Earlier today Hana, a reader, emailed asking us to share insights on how to handle conversations that sound like this: “I am a [white] woman and I have suffered discrimination, so for you to assume I do not understand [fill in the blank] is unfair.” Independent of the email request, Heidi sent a text saying we need to write about “white speak,” meaning how we have to re-frame conversations so white people hear what people of color are saying without shutting down. Both topics deserve their own blog posts, but tonight I want to write about them together.

Let’s define ‘white speak.’ White speak is the verbal dance people of color do to make others, mostly white people, but sometimes pocs who aren’t woke (self-aware around race), understand what we are saying around race without losing their marbles. In this verbal tango pocs have to make things sound less threatening and gently explain why something is racist, privileged, or annoying to people of color. In white speak, we cater to white people’s fragility afraid to offend them or afraid of pushing too far and then having to deal with their tears, anger, or obsessions around being seen as perfect and non-offensive. When we white speak we also use coded language; we are catering to white people’s fragility and making them feel comfortable around hard messages associated with race. It is taxing to police words and to have to ‘code switch’ or mentally rewrite messages and judge if someone can understand what we want them to understand. Many times white speak hides or masks the poc truths and we give a tamer version at the risk of not losing people entirely.

As an example of Oppression Olympics, it sounds like this: “I’m a white women who’s experienced discrimination and hardship. My kid is in a class of 26 and his needs are not being met.” What I hear is “What about me? You’re not saying anything about my needs.” The white speak that has to take place to keep her from falling apart then sounds like this example: “Yes, I understand you have faced hardship and your son is in a classroom with 26 other children and that is a large class size. AND we must recognize there are other schools more under resourced then your school. It isn’t fair and the system isn’t resourced well enough to provide everyone everything they need.” What happened in the talk-back was we had to cater to the white person and say, “we see you, and you’ll be ok.”

It is human nature to want to feel included, but when white people want their problems seen first, we need to ask is it at the expense of focusing on people of color’s needs. If the answer is yes, then white people need to step back and check their privileges. Being able to articulate and voice a problem is a privilege, not all people of color have the ability or agency (ability to make the decision) to voice problems and be heard fairly or at all. As an example, while the white parent in the above example can say their kid (and therefore they) are experiencing hardship because their kid’s class is at 26-students, there may be additional outside resources to make sure their needs are met including parent education, community assets, etc. If we were to find a comparable 26-student classroom filled with students of color there is a greater likelihood the student’s needs are not being as well-met and the overall needs of the students are more because of historical legacies of under resourcing schools in communities of color. The parents of color in the predominately poc school probably are upset too but they don’t have the same agency to be heard, and/or the burden of speaking up is greater (i.e. organizing to testify at a school board meeting, having time to call policy makers, access to policy makers, etc.).

The white parent talking about how they are facing oppression or discrimination may even get praised for speaking up. We need white advocates, especially parent advocates, to share their stories and talk about how systems are failing children. But we also need white partners to understand how to share the advocacy burden and not fall into the role of playing Oppression Olympics by saying my need is greater than yours so you should follow my lead and my voice. Please don’t do this, it hurts the overall cause and it takes away from the need to be seen as a united front. Centering communities of color and people of color does not diminish people from seeing white people. White people and pocs of privilege our job is to create access and use our resources to highlight voices (in a non-tokenizing way) to people of color.

Wrapping Up

White people our asks are simple, stop with the oppression Olympics of saying “I’m discriminated/oppressed/hurt/etc. because I’m white.” We’re all oppressed in some ways and we’re all privileged in some ways; own your white privilege and do something good with it for people of color.

One of the ways you can do good is by listening and allowing people of color to speak honestly and fully. Create space to listen without censorship. Recognize the verbal gymnastics we sometimes do to have you hear us. I have a colleague who is bi-racial with white passing privilege. He grew up with both the white side of his family, as well as deeply ingrained with communities of color. With his white passing privilege, he is privy to how conversations sound with people of color are in the room, and how they change when the pocs step out. The conversations are different, with the pocs it is guarded and safe for fear of being offensive. How much more freeing would it be if we were all able to say what is needed and to have open conversations where we can check assumptions and hear each other. Let’s work on that and maybe we can stop having to white speak and play Oppression Olympics.

By Erin Okuno

2 thoughts on “Oppression Olympics and White Speak

  1. grannysgotablog says:

    The answer in my eyes is acceptance of each other. I doubt if this will ever happen, and we. (the bald dude and I) are blessed to be surrounded by all sorts of folks and I use the words “all sorts of folks” not as prejudice but as acceptance, and also i do not always know the politically correct words to use.
    No one should have to do the white speak dance, or any dance to be understood. I have so much to say about this but what really hits me in the heart is how much we miss out on in this life by not simply accepting each other and get to know each other. I have met so many interesting people and learned everything from making Indian fry bread to how to grow plants better with cinniman from a friend from the Ivory Coast.
    The world is an interesting place and I am grateful to be a part of it.


Comments are closed.