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Nobody Wins in Oppression Olympics

Earlier this month, a New York politician got caught up in a controversy that blew over rather quickly but deserves greater exposure.

The city of Brooklyn owns and operates a Holocaust Memorial Park that was created in 1985. Granite markers identifying victims of the Holocaust were added in 1997 and are now a major feature of the park. When city officials approved markers acknowledging the five million gays, Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and disabled people who were killed by the Nazis, Assemblyman Dov Hikind lived up to his reputation as an intolerant homophobe.

With his typical inflammatory rhetoric, Hikind argued that only Jewish people should be recognized by the memorial, saying “these people are not in the same category as Jewish people” and “to include these other groups diminishes their memory.”

Hikind’s statements are emblematic of a problem that serves as an unnecessary extra barrier to achieving social equality in this country, the pursuit of the gold medal in the Oppression Olympics.

This pursuit is characterized by a belief that your pain is greater than anybody else’s, desire to hold on to historical tragedy as a kind of badge of honor, and unwillingness to acknowledge other groups suffering. At the root of this mentality is a sense of superiority.

You can see this throughout our culture. Hikind says only Jewish people deserve to be recognized as Holocaust victims. His mother survived Auschwitz, yet he does not appear to have learned the lesson that Nazis hated everybody who didn’t meet their standard of “purity.” Some white people believe minorities should “get over” discrimination, and say they are the most discriminated population in the country. There are African-Americans who believe only they have the proper claim to “civil rights,” and are annoyed that gays have “stolen” the term. There are tensions between Latinos and African-Americans. There is even a hierarchy among criminals or drug addicts, where certain crimes or drugs of choice are seen as worse than others, even if they all bring people to the same place. Within the LGBT community, you have factions that dislike and stereotype each other on the basis of age, race, sex, class, and adherence to traditional gender roles.

All this only proves that being a member of a minority group does not automatically make you empathetic to other minorities. Sometimes people learn this lesson the hard way, such as when some LGBTs were shocked that a majority of African-Americans voted for Proposition 8. They assumed that black people “knew better” than to support discrimination, and did not do adequate outreach to that community. In return, some LGBTs were quick to express their anger by classifying all African-Americans as hopeless homophobes or worse. All that did was widen the gap that needs to be bridged between those two communities.

Nobody wants to feel like they are the low rung on the totem pole, and people will go to great lengths to demonstrate that, if only to themselves, “at least I’m not like that.” The problem is when that desire and pride keeps groups from recognizing potential allies. In politics, activities that result in keeping people from recognizing that their mutual interests are often referred to as “divide and conquer” tactics.

What can break through these beliefs and make people realize that, like it or not, we’re all in this world together? Sadly, it may take massive tragedies or health crises. While it may be an awful thing to say, think back to how people reacted in the aftermath of the Oklahoma City bombing or September 11. For a brief time, there was a noticeable, if short-lived, shift in how people treated each other. In the cases of World Wars I and II, there were more permanent changes in philosophies that led to a greater sense of cooperation among nations.

Or consider the impact of mainstream America realizing that HIV was not limited to “the four H’s” (homosexuals, heroin addicts, hemophiliacs, Haitians) or the current response to the World Health Organization declaring that swine flu is a global pandemic. When the victims are seemingly plucked at random, meaning everyone is potentially at risk, people tend to put the superficial differences aside to focus on our common humanity and finding a solution.

If only people did not require unfortunate circumstances to treat others with the dignity and respect they already deserve.

From “Blackout” for 6/22/09 by Anthony Rucker


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