The Oppression Olympics, by Elayne Riggs
As much as I’d like to use this column’s title to segue into a discussion about Beijing and Tibet and Stephen Spielberg and so forth, that’s not my chosen subject matter this time. Although I reserve the right to swipe my own header again once the XXIX Olympiad gets going. No, the title refers to the phenomenon of all kinds of different people believing, and loudly proclaiming, that systemic discrimination against the particular group with which they identify (and sometimes, if they’re "concern trolls," against a group of which they’re not a member but with which they’ve chosen to sympathize to the point of condescension) is "the last acceptable prejudice."
A few weeks ago, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama wrote and presented his now-famous speech about dealing with questions of race as though citizens were, you know, adults. As hoped for, it started a lot of interesting discussions, as adults who’d been speaking about race and gender and privilege all along were once more thrust into the consciousness of others who hadn’t. One of the more interesting comments I read came from a Native American rights activist who was disappointed that the speech seemed to define the issue of race as, once again, mostly a black and white divide. While I believe Obama did include Asians and Latinos in his speech, I’m pretty sure Native Americans received no mention. However, I’m not prepared to ascribe this omission to deliberate exclusionism; any orator knows there’s a point where your rhetorical cadence gets bogged down by too many "and"s.
And yet, that commenter had a point. When we’re talking about rights and justice for everyone in this country, it’s not a good idea to leave out an entire series of cultures that flourished on this continent before Europeans came along, many of which have managed against all genocidal odds to continue to exist. Nor is it a good idea to belittle those same cultures in bad analogies. Even speeches about racial divides can’t "win" sometimes. It’s a tricky tightrope we all walk, ever since the days when "politically correct" was defined as "well-meaning (usually white) liberals who bend over backwards so much to include everyone that they wind up saying nothing at all." There were jokes about breaking down identity politics into such absurd subcategories one wound up worrying about catering to one-eyed left-handed lesbian Inuit vegans. At some point, most of these subcategories must be assumed to exist for purposes of receiving social justice, without needing to be the recipient of shout-outs at every single turn.
I’m not sure when we’ll get over this identity-hump, but it doesn’t appear to be settling down any time soon. Last week in the blogosphere, Tara at Fatshionista examined some "reasons why people of color aren’t flocking to the fat acceptance movement." Many of them had to do with assumptions on the part of relatively privileged groups. Her concerns echoed those I’ve heard elsewhere, many of which amount to versions of "you’re not paying attention, and it’s not all about you." If you’re so committed to the concept that a group of which you’re a member is being oppressed, it’s sometimes hard to accept the correlating concept that you may also be a member of a privileged group as well.
I’ve had first-hand experience of this. I had a fair amount of anti-Semitic prejudice directed at me when I was a kid growing up in a mostly Catholic neighborhood. But I also heard how my relatives spoke about black people, which confused me. I was too young to know about the white Jewish men Goodman and Schwerner who were killed because of their work in favor of civil rights, but it just seemed logical to me at the time that, by the nature of having both been historically denied rights and livelihoods and even existence, blacks and Jews would have far more in common in terms of fighting against that institutionalized prejudice. The first kid I called a "boyfriend" was a black classmate named Michael Cook. I just thought common cause was the right thing to do, and I sympathized when Michael got teased for being who and what he was because I was teased too for being who and what I was, and so it just made sense to me at 8 or 9 or whatever age I was to hold Michael’s hand a lot. (I later told this tale to comic book writer Christopher Priest, mentioning jokingly that Michael had been "my little Negro friend," in the vernacular of the period, and from that moment on Priest was MLNF as well.)
I seem to remember a public service ad on TV at the time that showed pictures of kids-of-many-cultures playing together, set to the soundtrack of "You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught" from South Pacific, and that was my first remembered experience of understanding irony. When my parents took me to the NY World’s Fair in 1965, it was the Pepsi pavilion’s "Small World" exhibit which affected me more than anything else with its message (at least the message I got) of world solidarity and people loving each other even if they came from different places or didn’t look the same as each other. So I’ve been pretty cognizant of the whole "injustice towards one group is injustice towards all" mentality for most of my life.
And here’s something I’ve learned. Being the victim of prejudice is not a contest. It’s an outrage, and the unfairness of that behavior should affect all human beings. Nobody should be playing "more oppressed than thou," particularly nobody with progressive politics who is supposed to be working towards a better world. Just as everyone is a little bit racist, it may be true that everyone is at least a little bit hard done by. And the experience of being discriminated against, whether due to circumstance of birth or conscious personal choice or outward appearance, ought to be what ties us all together in the quest for justice, rather than splintering us apart into pockets of individual grievance. Ahem? Strength in numbers? Solidarity?
To deplore attacks against, for instance, a political candidate because of what societal group they belong to, rather than their ideology or policy proposals, is not to automatically throw in your lot with that candidate. It’s simply the right thing to do, and it has nothing to do with the political game. You can support the black man whilst denouncing media sexism, or the white woman whilst condemning racist tactics. It’s not an either/or. People deserve to be judged, if at all, primarily on the content of their character.
And we’ve got to stop those who would use divide-and-conquer tactics to break up our solidarity. Why are we seeing animal rights activists opening vegan strip clubs or putting out ads literally treating women like meat? Why is there such a hue and cry among comic book geeks when it’s pointed out that black female characters are becoming more and more bleached while black male characters retain their original skin tones? Why are so many people holding on to their comparative privilege by not allowing others to express their feelings of exclusion and injustice? What harm could it possibly do to just plain exercise good manners to all?
I’m glad Obama reopened this subject for another public airing, but I think it will probably need more attention and depth than most citizens can afford it in a time when there are so many other things going on in the world that require more immediate attention. Maybe next year, when we have our first female or black president.
Elayne Riggs can be found blogging here, and would like a big ol’ group hug.