The late South African freedom fighter Steve Biko once said that the greatest weapon the oppressor has is the mind of the oppressed.
This is the first thing that came to mind when President Trump’s communication director Sean Spicer defended Trump’s Holocaust remembrance speech (which omitted any specific reference to Jews or anti-Semitism) by informing us that the speech was written with the assistance of one of Trump’s Jewish aides. In the Black community, when a Black person acts as an apologist for White racism, we call the person an “Uncle Tom”. I don’t know if Jews have a similar term for a Jewish person who acts an apologist for anti-Semitism. But if not, now may be a good time for someone to come up with one.
As a Black person, I try to be sensitive to the suffering of other groups. I know how the dominant White society attempts to minimize or deny racism against Blacks. Trump’s Holocaust remembrance speech did exactly that to Jews. When pressed on the glaring omission of Jews or anti-Semitism from the speech, the Trump camp responded by calling such criticism “ridiculous,” “pathetic,” and “nitpicking.” In other words, according to Trump, not only was his speech not Holocaust denial, but those who think it was were being unreasonable. Jews were being way too sensitive; seeing a problem where none really exists. I mean after all, the Nazis didn’t just kill Jews, they killed lots of other people too. So what’s wrong with a vague statement condemning the killing of all innocent people?
I’ll tell you what’s wrong with it. It’s a sinister attempt to wipe Jewish blood off the hands of the Nazis, and to minimize in the public mind the murderous consequences of unchecked anti-Semitism. To say that the Jews were just one of many groups that the Nazis killed is like saying that Blacks are just one of the many groups of people who were enslaved throughout human history. It’s like comparing a paper cut to a slit wrist and referring to them both as “injuries.”
I recall many years ago I got into an argument with a White southerner who insisted that the American Civil War was not about slavery. It was about “states’ rights.” I asked him just what did the states want the right to do. He conceded that at the time of the Civil War the southern states wanted the right to maintain slavery. But he hastily added that if there hadn’t been a civil war about slavery at that time, there would’ve eventually been a civil war over some other issue, but he felt the larger issue was “states’ rights,” not slavery per se. I asked him to give one example in human history when people voluntarily went to war, risked their lives, and killed some of the their own family members, for some amorphous abstract right. He couldn’t give me an example. I told him that’s because none exists, and his states’ rights argument was just an attempt to sanitize the South’s ignoble motives.
Decades later comes the Holocaust — an attempt to systematically eliminate the Jewish people. And some would have us believe that two-thirds of the world’s Jews were killed coincidentally? Some Holocaust deniers come right out and lie to our faces by declaring boldly (and incorrectly) that the Holocaust never happened. Trump has taken a more subtle and nuanced approach. But its subtly makes it all the more sinister. Like someone who throws a rock and hides his hand. Trump’s statement coupled with his later defense of it, sends a clear message to anti-Semites that they need not fear interference or condemnation from Trump.
Groups that are victims of discrimination, like Blacks and Jews, need to make sure that we don’t fall prey to such gaslighting attempts. We must resist any urge to second guess ourselves. Dominant groups don’t maintain dominance by being open and honest. Deception is one of the primary ways dominant groups control subordinate groups. Even though Trump will never admit it, we know that his Holocaust remembrance speech was tantamount to Holocaust denial. Let’s stop trying to get him to admit it. Let’s just make sure that we never let such gaslighting attempts cause us to question our truth. Remember, our oppressor’s greatest weapon is our minds. Let’s not give them that. But let’s also not spend too much of our time and energy trying to get bigots (or those who would used bigotry opportunistically) to publicly admit their sinister motives. It’s futile and draining.