Why is it that everyone feels better when they know there's someone worse off than themselves? I don't mean in the "you shouldn't complain about how small your house is, at least you don't live in a cardboard box on the street," kind of way. I don't mean in a way that is supposed to inspire gratitude for what you do have. No, I mean in the way that makes different racial and cultural groups feel superior because there's always another group below them.
Here's an example. I was just recently in Spain, visiting relatives of my husband and conducting research for a book I'm working on about Black people in Spain. I asked one of my husband's cousins what she thought the Spanish perception of Black people was and she answered thoughtfully, "We don't have problems with Black people. We think of them generally as happy people." And then she added, "It's the Gypsies and the South Americans that we associate with delinquency." And do you know what my first treacherous thought was? 'Whew, at least my people aren't the lowest minorities on the Spanish totem pole.' And when a well-meaning historian explained to me that in Spain, I'd have a much easier time than let's say a Moroccan woman, again a wave of relief came over me. Not because he implied that the Spanish people could learn to love me, but because there was someone worse of than me in this world, giving me a momentary sense of racial superiority. I admit it, I felt a little a little smug that my Black skin would be considered better than a Moroccan's tawny hue.
It was a short lived feeling though. And I was immediately filled with guilt and shame for reveling in Hitler-esque racial pecking orders. It only took me a moment to realize that if the Gypsies, Moroccans and Latinos were at risk in Spain, my little black ass couldn't be all that safe. And stop to think, nor would my curly-haired half-black, half Spanish, Moroccan looking children! But I go back to that feeling of relief and joy and wonder how many wars and crimes and human sufferings could have been avoided if it didn't feel so good to be better than someone else.
On that thoughtful note, check out this website called Tangled Roots (http://www.yale.edu/glc/tangledroots/) that examines the shared history of African and Irish Americans -- two groups constantly trying to prove themselves better than the other -- in the early years of this country. Wonderful food for thought.