When you write about race and racism, as I do, you’re never more than an hour or so away from an e-mail, tweet, Facebook post or comment underneath one of your essays, suggesting how the things you say are actually counterproductive to people of color.
“You’re just encouraging them to have a victim mentality!” come the screeches of the right-wing trolls. And if black and brown folks come to think of themselves as victims, presumably, it will damage their self-image and willingness to work hard.
So by denying or downplaying the problem of racism, conservatives are simply expressing their deep concern for the emotional well-being of folks of color, don’t ya see?
Because naturally, that has always been among their top priorities.
The possibility that persons of color might adopt a victim mentality once they learn the extent of racism means we simply have to move on, and tell those who often are the victims of injustice not to dwell on their experiences, lest their commitment to self-help be vitiated.
That such an argument is fundamentally racist should be obvious, in that it presumes persons of color are too stupid to already know what it is they’re experiencing.
Those who bemoan the so-called victim mindset appear to believe that no one would think about racism were it not for the constant presence of liberals raising the issue. Or perhaps that people of color aren’t bright enough to see through the “lies” of the left when it comes to racism, and thus can be led to believe such a thing is real when it isn’t.
But the truth is, folks of color are well aware of racism and the negative stereotypes held about them by an early age — typically by third grade and rarely later than the fifth, around the age of eleven. And not because liberals and leftists are sitting black kids down and filling their heads with ghost stories about bigotry, but because by that age those children are already experiencing mistreatment on the basis of those stereotypes: tracking into lower-level classes regardless of ability, and disproportionate punishment in school despite similar rates of school rule infractions as their white counterparts, among other things.
In other words, whether or not racism is discussed, the knowledge of its existence is sufficient to negatively impact black and brown success. So long as 12-year olds like Tamir Rice can be shot and killed by police because the latter see the former as the embodiment of danger, to suggest we ought not speak of victimization is perverse. Talking about racism isn’t the problem. Racism itself is.
Naturally, none of those who worry about blacks adopting a debilitating mindset of victimhood ever fret about the same thing happening to others who have been victimized by injustice.
They don’t tell Jewish folks to get over the Holocaust, or not to talk about those unhappy matters, lest they cripple themselves under the weight of a victim syndrome.
They don’t warn crime victims against the adoption of a victim mindset. No indeed, the right even praises “victim’s rights” groups, as if to suggest that their victimhood bestows some special civic nobility upon them, and perhaps even provides them with insights as to proper crime control policy.
And even as conservatives decry black and brown claims of victimization, they are amazingly adept at proclaiming themselves the victims of all kinds of things: taxes, big government, immigrants, secular humanism, marriage equality, antifa, Michelle Obama’s healthy schools initiative, or “radical Islam,” as just the most obvious examples.
And as for white people? Never has a group with so much outsized power been so quick to play victim. Among the things that supposedly victimize us? Affirmative action of course. This, despite the fact that we continue to be half as likely as black folks to be out of work, and despite the fact that blacks and Latinx folk combined comprise only 12–14 percent of students at the nation’s most selective colleges — which are the only ones that really practice it.
Additionally, we’re oppressed by Black History Month (cuz ya know, where’s ours)? And of course BET, and Ebony Magazine (where’s Ivory?), and black super heroes, and black Rue in the Hunger Games movie (even though she was black in the book too), and black Hermione in the London Harry Potter stage play, and black Annie in the Annie remake, and taxes on tanning bed visits, for starters.
Surely, nobody knows the trouble we’ve seen. Nobody knows the sorrow.
All snark aside, logic dictates that there is a big difference between being prepared for potential injury (as those who challenge racism insist one must be) and wallowing in victimhood.
When we buy insurance, for instance, we are preparing for the possibility of something bad happening to us, like becoming sick, getting in a car accident, or having our house wiped out by a flood. Yet only the most cynical would say that by thinking about these possibilities (and paying money to insulate ourselves against them), we were mired in a mentality of victimization. Such preparation and foresight would be taken by most as signs of level-headedness and maturity.
Understanding the potential dangers one might encounter in society is paramount to being prepared to face them. It’s a logic most any responsible parent would immediately understand. What kind of father would I be if I never had a conversation with my girls about the fact that there are some boys and men who think girls and women are less capable, and that there will be some among these who may treat them unfairly? The answer is, I’d be a damned pitiful one.
To tell your kids that they can be anything they want to be if they try hard enough is nice, but unless you warn them about the obstacles in their path, you are ill-suiting them for the real world. You are setting them up for a terrible fall once they come upon the hurdles for which you had failed to prepare them.
But by discussing those obstacles and strategies for resisting them, persons who are the targets of unjust treatment can steel themselves against the headwinds in their way, persevere, and increase the likelihood of accomplishing their goals in spite of those headwinds.
Frankly, it’s stunning that anyone would deny this basic truth, especially given the historic evidence at our disposal to prove it. After all, if you ask most any black person over the age of forty what their parents told them about race when they were younger, you will hear one or another version of the following in reply: that they would have to work twice as hard as white folks.
And this they were told precisely because the system was so unjust and discrimination so ingrained that despite their best efforts and talent they would too often be overlooked for the best opportunities solely because of the color of their skin.
But does anyone condemn those older African Americans who previously prepared entire generations of blacks for hard work and success by telling them that things were unequal and unfair? Does any conservative suggest these blacks in prior eras were crippling their children with the message that they would need to work harder than whites because of racism?
Of course not. If anything, the exact opposite is true. Knowing the odds, black and brown folk tried even harder, because to do otherwise would all but have guaranteed defeat. Knowing the truth inspires perseverance and passionate resistance to victimization, not resignation to one’s status as a target.
To ignore or minimize the importance of racism will not make it go away, will not smooth the path for any person of color confronting it, and will only leave folks ill-prepared to deal with it on those occasions when it rises up to smack them in the face.
Surely, anyone who would leave millions of others so unprepared for the world as it is can’t be taken seriously when they claim to be compassionate. The right doesn’t care about people of color adopting a victim mentality. They simply wish to avoid a discussion of injustice, because such a discussion might lead us to do something to actually rectify it.
And that’s what really worries them.
I tweet and Facebook. My podcast, Speak Out With Tim Wise, is available on iTunes and Google Play, and I post bonus audio commentaries and content at my Patreon page. Speaking engagements are booked through Speak Out: the nation’s premier non-profit speaker’s bureau.
A version of this post was previously published on Medium and is republished here with permission from the author.
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