“Seems you’re making a catch-22: if people talk about it, they’re trying to be victims, but if people don’t talk about it, it doesn’t happen.”
In the recent comment thread here on Examples of Racism in Atheist/ Skeptical Communities?, ischemgeek made this comment. It was so perfect, and so succinct, that naturally I have to muck it up by expanding on it and gassing on about it.
When people talk about oppression and marginalization and bigotry — racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, biphobia, xenophobia, classism, ableism, etc. — we often get caught in a particularly nasty Catch-22, beautifully summarized above. If we don’t talk about oppression and marginalization and bigotry… nobody will know about it, and it can and will be ignored. In fact, many people will assume that this particular form of oppression and marginalization and bigotry is now a thing of the past, and doesn’t even exist. If a certain amount of progress has been made in a certain area — sexism, for instance — many people will act as if the problem is entirely behind us, and we don’t have to worry about it, or think about it or, Loki forbid, change our behavior.
But if we do talk about this oppression and marginalization and bigotry? We get accused of “playing the victim card.” We get accused of making up the marginalization, or exaggerating it, or going out of our way to look for it, or twisting innocent events to frame them in this narrative of victimhood, or trying to manipulate people into giving us our way by scoring sympathy points we haven’t earned. And not at all coincidentally, this once again results in the marginalization being made invisible: ignored, treated as if it either flat-out doesn’t exist or is too trivial to worry about.
Now, this “playing the victim card” trope doesn’t always come from people in the privileged group. In this particular debate, for instance, one of the people making the argument that “that’s all these blogs seem to be about, who’s going to play the victim card this week” and “can we stop with the always trying to find reasons to be victims” was black. And, of course, Paula Kirby is now infamous for her essay arguing that women shouldn’t complain about sexism so much: we have to “stop blaming it on men or hierarchies or misogyny or, silliest of all, ‘privilege’, and start simply practising being more assertive.” People in a marginalized group who haven’t personally experienced a particular form of marginalization will sometimes dismiss it: perhaps out of the Just World Fallacy, perhaps out of a desire to think that their successes are theirs alone and they don’t owe anything to the people who’ve fought for decades to smooth their path.
But it comes a lot from people in the privileged group. And regardless of who it’s coming from, it has the same effect: It renders oppression and marginalization and bigotry invisible. People fighting oppression get put in a Catch-22: If we speak out against oppression and point to examples of it, we’re accused of “playing the victim card,” and the oppression becomes invisible. And if we don’t speak out against oppression and point to examples of it… then the oppression once again becomes invisible.
And you know the thing that really galls me about this particular Catch-22? Aside from the whole “invisible” thing, I mean. The thing that really galls me is that speaking out against oppression is the opposite of victimhood. Speaking out against oppression is one of the first steps to claiming power. Speaking out against oppression takes strength, courage, a willingness to take flak. Speaking out against oppression can put you in harm’s way. (Just ask Jessica Ahlquist.) Speaking out against oppression isn’t “playing the victim card” — it’s saying, “I am sick to fucking death of being a victim, and I am demanding that it stop.”
So the question I have for people making this “victimhood” accusation: How, exactly, would you like marginalized people to proceed? Is there any possible way we can make oppression and marginalization and bigotry visible, which will meet with your approval?
And why, precisely, do you think your approval matters? Why do you get to be the ones who decide which forms of oppression and marginalization and bigotry are important… and which ones are not? Why do you think that decision should be up to you?