Playing the Victim, Starring White Privilege | VALID | #TWIBnation

Playing the Victim, Starring White Privilege

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As we enter the season of the War on Christmas, it’s important to remember how full of shit you’d have to be to claim that Christianity, or Christmas, is “under attack” in any way in American culture. Nevertheless, Christians yell louder every year that they are victims of religious discrimination, barred from expressing their faith by the tyranny of the phrase “Happy Holidays.” Even though “The War on Christmas” is rightly regarded as a joke in many circles, the reactions to the so-called “War on Christians” keep getting less funny. Last week, for instance, the Supreme Court decided it would hear a pair of cases (Sebelius v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc., together with Conestoga Wood Specialties Corp. v. Sebelius) in which corporations argue that the religious convictions of their owners/directors should allow them to refuse to provide health insurance to their employees, if that insurance covers contraception. Christians are in such a state over their newfound opposition to birth control that some have declared Hobby Lobby, Inc. “the first martyr under Obamacare”.  You know, because providing insurance that covers medical care you don’t think your employees should use is the same as being stoned to death.

American Christians have long used the narrative of martyrdom to spice up their claims that they are an oppressed minority group, when anyone who is half-paying attention can see the wide reach of their political and financial influence. Similarly, rich people have been screaming about redistribution of wealth and class warfare since before this country even had an income tax; meanwhile, between 1979 and 2007,  incomes for the top 1 percent grew 241 percent, compared to 11 percent for the bottom fifth and 19 percent for the middle fifth. White people keep alleging, in public and without irony, that actually experiencing racism isn’t as bad as being called “racist”, or being identified as a beneficiary of structural racism. We in the reality-based community can see that Christians, rich people, white people, men, and others aren’t victims at all. So, if their “victim” status is so obviously untrue, why do they keep claiming it, and why does it keep working?

Playing the “victim” reinforces this culture’s white supremacist, patriarchal, and capitalist power structures in two ways. First, it makes it harder to see or to discuss structural oppression. It’s strange how this works: here you have a member of a privileged group, let’s say, for instance, a White, Christian, upper-class, cisgender, straight man, a.k.a. a “lottery winner”. Let’s call him Richard, Dick for short (in honor of Nixon, who made a real art of playing the victim). So, Dick says that he’s the victim of a court system influenced by “feminazis gone wild”, because he has to pay child support to his ex-wife, who has 70 percent custody of their kids. You may know that single mothers are the worst-off group of people in this country because of intersecting instances of structural discrimination: women are concentrated in jobs that pay low wages and don’t accommodate caregiving responsibilities, there’s inadequate and overpriced child care, moms can’t trust schools because of crumbling public education systems, single mothers are constantly demonized in public, and the tax/benefit systems fail to safeguard poor parents’ already-small incomes. Talking about Dick’s hurt feelings makes it harder to see how Dick has actually benefited systematically from not having to worry about experiencing that discrimination. As a matter of fact, Dick is so used to not experiencing discrimination that he now thinks simply paying to support his kids is what structural discrimination looks like. We know better.

And, secondly, as we can see in Dick’s example, playing the victim is a useful tactic because it re-centers the discussion on the powerful person/group, thereby erasing the experiences of the oppressed person/group. Because in this culture we are used to fixing things that powerful people think are problems, and ignoring things that are problems to marginalized people, a man like Dick experiencing adversity takes up all the oxygen in the room. The intersecting narratives of patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism train all of us to give Dick a platform, to regard his complaints as serious and well-founded, and to attempt to stop poor Dick from hurting. You can see this tendency to focus on the privileged even within marginalized groups, when members admonish each other to be polite about telling the Dicks of the world to take the boot from their necks.

White, wealthy people who are members of the dominant religion are not “the real victims” of anything. They’re actually not even in a position to know what experiencing structural oppression feels like. So why do they still have an audience every time they want to complain that, notwithstanding everything, they’re still not privileged enough?

Rad-Femme Lawyer

Rad-Femme Lawyer is a practicing litigator living in Chicago, and a contributor of legal information and opinions to #TWiBNation, Her professional concentrations are commercial and securities litigation, and she also does pro bono work in special education access and employment discrimination.

View all contributions by Rad-Femme Lawyer

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1 Comment

  1. Silenus December 5, 2013 at 12:02 pm

    Actually, wealthy white people are often the victims of their own wealth. They are usually psychopathically obsessed with it, often never satisfied or happy, and their children are often damaged emotionally. A small subset of the wealthy are compassionate and are the ones who attempt to use a substantial portion of their wealth for genuine public good.

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