Journalist Ernest Owens is annoyed with white people’s attempts to celebrate and promote Black History Month. In a Feb. 5 op-ed at the Washington Post, he complains of what he calls a “thoughtless ‘Happy Black History Month’ email from a White colleague.” He bemoans the “empty platitudes” that make him as a “Black queer millennial” feel “insulted” when white people, especially white bosses, indulge in exaggerated declarations of support for black Americans. “I don’t need or want corporations celebrating Black History Month,” he asserts.
In one sense, I can appreciate Owens’s frustration. Many white Americans’ expressions of solidarity with our fellow black citizens are undoubtedly superficial, if not performative. Corporate commemorations of Black History Month — from Amazon’s “celebrate Black innovators” tab to Apple’s “App Store Black History Month Hub” — say as much about capitalists co-opting the latest cause as it does about companies’ actual commitment to those causes.
One also imagines that priority No. 1 for most white managers or bosses in America this February is “make sure nobody can accuse me of being a racist.” I submit that points to a deeper problem: America is knee-deep in destructive, often irrational victimhood narratives that feed on shame, blame, and manufactured heroics, that can only further undermine civic unity.
I do not intend to cast aspersions on the many people of various races, sexes, ethnicities, and creeds who are authentic in either their wokeness or even their simple, well-intended desire to honor African-Americans during Black History Month. I presume there are many such people, and consider myself one of the latter (we’re reading biographies of great black Americans to our kids).
Yet the normalization of hyper-victimization has made participation in any civic activity tied to identity politics a minefield of potential affronts that few can navigate. Empty platitudes and overwrought gestures are the name of the game when one is driven more by fear and ideology than conscience.
Part of the problem, as psychologist Gad Saad argues in his book, “The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense,” is that our society is in an ever-higher stakes game of “victimology poker.” By this, Saad means we increasingly attribute social and political value to those with the most intricate claims to victimhood status.
Being a racial minority is one thing. Living as the opposite sex is another. The intersectional trump card is to possess as many social, economic, sexual, racial, ethnic, and religious victim categories as possible. The fewer of these traits one possesses (hint: white, heterosexual Christian males), the more likely one is to be identified not as a victim worthy of sympathy, but as a victimizer worthy of opprobrium.
Those inhabiting the victimizer class through no fault of their own must play a careful game to avoid cancellation. They can engage in dramatic shows — the genuineness of which is difficult to gauge — that seek to prove their devotion to those deemed victims. When their words or actions are assessed to violate the doctrines of wokedom (regardless of their intention or historical distance), the guilty perform public penitential rites to atone for sins and avoid the labels (e.g., “bigot,” “racist,” “sexist”) that invite invective or end a career.
Even these acts, Saad observes, are often not enough. He cites a 2018 WaPo op-ed by a professor of sociology and director of the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies Program at Northeastern University. The author demands men vote only for feminist women, avoid running for office, and relinquish any and all positions of authority they may hold. Perhaps men shouldn’t even vote at all!
In such a toxic environment, we shouldn’t be surprised at the histrionics of “virtue-signaling.” For anyone fearful of being labeled a victimizer, one response to the obsessive quality of our identity politics is, as Owens observes, to exploit those victim narratives to further one’s social or professional interests.
Such persons thus engage in an endless competition to not only burnish their political credentials but even, when necessary, to “outwoke” their social or economic competitors. Another response is to manufacture some relationship to victimhood status, no matter how remote — perhaps by claiming one has Native American ancestry — in order to gain access to the victim crowd for both profit and protection
This dynamic is only growing. Public schools in Illinois are mandated to teach the following subjects: black history, women’s history, the “‘history, roles, and contributions of the LGBT community,” “disability history and awareness,” and “contributions of a number of defined ethnic groups made to Illinois and the U.S.” Similar curricula are required in other states. These topics provide an inexhaustible arsenal of suffering species of victim who can express outrage and demand redress.
We fool ourselves to think that (or anything) will be enough. The very essence of victimhood culture — and that so many stand to gain from exploiting it — works against that outcome. So much for being judged according to the content of our character. Wait, who said that?