avatarAllison Wiltz



Why You Should Stop Accusing Black People of Having a Victim Mentality

The language we use to talk about racism matters

A man sitting on suitcases near a woman | Photo by Nicole Berro via Pexels

One of the most common tropes about Black Americans is that they have a "victim mentality." Of course, this phrase usually arises as a snarky response to a Black person speaking about the injustices they've endured, a way of silencing them, belittling, or minimizing their experience. No one wants to be accused of having a victim mentality, blaming others, and never taking accountability for their actions, which is why this trope is such an effective tool in the racists' toolkit. This response is designed to make someone question themselves and shy away from the discussion. However, this trope that suggests Black people have a victim mentality is a vicious lie repeated to obfuscate America's racial hierarchy and the racist policies and beliefs that keep it afloat.

This worldview, which assumes Black people see themselves as perpetual victims, is starved of sociological context. The legacy of chattel slavery can be seen in our systems and policies that, far too often, deprive Black Americans of fair treatment or access to equal opportunities. And yet, some people continue to repeat the narrative that Black people have a victim mentality instead of acknowledging that racism infringes upon Black progress. Often, those accusing Black people of endorsing a victim mentality suggest Black people lack self-sufficiency and that the injustices they suffer are a result of personal rather than societal failings. They are missing the forest for the trees, acknowledging Black Americans are living as second-class citizens while refusing to see the big picture, that these conditions are the byproduct of racism. However, as we've seen when White Americans destroyed over 35 blocks of Black Wall Street during The 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre, Black Americans' self-sufficiency is often cut short by racism.

Some people want to turn "victim" into a dirty word, exploiting the inert desire of all people to be seen as strong or having the upper hand. But facts matter. Enslaving and torturing African and Indigenous people made them victims. Lynching Black Americans and terrorizing their communities throughout the Jim Crow era made them victims. Segregating and discriminating against Black Americans made them victims. Being a victim doesn't make someone or a group of people weak; it simply means that someone took advantage that they exploited the disparity in power for their benefit. Speaking about the harm someone caused doesn't make you weak. It takes strength to talk about the harm perpetuated against you, to reject the status quo, and to challenge discriminatory systems, behaviors, and beliefs.

Enslaved Black people were victims, but they didn't have a "victim mentality." Over 250 uprisings and the tireless efforts of abolitionists prove that wasn't the case. Black people who survived Jim Crow were victims of racial apartheid, but they didn't have a "victim mentality." Pursuing progress through the civil rights movement and pursuing justice for crimes committed against them proves they didn't. Black Americans today are victims of systemic racism, but they do not have a "victim mentality." Our continued efforts in pursuing civil rights and challenging the legitimacy of racist systems and beliefs are evidence of that fact. Black Americans have never culturally embraced a victim mentality, and history shows they have worked tirelessly to improve this country to create a more equitable, more just society.

Accusing someone of having a victim mentality is offensive, mainly because of the underlying assumptions associated with this phrase. When you accuse Black people of having a "victim mentality," you're assuming they had the same opportunities to succeed as White people, even though overwhelming evidence shows that's not the case, that they somehow enjoy racism, or that they do not care about making progress for themselves. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "It's all right to tell a man to lift himself by his own bootstraps, but it is cruel jest to say to a bootless man that he ought to lift himself by his own bootstraps." This is precisely what White people are doing when they use the phrase "victim mentality" to suggest that Black people have a poor mindset instead of acknowledging the poor conditions they’re faced with.

Black people do not have a victim mentality. However, those who use this terminology are attempting to silence Black people by accusing them of being weak despite their testimony standing as evidence of their strength and perseverance. It's time to abolish this trope that Black people have a victim mentality, to toss it in the trash with other stereotypes and baseless assumptions about Black people.

Author's Note: As a descendant of chattel slavery, I've heard White people say, on more than one occasion, that by discussing my enslaved ancestors' experiences, I'm endorsing a victim mentality. In reality, the injustices Black Americans endured have yet to be mitigated, and seeking restorative justice is an appropriate response to injustice.

🌹Learn more about the author here.

Recommended from ReadMedium