Wearing the victim hat is becoming trendier

Posted: Monday, June 23, 2008

S omeone is going to think this column is racist. That person - he or she will be white - will be unable to point to so much as a semicolon that suggests I believe in the native superiority of my, or any other, race. Rather, the accusation will be based in the fact that the column discusses race, period.

It's a phenomenon I've seen many times, most recently when a friend of mine told me that a friend of hers regards me as racist because I write about race. To which I gave my standard answer: If that's how it works, I'll start writing about money. Then I'll be a billionaire.

I offer the foregoing as a gesture of solidarity with an elementary school teacher in California who wrote to ask my opinion of two incidents that happened in her class.

In the first, a white boy - we'll call him Bobby - disagreed with a black boy. The black boy, who had been explaining something about his family to the teacher, told Bobby he would not understand because he was white. Bobby said this was racist.

In the second, Bobby complained that a classmate had called him a white boy. The classmate was a white girl. Bobby said she was racist.

For those of you playing along at home, here are two salient facts: 1) according to his teacher, Bobby frequently complains about racism against white kids; 2) 85 percent of the students at the school are white kids.

So, what do I think?

I think Bobby is troublingly eager to wear what I call the "victim hat," i.e., to be the one who gets to declare himself morally affronted, the one whose hurt feelings we are obligated to assuage, the one whose complaints we are required to listen to. In this, he is an accurate reflection of the nation in which he is coming of age. He is learning what we have taught.

The need, the abject "eagerness," of some white people to wear the victim hat is something I have noted with alarm in recent years. They are motivated, I think, by the fact that some black people make wearing the victim hat look like so much fun. Meaning that African-America has too often been caught crying "racism" reflexively, crying "wolf!" repeatedly, refusing, where perceived racial insult is concerned, to differentiate between the profound and the petty. We cry racism when the justice system is unjust or a Don Imus spews vitriol. Unfortunately, we also cry it when a Michael Jackson gets hauled up on charges of child molestation or a white bureaucrat uses the unfortunate, but inoffensive, word "niggardly."

If you are white, I suspect, you get tired of being on the receiving end, especially when much of what is called racism plainly is not. You figure two can play at this game and besides, you wouldn't mind being the one catered to for a while. So you grab the victim hat and, like Bobby, present yourself as mortally wounded by "racism" against you.

The problem with that is, if you represent 85 percent of the playground, no other group can organize to deny you access to the swings. Granted, they might call you names and I don't condone or minimize that. But there is a qualitative difference between suffering only that and suffering that, plus exclusion from the swings. There is racism and there is racism, if you catch my drift.

And Bobby? I wish his black classmate had phrased his observation more tactfully, although since we're talking about kids, I understand why he did not. Still, Bobby is ultimately a "victim" only of his desire to be a victim.

I don't blame him for that. I blame us, his elders, for lacking the ability, the willingness, the vocabulary and the guts to talk about race frankly and intelligently. Some of us think talking about race equals racism, others cry "racism!" with spasmodic frequency, and yet others fight for their turn to wear the victim hat.

In short, we act like children.

Bobby, at least, has an excuse for that.

• Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.



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