It never ceases to amaze me that those who are most privileged by how society is organized, whose paycheck when compared to women and people of color is substantially higher for doing the same job, who are the first hired and last fired, who disproportionately occupy the largest share of power positions in media, business, and politics; often rewrite themselves into the national narrative as the victims. The creation of the mythology of Christian white men as victims was most recently demonstrated during the April 13th Talking Points Commentary of the O’Reilly Factor on Fox News. Remarking on Hilary Clinton’s announcement of seeking the Democratic nomination for the presidency in 2016, Bill O’Reilly said, “If you are a Christian or a white man in the USA, it is open season on you.”
By recasting oneself as a victim, the victimizer is free from having to deal with how societal structure has been normalized and legitimized to privilege them. Individuals like O’Reilly refuses to recognize that Euroamericans are the only ones who “belong” in the United States, while others simply live here. When those on society’s margins attempt to establish a dialogue to investigate how they too can inhabit this country as full and equal citizens, power-holders whose position within society is jeopardized by such assertions begin to cast themselves as the victims, while labeling those seeking dialogue as “playing the race card” or as “race hustlers.”
They see themselves under the “tyranny” of those who have historically been oppressed but who now have greater opportunities to advance but, instead, blame whites for all of their problems. White Christians as victims seek the passage of laws (i.e. Indiana and Arkansas) disguised as protecting religious liberties, but in fact masks bigotry against those who seek to be accepted as fellow citizens. To declare that it’s open season on Christian white men, who continue to hold the reigns on the economic, social, and political power of the nation, becomes coded-racist language warning the privileged of the need to advance legislation that suppresses voting rights for people of color, and dismantles pass progressive legislation designed to create a more just and fairer society.
But in one way, O’Reilly is correct. Christian white men are, indeed, victims, but not victims in the sense O’Reilly intended. Instead, they are victims of the very structures designed to protect their power and privilege. Because sexism, racism and ethnic discrimination is interwoven into the very fabric of the history of the United States, everyone, including people of color, is taught their place in society and how they should relate to others. Since childhood, those of us who resided in the underside of history have been taught to see and interpret reality through the eyes of the dominant culture, specifically white, heterosexual, middle-upper class, male patriarchal eyes.
In most communities the “white” norm is taught as the legitimate way to interact with others. As this norm is taught, children are forced to suppress their natural inclinations to play and relate with each other at daycare or school. In kindergarten children naturally play together regardless of race or gender, but by the time they reach high school they have been taught and conditioned to sit in different tables at the school cafeteria. They learn to mistrust their co-students, because they fear being exiled from their own community. “You better not date a black man or I’ll disown you,” the parent may verbally or, more likely, non-verbally communicate to the child. Or children may learn to remain silent or offer up nervous laughter as the usual response to racist jokes, slurs, or abuse.
Euroamericans, seeing themselves as the norm, are, in effect, race-less, that is, everyone else is “colored,” while they have no color. For example, the dominant culture relatively refers to the black cop, the Hispanic teacher, or the Asian mechanic. Seldom do they refer to the white cop, the white teacher, or the white mechanic using “white” as an the adjective, mostly because the norm of whiteness makes everyone white unless otherwise stated. Yet, when children reach adulthood, they must begin to deal with the contradictory racial statements, emotions, and mental states that arise with reconciling the need to belong to their group with how they are taught to deal with those of other groups.
The societal structures that cause oppression are not reducible to a formula where only those who are marginalized are the victims. Although it is impossible to equate the suffering of those who are disenfranchised with those who are privileged, it is important to note that those at the center of society are also victims of these structures. They too are indoctrinated to believe they deserve, or earn, or have a right to power and privilege. They are trapped into living up to the false ideal of superiority, and as such, require the same liberation yearned for by the disenfranchised. Liberation is for the abused, from death-dealing social structures that denies them of their humanity; and for their abusers whose own humanity is lost through their complicity with these same structures.
Those Christian white men who are not economically privileged, as my PhD mentor John Raines reminds us, are taught to dream upward, aspiring to become wealthy and to associate with the society’s elite, while, they blame downward, accusing those who are marginalized of stealing their jobs and depressing wages, thus preventing them from achieving their rightful place in society. This is a primary reason why when a black man is elected president, or when a woman runs for the same office, they face such vehement resistance. This also might explain why when a Latino who while wearing a white mask speaks in defense of white privilege decides to also run for president, he is embraced by his Party as the great brown hope.
Thandeka, Learning to be White: Money, Race, and God in America (New York: Continuum, 1999), 11-13.