THE ECONOMY OF VICTIMHOOD
Or, Black Pain Tastes Best
There’s justice and then there’s the victimhood economy. The former describes the goal of treating everybody with fairness, equality, and dignity as human beings, whilst the latter weaponizes ‘justice’ to a particular group’s advantage. There is a line to be drawn here, and these two models have different motives. One says that everybody deserves to be treated equally, irrespective of immutable characteristics. The other suggests that people deserve to be treated differently because of their immutable characteristics, which implies that people aren’t equal.
The victimhood economy presupposes that there is a hierarchy of suffering. One might argue that this is an immoral notion in and of itself. However, there’s no denying that we are currently witnessing an attempt to categorise people with certain characteristics into groups, some of which are deemed to be more ‘marginalised’ and ‘at risk’ than others. Consequently, by this standard and way of thinking about justice, it would be justifiable to grant some groups privileges in order to balance the social scale.
But the world is not as simple as that.
Make no mistake: It’s undeniable that racism has, does, and probably always will exist in some way, shape, or form. From the trans-Atlantic slave trade to the civil rights era, there is no denying that black people have been discriminated against on the basis of their skin colour. The Brixton riots, and more recently, the London riots (though this is debatable), are a testament to this for a Londoner like myself and strike a little close to home—admittedly a little too close for comfort. There are, however, nuances to consider.
Most people in society support the idea of a system that is as just and equitable as possible. But it’s debatable whether or not ‘equity’ will ever be truly implemented, as the elements of free will, a market economy, and ‘equal opportunity’ prevent the attainment of equal outcomes. Despite this, many black people (and white liberals, since it’s trendy to ‘stick up’ for black people and to be seen as advancing a worthy cause) would have you believe that being black entails a divine right to special treatment. This narrative does more harm to sections of the black community than good, but this harm is overlooked because so many of us demand pre-packaged, simplified, and easy answers to nuanced questions.
To treat black people as a whole as marginalised and ‘less than’ is not only to deny the reality and lived experience (a phrase loved by ‘antiracists’) of many black people who haven’t experienced this marginalisation, but also to influence how members of society at large view, act around, and treat black people.
Even what it means to be ‘black’ is debatable. Many black people have the notion that being black is at least as ideological as it is biological or physical. This is not to be confused with black cultures in the broad, collective sense (Afro-Caribbean, for example), but it has to do with who we are as individuals. The way we speak, the food we eat, our interests and hobbies, our likes and dislikes, our behaviour, and especially our political views—they all have roles to play in how we come to be viewed as ‘black’ (or not).
Some black elites compartmentalise black folk into social boxes. They delude themselves into thinking that they are the authoritative body that judges who’s black and who isn’t. If you’re in the box, you’re part of the club. Step outside that box at your peril. Expect racial slurs and verbal emasculation. But who are they to decide what being ‘black’ is and isn’t? Who gave them this authority? They might point to society and the media, and in some regards, they are right. The media have a powerful role to play in the way that groups are portrayed and viewed by the public. Consequently, if the media persistently portray black people as victims that require constant attention and ‘social justice’, society will start to pity black people at best, and feel contempt for them at worst.
Our unquenchable thirst for social justice rhetoric, combined with a capitalistic supply and demand system, creates the conditions for a victimhood economy. For there to be a supply, there has to be a demand. The demand for social justice rhetoric is there, and companies are all too eager to indulge it. Would Apple be able to sell quite so many Pan-African-themed Apple Watches and wristbands if not for the death of George Floyd? Would corporations and businesses feel the need to launch schemes aimed solely at black people if not for the demand for ‘social justice’?
At this point, it seems that society’s motivation for giving black people special perks has less to do with actual concerns about social injustice than with not being seen as racist or discriminatory—a tactic which is in itself, for some companies, a marketing tool. Some might say that companies that engage in these schemes are racist for buying into the idea that black people as a whole are at an inherent disadvantage compared to the rest of society, as this encourages a condescending and infantilising attitude towards black people and perpetuates the narrative that black people are ‘less than’.
Of course, when actual racism rears its ugly head, we should confront it. As individuals, we black folk have the capacity to stand up for ourselves. Yet, the fashionable ‘one-size-fits-all’ blanket attitude towards black people would make you think that we couldn’t stand up to bigotry on our own. When celebrities like LeBron James speak about the ‘black experience’, they may be speaking about a certain subset of black people, mainly a certain socioeconomic class of African Americans, but they cannot speak about the ‘black experience’, as the experience of black individuals is not and cannot be monolithic. Various factors come into play, such as class, the life choices of your parents, and attitudes towards important things in life such as money and education.
Moreover, there can’t be many experiences that are unique to black people, as we’re all human. To define the ‘black experience’, it wouldn’t be enough to speak only about black people who come from less fortunate situations, because this is not unique to black people. In fact, few if any measurable factors categorically distinguish black people from other ethnic groups. Yet those who talk about the ‘black experience’ seek to exaggerate our uniqueness.
For some black people, their outlook on life, attitudes, and whole persona is based upon the idea of suffering. These people (dare I say it) almost need hardship—or at least some kind of obstacle—to be able to function. To progress in life and to be seen as standing up for yourself is to remove elements of the ‘struggle’, and therefore, by extension, to remove elements of your identity. This can be threatening, and thus some black people require special organisations to make a show of ‘fighting for social justice’ in order to feel that they matter in the world. To progress in life would be to encourage and incentivize personal responsibility, which has become a dirty word. These folks don’t like racism, but they still require that it exist in some form so they can benefit from society’s guilt over it. It’s a love/hate relationship, and it’s symbiotic—a seemingly necessary evil.
The relationship between capitalism, social justice rhetoric, and the individual seems also to be symbiotic in nature. In a capitalist supply-and-demand economy, the demand for social justice rhetoric—especially that involving black pain and trauma, which is vital to the identity of many a black person—leads to a supply of victimhood narratives. Thus, all the conditions for the victimhood economy are in place, and some black people defend it because they benefit from it, as do some white ‘antiracists’, as it plays into the ‘white saviour’ complex, and legitimates them as ‘the good guys’.
The feeling of validation one gets from the world for being seen as fighting injustice is addictive, and satisfies one’s own narcissism. And society at large seems to have an appetite for suffering and pain.
Black pain simply tastes the best.
Aaron Fenton-Hewitt holds a BA in Film and Broadcast Production from London Metropolitan University and a Master’s in Writing for Creative and Professional Practice from Middlesex University. He’s an aspiring journalist, as well as a commentator and a freelance photographer. As he sees it: “The biggest minority at stake is the individual.” He’s unfailing in his support for Arsenal FC, even when they’re failing on the pitch. Follow him on Twitter @afentonhewitt.