A while ago, I came across a Facebook post written by a Mac friend. It was a status update that had all the right ingredients to be provocative: an angry-passionate tone, lots of capital letters, dangling ellipsis and firm periods. It was long enough that you were tempted to click “See More,” but not too long to be boring and at the end, it left you feeling slightly radicalized, as if acknowledging what you just read somehow made the world a better place.
The post was about a problem faced by my friend who is part of a marginalized group. I think it is redundant to state my strong beliefs in equality and that I wholeheartedly oppose any form of discrimination. Nonetheless, I found it very hard to sympathize with my friend’s apparent struggle. I thought it was exaggerated, non-constructive and attention-seeking. I would have mindlessly ignored it if I hadn’t noticed that I was one of the few people that thought that way. The post had received a lot of likes, more than any of the profile pictures I have in the social network and personally I believed I fared well in terms of people’s approval of my carefully filtered Facebook photos. I was surprised because I imagined a white, straight, blonde, blue-eyed guy (if you are having any trouble, google Liam Hemsworth) saying equivalently the same thing and I couldn’t see the post receiving anything close to the same level of sympathy (if you ignore the fact the guy looks like Liam Hemsworth). There was another mechanism in play that gave this post much more impact beyond its content: the person speaking the words.
I identified what I had just experienced as “victim privilege.” It is the idea that by being part of a marginalized group (by race, gender, sexuality, socio-economic status etc.) you walk in the world differently because most progressive forces out there are actively advocating for you. You gain a higher degree of respect exclusively because you have faced marginalization.
I was very careful in deciding if I should call this phenomenon “a privilege.” Its tricky nature requires that one be lacking other privileges in order to gain access. However, just like with other privileges, having one does not mean having them all.
Possessing victim privilege gives your words a different tone from others’. If a black person expresses opposition to affirmative action, they are not racist (or worse, post-racist); they are empowered. If a woman makes inappropriate sexual remarks towards a man, she is not sexist; she is strong and independent. If a gay man makes a joke about “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,” he is not homophobic; he is funny.
Victim privilege also gives one’s speech much more power and legitimacy. When a victim is in the spotlight, the non-victims around the table stop and listen because what they are about to hear is the product of a resilient individual who has faced obstacles, discrimination and oppression, and has lived to tell the story. Because of who they are and where they come from, a victim’s experience and thoughts are worth more. Their hardships and struggles are nuanced by their story and thus their words gain a sense of authoritative veracity that cannot be refuted by non-victims due to non-victims either being unable to comprehend the place of marginalization where victims come from or being afraid of being disrespectful and marginalizing through opposition. It is like speaking in a language that others can neither speak nor correct, just hear out. The only way to win the argument is to be the bigger victim at the table.
When I decided to write about this issue, I also understood the limitations of my argument. The idea of a victim privilege is only applicable in those places where people respect and recognize that there are such things as privileges to begin with. Where there is active, malignant discrimination and oppression, there is no victim privilege, just victims and unfortunately that is a big chunk of the world. However, in this special kind of place where they drink blood, smoke crack and worship Satan, where a big bearded man in a skirt runs around to the sound of bagpipes, where the tables I mentioned earlier are served by Bon Appetit, victim privilege most certainly exists and we should acknowledge it.
Victim privilege is not a target problem per se. I do believe that words mean and should mean different things depending on the mouths from which they originate. Victim privilege will cease to exist in the exact moment that we reach the level of equal standing that would do away with all other privileges. Nonetheless, it is important to recognize it in discourse because it allows for more rational argumentation and it helps us recognize the power and impact our words have on others.
It is hard to set the right tone in discussing such delicate topics. It is easy to find points of discordance when you point your finger at the losers rather than the winners of the system. Therefore if you felt ambivalent while reading this essay and want to know who I am to legitimize my words, I have one piece of prescription left: Before you search my name on Facebook to look at my gender and skin color, to assume my sexual orientation and economic status, I want to let you know that I come from a struggling, post-communist country where water and electricity used to be rationed and that I left my family one week after turning 18 to try the fate of the migrant in the land of opportunities. I am surely a lucky loser of the system, thus I should know what I am talking about… right?