MAXWELL:  A victim in no one’s eyes

8/11/1996 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


Recently, I wrote a column about several of my childhood friends in Florida during the 1950s who I thought had the potential to have become Olympians if Jim Crow had not hindered them. Letters and e-mail accusing me of having “a nigger’s state of mind” and a “victim mentality” are still arriving.

I will not respond directly to the letter writers’ accusations. Their comments have, however, given me reason to explore the concept of victimization as it relates to me as a practicing journalist, as a black male and how it relates to other African-Americans.

Let me say from the outset that I do not see myself as a victim. Nor do I live as one.

As a former English teacher, I am acutely aware of the meaning and the power of the language in my columns. Each day, my colleagues and I must decide if certain words we use and images we create will be offensive. This juggling act becomes truly dicey when dealing with language that defines or describes the individual or individuals belonging to a “special” group or class. We face added risks when trying to comment on human conditions, such as diseases or injuries, that place those who have the conditions at a lesser or greater disadvantage in society.

Sensitive writers must be particularly careful, for example, when using words that might imply or state that someone is a “victim.” Wary of offending readers, most major publications nationwide instruct their writers to choose words carefully.

The U.S. News & World Report Stylebook, for instance, contains this entry on the word victim:

“Keep in mind that some people consider the word sensational in such uses as a polio victim, an AIDS victim. People with such conditions generally do not like language that suggests their lives are tragic or to be pitied. Preferred are such constructions as a person with polio. Victim is found offensive because these people do not see themselves as victims, nor do they want to be seen as victims.”

My employer, the St. Petersburg Times, warns: “When writing about people with disabilities, focus on the individual rather than the disability: people who stutter, not “stutterers;’ people who are deaf, not “the deaf.’ Be specific and sensitive: He cannot walk, not “he is crippled.’ Avoid use of the terms “victim’ and “afflicted’ in this context. They often are inappropriate or erroneous.”

Obviously, I agree that journalists must choose their words judiciously. But because of my experience as a black male who writes for a mainstream publication, I also believe that journalists, especially commentators, have an ethical duty to write concisely and deliberately. By deliberately I mean intentionally weighing reasons for and against a thing to arrive at a conclusion, to offer a dispassionate opinion.

We are obligated to say what we mean and to mean what we say, to interpret events and behavior as truthfully as possible, even to the point of casting ourselves or the ethnic or racial group to which we belong in a negative light. I know, for example, that blacks have been real victims of American racism. No measure of revisionism, recrimination, denial, anger or revenge can change this historical fact.

As a black writer, though, I must comprehend the total impact of victimization, especially its power to psychologically entrap and destroy black people. I know that those who see themselves as victims, who blindly use the language of the victim, cease to grow or, worse, become their own worst abusers.

I learned this valuable lesson years ago during lectures of the late psychoanalyst Bruno Bettelheim at the University of Chicago. Although he had suffered at the hands of the Nazis at Buchenwald and Dachau, he rejected the inevitability of the Holocaust and refused to live as a victim.

Instead, he used his concentration camp experiences to enrich his life, to establish an institution and to liberate others from their psychic chains. In his essay “A Victim,” Bettelheim offers this insight:

“Many students of discrimination are aware that the victim often reacts in ways as undesirable as the action of the aggressor. Less attention is paid to this because it is easier to excuse a defendant than an offender. But I doubt if this is of real service to the persecuted. His main interest is that the persecution cease. But that is less apt to happen if he lacks real understanding of the phenomenon of persecution, in which victim and persecutor are inseparably interlocked.”

In the essay, Bettelheim describes how, while in a concentration camp, he did not show the usual suffering and arrogance expected of Jewish prisoners. Instead of further abusing him, the SS officer in charge gave him the medical attention he needed for severe frostbite and volunteered other amenities.

Why? Because he did not reenact the officer’s projected image of the Jew. “I did not activate the anxieties that went with his stereotype,” Bettelheim writes. Had he behaved as expected, the German’s delusional creation of the Jew would have become real, and the prisoner would have suffered accordingly _ constant insults, hard labor in subzero weather, starvation, gangrene and amputation.

Too many blacks, I believe, automatically become white America’s delusional creation of us _ that of the complaining victim who acts out the stereotypes. Part of my job as a journalist, then, is to suggest to my fellow African-Americans that we are the language we use, that we are the language we think, that we, in truth, help create ourselves.