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Giving Up the Victim Position

Here are some excerpts from talks given by Barbara Love1 at the Black People and Jews Workshop, in October 2004, in Connecticut, USA2

Remember! We have reclaimed the knowledge of who we are, even though distress still gets in the way. We know that we are connected, and we will try to act like we are connected, even when we can’t hold and feel the reality of the connection. We will still reach for that reality, and all of our actions will be on the basis of that reality. Some people might say, “Fake it until we make it.”3 It might feel like pretense, since there is so much unhealed hurt sitting on top of our natural connection to each other. I want us to notice that it’s good that we have been able to reach for each other through that unhealed hurt. We have been able to notice and love each other right through the hurt.

What I want is for us to use this time and space together to plow under, dislodge, and discharge those pieces of unhealed hurt, figure out how to let them go—let the timidity go, the shyness, the fear. Much of the unhealed hurt, in one form or another, is fear—fear that I will hurt your feelings; fear that if I really go after this stuff, I will lose you altogether; fear that if I tell you what I am thinking or interrupt the things that are hurtful to me, you will get so scared that you will back away and I will not have the little bit of you that I have.

The last time we were together, I said to you African heritage people that you would take on4 the elimination of anti-Jewish oppression because it was the fastest route to your re-emergence. I indicated that taking on eliminating anti-Jewish oppression would push you out of the victim position so fast that you would wonder why you stayed in it so long. I said that you would get5 what it means to be a powerful person acting with agency6 in the world. I’ve had many people of African heritage tell me in the intervening years that this direction was one of the most powerful and life-moving directions they had ever undertaken. Their whole lives turned around because of it. They found themselves empowered to act in the world in a way they had never been able to figure out before.

I have a message to the Jews about the places where your timidity, or your fear, or your worries, or your anxiety ends up getting in the way of the relationship you want. There are a variety of ways this could show up. You might worry about whether or not black people in general, or this particular black person, like you enough or care about you. You might worry about whether it’s really okay for you to be in there with them, whether you can say what you want to say to them, whether you can have a real conversation about the issues that come up in your relationship. I now encourage you to practice moving beyond those worries and fears. This will produce great discharge along the way. Do not wait until you feel that you have discharged sufficiently to act on this. Act on it and see what discharge the acting brings.

My charge to the black people, my direction to you, my hope for you and for my people everywhere, is a giving up of something, a letting go of something. It is a giving up and letting go of any idea or information that seems to justify occupying the victim position. We are accustomed to the victim position. This familiarity can feel comfortable and safe. We sometimes even feel like we are enjoying the victim position.

Certainly I acknowledge that we are entitled to it, for we have “put in” tremendous amounts of suffering. We have paid the price to be able to claim the victim position. In fact, it has been reserved for us. You may feel that you are entitled to occupy it. You may feel completely righteous about it. You may feel that no one can dispute your claim to it.

I am holding out to you that despite your feelings there is no real justification for occupying the victim position. I am requiring that you give it up. You will find yourself tempted to step back into it. You will find yourself one day with what feels like ample justification for taking it up. Sometimes the day after you have laid the position down with finality, something will make you want to take it up again. Promise me that you will look it squarely in the eye and say, “I deny you. I just won’t occupy you anymore.”

I don’t ask this of you lightly. I face it myself. I talk to myself. Sometimes it feels like I would be completely justified in taking up the victim position one more time. I say to myself, “You would be right, but you would be dead right.” The victim’s position is death. It is a killer for you, for us—a killer of love, care, and connection. You get to decide, over and over again, not to occupy that position. It’s a repetitive decision, not one you can make for all time.7 You have to make it over and over again. Repeatedly making the decision to give up all claims to the victim position requires three things: discharge, discharge, discharge. Our occupation of the victim position has created an attachment to it such that we cannot give it up on the basis of will alone. The exercise of will is important in this process, but it is not sufficient. Giving up the victim position requires that our will be backed up by our healing through discharge.

Remember that you are not your condition. Your people are not their condition—not now, and they never were. That is my point about slavery. My great granddaddy was not a slave. He was a black man, an African man. He was held in a condition of involuntary servitude, but he was not a slave. I am asking us to reclaim our inherent nature and disclaim the language that deepens the internalization of our oppression, that deepens the identity of victim that was deliberately crafted and given to us. This identity of subordinate was part of a system of domination and subordination, whether it was here in the United States, in the Caribbean, in Africa, in Europe, or elsewhere in the world. The victim identity is an historical artifact of relationships of domination and subordination, with the accompanying feelings of not being as powerful and smart as those in the dominant role.

This victim identity has been given different names at different times. In the United States, the identity of slave was given to African heritage people. The identity of slave is the identity of a victim. The process was deliberate. It stripped Africans in the Americas of their African identity and forced them to take on8 the identity of slave, and along with it the characteristics of slaves. If we are descended from slaves, then we have the same characteristics those slaves had. If we are descended from powerful, brilliant, loving, connected humans who were held in a condition of involuntary servitude, then we have the characteristics of those humans from whom we are descended. I want you to give up any identity description that implies or carries with it characteristics that are synonymous with victims. We will no longer name ourselves using language that suggests we are victims.

Question: What do you say to people who want to eliminate Affirmative Action,9 who want to get rid of programs for black students?

Barbara: This argument is manipulated in a thoughtless kind of way all the time. It has a built-in catch to it.10 When it is raised, usually emotions rather than logic are at play.11 More often than not, it is raised by someone who has a pre-determined position. I try to avoid having an argument about Affirmative Action. My goal would be to talk about how to redress four hundred years of legally required exclusion of African Americans from the economic, political, and social life of these United States. This historical exclusion has present-time consequences for the participation of African Americans in the life of this country, and the question is how to redress it. Let those who question Affirmative Action propose strategies that effectively redress this historical exclusion. Have a discussion on that level, never on the level of whether Affirmative Action is appropriate or not.

What are the consequences of this historical exclusion? Institutions—corporations, governmental agencies, and so on—do not have proportional representation of African heritage people across their ranks. In addition, policies and practices that were created when the exclusion was legal continue to operate in these institutions to perpetuate the exclusion. How can we end these exclusionary policies and practices and insure a more equitable representation of African Americans in organizations? That is the only question worth discussing.


1 Barbara Love is the International Liberation Reference Person for African Heritage People.
2 For more about the workshop, including more from Barbara Love, see pages 67 to 72 of the April 2005 Present Time.
3 Make it means succeed.
4 Take on means take responsibility for.
5 Get means understand.
6 Acting with agency means being instrumental, making things happen.
7 All time means always, forever.
8 In this context, take on means adopt. 
9 Affirmative Action is the establishment of laws and policies for improving the employment or educational opportunities of groups of people who have been discriminated against.
10 It has a built-in catch to it means that it cannot be dealt with satisfactorily on its own terms because of the assumptions built into it.
11 At play means involved.


Last modified: 2017-05-07 06:35:41+00