In the aftermath of another human rights tragedy, I've been seeing plenty of ugliness floating around the Internet, and some of it sounds like this:
"If he had been a law-abiding citizen, he wouldn't have gotten shot."
In other words, people who experience unfortunate and deadly events in their lives did something to deserve it, or at least should have/could have done something to prevent it.
This is echoingly, maddeningly, horrendously false, for two reasons:
- IT IMPLIES THAT ANY WRONGDOING ON YOUR PART EXCUSES UNNECESSARY AND EXTREME RETALIATION.
- IT IMPLIES THAT PLAYING BY SOMEONE ELSE'S RULES ACTUALLY DOES PROTECT YOU.
So many people are bringing up actual or perceived wrongdoings on the part of citizens who were murdered or disproportionately punished--sometimes even if they were literally just in the wrong place at the wrong time--asking why THEY didn't do something somehow to avoid terrible things befalling them. Instead of asking why the people who hurt them did so, or why the system allows such crimes to be excused under the assumption that the victims had a hand in causing their misfortune, or why we generally don't admit that our society isn't "fair" . . . we look at the victims and push some of the blame on them so we can go on believing it can't or won't happen to us.
So much is put into what other people should "just" do to avoid these problems that we aren't considering how outrageous it is to categorize those actions as simple. It's never "just" anything. The problem isn't caused by people not doing enough to avoid being victimized. The problem is caused by people victimizing others.
Why don't homeless people "just" get jobs and stop being so lazy? I dunno, have you asked each homeless person what downward spiral and lack of safety net their lives have involved? Medical problems often cause debt and inability to work. If this has happened to you, maybe you lived with a family member or friend until you could get on your feet again. Ever think about what happens to people who don't have anyone to go to? There are hundreds of disrupting events that can cause a person to lose their home and be unable to pull themselves out of it. But we love assuming it's laziness and entitlement that's caused that person's unfortunate circumstances so we can convince ourselves they could "just get a job" and we don't have to examine, for instance, why an unpreventable medical event can bankrupt a person who wasn't doing anything wrong and ruin their life.
Why don't black people in urban areas "just" be more law-abiding? Well, even when they haven't committed a crime, they'll be treated like they have. It's not a persecution complex, a preposterous "race card," or a paranoid misconception that causes black people to declare that they find themselves suspected of and accused of crimes more often. They're not making it up when they tell you they get followed around stores, accused of not actually being the rightful owner of their property, and suspected of having a weapon or "thuggish" intentions no matter what they're actually doing. And if they actually do commit a petty crime or actually are aggressive when confronted for something they didn't do, that's used as proof that they're animals, uncontrolled miscreants, and better off dead anyway (if that's what happened as a result of someone's profiling them).
What happens to suburban white teenagers who get caught shoplifting? They probably call your mom. They don't use this incident to paint you as an unrepentant thug who probably deserved the unnecessary force used against you. They quickly parrot phrases like "You make silly mistakes when you're young!" But black kids never get to just be young or make any silly mistakes, and this is especially important to recognize because even when they don't make those mistakes they can end up dead should someone in power decide they were probably thinking about it or "looked like" they were about to do it. Not to mention that when white people break the law--see the majority of serial killers and mass shooters--they're generally captured and given access to due process. When they do die in these incidents, it's almost always because they killed themselves. Black people who have not committed a crime are targeted by people who think there's a chance they might have crime on the brain and treated worse than white people who are known to have committed massive, unforgivable, violent crimes in front of many witnesses, and yet if excessive force is used against a black person, it's because there was some arbitrary/tiny thing someone else decides they should have "just" done.
Why don't women "just" wear less revealing clothing?
Why don't gay people "just" not talk about their orientation?
Why don't trans people "just" deal with it gracefully if someone misgenders them?
Why don't poor people "just" do something more lucrative?
Why don't people of color in low-income areas "just" worry more about the crimes they're committing against each other instead of focusing on systematic inequality that put them there?
Why don't activists "just" grow a thicker skin if they're so bothered by the death threats?
Why don't abused people "just" leave their partners?
Why don't bullied and harassed people "just" learn to be less sensitive?
The biggest problem here is that people in these groups who are airing their grievances and pushing for social change are being told they need to stop becoming victims (or stop minding it so damn much when they are). They're being told they can control whether they become victims by taking active steps to avoid victimhood, and they're being told that they should. That the changes are simple, and controllable by the sufferer, and ultimately, that they do not deserve sympathy, services, justice, due process, or attention if they will not change their own behavior.
Ignoring, of course, the fact that some of those changes are impossible, or require a person to have fewer freedoms and rights, or don't actually fix the problem (e.g., women dressing more modestly doesn't stop them from experiencing sexual assault).
Imagine if a rich person got mugged and the police told them, "This wouldn't be a problem if you people would stop having money" or "If you didn't want your wallet stolen, you shouldn't have carried any cash" or "What did you think was going to happen if you went outside dressed in designer clothes?" But we don't blame the rich person (or, usually, any person) for having money to take or looking like a potential victim in a mugging. We pretty much across the board blame the mugger. (We don't ask why the mugger is desperate enough for money to forcibly take it from people, either. We assume the mugger is just a Bad Person.)
So what's my solution, you ask, if I'm going to whine about what doesn't work?
Hold people accountable for making other people victims.
It's not a case of "there was racism." There are RACIST PEOPLE committing RACIST ACTS and saying RACIST THINGS, and racism comes from them and the systems they work inside of (consciously or unconsciously). Racism isn't wind. It isn't something floating by in the air that you can get blasted by or stumble over. It is only EVER there because someone is making it. There's not just racist wind. Someone is farting it.
So we as a society need to stop asking why victims didn't "just" do something they perceive would have prevented them from suffering--and start making it unacceptable for perpetrators to exploit someone else's weakness or unfortunate situation. This should not be a world that's only safe for people who obey rules set up by someone who isn't them and doesn't understand them. A white person can blatantly display an assault weapon in an open carry state, but someone only has to decide a black person might have a hidden gun to justify using deadly force, and then instead of blaming the person who used deadly force for making an assumption, they remind the black person that it's perfectly normal to presume they're violent. A rapist isn't so much blamed for committing a rape as the rapist's victim is blamed for behaving "irresponsibly" with drink, wearing the wrong thing, trusting the wrong person, or not communicating clearly enough about their desires--and then when people decide they want the rapist to be exonerated, they drag out the victim's supposed "slutty" behavior and lean on how the notoriously unreliable and hysterical the victim probably is, combined with how they clearly want to ruin the accused rapist's life.
A gay person shouldn't have been so out about their orientation and made people uncomfortable, even though straight people get to mention their partners and blatantly engage in couple-centric behavior without making anyone uncomfortable; it's their own fault if they are targeted for harassment and violence, because they could have just stayed in the closet about such a private thing. A mentally ill person shouldn't have disclosed their status if they wanted people to trust them; it's totally fine to ignore their wishes or violate their boundaries if they're in a public space, because the rest of us can't be expected to accommodate them. A trans woman shouldn't make other people deal with her presence in their restrooms--it's her fault if she gets assaulted. A person who doesn't speak English should have learned the language if they wanted access to services and awareness of rights, so they don't deserve equal treatment if they didn't have the English language skills to demand it.
The only people who deserve respect and right to life/liberty/happiness, according to this narrative, are the people who are in power or have the ability to look enough like people in power. If you look like the people who hold the reins, there are no "extra" expectations before you're allowed to walk unmolested in this world. For instance, there's been some talk about women in male-dominated fields being "too sensitive" if they "let" various things like sexist policies, sexual harassment, consistent discouragement, lack of respect, greater difficulty in being trusted, often lower pay, and daily experience as a minority in the workplace "get to them" and push them out of the field. How weak they must be, some cry. They don't deserve to be there if they can't "deal with" this oppressive experience that the men in that field don't have to tolerate at all. They are to blame for not handling it right, rather than having any conversation at all about the people creating that environment. It's not just there like furniture. People. Are. Actively. Making. It. That. Way. So we need to stop excusing them, stop asking the people experiencing oppression and aggression to tolerate it differently and making themselves into victims, and stop pretending the issues raised by marginalized people are imaginary.
Instead of asking victims to stop making it so easy to hurt them, we need to ask people to stop hurting them and spinning it as the natural result of them existing while being so hurtable. Perpetrators of violence and upholders of prejudice are not blameless chess pieces being moved by victims provoking them to commit those atrocities. Do not ask what the suffering person could have or should have done differently when the problem would not exist if people in power stopped coding them as deserving it.