De-Legitimizing In Order To De-Victimize: The Foolproof Method of Oppression
One of the most powerful weapons of oppression is to create a system that affirmatively justifies acts of oppression while stripping victims of ways to verbalize why they deserve justice. If bystanders support oppression, whether overtly or tacitly, and the victims have difficulty finding ground to stand on, then oppression can only grow. In order to reach these two-pronged goals, dominant narratives need only de-legitimize the victims of oppression and discrimination. That de-legitimization—the re-categorization of victims as illegitimate—deprives them and their allies of the ability to stand up for them and seek redress. As social justice and gender equality advocates, understanding this mechanism is keep to understanding both the inherent transectionalism of any equal rights’ fight and the root of oppressive success.
Let’s start with the concept of legitimacy. The word “legitimate” means, among other things, “able to be defended with logic or justification.” Synonyms are “valid,” “sound,” “well founded,” “justifiable,” “reasonable,” “sensible,” “just,” “fair,” and “bona fide.” If a segment of the population is deemed illegitimate, it is therefore unworthy of being “defended with logic or justification.” How can someone meeting that description have any claim to justice? In fact, it makes it inordinately difficult for them to do so. This is because a corollary of this conclusion is that such people cannot be defended or protected. Indeed, they are unworthy of protection or defense by others. While we may view the various –isms and –phobias (sexism, racism, homophobia, xenophobia) as distinct from each other, their mechanism of success is the same across the board: to de-legitimize their various victims of oppression and discrimination so as to make it near impossible for any members of such groups to gain ground as they stand up for themselves and for each other. This is the great strength of oppression; it is also the great unifier for those fighting for social justice and equal rights. We are, truly, all in this together.
So, this is a nice bit of theory. But how does it play out in practice?
Let’s start with an anecdote. When I was approximately 12 or 13 years old, I was at my locker. These were big green metal lockers and mine happened to be at the bottom, right on the floor. There was a classmate of mine, a boy, who had his locker right next to mine but one row above. He was therefore standing right next to me while I was on my knees fetching books. All of a sudden, without us sharing as much as a word, he grabbed the back of my neck, holding onto me by a fistful of hair, shoved my head into my locker, and repeatedly slammed the door onto my temple. I as though I was nearing a black about but luckily I stayed conscious. I am not sure how quickly it was over but moments later he walked away, still not saying a word, leaving me there on the ground. I immediately sought my school counselor and reported the incident. What she had to say to me was eye opening – in all the wrong ways.
The prim and proper blonde school counselor explained to me that the problem were my clothes. I dressed provocatively, with my short skirts and low cut tops, which was triggering sexual feelings in boys my age. She then elaborated that boys my age could only act out on those feelings through violence, so if I wanted the violence to stop, I had to change my clothes. And that was the end of it. The reason for telling this anecdote is twofold:
First, I knew my counselor was wrong. I knew that. But I didn’t know why or how to express the reasons for my disagreement. I was stuck in a paradigm according to which as a woman, it was my job to make sure I didn’t arouse boys. And if a boy was aroused, however he chose to express it, I was to blame. What I should have said, but couldn’t because I didn’t have the words to do so, was that her response perpetrated toxic masculinity, that it accepted unhealthy and inaccurate portrayals of manhood and male sexuality, that violence is about power and sex is about sharing a moment of physical intimacy, and that regardless of how I did or did not make people feel, regardless of what I did or did not wear, nobody had a right to assault me. At the time, though, I didn’t have the words to say any of this so I couldn’t defend myself or seek redress. My helplessness was in part a result of my lack of access to words and concepts to describe what was happening to me. To that extent, feminist literature, blogs, videos, and speeches are critical in developing tools to fight back.
Second, what that counselor did is a perfect example of how women, racial & ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ individuals get undermined in public discourse. She didn’t only blame me and refuse to hold him accountable. She made me unworthy of even seeking justice. By accusing me of inappropriate behavior she made any of my feelings and reactions illegitimate – she made me indefensible with logic and reason. She made me unreasonable and insensible for being outraged I got assaulted. This is exactly what happens time and time again when women, minorities, and members of the LGBTQ community are victims of oppression and violence. Don’t believe me? Let’s test it out.
Let’s start with black women. In the words of Iyanla Vanzant in a September 2016 Huffington Post, who although I don’t assume as being able to speak for all black women, is certainly better placed than I am to describe black women’s experience, “[b]lack women are not expected to feel disappointed or hurt. We are often not given the time to be sad or to grieve. We are not entitled to feel violated or diminished. We are not expected to experience or express feelings of being lost or confused or, in some instances, human. These emotional experiences do not align with the labels of mammy, savior of the race, beast of burden or the oversexualized jezebel.” She continues, “Historically, black women have not been treated as if they matter unless someone else is reaping the benefit from our presence or existence. In fact, many of us have been taught by word and experience that we don’t matter to the people who matter most to us.” And then she adds, which gets to the heart of this article, “How do you teach someone that they matter? When a person knows that they matter, how do they behave? What does it look like when people are treated as if they matter? How do you live a life that matters?” I will take Ms. Vanzant’s question one step further, How do you teach someone that they are entitled to being defended with logic or justification if they are deemed unworthy as soon as they express their anger? You don’t! And here is the dirty truth. By declaring black women’s anger illegitimate, society deprives them of the right to seek redress on their own terms. It is devastating to their fight for justice and to their sense of self.
Want another example? I have plenty. Murdered unarmed black men, whether killed by police or others, inescapably trigger de-legitimizing and de-victimizing narratives. In 2016, a Calvin Smiley of Montclair University and John Fakunle of Johns Hopkins University performed research to interpret how black male victims are portrayed by traditional mass media in ways that marginalize them and devictimize them, even posthumously. Their articles, “From “brute” to “thug:” The demonization and criminalization of unarmed Black male victims in America,” although it does not use the word, describes the process of de-legitimizing black male victims and their families in the aftermath of a brutal murder. This is not news – commentators seeking to defend the deaths of unarmed black men referred to a whole host of causes for the men’s deaths, ranging from their clothing to being at the wrong place at the wrong time. For example, in the wake of Trayvon Martin’s death at the hands of George Zimmerman, on Fox & Friends, Geraldo Rivera stated, “I am urging the parents of black and Latino youngsters, particularly, to not let their young children go out wearing hoodies. I think the hoodie is as much responsible for Trayvon Martin’s death as George Zimmerman was.” Is this just racism and stereotyping? It’s so much more than that. Is it victim blaming? Yes, but again, it is so much more than that. Shifting the blame is only one side of the problem. The actual effect of these witch hunts is to de-legitimize the victim and the victim’s family’s demands for justice. Not only is the victim to blame, the victim has now become indefensible.
The LGBTQ community is similarly demonized, most recently through bathroom bills targeting the trans population. Proponents of anti-trans bills, which are sweeping the country, purport a twofold argument about safety. First, proponents argue that a man is a man no matter how he dresses, so allowing him into women's bathroom is absurd. Second, thee proponents argue that allowing trans individuals into women’s restrooms will allow male perverts and pedophiles disguised as women into bathrooms to sexually assault our wives and daughters. These two arguments have no basis in fact. Several national and international organizations, including the National Center for Transgender Equality, the Human Rights Campaign, and the American Civil Liberties Union agree that there is no statistical evidence of violence that would justify anti-trans bathroom bills. Such bills are irrational, conflict with federal law, and actualy endanger trans people. But that doesn’t matter; of course it doesn’t. Why? Because the trans population, as framed by anti-trans legislators and their supporters, is not a legitimate population. They aren’t a legitimate population because they fail to fit in the strictly recognized (and therefore legitimate) male and female categories. Katherine Franke, director of Columbia’s Law School’s Center for Gender and Sexuality Law, summarizes it best when she states, "The anxiety isn't men in women's bathrooms, it's about masculinity in the wrong place. It's portrayed as a threat to women, but on a much deeper level, it's about what it means to be a man and what it means to be a woman." By refusing these definitions, trans individuals become targets for de-legitimization and thereby for de-victimization. This is critical because trans individuals are at very high risk of becoming victims if forced into the wrong bathrooms. A paper by the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law found that in Washington, D.C., 70% of trans survey respondents reported being denied access, verbally harassed, or physically assaulted in public restrooms. But these are facts. And the dominant narrative, by making the fact of being transgender illegitimate, have rendered them incapable of, “being defended with logic and justification.” Transgender people are, much like women of all races, black men, and religious minorities labeled as blameworthy for any violence that may be wrought on them and, as a corollary, undeserving of protection—much as I was as a teenage girl in a miniskirt just going about my business.
Let’s look at another example, which will bring us back to square one. When a woman is sexually assaulted, the questions that abound relate to her role in provoking or failing to stop the assault. What was she wearing? Was she promiscuous? Was she drunk? Was she alone? Die she scream? Loud enough? Did she say “No”? Clearly enough? Did she know the assailant? Did she flirt with him? These questions don’t only shift blame; they re-define the victim as having failed to abide by arbitrary standards of morality and behavior, thereby paving the way to de-victimization. By failing to abide by these “obligations,” the victim forfeits the right to redress because she is now unworthy. Any claims she may have, to her own body, to consent, to safety, are now illegitimate. She didn’t hold up her so-called end of the bargain so nobody else does. When Rivera told his audience that latino and black men should avoid wearing hoodies, he may as well have been telling women not to wear skirts, black women not to get angry, and trans people not to walk into the purportedly wrong bathroom – any of these actions make them target of de-legitimizing efforts and, as a result, strip them of their rights as victims.
So where does that leave us
We have to remember and repeat, every time, everywhere, to anyone (whether they listen or not) that it’s not about the hoodie, it’s not about the skirt, it’s not about the bathroom. It is about legitimacy; about the right to be “defended with logic or justification.” It is about being considered valid, justifiable, reasonable, and sensible. It is about having the right to a voice. Without that, we don’t have any chance of accessing validation, due process, equal rights, physical autonomy and the right to feel safe. Lack of legitimacy cuts across gender, race, religion, sexual orientation and sexual identity. Because of this, social justice has to be transsectional. If any one group seeks to advance itself by justifying its narrative over anybody else’s, all we’re doing is coopting an oppressive model that perpetuates harmful patterns. Also, dismantling the process of de-legitimization and de-victimization opens the way for all of us to make headway by giving us the vocabulary to fight back. We, the illegitimate, are truly all in this together.