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"Shame and Blame"

How many of you remember the television show, “Queen for a Day?”

On this game show, which aired in the 1950s and 1960s, four women were selected from the audience. The four contestants competed for prizes by sharing their personal, sad story. Each of them tried to present themselves as the most pathetic person of the four, and the person who needed help the most. To gauge how the audience felt, an applause–o-meter registered the reaction to each sob story. Whoever came across as the biggest “loser” was awarded her stated desires, plus a crown and roses.

Queen for a Day is still going strong, just not on the tube. A version of this show can be found in the streets, around the watercoolers at work, in school cafeterias, and wherever people make excuses. Today, it is more likely to be called playing the victim. Some of us do it for a day, month, or year. For some, it is a lifelong pursuit.

Some days, I wake up and I begin to feel sorry for myself. I focus on what I don't have. I look at the cards life has dealt me that day, and lose sight of my many blessings. When I do this for more than a few moments, I find that I do not get much done. My energy level is down. Furthermore, I do not feel very good about myself or others.

In years past, diversity training was often referred to as sensitivity training. Much of sensitivity training deals with who is a perpetrator and who is a victim? Somehow, perpetrator and victim were neatly defined into two different groups of people. We are one or the other.

This thinking continues today. More often than not, certain people come to be identified as perpetrators. Who comes to your mind…white males, heterosexuals, Christians, feminists, immigrants, Americans? Who is on our list of victims and oppressors changes over time, and varies from individual to individual.

In Losing the Race: Self Sabotage in Black America , a University of California professor named John McWhorter talks about a problem he calls “the cult of victimology.” According to McWhorter, victimology encourages black children and adults to blame their problems on someone else. They blame racism, the white man, or “the system” for their own problems, instead of taking advantage of the opportunities that are out there. Many African-Americans accuse McWhorter of selling out and giving Whites ammunition to use against them. What ammunition? Well, some might argue that if Blacks are holding themselves back, why should the rest of society waste resources on them.

The problem with McWhorter's theory is that he identifies this as a black problem when in fact we are all guilty of the “shame and blame” game. Moreover, while his reasoning applies to some blacks, it does not apply to most.

As a white graduate of Howard University , a historically black college, I remember reading the first edition of The Illtop , a humor magazine published by the school. On page one appears an advertisement that reads, “In Trouble? Need Someone to Blame? Call 1-800-Dial-A-Negro…Easy as 1, 2, 3.” The reader is instructed to 1) Call an operator to select the right Negro to blame. 2) Choose one that you can use as a scapegoat, and 3) Feel better about yourself.

While this advertisement was clearly done in jest, the message is serious. How many times have you heard people blame “foreigners” for their economic problems? Or perhaps it is those folks from the inner city who are responsible for the increase in crime in our neighborhoods. As gay marriage becomes more of an issue, we hear warnings about the impending disintegration of the American family.

Instead of focusing on personal barriers that reside within our thinking and behaviors, we obsess over those social barriers that others put in our way. Instead of examining our work ethic, we find it easier to criticize immigrants who are thankful for jobs that pay minimum wage. Instead of holding our children accountable, we find it easier to blame a teacher, coach, or principal.

A few years ago, I remember reading about a local coach who suspended some players from his squad for clearly violating team rules. Instead of using that experience to teach their children a valuable, positive lesson about life, some parents complained about the coach and how their children were suffering. What lesson did they teach their children about accepting responsibility for your choices?

Victimization is so ingrained in some of us that we derive comfort from being a victim. Take away our status as victims, and you take away our excuses. That can be a frightening experience.

Each day, my students, who are among the poorest in the state of Maryland , inspire me to view my glass as half full and resist victimization. Many of them have persevered in spite of overwhelming odds. And yet, they somehow keep their perspective. Recently, one student said, “Why should we think that ‘our people' are the only people who have suffered or have suffered the most?” Another commented, “If you dwell too much on being sick, you'll never get better.”

Just as my students keep me grounded, my son Jimmy does the same thing for my daughters. Jimmy, who is autistic, is a very happy, contented young man. He makes minimum wage, asks for very little, and something as small as a deck of cards or a phone call can make his day. My daughters live in a different world. And yet, when they start feeling sorry for themselves, they tend to think of Jimmy. For example, when my youngest daughter lost her driving privileges, she thought about how Jimmy will never be able to drive.

No one group has a monopoly on victimization. We all limit ourselves. The sooner we realize that, the sooner we will begin working on filling up our glasses.



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