How do you move on when the wrong people think they're the real victim? (#74)

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Jean Latting
May 23, 2023
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Interplay between victims and perpetrators: those who owned slaves/were slaves, Germans/Israelis of the Holocaust, or oppressors/ indigenous people.

Critical Race Theory Redux

Earlier last month, in an episode of the popular daytime talk show “The View,” Condoleezza Rice, the former Secretary of State and current director of the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, was asked to give her opinion about the January 6 riot and Critical Race Theory (CRT).1

Condoleezza Rice headshot
Credit: Robert Huffstutter on Flickr

I had previously written about CRT [blog #54,Do People You Love Put Down Critical Race Theory? Here’s What to Say] and thought I was done for a while.  The firestorm that erupted after Rice’s remarks have prompted me to return to my keyboard to say more. This time my focus isn’t just on misconceptions about CRT. Rather it is on the drivers of such intense polarization – and whether these drivers are unique to the US or also prevalent elsewhere.

First, let’s look at what Secretary Rice actually said with regard to the January 6 riot:

I do think we need to be talking about the future and not the past. I think the American people are focusing on this administration – what it's doing to the country – and it's my hope that the 2022 election will be a referendum on the performance of the current administration, not a rehash of suggestions about what may have happened in 2020.

After most of the panel reacted politely, but negatively, to her words, she responded:

First of all, let me be very clear: I said at the time January 6 was wrong. I called it an assault on law and order and an assault on democratic processes, so full stop, it was wrong. The law enforcement will determine what happened there and those who violated the law ought to be punished…

I cried that day because I thought I studied countries that do this. I didn't think it would happen in my own country, so it was a terrible moment.

I will say that that night, when they filed back into the capitol after it was secured and they certified that election, I had new faith in our institutions and the people who were protecting them. So we came through as a country that ultimately upheld the law.

[Y]es, it's time to move on in a lot of ways.  I’m one who believes that the American people are now concerned about their what we call kitchen table issues: the price of gasoline, inflation, what's happening to their kids in school.

Regarding critical race theory, she said this:

Let me be very clear: I grew up in segregated Birmingham, Alabama. I couldn't go to a movie theater or to restaurants with my parents. I went to segregated schools till we moved to Denver.

My parents never thought I was going to grow up in a world without prejudice, but they also told me that's somebody else's problem, not yours. You're going to overcome it and you are going to be anything you want to be, and that's the message that I think we ought to be sending to kids.

I took a deep breath right there. I have tremendous admiration for Secretary Rice. I have never held a position like hers, but I can easily imagine the obstacles she faced as a Black woman – and a Republican – when the country was in the midst of a controversial war.

And I also know a thing or two about prejudice. I too grew up in the segregated South. My parents assumed we would face prejudice, but we weren’t told that it was somebody else’s problem. Rather, we were told what to do to keep from being killed.  We were also told we could be anything we wanted to be.

Beyond that, though, we were told we had a responsibility to help those who came after us.  It wasn’t just about our success; it was about how we contributed to others’ success and creating a just world.

Rice also said this:

One of the worries that I have about the way that we're talking about race is that it either seems that somehow White people now have to feel guilty for everything that happened in the past – I don't think that's productive – or Black people feel disempowered by race.

I would like Black kids to be completely empowered, to know that they are beautiful in their Blackness. But in order to do that I don't have to make White kids feel bad for being White.

Sara Haines, one of The View co-hosts, then introduced several examples supporting what Secretary Rice was saying. Here are three:

I have a couple examples here. In Cupertino, California, in an elementary school, third graders are instructed to rank themselves based on their power and their privilege...A White identifying group met with a White consultant who displayed a slide that named supposed characteristics of White supremacy...An equity statement from the school district of Palm Beach County outlined the initiative dismantling structures rooted in White advantage. It's happening across the country.

I had heard such assertions before. In a Facebook post, I commented about CRT and someone asserted that a friend of one of her relatives had claimed that White boys were being made to feel bad about being a White male at his child’s school. I asked her to show me that assignment. She insisted the statement was true and again I asked to see the actual assignment.  As I explained then and am repeating now, I don’t believe it.

Sara Haines’s examples at least gave more specifics, yet they reflect her lack of understanding of systemic structures that are readily visible to children of color, but invisible to her. I can easily imagine a third grade assignment in which students are asked to describe historical power ascribed to different groups in this society.  As a third grader, if you had asked me that question, I could have answered without hesitation. I imagine most of the children of color today would know the answer. I wonder if Haines believes this a question White children should not also know.

large protest in the city
Credit: The Stock Footage Club

Whoopie Goldberg, a lead co-host, inserted a comment which went right along with my train of thought:

When you go to Texas you talk to Mexican kids who feel like crap because they're being told they're less than because of the Alamo. The whole idea of teaching history is so we don't repeat it. So I think that if you're a good teacher you don't teach to make a White kid feel bad; you're supposed to say listen, you didn't do any of this but you should know what happened.

Condeleezza Rice:

But I just have to say one more thing. It goes back to how we teach the history. We teach the good and we teach the bad of history, but what we don't do is make seven- and ten-year-olds feel that they are somehow bad people because of their skin.


We don't want anybody to feel bad.

Fierce Reaction

Charlamagne tha God, cohost of the Breakfast Club, a popular morning radio show, took Rice severely to task for her remarks.2  Under the headline “Condoleezza Rice Says White Kids Shouldn’t Be Made To Feel Bad Over Critical Race Theory,” Charlamagne first defined CRT as:

…a body of legal scholarship and an academic movement of U.S. civil rights scholars and activists who seek to critically examine the intersection of race and U.S. law, and to challenge mainstream American liberal approaches to racial justice

He then added:

Numerous state legislators do not want it in classrooms…Let me be clear: there is nothing wrong with critical race theory because CRT is simply the truth. The core idea of CRT is that it's a social construct and that race is not just a product of individual bias or prejudice but that is in the system. We know this though: the very foundation of America was built on racism. It's embedded in all legal systems and policies. These are just facts, people [emphasis added].

Note here his emphasis on racism as a systemic construct: “The very foundation of America was built on racism.” In contrast, Rice spoke of it as an individual construct. She worried about White kids feeling bad and Black kids feeling disempowered, while Charlamagne and the other co-hosts were concerned about understanding race as a systemic reality that must be acknowledged.

He continued:

Healing hurts. It hurts because you can't run from yourself, you have to face yourself. All the so-called good, so-called bad, so-called ugly – all of it – has to be faced head-on…America will never get to that place of healing because America keeps running from itself.

If the truth makes you uncomfortable don't blame the truth, blame the lies that made you comfortable in the first place.

Brittney Cooper, Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies at Rutgers University, was interviewed by BNC News about Secretary Rice’s comments:3

[Rice] says let's just put this coup in the past even though it was terrible, because White people don't have to feel bad about the past, about the things that they did, and we just need to move on.

[I]t is super disingenuous for her to say that she was sad about what happened and then for her to … not to give children and quite frankly American citizens more generally the tools they need to understand precisely why we had a bunch of White supremacists trying to take over the Capitol on January sixth...We will raise a generation of young people who will be unfit to maintain American democracy because they have no understanding.

(Keep Professor Cooper’s comments in mind in the next section, when we hear about why Germans have incorporated learning about the Holocaust in their educational curriculum.)

Professor Cooper continues:

The challenge is that we have to stop letting White discomfort – over crimes that White folks in the past and the present committed against people of color – be the driver of public conversation. Actual injury to Black people has to be the matter of concern, giving justice to Black people has to trump White feelings.

father and son protesting
Credit: The Stock Footage Club

Let’s take a moment to reflect here. Notice that Professor Cooper poses White feelings versus actual Black harm as a dichotomy. Yet I have written elsewhere [blog #45: Are You Blaming People? Gain More Traction by Revealing the System] that the research is clear about this:  making someone feel bad is a prescription for them to withdraw and move into denial, not move into action.  People are more willing to engage in positive change with a strength focus rather than an accusatory focus. 

Whoopie Goldberg and Charlamagne da God both said the intent of CRT is not for White people to feel bad.  The challenge is how to make it possible to teach CRT from a perspective that strengthens and enables all of us.

On MSNBC’s The Choice were featured two guests, Brittany Packnett Cunningham and Michelle Goldberg.

First, Cunningham distinguishes between a focus on individuals (White people) and a focus on a system (white supremacy):

We have to wonder what's wrong with a society that does not want to be made uncomfortable by the truth of our history. We also have to wonder why it is so easy to confuse White people with White supremacy. The true teaching of history doesn't teach you to hate White people, it teaches you to hate, abhor, and reject White supremacy, and if we do not teach it properly, the past will be prologue.

Recall that Sara Haines in The View read examples of what she thought was overreaching in teaching CRT.  Here is Michelle Goldberg’s response:

I actually think that [Rice] might believe that this is actually going on, because I think what you see a lot in conservative media is that there will occasionally be these examples of kind of overreach and ridiculous behavior usually at very elite New York City private schools… things that I think would be ridiculous if they showed up in my Brooklyn public school. And they will be sort of plucked out and taken to be representative of all teaching about race and racism in American schools.

Properly taught, CRT includes all racial/ethnic groups

Whiteness studies are gaining popularity in this country and are often included in CRT curricula.  In a vlog interview, Barry [blog #63, Did You Mean What I Thought You Meant] noted that Whites benefit by learning about their own ethnic ancestry. As another example, a book, poignantly titled Why You Can’t Teach United States History Without American Indians, reminds us that Native Americans are also almost completely left out of American history textbooks. The author decries the focus on November as the sole month to teach “all things indigenous, from Penobscot to Pima and from the Trail of Tears to the Trail of Broken Treaties.” Simply put, “there would be no U.S. history were it not for American Indians.”4

“Let’s Move On”:  Parallels in other countries

The Germans are widely celebrated for mandatory education about the Holocaust, yet they didn’t just jump in and embrace teaching it, either. It took the post-war generation to advocate for change.  Even now, there are detractors. Although Germany’s official position is to continue teaching about the Holocaust, many Germans believe it’s time to “move on.”

Professor Lars Rensmann, a German educator teaching at universities in Munich and Potsdam described a similar split among German students that we are witnessing here. One group is committed to learning about the Holocaust and wants to know how it happened. The other group seeks a German identity that minimizes the Holocaust as ancient history and no more important than any other atrocities in other countries. They do not accept that the Holocaust is a part of German identity.5

This is not only an affront to many Israeli Jews, but to many Jews around the world. An intriguing study found that expressing “move on” to Israelis made them less tolerant of Palestinians.

The researchers’ conclusions parallel the racial conflicts in the United States.  As the researchers state:

[C]ollective trauma has an ongoing effect on second and third generation victim group members who display heightened existential anxiety, feelings of vulnerability, injured national pride, and humiliation. They corroborate the research showing that the effect of trauma is associated with both ongoing reservation towards the historical perpetrator group, and with increased belligerence towards current adversaries who have little to do with the original victimization6….

The situation described in this study is not unusual. In a thoroughly researched paper comparing victims’ and perpetrators’ viewpoints across multiple countries, both victims and perpetrators thought that they themselves were the real victims.  In every situation, both the alleged targets of oppression and the perpetrators considered themselves victims, even when violence on one side vastly overshadowed that on the other.7

The obvious result is that when each side sees itself as the victim, neither side sees fit to apologize.

This same group of researchers made an interesting observation about the different concerns of the perpetrators and target groups:

“While perpetrator groups are mainly concerned about protecting the ingroup’s moral identity [emphasis added] and avoiding the ingroup’s responsibility and its consequences, victim groups are concerned about protecting their group from future harm and having their group’s victimization acknowledged.”

While these researchers noted that perpetrators were concerned with their moral identity, another group of researchers found that concerns about moral superiority, not just moral identity, make those accused of perpetrating violence reluctant to acknowledge aggression toward another group.8

The parallel with the current situation in the United States is obvious. In all the countries studied, including the United States, each group’s hurt and anger incited the other group’s hurt and anger, illustrating the adage “hurt people hurt people.”  The perpetrators worried about damage to their moral identity or even superiority. The target group wanted acknowledgement of what happened and protection from future harm.

What accounts for the divide?

Preliminary research suggests an answer. Earlier I pointed out that research mostly conducted in other countries supports the thesis that those who oppose CRT (or its equivalent) are mostly looking at negative effects on individuals, while those who favor it are looking at systems.  This is true in other countries as well. 

For example, a Canadian study of attitudes toward indigenous peoples reported that those who had greater knowledge of critical historical knowledge and understood how past harms continued to cause suffering today were more likely to express empathy toward the still-suffering indigenous groups.9

Similarly, an Australian study of the Stolen Generation, children who were taken from their homes by the then State and placed in foster care or children’s homes, came to a similar conclusion.  Those who supported self-transcendence values (universalism, benevolence) were more willing than those who focused on self-enhancement (power, achievement) to set up a hypothetical organization to repair the damage. In other words, a focus on individuals (self-enhancement) minimized support in contrast to a focus on more universal values.10

So what can be done?

As you might gather, the divide is immense. People in this country are arguing about CRT from very different value positions paralleling what’s going on in other countries.

First, there’s the question of who is the real victim. After reading about what’s going on in other countries, I now have a better understanding of why Whites in this country feel so affronted by CRT.  The goal of CRT is to take a systemic look at oppression in this country with the ultimate goal of determining how it continues today.  People who believe that they themselves are the ones being oppressed see only what they perceive as accusations directed at them. They see no reason to accept CRT, much less apologize, seek to make restitution, or expose their children to it.

This is the reality those of us who are committed to social justice must confront. In my humble opinion, it does us no good to talk about what they should do, what they should know, or what they should feel. The current thinking of the anti-CRT advocates parallels those in perpetrator groups around the world. 

Put bluntly, this is not a unique position of White people in the US.  As the research cited here shows, perpetrator groups in Africa (specifically Rwanda and Burundi, which used to be one territory under Germany) are using similar logic to deflect their responsibility for the Hutus’ slaughter of the Tutsis.

The question is, what now? In a nutshell, here is what stands out for me:

  1. Target groups (i.e., oppressed groups) are concerned with their continued oppression long after the initial acts, and they want acknowledgment of the wrongs they endured.
  2. On the other hand, perpetrator groups feel concerned about their moral identity and may even feel morally superior. Paradoxically, they end up feeling cast in the role of victim or depicted as morally inferior by continuous repetition of historical wrongs.

Both sets of groups are convinced of their rightness.  These opposite views are what is known as a polarity. The iterative nature of accusation and defense only entrenches both sides in their respective value stances as the group that is truly wronged.

Polarities can be managed, but it requires skill.  Until more of us committed to social justice learn how to do it, we find ourselves in a less-than-desirable quandary, wondering how hard is it to make a simple apology anyway – to acknowledge the truth of the past. But that’s looking at the world through our own lens.

If we are to be the change we want to see, we must look at the world through the eyes of those with a different viewpoint.  This was the ultimate realization for me personally: change will not be easy nor is it simple.  If we want to see historical wrongs righted, we can’t expect a simple solution.  We must learn and use approaches that work.

crowd in protest
Credit: The Stock Footage Club

Questions to ask yourself

  1. Think of a situation where you felt victimized. Can you envision a scenario where the perpetrator felt like the victim with you as the perpetrator?
  2. What would you as a victim expect from the perpetrator?

Leading Consciously concepts and skills
covered in this post:

  • Test negative assumptions
    • Move from the answer into the question
    • Look for multiple points of view
    • Consciously test negative assumptions
  • Clear emotions
    • Clear negative emotions
    • Build positive emotions
  • Bridge differences
    • Address underlying systemic biases
    • As a nondominant, recognize dominants’ potential blind spots about the impact of their behavior
  • Consciously use self
    • Accept responsibility for own contribution
    • Seek to understand others’ perspectives

#BeAccountable  #HonestyBuildsBridges  #ResponsibilityNotFault #Respect

Leading Consciously

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[1] The View, ABC TODAY: 20th October, 2021 (Full Episode\ Oct 20, 2021).

[2]  Condoleezza Rice Says White Kids Shouldn’t Be Made To Feel Bad Over Critical Race Theory. The Breakfast Club.

[3] Condoleezza Rice Under Fire for Jan. 6 and CRT Comments

[4] Susan Sleeper-Smith, Juliana Barr, Jean M. O’Brien, Nancy Shoemaker, and Scott Manning Stevens (eds).  Why You Can’t Teach United States History Without American Indians. (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 2015) 335 pp.

[5] Holocaust Education in Germany: An Interview, PBS Frontline, 2005. 

[6] Hirschberger, G., Lifshin, U., Dellus, V., Shuster, B., & Kretzschmar, M. (2021). German desire for historical closure indirectly affects Israelis' intergroup attitudes. European Journal of Social Psychology, 00, 1– 16. 

[7] Bilali, R. and Vollhardt, J.R. (2019), Victim and Perpetrator Groups’ Divergent Perspectives on Collective Violence: Implications for Intergroup Relations. Political Psychology, 40: 75-108.

[8] Szabo, ZP; Meszaros, NZ and Cserto, I. The Role of Perceived In-group Moral Superiority in Reparative Intentions and Approach Motivation. Frontiers in Psychology (8), May 31, 2017. 

[9] Neufeld, KHS, K.B. Starzyk et al. “The More You Know": Critical Historical Knowledge About Indian Residential Schools Increases Non-Indigenous Canadians' Empathy for Indigenous Peoples. Political Psychology, Sept 25, 2021.

[10] Feather, NT, Woodyatt, L, and Mckee, IR. Predicting support for social action: How values, justice-related variables, discrete emotions, and outcome expectations influence support for the Stolen Generations. Motivation and Emotions 36(4), pp516-528, Dec 2012.