Growing up, I heard people say countless times, "Don't be a victim. Don't play the victim," in response to someone expressing pain, grief, discontent, hurt, or even abuse. It was always invoked to silence them or redirect their emotions.
I remember the times when my own expressions of grief were met with the "You have a victim mentality" response—times when I was tracing abusive patterns of behavior from others and those around me were unable to sit with my anguish.
I guess they felt that based on my language, I was unable to accept accountability, or was someone who always believed something was being intentionally done to them. In their estimation, perceiving myself as a victim was a bad thing. It would be much better—and easier—for them if I, instead, thought of myself as a survivor.
In a recent profile in Elle Magazine, Megan Thee Stallion commented on her experience of gender violence and voiced her own resistance to identifying as a victim:
"I don't want to call myself a victim. Reflecting on the past three years, I view myself as a survivor because I have truly survived the unimaginable. Not only did I survive being shot by someone I trusted and considered a close friend, but I overcame the public humiliation of having my name and reputation dragged through the mud by that individual for the entire world to see."
Megan's reflection is something I have heard many people who experience violence say as they float between the terms victim and survivor. It's almost as if we have been socialized into viewing those terms in a binary. The former is more easily associated with weakness, brokenness, and ongoing grief. The latter connotes strength, fortitude, and an overcomer's constitution.
Therapy resources, like Good Therapy, position these terms as "stages" of healing, where one goes from identifying as a victim to a survivor to, finally, a thriver. Psychotherapist Susanne Dillmann describes healing as a step-by-step internal process: "[A] person has grown through the victim stage, he or she enters into the survivor stage, which is the time when one begins to feel strong and confident and to truly believe that there are resources and choices." Much of white Western therapy relies on such linear healing models and thus promotes overly simplistic, linear talking points. In the marketplace of therapy, you are still selling a product that has to be packaged into something digestible, where you can follow a series of steps and then be 100 percent back to normal.
Language has been a stubborn problem, not only within the victim therapy space but also within the criminal punishment system. Sex worker organizers and trans people have long called attention to the dehumanizing language law enforcement has used to describe their communities.
"No Humans Involved" (NHI) is the unofficial term used to describe the murders of Black people, sex workers, trans people, Indigenous people, and many other marginalized people. This language reveals that the punishment system does not see people that belong to these categories as humans. How, then, could they ever regard them as victims? A victim of a crime is afforded "rights" under the law, but marginalized people cannot be granted those rights. Therefore, they do not qualify as victims, no matter what atrocious horrors are committed against them.
A prime example of this callous indifference is New York state's delay to file charges in the public killing of Jordan Neely earlier this month. Neely, a homeless Black youth who was suffering from the effects of starvation and grief over the murder of his mother, was strangled to death by Daniel Penny on the subway. To the state and to Penny, Neely was a public nuisance, not a victim in need of assistance or protection.
To combat the effects of dehumanizing language like NHI and to force public accountability, communities began organizing for the necessary use of the term victim. However, many people, especially women, felt that the term was cold, inhumane, silencing, and disempowering. Resource organizations pivoted to using survivor instead to aid in the creation of a more empowering framework for those who have experienced harm.
Language is a complicated game.
Despite well-intentioned efforts, the cultural push towards survivor language is accompanied by assumptions of growth and empowerment that aren't inherent to any term. To some people, identifying as a survivor feels better. It's more digestible. Several Black women in my life who have experienced tremendous harm, hurt, and violence remain deeply committed to calling themselves survivors—if they can even acknowledge what happened—but many struggle to see strength as an inherent part of this term.
I don't believe Black women and gender-oppressed people need to get any stronger. We need a world that gives us all less to survive. Patriarchal violence (PV) is an "interconnected systems of institutions, practices, policies, beliefs, and behaviors that harm, undervalues, and terrorize girls, women, femme, intersex, gender-nonconforming, LGBTQ, and other gender-oppressed people in our communities," so violence doesn't just happen on the individual level. We live in a society that perpetuates PV and other forms of violence. Under systems of domination such as capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, we live with conditions for violence all around us. Simply put: wherever there is violence, there will be victimization. There will be harm-doers.
As a victim of a home invasion in 2011 and an abolitionist, I understand the complexity of victimhood under antiblackness. My abolitionist politics helped me understand that two young, Black men do not kick down your door while you and your mother and getting dressed for your sister's dance recital yelling about money and drugs if they don't need that to also survive this world. It isn't an excuse, but it recognizes the conditions of Black poverty and how that influences us to harm each other in the name of survival. So, when we think about who is doing the victimization and what people have to do to survive in the first place, the dichotomy between victim and survivor needs more interrogation.
Shahem Mclaurin, a licensed social worker and therapist assisting people impacted by patriarchal violence, believes that the structures perpetuating violence matter more than the language used to describe people. "I can call my clients survivors or victims, and it doesn't matter. They don't give a fuck because the structures aren't protecting them. A lot of my clients now are so swept up in the violence that they don't even understand it as violence because it's so normalized."
For any of us to understand how this kind of violence becomes mundane, we have to look at what created the conditions for that harm to be done. No act of patriarchal violence exists in a vacuum. People are deeply uncomfortable with pain, grief, and trauma, so they search, or rather they demand survivor narratives. We see this in the media and in popular culture. People do not want to focus on what happened to someone or how that violence was possible. They just want to hear that you overcame it.
"Identifying as a victim is also a personal choice that I think is important too," said organizer K Agbebiyi from Survived & Punished NY. But due to misogynoir and antiblackness, some of us aren't believable victims, which NHI proves. Acknowledging someone as a victim is predicated on whether or not the third party first believes that person to be worthy of empathy, pity, or sorrow, and therefore deserving of protection. For someone to be a victim, society must first grieve for the person that experienced harm. But under antiblackness, society is already on the side of the harm-doers. Excuses abounded. Perhapses proliferate, and the reality of the violence against Black gender-oppressed people is questioned. In Meg's case, she received violence from her harm-doer, community members, and the public because she was not seen as a victim. Then, she later disavowed the term herself for the sake of empowerment. If certain people are constantly denied being seen as victims, the only thing they can do is make themselves into survivors.
"One negative thing that comes with calling people a survivor is that you make the assumption that what they have faced is over," said Mclaurin. "Referring to them explicitly as survivors creates the idea that these people are experiencing singular incidents." Under this view, we've healed from whatever grim incidents transpired. Nobody cares to hear that those horror stories are still happening every day, let alone with a level of mundanity akin to filing your nails.
Survivor can then be seen for what it is: a more digestible term that allows people to ignore the fact that under the existing conditions, harm for Black folks and gender-oppressed people is inescapable and recurrent. While a victim is seen as static, frozen in grief, forever imprisoned at the time of the incident, a survivor is expected to progress and move on—which is exactly what antiblackness and misogynoir demand we do. Using the term survivor just puts the onus back on victims. Notice how Dillman's survivor stage is described as someone believing that there are resources available, not one where receiving resources is a guarantee. The survivor language highlights the importance of the personal healing journey and the steps an individual is taking to empower themself independent of the violent systems that continue to harm them and others. This language shift serves neoliberalism far more than it serves people who have experienced PV.
"Liberalism does this thing where it constantly undercuts movement and commodifies everything," said Mclaurin. You are far more marketable when you have a story of overcoming than you are trying to stop violence from happening or holding someone accountable.
Thinking back to my experience surviving being held at gunpoint during a home invasion in high school, I remember the difference in responses when everyone's sympathy ran its course. There was very little room to hold my trauma or PTSD, but various organizations loved to hear my story when it was framed as something I overcame, something that I reclaimed, and something I survived. When I mentioned who did the harm and what that harm says about society, support dwindled.
I have taken years of my life to do inner work and build relationships with other survivors, feminists, and women. I have been able to honor how my experiences with violence come up today, and I sit in gratitude with the people who care for me and show me the grace I need. But I do feel any inherent "empowerment" because of anything I have survived.
Toni Morrison once said: "Sometimes you don't survive whole, you survive in part," an articulation far more aligned with living under white supremacy and patriarchy than any victim-survivor-thriver model plaguing our current care systems.
Personally, I do not care if someone refers to me as a victim or survivor when it comes to all the forms of violence and hurt/harm that I have endured because I care more about the conditions and lack of resources that made it possible. I will never be able to forget the simple fact that I have lifelong healing to do for an incident where two men walked away with less than $100 in cash. The harder thing to hold is that the money could have been just enough for something they may have needed to survive. I'll never know.
The truth is that while many of us are being harmed, not all of us survive. "People are not surviving," said Mclaurin. "Even the ones still living. If you want to call it surviving you can but if it is, [it's] barely."
"Liberalism is the machine that creates this semantic storm, and it ends up robbing the meat from the movement," Mclaurin said, and I agree. That's the problem with playing the language game. It moves us further away from protecting people and stopping harm.
In the final stage of the linear healing model, Dillmann describes thriving as the following: "On an emotional level, feelings of strength, empowerment, compassion, resilience, and self-determination eclipse the emotions experienced within the victim stage." But under antiblackness, thriving is always impossible for Black people. And the truth is, there is no real eclipse of grief. One could argue that the only eclipse that occurs is when people who have experienced violence eclipse their pain in response to the world's demands.
Still, I remain deeply concerned with all the negativity so easily attached to victims, attached to "weakness," attached to grief. It is okay to say you have been hurt/harmed. It's okay to feel and to name that you're a victim because it is a part of your experience and your story. We may not have to over-identify with it, but telling the truth about what happened to us should always be okay.
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