Whenever major stories hit the news, there are seismic waves of instant coverage and facebook opinions that collide in a perfect internet storm that keeps me distracted and somewhat furious for hours. Countless people compete for the most profound commentary, the most controversial analyses, and the most hard-hitting opinions as quickly as possible whether they are directly connected to the story or not. After watching this go down for several days, I wanted to take some time to reflect on the recent tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newtown, Connecticut. This is not a post about gun control, the breakdown of social services, or “bad parenting.” This post will not contribute to the very valid discourses that interrogate the excessive media attention given to violence in privileged white spaces where events like this “just don’t happen.” This is a not post that is specifically limited to the exact details of what happened in Connecticut. This post is about two of the ugliest social diseases ever created in the history of humankind: male and white supremacy.
What I find to be suspect about so many of the reports I’ve read is the tendency to bury, or otherwise ignore altogether, the highly significant fact that the Sandy Hook shooter also murdered his own mother during the killings. In fact, most of the victims were women and, yes, most of the victims where white. I don’t personally think this warrants a scathing critique of President Obama’s tearful hypocrisy, nor do I think this warrants the argument that mental illness should be the real focus of Sandy Hook discussions–even if racism can be dismissed as the killer’s motivation in this case. I think because the victims of this shooting were mostly white and mostly women, evaluating and complicating the identity of white male killers becomes all the more important despite how counter-intuitive this may seem. Men with white skin have been killing POC for centuries, true, but when their victims share their skin color it doesn’t make the killers any less privileged as male or any less privileged as white.
I am not a parent and that much should be made clear, but this does not prevent me from sympathizing with the parents who brutally lost their children and the father who lost a son and a wife in the same day. I read a blog entry on the Huffington Post a friend of mine had shared on facebook, making a plea for understanding and forgiveness when it comes to the often repeated desire to holistically blame parents for the violence of their children. Written by a mother as a contribution to mental illness discussions that inevitably saturate the nation after mass killings committed by white men, she speaks extensively about the fear of her own son, then offers this bit of information:
According to Mother Jones, since 1982, 61 mass murders involving firearms have occurred throughout the country. Of these, 43 of the killers were white males, and only one was a woman. Mother Jones focused on whether the killers obtained their guns legally (most did). But this highly visible sign of mental illness should lead us to consider how many people in the U.S. live in fear, like I do.
What I find most interesting about this admittedly heartfelt and complicated entry is the mother’s admission that no doctors have officially diagnosed her son, but he is on heavy duty anti-psychotics to control his “rage.” Once again, I am not a parent, nor am I a medical professional. The only “scientist” I can somewhat claim to be is a “social” one. But this is where I get skeptical: when atrocities and/or crimes perpetrated largely by white men become subject to a consequential rush to create a crisis around mental illness and isolate the solution as an exclusively medical one. If it is legitimate to suggest that rage and mother-hating from white male teenagers is a basis for the widespread prescribing of serious narcotics, then why is it illegitimate to suggest this same rage and mother-hating is a basis for honest and critical examinations of white and male supremacy? The former will make pharmaceutical companies a fortune, the latter will not.
When whites have been conditioned to equate violence with communities and people of color, we are quick to respond with disbelief when this same violence not only occurs in our communities, but is perpetrated by one of our own. The white male (TM) is a constructed model of power, success, and–most of all–rational thought. As a result, it is not a stretch to imagine that an exception to this rule must be diagnosed as defective, pathological, and most certainly abnormal. Forget about the individual that is President Obama, and wonder more at the broader social hypocrisy that sympathizes with white killers and immediately demonizes killers and/or victims of color. But this is especially painful because it involves children, right? Remember when an 11 year-old Black girl (name still under protection of anonymity) was gang-raped by several men in Texas in 2010? Was the media trend one of overwhelming sympathy and understanding? Or did a major news publication get itself embroiled in a shit storm for indicting the character of the young girl based on her tendency to “dress beyond her age”? It is acceptable to question the racial and gender identities of people and women of color in the US, but it is wholly unacceptable to subject white male killers to the same critical lens.
In a recent essay on the Sandy Hook shootings, Tim Wise denied that there was something about whiteness that causes homicide. No, I don’t think there is some kind of whiteness gene that makes certain white men lose their shit and kill people, but is it really that ridiculous to make a connection between whiteness and violence? How high on white supremacy were the Nazis, the KKK, and any other white male vigilante militias who intentionally carried out lynchings, bombings, and, yes, mass murders? Maybe whiteness is the illness here–not the genetic pigmentation that decides skin tone, but the social and structural environments that dictate how sympathetic and privileged white folks will be. Maybe white privilege and patriarchy (cultural & structural, domestic & private) is what teaches white men insane levels of entitlement and inconsolable rage as a logical reaction whenever they are denied what they think they deserve or are treated in a way they think they don’t deserve to be treated?
There is always something more reasonable to blame than whiteness.
Although I don’t deny the legitimacy of mental health issues, I’m not buying that as the only explanation in multiple cases of distinct and premeditated patterns (some might say histories) of behavior. I wonder whose definition of mental illness is being used when these mass killers are revealed to be white men with little or no anger management who are otherwise coherent, calculating, and aware of what they are doing. As fucked up and far-fetched as they are, manifestos and detailed plans are often left behind after these killers take their own lives. A repeated mental illness defense, in my opinion, makes it easier to dismiss violence as the work of “crazy” individuals instead of understanding it as something that has always pervaded cultures of whiteness in the US. Why is mental illness a national crisis that desperately needs to be remedied only when white men murder? After colonization, after Indigenous genocide, after chattel slavery, after lynching, after Oklahoma City, after Columbine, after Oak Creek… why is anyone still surprised when white men murder?
When something like this happens, I think of all the privilege not only white folks maintain, but also the massive amounts of privilege US citizens (and Westerners in general) continue to enjoy. I remember the times I have been cussed out by wealthy white women while working as a cashier after making some small error with their purchase. I think of the screaming matches I have witnessed over material goods and political opinions in retail stores, the irate tantrums white folks have thrown over long lines, missed orders at coffee shops, and the wrong burritos on their plates. I think of how ego-driven and hyper-masculine mainstream US culture is, where violent white males are routinely celebrated as heroic outlaws and gun-toting badasses. Sure, I appreciate the humor from folks like David Sirota who wonders why it isn’t time to racially profile white men in this country, but I wonder what might happen if white society decided it was time to try something like this instead…
What if we stopped teaching each other how special and superior whiteness is–children and adults alike. What if we dismantled and discontinued the idea that we are the best people who deserve nothing but the best while living in the best country on Earth. What if we stopped giving lenient or abbreviated punishments to white collar criminals and white criminals in general. What if we abolished policies and practices in employment, education, and housing that perpetuate social inequities and oppression. What if we used a humane sense of limits to re-frame the “rights” and “freedom” that entitle us to do whatever we want and express our rage however we want. What if we educated our men to have unconditional respect for women and people of all gender identities whether they are relatives, strangers, next door, down the street, or in another country. What if we refused to see violence as something that exists only in communities of color, and made it completely unglamorous and unsympathetic at the hands of white men.