Note: I will not be mentioning the name of the perpetrator of the Isla Vista shootings. He’s a household name already, and I don’t want to contribute to further memorializing of his image. Also, there are resources on understanding White privilege at the bottom of the article if you would like more information.
With any tragedy, the inevitable question is: why? Whether it is a natural disaster or a mass murder, our inclination is prevent it from happening again. The media can be very helpful in this respect, providing us with details on the state of the disaster and what societal reactions are to it. However, when the media reports of specific groups of people are reported differently than those of others, it is time to pause and reflect.
Like many others, I was deeply affected by the shootings in Isla Vista last week. After all, I know at least twenty people who attend UCSB, and I worried for their lives when the news first broke. After learning that the victims were not anyone I knew, I calmed down, but kept them and their families in my thoughts for the rest of the day. I stayed off of social media, knowing that there were currently political battles happening that I was too weary to be a part of. That changed, however, as my phone kept sending me news headlines about the shooting. One thing caught my eye.
- “Isla Vista shooting suspect vowed ‘war on women,’ sorority”
- “Inside the gunman’s head: Rejection, jealousy and vow to kill ‘beautiful girls'”
- “Isla Vista shooting suspect talked of ‘slaughtering all of you'”
- Why wasn’t he being labeled a terrorist?
Oh right. He is in the upper-class and White-passing.
Actually, he is mixed White and Asian. Despite that, he easily passes as White. This is not to deny his mixed heritage, but to highlight that society reacts differently to a mix that begets “success,” and treats them as Whiter than other mixes. For more information, see Asian Americans and the ‘model minority’ myth.
While some of these articles mentioned the victims, many more focused on the perpetrator and his motive. What made him kill? Was it guns? Was it his mental health? (As a side-note, the National Coalition for Mental Health recovery issued a press release that stated that people “diagnosed with serious mental illnesses are no more likely than the general population to be violent.”) They reported on his background, his life as a child, and his suffering. By doing that, they gave him what he wanted: attention and sympathy. These articles, in an attempt to understand why, humanized him.
This is not a phenomenon that you see when Muslims and people of color commit crimes. Instead, they are labeled terrorists, extremists, and when they are from low-income areas, thugs and gang-affiliates. These labels are meant to dehumanize and prevent sympathy (Trayvon Martin case, anyone? Ironic cause Trayvon didn’t commit a crime, but he was still figurately put on trial for having “thug-like” pictures.)
Was the Isla Vista shooter not a terrorist, when his goal was to terrorize? Was he not an extremist, as he has murdered people for his beliefs? Why, then, is he, and the Sandy Hook shooter before him, and the Aurora shooter before him, not labeled as such? White privilege.
In Are Prisons Obsolete? Angela Davis writes that, before women’s prisons were widespread in the United States, White women who committed crimes were sent to asylums, while Black women were sent to men’s prisons. The thinking behind this is that White women who committed crimes had to be mentally ill; they were going against the inherent goodness of their culture, so something had to be wrong with their mental health. Black women, being of African descent, were just acting in their nature and were therefore criminals. I suspect that this racist line of thinking has perpetuated itself in our perception of crimes. By refusing to label White-passing shooters as terrorists and instead focus on their mental health, our society is saying two things: one, being mentally ill makes one “different” from Whiteness, and two, because this person is “different” they cannot be a representative of Whiteness. Both lines of reasoning are disgusting and problematic, mainly because it is saying that one is White until proven mentally ill. No matter what, the answer to why will always be something other than Whiteness (as it should be!) Muslims and people of color are not afforded the same privilege.
In case the racism behind that line of thinking doesn’t scare you, let me tell you something that will, since the Isla Vista shootings are a real life example of how White privilege can easily affect you.
Major news outlets have now reported that the police were aware of the shooter’s videos, but did not bother watching them. In fact, they concluded that he was no danger to anyone since he seemed “shy and polite.” They let him go without even doing a basic gun check, which is standard protocol according to ABC News. If our society did not see Whiteness as default goodness, and everything else as antithetical to Whiteness, maybe, just maybe, this tragedy could have been prevented.
Right now, it seems that we must we change the race of an individual for a report to be taken seriously. It is time we make a conscious effort to change our society’s perceptions instead.
Resources for understanding White privilege:
- White Privilege, Racism, & The Cost of Inequality by Tim Wise
- What is White Privilege?
- On Racism and White Privilege
- Webcomic by artist Jamie Kapp. She has since deleted her blog but here’s a website that is hosting it instead.
- A Definitive Guide to White Privilege
- Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis
Ironically, I have noticed that people are more likely to listen to White people writing about White privilege than people of color. As a result, I’ve included some White-to-White discussions. However, I highly recommend reading up on White privilege by authors of color. They are the ones who know it best.