White Terrorism in Black Communities: What masculinity studies can offer to the conversation

19 Jun

The nation is reeling in the wake of this most recent mass shooting, a racially-motivated terrorist attack on the black community of Charleston, SC. Nine lives taken, among them an elected political official, and countless others left devastated by the actions of a young, white man named Dylann Roof. They were family members, community members—four ministers, a librarian, a recent graduate, a grandmother, a bible study teacher, a retiree. And they are gone because of racism. Before I say more, here are their names, because in our rage against a killer, we are too often forgetful of those he has taken: Clementa Pinckney, Daniel Simmons Sr., Cynthia Hurd, Sharonda Singleton, Myra Thompson, Tywanza Sanders, DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Susie Jackson, and Ethel Lance. Their lives add to a growing list of black lives taken and black bodies assaulted this year. Dylann Roof is yet another white man engaging in the kind of racist violence made possible (even permissible) in a system that devalues and denigrates blackness.

Dylann Storm Roof, wearing racist patches on a military style jacket. Photo from Roof's facebook page (source: New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/us/on-facebook-dylann-roof-charleston-suspect-wears-symbols-of-white-supremacy.html)

Dylann Storm Roof, wearing racist patches on a military style jacket. Photo from Roof’s facebook page (source: New York Times, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/06/19/us/on-facebook-dylann-roof-charleston-suspect-wears-symbols-of-white-supremacy.html)

While there are a few out there trying to distract from Roof’s obvious racial motives (like pundits at Fox News who are scrambling to describe this as a hate crime against Christians), most of us recognize that this was indeed a hate crime. Roof himself made it clear, both in word and action. He targeted a church that has suffered racist attacks throughout its nearly 200 year history in Charleston. He targeted a sacred space, a supposedly safe space, for Charleston’s African-American community. He was known for making racist jokes, hoping for a race war, and wearing racist garb. And, as if that wasn’t proof enough, he admitted to his victims that he was there to kill them because of their skin color, because blacks “rape our women and you’re taking over our country.”

There is nothing veiled about this attack. Roof used the same language that has motivated racist terrorism against the black community since slavery: lynchings, murders, fire bombings, rapes. This is, depressingly, not even remotely new. As white Americans, this is our history—we are the descendants, the beneficiaries of centuries of racial terrorism. And we are its perpetuators, as we sit in 2015, still unwilling to admit our privilege, to take responsibility for the damage we have wreaked. So many have written, eloquently, devastatingly, achingly, insightfully about the problem of racism and white supremacy in the U.S. There isn’t much more that I can add to that most important literature. But I do want to direct us to another facet of this problem: the intersection of white supremacy and male domination.

First, let me begin by acknowledging that white people, women and men, are part of white supremacy. Historically, white women have benefitted from the system of white supremacy in numerous ways, most notably the fact that our femininity is valued primarily in opposition to denigrated black femininity. We have benefitted economically (in part because of our connection to white men) from a system that provides advantage to white skinned people. Even the feminist movement was built upon the exclusion of black women. So, white women, we are not off the hook. Each act of racist violence and terrorism exacerbates a system from which we derive immense benefit. And quite often, we not only benefit, but are actively complicit.

Nevertheless, violent acts are statistically men’s acts. Mass shootings, racist or not, are almost exclusively perpetrated by men. And in the case of Dylann Roof, and his historical precedents (lynchers, for example), an act of racist violence was not only perpetrated by a man, but in the name of protecting masculinity’s property: women and country. (See works by Angela Davis and Dorothy Roberts for more on these points)

White masculinity offers a sense of entitlement that is dangerous. White men control the public sphere—the system is stacked in their favor because it is a system they devised. And yet, small gains made by different groups (women, African Americans, immigrants) have seemed especially threatening. Small steps toward equality are seen as “taking over our country.” (Dajerria Becton was assaulted by a white male police officer for attending a pool party; a white woman thought she and other black teens didn’t belong in the neighborhood. Trayvon Martin was murdered for looking suspicious in a mostly white suburban neighborhood. Michael Brown was murdered by a white male police officer for being black and on a street. The list could (and does) go on. Some have even asked, “where can we be black?”) Dylann Roof was defending “his” country from “them.”

Roof also saw himself as a defender of white women. “You rape our women” he told his victims. “Our” women… “his” women. White masculinity is predicated on ownership of nation and ownership of women, though it does not treat all women equally. White women are prized possessions—objects to be owned, to be flaunted, notches on men’s belts. Black women, too, are possessions for white men—objects to be used and cast aside, or in this case, killed. (Many have pointed out the insidious irony of Roof’s defense of women, as he murdered more women than men.) This system is historically rooted in slavery, where white men easily accessed any woman he desired—raping his black women slaves while flaunting his white wife. (White women benefitted from and were often complicit in this system.)

Indeed, it was white men’s ability to act with impunity on the bodies of black women that also proved their racial domination. Black men did not have the option of defending black women—their wives, daughters, sisters, mothers. This piece of masculinity was reserved for white men. Roof shot Tywanza Sanders as he tried to protect his aunt from the gunshots. This piece of masculinity is still denied for black men.

The last months (years even) have brought to head the problem of institutional violence against the black community. It may be easier (more comfortable) to notice the flaws of institutions than to see flaws in ourselves. But let us not forget that we must also come to terms with a broken culture that produces individuals desperate to take the lives of black people in a church sanctuary. Let us not ignore the complex and intersecting ideologies that create Dylann Roof (they are the same one producing police violence and the prison industrial complex). Let us not forget that Roof is not an anomaly, but the logical extension of the American ideologies of race and gender. I want to raise these points about white masculinity not to detract from the important conversation about racism, white privilege, and white supremacist ideology, but to further it. We must pay attention to the historical continuities made manifest in this act of terrorism. We must reject this formulation of white masculinity, and the white femininity that it rests upon. This hate crime is not the first of its kind, nor will it be the last, especially if those of us who have social power refuse to address how we got that power and how it works.

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One Response to “White Terrorism in Black Communities: What masculinity studies can offer to the conversation”

  1. Michael Harrawood June 20, 2015 at 5:55 pm #

    I very much admire the sensitivity and heart that went into this writing. It doesn’t quite answer the question it poses, though, does it? What CAN masculinity studies offer the conversation? I feel mistrustful of an essentialist argument, whichever side of the gender or color line it supports. This article uses the words “white men” in exactly the way Dylan Roof says “you rape our women.” Some white men have been able to act with impunity upon the bodies of men and women of color, and some of them have exploited that entitlement and empowerment. Not all, not even all those with power, have done so, however. And to go from this local observation of the behavior of a few rich land-and-slave owners, or a cult of redneck lynch mobs, to a category, “white men,” repeats and participates in the problem without really analyzing it. There isn’t a class, “white men,” any more there is “real women.” Both are reductive and both miss the point. I think I’m also suspicious of the homiletic last graph and the way the author uses the word “We,” shifting from one big category “white men” to another, “we,” and implicitly creating an “us-and-them” setting for the article.

    One way to begin answering the article’s question would be to imagine the cultural memory that makes sense out of racism and flying the Confederate Flag over the South Carolina State Capital. A good starting place would be W.J. Cash’s book, The Mind of the South. Another would be C. Vann Woodward’s The Burden of Southern History. Or, The Bear by William Faulkner, or “The Displaced Person,” by Flannery O’Connor. Also anything by our colleague at the Wilkes Honors College, Christopher Strain, who has written four books on white attacks on black churches in the South. To a large extent, all of these writers identify the violence of disenfranchised rural Southern whites as part of a sense of exclusion from the very things that make up “White Entitlement.” Maybe then the door would be open to consider that Dylan Roof really did think African Americans had made him and other white males into victims. That, I believe, would be a great way to start answering the question the article poses: by recognizing that “masculinity” is just a metaphoric place holder, and that what we call masculine is made up of more than entitlement.

    I love this ‘zine, and love you for doing it.

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