The “White Denial” Firestorm
When author Tim Wise sent his recent essay “School Shootings and White Denial” to his editors, he unwittingly set off a firestorm of national reaction, controversy and dialogue.
May 23, 2001 |
I had no idea what I was stepping into as I hit the ‘send’ button on my e-mail browser. On the road for a speech, I had just completed a rather hastily-produced essay on the school shooting in Santee, California: the umpteenth example of yet another middle class white male, deciding to take his frustrations out on anyone and anything with a heartbeat.
I had written pieces like this before: after Kip Kinkel, after Columbine, even after the Woodstock ’99 riot: articles in which I pointed out the ways that violence, pathology and dysfunction are de-racialized when the perpetrators are white, but intensely racialized when they are black or Latino. For example, compare the way gang violence in the early 1990’s was viewed through a racial lens (as in, “what’s wrong with the black family, or black culture”), as opposed to the way white boy school-shootings have been covered — as the inexplicable result of any number of generic social forces, and never as evidence of something potentially wrong with white, middle class cultural norms.
As I said, I had written these before, and even joked with friends about having created a new category of racial analysis: the “crazy white people whose race no one seems to notice” genre. But never had the response amounted to much. The pieces would be seen by a few thousand people. I’d receive a hundred or so responses, mostly favorable, and that would be it.
Not so this time. When I sent “School Shootings and White Denial” to the folks at AlterNet, I was unwittingly setting off a firestorm of national reaction, controversy, and dialogue.
By the time I got to the airport the next day, I checked my e-mail to discover that I already had received over 100 messages about the column. By the time I arrived home, that number had climbed to 300. By the next day, the tally was over 1000. Something was happening.
As someone who has relied heavily on internet distribution of my material, and yet remained skeptical of the overuse of technology for spreading progressive and radical political messages, my own sense of the importance of such technology was being challenged. What began as a simple 1100 word article, posted on an alternative website, had metamorphosed into the talk of the electronic nation. Within two days it was being sent around on hundreds of listservs, and the e-mails (thanks to my habit of placing my contact address at the bottom of each commentary I write) just kept on coming.
What was it about this piece that touched such a nerve? I wish I knew for sure. My guess is that it was a combination of timing, pertinence to what was on people’s minds and also the fact that AlterNet, unlike lots of media sources, let me say what I wanted to say, the way I wanted to say it — raw, unfiltered and honest. After all, it’s doubtful that more “mainstream” media would be inclined to let an author say that white folks were “deluded” about the dysfunction in their own communities, and needed to “pull our heads out of our ass.” In fact, a number of such “mainstream sources” rejected the piece, even as it continued to spread like a political computer virus. Apparently, lots of people appreciate raw honesty, even if the folks at most major newspapers do not.
Within days I was fielding calls from the Los Angeles Times, and a columnist at the Washington Post; then a columnist at the San Francisco Chronicle, and another at the Richmond (VA) Times-Dispatch. None of these papers ran the article, but all ended up running stories about the piece, and the massive national reaction to it. I also spent an hour on the phone with Nightline, and did about 50 radio programs.
7500 emails later that reaction has remained intense, even after nearly two months.
But what I find most interesting about the reaction (2 to 1 positive by the way) is that I wasn’t saying anything people of color hadn’t been saying for years. Apparently it is news to my fellow white folks that our kids are potentially just as dangerous and dysfunctional as anyone else’s. Apparently it is news to whites that we have plenty of pathologies in our communities, and that crime and deviance are not merely black and brown problems. But to those same black and brown folks who are usually on the receiving end of racial stereotyping and profiling, this is not news at all.
The fact is, my words — those of a white male saying these things — had been taken seriously in a way they would not have been if spoken by a person of color. The attention garnered by this one article was yet another example of how those of us who are dominant group members will never be able to escape racial privilege until the society itself changes dramatically. So while I was glad to get the message out, it was disturbing to realize just how deep that privilege system runs and how implicated in it we all are.
As I thumb through hundreds of e-mails I received and printed out, I am struck by the emotion involved and what it says about race in America. Dozens from teenagers, concerned for their safety in these “nice” suburban schools where they tell me administrators and parents routinely say, “it can’t happen here.”
Dozens more from people who have taught in urban and suburban schools and say they are far more frightened in suburban schools, because at least in the cities folks are on the lookout for violence and no one is in denial about the risks. This, in contrast to the schools in “Pleasantville,” where the parents are disengaged from their kids’ lives, the people live on isolated cul-de-sacs, and the white males in particular seem to think nothing they do can get them in real trouble.
Dozens more from young children of color brought almost to tears by the fact that someone has finally taken the stigmatizing spotlight off them for a change — even for a few moments — and acknowledged that they are not the source of social breakdown in this nation. Others from their parents, thanking me for the same reasons: because for once their children are not being held up as the problem, as superpredators, as evil. It is a measure of how distorted our images of violence have become that one commentary such as mine could prove so cathartic and helpful in this regard, by opening up just the slightest amount of breathing space.
Hundreds of e-mails from people telling me of incidents at their local schools that never made the news because officials in these “all-American” towns covered them up. Hundreds more from folks who spoke of their intention to take the essay and use it as a teaching tool in classrooms, community forums, even use it as a church sermon. Families that said they had been discussing it around the dinner table; college students who discussed it in dorm lounges and over beers at the local pub. Hungry for meaningful, even controversial dialogue about race, thousands of people were using the piece as a jumping-off place for real discussions: about stereotyping, racial profiling, racism and media bias and school violence.
I even received messages from people in the communities where the most prominent school shootings occurred — like Santee, Littleton, Springfield, and Paduchah — confirming what I had said about “white blindness” and unspoken dysfunction in these supposedly “safe places.”
One in particular stood out: an email from a member of the SWAT team at Columbine, who admitted that the reason they hadn’t acted quicker was precisely because the commanding officers had no idea how to respond to a situation in a upscale white community. These were folks with nice cars, nice homes, money and white skin. The uncertainty in this case cost precious time and has been the source of much criticism from parents of Columbine students.
The irony is that it is precisely the parents and their communities’ sheltered, privileged existence that created the delay in the first place. If this had been an inner-city school in Denver, the SWAT team would have moved with a quickness. But to do so in Littleton, and risk a catastrophe that would then result in a lawsuit was unacceptable. In other words, racial and class privileges not only failed to protect the kids at Columbine — in the end, they may have put them at greater risk.
If everyone could begin to realize what the SWAT member at Columbine clearly saw, perhaps we could begin to rethink some of our negative racial stereotypes. Maybe we could begin to see that crime and violence don’t have a race. Maybe we could see that there is a flipside to privilege, and it is none too pretty.
At the very least, we need to talk about it.
Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer, antiracism activist and lecturer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.