Blinded by whiteness

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, Calif.: 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 1990s 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.

Timing and technology

By the time I got to the airport the next day, I checked my e-mail to discover that I already had received more than 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 1,000. 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 1,100-word article, posted on an alternative Web site, 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.

7,500 e-mails later that reaction has remained intense, even after nearly two months.

Same message, new messenger

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 are 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 come 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 are sent by 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 come from their parents, thanking me for the same reasons: because for once their children are not being held up as the problem, as super-predators, 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 arrive 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 appear 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 receive messages from people in the communities where the most prominent school shootings occurred — Santee, Littleton, Springfield, and Paducah — confirming what I had said about “white blindness” and unspoken dysfunction in these supposedly “safe places.”

One in particular stood out: an e-mail from a member of the SWAT team at Columbine, who admitted that the reason they hadn’t acted more quickly was precisely because the commanding officers had no idea how to respond to a situation in an 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 flip side to privilege, and it is none too pretty.

At the very least, we need to talk about it.

Read "School shootings and white denial," Timothy Wise's original essay which inspired the reactions described in this story.

Read the follow up stories in the Washington Post and the San Francisco Chronicle. (The Los Angeles Times story has been archived but is available for purchase online.)

Tim Wise is a Nashville-based writer, anti-racism activist and lecturer. E-mail [email protected]
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