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The thing I wish I could say in every conversation about every "school shooting" ever

By sarah beth December 14, 2012 - 7:15pm Comments (4)

I don't often turn to Eminem for anti-racist analysis, but I think "The Way I Am" is actually the first source I encountered, and the most popular source for sure, with a critical take on community, national, and international responses to "school shootings" (this of course reflects my own upbringing and embeddedness in white culture, since Eminem is hardly the first artist to draw attention to the discrepancy). The lyrics in question are:
"[...] And look where it's at.
Middle America: now it's a tragedy.
Now it's so sad to see an upper class city
Having this happening."

The label "school shooting," and the response to it, prescribe shock and grief in ways that the labels assigned to the gun-related deaths of children of colour and poor children, which are far more common in the US and the world over, do not. I'm not saying shock and grief are inappropriate responses to the shooting deaths of children (or adults), but the shock prescribed is because *these* children were supposed to be safe, *these* children were never supposed to witness this kind of violence, *these* parents were never supposed to feel that kind of fear. The implication held in the completely different response prescribed for "gang violence," "perpetrators shot by police," "high risk lifestyle," "drug-related death," etc. is that *those* children and *those* parents were never protected by the same expectation of safety. *Those* ones might even have deserved it. 

Why does this matter? And why is the middle of the response to tragedy the appropriate time to bring it up? I'll suggest three reasons:

1) In addition to gun control, progressive responses to this tragedy have identified accessible mental health care as something that could have prevented it. While anyone with a psychiatrized disability has to overcome almost-insurmountable systemic ableism to access mental health care, on the whole, middle class whites have the *most* access to health care. People of colour and the poor, especially in the US where health care is privatized, bear most of the burden of inaccessible health care systems. If we were to stop considering the violence experienced by children of colour and poor children -- not only gun deaths, but the routine and systemic violences of racism and poverty, too -- expected and normal, then what might solutions to the crisis of inaccessible health care look like? 

2) Speaking of systemic racism and poverty, the premise that middle class white lives are inherently more valuable -- that their loss is inherently more shocking, grieving, unexpected and unacceptable -- is white supremacy and class war in action. As long as white supremacy and class war remain the dominant ideology of the white middle and upper classes, the associated belief that white middle and upper class boys are entitled to take others' lives to maintain their status will remain intact. The only negotiation is whose lives: their girlfriends and wives? Their schoolmates? Their mothers? The lives of those employed to make consumer goods for them? The lives of sex workers, domestic workers, employees, Iraqis, Afghans, Haitians, Mexicans? The lives of prisoners? 

3) These two positions of privilege, safety from violence and the entitlement to commit violence, are markers of status, wealth and power. The first, safety from violence, is unattainable for many people who don't already have status, wealth and power. But the products of our culture relentlessly teach us, and especially young men, that being a violent person is a way to *get* status, wealth and power over others. Look at the way "school shooters" dress and behave: these are tropic images of masculinity and power and, while "video games caused it" is far too simplistic, they were not appropriated and acted on by young men in a void. Aggression and violence are imposed on boys and men from day one, and especially on boys and young men who have few or no other claims to economic or social power. If we cannot deconstruct the messages through which we confirm these two privileges as reserved only for a select few, we cannot prevent further violence. Our response to the "shock" of "school shootings," in contrast with our response to the shootings of children of colour and poor children, is one such message.

Don't get me wrong: what happened is very sad, I feel for the parents and families, and I can even understand why my friends who are utterly unconnected to the whole situation might have cried or hugged their children on hearing the news. I don't think critique of the media and popular responses takes away from that. I think it recognizes the scope of the injustice in a way that being manipulated by media to act out particular responses in ways that best draw viewers for their advertisers without challenging the system upon which their advertisers' profits are founded... well, it just doesn't. 


  • Mark A. McCutcheon December 14, 2012 - 10:49pm

    I relayed this link to Facebook, and got a great comment for you:

    I really appreciate this thoughtful, if potentially unpopular, response to the shooting today, even though I responded exactly the same way her friends did.  It's so hard not to just respond as a parent of a young child to the news, while faiing to pay attention to all the other preventable deaths of children by gun violence that happen all the time.  I wonder, though, if we aren't equally (if irrationally) shocked by the magnitude of an individual shooting - the sheer number of people killed or injured - as the type of people it happened to, making these stories more "news-worthy" for mainstream media than individual shootings of children of colour or living in poverty, despite the fact that the overall numbers for the latter is likely higher annually (I don't actually know any stats on this issue). Anyway, thanks for sharing.

    So speaking of stats, here is an excellent, citation-heavy Washington Post article, "12 facts about guns and mass shootings in the US". It also open with this critical insight:

    ...the air was thick with calls to avoid 'politicizing' the tragedy. That is code, essentially, for 'don’t talk about reforming our gun control laws.' Let’s be clear: That is a form of politicization.

  • sarah beth December 15, 2012 - 12:11am

    I remember living near "Jane and Finch" during Toronto's highly sensationalized 2005 "Summer of the Gun," when 52 people were killed in gun violence in one year. Most of the victims were black youth and many of the shooters were also black youth who then became victims of violence in the criminal justice system and the prison industry. The responses fuelled by that media sensation typically involved anger, disgust, an ever-expanding border to the "Jane and Finch" neighbourhood that allowed media to lump more and more violence in with the same group [1], calls for crackdowns on immigration, Jamaican youth and drug users...

    We are all stunned, shocked, and distraught by these tragic shootings, by these violent acts, and by the loss of so many young children. Our hearts go out to the families and friends of the students, teachers, and educators killed and wounded in Toronto, Ontario. The entire nation will continue to stand as a source of support to this community in the days and weeks to come.

    ...said no politician, ever, about most of the shootings in Toronto in 2005. (Nancy Pelosi said this today about the killing in Connecticut. I wonder what poor neighbourhoods would look like if they could get that kind of commitment of support.) But there was one death in Toronto in 2005 that did prompt a massive outpouring of public sympathy, sadness and support, which continues right up to this year: the shooting of one young white woman at the Eaton Centre on Boxing Day, which was described in a 2012 article as caused by "rival gangs" from the Elsewhere of a stigmatized, poor neighbourhood inflicting shocking, "indiscriminate violence," where it didn't belong. 

    Sensationalizing serial and spree killings is a part of how the media conditions our response, but they play the numbers game when they want to sensationalize black shooting deaths, too, just with a different response. When the race of the victims changes, so do our feelings about what constitutes "innocence" and whether the deaths are shocking or just disgusting, a time to mourn or a time to crack down, a time to identify with the victims or a time to fear them. A similar pattern exists with responses to violence against women: consider how your community, especially if you are in a big city that has annual events attended by provincial and federal politicians, commemorates December 6th, a date marking the murders of 14 women engineering students, usually well-attended by politicians and media, versus how it commemorates October 4th, when Sisters in Spirit vigils are held in memory of more than 600 missing and murdered Indigenous women. 

    This isn't to say the shooting on Boxing Day 2005 or the one today aren't worthy of grief and sadness. And as far as I'm concerned, it's never a bad idea to hug the people you love because you're grateful for them and happy to see them alive and healthy. But it is to say that the grief we experience in response to events that are purposefully sensationalized by the media has also been conditioned by the media, and that our responses, while heartfelt and justifiable, are also responses to labels and images (like "school shooting" and pictures of white women hugging their daughters in gratitude, as well as sensationalist rankings like "second highest death toll" or "most rounds fired") designed to make us see this shooting as different from all the ones where black kids die instead. 


    [1] When I lived there, I was at York University, which exists more "on" than "in" or "with" the community. But later, when I was paying more attention, I learned that people in the Jane and Finch area worked hard to change how media describes shootings, by lobbying to get journalists to use the address of the events instead of neighbourhood names that clump them all together and stigmatize the entire mostly-black neighbourhood that was sort of near some of the shootings.

  • sarah beth December 15, 2012 - 12:20am

    Also, please thank your friend for their thoughtful and honest comment. As you can see, it gave me a lot to think about. 

  • sarah beth December 18, 2012 - 3:18pm

    Katie Baker, at Jezebel, published an article yesterday titled "Have You Noticed That White Dudes Keep Mass Murdering People?" She analyzes an American media hissyfit over some news guy's comment to that effect, and takes a look at the hypermasculine ads for the gun used in the crime in CT. 

    When anyone who isn't a white and relatively well-off man strides into a public place and guns down innocent civilians, we attack his race and/or religious beliefs before we bury his victims in the ground. But when yet another privileged white guy storms into a school or movie theater and kills dozens of people, we assume there's something wrong with his brain instead of wondering whether his murderous rage has anything to do with good ol' American macho entitlement. Are we ready to talk about it yet? Let's.

    This is hardly the first time we've questioned what makes white middle-class dudes more prone to shooting up public spaces; last summer, after the Aurora movie theater massacre, Hugo Schwyzer wrote that "the fact that these white male mass murderers felt so confident choosing public spaces to commit their crimes reflects a powerful truth about the culture in which they were raised."

    Huh, how about that? We wondered, briefly, and then we moved on with our lives. Gun sales spiked, as they always do after highly publicized mass shootings. The NRA — White Men Central — stayed silent via social media, but doubled its followers even though it shut down one of its Twitter accounts. Some more white dudes shot a bunch of people at temples and shopping malls. Now, twenty little kids are dead because another privileged white guy literally shot his way into an elementary school with a gun made by a company that tries to convince people to buy their killing weapons by telling them they're crybabies if they're not packing heat.