When Terror is the norm: Reflections on the Shooting and #JusticeforJazzy

The phone call was a casual one, the typical kinds of conversations two married people have with one another:

“Hey, baby, what you doing?”

“Not a damn thing. I just called, just because. I had nothing to say, I just wanted to talk to you.”

These conversations are, if I were to be honest, too common in my marriage. Andrea and I will call each other just to see what the other is doing, just to hear the other’s voice. But sometimes, these calls turn from casual “hey, how you doings?” to “did you hear what happened?” And that’s what happened yesterday.

Yesterday. I can’t believe it was just yesterday that a white man terrorized a white church and killed over 25 people. It feels like it was forever ago, or maybe it just feels this way because white men have been mass shooting people almost nonstop in the past few years.

And every time it happens, we vindicate the white man. Trump was heard — from Japan! — claiming that this was a result of “mental illness,” that this is not a time for a conversation about guns.

To be clear, I don’t give a shit about the gun control conversation. I wish I could, but the truth is, the conversation about gun control is — as all conversations in this country are — racially coded, framed in such a way as to protect the sanctity of whiteness. It just is what it is, so I no longer have a dog in that fight.

What I do have a problem with, though, is the fact that we still cannot call these white men terrorists, that we cannot call them out for the evil that they are. What terrifies me the most about the recent mass shootings in this country is the sheer lack of self-reflexivity engendered in their wake. What does it mean that we don’t have a language for these white mass shooters — or to put it differently: what does it mean that we remain hesitant to use the language of terror to name the terror that is whiteness?

This guy can’t be a terrorist. He’s white, after all.

Our media outlets cannot find the words to describe these men — almost always white — outside of eulogies: the country music lover, the former vet, the disturbed child, the resentful student. Even when whiteness deals death, we eulogize its death; we say a good word about whiteness after it has wreaked havoc. And we do this whether or not the community whiteness terrorizes is its own or other communities. In refusing to call whiteness out for the evil that it is, this country is doomed to continue to succumb to the demonic terror that is whiteness. In other words, it will continue to have, as Malcolm X once said, its own chickens come home to roost.

But X’s point wasn’t to be crass or to lash out against whiteness without sympathy or concern. Instead, his point was that the violence that whiteness inflicts upon itself is made possible through the violence whiteness inflicts upon non-white communities. Because these other forms of violence go unchecked, whiteness doesn’t know what to do when it inflicts violence upon itself. Presidents have to rethink their approaches, and media outlets wonder aloud about why these kinds of things keep happening.

This wondering aloud and this rethinking are forms of hesitation, implicit forms of resistance to call out the demonic force of whiteness. This hesitation, this verbal and affective intervention on the part of large institutions, is in and of itself another form of terror: it’s a gag order on any form of speech that would name the evil of whiteness as the evil that it is — which is to say, it is a gag order on black speech, on the speech that has already told the truth to a country that continues to refuse to hear it.

Anyway, back to the phone call. It was yesterday, and bae told me about what happened at University of Hartford. If you’ve not been paying attention — and chances are, you haven’t, because the media remains committed to whiteness (hell, I wasn’t, until bae told me about it)—a white female college student terrorized Chennel “Jazzy” Rowe, black female college student. The white female college student — whose name will not grace this post — violated Jazzy’s property, doing all kinds of evil things to Jazzy for reasons we still cannot understand. If this isn’t evil, I don’t know what is.

I guess she isn’t a terrorist, either.

But it’s one thing for a singular person to be evil. It’s another thing entirely for an institution to carry out the same kind of evil in more diffuse ways. Jazzy went to the university, and they essentially did nothing. Not a damn thing. They “investigated,” which is to say, they dragged their feet. Jazzy’s words weren’t enough on their own; it wasn’t until Jazzy’s Facebook live post corroborated the white female college student’s Instagram posts that all of a sudden, the white female college student was brought to justice.

Terror is living in a world where you know your words aren’t worth shit.

How do we live in a world where the veracity of blackness is denied? What does it mean that black words are NEVER true and that white words are ALWAYS true — such that black words cannot rise to the level of serious discourse? Lupita N’yongo was also assaulted, you know; and she was also the only one whose testimony was directly contradicted. And Chennel “Jazzy” Rowe would still be a victim of terror if it were left up to the University of Hartford. It wasn’t (simply) Jazzy’s words that prompted the white female college student’s arrest; this student’s own words alone carried enough truth to indict. This is not justice being served, but yet another form of violence, another affective and linguistic slippage that vindicates whiteness even as it arrests it. Jazzy stands in the wake of the other student’s truth — which is to say, Jazzy stands in the wake of the dead truth of her own words.

(And get this: this student isn’t even being charged for attempted murder! Anytime you try and poison someone, that seems like an attempt at their life. But I’m not a lawyer, so what do I know?)

I’m not simply naming the contradiction between blackness (read: nonwhiteness) and whiteness. My point is not to simply point out how the discourse would be (and was) different if mass shooters, victims, and truth-tellers had not been white. Such an argument is well-worn and too easy, as it lets certain presentations of whiteness off the hook.

No, my point is deeper than this: my point is that this country is formed — “back-formed,” as Brian Massumi might say — in and as the violence of whiteness. Whiteness isn’t (simply) a racialized category demarcated by various embodied and cultural norms and modes of perception. My point, then, is that the maintenance of this country is the maintenance of whiteness; keeping this country alive means keeping whiteness alive — which is to say that keeping this country alive is always and already an act of terrorist violence. By participating in this system — that is, by making reasonable, pragmatic, and thoughtful decisions to play the long game — we also do violence to ourselves. This violence may not be as intense as it would be otherwise, but it is a violence nonetheless.

In saying this, I mean to say that black people, myself included, are forced to reckon with whiteness, and in so doing, we are forced to come to grips with the possibility that we are giving life to the very thing that gives us death.

We are terrified into producing more terror.

We are forced to come to grips with the fact that the whiteness we fight against is also the whiteness that lives on through our very resistance.

But more than this, we are forced — white and nonwhite alike — to realize that one population’s toxicity has become the norm.

Terrorism isn’t limited to acute instances of mass violence.

Rather, terrorism is the production of an environment where violence will ensue if one does not yield to the guiding norm of society.

In America, this norm is whiteness.

And that means that whiteness is terrifying. And terrorizing.

May the families of the victims of white terrorism — which is to say, may all of us — know that my heart is with you.

Try and be well, beloveds.