The White Politics of Individuality

When Dylann Roof, a white supremacist, murdered 9 black individuals in a South Carolina church, nobody denied that the event was a tragedy that should have never happened. But subsequent responses to the Charleston shooting deemed Roof a troubled outsider, and with beliefs that weren’t representative of white Americans.

Now, I’m not making the argument that all white people are white supremacists who openly display symbols of racial oppression, but rather this portrayal reflects a kind of privilege that being white brings: the privilege of individuality.

Compare the responses to Roof to the responses to the recent Chattanooga shooting. When an alleged “terrorist” killed 4 marines on a base in Chattanooga, it became an Islamic problem. It became a politicized symbol of how the threat of “Islamic fundamentalism” has grown to the point where even American soil was no longer safe. But why? Why was it an Islamic problem, and not, like the portrayal of Dylann Roof as a troubled outsider that isn’t representative of the entire white population, the wrongdoing of a man who is a troubled outsider of the Muslim community? Why should the Muslim community have to apologize for the wrongdoings of certain Muslim individuals that engage in violent acts? Because they do not have the privilege of individuality, Muslims are constantly pushed to be held accountable for the actions of individuals that are actually not representative of their faith.

People may argue that Islam is more prone to levels of religious extremism than other religions. Besides being historically untrue (see: Crusades, KKK, slave owners, Tamil Tigers, etc.), I think Reza Aslan said it best in his interview with Jon Stewart when he said:

“… part of the problem is that there is this misconception that people derive their values from their scriptures and the truth is that it is more often the case that people insert their values into their scriptures. I mean otherwise every Christian who read the Bible would read it exactly the same way. In this country, not two hundred years ago, both slave owners and abolitionists not only used the same Bible to justify their viewpoints, they used the same verses to do so. I mean that’s the thing about scripture, its power comes from its malleability. You can read it in any way you want to. If you are a violent misogynist, you will find plenty in the Quran or in the Bible to justify your viewpoint. If you are a peaceful feminist, you will find just as much in those scriptures to justify your viewpoint.”

Scripture is powerful BECAUSE of its malleability — anyone can imbue their personal beliefs into religious documents and twist language of the scripture to fit their needs and ends. Even though the majority of the world’s Muslims are peaceful people, the minority of Islamic terrorists has served to fuel and bolster continuous Islamophobia (such as the recent threats to pour pig’s blood over Muslim graves). Why must the majority of Muslims be held accountable for the actions of the minority?

Next, consider the case of Kate Steinle, murdered by Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez, who is an undocumented migrant (note the purposeful usage of undocumented migrant versus illegal immigrant) who has been deported five times previously. The right (and in particular, Mr. Donald Trump) has forwarded this case to be proof of the dangers of these undocumented migrants and how continued immigration from our southern neighbor only brings dangers to our society, despite quantifiable statistics that this is patently untrue. This case seemed to solidify Trump’s disgusting and racist claims that Mexico is sending mostly “murderers and rapists” and some who he assumes are “good people”. Once again: why are all immigrants, specifically of Latino origin, held accountable for the actions of this man? Why are they not afforded the privilege of individuality?

We see that this is the case over and over again in minority communities: Muslims are forced to be held accountable for individuals who have twisted their religion for personal means; blacks are grouped together into categories of “thugs” and “lawbreakers”; immigrants are viewed suspiciously as importing crime into a country, which, quite frankly, is very good at producing its own crime. The list can go on and on.

The forced accountability and the stereotyping that arises from individuals who are outliers of their community drive the white narrative of the dangerous Other. Difference, to white America, represents the unknown, the unpredictable, and the unsafe. Whiteness allows the white population to absolve themselves of the wrongdoings of people like Dylann Roof; however, whiteness also forces minorities to be branded by the crimes of those outliers.

Why are criminals, who happen to be black, representative of the whole black population? Why is a murderer, who happens to be a Mexican immigrant, representative of the “threat” of Hispanic migration into the US? Why are terrorists (who are not all Muslim by the way!) an inherently Islamic problem?

Pressuring minorities to always act as model citizens, to denounce the wrongdoings of individuals of their community and to disavow their identity, is an impossible and inhumane burden. This is one of the ways white privilege functions and manifests itself, but let us not repeat this mistake over and over again. How can we as a community continue healing and living together when minority communities are always viewed with suspicion and hate because they are not offered the privilege of individuality?