“They are us”
“Let me guess,” I said to my husband, “It’s a young white man.”
“Yep.” he dolefully responded.
I didn’t think about it for the rest of the day. I didn’t have to. It was worlds away and didn’t really worry or particularly impact me.
Over dinner, I watched the news. New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern called the white supremacist shooter a “terrorist.” Good for you, I thought. Then she said this:
“Many of those who will have been directly affected by this shooting may be migrants to New Zealand. They may even be refugees here. They have chosen to make New Zealand their home, and it is their home. They are us. The person who has perpetuated this violence against us is not. They have no place in New Zealand.” — New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern
I admire Prime Minister Ardern. She seems like a leader I could get behind. I get what she’s saying and I appreciate her inclusive attitude towards refugees. I agree whole-heartedly with half of what she’s saying. The other half, unfortunately, is completely untrue.
For Jacinda Ardern and me, the people who perpetrated the massacre on Friday are us. They benefit from white privilege and I benefit from white privilege. They get to be individuals and their actions won’t reflect on me. Because of white privilege, I’m not going to get racially profiled and pulled over from the security line for extra checks at the airport. Because the actions of these white supremacists do not reflect on me. Because of white privilege, governments aren’t going to make laws about what I’m allowed to wear or look like because, I don’t know, my blonde hair and blue eyes suggest allegiance to white fanaticism. Because the actions of these white supremacists do not reflect on me.
In her book Muslim Girl, Amani Al-Khatahtbeh talks about growing up in New Jersey and her experiences with Islamophobia after 9/11. She recalls that with each subsequent bombing, mass shooting, plane crash, her community would collectively hold their breath, waiting for news of whether a Muslim person was involved. Once the word “terrorist” was used they knew it was all over — a Muslim person had been implicated and by extension so had their whole community. They feared for their safety, they feared for their property, they feared for the well-being of their children. In Al-Khatahtbeh’s case, they returned to Jordan for several years to escape Islamophobia.
Jacinda Ardern took a stand and called white mass shooters “terrorists”, which is a step in the right direction. (And it’s a hell of a lot better than not denouncing them at all and suggesting they’re “very fine people.”) She said of the Muslim refugee shooting victims that “they are us”. This is a wonderful sentiment, an aspirational sentiment; but more than likely it is also a revisionist statement that ignores whatever Islamophobia and xenophobia and racism that exists in New Zealand. To ignore this is tantamount to social gaslighting. Because do you know who weren’t surprised by the attack on Muslims in Christchurch? Muslim communities around the world.
It is way, way too easy for ANY of us white people to say, “that doesn’t have anything to do with my culture or my values.” For years Muslim individuals and communities have been forced to get on the defensive, to prove that “most of us are good people!”, to take responsibility for the actions of the fanatical few, to prove their schools and mosques are not promoting fanatical Islam. If we take the step to call the Christchurch white supremacists “terrorists” then we also need own up to and denounce the culture that made them by openly condemning white supremacy, white privilege and toxic masculinity.
I mean that as teachers, we have a responsibility to prove that our schools and communities are not promoting white supremacy, white privilege and toxic masculinity. In this impassioned and supportive article For White Teachers Teaching White Boys in the Suburbs, Tom Rademacher implores us to be mindful of the messages white kids, and especially white boys, are getting.
“We don’t talk enough about the boys in our classrooms, the boys who spend too much time on Reddit and 4-Chan, who are playing with ideas around race, around gender, around attraction. We don’t talk enough about the White boys consuming messages about what is owed them, about what is being taken. We don’t talk enough about White boys at a crossroads, about what we can do to interrupt them inheriting the power and permission to pursue their worst instincts.” — Tom Rademacher
This is a missing element in our curricula — a deliberate combating of the sense of entitlement, masculine entitlement, white privilege entitlement, class entitlement. If anything, schooling seems to promote a sense of entitlement and the subsequent anxiety students feel when they don’t get access to the opportunities they feel entitled to. (And the college admissions scandal in the US doesn’t help either.)
So while Jacinda Ardern and good people all over the world want to condemn and distance themselves from these murderous people, those of us who move through the world as white people need to carefully consider the fall-out from this attack. White people need to notice when we are not being lumped in with these terrorists. We need to acknowledge that it is a privilege to be able to frame the story as “them not me.” We need to realize that the white supremacy those terrorists murdered for is already a fact of life — and something we benefit from every day.