White Fragility Is a Disease, and It Just Killed Six Asian Women
The police and much of the press seem to be doing everything they can to overlook the obvious possibility that it was white supremacy that drove this white man to kill Asian women.
I’ve been following the rise in anti-Asian hate over the past year with mounting dread. A new report from Stop AAPI Hate shows nearly 4,000 incidents of violence targeting people of Asian descent, with two-thirds of that violence directed at women. The morning after the deadly shooting in three Atlanta area massage parlors, an elderly Asian American woman was struck in the face by a white man half her age. On the evening of the same day, a 13-year-old boy was beaten by a group of peers who shouted for him to “go back to China” while striking his head with a basketball.
For most of my life as a Chinese American woman, I accepted that a “normal” amount of feeling unsafe is simply part of my life in America, that if I lived more carefully I can avoid danger. Now, as I’m bombarded with reports of people who look like me that are being assaulted on sight, like vermin, I wonder how I ever thought this kind of dehumanization is something I can live with?
Actually, I do know how. It’s easier to self-soothe with the wishful fantasy that good behavior can be an effective prophylactic than it is to confront the bleak reality of being a person of color who lives in a country with a white supremacy problem.
Which is what I reflexively did when the news about the horrific shooting in Atlanta popped up on my phone. My very first thought was, “Maybe it wasn’t a hate crime, but just a coincidence that six out of eight victims were Asian women.” I was scared to acknowledge that there are those who would want me dead just from the look of me, and that I live in their midst.
But then I came face to face with a different kind of denial about America’s problem with racism, one far grander and more dangerous than my own: the powerful white fragility engine that has roared into life to efficiently and systematically distort the narrative about the Atlanta massacre.
One can almost admire how the machine churns, the way the killer’s claim that his actions were not racially motivated has been amplified by the police and major media platforms, accepting a young white man’s claims at face value even after he murdered eight people. The Cherokee County sheriff said in a press conference, almost sympathetically, that the murderer “had a really bad day” and had admitted to “sex addiction.” Online, I’ve seen people speculating about mental illness, poverty, and substance abuse, with these narratives laid on thick to create a barrier around the obvious, distinct possibility that it was white supremacy that drove this white man to kill Asian women.
I’ve heard this song before. It starts with “maybe it’s not racism” and builds briskly to “he’s just a sad lone wolf” and ends in fading refrains of “thoughts and prayers.”
I am still feeling shock and grief for the brutal murders of the massage workers, but I feel no shock for the way it is being handled and received in many corners, only anger as news outlets and law enforcement officials alike focus on “covering all the angles” to the exclusion of the most obvious one: a pattern of racially-motivated violence perpetrated by white men.
I don’t recall this kind of sensitivity and nuance being applied to stories about violence perpetrated by Black people, undocumented immigrants, or Muslims. After Breonna Taylor was shot down in her home, an old picture of her posing with guns was circulated to suggest that she’d somehow brought her killing on herself. Conversely, when white men really are deadly, the effort is often on explaining away their culpability as in the study showing that mental illness is invoked much more frequently in coverage of white mass shooters than it is when the shooter is Black.
It is not that many white people lack the logic to discern what many of us have seen clearly for years, it is that they are more focused on protecting their own fragile sense of innocence. If they admit that there’s a violent white supremacy problem in this country, they must contend with their own places within that system.
This is why so many white Americans like to call killings like this “senseless,” why they condemn acts of violence but deny the pattern that connects them. This is why there’s always a rush to pathologize white perpetrators, to localize their crimes as isolated, personally rooted incidents. Days before the Atlanta shooter’s self-proclaimed sex addiction became a big news story, a basketball announcer blamed his use of the N-word on his diabetes.
It’s anything but racism. Anything.
Whatever else motivated the Atlanta murderer, it seems clear that he is afflicted with an illness, an illness we all suffer from and will continue to suffer from as long as the white supremacy that infects the very fiber of America goes unaddressed. Until we are having this conversation on every level, from suburban living rooms all the way up to the highest office of the nation, this moral rot will claim more innocent lives.