The Normalization of White Male Violence

Photo: Kent Nishimura/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images

This morning, I sat on the edge of my mother’s bed, watching news coverage of the murders of ten Black people in Buffalo on Saturday on her television.

I felt compelled to write — just as I did when I began writing for national publications after Trayvon Martin’s killer was acquitted nine summers ago — even though I’m unsure what to say. Or, rather, I’m unsure that saying anything matters. In the ensuing decade, the nation has exploded as we have been plunged back into the murky depths of systematic, overt, and unrelenting racist assaults on Black life. Hasn’t every Black body said it all before? “Stop killing us,” we have shouted, protested, cried, begged, pleaded. To no avail. Somehow, we still keep ending up right here.

Seven summers ago, when Dylann Roof killed nine parishioners in a Charleston church, he signaled that perhaps white millennials would not, in fact, be more racially progressive than their parents or grandparents. Here, again, the hard truth that progress is not linear: Payton Gendron, the Buffalo shooter, is 18 years old — ten years younger than Dylann Roof.

The even harder truth: White racial violence is our nation’s default position. And subsequently, Black anxiety is my constant companion.

There are white men — whether billionaires with obscene amounts of money and power or conservative lawmakers with no regard for women’s bodies or Gen-Zers radicalized because of pandemic boredom — confronting a reality they’d rather not. A diversifying demographic, narrowing gender inequality, a failing capitalist experiment. And so they conspire to return us to a vile and violent set of racial and sexually repressive conditions instead.

This is the default that feels normal for them. An American default in which white men rule the world and the rest of us do their bidding. Even as I write this, I anticipate the outrage from well-meaning white liberals (or so they think) who will insist in the midst of their bewilderment at “how this could possibly happen again” that I note their non-racism for the record. Rather than policing me into what is only a mildly deserved nuance, however, it might be better to think about the way violent racism secures white fortunes and white thriving even when many white people do not morally condone such acts.

White liberals, particularly the ones I have occasion to interact with on Twitter, wring their hands; they ask how to support; they bring teddy bears to memorial sites; they publicly lament the failures of whiteness; they express solidarity; they crave absolution and bristle when Black folks are hesitant to grant it. This dance of managing white liberal feelings in the midst of white-supremacist aggression is simply an added layer of exhaustion made more ironic by the fact, that however much well-meaning white folks might decry and condemn such violent acts, their lives are not harmed structurally through the commission of violence. More pointedly, their place atop the hierarchy is secured through these acts. The predominantly white conservative policy-maker set certainly understands this implicitly; it is why its members refuse to pass stricter gun laws.

White dominance is not solely a problem of extralegal or vigilante violence. It is aided and abetted by the police on the one hand and the policy-makers, liberal and conservative, who love them on the other.

This, I would argue, is the reason that, not infrequently, a young white man shows up to slaughter Black folks doing some mundane task like grocery shopping on a Saturday morning. After the slaughter, he walks out of the store alive; his victims do not.

Taken together, violent racist acts like these, the stripping of rights from women, and the collective political will to do absolutely nothing about it effectively inculcate the idea that this is normal. Just accept it. Just be scared. Just demand less. Just shut up. Just stop yelling “Black Lives Matter!” Just stop insisting on your right to vote. Just stop insisting on your right to control your reproduction. Just stop critiquing the police. Just stop it with your demands. Just stop.

I imagine images of white people with their fingers in their ears, yelling insolently like children, “I can’t hear you!” in the face of Black protest. Perhaps that’s not fair. But I’m not interested in being fair, or nice, or reasonable, or nuanced, or civil. That shit does not work.

I believe that white people like Gendron believe they are fighting a race war. (Again, I’m not talking about all white people, though I will admit I resent having to say that over and over and over again.) Did Gendron imagine that old Black ladies were meeting up on Saturday morning at Tops grocery store to plan the overthrow of the government? Is that why he showed up wearing tactical gear as if on a military mission? Of course not. The only people who are plotting insurrection did so inside the walls of Congress and on its front lawn, and accountability for the vast majority of those folks has been negligible.

In a moment when white supremacy as ideology has been called to account in the global public square, the political response of white men, young and old, is violence. Some use high-powered weapons. Some flirt with weapons of mass destruction. Some simply enact structural violence through policy. But it is violence all the same — the kind of malignant disregard of other human beings, whether Black or trans or female, that is a hallmark of white male identity. Whiteness means violence, dominance, and superiority; if it cannot act in these ways, it feels like an empty promise to those forced to carry its corporeal weight. So they fill the emptiness with the thing that has perennially provided it meaning: slaughtered Black flesh. And after the slaughter, the blood sacrifice, they walk out of the room, alive.

The Normalization of White Male Violence