Question: So, I am in a group called Dear White America. Someone posted an article saying that white men are the new terrorists. Though I question whether that is something actually new, I agreed with the premise of the article. The comments really bothered me. One woman was saying that white women are responsible for the violence of white men. I totally disagree with that! Though the privilege of benefitting from a relationship with a white male and the attendant privilege is clear, to say that white women are not simultaneously victimized by white male violence is just not borne out statistically, at all. When I brought this into the discussion, I was accused of being a typical white feminist deflecting responsibility for my privilege. Even though I clearly stated that I see a distinction between systemic racism and personal racism. So my question is, how do I handle this? Because as of right now, I am not going to say that women bear responsibility for violence inflicted upon them by men! And though the metaphor is poor, that logic leads to saying that slaves were responsible for the violence inflicted on them by masters. No, I am not ignorant enough to think it’s exactly the same, but the logic employed leads to that conclusion. I am at a loss.
Response: So, I will start to respond to this question by saying, survivors never bare responsibility.
I think an article by Dick Bathrick and Gus Kaufman, Jr., Ph.D. titled “Male Violence and Male Privilege” can help us a bit in this discussion. In it they talk about their research working with cis-male sexual abusers and the impact of male privilege. They say,
To understand how all men “benefit” from battering is to see something of the complicity we all share in the act. While many of us don’t rape or batter women, those of us in relationships with women find that our partners frequently make decisions based on how to avoid subjecting themselves to male violence: decisions like where and when to walk, whom to talk with and what to wear. These decisions are often powerfully influenced by whether or not a man (spouse, lover, friend) is available to accompany a woman on that walk. They have an unspoken agreement that she depends on a man to protect her from being raped or threatened by violent men. So men end up determining if women get to go out and where they go. And we don’t mind having that control. More than once, batterers in our program have noted the irony in their partners’ relying on them for protection from “those violent men out there.” This form of control never gets named. It’s classic male privilege, in all its invisibility, with all its power.
The learning I take from the article is that living in a society which privileges cis-men sets up situations where women and trans people are often not believed and thus at times may feel the desire to have a cis-man to offer protection, physical protection but also as a male witness, since maleness is privileged in our society.
So, to take this learning to the part about “white male terrorists.” Hugo Schwyzer wrote, “Perhaps the greatest asset that unearned privilege conveys is the sense that public spaces “belong” to you.” He then goes on to say, “This is why, while men of all races and classes murder their intimate partners, it is privileged young white dudes who are by far the likeliest to shoot up schools and movie theaters.”
Lisa Bloom is the author of Suspicion Nation: The Inside Story of the Trayvon Martin Injustice and Why We Continue to Repeat It. In Suspicion Nation she says,
In our nation’s history, so many of the sickest, most appalling crimes have been committed by whites. Yet no matter how sadistic the crime, no matter how young the victims, no matter how much fear is engendered in a community, no matter how much media attention and public discussion the crimes of whites engender, the race itself is never sullied. One does not look at a white man or woman and feel concern that pale skin enhances the likelihood that he or she is an assassin, a bomber, a murderer. (Lisa Bloom)
A lot of what is happening with terrorist rhetoric is that it is a term which is almost exclusively given to black and muslim cis-men. Though white men seem to commit most of the mass shootings in the US we tend to not label them as “terrorists.” We use language about their mental health. We see them as lone individuals not connected to a larger “organization” or cause. However, they are connected.
A terrorist is, “a person who uses terrorism in the pursuit of political aims.” These men are connected, by white male privilege. Protecting that privilege is their political aim. These extremists will kill to maintain their role of power over women, over trans people, over people of color, over muslims. If we are going to use the term terrorist for some, we need to be consistent, and use it for all.
We are all responsible for cis-male terrorism. We all have responsibilities to call out the moments we see racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism. Privilege is propped up by a network of support. It’s like the Grimm fairytale “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” we are all like the minister, the “wise man”, and the crowd; we keep perpetuating the coat of privilege made of air.