Silence, Complicity, and Accountability: The Charleston Shooting and the Intersections of Race, Gender and Political Rhetoric

I want to start off by saying how heartbreaking it was to wake up yesterday to see the deluge of articles regarding the racist murder of nine Black individuals in Charleston, South Carolina. My sadness cannot possibly match that of those living in Charleston, those connected to these individuals and to their community, and they are in my thoughts and prayers.  But before I get to the issues at play, lest anyone let these individuals become symbols for the horror of racism in America and forget that they were people, I want to take a moment to acknowledge who they were: their names were Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Tywanza Sanders, Myra Thompson, Rev. Sharoda Singleton, Rev. DePayne Middleton-Doctor, Rev. Daniel Simmons, and Hon. Rev. Clementa Pickney.

Left: Susie Jackson | Top Row: Cynthia Hurd DePayne Doctor, and Sharonda Coleman-Singleton | Bottom row: Daniel Simmons Sr., Tywanza Sanders, and Clementa Pinckney

Take a moment to remember that these nine people were someone’s friends, someone’s neighbors, someone’s children, someone’s parents, someone’s siblings.  They were people. And they were brutally taken from this world.

Whenever a shooter is a white male, we are quick to say they must have been “mentally ill”, but whenever a crime is committed by a person of color, the media tends to write them off as a “thug” and a “criminal”.  In fact, even when the victim is a person of color, they are vilified in this way, written off as if they must have been responsible for their own death or their own assault. Accountability is reserved for those who are not in power, whose social groups do not control the social narrative, and that has to change.  When the media continues to perpetuate this dichotomy, we allow for racist disparities in our justice system and our social arenas to be continued, and we fail to address the underlying issues that motivate gendered and racialized violence.  (Not to mention, we vilify mentally ill people who actually need greater societal support, by continually associating mental illness with violence.)  If we are ever going to see fewer shootings of this kind, then we need to call this what it is: an act of terrorism.

It is not as if we do not know why Dylann Roof shot these congregants; he made himself perfectly clear.  Roof not only stated “You rape our women, you’re taking over our country, you have to go” before shooting his victims, he left one witness alive so that his message would be reported to the media and to the country.  This was a racially and politically motivated act of violence, the very definition of an act of terror, carried out on our own soil against our own people, and we need to investigate it as a hate crime (which is how it is currently being addressed), and discuss it in the context of broader patterns of violence towards the Black community.  (I also think it needs to also be discussed in the broader context of white terrorism, but out of respect for the Black community in Charleston, I’m going to hold off). The alternative side of this argument, that we should not cal this terrorism, simply argues that in calling it terrorism, we give this horrible act weight; we allow it to be seen as some sort of noble act in the name of a cause, and as such, we give legitimacy to white supremacists.   But unless the author of the article I just cited also wants to say that the events of September 11 should not be called “terrorism” because that emboldens those who would want to attack the United States, I think this point falls flat; the reality is, just calling it a shooting or a mass murder allows us to isolate it, to talk about it as if it is just the acts of someone who came “unhinged”, or who didn’t know what they were doing.  As far as I can tell, Dylann Roof knew what he was doing, and allowing politically motivated acts of violence by non-white individuals to be termed “terrorism”, to otherize those acts, and to not say that Dylann Roof’s actions were also abhorrent, violent, an attack on our alleged American values, seems wrong.

They say that silence is complicity, and that is probably true.  The job of allies is to listen, yes; but as Rev. Denise Anderson writes, much as we do not want to shout over those whose stories we are trying to respect and whose goals we are trying to further, our silence is not helpful.  It is the job of allies to amplify the voices of those we are trying to support; it is the job of allies to use our positions of privilege and power, and use the fact that society might be more willing to listen to us, to force people to hear what those we support have to say.  This means two things: first, it means that allies might need to be brought into the conversation so that we can make sure we understand what it is we are trying to help communicate-~-and while it might not be the job of oppressed groups to fully educate those who are less oppressed, I also think it’s worth mentioning that yelling at allies who are trying to make sure they are informed and are able to meaningfully check their privilege and assumptions does not actually further anyone’s goals or movements.  Second, this means that those of us in a position to be heard have an obligation to speak.  They say that all that is necessary for evil to win is for good people to remain silent, and I think this is probably true.  Our silence is costing us time, and it is costing us lives.

And fellow white feminists, I am looking at you when I say this: the feminist community has an obligation to denounce the actions and motives of Dylann Roof, not just because he is a racist, but because his logic relied in part on misogynistic justifications for his violence.  Dylann Roof’s utilization of the myth of white female purity to help justify his murder of these individuals in Charleston makes my skin crawl; the idea that white women need to be protected from Black men is rooted in layers of racism and sexism, and we need to push back against both if we want to remove this rhetoric and this violence from our society.  This idea of protecting white female sexual purity has been used to justify violence against Black men for generations; it has been used to justify lynchings, it has been used to justify beatings, it has been used within the criminal justice system to justify stripping Black men of their rights or even their lives.  And it has to end, for so many reasons.

I am proud to say I stand with the people of Charleston, but I am also serious when I say that I believe it is our job to combat these beliefs any time we encounter them, and to call out the media when they allow the prejudices that have become embedded in our narratives about racialized violence in America to color how we discuss these events.

And for the nine victims of Dylann Roof, I pray you rest in peace, I pray you rest in power, and I pray your families find peace, comfort, and justice in the coming days, weeks and months.

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~ by Randi Saunders on June 19, 2015.

One Response to “Silence, Complicity, and Accountability: The Charleston Shooting and the Intersections of Race, Gender and Political Rhetoric”

  1. I can’t think of any way to add to or improve what you said, so I will just concur, strongly. This has got to stop. And the only way it will, is if we act effectively to stop it, change laws, change the decision makers, and step up and express ourselves openly and strongly, about what this truly is: politically and racially motivated hatred, aided by guns.

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