After Santa Fe: Intern The Wackos and Jail The Terrorists, only then will healthy, White Children be safe to Learn.
There are so many things that I could say about the latest school shooting. I could talk about the inherit misogyny in a boy shooting up his school because a girl rejected his advances. I could talk about the fact that as teacher I NEVER expected to worry about whether or not the profession would stop being represented by an apple and a pencil and be replaced by bulletproof vest and a gun permit. I could write about how arming the profession makes me inherently afraid for my life because as a person of color I am more often to be perceived as a trespasser than a professor. Or I could talk about the non-stop fear that this creates in me as a mother of soon to be school-age children. Instead, today I am going to talk about two particular kinds of rhetoric that follow each school shooting: only a crazy person could do this and the best way to avoid this is to increase school security.
Only a crazy person could do this
One of the frequent explanations for crimes of this nature is that the perpetrator must have been mentally ill, emotionally disturbed or broken in some way. This may have been due to nature (they were always strange, they were autistic, etc) or nurture (they were adopted/raised in an orphanage, endured emotional trauma, rejection, etc.). While these “outs” are mostly placed upon white bodies – as a way to make domestic terrorism an individual issue rather than a systemic one – the ones who are most hurt by this type of labeling are not only the dead but also the living, especially people of color with/out diagnosed dis/abilities.
When you say that the cause of someone’s death was another person’s brokenness not only do you make this an individual case, you make this a senseless situation that could not have been predicted and could not have been avoided. The dead just become another statistic. But so do the living. The greatest harm caused by this rhetoric is imparted on people with disability labels and those who have yet to be labeled/diagnosed. The primary effect: further alienating and segregating individuals with dis/abilities from society and from resources. When we use disability (and disability adjacent) labels to describe a shooter, we stigmatize hoards of communities that are already fragile and that, as has often been shown, are more likely to be the victims of gun violence than the perpetrators. In addition, we keep people from getting help and we keep people from speaking out about living healthy and productive lives WITH disability label.
One major concern for me as a woman of color is the impact this has on people of color’s ability and capacity to seek mental health support. Communities of color, especially African-Americans and I would argue Afro-appearing POCs, already have increased risks for mental health conditions but disproportionately lower levels of access to mental health resources and even lower levels of self-identified need for supports. The more we talk about gun violence in relation to mental health the harder it will be to create communities of self-care which include mental health supports across communities of colors. For many POCs, existence and perseverance is deeply grounded in approximations of normalcy and, as we should all know by now, to be normal in the USA and the Global North is to be White, middle class and able-bodied. Imagine the impossible task of trying to exalt your worth as a normal person when society has denied you the ability to be White or middle class. The only thing you can cling to is your able-bodiedness. Historically, the most profitable and fear-provoking attribute of the black body is its perceived unending physical power. To admit that that body is some how weak, different, or less than perfect… the sheer thought of it is paralyzing.
So in the interest of full transparency, I will state that I am a woman of color who relies greatly not only on mental health supports such as therapy but also medications. I seek those supports not to control my body (out of fear that one day it will snap and shoot up a school) but rather to support my body (to give me the strength, energy and longevity that it needs in order for me to live a full and productive life). Without these supports, I am susceptible to alienating myself from my family, my colleagues and society. I also run the risk of becoming all consumed by the very emotional, deeply damaging and toxic work that I engage in. Not to mention, that being an afro-appearing woman of color means constantly being emotionally and physically stressed.
My point is that we should not only reject this notion of the lone mentally ill gunman as racist or ableist but as both racist AND ableist. Furthermore, we must recognize that both of those acts contribute to upholding white supremacy[ii].
It is critically important to note that in many of these cases the fact that the shooter at some point either received, was evaluated, or considered for special education services is often explicitly mentioned. This should not be ignored because it is an explicit attack on special education, on inclusion, on disability and an effort to further police the bodies of children labeled as dis/abled (most of which are black and brown). This attack on dis/ability, on people with dis/abilities and the spaces they inhabit doesn’t just come from the right, it is also upheld by the left and even the “wokest” of them all: the youth. If you look closely at the parkland students' manifesto you will find that the students speak of and treat mental heath conditions as criminality. This brings me to the second common chant “lets increase school security.”
Lets assume all[iii] children are terrorists
(US) American schools are one the most heavily policed and controlled spaces that children will encounter. As with all things, this is especially true within poor, communities of color where police are not used to keep children safe as much as they are used to help regulate behavior. So when well-intention parents (and students) demand increased security at schools it is important to ask two questions: 1. What is this person’s relationship to the police? And 2. What is this person’s relationship to white supremacy? You may be asking: what does any of this have to do with race? Doesn’t everyone want their kids to be safe? Well, that all depends on your definition of safe and who you think you need to protect your child/ren from.
A person’s relationship with the police has everything to do with the role they play within a white supremacist society. One’s ability to view increased security and police as good is completely dependent on the ways in which your life has been impacted by white supremacy. Criminalization is a tool of white supremacy – during slavery it was used as a way to maintain the master / slave relations, during Jim Crow it was used to maintain racial segregation, in recent years it has been used as a way to fracture families and communities of color. As such, the police state, as the enforcer of criminalization, is inherently an arm of white supremacy. That enforcement is disproportionately applied to bodies of color – to bring those bodies to submission and when they fail to do so, contain them. When we introduce the police state or even a pseudo-police state to schools we re-criminalize education (something which has been done throughout (US) American history). Keep in mind that POCs have been told for ages that the way out of poverty, discrimination, and social depravity is through an education. Justapoxe this, to the fact that more in more - in the last five, ten years especially - mothers of color have needed to talk to their children about how to stay safe when encountering “authority figures.” When you place “authority figures” in the place where POCs are suppose to work towards “liberation,” you inherently make that place unsafe. The real threat to the Black body now, supersedes the imagined gains of the educated Black mind.
And so when parents, even parents of color, ask for increased policing in schools rather than gun control it’s because they know (or believe[iv]) that the likelihood of their child falling victim to that power is low. Essentially, what they are saying is “we must protect my child from ‘those’ children.” And, if you give a mouse a cookie…"those' children" are probably going to be Black and Brown. As such, the greatest outcome of inviting police into schools is not increased protection for children, it is increased criminalization of black and brown children. So rather than putting changes into place that treat these mass murderers as terrorists, we treat black and brown children (especially those receiving special education services) as terrorists (see infographic at bottom of post).
Both of these statements and sentiments: “it’s a mental health issue” and “it’s a lack of security issue” are part and parcel for the oppression of people of color. So before you repeat them remember that disability has been used to disenfranchise people of color and poor people throughout history at alarming rates, and that police have been used not only to enforce that disenfranchisement but to maintain hegemonic standards of normalcy[v]. Lastly, before my immigrant readers (model or not) believe that they are somehow spared by this, please remember that language is used as a way to Other immigrant communities, and to enforce racial boundaries but also as an indication of mental deficiency amongst people of color.
So, how do we stop mass murders? 1. Gun control. Swift and strongly enforced gun control is the only measure that can protect all of us from gun violence. 2. Demilitarize the police. It is a known fact that the FBI has long warned about the infiltration of white nationalist and skinheads infiltrating police. 3. Decriminalize mental illness. With ongoing reductions to public health and mental heath funding, society relies more and more on the police to deal with mental health breakdowns. As a result, more people with mental health are housed in prisons then in hospitals. We must treat mental health “conditions” as indications of human nature/variety and mental heath breakdowns as responses to stressors rather than human deficiencies or individual failings.
The fact that many of these suggestions challenge the status quo (and disproportionally remove power from White America) is an indication that these changes will benefit people of color and serve as a step to destabilize White supremacy.
[ii] I recognize that White Supremacy is a fraught term, however I use it here for it’s colloquial understanding. Nonetheless, I am using Wildman’s definition of white supremacy which establishes it as a “term [that is] used to describe a political ideology that perpetuates and maintains the social, political, historical or institutional domination by white people (as evidenced by historical and contemporary sociopolitical structures such as the Atlantic slave trade, Jim Crow laws in the United States, and apartheid in South Africa, and by reclassification of different immigrant groups [ie eastern and southern Europeans, northern Africans and middle eastern people] as White in contemporary history)” (1996, Privilege Revealed: How Invisible Preference Undermines America. NYU Press. p. 87). As a result, when speaking about White supremacy I am not only talking about White people but about all people to behave and act in ways that upholds the dominant system of power.
[iii] “All children” never means all. It means all “Other” children who do not ascribe to the following classifications: White, middle class, cisgender, heteronormative and abled-bodied.
[iv] Many Parents of Color also ascribe to the idea that their child will not be harmed by the police because their child “knows how to act,” “knows how to respect the police,” “wouldn’t do anything wrong.” This belief is rapidly decreasing as more and more black and brown people are killed for doing increasingly innocuous things.
[v] While I do genuinely believe that there does exists a type of racialization for white, poor people with disabilities in which they are victims to many of the indignations that POC, this site focuses on intersectionality and at the end of the day a White person with a dis/ability is still White and as such still benefits from White Supremacy.