Tim Wise on terrorism, privilege, and understanding the power of whiteness

Ed. note: This is a guest post by Juliana Britto Schwartz. By day, Juliana is a student at University of California, Santa Cruz. By night, she is a Latina feminist blogger at Julianabritto.com, where she writes about reproductive health justice, immigration, and feminist movements in Latin America.

A vendor hawks a newspaper displaying its Boston marathon attacks front page, in New York on April 16, 2013. The city went on high alert a day after two explosions happened in quick succession near the finish line at the Boston Marathon, killing three people and wounding more than 100 others, in the worst terrorist act in the US since September 11, 2001. AFP PHOTO/Emmanuel Dunand        (Photo credit should read EMMANUEL DUNAND/AFP/Getty Images)In the wake of the Boston bombing and in the midst of a manhunt, we are harshly reminded that though bombs do not discriminate against race and gender, people do. We’ve already heard what we know now to be false reports that a “dark-skinned man” was behind the crime, and stories of a Saudi man being taken into custody in spite of being a victim, and not the perpetrator of the act. Brown people who weren’t even at the scene are being targeted, including a Muslim woman who was attacked Wednesday morning by a white man screaming that Muslims had been involved in the bombing. A Bangladeshi man in New York was attacked by four men mistaking him for “an Arab.” The largest mosque in Boston now has security guards posted outside of it, fearing violence in spite of the fact that at that time they still don’t know who was behind the bombings.

Now that we have more (but not ALL) the facts, when sifting through all of the speculation and conversation about Boston, it’s important to remember not only that racism tinges the information we receive, but that white privilege also plays a huge part in shaping the dialogue around terrorist acts.

In his piece, “Terrorism and Privilege: Understanding the Power of Whiteness,” Tim Wise reminds us that terrorism is just as white as it is brown. You’ve never heard of Tim McVeigh? That’s because no one attributes his race to his violence. That’s because he was white.

“White privilege is knowing that since the bombers have turned out to be white, no one will call for whites to be profiled as terrorists as a result, subjected to special screening, or threatened with deportation.

White privilege is knowing that since the Boston bombers have turned out to be white, we will not be asked to denounce them, so as to prove our own loyalties to the common national good. It is knowing that the next time a cop sees one of us standing on the sidewalk cheering on runners in a marathon, that cop will say exactly nothing to us as a result.

White privilege is knowing that if you are a white student from Nebraska — as opposed to, say, a student from Saudi Arabia — that no one, and I mean no one would think it important to detain and question you in the wake of a bombing such as the one at the Boston Marathon.”

So, now that we have found out who was behind the bombings, regardless of their race, let’s remember that one’s skin color has nothing to do with one’s propensity to violence.

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9 Comments

  1. Posted April 19, 2013 at 10:19 am | Permalink

    How rarely to do we hear about the overwhelming maleness of terrorists, or any attempts to betray men as people whose actions in the public sphere should be restricted due to the frequent instability of their gender.

    • Posted April 19, 2013 at 2:57 pm | Permalink

      I think that what sets gender apart from race, ethnicity, and religion is that gender is the only one of those categories that is NOT generally perceived as an indication of one’s coalitional affiliation -that is, your gender generally does not display “whose side you’re (probably) on.” Terrorist attacks like the recent bombing never happen in the context of inter-gender conflict, but they do happen in the context of racial, ethnic, religious conflict (this bombings seems to have been motivated by religious ideology). And that’s why I think that terrorists’ race/ethnicity/gender is more salient than their gender.

      As for the fact that men commit far more terrorist acts than women – I don’t think that that’s a secret, and I’m pretty sure that law enforcement officials keep that in mind when evaluating suspects. But OF COURSE we rarely hear discussion about how men’s “actions in the public sphere should be restricted.” We rarely hear such discussion of ANY category of people, and we sharply condemn any right-wing extremist who does endorse that kind of institutionalized discrimination.

      • Posted April 19, 2013 at 5:42 pm | Permalink

        “But OF COURSE we rarely hear discussion about how men’s “actions in the public sphere should be restricted.” We rarely hear such discussion of ANY category of people…”

        Er… have you not heard an awful lot of the hateful things that get said about muslims and the extent to which they should be allowed to participate in US society or even live here? Similar things get said about immigrants all the time. For that matter, people mouthing off about how women’s actions in the public sphere should be restricted is hardly unusual.

        Yes, most of these things aren’t considered acceptable in polite company – which is to say what liberals would call polite company – but they get said a lot.

      • Posted April 21, 2013 at 7:23 am | Permalink

        “Terrorist attacks like the recent bombing never happen in the context of inter-gender conflict, but they do happen in the context of racial, ethnic, religious conflict (this bombings seems to have been motivated by religious ideology). And that’s why I think that terrorists’ race/ethnicity/gender is more salient than their gender.”

        not always, often political conflict is hidden behind the guise of ethic or rellgious tention ie much of the reports about syria have tried to alude to it being a religious conflict when its nothing of the sort.

        “the bombings seem to have been motivated by religious ideology” really-how? as its still developing, you have done what the media has done which is repeating their speculation on what they think its about. bravo, your parroting skills are A+

  2. Posted April 19, 2013 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    While what he said was VERY true, the “white privilege is…” format was invented by a black man. I don’t feel we should support him in this until he credits the original source.

  3. Posted April 19, 2013 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Wise actually stole format from ThisIsWhitePrivilege’s Tumblr and didn’t cite his sources. The fact that he will probably be praised for this while the creators of TIWP have been getting so much s*** for their own blog–a safe space for PoC to express their frustration at white supremacist society–is white privilege in and of itself.

    There are so many people on my Facebook feed who said it better.

    <3, a white girl who's been following this whole mess.

  4. Posted April 19, 2013 at 4:55 pm | Permalink
  5. Posted April 21, 2013 at 11:07 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for this post. I agree with the author of this article that one’s skin color SHOULD have nothing to do with one’s propensity to violence. However, in our American society, it does. I think it is crucial to not only examine white privilege but also take examine white male violence. White male violence is often overlooked and swept under the rug. I think Time Wise’s analysis of the tragedy is a valid one, but the conversation does not end at white privilege. Where is the exploration of white male violence? Where is the article that examines white male terrorist? I would like to read or hear more about that topic. What is the connection between while male violence and the increasing numbers of men of color incarcerated? Hopefully then will be another article on this topic.

  6. Posted April 22, 2013 at 8:22 pm | Permalink

    These guys aren’t “white” and they are certainly not ethnic Russians, trust me on that. They are Chechens and everyone knows Chechnya was colonized during Tsarist times like pretty much all the Caucasus.

    You have to understand that Russia is a very huge and diverse nation, with a very long history of conquering and colonization. A citizen’s passport may say “Russian”, but definitely not everyone there is a European, ethnic Russian. Are the many Siberian native tribes white too, for instance, because their nationality is Russian ,and because ethnic Russians colonized and now populate much of Siberia? Of course not, look at a Yakut person. They are Asians with minimal European admixture, with their own indigenous culture and shamanic religions, and they have more in common with the Native Americans than Russians.

    So I believe saying these men are white is a little bit ignorant. In a big city like Moscow or St Petersburg, people that look like them (olive-y skin, big eyebrows, big nose) are faced with slurs like “churka” and are often the victims of violence and murder by skinhead gangs.

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