by Holly Fetter, ‘13
In 2007, I was a sophomore in high school, already overwhelmed by all the typical teen anxieties. But in the days following Cho Seung-Hui’s suicidal murder spree, I felt particularly confused, unsure of how to process the never-ending debates on gun control, mental health, privacy, and how to reconcile all that with the grief I was feeling for 32 people I had never met.
But what stands out most clearly in my mind, though, was the response from Korean people around the globe. I remember public apologies and statements of solidarity with the victims, all laden with deep remorse for the killer’s actions. At one vigil, the Korean Ambassador to the U.S. told the crowd that “the Korean-American community should take the chance to reflect and try to meld once again into the mainstream of American society.” Because of the actions of one sick man, all Korean immigrants were apparently now subject to heightened social scrutiny.Individual Koreans, both in and outside the U.S., also said sorry, sometimes with a certain defensive in expectation of violent retaliation. In a New York Times article following the massacre, a Korean mother is quoted apologizing to all U.S. Americans on behalf of South Korea – the author then explains that this woman’s daughter kept her own child out of school in the U.S. for a while in fear of a violent retaliation against Korean Americans.
And now, 5 years later, we’re confronted with another mass tragedy in which race is relevant. Last week, a man named Wade Michael Page opened fire in a Sikh gurdwara, murdering 7 people, including himself. Page was active in the White Power music world, playing guitar in a band called End Apathy. He often spoke of an impending “racial holy war,” and had a tattoo depicting Stormfront, an White supremacist online community.
Yet despite the fact that his crime explicitly implicates Whiteness, White folks across the world have not apologized on behalf of Their People. Fifth-generation German Americans are not holding vigils to demonstrate their remorse for Page’s actions, and the Finnish Ambassador to the U.S. is not formally apologizing on behalf of all White people in Scandinavia.
The contrast between the collective responses (or lack thereof) to the two tragedies gives White people like me the chance to reflect on our privilege in this situation. Because Whiteness is so normalized in this country, we are not expected to apologize for Page’s actions or to alter our own behavior in order to ensure that other U.S. Americans won’t hurt us or come to the conclusion that all White people are murderers.
But despite the obvious flaws of an entire ethnic group apologizing on behalf of one person in that group, the devastation in Wisconsin has led me to wonder about my role in this situation. Should I feel remorse on Wade Page’s behalf? Am I complicit in his crimes? What can my fellow White people and I do to make things better?
Major media outlets have made it abundantly clear that Page is an aberration – a right-wing, racist, extremist with a penchant for hardcore hate music. They’ve had a field day portraying him as a violent, radical exception to the norm. But the truth is that the massacre in Wisconsin is not a random, senseless, isolated incident – instead, it is an extreme manifestation of a much more fundamental, subtle, and implicit form of racism that we create and encounter on a daily basis. It is the same racism that motivated an apology from Korean Americans en masse afraid of the discrimination or violence that might occur if they mourned privately.
In her piece titled, “Hate Crimes Always Have a Logic,” activist Harsha Walia writes that, “The crimes of white supremacists are not exceptions and do not and cannot exist in isolation from more systemic forms of racism.” She argues that racist crimes are rooted in a logic of White supremacy, defined by two anti-racist activists as “an historically-based, institutionally-perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent; for the purpose of establishing, maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power and privilege.”
I’m not a neo-Nazi, I don’t have any tattoos, and I’m terrified of guns. But, I’m White. And I feel remorse because I am complicit in the racist systems that allowed Page’s actions. So I want to apologize, on behalf of all White people everywhere, to the victims of White supremacy:
I’m sorry for how Wade Michael Page terrorized Oak Creek’s Sikh community.
I’m sorry that Sikhs have been the target of 700 hate crimes since 9/11, when brown people became a supposed threat to homeland security.
I’m sorry that law enforcement officials have allowed racist hate groups to thrive, despite the fact that innocent Islamic groups have been targeted by the government.
I’m sorry that people of color are more likely than White people to live in poverty.
I’m sorry that income inequality leads to inequality in access to healthcare and education, negatively affecting people of color.
I’m sorry that our country disproportionately incarcerates people of color, not because they are more prone to illegal activities, but because of racism embedded in the criminal justice system.
I’m sorry that young Black men can be murdered by cops and barely make the news.
I’m sorry that we actually believe reverse racism exists.
And finally, I’m sorry for all the ways in which White privilege and power led Page to commit such an atrocious crime. The root of White supremacy and Page’s “hatecore” tunes lie in the same unchecked principles and acts that allow pervasive racial injustice and its accompanying delusions to thrive. The mass shooting in Wisconsin will reportedly be investigated as an instance of domestic terrorism, a crime motivated by White supremacy, nationalism, and hatred. When any of us let racism exist without actively resisting its efforts to “establish, maintain and defend a system of wealth, power and privilege,” we, too, are complicit in a bloodless act of domestic terrorism.
Resisting racism is a process, not an end goal. The notion of pushing back against something as intimidating as “racism” might seem overwhelming and idealistic. But here are four basic tips to being an effective anti-racist, adapted from an essay by writer Amy Edgington:
- Get information: Educate yourself about your own racial identity and privileges, as well as the identities and historical struggles of others.
- Do something: Ending racism on a microlevel can be incredibly powerful. Call people out for their use of racist language or jokes. Evaluate your own behavior, and adjust your interactions accordingly.
- Listen: Be willing to let others share their experiences with racism. Hear them out, even if it hurts.
- Talk: Have conversations with people – especially White folks – about race and racism. It’s awkward, but absolutely crucial to building a countermovement to pro-racist groups like Stormfront and Hammerskins.
Our active apology to Oak Creek’s Sikh community and others ravaged by the reality of White supremacy should be a commitment to ending racism within ourselves, our families, and our communities.
Holly is a senior studying Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity and Sociology.