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What is the Connection Between Mass Violence, Racism, and Sexual Violence?

Making Connections, Mass Violence, Racism, and Sexual Violence

How are acts of mass violence connected to white supremacy?

Research has demonstrated that there is a positive correlation between mass violence like  shootings and white supremacist ideologies. White supremacy has always been synonymous with acts of terrorism and in the desire to commit large scale murder and violence against its victims: - immigrants, LGBTQ folks,  people of the Jewish faith, its naysayers, but mainly Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) in the United States. 

It is a common misconception that mental illness is the sole driving force of mass violence. According to the APA, “Recent mass shootings have inevitably led to news reports of the suspected shooters' mental health, but psychological research shows there is no clear link between mental illness and violence”. This myth is not only inaccurate but it leads to a harmful stereotype that people who do suffer from mental health issues are violent. This can lead to very real repercussions, as mental health sufferers are 16 times more likely to be shot and killed by police when seeking emergency intervention. Research indicates that “fewer than 5% of the 120,000 gun-related killings in the United States between 2001 and 2010 were perpetrated by people diagnosed with mental illness.”

There is a direct correlation between the increasing number of mass shootings and the rise of white nationalist groups (which increased from 100 chapters in 2017 to 155 in 2019). There have been documented records of members of the US government, congress, military leaders, and law enforcement being sworn participants in white nationalist organizations. This shows how deep and entrenched the reality of white supremacy ideology in America is.  

 Mass violence against BIPOC people and others is not the result of the actions of a lone mentally unstable gunman, but is part of larger systems of violence which are institutionalized (meaning it's embedded into American history, laws, society, and our current status quo).


 How is race a factor in instances of mass violence?

 Like sexual violence, mass shootings affect BIPOC communities  at disproportionate rates compared to white people.  Violence impacts people in different ways depending on their “intersectionality.” The term intersectionality comes from a concept created by Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw and refers to the many different aspects of our identity that create various privileges or disadvantages throughout our life. These differences get more complex with each layer of a person. The realities of violence against the BIPOC community need to be understood through a historical lens and not merely regarded as isolated incidents not attached to a longstanding history.  In mass shootings, white gunmen are much more likely to be taken alive by the police than are Black people who are accused of committing minor infractions, like driving with expired insurance. 


How are instances of mass violence a reflection of larger national trends?

As opposed to focusing on the aspects of any one individual who commits acts of mass violence, it's important to understand what beliefs and ideologies they were empowered and shaped by. Violence often occurs through ideologies of white supremacy which claim  that some aspect of their privilege is under attack and must be defended- this is usually believed to be a component of whiteness or masculinity. These worries reflect larger trends and conversations we see happening in the United States- the denial of reproductive rights, stricter policies on immigration, police brutality, etc.


How is  mass violence related to both to white supremacy, gender, and sexuality?

Tragedies of mass violence are more frequently born from the very same systems that perpetrate larger harms including sexual violence, homophobia, and domestic violence. People who subscribe  to white supremacy ideologies are also more likely to hold hyper masculine heteronormative beliefs. As  Abby L. Ferber writes “the threat of demasculization and homosexuality compels the assumption of properly gendered positions and is used in this discourse to align properly gendered positions with white supremacy. [Men drawn to white supremacy online have their] masculinity … frequently assaulted in order to invite them to become ‘real men’ by joining the white supremacist movement.” White men are often reared into believing that they can become immortalized heroes to the Aryan nation by committing acts of mass violence. This also encourages copycats. As white nationalists groups are gaining more momentum, this is also increasing the chance of more hate crimes further down the road, as children are being reared in settings where they are having more exposure to them. 


How do bystanders contribute to this harm?

The media frequently contributes to the harm through the ways mass shootings and acts of violence are reported on- specifically the language used. The use of misleading language in news media is also extremely common in regards to how children of color are presented. They are often depicted as adults, as less innocent, and with more claims to culpability. Research has shown that Black children as young as 10 are viewed as more mature and fit for adult consequences, while white counterparts are given the grace of a much longer age range of responsibility. This is similar to the trend of news media to regard acts of mass violence by perpetrators of color to be designated as ‘terrorism’ while white supremacist violence is regarded as misguided black sheep of society. This adultification of Black victims is done alongside sympathetic depictions of white shooters, who are frequently regarded as ‘lonely’, ‘troubled’, ‘depressed’ or ‘social outcasted’ young men, even when they are adults with known membership in white supremacy groups. 

 As mentioned in our piece on trauma voyeurism, viewers watching news reports of mass shootings can face traumatization of their own due to this. As Paula Akpan expands, "[trauma porn] has become almost commonplace. Moreover, there’s a view that sharing such material can raise awareness, demonstrate allyship and help force change. But as the widespread sharing of George Floyd’s murder, last year showed, this sort of content can also traumatize not just individuals but entire communities… There are still palpable racial dynamics laced within trauma voyeurism. Black suffering is placed center stage, as we keep being reminded that a Black person was actually harmed or killed." There is frequently a large scale of secondhand trauma to the Black community as a result, which can leave many with PTSD symptoms, increased fear, and hypervigilance. This then puts them at a greater risk for harm as they move through the world with higher tensions on a daily basis in a society where others' perceptions of them as 'dangerous' could prove fatal.

Even beyond media depictions, it is important to start observing our own thoughts when we analyze and encounter the world. For example, asking ourselves: “Is my initial thought to regard mass shootings as an exception instead of part of larger historical trends of white supremacy something I want to believe because it's a more comforting thought than what the reality might be?” This type of introspective approach is what is meant by many activists when they invite the general public to ‘decolonize their mind’. Decolonizing our mind means deconstructing the thoughts, practices, assumptions, and logic that we have been handed by the toxic history that preceded us, and then not only interrogating those aspects, but refusing to reproduce them. 


How is addressing mass violence relevant to sexual violence prevention?

At its heart, doing the work of sexual violence prevention is a refusal to accept abuses of power in the world, stopping those same abuses from continuing, and reclaiming power as victims of those abuses. Violence against all people is rooted in disbalanced power and control, and racial violence is no exception. Given that all forms of violence are interconnected because they share the same root, we cannot possibly just focus on one without the other.  If we focused on only one aspect, the problem would never be solved and the specific needs of all victims would never be met. Harmful beliefs that view other groups as lesser — like racism, sexism, heterosexism, transphobia, and ableism — feed into the inequity and abuse that underscore all forms of sexual violence. In order to prevent sexual violence, we must acknowledge and take steps to undo the systemic ways anti-Black racism shows up in our communities and our work, as well as the ways we ourselves have been reared in systems of white supremacy.

We Can't End Sexual Violence Without Ending Racism.


Why is kindness insufficient in changing cycles of racism?

Treating others with kindness and respect should be our bare minimum baseline in society and is not to be confused with doing the work to dismantle white supremacy. We have all inherited an unjust society entrenched in racial injustice; our duty is to make sure we don’t reproduce it. For example,  white people might not have realized that financial and banking systems were designed to make it easier to buy a home, or get a job. White people may be more likely to overlook the longstanding history that empowered mass shootings against the BIPOC community. First we must become aware of the things that people of color have been subjected to and already know through lived experience. This work should be done with ourselves and is not the job of someone else to make these connections for us. Then we want to start challenging these structures and imagining how another world is possible- one which is more equitable for everyone. Then, we must undertake actual change against these structures and the creation of new ones.  Just being nice to everyone is insufficient action towards the aim of an equitable society. 

 What to Do with Your Privilege