[Sidenote: This is my first blog post in a very long time. Sometime after #Ferguson I just stopped writing. I was at a loss for words on the many pressing topics facing the world. To be honest I began to seriously question if we can even make the world a better place at this point, so was it really worth writing about issues that aren’t going to change? For a small number of reasons I’ve started writing again.]
Immediately after the terrorist attack in Charleston, before the shooter was even in custody, people were quick to suggest that shooter was either mentally ill, motivated by white supremacy, or some combination of the two. As the dust settled it became rather abundantly clear that the killer was motivated by white supremacist ideology.
Some joked, as I have in the past, that white supremacy could or should be classified as a mental illness. The inference is that someone must be crazy to believe in white supremacy. While I couldn’t help but smirk at the suggestion, recently I have come to believe that we should not suggest white supremacy could or should be seen as a mental illness as it combines the two concepts and this is very problematic. I say this for two main reasons.
First, combining white supremacy with mental illness, especially in the context of hate crimes and terrorist attacks, adds to the stigma surrounding mental illness.
White supremacy motivates and sustains all kinds of violence,s injustice and evil in the world. Some of these injustices, like the prison industrial complex, enjoy widespread acceptance. Some of these injustices, such as the terrorist attack in Charleston, are widely condemned. Either way it is a source and force of evil in the world, and one that still operates today.
When we associate mental illness with white supremacy, and some of the more glaring crimes and atrocities it motivates, we encourage the mistaken belief that people dealing with mental illnesses are a crime just waiting to happen. The mentally ill in general become seen as one breakdown away from lashing out, perhaps lethally. This adds to one of the main challenges facing mental health today: the stigma surrounding it.
People are generally very ill informed about mental health and where ignorance exists, assumptions, myth and fears grow like weeds. This all fuels a stigma around mental health issues that adds to the difficulty of addressing them. Because of this stigma people struggling with mental health issues fear seeking professional help because they do not want to be labeled or seen as “crazy.” Because of this stigma people who are dealing with mental health issues in their family do not seek help or knowledge because they wrongfully feel shame or fear community scrutiny and judgment.
While it is true that in some mass shootings and other crimes mental illness has proven to be a factor or even the primary factor in the situation, overall those struggling with mental illness are far more likely to be victims of crimes than perpetrators of crime.
A friend of mine, Kevin Kurian, a PhD candidate in Clinical Psychology, pointed this out recently with some sources for those that are curious:
As you watch the news, please consider the following…
Fact: “Specifically, 3%, 4% and 10% of crimes were related directly to symptoms of depression, schizophrenia, and bipolar disorder, respectively.” (Peterson et al., 2014)
Fact: You are almost 3 times more likely to be a victim of a crime if you have schizophrenia. (Khalifeh et al., 2015).
Second, just as importantly, conflating white supremacy with mental illness helps us (by this I mean primarily, but not exclusively, white people) evade our shared responsibility to deal with white supremacy in 2015.
The existence of mental illness is a fact of life. What I mean by this is that as far back as we can look into recorded history it appears humans have experienced and struggled with what we would now identify as mental illness. Likewise, as far as we may look into the foreseeable future, it appears mental illness will impact some people despite our increased understanding of them and our development of treatments for some mental illnesses. We can say with confidence, “Some members of our society do and will experience mental illness” just as surely as we can say “Some members of our society do and will experience physical illness.” While we may mitigate the negative impact of some mental illnesses, effectively treat others, or possibly even cure some, mental illness is not going away.
When we suggest white supremacy is a mental illness, jokingly or not, we put white supremacy in that same category. This is a subtle but deeply problematic shift. When white supremacy is understood in the same way as mental illness is understood, it is seen as a fact of life that we have little influence over. The unjust systems, atrocities and evils white supremacy continues to sustain become seen as an unfortunate but unavoidable tragedies. The mass-murder that took the life of nine Black people in a church is understood to be a tragic event, not unlike death caused by a forest fire, or an outbreak of a lethal illness.
Consequently, this shift enables people to evade responsibility for challenging white supremacy. When white supremacy is seen as a fact of life, we cannot really end it, only perhaps mitigate the worst of its consequences. Therefore we ultimately bear little or no responsibility for its ongoing carnage and certainly no responsibility in stopping it. For who can be held responsible for ending something that cannot be ended?
The reality is white supremacy is not an unchangeable fact of life like mental illness. There was a time in history, not to long ago, that white supremacy did not exist. The concept of “white people” did not even exist a few centuries back. The beliefs that make up white supremacy and institutions built around white supremacy were made by humans and can be unmade by humans if we want to really grapple with it.
The mass murder in Charleston was not a tragedy caused a mental illness we could have done little to nothing about. The mass murder in Charleston was an ideologically motivated terrorist attack that was inspired by a lot of white supremacist narratives that enjoy mainstream support. Understanding this situation rightly is certainly a lot more uncomfortable, and certainly implicates a lot more people than one lone gunman, perhaps even ourselves, but understanding it rightly is necessary if we really want to make any progress when it comes to addressing white supremacy as it exists today.