The cloak of racism
Robert Aaron Long did not simply have a ‘bad day’
A couple weeks ago, I wrote about operational decentralization as the friend of racism. In the wake of Robert Aaron Long’s murder of Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; Yong Ae Yue, 63; Delaina Ashley Yaun, 33; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; and Paul Andre Michels, 54, in Atlanta on March 16, I have been particularly perplexed by what hides racism so that it can live on in darkness killing, stealing, and destroying. As a descendant of the Mattaponi, Pamunkey, and Chickahominy tribes and as an African-American I am not foreign to the seemingly ineffable racist acts of violence and white supremacy. I acknowledge that acts of violence, especially of the kind displayed by Long, exist within the confines of racist, sexist, and classist realities which we cannot allow ourselves to see as innate, but socially-constructed.
We must reject the notion that sticks and stones may break our bones, but words will never hurt us. When Captain Jay Baker of Atlanta stated that Long, a 21-year old man who murdered eight people (six of whom were Asian women), had a “bad day,” he used two, mono-syllabic words to describe what deserved much more perceptiveness and thought. Language is not a passive act incapable of inflicting damage. How we tell the story of what takes place either heals or destroys us. Moreover, we’ve heard the old adage that those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it. What is missing in this statement or possibly implied is the notion that we cannot forgo repeating history when our language to describe it fails to approach truth or when we operate in denial about the source and motivation driving the events we tell in history. Robert Aaron Long is a white supremacist and one of many in America. His murdering of Asian women was not motivated by a “sexual addiction,” rather his fetishization of Asian women is a product of his racist beliefs — like a weed, without cultivation by racist soil his sexual fetishization of Asian women would not germinate. Just because it takes critical thinking to use language which adequately reaches for the truth, does not mean we should give up or sacrifice the right words for a sound bite or quick answer. Long’s choice to murder must be contextualized and any effort to divorce race from Long’s murderous act is itself an act of violence.
I do not presume to be surprised by Baker’s choice of words. He is not alone in failing to speak truthfully about racist violence. As a country, we still sit in the stink of 400 years of violence because we have lied about what happened on this land so much so that when we see white supremacist terror, we marvel. There is a distinction between marveling at a particular violence and marveling at its happening. In America, people who are ignorant by choice or by consequence tend to be marveling because of the latter. Yet, thinking about American history; from the forced removal by white colonizers of people who were indigenous to this land to the genocide by white colonizers of men, women, and children to occupy the land for country; from the kidnapping and enslavement of millions of Africans as chattel by white colonizers to the persistent presence of slavery in the American prison industrial complex; from the federal and state exclusion of people seeking help at our man-made borders to the dehumanization of immigrating people that would normalize placing them in cages; from the violent acts of citizens to the cloaking that singles them out as individuals and not the spitting image of the country they love — all this and more may help to usher clarity in why Baker said Long had a “bad day.” When forced to confront American history, time and again, America has opted more on the side of having “bad [days]” than taking accountability and responsibility for both de jure and de facto violence it has perpetrated since before its dated founding.
In her 1993 Nobel lecture, Toni Morrison writes of the woman who provides focus to her lecture, “being a writer she thinks of language partly as a system, partly as a living thing over which one has control, but mostly as agency — as an act with consequences.” As users of language we determine whether these “consequences” liberate us or leave us more shackled, more bound, more trapped in cycles of violence. When we talk about Atlanta on March 16, we must talk about race. When we think about the lives that were taken and the grief beset on families, friends, a city, a country, and the world, we must also think about the racial context which undergirds those thoughts. It is imperative we strive toward comprehending the mystifying properties of racism and its enduring hold on our way of life. If we do not talk about race, our language will cloak racism like a thief in the night. And though we may not live to see liberation and the employment of truthful language as common practice, there is one thing I am sure of — we will not arrive to that place if we give up.
Kelvin Green II ’22 is a member of Chocolate City and the Rho Nu Chapter of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc. and the Assistant Officer on Diversity for the Undergraduate Association.