Drinking From The Same Well: White Supremacy, Misogyny, and the Fight for Justice in Solidarity

Director of Women’s Studies Alison Reiheld, an Associate Professor of Philosophy at SIUE, is on sabbatical leave this semester. Recent events, however, have driven her to think. And write. And keep acting.

CONTENT WARNING: gun violence, racist violence, anti-Semitic violence, gender-based violence. Where possible, images will honor the victims and will only show the faces of the perpetrators if they are obscured.

CONTENT REWARD: this is difficult, hard to read material. At the end, you will find some pictures of cute animals for relief.

“Understand that modern white supremacy, like many historical white supremacies, is anti-black, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant, anti-woman, and more. Elliot Rodger, Dylann Roof, and the shooter in Pittsburgh drank from the same ideological well — a well we have to drain.” 

–Nicole Hemmer, tweetstorm on antisemitism and Charlottesville, Oct 27, 2018

Hemmer - white supremacy misogyny same well

Nine years ago on the 20th anniversary of the event, I learned about the massacre at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. In 1989, twenty-five year old Mark Lepine, armed with a rifle and a hunting knife, walked into a classroom at the university, separated the men from the women, claimed he was “fighting feminism” because it ruined his life, called all the women in the room feminists, and proceeded to shoot all nine women in the room, killing six before moving through the rest of the university where he killed more women and many men. In total, he killed 14 women, injured 10 other women and 4 men, and then turned the gun on himself. He chose Ecole Polytechnique because he had been denied admission and blamed feminists and women for taking a spot that he believed belonged to him by right. While searching his body, police found a suicide note and a list in his pocket of 19 prominent Canadian women including a journalist and a government minister. The note said that Lepine believed there was no place for women in engineering, that women were trying to take over men’s jobs, and that feminists were responsible for higher insurance costs. The Montreal Massacre remains the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history and led to Canada’s current gun control laws. I had never heard of it.

Montreal Massacre victims
The 14 women engineering students murdered by Marc Lepine in Montreal, Canada at Ecole Polytechnique

In 2014, I watched the news on TV and online as events unfolded in Isla Vista, California. Twenty-two year old Elliot Rodger stabbed three men to death in his apartment. He then recorded a long video in which he labeled his prior and planned acts “retribution.” His motives were his boiling rage at women who would not date him or have sex with him, his envy of sexually active straight men, and his desire to punish both women and men for his own alone-ness.  After uploading the video to the internet, he e-mailed a lengthy pre-written manifesto further detailing his motives which read like a summary of every Reddit group ever to give voice to the toxic masculinity of alienated young white men. Rodger drove to a sorority house and shot 3 female students outside, killing 2. He drove past a deli and fatally shot a male student. He sped through the town shooting and wounding pedestrians and striking others with his vehicle. Twice, he exchanged gunfire with police and was shot. After a police chase which ended with his car crashing into a parked vehicle, he shot himself fatally rather than face consequences for his actions.

Rodger’s misogyny was inextricable from broad-ranging white supremacy. He wrote,

How could an inferior, ugly Black boy be able to get a white girl and not me?… I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves… How could an inferior Mexican guy be able to date a white blonde girl, while I was still suffering as a lonely virgin?… How could an ugly Asian attract the attention of a white girl, while a beautiful Eurasian like myself never had any attention from them?

In June of 2015, news broke of a possible shooting at a church in Charleston, South Carolina during evening bible study and prayer service. Emanuel  African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston has long been a center for civil rights and community organization. This was the location into which Dylan Roof, a twenty-one year old white supremacist, walked with a gun and the intention of igniting a race war. He murdered 9 African Americans including state senator and senior pastor Clementa Pickney.

Emanuel 9 - Charleston SC

3 other victims survived. Roof was taken alive.  He had his own website on which he had been preaching racial white supremacy and, like Elliot Rodger, had written and self-published a manifesto. Roof often claimed that “blacks were taking over the world” and wished for a return to racial segregation. Before he opened fire, Roof shouted “You all are taking over our country!” Pictures Roof chose to post of himself showed him posing with white supremacist symbols and included pictures of the Confederate battle flag. Following the shooting, Roof told investigators that he almost didn’t go through with it because, when he entered the church, the members of the prayer group were so nice to him. He concluded, however, that it would be cowardly not to do so and “I had to complete my mission.” A witness reported at the time that he said “I have to do it. You rape our women and you’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” His notion of courage, a very toxic one, supported only violence and not refraining from violence. As sociologist Lisa Wade pointed out, he was motivated by hatred but also by a warped possessiveness of white women and a centuries-old stereotype of black men as sexually rapacious toward white women. The racism and the sexism are inextricable.

In February of 2017 in the St. Louis metro area, vandals swept through the University City Jewish cemetery. They toppled over 154 tombstones in an act of persistent dedication to destruction.

Toppled headstones at the Chesed Shel Emeth Jewish cemetery in University City, MO

Two local Muslim activists, Linda Sarsour and Tarek El-Messidi, raised $20,000 for repairs through a crowdfunding campaign. By the time it ended, the campaign topped out at $162,000 and paid not only for repairs and improvements in University City but also to a Philadelphia-area Jewish cemetery also vandalized days after the St. Louis attack and also helped repair anti-Semitic vandalism in a downtown Chicago synagogue as well as restoring a neglected and vandalized Jewish cemetery in Chicago. In this same period of time, Jewish community centers and other Jewish institutions received dozens of bomb threats. In early 2018, the Anti-Defamation League released a report indicating that anti-Semitic hate crimes had increased during 2017 to the highest level in two decades.

In April of 2018, I watched with horror as news broke of an incident in Toronto in which Alek Minassian drove a van through a crowd of people, killing 10 of them.

10-victims of Manassian Toronto attack

According to a Facebook post on his account, he announced that his actions were part of an “incel rebellion.” For folks who haven’t followed the watchdog website We Hunted The Mammoth,  which tracks online misogyny, the term “incel” is a self-chosen term that is short for “involuntary celibate.” They follow a set of claims about the world much like those advocated by Rodger. In Minassian’s Facebook post about the attack, he hailed Rodger as a hero.  Various subreddits referred to Rodger as “Saint Elliot. “Incels” refer to attractive people who have no problem meeting partners of the opposite sex as “Chads and Stacys.” While some have cast doubt on whether Minassian really authored that post, We Hunted The Mammoth documented many commentators celebrating Minassian, with posts such as “I really want it to be true that the guy was an incel lmao” As Shree Paradkar has argued, and as Rodger’s rants showed, the foundational misogyny of incels overlaps with racism.

On October 27, 2018, yesterday, I wept in my bedroom behind a closed door so that my family could not hear me as news broke of a shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in the neighborhood of Squirrel Hill in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This was the neighborhood where Fred Rogers, of Mister Roger’s Neighborhood, lived much of his life. At the time, a bris—to usher a baby into the Jewish community—was taking place. Forty-six-year old Robert Bowers killed 11 people, including two brothers, a husband and wife, a diligent physician who treated HIV patients in the early days of the epidemic when no one else would, and a woman who was nearly a century old. Six others were injured including armed police officers. President Donald Trump called it a “wicked act of mass murder” and also said that it wouldn’t have happened if the synagogue had armed security and that an armed guard might have been able to stop the gunman “immediately”, despite the fact that the trained and armed police officers responding to the shooting were themselves shot.

Tree of Life victims
Image Source: New York Times

Yesterday, I learned that on high holy days, Tree of Life does have armed guards because of persistent anti-semitism in America. And that this is routine across America. But that not all of them can afford to do so for every Saturday for service and Hebrew School (which is like the Christian Church’s Sunday School).

Yesterday, listening to Jewish friends on a topic they don’t usually have reason to discuss in public, I learned that in many places in our nation, entertainment venues require families renting for a Bat Mitzvah or Bar Mitzvah—the Jewish coming of age ceremonies for young Jewish women and men, respectively—to hire armed guards. Just in case anti-Semites decide to crash it. And that this is a long-standing practice.

Yesterday, when it was said that the Tree of Life Synagogue should have had armed guards, I was reminded that some people believe a person needs money to deserve to be safe and that some people will feel less sympathy for the targets of the attack because yesterday, unlike many other days, they did not have armed guards.

Today, I was reminded that safety from violence—white supremacist violence and its partner in crime gender-based violence—is a public good.

Today, I was reminded that part of what makes it impossible for me to support a policy, an institution, a politician, an administrator, a colleague, or a friend is when they do not think that all members of the public deserve this public good, and refuse to reform systems or gather collective resources to ensure this and other public goods.

And today, thanks to Nicole Hemmer and many womanist and feminist theorists and activists who came before her, I am driven to put all of these events together into a coherent and terrible picture of the misogynist white supremacist value system that underpins all of these terrors. We could include so many more events and states of affairs:

Today, I am not destroyed.

Today, I am not overwhelmed with despair.

Today, the scope, the cleverness, the perniciousness, the pervasiveness, of all of these intersecting forms of oppression fills me with righteous anger.

Today, this anger fuels me.

And tomorrow, I am diving back in.

Tomorrow, we are all diving in. Again. Always. We will look for a way to drain the well. Not all at once. But bit by bit. We will seek out and work with the formal and informal organizations working to dismantle these interlocking oppressions, locally or nationally. Some of us will find the Arch City Defenders. Others will find the Metro Trans Umbrella Group. Still others will find Expect Us. Yet others will find Black Lives Matter. Or Unidos US (formerly La Raza). Or the American Civil Liberties Union. Or the Anti-Defamation League.  We will give our money. Or our time. Or both.

Tomorrow, we refuse to drink from that terrible well ourselves. We watch for how we–we who are men, we who are women, we who are nonbinary, we who are straight, we who are queer, we who are black, we who are white, we who are Asian, we who are rich, we who live from paycheck to paycheck–have often unwittingly refilled that well with microaggressions reinforcing misogyny and racism, with failure to fight, with buying into the narrative, with silence, with preserving what privilege we have.

Tomorrow, we show up. Again. Always. And when some of us can’t, or shouldn’t anymore for a while, others must step up.

They drink from the same terrible well, those who seek and preserve privilege at the expense of others. We must drink from a different one, and we ladle it out for each other. We must go back to it again and again until that other well is abandoned. We must do it bit by bit, bucket by bucket. Together.

In this brightly colored painting, men and women with many different skin tones and styles of dress gather around a well, some carrying buckets and passing them to each other as others fill buckets from the well.
Yolanda Chetwynd, “Drawing and Sharing Water from the Well”, 2016 Oil on canvas Image Credit: Delaware.gov

And now, as promised, your Content Reward of cute animals.

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