I can’t have the women I want, so I must kill them. So went the deranged thinking of the 22-year-old man who killed seven people, including himself, and injured thirteen more last week in Isla Vista, California. We now know that the women he wanted were blonde, and that the sight of one of them with a man of color made him especially bitter.
A manifesto the shooter, Elliot Rodger, left behind makes clear that he was obsessed with class status, racial hierarchies and the belief that women owed him sex and their attention. Rodger, the son of a Malaysian Chinese mother and a white British father, wrote about plans to target a particular sorority because it “is full of hot, beautiful blonde girls; the kind of girls I’ve always desired but was never able to have because they all look down on me.” The Monday before he went on his rampage, he posted to an online bodybuilding forum, “It’s been my life struggle to get a beautiful, white girl.”
In his must-read analysis, Jeff Yang parses the 137-page document for references to race and draws this conclusion:
By the time the end of the “manifesto” arrives, with Rodger describing his real-world decision to enact a Day of Retribution against those whom he sees as having sinned against him, it does not come as a surprise that of the seven who would die in the terrible, deadly assault Rodger committed according to authorities, two were tall, blonde white women—sorority sisters Veronika Weiss and Katie Cooper—and five were men of color, including Rodger’s three housemates, George Chen, Cheng Yuan Hong, and Weihan Wong, all Chinese-Americans, Mexican-American Christopher Michael-Martinez…and Rodger himself.
Nothing can excuse Rodger’s repulsive beliefs and actions, but digging deeper to understand them exposes the ways in which we, too, are complicit in them—as enablers of a culture where material wealth is a marker for success, whiteness is a badge of prestige, and sexual “conquest” a measure of masculinity.
As the news cycle draws attention elsewhere and the families of the victims are left to grieve in the light of fewer cameras, it’s hard to tell what the lasting social impact of the tragedy will be. Will Congress be shamed into passing gun control legislation, as one victim’s father has forcefully urged them to do? Will those who produce television shows and green-light Hollywood movies take seriously the important points raised by Arthur Chu and Ann Hornaday about pop culture’s role in normalizing misogyny and entitlement? Likely not, on either count. But one thing we can all do is examine whatever roles we play in perpetuating the culture Yang so aptly names and describes.
We can also keep these larger questions around race, gender and insecurity in mind this summer as the trial opens in the Renisha McBride shooting. Last November, Ted Wafer, who is white, shot and killed the 19-year-old McBride as she stood on his porch in Dearborn Heights, Michigan, ostensibly seeking help after she was involved in a nearby car crash. Wafer faces charges of second-degree murder.
At first blush, the two tragedies may seem disconnected, one having taken place on an idyllic Southern California coast and the other in a suburb of Detroit. Yes, in both cases, young women were shot to death by men. But the differences may be meaningful as well: in Santa Barbara, two white women were killed in part because the shooter had projected all of his fantasies onto them. He couldn’t stand the distance between himself and the women he felt he deserved to be close to. In Dearborn Heights, it appears that a black woman was killed because the shooter had projected all of his fears onto her. He couldn’t stand the proximity to the type of woman he felt entitled to have no contact with.
Renisha McBride was perceived as aggressive and menacing in a way that white women rarely are, while the UCSB shooting points to how dangerous it can be for white femininity to be placed on a pedestal. In the two tragedies, women were slaughtered for very different reasons, but slaughtered just the same.