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#ChapelHillShooting: How Race Plays A Role In Horrific Events

Shweta Tatkar |
February 18, 2015 | 10:10 a.m. PST



Before I moved to Los Angeles to become a full-time student at the University of Southern California, nearly all my family members had a common tenet in their advice for me: “stay safe.”

In fact, almost everyone who knew I was going to be in downtown L.A. told me to be careful. This was a mostly valid concern, considering that I would be spending the majority of my next year in a part of L.A. that has a reputation for unrest. While my anxiety about college in general grew with these repeated warnings, everyone on campus was quick to reassure me that it wouldn’t be a problem at all. In my case, it has so far proved true, but the statement doesn’t stand all across the nation, unfortunately.

Last week, three Muslim students at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill (commonly known as UNC), were shot in the head by their white neighbor. This event, in the light of shady happenings both in the United States and around the world, has been devastating to the Muslim population, because it reinforces the idea that hate crimes are okay. Two of the victims, a man and his wife, lived next door to the suspect, and the suspect’s estranged wife claimed that the fatal incident had been over a parking dispute. Even more disgustingly, the man is claimed to have a mental disorder. 

In today’s day and age, it is hardly uncommon to expect a sense of safety in educational environments. But in the last fifteen years or so, there has been an apparent lack of security in schools, giving us tragedies at every level of schooling, from Sandy Hook Elementary School to Columbine High School to the University of California, Santa Barbara. We may consider safety to be a prerequisite in those environments but the shootings challenge this notion. The Chapel Hill shooting, in particular, resurects discussions about racism and public perception that all of these massacres bring up. Both of these problematic realities do threaten the level of safety that we otherwise assume.

The two issues go hand in hand, as racism plays out in the way that the media has portrayed the event. The first indication of this representation is the fact that the suspect is said to have a mental disorder of some kind, reminiscent of similar shootings, including those at Sandy Hook and UCSB. However, this trend of “mental disorder” seems to be a recurring pattern specifically for crimes in the United States where the offender is a white male, so that he may escape the punishment for the crime. Since mention of any mental disorder stirs up pity and sympathy in most of the population, the ploy is a good way to subtly encourage white privilege. 

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And while the media is quick to portray Muslim suspects as terrorists (see: the Boston Marathon bombings of 2013), they neglect to place the same kind of harsh rhetoric on a Caucasian defendant. And, ultimately, how does this matter: are we expected to condone violence when the person has a mental disorder? 

This isn’t the only place where the media’s portrayal is controversial. They have also claimed that the hate crime was due to a parking dispute. (At home, my family is also in an unspoken parking dispute with our neighbors who wish to park their cars on our curb, but it has never once driven us to the thought of murder). For the media, it is easier to erase incidents of racism whenever convenient, as opposed to fixing it in our society. 

SEE ALSO: Chinese Media Irritates Chinese Students At USC

There is no certain way to feel safe then, if we have to consider all of these various vantage points. Without understanding the entire notion of white privilege, we cannot move forward in our demands for equality. Without acknowledging racism, we cannot move past it to accept all the different people, races and religions that inhabit the United States. Without either of these things, we cannot guarantee safety in our schools or our environment. And how are students expected to learn without the promise of safety in the place they spend most of their time?

So even though people might be joking when they tell me to stay safe, there is a hint of truth in their statements. I can never guarantee that I will be safe, living on campus at a secondary institution full of legal adults who have access to a lot more than I’m prepared for. And I know that 100 percent safety is more of an asymptotic goal than a tangible one, so looking to change even the smallest things will increase the chances of reaching that goal. By affecting the culture and behavior of the next generation, we will be able to step away from a world where the media portrays people first by their stereotypes, and into one where we can respect all lives, no matter how different they are from us. 

Contact Contributor Shweta Tatkar here; follow her on Twitter here.



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