Dark Threats and the Normalization of White Terror: Aboriginals, Muslims & South Americans in the #OttawaShooting
‘Breaking’ news hit Twitter and other news venues Wednesday morning, and reports from Parliament Hill began to spill out of gunmen inside and outside Parliament in Ottawa. Reporters on the scene raced to gather information on what was unfolding, and citizens stayed, eyes glued, to their screens to catch every update. I was glued to Twitter. Twitter is spectacular in its ability to track the unfolding of events in real time; reporters and eyewitnesses tweet information as it becomes available, with little filter. As words jump out of panicked mouths, they are picked up by smart phones and tablets and transmitted to the eagerly waiting news world. Later, in the summaries posted to news sites as articles, the details are smoothed out, the process of getting the details erased.
What was unfolding on this Wednesday morning was multiple shooting suspects who, confirmed early, had shot a Canadian soldier next to the war memorial on Parliament Hill. Other details were varied, and emerged sporadically (and are still emerging). Multiple suspects, perhaps one of them dead, other bodies, shooters on the roofs, in the buildings, in the city, multiple shootings, car hijackings, lockdowns. In this jumble of information, reports of who the shooters might be began to emerge as well, from eyewitness reports and panicked speculation.
Bill Curry, a journalist with the Globe & Mail, was one of the first to tweet a description:
Was the shooter Indigenous? Conflicting reports began to emerge almost immediately after. An eyewitness on CBC news described a suspect wearing an “Arab type scarf” and speculation on Twitter eagerly emerged that perhaps the shooter was Muslim, a favourite perpetuator of terrorism in the Western imagination.
Not so fast, though. David Reevely, a writer for the Ottawa Citizen tweeted:
Numerous other tweets mentioned the suspect’s ‘dark skin’ and ‘dark hair’. This suspect was definitively ‘not white’.
What is both interesting and not surprising in this narrative is the demand for - what was already being called ‘terror’ and ‘terrorism’ - to be found in ‘dark’ bodies. There was the need for dark threats (and the ‘white knights’ of the police/ing). I’ve written previously about how dark bodies become terrorists, while White acts of mass violence get written off as ‘insanity’ or ‘mental illness’. This was clearly terror as nervous Canadians imagined gunmen storming their very own Parliament buildings. And the suspects of this terror, that citizens were certain they saw, were Muslim Aboriginals from South America, wearing a bandana or a scarf or hoodie over his head, but definitely still able to see that he had long dark hair…
This points not only to the definitive unreliability of eyewitness reports. Many studies have shown the selectiveness and flat out imaginative potential of our memories in traumatic events. We see things that didn’t happen, we see selectively.
Yet, these accounts were reported as truth in the race to 'scoop' new details and inform people of what was happening. What is most interesting in these, though - beyond the unreliability of reporting and eyewitness accounts, or the race to feed public consumption - is how race and racism operates in these accounts of the suspects.
First, colonialism, orientalism and racism (what Andrea Smith calls the ‘three pillars’ of White Supremacy) were all collapsed into a terrorist threat – Indigenous bodies, Arab bodies, brown bodies – it doesn’t seem to matter. They’re all a threat and carry the possibility of terror in white, ‘civil’ spaces, such as Canada imagines itself to be. Terror is always outside of order, elsewhere. These categories are collapsible, the differences are erased, and one 'other' can substitute for an-'other' in the White imagination. What matters, in this case, is not the differences, but what is similar: racialized, colonized, orientalized bodies embody terror to Whiteness.
Second, each of the differences is conflated into visual signifiers; in fact, into racial signifiers. How does one ‘look Aboriginal’ or become identified as Aboriginal? Aboriginal is not a race, and Indigenous peoples in Canada have a large spectrum of phenotypical appearance. In this case, it seems you identify Aboriginal peoples by their long, dark hair. You identify them by a racial stereotype. Race is a social construct that uses ‘visual markers’ to identify who belongs in what category, typically by phenotypical standards such as skin color and appearance. Indigenous peoples have long been racialized within colonial paradigms, as stereotypes, as Indians. Once again, in the case of the possible gunmen, racial stereotypes are mobilized to understand the threat.
Similarly, the shooter became or ‘looked’ Muslim because of his dark skin and an ‘Arab looking scarf’ (and, in reality, I see more White hipsters wearing/appropriating those scarfs, here in Canada, anyways…Not to mention the Canadian military also wears them at times...). Being Muslim means belonging to a particular religion, not a particular race. Anyone can be Muslim. But the shooter became Muslim due to visual racial signifiers, such as skin and culture (the scarf). Finally, and perhaps the most ludicrously of all of these, the shooter was “South American in color”. What color is South American?! I never learned that color in the color wheel… Again, whole continents are configured as dark, as racialized, as not white - through racial stereotypes. Religion, nationality, location – it doesn’t matter. What comes to matter is that they are ‘dark’, that they are not white, and, subsequently, that they are a threat to the civility of whiteness.
In situations of terror and disorder, Whiteness needs racialized threats to explain why the terror is happening, how it explodes into our realities as an aberration. Whiteness needs racialized threats to secure its own perceived civility and order; its existence is secured in opposition to racialized terror and disorder. The shooters need to be racialized, in order to normalize the ‘order’ of everyday life, which is, in reality, a reign of white terror and violence. The shooters need to be racialized to justify the response of the police, to normalize policing as order and civility, when, in reality, they are purveyors and enforcers of white terror and violence. Racialized terrorism is needed to normalize everyday white terror. Terror and violence is only surprising, or an aberration, to those invested in the gloss of White order; racialized peoples around Canada can tell you of the daily acts of terror they endure at the hands of the state and its citizens.
The details of what happened are of little consequence in this narrative. The imagination fills in the details, using the schemas of sense making available. For white eyewitnesses, normalized within a white settler colonial state and its daily violences (one of which is this very normalization…), the suspects must be 'dark'. Aboriginal, Muslim, South American – any dark threat will do. White eyewitnesses, white experts, all proclaim that the normalization of white violence must go on.
As I tweeted, it’s terrifying to think what the racist, colonial, police state blow back to these acts of violence will be. Perceived ‘dark threats’ will be sanctioned, erased, disciplined. These narratives will continue. Whiteness will seek policies and solutions designed to further solidify and normalize its presence. White violence will once again reign under the guise of order and civility.
For more on the idea of 'dark threats' and 'white knights', please check out the important book by Sherene Razack, titled Dark Threats and White Knights: The Somalia Affair, Peacekeeping & The New Imperialism.
Author's note: I've stopped publishing comments on this article. Thank you all for your interest in this article and in thinking through these issues with me. Thanks to all who took the time to comment; it is simply too overwhelming to sort through the hundreds of comments and respond in a meaningful way to everyone. I look forward to engaging further on these and other issues with each of you. In peace, Eric.
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