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The Issue Isn’t Incels. It’s Racist Misogyny.

The Issue Isn’t Incels. It’s Racist Misogyny.
19th March 2021 Dr. Julia DeCook
Dr. Julia DeCook
In Insights

On 16 March 2021, NBC News reporter Kimmy Yam published a piece that summarised the research done by the organisation Stop AAPI Hate that found that nearly 3,800 anti-Asian and racism fueled incidents were reported during the pandemic. Notably, the report from Stop AAPI Hate found that 68 percent of all reports came from women, with men only reporting 29 percent of hate-based incidents and anti-Asian racism. The same day, a 21-year old white man shot and killed 8 people at three different Asian-owned massage parlours – 6 of them Asian women. The fact that this mass shooter targeted Asian businesses and Asian women is deeply entrenched in ideologies that position Asians, and Asian women in particular, as the perpetual Other, one meant to be erased and removed from Western countries. Dehumanised, hypersexualised (or emasculated in the case of Asian men), and constantly being depicted as diseased, the pandemic merely highlighted centuries old racism and misogyny. Although the shooter claimed that he has a sex addiction and that he was “having a bad day,” the specific targeting of Asian women and Asian-owned businesses during a time of heightened anti-Asian sentiment in the US is beyond a coincidence or an attack of convenience. Asian women’s bodies are hardly ever their own – overly sexualised, often used as punchlines, and painted as subservient and docile, they are simultaneously depicted as pure and virginal and as sexual femme fatales (the “delicate lotus” vs. “dragon lady” tropes).

Although details are still emerging, the choice of massage parlours is also deeply rooted in stereotypes about Asian women being sex workers, and the shooter was apparently deeply religious and a fundamentalist Christian. He most likely saw himself as punishing these Asian women for their foreignness, for their “depravity,” and for luring him into “temptation.” In sum, the shooter probably believes that he was repenting for his own excesses and sins, but at the cost of the lives of others. However, many people on social media platforms and elsewhere are trying to label the man an incel – which is problematic and becoming more prevalent any time an act of mass violence is committed by a man. In far-right and male supremacist online forums, the attacks are being celebrated, with one post on the largest incels forum commending the fact that “6 noodlewhores were deleted” and that the shooter should be elevated to “sainthood” within the community. Despite these celebrations, there is no evidence that the attacker belonged to these subcultures or forums. The immediate jump to attempt to label the shooter himself persists in the framing of any misogynistic statement or act of violence as “incel,” which makes people avoid the uncomfortable conversation that the larger issue is violent misogyny and male supremacism – in short, a man does not have to be an incel to harbour misogynistic beliefs and attitudes toward women, nor does he have to be a white supremacist.

Disappointingly, as soon as it emerges that a mass murderer did not belong to incel forums or engaged with white supremacist groups, media often turn their attention to something else, and experts repeat statements that this was a “lone wolf” act of terrorism. But nothing about this is “lone” – white supremacy and misogyny are not only intertwined, but are the fundamental building blocks of our laws, institutions, and culture. Cishetero white supremacist patriarchy is deeply embedded in in our societies – rather than trying to classify these attacks as belonging to one organisation or another, calling them what they are and thinking of solutions in combating these systemic issues is crucial in combating their violent outcomes. In initial police announcements, the police spokesperson was already protecting the shooter and justifying the violent behaviour of a white man, and hiding behind the reality of the situation: he was driven by (white) male entitlement and misogyny, which is so widely accepted in our society that it is excused, defended, and justified.

Indeed, I wrote previously at the start of the pandemic that many people tend to underestimate the prevalence of “casually” racist, sexist, and homophobic beliefs, and that often what is preyed upon by these organisations are already existing anxieties and attitudes that their recruits and members hold. If we continue to focus our efforts on naming, categorising, and even “posthumously” naming mass murderers as “incels,” we ignore the ongoing violence against women that doesn’t fit neatly into these categories, or point to mental illness as the primary explanatory factor. In sum, violence against women, particularly women of colour, and sex workers is a persistent, pervasive, accepted part of our society and culture. Domestic violence, intimate terrorism, and sexual violence are endemic in the lives of women across the world. In fact, nearly half of all murdered women are killed by former or current romantic partners, a statistic so bleak that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggested that domestic violence is a major cause of death for women. All of these forms of violence are deeply rooted in patriarchy and violent misogyny, and the fact that men feel entitled to women’s bodies and lives, and when denied access, dole out punishment that is often fatal. If scholars, practitioners, and activists around the world are serious about combating white supremacy, misogyny, and other forms of extremism, applying an intersectional lens to hate is critical in assessing these ideologies and identifying paths to radicalisation and acts of violence that do not always occur in formal organisational structures.

What drove the Atlanta shooter? The same things that drove other mass murderers who took the lives of 17 people in Parkland, Florida; 9 people in Dayton, Ohio; 49 lives at the Pulse Nightclub in Orlando, Florida; 27 lives in Sutherland Springs, Texas; 61 people in Las Vegas, NV; and 26 lives in El Paso, Texas – and this is merely a handful of mass shootings that have occurred in recent years, and only in the United States. The common trait among mass shooters, serial killers, and other serial perpetrators of gendered violence is an intense hatred of women and the desire to control bodies and sexualities; and in many cases, racism is also a key motivating factor. When we consider the role that race, sexuality, and class play in our analysis of these events, we see more clearly how these intersections inform the beliefs and acts of mass violence of these killers. Until we confront and apply an intersectional lens of hate, practitioners and scholars will always miss the mark – we are not merely combating organisations, we are combating violent and toxic conceptions of whiteness, masculinity, and compulsory heterosexuality, which are often intertwined with white Christian fundamentalism. Examining one and not the other means that we miss crucial contexts and histories of hating, and ignores the ways that this violence manifests and impacts people day-to-day outside of spectacularly violent acts.  The Atlanta shooter targeted Asian women for a specific reason, and these women were not chosen at random – they were chosen because of their race, gender, profession, and class status. And despite not wanting to center my position and my own feelings about the escalating violence in writing about this subject, as an Asian American woman, I am terrified. My community is being physically assaulted, harassed, and killed. But soon, we will know the names of the victims, and I hope that the focus is taken away from the white man who felt entitled to these women’s bodies, and that we mourn their deaths and celebrate their lives – lives that were cut short by white supremacist patriarchy and US military imperialism, which creates the conditions and supports the ideologies that continue to dictate the lives and lived experiences of Asian women.