Investing in Whiteness: the UCSB tragedy and Asian America


I went with a colleague to Isla Vista (IV as we call it) on Sunday, thinking that as faculty members we could offer our support to students and community members. We were not prepared for what we encountered. News sources are calling it the “Isla Vista Massacre” or the “Isla Vista Killings.” On campus we’ve been calling it “the tragedy” or “the shootings.” Usually bustling, IV was still – the quiet permeated at times by the muffled crying of students at the various sites where fellow students had been shot and/or murdered. We walked to each site, IV Deli, Alpha Phi, the 7 Eleven, and finally DP or Del Playa where it ended.

In front of Alpha Phi, we watched a woman in a UCSB Mom sweatshirt get down on her hands and knees on the grass. She put her head down and started crying. I wanted to comfort her, but I didn’t know what to say. What does one say as a faculty member? For me, that will forever be the iconic image of the event, an image that the many news crews tried to capture. A day later I took a graduate student back to IV. She had been too afraid to return, and so we paused in front of IV deli, taking in the flowers and messages left by loved ones. I then turned to my right to find a news camera literally inches from my face. Flustered, I quickly backed away. As upset as the campus became with the intrusive news presence, I was also offended when they quickly moved on less than a week later.

When people hear I’m from UCSB now they pause and look at me as though they can almost see the emotional wounds left by Elliott Rodger, and I feel guilty about that since it’s not anything like the literal wounds that took the lives of our students. We are suffering, but they are gone.

In the wake of the tragedy, returning to classes was awful. On my way to teach, driving to campus, I suddenly and inexplicably burst into tears, sobbing as I thought the words, “I don’t know what to say to my students.” I held open forums in my classes after having a minute of silence for the murdered. The majority of the students in my two classes either knew some of the fallen students or they were friends of friends. Many were even there.

“I don’t want to contribute to [Elliot Rodger’s] celebrity status here; I do believe that this shooting and his statements about his motivation teach us important things about the operationalization of things like the model minority myth or American masculinity and pathology. I offer a cultural critique to see what sense can be made of this tragedy and what sad sense this tragedy makes of critical theory and its continued relevance.”
When the conversation quieted down in my first class, I let them go but said I would sit in the room for the duration of class time. About half waited to talk to me in private. A student who presents as a tough guy immediately came up to me. He said that he was in a bar a few doors down from IV deli and had to hide under his table. Several hid in their apartments or nearby shops, but they heard the shots. Some vehemently said they did not want to talk about it, but they did not leave class. In that moment, it was so clear that they were just kids and just wanted to sit beside their professor.

Many faculty members held extended office hours to meet with our distraught students. I am teaching two courses in my home department, Asian American Studies, and have had many students come to me asking for guidance. While the conversations often began at the meta level, they quickly turned to the personal. I’ve heard from students who are estranged from their parents, who have been raped, and who are questioning their religious practice. On Tuesday a South Asian student came to me in office hours trying to make sense of the tragedy. A freshmen and away from home for the first time, she seemed to think that I might have some answers. She had taken my large lecture the quarter before, on Globalization and Social Inequality, and had followed me into this quarter – a large lecture that she shared with George Chen, one of the victims of the shooting. She very thoughtfully brought together the threads of what we had been discussing in class—patriarchy, hegemony, feminism, women’s agency—to try to talk about what happened. She wanted to know about gun violence and masculinity. Her questions, like the questions of many students, quickly turned to her personal experience. We had just finished discussing the French headscarf debate in class and she asked about the tension between how her family understood it (as a way to protect women and their sexuality) and how it’s been discussed in the West (as potentially oppressive). She tried to get me to tell her how I felt about it personally because she was thinking about starting to wear one. It wasn’t until later that night that I put together the pieces of what she had asked, which was tantamount to asking if I thought wearing a headscarf might protect her from misogynistic violence. From being murdered.

This young response to the massacre, in the context of an Asian American Studies class, hints at the complexity of the implications of what happened that Friday night. In our class, we had been grappling with issues ranging from women’s agency, patriarchy and hegemonic masculinity. Engaging in postcolonial and antiracist critique, we turned a critical eye toward the consequences of Orientalism for conceptions of women’s agency and consequences for women’s bodies and their relationship to the state. I had thrown around phrases like “patriarchy is bad for everybody” and we had collectively discussed the negative effects of discourses and representations of patriarchy on Asian men and women. How men who emulate or admire masculine icon Don Draper could never live up to the hegemonic ideal—even Don Draper himself. And that for each hegemonic masculine ideal, there is also the imperiled woman (Betty Draper, could easily be substituted for another kind of imperiled woman) that he is predicated upon. Or, the “veiled Muslim woman” that my student now sought to embody as a refuge from American patriarchy.

I had never imagined that we would be so starkly confronted with the horrendous effects of these representations. I want to acknowledge that the press has turned Rodgers into a celebrity, while the families have been subject to constant reminders of the tragedy. I also grappled with how much to quote his manifesto, as I do below. I haven’t read the entire manifesto. I can’t. Since so many people on our campus haven’t been able to read it either, I thought making direct reference might demonstrate some things. I don’t want to contribute to his celebrity status here; I do believe that this shooting and his statements about his motivation teach us important things about the operationalization of things like the model minority myth or American masculinity and pathology. I offer a cultural critique to see what sense can be made of this tragedy and what sad sense this tragedy makes of critical theory and its continued relevance.

For scholars and students of Asian American Studies, the case of Rodger makes three things clear.

As I told my class, first, minorities can still be invested in whiteness. Socially, there are unearned benefits and advantages to those invested in whiteness, which often but does not always mean exclusively white people. This possessive investment in whiteness crosses racial lines. Other racial and ethnic groups can also invest in whiteness by supporting practices that uphold racial hierarchies.

In this case, as we learned from the manifesto, Rodger was deeply invested in whiteness and sought to distance himself from men of color. He was a young Hapa man who felt not quite white enough. Not quite, not white. His violent tirade was an exhibition of masculinity that he felt he could not live up to, a white masculine ideal predicated on the conquest of an elusive blond sorority girl. In his manifesto he wrote, “I was different because I am of mixed race. I am half White, half Asian, and this made me different from the normal fully-white kids that I was trying to fit in with.” He also wrote, “how could an inferior Mexican guy be able to date a white blonde girl, while I was still suffering as a lonely virgin?” And “I came across this Asian guy who was talking to a white girl. The sight of that filled me with rage. I always felt as if white girls thought less of me because I was half-Asian, but then I see this white girl at the party talking to a full-blooded Asian.” “And white girls are the only girls I’m attracted to, especially the blondes.”

Second, Rodger’s own self-hatred demonstrates that his possessive investment in whiteness fueled his desire to transcend “second place” and to aspire to the top of the racial order as a white man by denying his own Asianness. The myth of Asian Americans as model minorities hinders our critical understanding of racial hierarchy. The idea of the model minority is predicated on the idea of the pathological minority against whom the model minority is contrasted. Rodger wrote, “How could an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am beautiful, and I am half white myself. I am descended from British aristocracy. He is descended from slaves. I deserve it more.” This is a language of racial hierarchies and racial subordination, a racial order that will always reproduce hegemonic ideals of white hegemony because it reinforces that all people of color are subordinate to white privilege.

Finally, the media attention has focused on whether this tragedy was about mental illness, gun violence, patriarchy, misogyny, or racism. It is about all those things together, simultaneously. Racial categories are intersectional. Analyses of power must take into account other axes of difference (e.g., gender, sexuality, class, citizenship). Patriarchy is also a racial phenomenon and, yes, patriarchy is bad for everyone. In contrast to the image of American masculinity presented by Rodger, there is Richard Martinez who demonstrated blunt eloquence moments after discovering his only son had been murdered. He publicly cried, he publicly mourned and to me that is a powerful image of American masculinity that breaks down some of what Rodger espoused. Similarly, during the memorial service the moment that brought down the house was the moment Richard Martinez read the statements of the parents of the victims. Offering forgiveness and acknowledging the mourning and grief shared by 7 (and not just 6) suffering families was a public demonstration of the power of love and forgiveness a sentiment that has been expressed throughout campus.

I’ve been asked if this counts as a school shooting because it happened in IV and IV has been described as an unincorporated area adjacent to UCSB. Our campus is small and IV sits beside it. It’s where we get our lunch and buy our coffee; it is also where we teach. There are two lecture halls located in IV – IV Theater and Embarcadero Hall where I taught last quarter. To us, it is a school shooting.

As my student Anisha Ahuja wrote to George Chen, Katie Cooper, James Hong, Christopher Ross Michaels-Martinez, David Wang, Veronika Weiss: rest in power // love and solidarity.

Author’s note: I want to thank Paul Amar, Hannah Appel, Kum Kum Bhavnani, Eileen Boris, Felice Blake, Jocelyn Chua, Abigail Heald, Katie Hasson, Tomas Matza, Ramah McKay, Rachael Joo, and Kevin O’Neill for their insights and feedback on this piece. I particularly want to thank my colleague at UCSB, Felice Blake for our meaningful conversations around Asian American masculinity, whiteness, and intersectionality that were essential to the writing of this piece. 

Lalaie Ameeriar

Lalaie Ameeriar is an Assistant Professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Santa Barbara.