Profile Me: The Confederate Flag, Shame, and White Male Terror


by Donovan Schaefer

Editor’s note: This post initially came out in response to the mass shooting at the Sikh Temple of Wisconsin in 2012. We are reposting it in the light of recent discussions about white terrorism, racism, and the symbols of racism—such as the Confederate flag.

From the author: I wrote this 3 years ago after a white supremacist shot six Sikhs to death at a gurdwara in Wisconsin. For conservative pundits, instances like this one and the massacre in Charleston are isolated incidents that can be reduced to individual pathology or choice. They start from the assumption that individuals are monads, disconnected from the world around them, who occasionally lapse into unimaginable, inscrutable acts of evil that can be neither anticipated nor prevented. They refuse to see how their own complicity in the production of climates of hate and defiance picks up these broken human beings, hands them an illusory sense of purpose and dignity, puts guns in their hands, and then sends them to bring death and pain to others and themselves. There is nothing mysterious or even “crazy” about it: it is in almost every aspect political. We need to talk, then, not only about gun control and ending anti-black racism, but about how an un-self-reflective whiteness, in its refusal to take responsibility for its history of savagery, creates unstable dynamics that explode into devastating violence. The Confederate battle flag is one of the many symbols of this un-self-reflexivity.


In spring of 2011, Asra Nomani suggested that ethnic profiling of Muslim Americans was a legal and moral imperative given her community’s failure to adequately police itself.  A year later, she stepped forward and called for expanded surveillance inside her own community. In the same spirit of enlightened self-critique, let me make a similar call: it is time for racial profiling of white men.

This call is half flippant–a sardonic parody of the kneejerk self-righteousness of Islamophobic discourse–and half serious critique of the disturbed crossing point between whiteness and masculinity in the US. White men, such as myself, have proven ourselves to be one of the most dangerous groups in the country. We are the most likely demographic to be responsible for killing sprees, leading dangerous cults, or plotting acts of violent treason–what we might call White Male Terror. At the same time, white men show a sneering disregard for other groups that are not us, insisting on lax gun laws that lead to spillover violence in Latin America, rejecting the “redistribution of wealth” after generations of benefiting from a rigged economic system, and jealously preserving the legal institution of male privilege by obstructing a constitutional amendment that would make women equal in the eyes of the law. White men have proven themselves unwilling to integrate into American society–even after 500 years of residency. White men cultivate insular subcultures, breeding grounds for the white male’s predominant currency: a sense of invincibility. And it is when this armor of invulnerability is winched apart–as it always will be–that WMT seeps out into the open.

The situation would be much less urgent if more white men were speaking out against WMT. You never hear white men coming forward on the news to denounce WMT, therefore we can only conclude that most white men silently agree with it. The time for coddling this group beneath the shield of political correctness has passed. White maleness is not, as the bleeding hearts plead, a neutral “identity”: it is a rigid political ideology that fixates on violence and displays of power.

It is sometimes suggested that white men have become a threat to themselves and others because we sense our grasp on the reins of power at the heart of the American engine slipping away. I think the real mechanism is deeper and more gripping. White men in America are embroiled in an apparatus of shame: the shame of the legacy of slavery and genocide on which the country is built, the shame of squandered, selfish privilege, the shame of our failed experiments in economics, our disregard for ecology, our blithering, triumphalist global politics, which have left behind a broken world of economic and social destruction.

Men such as Loughner, Holmes, and Page are not trying to accumulate durable political power. They are trying to enact fantasies of fearsomeness, to reinscribe dignity on their bodies, to dissolve their sense of their own worthlessness. The consummate symbol of WMT is the Confederate flag, embroidered on Wade Page’s guitar strap, flown or stuck on pick-up truck bumpers from South Carolina to upstate New York to western Canada–always by white men–the expression of vicious defiance in the desperate attempt to rebuild one’s dignity, what Kathleen Stewart might call “self-help racism.” (Ordinary Affects, p. 58)

White male shame becomes white male terror when white men feel naked. It is the bullheaded response to shame–the bluff, the doubling down, the gruff refusal to acknowledge our implication in the tragic history of this continent since colonization and to take responsibility for it–that makes white men dangerous.

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