Elliot Rodger's half-white male privilege

The killer’s Asian heritage matters. So does his ugly class entitlement. Misogyny crosses lines of race and culture

Published May 29, 2014 5:55PM (EDT)

Elliot Rodger              (YouTube)
Elliot Rodger (YouTube)

The widespread recognition that Elliot Rodger’s killing spree was the tragic result of misogyny and male entitlement has been a little bit surprising, and encouraging. Why, then, has it been so hard to get his race right?

From the left, headlines (including on Salon) have labeled him “white,” though most stories at least nodded to his Asian heritage (his mother was ethnic Chinese Malaysian). Chauncey DeVega’s fascinating piece on Rodger’s crime as evidence of “aggrieved white male entitlement syndrome,” a malady that includes other white male mass killers from Columbine’s Eric Klebold to Newtown’s Adam Lanza, didn’t mention his status as half-Asian.

When commentators noted the omission, DeVega (whose work I admire) doubled down in a follow-up piece,“Yes, Elliot Rodger is white!” He argued that Rodger “constructed an identity for himself as ‘Eurasian’ and proceeded to internalize American society’s cues and lessons about power, privilege, race, and gender. He then lived out his own particular understanding of what it means to be white and male in the United States.”

Not that I have a lot of sympathy for Rodger, but it twists his already twisted story to label him simply white.

Predictably, the right is having a lot of fun with progressives’ calling Rodger white, because denying Rodger whiteness gives them another reason to deny white male privilege entirely. Meanwhile, the wingnut white supremacists over at the New Observer are calling the Isla Vista killings an anti-white “hate crime,” ignoring that its first three victims were Rodger's three male roommates, who were of Asian descent. It won’t be long until Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity join that party.

Why is it so hard to recognize Rodger as of mixed racial descent? It certainly doesn’t negate the role white entitlement and privilege played in his “syndrome.” Rodger is at least partly a victim of the ideology of white supremacy, as well as its violent enforcer. He struggled with his status as half-Asian, writing “I always felt as if white girls thought less of me because I was half-Asian.”

Elsewhere he explains:

On top of this was the feeling that 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. I envied the cool kids, and I wanted to be one of them.

He dyed his hair blond, trying to fit in, but the dye job left him with blond tips and black roots, a sad metaphor for a racial mixture he couldn’t accept.

Merely labeling Rodger white, and his problem one of “white privilege,” also obscures the role of class in heightening his toxic sense of entitlement. He wondered: Why would “an inferior, ugly black boy be able to get a white girl and not me? I am descended from British aristocracy.” He believed his aristocratic background, his gorgeous home, his Armani shirts, Hugo Boss shoes, and shiny BMW – not just his race -- entitled him to blond women. He even had a narcissistic mantra he said to himself to boost his confidence: "I am the image of beauty and supremacy."

Of course he saw a racial hierarchy where he, being half-white, is near the very top of the pyramid, below white men but, as half Asian, still above every other race and racial mix. He degrades “full Asian” men as “disgusting” and mocks them for not being half-white like him. Then he’s aghast when he sees “this Asian guy who was talking to a white girl. The sight of that filled me with rage … How could an ugly Asian attract the attention of a white girl, while a beautiful Eurasian like myself never had any attention from them?” Every attempt to “explain” his isolation and loneliness unravels. There is only one explanation: the evil of beautiful, blond white girls.

Asian and mixed-race writers and scholars are beginning to chafe at the erasure of Rodger's multiracial heritage. “His anti-Asian self-hate,” Sam Louie writes, “was evident when he wrote of his two Asian roommates. ‘These were the biggest nerds I had ever seen, and they were both very ugly with annoying voices.’” Calling them "repulsive" and "idiots,” Rodger even suggests in his manifesto that their race played a role in their murder. “If they were pleasant to live with, I would regret having to kill them, but due to their behavior I now had no regrets about such a prospect. In fact, I'd even enjoy stabbing them both to death while they slept.”

In the New Republic, Hua Hsu wondered why the media was so quick to label Rodger “the white guy killer” and ignore his Asian heritage. “Perhaps, in this reading, he was not a benefactor of ‘white privilege and entitlement’ but someone vexed by its seeming elusiveness.”

“The media, as usual, has oversimplified his identity and experience of race in typically binary terms, which miss the complex nuances and grey areas of that identity and experience,” University of California, Santa Barbara, sociology professor G. Reginald Daniel told me via email. (Daniel is also the editor in chief of the Journal of Critical Mixed Race Studies.) “My feeling is that some of his many issues are related in part to his struggles with or questions about how ‘white’ he was or was not allowed or perceived to be.”

This is not to suggest that mixed-race people suffer from emotional problems (aside from the fact that all humans do). That’s a danger, because people of mixed racial descent have long been stigmatized as unhappy or somehow lacking, going back to the awful “tragic mulatto” stereotype. “He had some really serious and deeply clinical mental anguish beyond these concerns [of identity],” writes Daniel, who has long argued against notions (found among people of all races) that all mixed-race Americans are somehow troubled or racially untethered.

The Rodger coverage underscores that our traditional American black-white, victim-victimizer view of  American race relations is failing us in a world where Asians are the fastest-growing “minority” and Latinos the largest. Dismissing Rodger as white implies that Asians can’t be racist on their own, that it was only his white half that made him hate black people and Mexicans. Labeling him Asian, or making the preposterous suggestion that he committed an anti-white hate crime, ignores that he was both the prisoner of white entitlement and supremacy as well as its avatar.

To suggest that other races and other cultures don’t treat women as property is to miss how prevalent that attitude is. Sadly, misogyny and male entitlement come in every color and culture.

By Joan Walsh