It’s Okay to Be Surprised by a Horrific Event

“It’s terrible but I’m not surprised.”

It’s been over a week since the Atlanta shooting and I’m suddenly feeling averse to statements about surprise. If I hear one more person describe a horrific event as “not surprising,” I think I may explode.

I’m guilty of repeating the “no surprise” line too, which makes my growing irritation confusing. Isn’t it true that mass shootings happen so regularly in America that they truly are no surprise?

On the evening of Tuesday, March 16, a white friend texted me to suggest I might not want to check the news. I thought I could do that, go to bed in peace and worry about terrible news the next day. I couldn’t. Right before bed I snatched my phone and consumed news clip after news clip. Atlanta. Shooting. Asian massage parlor. 4 dead. 3 locations. In custody. 6 dead. 7 dead. And of course, the speculation – anti-Asian hate gone even farther than we expected?

Eyes glued to the screen, I dismissed my friend’s concerns. This happened all the time in America. People of color deal with this kind of news all the time. I was fine. I could handle it. It was shocking, but not surprising.

I retweeted one tweet. I went to bed.

The next morning, the feeling held out. The shooting took up only one sentence in my journaling. I had work to do, a conference presentation to prepare and rehearse, coursework, writing, applications. I built a PowerPoint and ran through the half-finished slides in my confident presentation voice, the one that people are surprised to hear come out of my mouth. Then a mid-morning Twitter break.

All grief. I scrolled with furrowed brow, nodding along to words from powerful Asian American writers, academics, and friends. I retweeted several and then, landing on a tweet from Lisa Lowe, my “I’m not surprised” facade cracked open and I sobbed over my phone.

When I tried to rehearse my presentation again later, another person’s voice came out of my mouth. Her voice was shaky and quiet; I couldn’t get her to speak up without sounding worse. She sounds pathetic, and I grow frustrated and angry when I can’t fix her.

I wonder now why we are so quick, in my academic circles at least, to say we are not surprised by horrific events. There’s the matter of knowledge, that those of us who study race especially are aware of how the long histories of racism in America stretch on today. Is knowing the past and present enough to protect you from future harm?

I wonder why it is no surprise when women of color are dismissed, interrupted, or ignored. Why it’s not surprising when accounts of racism are overlooked. Why universities failing to act on the needs their most marginalized students is no surprise either.

I know, of course, that these injustices are routine. And I think too that “no surprise” offers some protection. Perhaps you don’t need to feel as deeply or hurt as strongly when it was, as you say, no surprise anyway.

But I think I’d like to stay surprised. I’d like to expect better of my peers, expect more from the institutions I work for, and hold the people in this country, my country, to a higher standard. I think that to allow yourself to feel surprised is to admit that you expected better.

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