Getting comfortable with “white supremacy”

We should all be deeply uncomfortable with white supremacy—the system of power relationships in which light skin color is believed to be “good,” thus legitimizing white people’s domination of everyone else. 

In order to confront and dismantle that system, however, white people desperately need to get comfortable with “white supremacy” as a concept. This toxic phrase far more accurately describes the racialized power structures that govern American life than the more popular “white privilege.”

The importance of this task was made apparent by journalist and author Ta-Nehisi Coates in a recent conversation with The Daily Beast (Felice León, “Ta-Nehisi Coates on Why Whites Like His Writing,” 10/25/15).

“[White privilege],” Coates observed, “is a word that we have created to make white people comfortable [instead of] talk[ing] about racism, and white supremacy, which is much more uncomfortable for folks because it names things and it’s very, very direct.”

I agree with Coates. These thoughts are the key to figuring out how to get white people to own racism and find a way through it for ourselves. 

As we have seen recently, even white “privilege” is hard for many whites to accept: some of us hear the phrase for its well-intentioned effort to make visible the set of often subtle, unspoken advantages people with pale skin enjoy in the social and political life of our culture. Others immediately ask “where’s my privilege?” by referencing personal hardships and injustices they’ve encountered even though they’re white. 

The point that many patient people of color and some white commentators make in response is to distinguish between individual circumstances (which will always vary) and systemic tendencies. The whole notion of white privilege is a pretty nuanced idea that is not immediately clear the first time many white people encounter it, particularly if it is only explained anecdotally or with a hashtag.

“White supremacy” is loaded, too, but with a long and troubling history with which white people are even more uncomfortable. While “privilege” makes us think of an uneven playing field or some kind of “bump” in opportunities, “supremacy” brings to mind skinheads, white hoods, burning crosses, and murder. If I have trouble admitting that my light skin might afford me some kind of unspoken advantage in job-hunting or getting a home loan, I definitely won’t make the leap to find the connections between myself and “hard core” racists. But that’s the connection I need to make in order to own my racism, however “mildly” I express it in my daily life.

White supremacy is the idea that white people are better than everyone else, whether biologically, genetically, socially, intellectually, spiritually, whatever. It’s pretty easy for white people like me to write off nut jobs with swastika tattoos. In fact, I enjoy a warm feeling of righteousness when I condemn such expressions of hate. 

But it requires nothing of me to denounce neo-Nazis. There is absolutely nothing at stake for me if I publicly distance myself from such extremism—it’s what every thinking person would (and should) do. And since it requires no expenditure of social, political, or interpersonal capital for me to be anti-Nazi in my cultural context, such a stance has no meaning when I take it. It demands nothing and it produces nothing, apart from that warm feeling.

Harder is the act of taking a stance that is local, interpersonal, and specific to my context. I don’t live among skinheads, but I do live among white people who instinctively clutch their possessions when they see a young black male walking toward them. I live among white people who are concerned that an elementary school with too many brown faces will not “challenge” their child. I live among white people who believe they know how best to help brown people out, without bothering to ask those people what help they may want or need. 

In each of these instances, there is white supremacy at work. The beliefs, buried deep or not, are that young white men are less likely to steal than young brown men, all other things being equal; that the presence of non-white children or their parents drags down the quality of education; that white people are unbiased by their own experiences, and will be the most objective in planning the distribution of private or public assistance. 

Each of these perspectives depends on the basic understanding that white is, in general, better. When I operate with these assumptions or witness them at work in other white people, I am choosing white supremacy if I do not question my thinking. 

“White privilege,” so far as it goes, is probably a useful concept for describing the countless “small” ways that white supremacy operates on a daily basis. But it seems likely that “privilege” is to “supremacy” what “paternalism” is to “patriarchy,” or what “enhanced interrogation” is to “torture.” It is a distinction in degree that acts to hide the underlying injustice from view. 

White people need to get over the idea that being a little bit racist is better than being a lot racist; we either believe that white is better or we don’t. The work white people like me need to dig into is not measuring the distance between ourselves and neo-Nazis, but the distance between our inaction and active anti-racism.

Chris Hayashida-Knight is a PhD candidate in US History and Women’s Studies at Penn State University.

Research and Real World Injustice

It’s hard to work on a study of African American history and not be struck by the ongoing stream of news of the deaths of black people. What can often feel like an isolated exercise in abstraction—writing a dissertation—has tuned me to pay particular attention to the ongoing consequences of systematic race-based oppression in our national founding.

As a historian I’m tempted to think I really know why racism is so insidious; if contemporary white people would just study the things I do, they would truly understand the scale and weight of racism, and somehow take it more seriously in the present. That might be true, but it’s not a strategy for change. In an effort to be “objective”—a concept which is patently ridiculous—we’re trained as historians to raise questions for our students but not necessarily to provide firm answers. A student could be forgiven for leaving my classes and recognizing that history is complicated, but feeling unclear on just what to do with that realization.

This is why, in the light of so many deaths of African Americans, the daily violence of mass incarceration, inequitable application of “justice,” and a culture that prefers theoretical gun rights over actual life, I am seeking a different path as an educator. In addition to “raising questions” in the minds of students I feel compelled to seek—and speak—answers to some vital questions:

  • What policies and practices of our governments (local, state, federal) are preserving the white supremacist tradition in American history? In what specific practices is the idea that white lives are more important than others continuing to influence policy decisions?
  • What privileges do I enjoy today as a straight white male that I must actively undercut in order to gain equity for others? There are plenty of answers out there, but few of us in the privileged group who are taking on the work ourselves. (I’m inspired by the work of groups like the Catalyst Project and the White Privilege Conference.)
  • How can white men teach each other to resist and deconstruct our own privilege? In what ways are we injuring and limiting ourselves by our investment in our own dominance? How do we go about “giving up” that dominance? How can we shift from a zero sum view of power, embracing an ethos of companionship and community?

These aren’t questions I expect to be able to dig into in a conventional US History survey classroom. They will be a part of that conversation, to be sure, but questions like these also demand precise and dedicated work beyond what can be tacked onto a 15-week syllabus. As expressed by organizations like Showing Up for Racial Justice, white men must “show up” when these questions are no longer safely abstract and cerebral, when they involve the messiness of emotion, loss of control, and personal accountability.

First research post-comps

I spent my first post-comprehensive-exams research trip in Philadelphia last week, visiting the Historical Society of PA for follow up work on the 1876 Centennial world’s fair. No “ah ha!” moments this trip, but I got through a good bit of material and confirmed I need to make a few more trips to Philly this summer! The Free Library there has some of the only extant copies of the Philadelphia Free Press newspaper from the 1870s—the paper that seems to have covered the conflict between white and Black “Centennial women” in the most detail. I’m beginning to get a handle on the different neighborhoods and wards in that era, as well, I think…

Back to Philly later this month!