Fifty Shades of White Supremacy

When most of us think about White supremacy, we automatically think of the Ku Klux Klan or the neo-Nazi skinheads parading around with tiki torches in Charlottesville. Some of us might have a more sophisticated understanding of racism and Whiteness. We might be able to see White supremacy operating in the policies of our elected officials, especially when those policies are supported by David Duke and the KKK (which is made obvious when said White nationalists dress like their fearless leader, in ill-fitting pleat front khakis, oversized white polo, and sweatshop-made Make America Great Again red hats).

However, I would venture to say that White supremacy is not limited to overt displays of racial violence and power. White supremacy is not only evinced in policies that uphold and protect the privileges and interests of White Americans at the expense of people of color, immigrants, and other minorities. It is not limited to the actions and attitudes of avowed racists and bigots.

Installation view of “Agnes Martin” courtesy of Tate Modern

Rather, I contend that there are fifty shades of White supremacy. Like an Agnes Martin painting with its subtle modulations of cool and warm whites, punctuated by colored lines here and there, or the paint section at Home Depot, with fancy names like Bright White, Eggshell, White Zinfandel, or the ubiquitous Decorator White. White supremacy exists in a broad spectrum.

White supremacy is the belief that both supports and inevitably results from the historical phenomenon of racism and White dominance, which permeates nearly every aspect of American life. It is evinced in a mindset that upholds White is might (dominance) and White is right (certitude).

While we can easily identify the more popular shades of White supremacy (KKK, neo-Nazis, Steve Bannon, et al.), below are some of the more subtle shades I have seen on display in the aftermath of Charlottesville.

White supremacy is…

  • When White people doubt the lived experiences of people of color, as if people of color are unable to properly assess and articulate their own realities.
  • When White people contradict what people of color have to say about racism, as if people of color do not know the dynamics of racism, which they encounter on a daily basis.
  • When White people correct people of color, even “gently,” rather than listening and understanding. An example of this is when they say, “I don’t think that’s what you mean.”
  • When White people patronize people of color and say, “I sense a lot of hurt/anger/frustration in you.” This automatically places White people in a position of judgment and forces people of color to retreat inward and re-process an experience they have already spent a considerable amount of time and energy processing.
  • When White people give people of color “advice” about their anti-racism approach, especially when people of color are “cautioned” that their activism might “offend people” or that it may not be the most “effective” way to “convert” racists.
  • When White people say that your anti-racist speech can be “framed better, in my opinion,” they once again take the position of dominance and act as a self-appointed arbiter of what is good and what is not. The fact is, the ability to judge oppression remains with the one being oppressed, not the oppressor. Anti-racism can always be “framed better” for those who have a vested interest in maintaining racist structures and in silencing those who call it out. Additionally, the constant pursuit of a better framing, of having to package and re-package what you have to say so that it is palatable for White people expends precious energy. Don’t fall into that trap.
  • When White people reduce conversations about racism and oppression to an intellectual exercise, devoid of any genuine emotion or empathy for the lives and suffering of people of color and immigrants in this country. I saw a conversation on Facebook in which Whites congratulated each other for engaging in a circular dialogue about racism that did not take into account how people of color might feel about it.
  • When White people get offended when people of color say White America is racist. This offense is invariably a denial of the history of racism in this country, a history which is revealed and evinced every day, even now.
  • When White people are “shocked” at the racism that currently abounds in this country. This is because they haven’t listened to what people of color have had to say about racism in this country for the past six months, two years, or twenty years.
  • When White people blame people of color for their present lack of engagement with anti-racism because of an incident in which they were made to feel as if they were “wrong.”
  • When White people affirm other White peoples’ perceptions of the lived experiences of people of color rather than the people of color themselves. Maybe it’s easier to agree with people who look like you than with people who don’t?
  • When White people finally agree on an anti-racist agenda because it was suggested by a White “ally,” even though the same idea had been articulated and proposed by people of color numerous times before.
  • When White allies take credit for the above idea, without acknowledging the work and contributions of the people of color who led them to that point of racial conscientization.

The above shades of White supremacy are just a small sampling of the attitudes and actions that uphold systemic racism in this country, and which directly contributes to the ongoing oppression of people of color, immigrants, and other minorities.

These shades collude with White privilege and White fragility, all of which breed an unassailable sense of being right and a defensiveness that precludes any real understanding of the realities of racial injustice and oppression.

I am beginning to understand more and more that progressivism and liberalism do not offer safeguards against racism and White supremacy. In fact, many of the above actions and attitudes have been exhibited by liberal Whites, including those religious who proudly claim their anti-racist views and ally-ship. What they fail to grasp is that the success and the credibility of their anti-racism will be identified and assessed by people of color.

As my friend Ramon Razon said, “When one wants to shed racism, one must accept the fact that the only agenda that truly matters is the one already defined and articulated by the struggle of people of color.” White supremacy, in any shade, hinders racial justice because it perpetuates the mindset that has built and maintained the system of oppression this entire time.

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