Saturday, October 6, 2018

Is there a difference between being white and being a white supremacist?

Is there a difference between being white and being a white supremacist?

I believe there is - but, some white people make the distinction quite blurry, if not altogether nonexistent, and this needs to be ironed out. I'm writing to clarify that it's okay to be white; that white supremacy, on the other hand, is not okay; and that the difference between these two must be clear in everyone's mind.

So, let's unpack it, in ~1500 words.

Being white is just fine

When I think about the white people who are close to me, it's utterly clear to me that my blackness is not perceived by them as a threat to them, nor do I perceive their whiteness to be a threat to me. We can spend time together, work together, enjoy a meal, or a round of golf, or a hike or bike ride, or sparkling conversation that lasts into the wee hours, talking about our pasts, our plans, our lives, our stories, our cultures, and genuinely enjoy each other’s company. 

Being white is just fine. Being proud of your heritage, wherever you may be from, is just fine. Read this twice. Believe it. It is okay to be white.

A pivotal pivot

But, with some white people, a curious thing happens when white supremacy is called out - they start defending their whiteness. Somehow, to them, calling out white supremacy is an attack on their heritage, their culture, their whiteness. 

And when that pivot happens, it seems to belie some deep-seated awareness of the degree to which white supremacy is ingrained in our Western society, systems and institutions, and how much it has contributed to a white-centred world view. In other words, too much of what it means to be white was built up by white supremacists, to the extent that it's now hard to clearly see a difference.

White supremacy is relative

My white loved ones, friends, and colleagues who know  - and live out - the difference between whiteness and white supremacy, have no problem living and letting live, recognizing that people who do not look like them have the same right to take up space as they do. 

Celebrating their own culture is not at the deliberate expense of others' cultures. They do not derive their sense of self-esteem from perceiving themselves as better than others, because they recognize that their lives and cultures have merit and value that stand alone. And that's a beautiful thing.

Supremacy is inherently relative - it needs something else beside it that can perceive - and treat - as inferior. And, in a society that purports to consider all people equal, supremacy actively contests and hinders progress towards equality. (We'll revisit this below).

White supremacy is not about being white, um , sort of...

Think about the logical mechanics of this quote from a KKK leader in North Carolina about the man who killed Heather Heyer, a white woman peacefully protesting against white supremacy:

"Moore applauded Fields’ actions and called the suspect a ‘white patriot.'
"Nothing makes us more proud at the KKK than we see white patriots such as James Fields Jr., age 20, taking his car and running over nine communist anti-fascist, killing one [expletive] lover named Heather Heyer," Moore said in the voicemail. "James Fields hail victory. It's men like you that have made the great white race strong and will be strong again."North Carolina KKK leader: 'I'm sorta glad' people got hit, woman died in Charlottesville.

To a white supremacist, a white person who sympathizes with a person of colour is an enemy who is better off dead. To a white supremacist, it's more important to be a white supremacist than it is to be white.

White supremacy is violent

In this white supremacist leader's own words, "white patriots" make the KKK proudest when they are living out their white supremacist views violently. In his mind, and the mind of white supremacists, it is these violent acts that make the white race strong and will make the white race strong again.

White supremacists cannot live in equality with others. Notice, I did not write that they can't live in peace with others. They can, as long as they are in charge and people of colour "know their place". 

But, when oppressed people stand up for themselves and claim equal rights under the laws of the land, or just mind their own business while going about their business, white supremacists proactively orchestrate a pre-meditated backlash that is, all too often, brutal and deadly (a few examples include sharecropper lynchingsJack Johnson riotTulsa black Wall Street destructionConfederate monument erections...see my notes in my Evernote on My new take on the term "whitelash", part 1 - it will become a polished article on this blog with functional links before too long...but if you have Evernote, the links will work right now. And, if you don't have Evernote, there is a free version!)

White supremacy hurts white people, too

This bears repeating - white supremacy doesn't just hurt people who are not white. White supremacy hurts white people, too. In many ways.

The murder of Heather Heyer, as mentioned above, was just the most recent, and well-known example, that white supremacists have no qualms about putting a white person who sympathizes with people of colour in their crosshairs. 

In addition to these visible, outward acts of violence, white supremacy hurts white people invisibly, because it belittles their own dignity. By making their self-worth inversely proportional to their perceived lack of worth of others, they fail to just accept the intrinsic, inalienable dignity of their own very being. If all lives truly matter, then there'd be no need to denigrate others to feel good about one's self - they could just accept that their lives matter, and that other lives' mattering does not take away from the value of their lives. 

But, as it is, white supremacists demonstrate, in their need to oppress others, that they don't see value within themselves that can stand on its own merit. And, that's sad. And not true. And dangerous, because dismissing dignity hurts, and hurt people hurt people. 

Supremacists and activists both see the difference

Think, again, about that KKK leader's seething hate for Heather Heyer, a white woman. He is a white supremacist, which trumps being white. Heather Heyer was white, but she was not a white supremacist. Neither of them identified with the other. They were both very clear about their positions on this difference, and they were living out their expression of that difference.

There ought to be a clear distinction between these two opposing views in the minds of all people, because there is a distinct difference in reality, and having this clarity puts is in closer touch with reality.

So, as I wrote at the top, I believe there is a difference. And I believe lots of people see the difference and live out that difference in good and not so good ways.

How about you? Do you see the difference? If so, how are you living out that difference?

Why I wrote this

There are several paths that led me towards writing on this (which will eventually be discussed). To wrap this up for now, I'll just mention my intended audience - white people, who will fall into one of three groups: those who will
  • dismiss it wholesale;
  • find that it resonates with what they already believe; 
  • fall into yet a third group, which may be the most important group of all, and the group I'm addressing specifically by writing this.
Those in the first group won't be persuaded one iota by this article. To them, I thank them for at least reading it at all. We've got to be able to venture outside our own echo chambers and engage civil discourse across viewpoints, so I certainly neither want nor expect that the only people who read this were in agreement with me in the first place. At any rate, I hope some of these people will reconsider it.

Those in the second group are already like-minded, which is groovy. If anything, writing may provide another approach for them to use in their travels and conversations. 

The third group is somewhere in the middle - white people who may indeed not be racist, but have no particular sense of urgency that white supremacy is a threat; or feel that equality and justice are available to all people in our society in equal measure, or basically just aren't clear on the difference, and hadn't ever been particularly deliberate about taking a stand against racism and bigotry, starting with the uncomfortable exercise of exploring their own unconscious bias.

Social progress needs more of these people to align with humane ideals that actively contest the foundations of institutionalized inequality, and I hope this piece helps some of them gain sufficient clarity to take a decided stand against white supremacy - and sharing this article can help!

One love, y'all.


Jenny Homan said...

This is an interesting commentary. So much to say on the topic of White supremacy, although, you have laid it out quite eloquently. Supremacy itself is complicated and deeply ingrained across cultures. We may recognize it as castes, or even chauvinism.

DA said...


Thanks for your comments!

Indeed, class/caste and chauvinism/misogyny are also systems that need to be dismantled. It is most frustrating when people call out misogyny and men retort with "not all men"; that pivot is similar - there should be no need to defend being a man when misogyny is called out, unless misogyny is a part of one's view of what it is to be a man, and that's a problem.

Marginalized people - whether by race, gender, socio-economic class, etc. - are all raising voices against the status quo power structure. Western society is, generally, better than it has been, but certainly not as good as it could yet be.