White supremacy is all around us. We’re raised in, steeped in it, drowning in it. Heck, the banner photograph today reminds us that phrases like “American First” have been with us for a while. It’s obvious and subtle, shouting and whispering. Its nefarious tendrils snarl around every facet of life, and have for hundreds of years. White supremacy is between the cracks – but it’s also the sidewalk itself.
You can find a brief primer on what white supremacy is from Chauncey Devega, or a deeper dive from the Anti-Defamation League.
Or get some helpful guidance from Ta-Nehisi Coates, in case you were wondering if you might be a white supremacist:
“If you own a business that attempts to keep Black people from renting from you, if you are reported to say you don’t want Black people counting your money; if you say someone can’t judge your case because they’re Mexican; if your response to the first black president is they weren’t born in this country, despite all proof; if you say they weren’t smart enough to Harvard Law School, and demand to see their grades: if that’s the essence of your entire political identity, you might be a white supremacist.”
He gives another amazing quote in this interview when talking about those who voted for the current president (when asked about ‘non-college’ voters):
“Working class Black people didn’t vote for him at all [..] it’s the whiteness that goes across the board. It goes across class, across gender, it goes across education. That’s what different […] the whiteness, not the working-ness.”
Where else can you spot white supremacy? Sometimes, it’s symbolic numbers, like 14/88. Sometimes it’s hand symbols. And sometimes, it’s a polo and khakis. As GQ explained in an article about the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, (The Uniform of White Supremacy),
“it looked as if an army of JC Penney mannequins had become sentient. Scores of white men dressed in crisp polos and khakis, turning the uniform of business-casual blasé into a white-hot statement….The uniform of white hate is now average, mundane, the stuff of everyday American life. It is haunting.”
You can also spot white supremacy when people center whiteness. White supremacy is thinking that white people are the real victims of a system that has oppressed people of color for hundreds of years– but it’s also what’s at work when we only value predominantly white contributions, or attempt to blunt the edges off white extremism. As one example of centering whiteness, take the 2017 Women’s March. People and media heralded the Women’s March as a fresh wave of activism, a grand show of female power– but from the beginning, the Women’s March was also plagued by both subtle and overt racism, in its inability to embrace intersectional feminism, and prioritization of white feminism. The march attracted many people who were new to activism, largely white people who had been able to ignore pervasive racism in society, but who were inflamed by the new president’s sexist remarks in particular. When all was said and done, many who participated happily recounted how “peaceful” the marches were, measuring the success of the march with a yardstick unavailable to people of color, whose protests are often met by overwhelming force by police. Even in the press, coverage of the Women’s March as some sort of standalone event (instead of placing it in the larger context of recent protest movements such as Black Lives Matter) was a way of blessing action as only valid when taken by white people, and allowed by the state.
Or, take the NY Times’ coverage of white supremacist neo-Nazi Tony Horvater, a soft-focus profile intent on conveying the “normalcy” of his hatred. After the article drew widespread criticism, the NYT even saw fit to publish a response from the author– a response that again took no personal responsibility for reporting on the Panera menu preferences of someone actively engaged in advocating for genocide. Neither Horvater nor the author belong at the center of that story: their feelings and intentions have no bearing on the harm caused by sympathizing with Nazis in the pages of an authoritative, widely-circulated newspaper. This, too, is white supremacy.
A 2011 study from Tufts and Harvard found that white people felt racism against Black people was no longer an issue and that white people were being discriminated against more than Blacks. (And to link up with our “Black Reconstruction in America” reading, we can also add that “claims of reverse discrimination actually go all the way back to the post-Civil War era when the Supreme Court threw out the really very minor Reconstruction Act laws that were attempting to provide a modicum of opportunity for formerly enslaved persons.”)
You can find white supremacy in language. Dog whistles, or coded messages that mean something different depending on whether the audience is in-the-know, can signal white supremacy. One example of this is the infamous Southern Strategy, as stated by Lee Atwater in 1981 (note that we have redacted this quote, watch the following awesome video for more info on why):
“You start out in 1954 by saying, ‘N**ger, n**ger, n**ger’ By 1968 you can’t say ‘n**ger’—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… ‘We want to cut this,’ is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than ‘N**ger, n**ger.’”
White supremacy comes out often when (white) people are challenge their words/deeds when they don’t feel they should have to. Some of the online discussion around the horrendous H&M advertising campaign was surprising because rather than have real conversations about the spectre of racism in America’s history (go back to a few posts this week for some more on this!), the desire is to “all move on with our lives” — especially if that means that white people don’t have to examine their behaviour. This ranking of white ideas/actions/ways of feeling as: a) higher than other ways of being (which some folks don’t have the gall to do outright) or b) ‘the norm’ (which is MUCH more common) doesn’t even occur to (white) people. If the being of whiteness is valued above the being of others, that is white supremacy folks.
You don’t need to be the tiki-torch extreme to practice and benefit from white supremacy.