by Tussy Wallace
White supremacy is a historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white nations for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power and privilege. It is important to understand that white supremacy is an ideology; a collection of ideas that work together to affect how we see and understand the world around us. White supremacy expresses itself though structural and institutional racism, prejudice and stereotypes. We see it in KKK and Nazi propaganda, but it is also expressed through television, books, and daily interactions with one another. White supremacy involves the beliefs, conscious or unconscious, as well as all of the formal structures that maintain the belief that white people are superior to people of color. These are words that we all take for granted; racism, stereotypes, and prejudice. It is important that we agree on a working definition of each of these concepts before we go any further.
Racism is Race Prejudice AND Power. The classification of race as we use it today was created by white Europeans. It assigns human value and worth using “white” as the ideal. It is for the purpose of establishing and maintaining privilege and power.
Prejudice is fairly simple concept and most of us understand it fairly well. It is a pre-judgment in favor or against a person, group, event, idea, or thing. A negative prejudgment is a stereotype.
Stereotypes are oversimplified or generalized idea about a particular group of people.
An action based on a stereotype is bigotry. A bigot is an intolerant person that believes prejudices about members and treats them with hatred and intolerance.
Discrimination is an action or practice that excludes, disadvantages or merely differentiates between individuals and groups based on prejudice.
Power is a bit harder to define. It can only be understood as a relationship between humans in a specific historical, economic and social setting. It is expressed several different ways, some of them are less concrete than others, and all of them are complex. Power can be controlling the institutions sanctioned by the state, defining reality and controlling the definitions of that reality, ownership and control of the resources of the state, language, the capacity to act. It is also essential to understand the representations of whiteness and otherness. It doesn’t matter if the difference is portrayed positively or negatively, the other is always constructed against the ideal of white. This allows white people to distance themselves, and deny, racism.
Language is a source of power that we don’t think about often. The language that we use maintains white supremacy. Naturally, we can think of the most overt cases that this happens. Nazi’s can print and distribute flyers that promote stereotypes, whiteness, and hate. The KKK can host a rally in Charlottesville. There are hate crimes that allow people to be targeted solely due to their otherness. But there are subtle examples that we actually experience every day. Envision yourself sitting in your favorite chair, the light is perfect, and you’ve got a delicious drink beside you while you dive into the novel you’ve been eager to read. About ¼ of the way through the book and you’re introduced to a new character and in the description he’s a “tall and slender black man,” let me ask you….what were the characters’ “races” prior to this? The default is white.
I could talk for days about the language in mainstream media. They use coded words to perpetuate white supremacy (‘thug”, “urban problem” or even “Alt-right”). I can discuss the books we are given as children that only offer white characters that live in a Christian home. I could point out the tokenized black and brown faces on the television, or the small section of black and brown dolls compared the vast white faces in the toy store. Not to mention, most toy stores don’t include Indian, Asian or Muslim dolls. All of these things perpetuate white supremacy.
Let me give another “daily life” example. An office has primarily white employees. They recently hired a black woman in the office. The secretary comes over and begins touching her hair. The secretary makes it a point to ‘compliment’ the woman weekly about her hair. But why? Why is this woman’s hair any source of fascination or admiration? The secretary doesn’t mention anyone else’s hair in the office. The secretary’s standard of beauty comes from the white supremacist ideal of whiteness, and her fascination comes from what is “different” or the other. By the way, this secretary’s behavior is a microagression: a statement or action that is indirect, subtle, or unintentionally discriminatory against someone who has been othered, or marginalized.
WHAT DOES UNITED STATES HISTORY TEACH US?
The history books don’t use the word genocide when talking about the expansion west, but we have all know the term, “Manifest Destiny.” The Star Spangled Banner? The history and words that we do not think about in the third stanza, outright state that the blood of the former slaves should be used to wash away the pollution of the British invaders.
European notions of racial superiority and inferiority metastasized into slave labor. The colonies of North America struggled for survival during their early years. Between Nathaniel Bacon’s rebellion in 1676, the plant-cutting rebellion of 1682, and a rapid decline of servants immigrating, planters increasingly turned to the black slave trade for labor. The institution of slavery was embedded in all levels of government. Four of the first five presidents were slaveholders. These presidents would help to shape the nation’s policy of geographic and economic growth around the survival and expansion of slavery, but they would also effect the shaping of the Constitution and government itself, including compromises on the issues of representation with the House of Representatives and Senate. The nation’s white supremacists policy was cemented and maintained through legislation and judicial rulings.
Our nationalism in the United States is synonymous with whiteness. That is why we are seeing such a rise in anti-Immigration policies and even in non-violent organizations and academics, such as Vanguard America and American Freedom Party. By hiding white supremacist ideology inside Nationalism, it is able to be denied and perpetuated. All you have to do is scratch the surface of any Nationalist movement or action and you’ll find the rotten seed of white supremacist ideology.
HOW DO WE COMBAT WHITE SUPREMACY?
It requires a dismantling of this system…from the institutions that we’ve built to the words that we use to the culture that we support. How do we do that? I encourage your first step to be exactly this: Learn. Own up to the history of this country and Europe. Understand how capitalism perpetuates White Supremacy. Own up to our white privilege. Once we understand the privilege bestowed upon us, then we can understand how to create the most impact in fighting white supremacy.
We must start addressing these issues. We all interact with the system of white supremacy, and we all uphold it to some degree, so we have the power to tear it down. Individually begin to ask yourself some important questions and act on them when the answers don’t actively dismantle these systems. Are you supporting businesses owned by people of color? Are you voting for taxes and levies that empower and enrich communities of color? Are you buying art from artists of color and rejecting the appropriation of that art by white artists?
When was the last time you attended a city council meeting or contacted your mayor’s office? Are you asking for city and state funds to go to projects to support communities of color? Are you paying attention to which judges and prosecutors will be granted the authority to decide the fate of the millions of black and brown adolescents and adults trapped in our racist criminal justice system? Are you speaking against racially discriminatory photo ID laws that directly affect how black and brown voters have been disenfranchised? Are you demanding police oversight by a third party and accountability for police brutality? Are you regularly calling your representatives and pushing them to protect those in the community through legislation?
Attend the next school board meeting—address the curriculum inside of the classrooms. How is slavery being taught? What conversations are had in class around Thanksgiving or Columbus Day? What are they learning about the Japanese internment camps? What black history is being taught throughout the school year? Are any of the explorers, scientists, politicians, or artists that the school teach about intersectional? What is the racial makeup of your school board and school staff? How many children of color are suspended and expelled from your local schools? Does your school engage in restorative justice practices? How does your school address racist, Islamophobic, and anti-Semitic bullying? Is your district outsourcing its discipline to anti-black police forces?
How do you handle situations where you witness any form of racism, discrimination, bigotry, or even microaggressions? Most of us are uncomfortable and don’t want to draw attention (or anger) to ourselves. However, we must decisively address these situations when we see them. Obedience studies conducted and reproduced over the past 40 years show that when people are presented with the defiant actions of individuals, it serves to undermine authority and encouraged the dismantling of these power structures.
The non-violent narrative is ingrained in our culture. It is what we have been taught since we were born, with MLK and Ghandi being held to idealist standards of “how to achieve change.” The government and politicians have trained us to believe that peaceful protesting works. However, when we look closely at Martin Luther King, Jr., we learn that he utilized the violence against him as a tactic. The lesson is strategy, not pacifism. It was the Birmingham riot that caused the Civil Rights Act. Don’t take my word for it, the tapes have been declassified and are available for you to listen to. Ghandi advocated nonviolence, but like MLK, utilized strategy. He endorsed the QUIT India Movement that carried out bombings and ambushes. Just five short years before the British granted independence, the Indian National Army began waging an amateurish hit and run campaign. This diversity of tactics; violent and non-violent, grassroots and structural, is the key to true change in society.
Start by talking. To friends and family. To the stranger in the coffee shop. At work. Expand your friends and acquaintances to include an intersectional group of people from all cultures. Listen to people of color as they describe their lived experience, without arguing, centering yourself or defending. Create a study group that focuses on feminist work by women of color. Deepen your understanding of the historical development of white supremacy and how it intersects with capitalism, patriarchy, heterosexism, the gender binary and the state.
Join a local organization working to divest from anti-Back policing. Find a group working on the issues of health care and education access and fair wages for communities of color. Capitalism is rooted in racial injustice, so support impactful organizations to end capitalism. Donate to a local community radio station, support podcasts or other forms of media that work from an anti-racist foundation. Offer your time to teach classes at a community center. Start an urban garden in areas that need food.
Reject the concept of individualism that our culture perpetuates. Connect to those that share common experiences, ideas or values. Together we can create a better world. Develop time- banks, a system where each of you receive and provide gifts of time and talent with one another. Create cooperatives. Create and nurture the community you want to build. Community isn’t just a buzzword. Community is essential to building bonds of trust and reciprocity that are critical to a healthy society. It is required for any local, grassroots, mass movement. It is a requirement necessary to build a society liberated from the bonds of oppression.