I am white. When I give talks on what it means to be white in a society deeply separate and unequal by race, I explain that white people who are born and raised in the U.S. grow up in a white supremacist culture. I include myself in this claim, as I enumerate all of the ways in which I was socialized to be complicit in racism. I am not talking about hate groups, of which I am obviously not a member. And no, I don’t hate white people. I am addressing the majority of the audience to whom I am speaking, white progressives like me. If it surprises and unsettles my audience that I use this term to refer to us and not them, even after I have explained how I am using it, then they have not been listening. That recognition should trigger some sense of urgency that continuing education is needed. Yet invariably, a white person raises the objection: I really don’t like that term! I associate it with the KKK and other white nationalist groups. Why can’t you use a different term? As a classic example of white fragility, rather than stretching into a new framework, I am asked by a white participant to use language that is more comfortable and maintains their current worldview.
Many people, especially older white people, associate the term white supremacy with extreme and explicit hate groups. However, for sociologists, white supremacy is a highly descriptive term for the culture we live in; a culture which positions white people and all that is associated with them (whiteness) as ideal.
White supremacy captures the all-encompassing centrality and assumed superiority of people defined and perceived as white, and the practices based upon that assumption. White supremacy is not simply the idea that whites are superior to people of color (although it certainly is that), but a deeper premise that supports this idea—the definition of whites as the norm or standard for human, and people of color as an inherent deviation from that norm.
Thus, when race scholars use the term white supremacy, we do not use it the same way as mainstream culture does. Nor, do we use it to indicate majority-versus-minority relations. Power is not dependent on numbers but on position. We use the term to refer to a socio-political economic system of domination based on racial categories that benefit those defined and perceived as white. This system rests on the historical and current accumulation of structural power that privileges, centralizes, and elevates white people as a group. If, for example, we look at the racial break-down of the people who control our institutions, we see that in 2016-2017:
- Congress: 90% white
- Governors: 96% white
- Top military advisors: 100% white
- President and Vice President: 100% white
- Current POTUS cabinet: 91% white
- People who decide which TV shows we see: 93% white
- People who decide which books we read: 90% white,
- People who decide which news is covered: 85% white,
- People who decide which music is produced: 95% white
- Teachers: 83% white
- Full time College Professors: 84% white
- Owners of men’s pro-football teams: 97% white
These numbers are not a matter of “good people” versus “bad people.” They are a matter of power, control, and dominance by a racial group with a particular self-image, worldview, and set of interests being in the position to disseminate that image and worldview and protect those interests across the entire society.
For a clear example of what it means to have institutional control and use it to the advantage of your group, we can look to Women’s suffrage in the U.S. Only white men could grant women suffrage because white men controlled the government (and all of the other institutions that allowed them to disseminate and enforce patriarchy across society). They still do. While women could be prejudiced against men and discriminate against individual men in isolated cases, women as a group could not deny all men their civil rights. Yet men as a group could deny all women their civil rights. Once white men finally granted women the right to vote, only white men could then deny access to that right for women (and men) of color. White people also write the history that tells us that “women” were granted the right to vote, and erases the reality that that access was not granted equally across race. The term white supremacy allows us to capture the all-encompassing and multi-dimensional nature of white control.
While the dominant racial/ethnic group in other cultures may not be white (for example, the Chinese rule Tibetans, and the Tibetans may experience racism from the Chinese), there is nonetheless a global dimension of white supremacy. Through mass media, corporate culture, advertising, United States-owned manufacturing, military presence, historical colonialist relations, missionary work, and other means, white supremacy is also circulated globally. One of the most potent ways this is disseminated is through media representations which have a profound impact on how we see the world. Given the role of media in modern life, films shape our ideas about romance, conflict, family, friendship, sexuality, criminality, belonging, and otherness.
Those who write and direct films are our cultural narrators; the stories they tell shape our world views. Given that the majority of white people live in racial isolation from people of color (and Black people in particular) and have very few authentic cross-racial relationships, white people are deeply influenced by the racial messages in films. Of the 100 top grossing films worldwide in 2016, 95 were directed by white Americans (99 of them by men). That is an incredibly homogenous group of directors. Because these men are most likely at the top of the social hierarchy (in terms of race, class and gender), they are the least likely to have a wide-variety of authentic egalitarian cross-racial relationships. Yet they are in the position to represent the racial “other.” Their representations of the “other” are thereby extremely narrow and problematic, and reinforced over and over.
Take, for example, the Jackie Robinson story. Robinson is often celebrated as “the first African American to break the color line and play in major-league baseball.” While Robinson was certainly an amazing ball player, this story line depicts Robinson as racially special; a black man who broke that color line himself. The subtext is that Robinson finally had what it took to play with whites, as if no black athlete before him was strong enough to compete at that level. Imagine if instead, the story went something like this: “Jackie Robinson, the first black man whites allowed to play major-league baseball.” This is a critical distinction because no matter how fantastic a player Robinson was, he simply could not play in the major leagues if whites—who control the institution—did not allow it. Were he to walk onto the field prior to being granted permission by white owners and policy makers, the police would have removed him.
Narratives of racial exceptionality obscure the reality of ongoing institutional white control while reinforcing the ideologies of individualism and meritocracy. They also do whites a disservice by obscuring the white allies behind the scenes who worked hard and long to open the field to African American players. These allies could serve as much needed role-models for other whites (although we also need to acknowledge that in the case of the desegregation of baseball, there was an economic incentive for these allies).
White supremacy as a powerful ideology that promotes the idea of whiteness as the ideal for humanity is especially relevant in countries that have a history of colonialism by Western nations. Charles Mills (1997) describes white supremacy as “…the unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today” (p.1). He notes that while white supremacy has shaped Western political thought for hundreds of years, it is rarely named. In this way, white supremacy is rendered invisible while other political systems—socialism, capitalism, fascism—are identified and studied. In fact, much of its power is drawn from its invisibility—the taken-for-granted aspects of white superiority that underwrite all other political and social contracts. White resistance to the term white supremacy prevents us from examining this system. If we can’t identify it, we can’t interrupt it.
Naming white supremacy changes the conversation because it shifts the locus of the problem to white people, where it belongs. It also points us in the direction of the life-long work that is uniquely ours; challenging our complicity with and investment in racism. Yes, this work includes all white people, even white progressives. None of us have missed being shaped by the white supremacy embedded in our culture. Current research in implicit bias demonstrates that all people have racial bias, that most of it is unconscious, and that it does manifest in our actions. Because white people control the institutions, our racial bias is embedded and infused across society and works to the advantage of all white people, regardless of intentions, awareness, or self-image. Our task is not to exempt ourselves from the impact of these conditioning forces, but rather to continually seek to identify how these forces shape us and manifest in our specific lives, and interrupt those manifestations.
The term white supremacy seems to be especially resisted by those whites who marched in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. For those of you that did march, I understand that you may have strong negative associations with the term. So let me acknowledge that your involvement was critical. I, and many others, are grateful for your activism. The racism you marched against was coming from white people (as it always does). In that, it was our problem, as it always has been. We needed to get involved. And precisely because our voices have been granted more legitimacy under white supremacy, we needed to use those voices to challenge the apartheid of the time. I sincerely thank all of the white people who put themselves on the line to protest.
Having said that, we can now move on to the next point: marching in the 60’s did not certify you as racism-free for the rest of your lives, with no re-certification necessary, ever. Nor did it free you of any need for further accountability to people of color. And might there have been some of the more subtle (to whites) forms of racism perpetrated even as you marched? I am not talking about fire-hoses on protesters or beatings at the lunch counter forms of racism. Of course you were, and are, against those explicit forms. I am talking about the white progressive forms of racism which support these more explicit forms; the white savior syndrome you likely brought with you (how could you not – you are a product of your culture), the condescension and patronizing, the marveling at how articulate the Black folks were, even as you took over their movement. I am talking about the reasons that have led folks to do things differently today; why we have Black Lives Matter (BLM) and Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURG). BLM leads, and SURJ is expected to take its direction from BLM.
If we take a closer look at the stories we tell about Jackie Robinson, ourselves, and our activism, we see that these stories mask white supremacy by rendering invisible: whites, white advantage, and the racist policies and practices of the institutions we control. This is what we need to make visible, understand, and interrupt.
So, no, we won’t stop using the term white supremacy.
It’s not on those of us involved in the movement today to change our language for further white comfort. In fact, that is the height of white entitlement. Rather, it is on white people to break out of our comfort zones, realize that things have changed, and initiate our continuing education and skill-building. The internet is over-flowing with excellent guides on how to do this. The inability (or refusal to do so) functions as a form of resistance to change and protection of a very limited and problematic world view. This resistance is not benign; it functions to hold the current racial order in place. There is no neutral stance. We need to move on and move forward, because we are calling it what it is: white supremacy.
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