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We are at what Lisa Hickey rightly calls an inflection point in the United States. White Supremacists and White Nationalists are marching around the nation, ostensibly to protest things like the removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee in Charlottesville, VA. It is time for every white person in this country to decide where they stand. It is far too easy to describe the torch-carrying Supremacists as some other sort of species, as monsters and not as humans.
We can create mental walls: They are them, and we are us. We’re not like them. But this is intellectually dishonest. These people are our co-workers, our family, and our friends. They’re people we pass on the street.
Consider this: The twenty-year-old driver of the car that killed Heather Heyer and injured at least nineteen others has been identified as having attended military boot camp, and being from Maumee, Ohio. In the past, my wife and I have re-enacted as Roman civilians at Muster on the Maumee, a military timeline just south of Toledo. This means there’s a possibility that, as a teenager, he wandered past our Roman camp. I’m sure that if he attended, he spent more time at the World War II displays. I don’t know if the driver did come to Muster on the Maumee, but if he had, I doubt he would have stood out.
The overtly racist White Supremacists marching in Virginia are not a part of a binary, they’re part of a scale. When we capitalize the words “White Supremacy” and treat it like a monstrous philosophy, it is an extreme that can be handily rejected by the majority of whites.
However, on the same spectrum, less extreme, are the various forces that lead to the overrepresentation of whites in nearly every desirable facet of society, and to the contempt and distrust with which POC are seen. We have decided to call these things “white privilege,” but one rarely mentioned aspect of white privilege is the privilege to use language to pretend it isn’t white supremacy. Richard Spencer and his ilk are the id, not an aberration but rather a natural byproduct of unchecked white privilege.
It’s tempting to argue that white privilege is different from white supremacy. Privilege is the gentrification of supremacy: It still implies that white people are inherently more deserving than others. It still implies that white people are superior to everyone else. As Dr. Robin DiAngelo writes, “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.”
This is an uncomfortable claim because every white person gains in some way from privilege. As a friend writes, “White supremacy benefits all white people. Including the ones who aren’t racist. That’s why it survives.”
This is not saying that every white person ought to be grouped with the torch-wielders. Many of us actively fight against our enculturation and our programming. However, no matter how hard I fight, no matter what amends I make, I know there are so many ways in which I’m advantaged because of my whiteness.
To say this is not to be self-loathing. I have no hatred of my skin color, even if there are times of frustration during which I wonder at its betrayal. We have the world we have, and we have the filters we have. We can accept them or we can stand up against them, but until we acknowledge them, until we accept that we are on the same spectrum as the torch-wielders, until we register the daily microaggressions we make and the moments of rest we take, until we embrace the uncomfortable truth that we are the privileged product of a racist culture, we will not be able to effect real, lasting change.
I do not hate myself, I hate that so many people are so resistant to accepting their complicity, their casual dismissiveness, and their usually passive role in the perpetuation of the systems which support racism to persist. I would hope nobody reading this approves of the torches and hatred spewed this weekend in Charlottesville, but to what extent are the white American readers willing to accept the benefits they receive from their whiteness?
This question is not meant to invoke guilt: Like everyone else it was aimed at, I was born white. There’s nothing I can do about that fact. This is meant to provoke thought and reflection about what we all intend to do about it.
With every fiber of my being, with every strength of my conviction, I reject the notion that this nation is a possession of white people, to be returned to us by force of law or arms. It disturbs and disgusts me that Richard Spencer and his supporters feel so comfortable that, unlike their KKK forebears, they don’t even feel the need to wear masks. I hope the same is true for you as well.
At the same time, I encourage us all to reflect: Are we each doing what we can to move ourselves beyond the racist heritage that gave birth to this blight? Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, “And if you gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into you.” This is the white person’s abyss: How is your gazing going?
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