Saturday, July 25, 2015

Beyond the Cartoon of White Supremacy

First, a photo and some words from Twitter:

Nothing is so effective at turning people off white supremacy as letting its hilarious champions march in public.
For a second I thought, Yeah!

And then I thought: No.

That photo and those marchers are a cartoon of white supremacy. The rest of us white people all benefit from actual white supremacy, and photos and marches like this allow us to think we're not part of white supremacy.

White supremacy (the belief that whiteness is better) is engrained in our culture, from the beauty standard and Hollywood movies to home-purchasing and hiring decisions and food deserts, from loitering laws to mass incarceration and the drug war. Even this: There were no voter registration laws in this country until black men were given the right to vote after the Civil War. Then, it suddenly became necessary to control who was voting.

And that’s just current white supremacy — it doesn’t include the way our country was built on white supremacy by enslaved black people and exterminated native people. For instance, New York City with its great harbor became what it is by profiting from the slave trade. Even our most elite universities were raised up with profits from slavery.

White privilege is a result or aspect of white supremacy, and every white person in this country has white privilege, even if we don’t have class privilege, straight privilege, or other forms of privilege.

The fact that we're taught to believe white supremacy equals the Klan or neo-Nazis, rather than the way our society is structured, works in favor of white supremacy, hiding it and making anyone who calls it out sound like an extremist.

It took me a long time to realize this, and I thank Ta-Nahesi Coates’s writing for the Atlantic over the years for making it clear to me.

In his short and worthy book Between the World and Me, Coates calls us white people “people who believe they are white,” after a turn of phrase by James Baldwin. We are not actually white, since that is both a bad description of our skin colors and a socially agreed upon category that only exists in comparison to someone who is defined as “black.”

Black people also do not exist, of course, but the way they are treated in society has real effects that matter and can’t be wished away with the vacuous proclamation “I don’t see color.”

Black people in the U.S. not only have created a multifaceted culture that mainstream culture continues to copy and profit from: they have solidarity together in the face of oppression. Coates sums this up in one of his pithiest phrases: “They made us into a race; we made ourselves into a people.”


The photo and thoughts on the most obvious form of white supremacy are from the Twitter account of Charles C.W. Cooke.

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