Living White Supremacy
How looking at my White life is helping me to understand the everyday White way
I wrote something about my family and, after publishing it, encountered a loud and emotional backlash that I should have anticipated, but didn’t. I have been talking about race and racism and my role in it for so long and so consistently, that I forgot what it feels like to be awakened to the idea that you — as a White person — are instrumental to the system that perpetuates racial advantage and disadvantage. I forgot how painful it is. I forgot that White fragility is rooted in White inexperience and that this is not the fault of individual White people. I forgot what it was like for me. I forgot how important it is for the speaker to go first.
I’ve been called racist a lot in my life and those doing the calling out were right every time. As Ibram X. Kendi says, “‘Racist’ is not…a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it — and then dismantle it.” But of course I didn’t see it that way when I was first called racist by Latinx students and African American colleagues who could see what my White lens had developed blind spots around.
The truth is, I was and am still engaged in racist thoughts and actions every day of my life. Every time I center my experience, as a White person, as the universal experience, I am being racist. Every time I think of a racial group in terms of a single set of characteristics and not the full scope of humanity, I am being racist. Every time I fail to act in support of anti-racist policies or efforts, I am being racist. Every time I am silent about acts that oppress POC in order to preserve comfort or false harmony, I am being racist. Because racism is the status quo, the foundational structure that our society is built upon, I am being racist every time I am not making an intentional effort not to do so and, frankly, that happens a lot. It happens every day.
When I was first awakened to my White identity, I had been working with POC for years blissfully unaware how my whiteness was intersecting with the systems and culture of white supremacy around me to result in increased advantages for white people and disadvantages for POC. I worked at a school that, like many schools across the country, serve far more Black and Brown students than not but that was staffed predominantly by White women. The ways of the school, then, were the ways of White women. We set up our classrooms to serve students who were “like us.” We thought of curriculum in terms of what we would have wanted to learn or did enjoy learning. We set behavioral expectations for each other and for our students based on the characteristics of white supremacy culture, which, as Tema Okun says, “are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. Because we all live in a white supremacy culture, these characteristics show up in the attitudes and behaviors of all of us.” We perpetuated what we knew, based on what we valued, based on a culture that put white power at its center.
Though I knew about the “achievement gap” and the statistics illustrating that Black and Brown people in our country were more likely to live in poverty, to be unemployed and uninsured, and to be the victims of community violence, I didn’t learn about whiteness until my sixth year as a White educator. Until then, it had remained invisible to me. Whiteness was synonymous with “how it is,” or how it should be. In discussions about how to improve teaching and learning, we discussed ways of ensuring that our students — almost entirely Latinx and African American young people living in East Oakland — were proficient in the knowledge, skills, and habits of whiteness. Our goal was an assimiliationist’s goal, relying upon the assimiliationist’s conception of integration and success, which seeks to erase POC and bring them un-threateningly into the world of whiteness.
I perpetuated this in many ways, from the texts I choose to teach in my class to the ways I set and reinforced behavioral expectations for my classes to the ways I paternalized my encouragement of my students based on some deep, underlying belief that I had something to offer that they could not generate on their own. When I began working more closely with Black and Brown educators, I frequently assumed that my ideas or ways of doing things were superior. I often incorporated feedback from students, families, and educators of color only superficially. I felt confident in my stance because it reflected what was dominant and widely accepted. White supremacy made it easy for me to continue to believe that the perspectives of POC could be dismissed or somehow improved by my intervention.
All of this was happening beneath the surface. I don’t remember thinking any of it consciously and I certainly never consciously thought about my students as being in any way inferior. The language in my psyche was coded to protect my sense of myself as a good, non-racist person. I spoke of skill gaps and mitigating factors and patterns outside my control. I appeased people when I could. I sought a peace that eased immediate tensions but did not solve problems. My intentions were good. It’s only now that, looking back on my early years as an educator, I am able to see the ways I was a well-intentioned, unwitting enforcer of white supremacy and that, furthermore, my “good intentions” protected me from my negative impact while protecting no one from me.
When we hear the words “white supremacy” our minds bring to image pictures of confederate flags and burning crosses and people we would never want to be or associate with. We think that distancing ourselves from these words distances us from their impact, while in fact they bring us further away from the work of dismantling the white supremacist forces that dictate all our lives.
As Layla F. Saad writes in her book, Me and White Supremacy:
White supremacy is a racist ideology that is based on upon a belief that white people are superior in many ways to people of other races and that therefore, white people should be dominant over other races. White supremacy is not just an attitude or way of thinking. It also extends to how systems and institutions are structures to uphold this white dominance. (12)
She goes on to say:
People often think that white supremacy is a term that is only used to describe far-right extremists and neo-Nazis. However, this idea that white supremacy only applies to the so-called “bad ones” is both incorrect and dangerous, because it reinforces the idea that white supremacy is an ideology that is only upheld by a fringe group of white people. White supremacy is far from fringe. In white-centered societies and communities, it is the dominant paradigm that forms the foundation from which norms, rules, and laws are created. (13)
We live in a “white-centered society,” and all of the ways that we have learned to be follow from that source. We do not need to personally believe that white people are superior; our systems and institutions and culture does it for us. Without an intentional, critical, bone-weary effort to make this visible and call ourselves into the work of interrupting, dismantling, and reimagining a world centered around a diverse and inclusive society that equally values all its members, we will continue to be the bearers of white supremacy.
We have to understand that, without an intentional deconstruction of what we naturally do, we will perpetuate racial inequities. Without an intentional rethinking of the way we evaluate options and design our way forward, we are perpetuating white supremacy. We don’t do this because we want to or because we consciously value White lives over others; we do this because it is the status quo and interrupting the status quo takes an enormous act of will.
I still struggle with this. My life has taught me to privilege my own experience over others’ and to make decisions that serve my own immediate wellbeing. My experience has taught me to work for what I want for myself. My humanity has taught me to put myself at the center of my experience and do what’s best for me and for those I love most. These are the normal instincts of self-preservation; they can’t and shouldn’t be removed from the equation. But when they are held by the system of white supremacy, we must push ourselves to also consider the impacts of our choices for those far beyond our immediate worldview.
What I hope — for myself and for my White brothers and sisters — is that we can begin to develop an awareness of the impacts we have on those we don’t know or those we can’t fully see. Our dominant paradigm is white supremacy and our colorblind upbringings have led us to further erase the experience of Black and Brown people. That may make us uncomfortable or resentful or offended or irate. That’s okay. I felt that way and often still do. It is hard to bear the burden of a system we didn’t design and to be loaded up with words that don’t match our sense of ourselves. But white supremacy will continue to be our dominant way of being until we understand what it means to locate white supremacy and intentionally interrupt it. I hope — and believe — that we can build our resiliency for this struggle, that we can learn to look white supremacy in our own lives and name it, that we can help those around us to see it, that we can help ourselves and each other to remove the blind spots white supremacy has wrapped around us and more clearly see the world we live in and our power to change it for the better.
This may feel like a loss or like a failure. We will want to look back at our choices and defend them because we were doing the best we could. We will want to protect what we’ve worked for and what we value, while we fear that we will have to give these things up for unclear and distant societal improvements that have no clear value to us or our families. We will feel guilty or ashamed or furious. We will grow weary and want to disengage. We will learn and grow. We will resist change. We will try again. I know I did.
Keep going. Be compassionate with yourself and with others. Listen. Embrace discomfort. Focus on the impact, not the intention. Do the best you can. I believe it will be enough.