Dear Facebook: What’s white supremacy, anyway?

This is a followup to last week’s Dear Facebook, where we talked about how unlearning racism is lifelong thing, and how if you’re white and reading this, there’s a good chance you’re still working on it. (There’s also a chance you’re not, but that’s an even more depressing thought so let’s table it for now.)

In light of some of the terms being thrown around this week, I thought it might be helpful to define white supremacy and white nationalism before we talk about recognizing and fighting white supremacy and white nationalism. When someone like former Imperial Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan David Duke keeps praising our president-elect’s appointments, it seems important to know why.

Because crowd sourcing seems like the most democratic way of defining these terms, I’m okay using Wikipedia for this.

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White supremacy…is a racist ideology centered upon the belief, and promotion of the belief, that white people are superior in certain characteristics, traits, and attributes to people of other racial backgrounds and that therefore white people should politically, economically and socially rule non-white people.

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White nationalism is an ideology that advocates a racial definition of national identity. Proponents of the ideology identify with and are attached to the concept of a white nation. It ranges from a preference for one’s specific white ethnic group, to feelings of superiority, including calls for national citizenship to be reserved for white people.

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So there you go. When Steve Bannon told his wife that he didn’t want his girls going to a specific school because there were too many Jewish students, that was white supremacy. Private white supremacy, but white supremacy just the same.

And when his website Breitbart continued to push the lie that thousands of American Muslims cheered the 9/11 attacks, that was also white supremacy. Very much public white supremacy. Intended to villainize (and other-ize) people of Muslim faith.

But when David Duke praises Trump for bringing Steve Bannon and Jeff Sessions onto the White House team because Duke has explicitly called for “the separation of the white and black races,” that’s both white nationalism and white supremacy.

And it goes without saying that it’s all racist garbage. But when when garbage racists are named to White House positions, it’s important to know exactly what kinds of garbage racism we’re talking about.

Personal complicity in white supremacy

But not to let myself off the hook, the concept of white supremacy is bigger than the acts of overt racists like Steve Bannon or David Dukes. In Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black, activist and author bell hooks writes:

When liberal whites fail to understand how they can and/or do embody white supremacist values and beliefs even though they may not embrace racism as prejudice or domination (especially domination that involves coercive control), they cannot recognize the ways their actions support and affirm the very structure of racist domination and oppression that they wish to see eradicated.

So how does that realization figure into the daily actions of white folks who want to live an anti-racist life? Dr. Sylvia Chan-Malik gives us a starting point.

Understand that whiteness is an asset, something owned and embodied. The best explanation of this idea can be found in law professor Cheryl Harris’ 1993 essay “Whiteness As Property,” in which she lays out how the law has treated and protected whiteness as a right, for example, with redlining in housing, or racial disparities in education. Like a luxury car or an expensive suit, whiteness facilitates entry into elite or exclusive spaces. White people should acknowledge that while whiteness does not necessarily grant access to such spaces, it allows them far more mobility, comfort and safety than those without it.

We’ll talk more about white privilege at another time, but the first step in fighting white supremacy is recognizing how white supremacy has benefited us. In education, in the work force, in our churches, in the civic sphere, in our ability to navigate white spaces without fear of suspicion or prejudice, regardless of our economic status.

(We can also talk about the intersection of class and race, too, at a later point, and we’ll probably come back to bell hooks when we do, for very good reasons. But put a pin in that for now.)

After we recognize how we directly benefit from white supremacy, we’re left with what to do with that information. For that, let’s start with a quote from Race Matters, where Dr. Cornel West writes:

White supremacist ideology is based first and foremost on the degradation of black bodies in order to control them. One of the best ways to instill fear in people is to terrorize them. Yet this fear is best sustained by convincing them that their bodies are ugly, their intellect is inherently underdeveloped, their culture is less civilized, and their future warrants less concern than that of other peoples.

While West is speaking specifically about the black experience in this passage, it illustrates a larger point. Remember the lie that Trump and Bannon kept repeating about American Muslims celebrating on 9/11? When white supremacist actors can sufficiently villainize a people group to the point where a presidential candidate can a) float the idea of a Muslim registry and get elected; and b) have many white Americans defend his statements; they’ve already won (even if the registry is less like WWII-era Nazi schemes and more like one Bush implemented after 9/11).

Degradation. Dehumanization. Control. We might not be able to eliminate racist thought, but these are acts of white supremacy that white people can/should be speaking out and organizing against right now.

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Next week, we’ll take a look at how white privilege fits into all this. And how privilege is leveraged to both fight for and against white supremacy.