In striving to be ‘civil,’ white moderates provide cover for deadly white supremacy.
The Boston Globe recently ran — and subsequently deleted — a tweet that, with a straight face, asked: “Can white power groups get past old differences and build lasting relationships?”
Welcome to our current reality, in which white supremacists are treated like B-grade celebs on a reality TV show.
The tweet should hardly come as a surprise. White supremacists are, after all, routinely landing profiles in leading media sites — because it’s apparently surprising Nazis can brush their hair and tuck in their shirt — and often getting invited onto popular shows, as if their ideas deserve more attention and platforms.
In fact, in today’s media and political environment, white supremacists have some of the most powerful platforms in the world, as well as the power to act on their toxic resentment. These are people who, in one breath, can claim to be oppressed, and in the next boast about retaining most of the world’s wealth and power and even the executive and legislative spheres of American government. And on the latter point, they’re not wrong.
Still, I’m not primarily concerned with the almost cartoonishly — but for the fact that they hurt people of color every day — evil Trump Administration, or the Neo-Nazis around the world who love said administration. Instead, I’m mostly concerned about those who look on and treat racism as fairly normal, as everyday, as a mere quality of a “passionate” group.
The media discusses white supremacists like they’re B-grade celebs on a reality TV show.
I’m concerned about those white people who think profiling Nazis amounts to “hearing both sides,” as if racist ideas are taking place in some kind of agora, instead of a battlefield where we must regularly dodge hatred.
It’s the epitome of white privilege to be able to encounter racism and consider calmly listening to what this nicely dressed man thinks about segregation and integration, “black on black crime,” and so forth.
Worse still is that this kind of engagement means not giving time to people of color: whether as a media platform or your individual attention. When you invite a Nazi into your house, you probably won’t find us wanting a seat at your table. When you make efforts to hear a racist, it means you’ve ignored efforts to hear a person of color. Whenever you profile a Nazi, you’ve made it clear to us precisely whose views you would rather use your finite resources and platform on.
When you invite a Nazi into your house, you probably won’t find us wanting a seat at your table.
This isn’t an issue of balance: You can’t counter this by claiming to also want our opinion. The planet’s entire history is one of hearing, witnessing, and struggling against white people’s ideas of race. We’re not on equal platforms; we’re still fighting an uphill battle against the mountain of white supremacy, in the shadow of colonial history. South Africa, my country, only experienced universal, non-racist adult suffrage in 1994. There’s no level playing field here.
And yet, white moderates would rather fall on their swords to hear what racists think in the name of “free speech” than take the time to understand people of color’s perspectives. They insist on saying people are “too harsh” in punching Nazis (I have my own views), in shouting down Nazis, and in calling Nazis, well, Nazis. The opposition to Nazis lecturing at universities gets shoved into a nonsense debate about “free speech,” instead of getting discussed as an issue of survival for people of color.
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By adding a dash of synonyms (“alt right”), a sprinkle of personal hygiene (“well-groomed”), and a tone of smirking civility, white moderates welcome white supremacists to share their platforms, as if they’re not spouting views that echo apartheid or Nazi history. When white supremacists get called “clowns” or “crusaders” or trolls of the “alt-right,” we ignore that these people are actually proponents of racist ideology who would love to see people of color die or no longer exist.
When framed in this way, any opposition from people of color is also viewed not as opposing racists, but as opposing a passionate or playfully villainous group just trying to express its free speech.
It’s easy to get trapped into believing yourself good when there are almost no repercussions for being wrong.
The issue with all this isn’t that suddenly Not Racist white people will start finding comfort with the Klan. It’s that these white people tolerate and entertain views from those who would see us dead.
In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” Dr. King made a claim that you won’t find most white people sharing on social media on MLK Day:
“I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
For people of color, many governments’ idea of maintaining “law and order” is not maintaining (actual) justice, but continuing oppression. In South Africa, the apartheid regime was entirely legal, maintained by laws set down by elected lawmakers, often given further veracity by courts. Maintaining “law and order” meant maintaining segregation (literally “apartheid”), limiting how far and when and how often people could go: in life and in daily movement.
As Dr. King later points out in the same letter: “I had hoped that the white moderate would understand that law and order exist for the purpose of establishing justice and that when [law and order] fail in this purpose they become the dangerously structured dams that block the flow of social progress.”
This is why the status quo deserves to be upset: because the way things are doesn’t equate to how things should be. It’s only through confronting various personal and political systems, and upsetting them, that progress happens. Remember: Opposing apartheid was literally illegal. If people of color are disruptive, it’s because things need to be changed.
The way things are doesn’t equate to how things should be.
White supremacy is being treated like a normal way of thinking by those who do not bear any fallout of such views taking root. It’s not white people who make up most of America’s prison system, and it’s not people from white countries who were being denied entry into America’s airports. White moderates must understand that flirting and ogling well-groomed Nazis isn’t an academic exercise for us. Yes, you might be able to do so and face no repercussions, but who benefits? Certainly not people of color. Certainly not people who claim to support us. All that happens is white supremacists obtain an air of legitimacy.
And the opposition to such legitimacy — whether on shows or campuses — is construed as people of color being hypersensitive, disruptive. “How dare they shake things up!” Instead of seeing that the status quo is fucked and toxic — since we’ve not shaken off the effects of white supremacy — white moderates opt for “civility” when what’s required is justice. They would rather spend time finger-wagging at Black Lives Matter or other activists for being too loud, than call out Nazi-loved lawmakers making statutes that kill people.
White moderates opt for ‘civility’ when what’s required is justice.
And so white supremacy gets another cover — the white moderates’ displeasure at people of color, and their opinion about how we should fight against racism. “Don’t lump all white people together!” “It’s not a race issue, it’s a class/economics issue!” “If you don’t do anything wrong, the government won’t discriminate!” Not understanding that even following the rules doesn’t lead to positive outcomes for people of color, white moderates engage in a form of racism that bolsters more overt white supremacy.
In turn, more cover means white supremacist views can gain footholds and start influencing beyond the dark corners of the internet. The Trump Administration is no accident. The growing international support of such populist, racist movements is not by chance. We saw this coming because white people don’t listen and don’t want to listen. Think about the fact that non-racist, diverse modern societies are new. Our entire history has been one of inequality. These ideas aren’t emerging from nowhere: Indeed, we’re fighting against humanity’s collective history. But that’s all the more reason we need more white people speaking out against it, interrogating their own privilege and seeking out people of color’s perspectives.
Our entire history has been one of inequality.
There can be no peace without justice. And it’s time white moderates prioritized justice above civility, and put the well-being and safety of people of color above their curiosity over that funny little man who makes feminists angry. It’s time for white folk to stop expressing personal displeasure when, say, some young activist calls them “oppressor,” instead of wondering what would lead someone to say that in the first place. White moderates have little to lose by maintaining the status quo, but much to gain by fighting against it.
Privilege is a blindspot that requires constant interrogation, and we can only hope that white people listen to us when they blunder, instead of flirting with the sympathetic eye of the Nazi.
But who said being a better person would be easy? Racism is primarily white people’s problem, even though people of color must face it every day. White people can help us by putting aside their white fragility — and, importantly, not making it our problem to manage — and start fighting white supremacy alongside us: Start by listening to our opinions on race, instead of your gut reaction and feelings of being attacked.
That is what we need, that is how we progress, that is how we obtain justice.