Try to imagine how you would feel if you woke up one morning to find the sun shivering and all the stars aflame. You would be frightened because it is out of the order of nature. Any upheaval in the universe is terrifying because it so profoundly attacks one’s sense of one’s own reality. Well, the black man has functioned in the white man’s world as a fixed star, as an immovable pillar, and as he moves out of his place, heaven and earth are shaken to their foundations. (James Baldwin, “A Letter to My Nephew,” 1962)
What is white supremacy? It’s a system (or set of systems) that systemically advantages white people at the expense of people of color.
Does it exist? Yes it does.
Before a longer answer, a couple of disclaimers:
1) I have thought a lot about these questions and am pretty clear on the answers in my head. And yet when I’m asked by someone who does not see it like I do, I’m almost at a loss for words. Not in a bad way, it’s just humbling. It’s a weird feeling. It feels a little like being asked whether earth revolves around the sun. I don’t mean that in a dismissive or trivializing way. I mean it’s the kind of thing that once you see, you can’t un-see, but before you have, it’s easy to miss. And once you see it even for a moment, it can be terrifying (hence Baldwin’s language).
2) I think the question of the existence of white supremacy will likely sound insane to many, many people of color. Like, how could you even ask? And so it’s really tempting for me, a white guy who thinks he gets it, to be smug and sarcastic when confronted with someone who thinks that white supremacy is not a force in our world. And I have been smug about this, especially when discussing it semi-anonymously on the internet. Like I said, this will seem insane to many people of color that it could be a question. But I have also spoken with many people of color who have said things like (paraphrasing) “it’s crazy there are people out there who don’t believe it exists, but it your job [i.e. white people’s who do think it does] to find the other white people who think it doesn’t, and it’s your job not to give up on them until you’ve gotten them to see things as they are.” I take this charge seriously, and many people I have known and cared about, as well as many public intellectuals whose work I have read, watched and listened to, have laid it upon me and all the other, as Baldwin calls them elsewhere “well-meaning white people.”
3) This is such a complex question that the best way I can think to handle it is to try to answer it in a lot of different ways. Since my first recourse in life is often intellectual/abstract, I’m trying an abstract way here. It’s probably too abstract and doesn’t prove too much. I’ll try others later.
Okay, disclaimers done. Now for the much harder part.
What is white supremacy?
I was at an anti-racism workshop a few years ago. It met at a Catholic Seminary. It was expertly facilitated by a black woman and a white woman. The black woman asked us to turn to a blank paper in our packet, and said “what is white supremacy? Draw the first thing that comes to mind.” I am bad at drawing. It’s actually the thing I’m the worst at in this world. My 3 year old is only a little bit worse at drawing than I am. But I thought for a second, and drew a stick-figure KKK member. He had a triangular head, a trapezoidal body, and four single-line ball-point-penned limbs.
When I was younger, and I heard people talk about “white supremacist organizations,” I figured I knew what they meant. And a lot of times, when people use the phrase, “white supremacy,” they in fact do use it to describe the KKK, Neo-Nazis, etc. And so if that is what White Supremacy means, well then, sure, it exists, but it is hardly a prevailing force in the world. By this I don’t mean that those groups and the violence and harm they have inflicted is trivial–it’s not–I only mean that they do not rule the world and (though this is less true than it was even 18 months ago) they are nowhere close to ruling the world. The governing norms of our society are not the KKK’s or the Neo-Nazis’.
But that’s not what I mean by white supremacy when I say, self-assuredly, that white supremacy exists. But what do I mean? And why am I so sure it’s real?
Like I said, it’s really hard to know where to start. In fact, in the anti-racism protocol we use at my school, the question I’m writing about right now is the last one I’m supposed to tackle, the hardest one, the final of six “conditions” which need to apply to make a space (a individual’s head-space, a classroom, a curriculum school, a neighborhood, a city, a state, a nation, a world) anti-racist – to be able to recognize the role of “whiteness” within that space.
So maybe “what is white supremacy” is not the best place to start. Maybe instead I should try to explain the previous 5 “conditions” first, and the 4 “agreements” that are supposed to precede them. But that all gets so theoretical and abstract so quickly, and so jargon-filled, it will sound circular and question-begging to someone who doesn’t see it that way.
And also, maybe a written monologue isn’t the best way to do this either. Because these things change in people’s minds in dialogue, in lived experience, in conversation, workshop, argumentation, not just from sitting and reading.
But I honestly believe part of what let me, as a white person, to come to understand this, WAS reading, and abstract, intellectual explanations (part, but not all). So I don’t want to set that aside entirely.
So here: this isn’t proof, nor is it meant to be, but one thing I can do right now is provide an alternative definition. What is white supremacy? It’s not a group of men in white sheets in The Birth of a Nation. It’s not a cadre pseudo-military dimwits haplessly chasing Dan Ackroyd and John Belushi across the screen in The Blues Brothers.
It’s something much more complicated (in some ways) but also, much more visceral and simple (in others). I started off by comparing this to the question of whether the earth goes around the sun. Here’s what I meant: there were (and still are – in obscure corners of the internet) geocentric astronomers.
[Okay, what follows is not real intellectual history – I’ve read accounts that were much more precise and responsible to the facts – I’m haphazardly summarizing to make an analogy]
Prior to the 16th century, the Catholic church’s official position was that geocentrism was true: that the earth was at the center of the universe. Now, if you try to do astronomy while maintaining that the earth is at the center of the universe, you have trouble doing basic calculations. You can account for some planets’ motions, but not others. The moon makes a whole bunch of sense; the sun less so. But as long as you believe the earth is at the center of things, you can work and work and work to do science on that premise. People did (at least some people did) for hundreds of years. And they didn’t totally fail. Every theory has problems, and the role of science normally is to try to solve those problems. If you accept relativity and quantum physics (neither theory is now seen as simplistic of obviously wrong) you have problems too. There is no airtight theory of everything now either.
So when people urging the heliocentric model came along, they weren’t just ushered in as truth-tellers. The geocentric tradition thought it might be rash to just go changing everything. They thought they could explain planetary motion if they kept working at it. This is where the idea of “epicycles” comes in. The idea is that you can explain phenomena in less-than-intuitive ways as long as you’re willing to invent more and more exceptions (theories of epicycles) and write them into your theory. From a heliocentric perspective, we have a very clear way of explaining why Venus and Mars appear to behave differently – one is closer to the sun than Earth, the other is farther. But if you’re a geocentrist, you don’t have that. So you start to say “some heavenly bodies work like X” (i.e., Mercury, Venus), “others work like Y” (the other planets) and still others work like Z” (the sun) “and others like W” (the stars). In retrospect, the reason we see those categories as all needing to exist is because of their relationship to the sun, but if you don’t think the sun is in the middle, there is more work you need to do to explain them. It becomes your work to explain why W, X, Y, and Z make sense as separate categories.
One more point about all that: geocentrism didn’t just die because all of the sudden everyone saw it was wrong. It took generations to die, and still isn’t entirely gone (though it is gone from respectable science). When we’re talking at the level of such major premises for theories, it’s not just all based on “the facts.” Replacing a major premise with a different major premise requires lots of other things to change.
So asking whether or not white supremacy exists is a lot more like asking whether the sun is at the center of the universe, than whether the sky is blue. That latter question can be answered by simply pointing and explaining “see, that’s blue.” We could quibble about the meaning of “blue” but that’s not the point. It’s a short leap from the fact of the appearance of the sky towards “the sky is blue.” If you didn’t know any science, have a telescope, or otherwise have ever investigated too deeply, and pointed to the sun and said “are we going around that, or is that going around us?” you’d be asking a real question, one that couldn’t be easily answered.
It is easy, as a white person in the United States, not to know that white supremacy exists. It’s so all-pervasive, so omnipresent, and it gives us so many advantages, advantages that we would rather not give us, that we don’t know to look for it, and we don’t really want to. But to get to the point of being able to see it requires a ton of work.
To which it’s fair to ask, “well why should I do that work? Why contort myself into all these weird ways of thinking if the world works perfectly well for me now?” Which a non-astronomer could also fairly say to the person insisting that even though it looks like the sun goes around the earth, it doesn’t. You could go on being an ordinary person and never really know the truth about the sun and the earth. But think about how much more the human race has been able to do once it recognized the complexity of the astronomical situation. Think about how much other science, technology, math, philosophy, etc, flowed out once geocentrism was seen as overly simplistic and out of line with the data.
I am saying that being able to see and respond to white supremacy is a similarly productive change, just in society, rather than science. I know I haven’t proven that here, but I’m asking you to take it on faith that this is a journey I have tried to take, and if I’m doing a bad job of explaining how I got there, all I’m asking you to believe right now is that it feels as important. Which is, I believe, why James Baldwin (a much more gifted writer than I) chose the analogy with which I began.
Like I said, I am going to try to get at this question from a bunch of angles. This is just the first one that occurred to me. It’s probably not the best one.