So The Cool Kids are Saying “White Supremacy” Now

One thing that happens when your blog actually starts getting read is that you get criticized from every possible angle out there in the wide world. So when I wrote a post about white privilege a few months ago, I took all kinds of heat from conservative white folks who told me I was racist for talking about race or for promoting an idea like privilege, and I took (somewhat less) heat from people of color (or white people speaking on behalf of people of color) who told me I was racist because “privilege” as a concept, especially when analogized to the dangers of riding a bike, minimizes the reality of racial injustice. (The thing folks from these various perspectives seem to have in common is that they hate “liberals,” though for very different reasons).

One of my more radical critics slammed me for “feeling I needed to have—or perhaps deserve—an ah-ha moment in which we feel we understand what it’s like for any one person of color.” Why, according to Wallace (who, for the record, is white), am I such a racist jerk for trying to foster some understanding of other people’s experiences? “Because really ‘getting it’…is impossible, and presumptuous to boot.” 

So apparently, on the road to racial justice, not only is empathy a waste of time, it’s literally impossible. Wow. But, its not just my attempt at generating empathy that’s a waste of time, according to Wallace. Thinking and talking about privilege is a waste of time too. Why? Because what we really need to be talking about is white supremacism.

kkk

Wallace goes on to talk about how the mass incarceration of black and brown people is an example of the systemic injustice that he calls “white supremacy.” Now, I actually agree with what he has to say about mass incarceration. But what I really don’t agree with is the idea that ‘white supremacy’ is a helpful handle for talking about systemic racial injustice. But I am apparently totally out of style, ’cause it’s the word all the cool kids are using these days.

Another word that’s really popular right now is “triggering.” This is the idea that certain words or phrases or lines of thinking set off an emotional reaction in someone who has experienced trauma in their life. Most of us are familiar with the concept of post-traumatic stress disorder. A trigger is something that consciously or unconsciously connects to a memory of trauma and causes an emotional reaction.

Now, I think it’s totally legit to talk about how victims of racial and other injustice are victims of trauma and therefore if your aim is fruitful dialogue you should avoid potentially triggering words/phrases/etc. (In fact, the last section of the bike analogy was basically saying, “Look, white people, if something you do unintentionally triggers a negative reaction in a person of color, try to have the wisdom and patience to not take it personally and stay in the conversation.”)

But here’s the thing: I cannot think of a more triggering phrase than ‘white supremacy’ if you’re trying to communicate with white people about systemic racism. The face-value definition of white supremacy and the psycho-emotional imagery connected to it are all about the KKK, burning crosses, lynchings, neo-Nazis, explicit racial hatred, etc. The wikipedia definition:

the racist belief, or promotion of the belief, that white people are superior to people of other racial backgrounds and that therefore whites should politically, economically and socially dominate non-whites.

Why on earth, if you’re trying to foster genuine dialogue by communicating to people who don’t believe that “whites should politically, economically and socially dominate non-whites” and you’re trying to help them understand how they might be participating in racial injustices, would you want to lead with “You’re just like the KKK”?!

I understand that people want to highlight that there is a certain historical continuity between the overt racism prior to the Civil Rights movement and the current structural injustices in the US. And I also understand that sometimes provocative language is what’s needed to wake people up and get them to realize something.

But ‘white supremacy’ isn’t used like it’s provocative language by those who use it: selectively and strategically deployed to rattle people’s cages with the hope that it might open their eyes. No. It’s just the jargon everyone’s using. It’s used like insiders’ lingo, one of the shibboleths of the far left that demonstrates that you’re an insider. You don’t use passé or liberal language like ‘racism’ or ‘privilege.’ Nope, you’re really radical ‘cause you say ‘white supremacy’ and you don’t even flinch. Kind of like a bunch of 6th-graders dropping the F-bomb. It’s not really about transgressing some social norm so much as it is about proving you know what’s up.

I guess if your goal is to prove you’re more rad than anyone else, ‘white supremacy’ is probably great language for that. But if your goal is to foster the kind of dialogue that can actually effect change, I can’t think of any language that could more counterproductive.

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9 thoughts on “So The Cool Kids are Saying “White Supremacy” Now”

  1. You know Jdowsett I loved your bicycle as white privilege article and I get where you’re coming from here but I’m not 100% with you. 1) Wikipedia is not the source of authority when it comes to defining racism and white privilege 2) You didn’t even finish listing the entire Wikipedia definition: “The term is also typically used to describe a political ideology that perpetuates and maintains the social, political, historical and/or industrial dominance of whites.”

    In this context, white supremacy can also refer to the legacy of white social, political, and industrial dominance in western civilization. I agree that it’s definitely triggering with all kinds of negative associations. But I don’t think the term white privilege fully covers this legacy. I could call it white hegemony but few people know what it means and can’t even pronounce it right.

    In any case, I agree language is important and we need to play by the same set of rules when we prohibit others from employing triggering words while justifying our own usage.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks for your comment, Fred. I wasn’t suggesting that “white privilege” can be a catch all phrase for all kinds of injustices that involve racialist thinking. In fact, I would argue just the opposite. I think that we need a broader spectrum of language to talk about different kinds of oppression, offense, injustice, violence, etc. Just saying “white supremacy” for everything is not helpful. As far as quoting Wikipedia, I wasn’t quoting it as an authority, but using it as evidence that there is a commonly understood definition of “white supremacy” outside of academia and radical left in-jargon, and so, it’s like intentionally using a word in a way that is going to create misunderstanding rather than understanding.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. You are doing an amazing job. Please continue to write about all these taboos that our American society has, and wants to hide so bad. I am a college student in NYC and you article about white privilege was a required text for one of my classes. And I am glad and thankful for the assignment. Maybe now many people will criticize your work, but your are contributing to a change of mind in our future generations of the American Society. Thanks for that.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Julie is so right – you are writing some excellent pieces, and you are completely right that we should stick to language that heals, not hurts.

    I have your bicycle analogy bookmarked, and have already brought it out a couple of times to help explain the concept of privilege.

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  4. in the case that you are even still reading the comments coming in… i am wondering (though not asking you to answer) what it is like to be on the other end of so much criticism. i think it is vitally important to people to try to understand another’s struggle, even if we get it wrong (or not). in fact, i think it is the only way we can survive. so for you to say something like “hey, i know i don’t know what it’s not be white, but i have an idea of what it’s like to be on the crap side of a system not built for me” and for it invoke such anger, i guess it’s just everyone treating you like you were the semi throwing gravel in their faces. thanks for a post that can help facilitate discussion. thanks for evoking empathy, even if it is not accurate enough (idk, i’m a white cyclist). and thanks for sticking around to take the heat for it. this is a learning process for everyone.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. This made me laugh: “(The thing folks from these various perspectives seem to have in common is that they hate “liberals,” though for very different reasons)”

    I do a lot of racial justice education, and I tend to agree with your point here; though it’s worth noting that telling people who face an oppression to moderate their language to avoid upsetting their oppressors is an oft-employed tactic that is absolutely guaranteed to get a reactionary response a la your gravel in the face analogy. While I agree that “white supremacy” is not actually the most accurate or useful phrase to deploy wholesale in these conversations, I think the path here should be towards creating more understanding for white people, so they can recognise that getting upset and centring their feelings in discussions of race is just as reactionary and counter-productive as poc and white supporters painting them with that brush.

    Lord knows, I’ve been fed up and fired back at white people in the past, whether deserved or not, but I’m still not the one with power in this dynamic, and I think it’s up to white folks to take that heat and help their peers learn to take it, too–you clearly know that anger isn’t about you, so your best tack is to teach your community that.

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts. 🙂

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  6. I was just sent your “biking” post, which was a great insight, but must quibble a bit with this one. I never hesitated when reading or using the term “white supremacy” for this reason: because the comprehensive impact of centuries of systemic imbalances have created, today, such outsized levels of disenfranchisement, particularly for African Americans and Native Americans – the phrase cuts to the heart of the matter.

    Why beat around the bush? White supremacy created and sustains current tragic – TRAGIC – levels of misery and missed opportunities for millions of fellow Americans, millions of children. People who get defensive around the term white supremacy are the same people that get defensive around the term white privilege – the operative word here is “white” not “privilege” or “supremacy”. It is our job to deflect any personal blame that white people may feel about those terms toward an understanding that people are STILL suffering discrimination because of the color of their skin.

    Which study do we want to cite here? The continued discrimination and redlining within housing policy that the Times just called out over the weekend? Or the job opportunities study that found that “black” sounding names, even if identically experienced, suffer significant reductions in opportunity? Or the vast health care disparities between whites, and people of color that contribute to shocking life expectancy gaps. Or the school funding data, showing vast gaps in teacher pay, teacher support, teacher credentials, building condition, extra-curricular opportunities, textbook age and condition, class sizes etc. depending on what zip code you occupy? Or the prison industrial complex, so expertly and devastatingly documented by Michelle Alexander and others?

    It’s right on to label the pain at the level that it is. It’s at 10. It’s supreme pain, and it’s chronic, and it’s shameful. It’s not juvenile to call it white supremacy, it’s accurate and true.

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