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.
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.