How History and Reality Means Many of Us Have to Fight to Not be a White Supremacist
Hello, internet! My name is Emily, and I’m a white supremacist.
I know you might find this revelation upsetting, but before you start taking me to task, please allow me explain what I mean by that.
I don’t mean that I believe white people are inherently superior to Black people, or to anyone else for that matter. I believe that empathy is the highest human quality, and that privilege is one of the greatest obstacles to empathy because it allows us to ignore or rationalize the suffering of people whose experiences are different from our own. By this measure, the more privilege you have, the more challenging it is for you to be “good.”
I believe in the mission of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. As a white ally, I believe that it’s my job to engage in uncomfortable conversations with other white people about racism, taking whatever pressure I can off people of color who are constantly called upon to educate the rest of us about the nuances of oppression. And most of all, I believe that it’s my job to shut up and listen when Black people take the time to tell me about things I’ll never experience, so that their insight isn’t lost on me.
Do I deserve a cookie? Better hold onto it for now. Because nothing I have said here changes the fact that I am a white supremacist.
How am I a white supremacist? Well, I was born and raised in the United States of America, a country built by slave labor on stolen land, and every privilege I’ve ever enjoyed has come at the expense of someone else’s oppression. The education I received was white supremacist education, from its demand that I learn to write and speak “proper English” to its reliance on a literary, scientific, and artistic canon comprised of and curated almost exclusively by white men. My aesthetic tastes are permeated with subtle coding that extends subconscious preference to those who look like me and communicate themselves in a way I can identify with. I have interjected my unwanted, unwarranted opinion into conversations that are out of my lane, and I have chosen to look the other way rather than confront instances of racism because of cowardice, complacency, and a misplaced sense of politeness. The very foundations of my way of life are in white supremacy, and the list of microaggressions I have committed, and will no doubt continue to commit in spite of my “good intentions” for as long as I’m alive, is virtually endless.
Does this mean I should just give up trying to fight my own colonizing, racist impulses? On the contrary, I see this as a call to fight harder, to never stop working on this part of myself. But at no point, now or in the future, will I ever be entitled to declare this work done. I will never be able to truthfully announce, “There is not a racist bone in my body!” as though racism is something that could be surgically removed. My racism is a chronic, inherited condition. I can medicate the symptoms, and with effort I can even loosen its grip around my soul, but it will always be part of me, like green eyes or a predilection for dumb puns.
Now, if you’re like many well-meaning white people, you might be feeling defensive at the implication that, like me, you might be a white supremacist too. I have noticed that there is an ugly tendency for liberal, well-meaning white people to take loud umbrage at being called “racist” or a “white supremacist.” And I can understand the reaction. When I started paying attention to social justice conversations a few short years ago, I also found some of the language shocking to my sensibilities. The first time someone called me a white supremacist in an online forum, I found it ridiculous. After all, I’m from Texas—I know “real” white supremacists, the kind of people who watch Fox News and sport Confederate flags on their pickup trucks. The idea that there was no difference between me and those people, or even that we might be perceived as different shades on the same shitty gradient, struck me as absurd.
But once I began unpacking the implications of the words “white supremacy,” I realized that there really is no better way to describe the system of murder and exploitation that benefits some of us at the expense of others, and there is no better way to describe my behavior when I reinforce those oppressive dynamics with my actions. I realize this is a bleak reality to absorb. But in comparison to the suffering on which we’ve built our entire way of life—and which we continue to perpetuate even in our finest moments—it really is a small thing to have to come to terms with.
Responding to accusations of racism with defensiveness is a common way that white people make our own emotions the center of the conversation, thereby creating the all-too-familiar vicious circle of a conversation that goes nowhere. Social psychologists call this behavioral response “self-justification.” It is a natural human tendency to rationalize our own actions, to minimize the discomfort of cognitive dissonance by maintaining an internal narrative in which we basically play the good guy. And so we often defend ourselves rather than listen, lashing out at the criticism until it leaves us alone with our ego intact.
Racism is not a quality that very many of us would put into our idealized versions of self, and so the idea that we are capable of being racist, or that we might even be white supremacists deep down in our kind, well-meaning souls, is something we have a very deep aversion to confronting head-on. It’s much more pleasant to imagine that the “real racists” are somewhere else, like Idaho, or that gun show your cousin Cody goes to every spring. But pointing a finger at everyone but ourselves is an exercise in self-righteousness, not an antidote to the deep foundation of white supremacy underlying and permeating our entire culture.
I am a good, kind, smart, well-meaning person who happens to be a white supremacist. I didn’t ask to be born this way, but I was. Coming to terms with white supremacy means being able to reconcile these seemingly paradoxical truths. It’s hard to hate something and simultaneously admit that the thing you hate is part of you. But it is necessary.
Let’s be clear about one thing: Coming to terms with the fact that I will never be fully free of my white supremacy is not the same thing as accepting a burden of shame, guilt, or self-pity. No one is asking for my shame, nor yours. Self-pity and shame are selfish, narcissistic responses to the problem of white supremacy, and if you’re experiencing these emotions in the context of a conversation about race, it’s likely a sign that you’re centering your own feelings at the expense of someone else’s.
The problems that affect our society are systemic, with psychological components that drive our political and social realities, and vice versa. So if we are to even begin to tackle the problem of white supremacy, we must start by recognizing that no one of us is a model of perfection. We are all products of our time and place, and this particular time and place happens to be riddled with white supremacy on every conceivable level. The sooner we can stop denying that we might personally carry a little piece of the problem within ourselves, the sooner we can start to undo the damage our defensiveness has caused, and continues to cause to others.
When I look in the mirror and see something unflattering, it’s not the mirror’s fault. It’s tempting to look away, or cover all the mirrors in the house, and this might be a fine response if the problem were superficial. But when the ugly truth you’re ignoring is your own behavior, running away from the mirror won’t stop you from continuing to hurt someone else.
In order to break the cycle of defensiveness, we must get comfortable looking at ourselves with raw, critical honesty. What we see might not always flatter us, but the honest truth is the only thing that can help us heal.
I’m a white supremacist. If you’re white and American, you’re probably a white supremacist, too. This isn’t the end of the world—it’s a beginning. The first step is admitting we have a problem.