This is a chapter from my 2019 book Cancel the Apocalypse: Thoughts from an Anarchist Afrocentric Feminist Nonviolent Revolutionary. While basic and insufficient for the current moment of deep action and radical thought in which we’re now living, it’s got some bits that might be useful for other folks, especially white folks who are just starting to wrestle with this stuff.
Please see also my blog post “On Chaos, Normality, and Violence” at Didactic Synapse.
Although the 2016 election of Donald Trump did not change everything, one thing that did change was a sharp increase in hate crimes. In many instances, those inflicting violence on people of color invoked Trump’s name while carrying out their hateful act. For more details, read the report “Ten Days After: Harassment and Intimidation in the Aftermath of the Election” from the Southern Poverty Law Center.
Like many Americans, I watched with anger and incredulity as neo-Nazis and white supremacists marched on Charlottesville in August 2017. They carried out assaults against unarmed protestors (along with some club-wielding anti-fascist groups), and murdered Heather Heyer. This was a terrifying example of the renewed force with which white supremacy was attacking our society. Fortunately, a follow-up “Unite the Right 2” rally in Washington DC one year later drew only two dozen weak-willed white supremacists, who were promptly laughed out of town by counterprotestors.
But white supremacy and racist violence are nothing new. In fact, the events in Charlottesville (and similar incidents in Berkeley and Huntington Beach) are just the most visible and disgusting public displays of a sickness as old as America itself.
Most people will agree right away that white supremacy is bad; even “alt-right” white nationalist groups don’t use the term. In fact, no one uses that phrase these days — most people prefer to use “racism” or “discrimination”. These words feel less harsh, less accusatory. Unfortunately, they’re also less precise.
Our modern conceptions of race didn’t take shape around a vague attitude of some people being better at some things, or a few cultures having certain advantages. No, our modern conceptions of race were organized around a myth of white superiority and imposed with centuries of brutal violence, dehumanization, and oppression. This myth led to the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade; the Nazi Holocaust; lynching and segregation in the US; and Apartheid in South Africa. It is a myth built on blood and lies.
Didn’t Obama Fix All This?
For some folks, the rise of certain black celebrities — athletes, movie stars, comedians, politicians, and business folk — suggests that we’ve finished this horrible part of our history. Unfortunately, things aren’t so simple. The ascension of a few individuals doesn’t erase the horrible legacy of white supremacy, especially when the material conditions of African-Americans as a whole (and black people around the world) remain unequal and unjust.
This history cannot be cleansed simply by wishing it away. It’s lovely to see young white people approach the world without prejudice, affirming their love for all people of all races. Seeing new generations rid themselves of the bitter hatred that plagued their grandparents is a wonderful thing. The abolition of Jim Crow and other forms of discrimination in the law is a fantastic victory, won through intense struggle in the 20th century.
But it’s not enough. Just because you treat everyone the same (and given the danger of unconscious bias, I’m always skeptical of people who make that claim) doesn’t mean racism and white supremacy will just go away. We must confront institutional oppression and systematic discrimination. Once again, we can’t be neutral on a moving train. The social, psychological, economic, and cultural effects of white supremacy still impact people today, and we must continue to fight them.
Michelle Alexander has laid out one example of white supremacy’s continuing impact in her 2010 book The New Jim Crow. It is one of the most important books ever written about race in America, and easily the most important in the 21st century. I would even say that you cannot understand race in America today without reading it. Alexander explains how the so-called “drug war” is in fact a new form of Jim Crow oppression, which imposes second-class citizenship on black communities. She points out that white and black people tend to use and sell drugs at the same rates, while law enforcement targets African-American communities disproportionately. This leads to harassment, intimidation, violence, imprisonment, and continual violations of human rights.
A “color-blind” mindset will ignore problems like this. Many well-intentioned white folks will proclaim their love for Martin Luther King and insist that a personal sense of equality is the best way for us to overcome the violence of historical racism. Meanwhile, African-Americans face disproportionate police brutality, decrepit schools, and unequal access to housing and employment. These atrocities must be actively resisted, and white people must be part of the fight. We have to recognize that, although we benefit from our white privilege, we are also hurt by these problems. Don’t you want to live in a society where everyone is truly free and empowered? Systems of racialized violence are an affront to our human family and must therefore be abolished.
The P Word
Some white folks bristle at the notion of “privilege”, especially when they’re struggling to make ends meet. Because of our predatory economic system, many working-class white people feel as though they’re losing ground when communities of color do better. (This is a prominent mindset among Tea Party activists.) But this is a trick of the imagination, another manifestation of how we’re all pitted against each other by the people who really run things. As I like to say: Those who control everything get those who have something to hate those who have nothing, so that we don’t change anything.
White privilege is real, and we white people benefit from it. In 2003 researchers from the National Bureau of Economic Research sent out sets of identical resumes, some with names that sounded “white” and some that sounded “black”. The results were dramatic, according to authors Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainathan: “White names receive 50 percent more callbacks for interviews.” This is just one disturbing sign of white supremacy’s lingering impact, and it demonstrates why a generic commitment to a “colorblind” mindset isn’t enough. Those employers probably saw themselves as fair people who don’t let race cloud their thinking. They (presumably) weren’t consciously choosing to hire only white people.
Affirmative action is one of the most controversial modern manifestations of race in America; many white people consider it a cause of racial bias, rather than a response to it. But as Deena Hayes-Greene of the Racial Equity Institute points out, white folks in the US have been receiving various forms of material aid based on race, starting in 1618.
So the Headright system, created in England to address the labor shortage in Virginia, was giving people fifty acres of land, or two units which would be a hundred acres of land, for anyone that was willing to cross the Atlantic ocean or pay for someone to cross the Atlantic ocean and populate the colonies.
Dozens and dozens of programs like this have created a vastly unequal social structure in which white folks have enjoyed innumerable benefits as a group, while people of color — especially black folks — have been left behind. (It’s also worth noting that white women have benefited most from modern affirmative action programs.)
Mostly in the 21st century, white folks refer to “affirmative action” to mean programs that benefit people of color to correct historical and continuing inequality. This is also a valuable part of American society. Put simply: prejudice and institutional discrimination are realities in our world. Without affirmative action, black folks and other people of color will have less access to education and employment. Affirmative action isn’t ideal, but it’s better than the alternative.
Besides, people act as though college is a reward at the finish line of education, rather than another step on the journey of empowerment and opportunity. We offer every young person a free education until 12th grade; why not higher learning too? Why are there so few spots in colleges and universities to begin with? Shouldn’t all people have access to an excellent university experience?
White Fragility & Guilt
Race is a tricky subject, because it’s flammable and toxic. As soon as the topic of race comes up, most people get tense. Many white folks don’t want to risk being uncomfortable or having their feelings hurt. We often worry that we’re going to say the wrong thing and make somebody mad. For this reason, many white folks prefer to ignore or avoid race altogether.
But that’s a classic example of white privilege. Black folks and Latinx folks and Asian folks don’t have the luxury to forget about race, because our white-supremacist world reminds them of their difference every single day.
I learned early in life that I could not — would not — ignore or avoid the topic of race. The violence and suffering caused by white supremacy was too urgent. So I read Malcolm and Martin, marched against police brutality, and donated to organizations fighting the good fight.
Today I describe myself as Afrocentric for the simple reason that all humans come from Africa, when we look at our global family tree. Africa has also been the target of white supremacy’s worst atrocities, from military domination and genocide to the theft of slaves and severe economic exploitation. Like most Americans, I know almost nothing about Africa except what I see on the news about famine and war. Still, I try to broaden that vision by reading the work of African writers like Chinua Achebe and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie; listening to African musicians like K’Naan and Doudou N’Diaye Rose; and consuming news from African journalists. If white supremacy was fixated on hating Africa with a unique passion, my determination to resist and dismantle white supremacy has a special focus on that continent and its diaspora.
Being a conscious white person has not been easy. I’ve had tense, angry arguments with good friends over issues of racial politics. I’ve often felt like an outcast from mainstream society, because I see racial oppression around every corner. And I never feel satisfied that I haven’t done enough to resist white supremacy.
But guilt is not the same as consciousness. White people who feel bad about racism aren’t effective activists. More to the point: If you’re a white person who spends lots of time thinking about how guilty you feel, then you’re continuing the pattern of focusing on yourself more than other people. I learned long ago that I needed to let go of those ego traps, and dedicate myself instead to the struggle against violence and oppression. The more real work I did, the less I worried about my white guilt.
Besides, we white folks need to recognize that whiteness itself has always been a trap. Before they were accepted as “white”, Irish and Italian immigrants to the US were viewed with suspicion and hostility, much like immigrants from Mexico and South America today. Whiteness has long been a way to unify people based on absurdities, getting them to hate The Other and ignore the bonds of human connectivity.
Paradoxically, centuries of white supremacy in action have created a social reality that makes race impossible to ignore. As the motivational speaker Calvin Terrell says: “Race is science fiction, but social fact.” I may not like thinking about things in terms of race, but I can’t blame black folks like Mr. Terrell for making this point. I need to blame the architects of white supremacy who have poisoned our species.
Therefore race is a double-bind, because seeing things in terms of race is not ideal, but it is a reality that cannot be erased with wishful thinking. (Stephen Colbert has often ridiculed this mindset: “I don’t see color,” he once said. “People tell me I’m white, and I believe them, because I have my own TV show.”) We should strive for a society in which race doesn’t affect your life chances, but we cannot turn a blind eye to the fact that we are not nearly at that point.
James Baldwin often critiqued the notion of whiteness in America, referring to it as an artificial construction designed to perpetuate dominance and privilege. In a 1984 piece in Essence magazine entitled “On Being White … And Other Lies”, he wrote (referring to Americans of European ancestry): “Because they think they are white, they cannot allow themselves to be tormented by the suspicion that all men are brothers.” It seems we must simultaneously acknowledge and abolish our whiteness. When I figure out how to do both of these things at once, I’ll let you know.
Into The Unknown
One of the trickiest problems related to race is the inability to know what’s going on in another person’s head. When police officer Jeronimo Yanez shot Philando Castile to death in 2016, was he thinking horrible racist things? Would he have treated a white person the same way? We can never know. We can’t assume that just because Castile was black — and Yanez is not — that the killing was a racist incident. But we don’t see the same levels of violence inflicted on unarmed white people. It’s dangerous and ignorant to believe that race has nothing to do with the pattern of police brutality constantly inflicted on black people.
James Baldwin also addressed this dilemma. In 1968 he said on The Dick Cavett Show:
I don’t know what most white people in this country feel. But I can only conclude what they feel from the state of their institutions. I don’t know if white Christians hate Negroes 90 or not, but I know we have a Christian church which is white and a Christian church which is black. I know, as Malcolm X once put it, the most segregated hour in American life is high noon on Sunday. That says a great deal for me about a Christian nation. It means I can’t afford to trust most white Christians, and I certainly cannot trust the Christian church.
I don’t know whether the labor unions and their bosses really hate me — that doesn’t matter — but I know I’m not in their union. I don’t know whether the real estate lobby has anything against black people, but I know the real estate lobby is keeping me in the ghetto. I don’t know if the board of education hates black people, but I know the textbooks they give my children to read and the schools we have to go to. Now, this is the evidence. You want me to make an act of faith, risking myself, my wife, my woman, my sister, my children on some idealism which you assure me exists in America, which I have never seen.
Anyone who is opposed to racism and white supremacy — really opposed — must wrestle honestly with the evidence and take action against the real conditions in the real world. We need to speak up and fight back, in all sorts of ways: by protesting, by voting, by reading, by engaging in difficult conversations with the white folks around us, by supporting organizations (with money and/or time) fighting white supremacy, by writing to elected officials, by spending (and investing) wisely.
Crucially, this is about reality and not appearances. Unfortunately, many white folks fret and fuss about how they look, and don’t put in much actual work. If you spend more time worried about whether you appear racist than you do fighting against racism, your priorities are twisted.
Get it together.