I don’t remember when I started thinking about race and oppression, as a white person. This, in and of itself, is a privilege. I was largely unaware of my own race as a child and teenager; if I’m being completely honest, I started to dig into what it means to be a person of color, and what it means to be a white person, in college, as a direct result of the sociology and ethnic studies classes I was taking. I didn’t have a finite, revelatory moment where I realized that racism exists, that it’s systemic, and that a more accurate way of describing it is in the context of white supremacy (which puts the onus for action on white people vs. nonwhite people). Like many things, my learning started small and deepened over time.
Since starting my learning (and unlearning) process around race, I’ve faced some realizations – sometimes with openness, sometimes with resistance. I haven’t always enjoyed the education process, but I am incredibly grateful for each and every person and resource that has contributed to how I understand what white supremacy is, how it impacts all of us, and what white people can do about it. Here are the first six things I wish I’d learned earlier about white supremacy, as a white person:
1. White supremacy is a spectrum.
Like many people, when I hear the phrase “white supremacy”, some pretty violent and unthinkable shit comes to mind. Previously, I associated white supremacy with the KKK, lynching, and present day Alt-Right groups, and nothing else. I was offered a more nuanced explanation of white supremacy: it’s a spectrum with both overt and covert manifestations. Check out the image below:
Broadening the very narrow common definition of white supremacy enables white people to see that things like microaggressions, cultural appropriation, and victim blaming are connected to larger issues like mass incarceration, hiring discrimination, and yes, hate groups and hate crimes. In fact, many of the elements of covert white supremacy serve as building blocks for the overt elements – if the covert actions and beliefs didn’t exist, it would be damn near impossible for the overt actions and beliefs to take place. None of these things exist in a vacuum, so why should we view them as being disconnected from one another? This question leads me to my second learning.
2. I’m not different from other white people.
This one was a tough pill to swallow. I’ve spent a lot of time studying, reflecting on, talking about, questioning, and examining my understanding of power, privilege, and racial oppression. I engage in antiracist education and action, both as a participant and as a leader. I would never call the police on a person of color for existing in public, or consciously engage in covert white supremacy behaviors on the graphic above.
AND, I still benefit from my white skin privilege in a myriad of ways, every day. I commit microaggressions without realizing I’m doing it. I’ve internalized white superiority, because like the rest of us, I’ve been marinating in it my whole life. I can do all the “right” (aka antiracist, woke, etc.) things, but I’ll always benefit from whiteness being the dominant culture in this country, being seen as the “norm” in a variety of situations, and retaining the power that comes along with white identity.
3. My feelings don’t matter.
As if the previous learning wasn’t challenging enough to my ego, right? Before I go any further, let me clarify: white people can have feelings. White people are allowed to feel embarrassment, guilt, shame, anger, and any other emotion that comes along with realizing how our institutions and dominant cultural norms systematically benefit white people and disenfranchise people of color. By all means, when those feelings arise, unpack them! Hang out with them, and see what they have to teach you. What white people can’t do is give our feelings more importance and attention than the lived experiences and needs of people of color.
White people can’t simply stop at feeling upset or guilty or ashamed; doing so keeps the focus on ourselves, which is exactly what keeps white supremacy going – prioritizing the feelings and needs of white people over everyone else. When it comes to dismantling white supremacy, what matters, and what should always take precedence, are the lived experiences and needs of people of color.
4. Impact trumps intent.
Sometimes I try to do something helpful and it’s actually harmful. Maybe I stand up for a black colleague when someone makes a racially-charged joke at the office, and they pull me aside later to tell me they wished I’d let them stand up for themselves. In this situation, I could dig my heels in and say, “Well, I was only trying to help! JEEZ. I guess I can’t do anything right. I’ll just stop trying to stand up to racism, period.” See how learning #3 plays out here? The situation becomes about me and my feelings, rather than the feelings and needs of the person who’s being marginalized.
I may have the best intentions, and still cause harm. Can this be frustrating? Absolutely. Do I let it stop me from taking antiracist action? Nope, because again, dismantling white supremacy isn’t about me – it’s about supporting and acting in solidarity with people of color, for the benefit of people of color. Accepting that I’m going to screw up, and cultivating humility, helps.
5. People of color don’t need my help.
This is about de-centering white people in antiracism work. There are TONS of antiracist organizations and efforts led by people of color that I can support, whether with my time, money, or connections. Marginalized people have been working on their own liberation for as long as they’ve been marginalized. They don’t need my help, but if there’s an opportunity to act in solidarity with them, you can be sure I’ll take it.
Rachel Naomi Remen offers a perspective on helping that I really resonate with. “Helping, fixing and serving represent three different ways of seeing life. When you help, you see life as weak. When you fix, you see life as broken. When you serve, you see life as whole. Fixing and helping may be the work of the ego, and service the work of the soul.” (Remen, 1999) If I see people of color as whole, it only makes sense for me to be of service to them, rather than help or fix them.
6. Cultural appropriation hurts.
White readers, I can feel you getting tense about this one. Take a breath. Sit with the discomfort.
Ready to hear me out?
I’ve learned that if marginalized people are othered or persecuted when they wear / worship / decorate with artifacts from their culture, those of us with dominant racial identities (white people) shouldn’t wear, worship, or decorate with those artifacts. If we can do it without consequence, and marginalized folks can’t (or historically haven’t been able to), it’s harmful. Kat Tanaka Okopnik explains this in more depth in a Facebook post – here’s an excerpt: “We speak up and say, “my culture/heritage is not a costume” because we live with the effects of the racializations and marginalizations and colonial imperialist harm, but outsiders can put the trappings on and off. And even if you live in those trappings 24/7…the impact you face is vastly different.” (Facebook, 1 May 2018)
This is why I don’t wear feather headdresses to festivals or have indigenous tattoos, and why I no longer wear “sugar skull” face paint for Dia de los Muertos. I don’t want to reinforce colonialist (read: white supremacist) practices of “discovering”, “(re)inventing”, or adopting cultural artifacts for my own benefit, when people who actually belong to those same cultures are disenfranchised for doing the very same thing.