White People: Let's Talk About White Supremacy

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By Ryan Honeyman, Partner at LIFT Economy

** A quick disclaimer before you read this article. Let me be clear that I do not know the right answers to any of this. There are anti-racist activists in the trenches, much more qualified than me, that you should listen to first. These individuals are the ones who are constantly risking their lives and reputations to fight white supremacy. I am new to this space and do not have a track record of actually doing anything. Sure, I've read some books and am collaborating with people of color, but I haven't helped organize marches, organize sit-ins in the halls of Congress, or stood on the front lines and faced the threat of actual police violence. Debby Irving, a white anti-racist with much more credibility than me, said: "My waking-up process has been largely due to the fact that for 400 years people of color have risked lives, jobs, and reputations in an effort to convey the experience of racism." I agree completely. So, this is my way of saying to readers to not trust anything I say until my actions reflect my words. I've got more work to do that writing a blog post saying "look at me! I'm awake now." **

One question has consumed me recently: “what is the role of a white person in conversations about racial justice (especially a white, cisgender, heterosexual, non-disabled, upper middle class male who is a U.S. citizen)?”

I used to think that the appropriate role for a white male of my status and privilege was to stay out of conversations about race. I believed that the best thing I could do was to keep my mouth shut and make space for others.

However, after learning from anti-racist leaders like Dr. Tiffany Jana, Debby Irving, Robin DiAngelo, Chris Crass, Ijeoma Oluo, Patrisse Khan-Cullors, Nwamaka Agbo, and more, I have realized that white people staying out of conversations about race is not the right answer. It should not be the burden of people of color to educate white people about systemic racism, equity, privilege, and structural oppression.

So, my fellow white people, let’s talk about white supremacy--a system that we (i.e., the people reading this article) did not invent, but that we inherited and continue to benefit from, regardless of whether we believe we are “good,” or “definitely not racist,” or “don’t see skin color,” or “marched in the sixties.”

You may be thinking “Ok, I’m fine talking about diversity and inclusion. But ‘white supremacy’? That seems unnecessarily provocative and offensive.” If you are thinking this, I completely understand. I would have thought the exact same thing a few years ago. Let me explain.

As a white person (or for any person, for that matter), the term white supremacy is often jarring and cringe-worthy. It can conjure up images of neo-Nazis and Klu Klux Klan members marching down the street with torches—leading to feelings such as shame, defensiveness, or anger.

However, I am not proposing we discuss the bigotry of individuals who identify as white supremacists. I want to discuss the system or organizing principle of white supremacy in which white domination of society is seen as the natural order of things.

For white people like me, it is important to discuss this system because it goes largely unnoticed and operates by default in the background of our daily lives.

“Umm,” you may be wondering, “how is this possibly related to me? I don’t see the connection.” It is related because many of the structural systems that we participate in, such as the economy at large, are based upon—and tightly intertwined with—the legacy of white supremacy.

How White Supremacy is Intertwined with Our Economy

Consider the GI Bill.

The GI Bill was enacted after World War II to provide support for returning veterans. Many white people I know love the GI Bill. Both my grandfather on my mom’s side and my grandfather on my dad’s side directly benefited from the free college and low-interest home loans provided to veterans.

In fact, the benefits were so helpful that the GI Bill almost single-handedly moved both sides of my family from lower middle class to upper middle class economic status in one generation.

What about returning African-American veterans? Did they benefit as well?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the GI Bill’s benefits were not realized across racial lines. Only a very small percentage of returning African-American GIs were able to take advantage of the free education or housing benefits due to systematic discrimination.

There were not enough historically black colleges to educate all of the returning veterans, and many other colleges were only willing to accept a small, token amount of African-American applicants.

In addition, redlining was a formal, legal, and intentionally designed system that was written into the GI Bill to block subsidized home loans to African-Americans and other marginalized groups.

My family accumulated generational wealth that we still benefit from today. Does my family have a certain level of socio-economic status because we “worked harder” than other families? Nope. I can point directly to the racist policies and practices that forever altered my family’s path and continues to provide a level of comfort, status, and privilege that my family enjoys.

See African Americans and the GI Bill and Slavery And American Capitalism for just a few examples of how white supremacy continues to affect our everyday lives.

The Unspoken Values and Norms of White Supremacy

White supremacy implies a number of unspoken norms. It describes the social order in which one kind of person is superior: a white, Anglo, cisgender, christian, heterosexual, wealth-oriented, non-disabled, male.

People who do not fit neatly into each of these categories and want access to power and privilege are often forced to Anglicize their names, hide their sexuality, play up their wealth, act “male,” and hide their religion.

The culture of white supremacy also elevates a certain attitude and approach to life.

Many of the values I learned and internalized growing up as a young white male included things like, “Work hard. Keep your nose to the grindstone. Be productive. If you see a problem, fix it. You can do anything you want if you just try hard enough. Everyone gets a fair shot. You are responsible for your own success in life. Suck it up and don’t complain. Always be polite. Avoid conflict. Don’t rock the boat. If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say it at all.”

For years I assumed that the values imparted to me by my family were somehow unique to us. It shocked me to realize that these messages are part of a cultural lineage and belief system that is handed down by white families to their children over many generations.

These internalized values play out in subtle and pernicious ways. For example, if a white child sees a poor black child at school, they might think, “well, maybe their family just needs to work harder,” or “we should help those poor people who obviously haven’t figured it out and need the assistance of people like me.”

Based on the narrative that everyone gets a fair chance and working hard is the answer, the white child may assume the black child’s family is solely responsible for the circumstances in which they find themselves.

In addition, white children are taught to avoid conflict. “I’m confused why this black child is poor,” the white child might think, “but I’m not going to ask about it. It seems like a sensitive topic. It must just be the way things are.”

Nothing in the previous example was consciously or purposefully racist on the part of the white child. If anything, the white child thought they could be helpful. The cause of the damaging conclusions is the unexamined belief system—the default order of things—that has been passed down to white people and perpetuates institutional bias.

What Can We (White People) Do About It?

I have learned that when white people (like me) first get interested in racial justice, we tend to want to “do” something about it immediately. We want to create a toolkit, or a 5 step action plan, or conduct an 80/20 analysis to determine critical next steps.

Anti-racist activists have told me to be wary of these impulses, because “being productive” and trying to “solve” white supremacy is part of the problem itself. When we seek to solve problems quickly, we tend to skip over the pain, shame, and guilt we feel, and unintentionally recreate the old patterns of dominance and oppression we are trying to dismantle.

I can only speak about what has been helpful for me in my own process. Taking these with a large grain of salt, here are six things you can “do” to take the next step:

1. Learn, Learn, Learn.

Here are several resources that were shared with me, and that I have found to be particularly helpful in my thinking about white supremacy:

Articles:

Books:

Next Economy Now Podcasts:

2. Educate Other White People About White Supremacy.

Anti-racist educators have helped me understand that most white people have no idea that there is a system of white supremacy that is distinct from the KKK or Nazis. This is very problematic. It means that we think it only applies to “those bad people” and not us.

For example, as a straight white male, it is the privilege of people like me to NOT think about white supremacy. We can mostly ignore it, or expect people of color (or other historically marginalized groups) to figure things out for themselves, or indefinitely kick the conversation down the road without any apparent negative repercussions.

It should not be the burden of people of color, women, or other marginalized groups to educate folks with privilege about institutional racism, institutional sexism, and other forms of systemic bias.

"I believe that white progressives cause the most daily damage to people of color. I define a white progressive as any white person who thinks he or she is not racist, or is less racist, or in the ‘choir,’ or already ‘gets it.’

“White progressives can be the most difficult for people of color because, to the degree that we think we have arrived, we will put our energy into making sure that others see us as having arrived. None of our energy will go into what we need to be doing for the rest of our lives: engaging in ongoing self-awareness, continuing education, relationship building, and actual anti-racist practice.

“White progressives do indeed uphold and perpetrate racism, but our defensiveness and certitude make it virtually impossible to explain to us how we do so.”

― Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility: Why It's So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism

3. Stay Engaged--Even if it is Super Uncomfortable.

One reason privileged people like me avoid this topic is that many of us feel like we don’t know where to start—even if we are interested in addressing systemic bias.

Another reason is that conversations about the abuses caused by white people often bring up feelings of shame, guilt, hopelessness, anger, and sadness.

I have taken solace in the advice I have received from racial justice educators and social justice activists over the last few years. Their comments have generally followed along the lines of:

  • “Yes, you are a privileged white male. However, you did not invent racism, sexism, and other forms institutional oppression. You inherited them.”

  • “It is ok to feel awkward and uncomfortable when talking about white supremacy. Try to stay engaged. If you choose to walk away from an uncomfortable conversation, you are exercising your privilege, because people of color, women, and others cannot walk away from their identity.”

  • “Do not doubt that you will make mistakes and feel embarrassed. Perfection is not the goal. Stay engaged long enough to give yourself a chance to recover from your mistakes, make a breakthrough in understanding, and strengthen your ability to have difficult conversations.”

4. Stop Siloing The Conversation.

There is no such thing as a conversation about business and/or the economy and a separate conversation about race, privilege, and white supremacy. I have learned that they are the same conversation. Siloing white supremacy into something separate is one of the main barriers we face to creating a more equitable society.

5. Seek to Dismantle White Supremacy Instead of “Helping Others.”

Until recently, I had always believed that the answer to many social and environmental problems was to “help” historically marginalized groups bring themselves up to par with white communities. I had never considered that challenging and unraveling the norms, assumptions, and culture of white supremacy itself could be part of the solution. Reframing this problem is difficult and uncomfortable because it shifts the focus to me--where it belongs.

6. Seek to Understand Your Own White Fragility.

Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragilitysays that the most common response to giving feedback to a white person about race is outrage, such as “how dare you suggest that I could have said or done something racist!” DiAngelo says that outrage is often followed by righteous indignation about the manner in which the feedback was given.

From her experience facilitating hundreds of trainings on this topic, she has found that there is apparently an unspoken set of rules for how to give white people feedback on racism, which she calls “The Rules of Engagement.” She has found that the only way to give feedback correctly is not to give it at all. Thus, the first rule is cardinal:

  • Do not give me feedback on my racism under any circumstances. If you break the cardinal rule:

  • Proper tone is crucial – feedback must be given calmly. If there is any emotion in the feedback, the feedback is invalid and does not have to be considered.

  • There must be trust between us. You must trust that I am in no way racist before you can give me feedback on my racism.

  • Our relationship must be issue-free – If there are issues between us, you cannot give me feedback on racism.

  • Feedback must be given immediately, otherwise it will be discounted because it was not given sooner.

  • You must give feedback privately, regardless of whether the incident occurred in front of other people. To give feedback in front of anyone else—even those involved in the situation—is to commit a serious social transgression. The feedback is thus invalid.

  • You must be as indirect as possible. To be direct is to be insensitive and will invalidate the feedback and require repair.

  • As a white person I must feel completely safe during any discussion of race. Giving me any feedback on my racism will cause me to feel unsafe, so you will need to rebuild my trust by never giving me feedback again. Point of clarification: when I say “safe” what I really mean is “comfortable.”

  • Giving me feedback on my racial privilege invalidates the form of oppression that I experience (i.e. classism, sexism, heterosexism). We will then need to focus on how you oppressed me.

  • You must focus on my intentions, which cancel out the impact of my behavior.

  • To suggest my behavior had a racist impact is to have misunderstood me. You will need to allow me to explain until you can acknowledge that it was your misunderstanding.

DiAngelo notes that each of these rules are rooted in white fragility.

In sum, anti-racist leaders have helped me understand why it is critical for me and my fellow whites to more explicitly name white supremacy and examine its negative effects. I am beginning to learn that only by naming it, disrupting it, and dismantling it can we successfully create a world that works for the benefit of all life.

I'm curious to hear from readers. What do you think? Does the urgency of naming, disrupting, and dismantling white supremacy resonate with you?