I recently wrote this paper, On the harms of white supremacy to white people: an autoethnography*, for my Bachelor’s of Health, Arts and Sciences program at Goddard College. I wrote this paper with the intention of sharing out what I learned with my communities so I wanted to break it down into some blog posts and put them here. Many thanks to my adviser Herukhuti for your guidance, feedback and edits. Here is the introduction and main body of my paper, which will be followed by several vignettes to illustrate the points that I begin to raise in part one:
*Autoethnography is a research methodology that is a “powerful method for working with topics of diversity and identity” and that “invites readers into the lived experience of a presumed “Other”” (Boylorn and Orbe, 2016, p. 15). The process of creating an autoethnography often includes “selecting epiphanies that stem from, or are made possible by, being part of a culture and/or by possessing a particular cultural identity”(Ellis, C., Adams, T., and Bochner, A., 2011); these can be expressed in the form of stories, vignettes, poems, or other mediums, with an emphasis on producing “aesthetic and evocative thick descriptions of personal and interpersonal experience”.
In this essay, I seek to find answers to the question, how does white supremacy harm white people? I feel that this line of inquiry is important to the struggle towards the destruction of white supremacy and the possibility of different worlds. Scholar Elizabeth “Betita” Martinez defines white supremacy as:
[…] an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege (1998).
I use the term “white supremacy” instead of racism because, as Martinez points out, this makes clear the “point” of white supremacy – that of elevating whites above all others, by whites (Martinez, 1998).
Additionally, utilizing the term “white supremacy” makes clear that it is a power relationship and a systemic issue, suggests that the notion of “race” is problematic (as there is no scientific basis for the dividing of peoples based on “race”), and also enables people to engage with the work of divesting from a system of oppression rather than just judging which behaviors are “racist” or not (Martinez, 1998). Also, most white people tend to look at racism as “a problem for people of color and something we should be concerned about for their sake” (Kivel, 2011, p. 46), which removes all agency from white people for the implementation and use of these systems for their own benefit. White supremacy names the system as having everything to do with white people, a system that is utilized as a “public and psychological wage” (Sakai, 1989, p. 111) by whites in elite positions, to reward all other whites for withdrawing their support from oppressed peoples and to re-invest their support with said elites.
Scholar Charles W. Mills refers to white supremacy as the “unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is” (2014); his description suggests how widespread the impact of white supremacy is and yet how unnamed it remains. These wages come with material benefits, such as titles, public deference, free admittance to public functions, institutions, parks and most any places, jobs, leniency in the courts, support from public officials, police and courts, general overall economic wealth and prosperity, health, life and more (Sakai, 1989, p. 111). The list of the material benefits that white have secured for themselves by investing in white supremacy can go on and on. Thus, these are the reasons that I choose to use the term, to name the unnamed and to make clear my politics on the topic of racism and white supremacy.
I want to address the question of how does white supremacy harm white people? because I feel that, although it should be enough to point out how devastating white supremacy is to all those who are targeted by it (such as Black people, Indigenous people and people of color) in order for white people to recognize what a horrific and violent system they are so deeply involved in, it is not. Engaging in asking this question has concerned me in the past, for its potential to ignore or de-center the harms that white supremacy inflicts on people of color, Black people, and Indigenous people.
I have chosen to look again at this question because, while the harms that white people experience due to white supremacy cannot compare to the harms listed before in any way, to neglect to name that the shamefully violent and brutal system of white supremacy does not also harm whites reduces, in my opinion, our ability to encourage a change in course for whites – who are the creators and primary perpetrators of white supremacy. As Malcolm X’s words instilled in antiracist activist Susan Burnett, we must all realize that fighting against racism and white supremacy also requires that we understand that we are fighting for ourselves, “not to save or fix others” (Thompson, 2001, p. 29).
Fighting to end white supremacy is not an act of charity but is rather a last grasp at being human for white people, at rescuing our own souls from continuing to perpetrate heinous violence against other human beings, the only just or moral choice in the face of such a system, and our responsibility “in order to be fully human” (Thompson, 2001, p. 20). I want to dig deeply into this question of harms to white people from white supremacy, in order to have more evidence of our collective need to dismantle this violent and oppressive system of white supremacy that we are all currently participating in and complicit with. This is what I am attempting to do in this paper.
Harms of White Supremacy
There is a nearly unspeakable amount of harm that whites have committed against every other group of people in the name of maintaining this “Racial Contract” or “system of domination by which white people have historically ruled over and, in certain important ways, continue to rule over nonwhite people” (Mills, 2014, p. 2). Ayi Kwei Armah describes the violence of white supremacy as a “scene of carnage” which the “white destroyers brought here” which includes both the “destruction of bodies” and the “death of souls” (Armah as quoted in Ani, 2014). This violence includes the ongoing genocide committed by the United States and its white settler citizens against Indigenous people, which has entailed “torture, terror, sexual abuse, massacres, systematic military occupations, removals of Indigenous peoples from their ancestral territories, forced removal of Native American children to military-like boarding schools, allotment, and a policy of termination” (Dunbar-Ortiz, 2016) and the African holocaust or “Maafa”, a term derived from the Swahili word for disaster, terrible occurrence or great tragedy (Ani, 2014), which refers to “Pan-African discourse of the 500 hundred years of suffering of people of African heritage through Slavery, imperialism, colonialism, apartheid, rape, oppression, invasions, and exploitation” (Shahadah, 2017).
In addition, the imperialism of the European countries and the United States have impacted nearly every other country in the world and illustrates the ideology behind white supremacy, of which activist Marilyn Buck said “You can’t take African slaves and depopulate Latin America except in the name of saying your culture is better” (Thompson, 2001, p. 130). These forms of genocide continue on to this day; examples of this include what the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement calls “The War Against Black People,” a “perpetual war” that “has been known by many names over the last seven decades such as the “Cold War”, COINTELPRO”, the” War on Drugs”, the “War on Gangs”, the “War on Crime”, and most recently, the “War on Terrorism”” (Eisen, 2013, p. 4); the ongoing colonization of Indigenous lands and people, such as the recent violation of the sovereignty of the Standing Rock Sioux tribe by state, government and corporate forces or the thousands of cases of murders and sexual assaults of Indigenous women in the United States, Canada and Mexico (Smith, n.d., p. 5); environmental racism, or “the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on people of color” (Energy Justice Network, n.d.) all throughout not only the Americas but the entire world; the Prison-Industrial Complex, or the heavily racialized system of policing, surveillance and incarceration that has resulted in a prison and jail population that is “nearly 43 percent Black, in a nation that is only 13 percent Black overall” (Camp, 2016, p. 216) or the gentrification of an increasing number of urban centers which are now enlisting the services of the state to “protect and serve” the white residents who have displaced the previous Black and Brown community members (Billings, 2016, p. 236).
In addition to these internal manifestations of white supremacy, there are also innumerable global examples, such as the United States’ collusion with the state of Israel in its ongoing imposition of apartheid, now considered a “broad term for crimes against humanity under international law and the Rome Statute that set up the International Criminal Court” (Eglash, 2016), against the Palestinian people; the current administration’s attempts at illegally banning all immigrants and refugees from majority-Muslim countries, illegal because “Congress outlawed discrimination against immigrants based on national origin” over 50 years ago (Bier, 2017); the “War on Terror Circle of Life” in multiple countries such as Libya, where the United States “bombs a country and then funnels weapons into the region, which leads to chaos and the opportunity for terrorist organizations, which then leads more US bombing” (Timm, 2016) and United States’ perpetration of capitalist, imperialist and colonialist exploitation that has led to immense exploitation and the “disparity in wealth between Europe and North America on the one hand and Africa, Asia and Latin America on the other” (Ashaver, 2013, p. 35). The examples of the forms that white supremacy takes are both abundant and horrifying in their size and scope and I have only offered a few examples here.
Thank you for reading part one! Part two to follow.
Ani, M. (2014). YURUGU: an African-centered critique of European cultural thought and behavior. Baltimore: Afrikan World Books.
Ashaver, B. (2013). Poverty, inequality and underdevelopment in third world countries: Bad state policies or bad global rules? IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science. Volume 15, Issue 6 (Sep. – Oct. 2013), pp. 33-38.
Bier, D. (2017, January 27). Trump’s immigration ban is illegal. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/01/27/opinion/trumps-immigration-ban-is-illegal.html
Billings, D. (2016). Deep denial: the persistence of white supremacy in United States history and life. Roselle, NJ: Crandall, Dostie & Douglass Books, Inc.
Boylorn, R. M., & Orbe, M. P. (2016). Critical autoethnography: intersecting cultural identities in everyday life. London: Routledge.
Camp, J. T., & Heatherton, C. (2016). Policing the planet: why the policing crisis led to Black Lives Matter. London: Verso.
Dunbar-Ortiz, R. (2016, May 12). Yes, Native Americans were the victims of genocide. History News Network. Retrieved from: http://historynewsnetwork.org/article/162804
Eglash, R. (2016, March 16). Is Israel an ‘apartheid’ state? This U.N. report says yes. The Washington Post. Retrieved from: https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/worldviews/wp/2017/03/16/is-israel-an-apartheid-state-this-u-n-report-says-yes/?utm_term=.469294bfa70f
Ellis, C., Adams, T., and Bochner, A. (2011, January). Autoethnography: an overview. Forum: Qualitative social research. Volume 12, No. 1, Art. 10. Retrieved from: http://www.qualitative-research.net/index.php/fqs/article/view/1589/3095
Eisen, A. (2013, April 5). Operation ghetto storm: 2012 annual report on the extrajudicial killings of of 313 Black people by police, security guards, and vigilantes. Retrieved from: http://www.operationghettostorm.org/uploads/1/9/1/1/19110795/new_all_14_11_04.pdf
Energy Justice Network. (n.d.). Environmental justice/environmental racism. Retrieved from: http://www.ejnet.org/ej/
Kivel, P. (2011). Uprooting racism: how white people can work for racial justice. New Society Publishers.
Martinez, E. (1998). What is white supremacy? Retrieved from: https://mappingdiversity.files.wordpress.com/2009/09/what-is-white-supremacy.pdf
Mills, C. W. (2014). The racial contract. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.
Sakai, J. (1989). Settlers: the mythology of the white proletariat. Chicago: Morningstar Press.
Shahadah, A. (2017, April 25). African holocaust: Maafa. Retrieved from: http://africanholocaust.net/africanholocaust/
Smith, A. (n.d.). Heteropatriarchy and the three pillars of white supremacy: rethinking women of color organizing. Retrieved from: http://www.cpt.org/files/Undoing%20Racism%20-%20Three%20Pillars%20-%20Smith.pdf
Thompson, B. W. (2001). A promise and a way of life: white antiracist activism. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Timm, T. (2016, August 4). The US is bombing Libya again. It’s a too-familiar vicious cycle. The Guardian. Retrieved from: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/aug/02/us-bombing-libya-isis-strongholds-vicious-cycle