My Turn: White supremacy: What does it mean to you?

For the Monitor
Published: 2/9/2021 6:20:05 AM

‘White supremacy is not the elephant in the room, it is the room.” That was Nelba Márquez-Greene’s response to a tweet opposing gun control. Márquez-Green is a woman of color, founder of the Ana Grace Project, mother of Ana Grace who was murdered at Sandy Hook. Her quote describes her experience of the world. If it makes you uncomfortable as a white person, pay attention to that. Lean into the discomfort and see what you can learn.

A year ago, even as an anti-racist activist, the term white supremacy made me flinch a bit. It seemed too extreme a term to describe the racist actions and policies I focused on changing. 

But it’s white supremacists who are extreme, not the recognition that whiteness continues to be the normalized and preferred state of being in our country. Though it’s not what is said, people hear white supremacist and think, I’m not one. White supremacy is a baked-in preference system in our country. If you’re white, imagining the term is an insult to you let’s you dismiss looking any deeper at what’s making you uncomfortable.

A perfect example of this defensive trick comes from Republicans who expressed offense at President Joe Biden’s inclusion of white supremacy as a challenge “we must confront and . . . defeat” in his inaugural address. 

Karl Rove was “offended” by the speech, claiming that Biden was implying anyone who doesn’t support Democrats is racist. Sen. Rand Paul claimed that a close reading of the speech would reveal that Biden was “calling us white supremacists, calling us racists, calling us every name in the book.” Heather MacDonald of the Manhattan Institute, a conservative think tank, interpreted Biden’s speech as calling “a significant portion of the American public white supremacists, racists, and nativists.”

These comments let anyone who listens to them know they don’t have to try to understand what white supremacy meant in Biden’s speech. They don’t need to confront how the elevation of whiteness across political, economic, and social power structures harms people of color. They don’t need to look at the room they’re living in if they’re busy looking for the elephant. 

Biden didn’t call anyone a racist or a white supremacist. What he did was accurately point out that our country is still influenced by centuries of racist policies and the assumption of whiteness as the norm. White supremacists are people who deny the use of racist power in our country, and in many cases commit overtly racist acts. The Department of Homeland Security has called white supremacists the most “persistent and lethal threat” in the U.S. Refusing to look at and understand the harm caused by white supremacy not only hurts Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color, it’s dangerous for all of us when it empowers domestic terrorists motivated by their belief that white people are superior and should be favored in our country.

Over my years of anti-racism work my gut has clenched a number of times from listening to what people of color said about their experiences in our communities. I examined the feeling because I’m trying to learn. I want to understand how the world works for Black people, Indigenous people, and people of color, how they experience living in a society that gives unearned preference to white people. No one has called me racist; no one has said I personally benefit from white supremacy. What they’ve done is accurately describe what life is like as a person of color living in a culture of white supremacy.

When I examine my discomfort, I uncover my own assumption of superiority, my way of seeing and behaving from the frame of protected whiteness. Not having done anything personally that is racist or that supports white supremacy, in fact having tried hard to do the opposite, doesn’t change the reality I confront – my experience of the world isn’t everyone’s and it certainly isn’t that of people of color. My experience of life in this country as a white person is not necessarily normal or better or superior, even though the culture around me assumes it is.

If you cringe, even a little, when you hear white supremacy named, let yourself examine why. If you don’t cringe because you think it applies only to professed white supremacists like members of the KKK or the Proud Boys, remember that white supremacy is not a person but a systemic byproduct of our country’s history of racism.

Get uncomfortable so you can get comfortable with the term and what it means. In order to effectively challenge racism in our country, white people need to acknowledge and confront white supremacy. In spite of what has been asserted throughout the history of our country, there is nothing superior about whiteness. 

(Grace Mattern lives in Northwood.)


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