This is the second of three Race Matters posts in which I intend to define some troublesome terms often involved in the contemporary discussion of race in America. The material for these posts was originally developed for a panel called “Race, the Church, and a Way Forward,” held at a Presbyterian church in January of 2017. Although I am white, I was invited by a friend to join four Christian brothers of color to offer some introductory thoughts on this subject, because I’ve been reading pretty deeply in the history of African Americans and listening carefully to my neighbors of color in the present. (I don’t claim to be an expert, but now I know the basics.)
I’ve included these thoughts about race and history here in my Bible Journal because of my conviction that we believers are called to love our neighbors knowledgeably. It’s my hope that defining these terms will increase our understanding, and improve that neighborly love.
I’ll review a little below before I get into the topic of White Supremacy, but if you want to read more you can find my post about White Privilege here. Eventually I will also write about White Guilt (describing the complex feelings of discomfort that tend to be bound up in this discussion for many white people). By the way, these terms are not typically capitalized when people write about these topics; I’ve chosen to do so here to make sure they stand out in the text.
In my previous post, I noted that terms like “White Privilege” and “White Supremacy” have been in use for some time, and if we don’t realize this when we enter discussions about race we might incorrectly assume that we know what they mean. For example, the term “White Privilege” is often misunderstood to be referring to wealth, power, and prestige, when actually it was coined by a sociologist named Peggy McIntosh to describe the ease with which white people move through life in America, relative to their neighbors of color. I compared this “privilege” to having an invisible EZ-Pass stuck to our foreheads, allowing us to proceed smoothly through the toll plazas while our neighbors are slowed or obstructed at the Cash Only lanes.*
Similarly, the term “White Supremacy” conjures up in our minds one particular narrow reference: White Supremacists, and White Supremacist groups, who openly advocate for the superiority of a white-male-led society. Even if we rightly distance ourselves from such extremist views, we may miss the fact that this term is used in a much broader sense in contemporary discussions.
To put it simply, in general usage “White Supremacy” refers to the way whiteness tends to be the standard or norm for decisions that are made in our culture. And whenever standards or norms are defined, it’s then possible to set expectations for, make evaluations of, and delimit possibilities for people.
Here’s a very, very innocuous-seeming example of White Supremacy in this sense—though it’s representative of a much larger reality about decision-making that pervades all areas of life in this country. If I need to purchase band-aids at the grocery store, I can easily find a pack that has strips that more or less match my pale skin. But if my skin were very dark, would I even know where to find band-aids that remotely blend in?
As I said, that’s an innocuous-seeming instance of the norm of whiteness informing decisions that were made about the production and marketing of one little item. But multiply this by hundreds and hundreds of examples, some more life-impacting than others, and you begin to get a picture of the world our neighbors of color have to navigate every day of their lives.*
Whiteness has long defined what is “normal” in America regarding decisions about casting in television and movies, representation in classroom textbooks and children’s literature, and presentations of American history. Historically, this standard has also informed decisions about who may access government loans, housing in middle-class neighborhoods, swimming pools, and union membership.* Participation in higher education, job hiring and promotion, and access to positions of influence in the political arena continue to be areas where being white is the norm and often informs expectations, possibilities, and decisions. The fact that we are still numbering firsts among people of color achieving certain goals or positions should give us pause. (Why is it, for example, that not until the year 2016 did an African American woman medal individually in Olympic swimming? Google Simone Manuel and the story of American swimming pools for more.)
Again, this normalizing of whiteness has deep, pervasive historical roots. It’s something present generations have inherited, usually unexamined, from decision-makers in the past. And since White Supremacy ends up being self-perpetuating and self-reinforcing—influencing, as it does, the very presentations of American history that we encountered in school and hear or read today—it requires an unusual degree of awareness and effort to recognize that we have missed great swaths of the American story, and to start to make up for lost time. If you’re inclined to expand your view of the American experience, this list of resources that we put together for our panel should keep you busy for some time.
One example of White Privilege relative to our panel (and these posts) is the fact that if we are white, we can choose whether or not we talk or think about race. We can also choose whether or not to accept the challenge to reexamine what we think we know about American history and life in our country, with all of the lens-adjusting discomfort that this challenge entails.
But our neighbors of color have no choice but to know, in their very skin, that whiteness is the standard for normalcy in this world that they navigate. Recognizing that this is so is a good start to learning to love our neighbors knowledgeably.
*For specific examples of how this plays out in contemporary American life, see my previous post on White Privilege. You can also find a summary of Peggy McIntosh’s extensive list of the privileges she noticed, here.
* One African American friend likens this to the experience of a lefty continually reaching for scissors in a right-handed world: over and over again, you are reminded that you don’t fit.
*And no, this didn’t just happen in the South during Jim Crow. Google “redlining” and “racist lending practices,” for a start.
The photo of Simone Manuel was found at https://mediadiversified.org.
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