I am walking alone down the street at my usual brisk pace and began to walk more quickly when I notice a group of men approaching me further along the sidewalk. I know they are straight because of how they are dressed (baggy shorts, plain t-shirts), carrying themselves (stiffly erected and widely swaying with arms not touching torsos), and interacting (loud and brazenly). I start walking more quickly because I am wearing pink lipstick, and have learned to anticipate interaction (e.g., jeers, taunts, stares) with groups of straight men whenever I wear makeup in public. I tighten my core as we near one another and see that our paths will intersect at a portion of sidewalk that is well-lit by the light of a pizza parlor. I feel the adrenaline churning in my guts. I see their gazes turning toward and averting from my painted lips. I notice the smirks percolating and I become terrified when one of them— the guy closest to me— makes eye contact and stomps his foot in my direction while proclaiming, “Yeah, I want a fuckin’ slice!” He could be referring to the slice of pizzas on display, but I know he is not, for my lipstick’d face is as brightly illuminated as the slices, and his statement is followed by collective laughter from the group. I feel the hooks in their laughter tugging at my back as we continue walking in opposite directions. I continue walking alone and take off my lipstick as soon as I get home.
I am not wearing makeup while on a train in Los Angeles. The train is at the station and is still filling up with bodies. There is an elder white man with long grey hair sitting across from me. Two white middle-aged women sit behind him. He inserts himself into conversation with them. “Oh, are we friends?” asks one of the women. The white man flusters briefly and continues asking personal questions: Where are they from? (Australia). Are they on vacation? (Yes). How do they like it here? (They love it). What are they going to do next? … I can see and feel their discomfort, and notice that we four (myself, the white man, and the two white women) are the only white people in this section of the train.
A group of people of color sitting nearby begin conversing, and become louder as the white man continues to question the white women. Suddenly the white man yells to them: “Can you be quiet? I am trying to talk to my new friends here!” They do indeed become quiet; heads within earshot turn toward him, and the white man begins to smirk contentedly while turning to me — the only other “white guy” on the train — for some form of solidarity. I am angrily astounded that he silenced strangers and know he would not have done so if they were white so I shoot him a spiteful glare with my blue eyes while shaking my head in disapproval. His face falls immediately into a frog-like frown (lips protrude widely downward, green eyes grow glassily enlarged beneath droopingly sad brows) as I plug myself into headphones, clenching my jaw angrily and still shaking my head in disapproval. I see in my periphery that he fizzles away red-faced from his “new friends” and pouts, arms folded and leaning into himself.
I turn toward him twice more during the ride, and each time he snaps out of his slump and looks up at me with those pitiful eyes. My angry blue eyes remain tightened with every glance, and his displeasure appears to intensify each time I look away again as he crumples further into himself. His “new friends” do not say goodbye to him when they get off the train, and he tries once more to get some form of positive feedback from me (eye contact?) before he gets off the train. I obstinately refuse because I was not (and still am not) his Aryan brother.
White dominance in the United States (US) is a fact: white communities have historically possessed more material resources and institutional power than any other American social group. White resources and power are not natural facts about white superiority, however; they are instead based in ritualized practices of white domination (e.g., exploiting African slave labor, taking indigenous land, creating laws to justify and/or sustain social hierarchies, etc.). In other words, the historical prevalence of white power and material resources in the US is a fact because American social institutions were structured by and for the betterment of white communities. This undergirds white privilege, as success within a social system is easier to obtain if that system was made by and for one’s own social group.
White supremacy, however, which refers to the presumption that whiteness is superior to all other forms of social difference, is false: whiteness is not superior to any other form of social difference, and nor are white people superior to any other group of racialized people. This is important to acknowledge, as it is easy for a group to feel superior to other groups if it has more power and resources than these other groups.
This distinction between enacting dominance and feeling superior is crucial for understanding the psychology of white supremacy. I am writing to name and evaluate this relationship so that white supremacy can be understood as an affectual relationship between domination and superiorty that gets enacted in everyday situations. Structural analyses are important, but what’s even more important (at least in my view) is that these structural phenomena are also understood as patterns of behavior that occur in everyday situations.
How does domination relate to superiority? I know this question is vague, so I will rephrase it in more specific terms: how do acts of domination relate to feelings of superiority? This question is affectual in nature, meaning that it attempts to draw attention to how behaviors affect feelings of truth. It seems that feeling that something is true is enough for humans to act accordingly; what actually is true is a separate issue that is tragically irrelevant to where we are in our current political and historical era of Fake News and Alternative Facts.
I am asking this question to evaluate acts of domination feeling like superiority in order to emphasize how feeling like something is the case can be sufficient evidence to support a belief in it, whether that belief is consciously-held, implicit, or unconscious. The analytic truth of the matter (i.e., that domination does not confer actual superiority, and that whiteness and white people are not actually superior even within a society predicated on white supremacy) is irrelevant to the affectual relationship that exists between acts of domination and feelings of superiority. This kind of conceptual understanding of the centrality of subjective experiences (e.g., feelings) in affecting human behavior is one that I hope becomes the subject of more critical inquiry, especially in relation to how feelings function to maintain systems of oppression.
I venture that today few Americans will openly admit to “being racist” because of the social consequences that result from a conscious admission of this positionality. Despite this, racism remains a pervasive social problem in the US, and somebody is responsible for this. Actually, to be more specific, it’s not someone in particular who is responsible for American racism, but rather patterns of repeated group behaviors that maintain systems of racism (and other structural -isms). In other words, no individual is fully responsible for creating or is exempt from maintaining systemic racism in the US. White communities, however, are the ones that created systems of slavery and Jim Crow laws (and many other unethical institutional practices), which is why white communities are collectively responsible for creating, maintaining, and potentially dismantling systemic racism in the US.
Let’s go back to the narratives I shared in the beginning to contextualize what I’m trying to say about domination and superiority.
In the first story, I was micro-aggressed by one man among a group of other men, and interpret this as a response to the makeup I was wearing. I have a sickening amount of stories about what it’s like to be the “guy in makeup”, and all of them are about (white) people asserting some form of power over me. I cannot forget the white woman from Orange County — one of the most conservative areas in California — who barged into my store when I worked for MAC Cosmetics and demanded that I talk to her about “men in makeup.” She wanted to know where “it” was coming from, and cut me off from explaining why it was happening in relation to shifting gender norms, and wanted to know where it was coming from. “Is it San Francisco, New York, Atlanta…?” she asked aggressively as I frowned feeling her prejudice coat my skin. I was flabbergasted and eventually saved by my manager, a beautiful and fierce woman who burst out of our secret closet-office behind the register to diffuse the situation.
Anyway, back to the first story. What does this encounter say about domination and superiority? The key element of this story is the stomp: I can still hear the sound of his foot hitting the ground as he talked about the “fuckin’ slice” he wanted. Without this stomp I would not have attributed as much meaning to the situation, for what does a stomp signify? Stomping crushes grapes and ugly insects, and the curb-stomp shown in the movie American History X is a horrific display of violence committed by a white skinhead. Stomping to me thus signifies an act of domination that reflects a violent stepping-upon to either exterminate or transform something into something else. In this experience, the man closest to me performed dominance with his stomp and used irony as a defense to maintain a position of superiority over me (for an insightful look at what jokes say about unconsicous beliefs, I recommend reading Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconsicous). If one can be symbolically stepped on and made fun of, then it follows that they must be inferior as a symbolically small and inconsequential subject. I share this story because it involves a clear performative gesture (a stomp) that reflects the violence that undergirds all other public gestures that taunt trans people. Trans people are murdered often, and subtle moments like these are when violence first begins. Me noticing these things is part of how I survive my life. I have never been literally “stomped at” before or since, but am still continually “stepped on” by folks who I threaten by merely existing as a non-binary trans person.
What about the second story about the white man on the train? I think this story much more clearly explicates the affectual relationship between domination and superiority, and how within-group solidarity functions as a way to affectually justify oppressive behaviors.
Let’s first be clear that it was not appropriate for him to insert himself into conversation with women who clearly did not want to talk with him. This is an insertive behavior that I have described elsewhere as an instance of acting like a dick in an attempt to achieve phallic embodiment. What I do not describe as directly in this other essay is how I think whiteness is inherently phallic. This is because the phallus signifies absence, and post-Civil Rights era colorblindness positions whiteness as the implicit (i.e., “absent”) norm by which all other social values and practices are compared. This positioning of whiteness must be understood as a psychoanalytic compensation for a constitutional lack that all humans — regardless of racial identity — face as part of what it means to be human (constitutional lack is a complex idea that I will explain more fully elsewhere). What makes whiteness even more phallic is the fact that the superiority imitated by acts of domination does not actually exist, which therefore situates the phallus as a symbol of the lack (of actual superiority) supposed by white supremacy and implicated by acts of white dominance.
Back to the second narrative. Symbolic castration refers to losing something that was never had in order to transform lack to loss (Alenka Zupancic, What Is Sex?, 2017). In this situation, the white man was symbolically castrated by the woman who asked if they were friends, because through this she was implying that they were not friends and that they did not want to talk to him (i.e., he “lost” a “friendship” that he never had). Symbolic castration happens all the time (e.g., not getting that phone call, someone else taking that parking spot), and is what occurs whenever with the loss of a superiority that was never there to begin with. The “feeling” of superiority is as close as whiteness gets to white supremacy, and acts of domination are how whiteness approaches this supremacy.
This implicates castration anxiety, or a fear of being losing what isn’t there, as a core affect of whiteness, as it is always the case that white domination fails its aim to instantiate white supremacy. White supremacy is an illusion made real by continual investments in maintaining dominace. This helps explain why some white conservatives, for example, feel convinced that illegal immigrants commit more crime and take away more jobs than they actually do. From a psychoanalytic perspective, this is a projection of castration anxiety wherein the fear is of losing the security that were never had to begin with. In fact, castration anxiety is necessary to justify the kind of racism implicated by support of the Mexican border wall, because it must be true that immigrants are taking away American national security and job opportunities in order for this idea to be supported; there would be nothing to rally behind if instead the rhetoric was that this security was constitutionally lacking instead of “taken” by “illegals” who can be scapegoated as the cause of otherwise general existential concerns. In fact, I think that those who support the border wall have inherited a generational trauma from former Southern slave-owners whose economic and social security was upended when slavery was abolished. I think these folks are, in other words, projecting an unconscious historical fear of liberated slaves taking over the country into present-day animosity toward immigrants.
I digressed again; I do this a lot. Let’s go to the moment when the man silenced the group of strangers, as this was when he performed his castration. I can first almost guarantee that he would not have silenced them if they were not people of color. As an old white man, he was probably socialized into believing that people of color are inferior objects that are either threatening or to be exploited. He would not have silenced the strangers unless he felt not only entitled to having a conversation with the women, but also justified in silencing a group of complete strangers. It is not normal or acceptable to treat others with this kind of disrespect, regardless of who they are or how important you think you are. This presumed authority (I mean, superiority) is a dangerous social problem that us white people need to begin critically examining within ourselves and our communities because this complex not only harms and upsets other people — it’s eating us alive as well. White racial justice activists should adopt symbolic castration as a praxis involving taking away validation from white dominators who expect to be supported in their domination by other white people. The problem begins and could end with us, but until we realize how powerless we feel inside (deep, deep inside) because we’ve been socialized into a non-existent position of superiority, we (as a species in general) will not be able to move forward into a better future.
Anyway, back to what I was saying. The white man on the train was already performing dominance by talking to the women against their will, and amped up the intensity of his domination by yelling at the strangers when they got “too loud” for his conversation. It seems to me like he presumed that silencing the strangers would have endeared him to the women, which situates his silencing as a way of coping with symbolic castration (i.e., by “getting back” the women’s approval that he never had to begin with). The fact that the strangers (and the rest of the people within earshot) actually became silent after his command is what I think lifted his lips into the smirk because to him this felt like proof of his power and subsequent superiority. He needed something else in order to complete the white domination-superiority circuit, however, and that something else was solidarity from me as another white male-assigned person. The fact that I did not play along in validating him was clearly distressing to him, as his pouty crumple performed. It is not a cooincidence that his posture and countenance fell like a flaccid penis into a soft sadness after his phallic insertion of presumptive influence into the women and strangers. Phallic embodiment is another way of looking at whiteness that expands on the idea of white fragility to implicate whiteness in general as a fragile construct based on a fallacious relationship between feelings of superiority and acts of domination. If anything thwarts the act of domination (which in this case was me), then there will be consequences because what this does is expose the inherent instability of the embodied power complex that is white supremacy.
I did not write this piece for white dominators, as I have know better than to expect anything productive to result from letting an abuser know about their abusive behavior. I wrote this for anyone who is interested in developing a clearer understanding of how white supremacy (negatively) affects white people, and to help make sense of the invisible (affectual) logic that motivates problematic white behaviors. I do not hate white people, and nor do I hate men — but I am indeed very critical of white supremacy and toxic masculinity as a result of being the only queer person in a non-religious white American family whose male members all entered either the military or law enforcement. I name my subjectivity thusly to emphasize that I acknowledge and am aware of how my biases affect the way I see the world. I am not claiming the objective truth (and don’t even believe in objective truth); I am offering a subjective interpretation of my lived experiences as cultural criticism. Taking what I’ve said here defensively (e.g., explaining why I’m wrong, attacking me as a person, etc.) performs the very phenomenon I am describing here, so I thank you in advance for showing us what I’m talking about if you decide to do this.
White people need to see, understand, and develop a conscious, critical relationship to whiteness. I think what the world needs more than anything right now is psychoanalysis because psychoanalysis is about whiteness. This claim is about as controversial as America itself, so let’s keep the controversy going by seeing where these ideas take us. I’m gonna keep psychoanalyzing you regardless, though, white America. Watch out!