White supremacy can be understood as an ideological structure that aims to make whiteness superior to every other form of social difference. Whiteness is not superior to anything, however, and nor are white people better than anyone else. White supremacy is therefore false and always fails its aim of conferring genuine white superiority. White (mis)behaviors can thus be understood as attempts to maintain illusions of white superiority and guard against the loss of a superiority that doesn’t exist.
An illusion of superiority can be maintained by devaluing others and/or overvaluing oneself. “Negative” white supremacy involves devaluing the non-white Other, and “positive” white supremacy involves overvaluing whiteness. Black Lives Matter is so effective as a social justice movement because it addresses both positive and negative forms of white supremacy by simultaneously affirming the value of Black lives and leveling the overvaluation of white lives.
Racism, classism, sexism, and all the other -isms are different forms of negative white supremacy because they involve systematically devaluing (i.e., oppressing) the Other who isn’t white, affluent, masculine, or cisheterosexual. Racist jokes and microaggressions are also manifestations of negative white supremacy that occur in seemingly-benign everyday contexts. Police brutality has taken the place of lynching and is one of the clearest manifestations of negative white supremacy.
Positive white supremacy refers to the myriad ways in which whiteness is perceived to be superior to other forms of social difference. White people who presume that they are inherently better (e.g., smarter, harder-working, more valuable, etc.) than others are harbingers of positive white supremacy who often also participate in negative forms of white supremacy to keep their illusory superiority in-tact. The racist history of intelligence testing is a good example of a white cultural practice that affirms positive and negative forms of white supremacy by making the white man seem smarter than the non-white Other who in the same gesture is made moronic, a technical term developed by Henry H. Goddard to refer to those who scored poorly on his biased and unfair intelligence tests that were developed to justify eugenics and regulate immigration into the United States during the early 1900s.
Negative and positive forms of white supremacy imply each other (e.g., scorning Blackness and applauds whiteness), but differ with regard to how they can be effectively addressed. The current racial justice movement that has been sparked by George Floyd’s murder by police is confronting negative white supremacy, and my current efforts primarily aim to confront positive white supremacy. Both forms of white supremacy are still false, however, and it is important to continue unpacking how this falsehood affects white people. We whites are responsible for creating, maintaining, and potentially dismantling systems of oppression, but before we can do this we must first realize how these systems are institutionalized rituals whose purpose is to defend against realizing the falsehood of white supremacy. The Black lives that have been lost to white supremacy are sacrifices made by racist whites for a god who doesn’t exist.
White privilege is a prevalent form of positive white supremacy that refers to the contexts in which white people are socialized into implicit feelings of racial superiority. Problematic white people get so upset about the idea of white privilege because areas of privilege are those in which white supremacy comes closest to being true. To benefit from privilege without acknowledging it feels like superiority, just as one would feel like they are inherently better at playing Monopoly if the dealer routinely helps them win.
Given that perceptions of superiority are the closest white supremacy ever comes to being true, it is therefore important for white supremacy that a majority of white people don’t catch onto the idea of privilege. The subtext behind a white person claiming they are not privileged because they work hard (for example) is that they believe they work harder (i.e., are better workers) than those lazy Blacks and Mexicans (even though, in my experience, it is the white man who complains the most about doing the work that Black and Mexican folks do with humility). Approaching white supremacy as a power complex that animates racist gestures can help reframe white fragility in relation to the broader issue of white supremacy’s falsehood.
Privilege comes in many forms (e.g., class privilege, male privilege, heterosexual privilege, etc.), which is why I recommend shifting focus to other forms of privilege when trying to get white people to understand the concept of white privilege. If redneck Uncle Bill, for example, refuses to accept white privilege because he is a hard worker, then let him know he is also privileged by being able to hold his white wife’s hand in public without fear of being harassed. Ask him how he would be treated differently if she were Black or another man (let alone another Black man!), which might then get him to start thinking about how different his life would be if he were not considered “normal” (i.e., wasn’t privileged) by white American society.
White racism, classism, sexism, etc. are defenses against realizing the scandal of white supremacy’s falsehood. White supremacy is the puppeteer that animates white bodies to collectively imitate superiority over others, and this collective imitation has been going on for so long that its reality has been mistaken for actuality instead of conventionality. In other words, white people have acted superior to others for so long that white superiority has become a presumed fact instead of an illusion put in place by white supremacy. The horrible things white people do to dominate others can be understood as efforts to forestall the recognition of white supremacy’s falsehood. Intervening on white supremacy within white communities is more effective than any number of #BlakeLivesMatter (re)posts on social media; white anti-racism is great, but white anti-white-supremacy is even better.
What many white people don’t realize is that white supremacy harms them too, for it is extremely stressful to feel convinced you are better than others when you actually aren’t. If more white people understood how stressful it is to constantly be defending against a loss of superiority that doesn’t actually exist, then I think more white people would get onboard with racial justice movements. Becoming enraged by hearing someone speak a language you don’t understand and feeling so easily threatened by Black people existing in public are signs of mental health problems that whittle away the sanity of many white people. White supremacy is similar to narcissism in this regard because both involve maintaining investments in a false perceptions of superiority that function to cover up unconscious ego wounds.
Violent white police officers are some of the most deranged members of white society, for they are so convinced of their superiority and threatened by Blackness that they receive badges that function as literal and figurative coverups for deeper feelings of weakness and inferiority that come up in relation to Blackness. See how quickly and fearfully the off-duty white police officer locks his car doors upon driving past a Black person walking along the street. See how the white police officer treats his wife and you will notice that he is much more than just racist. Snowmen are made of snowflakes — see how they melt in the heat.
Imagine, white people, how much easier life would be if you accepted that whiteness wasn’t superior to anything and that you didn’t constantly dominate others to do the work of white supremacy. No one wins Monopoly when white supremacy is the dealer.
Imagine how much better you’d feel if you could release the dissonance that accompanies feeling superior to others even though you’re not.
Imagine how it would feel if you could humbly accept not being better than anyone else and instead bond with others of different backgrounds and lived experiences.
Imagine how much more comfortable you would be if you didn’t spend so much energy feeling threatened by people of color.
Imagine how much happier we would all be if we could look each other in the eyes and see each other’s humanity instead of clutching purses or grabbing guns for safety whenever we see a Black person who we whites think we can blame for what white supremacy does to us.
We white people fear and dominate others because we know deep down that white supremacy is false, and that we are no better than anyone else… but because we feel that we must be superior, and have histories of horrific cruelty to ignore, we instead spend our lives working toward maintaining power relations instead of human relations.
White depravity is a result of white supremacy, and white supremacy is what prevents many white people from recognizing their depravity. There is a paradoxical circularity here that prevents white people from seeing how whiteness is actually the problem being pointed at by racial justice efforts, which is why the dominance/superiority power complex must be short-circuited in order to get through to problematic white people.
Problematic white people don’t see social injustice because they believe that the Other is inferior and therefore deserves to be punished as errant children are for misbehaving. The reality is that marginalized groups are punished for existing because their existence — let alone their flourishing — threatens to expose white supremacy’s falsehood. There cannot be a level playing field if one social group is convinced that they are better than everyone else.
We have a lot of work to do, white people, and I think the first step should be to acknowledge that white supremacy dehumanizes us more than anyone else.