What Is White Supremacy, Anyway?

This Saturday, ChangeLab and OneAmerica are hosting an event in Seattle called The Past, Present & Future of Multiracial Solidarity. In preparation, I thought I’d offer my take on how white supremacy works, and some thoughts on what solidarity requires of us.

Just to be clear, by white supremacy, I don’t mean the KKK. I mean the set of ideas and beliefs that creates and enforces whiteness as the dominant norm.

No one has taught me more about white supremacy than Andrea Smith. Her scholarship led me to see not a single system of racial oppression, but what she describes as a more complex system made up of “three pillars.” I’ve come to think of it as a kind of three-legged stool. It has opened my eyes to what solidarity demands of us as people of color: not just to see how we are oppressed, but also how we participate, knowingly or not, in keeping that stool upright.

One leg of the stool is slavery, the idea of black people as property. This logic has been built into the U.S. economy and political system and endures today in the black-white racial hierarchy. It tells us that if we’re not black, we have the chance to rise above the brutality of capitalism. Of course this isn’t true, but that hardly matters. It’s a powerful tool in racial politics, motivating people from across the color line to buy into anti-black racism out of self-interest, consciously or not.

As Scot wrote in a RaceFiles post called, “Blackness is the Fulcrum,” there is no hierarchy of oppression, but anti-black racism is what gives white supremacy traction and leverage. Not only are structures like the Constitution and the electoral college rooted in slavery; over time, the politics of anti-blackness has led to the shredding of critical safety net programs and to the rise of a massive prison system. It’s also what led whites in the U.S. South to defect from the Democratic Party after WWII – an opportunity that Republicans seized upon through the Southern Strategy. In popular consciousness, blackness equals the bottom; that’s what makes it such a powerful political tool.

By the way, for anyone who missed The Nation’s release late last year of a 1981 interview with Lee Atwater, a Reagan-era Republican strategist, here’s a lesson in racial codes:

Indeed, anti-black racism led to the creation of the model minority myth, which has created particular frictions between blacks and Asians in the United States. It matters little that Asian Americans didn’t create the myth, or that it’s just that – a myth, or that it actually fuels anti-Asian violence, or that there’s in fact a legacy of Asian-black solidarity. The myth is effective, and some of us have bought into it. It lifts up Asian Americans as successful examples of hardworking immigrants fulfilling the American Dream, implicitly portraying us as living indictments of blackness. This is why, as Asian Americans, one strategic way to attack the myth is to vocally and visibly reject anti-black racism.

Another leg of the stool is genocide, which mandates the disappearance of Native peoples. It’s the thinking that tells us that non-Natives are rightfully entitled to own indigenous lands, because Native people simply don’t exist. This was also a key part of building the U.S. economy, by forcibly removing Native peoples to make way for owning land and exploiting resources for profit. It can be seen today in everything from the shameless naming of towns and sports teams to the massive resource extraction projects throughout North America and the Global South.

A third leg is Orientalism, the basis for war. Orientalism is rooted in European imperialism. It’s the “us-versus-them” mindset that casts certain groups of people as enemy threats. It can be seen today in the War on Terror, in massive deportations and entrenched barriers to citizenship, and in the 1,000+ U.S. military bases around the world. Orientalism allows the United States to defend the effects of slavery and genocide, by arguing that America must stay strong enough to fight its enemies, and to protect and spread freedom and democracy in the world.

As people of color we participate in both genocide and Orientalism when we serve in or glorify U.S. wars and when we espouse American exceptionalism. We participate when we use language about the American Dream, or about America as a land of immigrants, by making invisible all the ways that the dream itself relies on global exploitation and on the disappearance of Native peoples. The truth is, we participate in white supremacy all the time. How could we not, given the roots of our economy and our political system? The challenge is to be mindful of this as we develop strategies for justice.

As an identity, the term “Asian American” was coined to reflect a coalition across different ethnic groups, and a rejection of the term “Oriental.” It reflected a commitment to solidarity with blacks, Chicanos and Native Americans, and a critique of war and imperialism. That was in the late ‘60s. But what does it mean to be Asian American today? What does it mean to be API? What about being a person of color? There’s a need for coalitions, but not just for the sake of including different categories of people. Meaningful coalitions are based on relationships and explicit political commitments.

As more Asian immigrants and refugees today are profiled as a result of both war and criminalization/anti-black racism, there’s an opportunity for solidarity. As the U.S. government forcibly takes land from indigenous peoples to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border, that’s also an opportunity for solidarity. As immigration policies create more ways to exploit low-wage workers, that’s another opportunity for solidarity. Organizers are seizing these openings in exciting new campaigns and alliances. But we still have work to do to come up with the shifts in thinking, the organizing practices, and the vocabulary we need to push back against white supremacy.

On Saturday, we hope to explore lessons from the past with Aaron Dixon and Ron Chew, and to discuss opportunities for the future. It’s just one step, but I hope you’ll join us.

14 Responses to What Is White Supremacy, Anyway?

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  1. Glenn Robinson May 9, 2013 at 10:36 pm #

    solidarity!

  2. Glenn Robinson May 9, 2013 at 10:38 pm #

    human solidarity against oppression!

    • Soya Jung
      Soya May 11, 2013 at 5:15 pm #

      Thanks for reading, Glenn!

  3. Katy Kay May 10, 2013 at 12:16 am #

    Wow, SOLIDARITY, FOREVER. Thanks, just when I think I have read the “best of the best’, you create another “best”. Made My Day, thanks.

  4. KatyKay May 10, 2013 at 12:32 am #

    Soya, Apologies, In my Comment above, I credited Scot, missed seeing your name as writer of this great post. All yours and Scots are excellent. I learn something on every visit, and am energized each time. Thanks for the link to the interview, didn’t see it in Nation, incredible……lots of work to be done. Thanks also for the reference to Andrea Smith, will check out her work.

    • Soya Jung
      Soya May 11, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

      Thank you, Katy. No apology needed!

  5. Tobias Grace May 10, 2013 at 5:05 am #

    As a “privileged” (more than some, less than others)white male of upper middle class descent and present standing, there isn’t much in Soya’s post that I could take issue with other than that it is itself couched in a racist perspective. It seems to be very much an “us against them” sort of thing – the “them” being whites. Whenever we stigmatize entire classifications of people in this way, we are being inherently racist. Let me take an example – New York’s “stop & frisk” policy which ensnares primarily young men of color. Is the policy racist? Obviously – the statistics prove it. Is it the result of white racism? Well…that’s another matter. The mayor and police commissioner are white but the “boots on the ground” who enforce the policy are of many different races. In order for the policy to be enforced then, the cooperation of members of every ethnicity in the city is required because every ethnicity is represented on the police force. We can explore the complex psychology of persons involved in systems that require them to act in racist ways against members of their own ethnicities but suffice it for now to note the issue is not as “black/white” as Soya’s post might indicate.
    As another example, let me take my own case. Here I am, a college educated, professionally employed white man, descended from many generations of college educated professionals, enjoying owning my own home and occasional vacations in Paris – a junior member of the oppressing class?? Maybe. But I’m also a out gay man, actively involved in gay liberation ever since Stonewall, married to a black man for 17 years now, with six adopted sons of varied ethnicity including Asian and who is actively involved in supporting an organization for homeless LGBT youth – most of whom are not white. So where does that put me on the racist scale? Where does it put the many others like me? And what is my profession? Teaching at an inner city extension of a college where almost all the students are from the ghetto and struggling hard to get out of it. I flatter myself to think I’m helping them. So, when you see me getting out of my cute Jeep, wearing my English tweed suit and carrying my over-stuffed briefcase, are you going to immediately tag me “white oppressor?” I would hope not but then, I’m not responsible for what you think -only for how I live my own life. Further, I would say I am neither a saint nor am I particularly exceptional. Most people I know, of whatever race, have similar values. My point is that fostering the “white/persons of color” dichotomy is itself racist and destructive. We might better frame the dialog along the lines of “persons of good will vs. selfish, evil bastards” because SEBs come in all colors and ethnicities.
    To take a broader view – we might note that racism, land and resource grabbing and suppression of minorities distinguishes the history of every race, every nationality that this planet has produced. It is not a white phenomenon. Historically, for example, few nations can compare to the absolute ethnocentricity of classical Chinese culture. Few nations today can compare to the horrible ethnically based genocide in Ruwanda. The list goes on and on. I don’t think we need a coalition of people of color. I think we need a coalition of people of good will and humane values.

    • Soya Jung
      Soya May 11, 2013 at 3:42 pm #

      Thanks for reading and responding, Tobias. Let me clarify that in talking about white supremacy, I’m talking about a set of ideas, values, and relationships, not about white people. There are many courageous examples of white people rejecting their privilege, putting themselves at risk, and fighting alongside people of color in racial justice struggles throughout history. There are also many examples of how white supremacy in fact hurts particularly poor and low-income whites, white women, and white lgbt people (e.g., the Southern Strategy relied on racist ideas to advance attacks on women, lgbt people, and poor people). In this post I’m trying to make a distinction between race as categories of people, and race as an idea and a political dynamic that is fundamental to U.S. economic and political structures. People of color certainly participate in it, as I point out, and this shows how racial justice is more than a question of demographic categories. To your last point, there have certainly been various empires throughout history, each with their own set of atrocities, but the United States is the dominant one today, and is also the one that created the idea of race.

      • Tobias Grace May 12, 2013 at 3:20 am #

        Thank you for your clarification, which helped a lightbulb to come on in my head illuminating the words “oh..right.. now I see what she is talking about.” You make a great deal of sense.

  6. Ben May 11, 2013 at 11:51 am #

    I’m a long-time reader and supporter of what you guys are trying to do with this space – most Asian-American blogs seem to avoid meaningful enquiry, which I think is a waste of opportunity!

    But I do have to say that I found the study “Left Or Right Of The Colour Line” to have been somewhat misleading. Although you had interviewed a select group of activists, and cultural figures, who offered their opinions on the attitudes and beliefs of the general Asian-American community, these opinions were presented as the actual attitudes of said group, not just the opinions of the interviewees. In order to determine the actual attitudes of the general community surely it requires that you interact with them directly, and record their own stated opinions?

    I also find this to be extremely problematic mainly because misrepresenting the character, motivations, and actions, of Asian people, is characteristic of anti-Asian racism in the west, where Asians have few media or cultural opportunities to voice their own versions of events in their own words without a western “expert” interpreting what it means (often utilizing stereotypes in the process). Surely, in the interest of genuine enquiry and ontological accuracy, more care needs to be taken to ensure that the opinions of a select few are not put forward as the recorded attitudes of a group whose actual opinions were not elicited?

    • Soya Jung
      Soya May 11, 2013 at 4:04 pm #

      Thanks for supporting our work, Ben! I really appreciate your comment. It’s true that the study was a qualitative one, with in-depth interviews with Asian American leaders and organizers, and others involved in racial justice work. It wasn’t a representative poll of Asian Americans, which we point out in our methodology. However, many of the interviewees are people who are deeply connected to various Asian American communities around the country, in different sectors and issue areas. Our findings were based on what they said, and particular examples they provided of how racial dynamics play out on the ground among Asian Americans and other communities of color. I hope you’ll read our second report, “The Importance of Asian Americans? It’s Not What You Think.” It lays out the challenges we’re up against, including the anti-Asian racism you describe, which robs us of control over how we are portrayed and how we are racialized. It also starts to suggest a way forward, including deeper dialogue among Asian Americans around these questions, in order to have a clearer understanding of how people feel and think about race, as well as a more genuine basis for coming together as Asian Americans, and then beyond that, as people of color.

      There’s also a fantastic and historic poll done by the National Asian American Survey on the opinions of Asian American voters on various issue and policy questions, which really pushes back on the dominant idea that Asian Americans are a naturally conservative constituency (e.g., the mainstream media’s utter shock at the landslide Asian American support for Obama). I think the challenge is to figure out what’s beneath the ideas we all hold about race — regarding ourselves and one another — and then to ask where those ideas came from and what impacts they have. Thanks for reading and commenting, and please keep the critical feedback coming!

  7. Tobias Grace May 12, 2013 at 3:43 am #

    I would like to add something more from my own experience. Of course, growing up in this country, it is impossible to be unaware of black/white issues and the devastating history thereof. It simply never occurred to me however, that there would be prejudice against Asians. I knew about such things as the Chinese Exclusion Act act and the WWII internment camps but that seemed long ago and not part of today’s world. I just didn’t think about it – until a boy of Asian descent became a part of my family. He is an amazing young man – brilliant (now at age 26 he has 2 MAs, one of them Ivy League and already has programs he designed in his field – HIV/AIDS prevention among MSMs of color, attracting attention at the very top of his profession.) He is also very good looking and in superb physical condition as well as having a winning and engaging personality (I know – I’m the Dad so of course my kid is totally wonderful – but really..he IS.) Now one might ask “how could such a terrific young person experience prejudice? What possible grounds could there be for it? And yet it has happened time and again. sometimes it is unconscious – as in being in a club and having another boy say “you’re really cute and all but I don’t date Asians.” Sometimes it is in academia or in the work place when someone says words to the effect “sure you’ve accomplished a lot – of course – you’re Asian. You guys always over-achieve and take over.” There are many other ways and they all hurt. They hurt a lot. They hurt him and they hurt me and my husband and the other members of our family because we love him. He doesn’t say much about it but it is real and it is there in the background all the time. One learns that prejudice doesn’t need rational grounds and indeed, is never based on rational grounds.

    • Soya Jung
      Soya May 14, 2013 at 4:15 pm #

      Thank you for sharing these personal stories, Tobias. Yes, racism is dehumanizing and alienating even for those who enjoy relative degrees of privilege in the United States.

  8. Zahir July 23, 2013 at 7:54 pm #

    The comment that I previously wrote didn’t go through and it’s kinda disappointing because it was heartfelt but anyway, beautifully written Soya. As an African “American” it is very difficult to live in a world where we’re profiled by all races including our own wherever we go. Things as simple as employment opportunities to some, are a nightmare and depressant to us and with the recent events that have been making headlines across the country about obvious racism and the consequences (or lack there-of), it makes it even harder but the goal is to strive and see past the stigma that we’re placed in and live in harmony with all that breathe the same as we do. I still love your writing and will continue to check up on your future articles and may you remain healthy and as beautiful as when we first met.

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