March of the Racist Underpants Gnomes, Part II: White Fright

In the last post, I talked about the failure of white supremacist protestors in Charlottesville. Here, I want to talk about the allure of white supremacist views for some white people, and how the rest of us might be encouraging those views unwittingly.

Let me say I understand that the events in Charlottesville caused a tremendous amount of fear for people targeted by the white supremacists — basically, everybody except white supremacist sympathizers. That fear is valid and important, so I stress that this post is not meant to dismiss or minimize that fear, but to help solve the problems creating it. This post is focused on how white people understand and sustain white supremacy, and how we dismantle it.

In particular, I want to talk about how we talk about power. I believe the last ten years have seen a tilt in our culture and politics towards social justice that is unmatched in pace of change since the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, such that marginalized peoples are more and more empowered to act and advocate againstĀ  their oppression. The way we talk and think about oppressed peoples is changing quite rapidly, and forcing white people in particular to confront their privilege and their prejudices. Marginalized people are becoming more powerful.

Some white people see that power as being taken (or stolen) from white people, because they see power measured solely in terms of their control over other people. If Black people or queer people or immigrated people are more powerful, it is because they are taking power away from white people, and asserting that power over white people.

This is their mistake, but it is also the way we teach power and the way almost everybody talks about power in our society. So it’s also our mistake.

To correct the mistake, it is helpful to draw distinctions between types of power, which gives us different views of white power, and different layers of white supremacy. I fear this is going to seem like angels on pinheads, but — again — my audience is white people intent on confronting white supremacy.

White Powers, White Supremacies

When a Black person tells a white person that he benefits from white supremacy, the white person often hears: “You have power over me.” Not only do most white people not believe that they have that power, but even many racists would deny that power is something they want. (I say Black as an example, but of course white supremacy also targets brown, female, Jewish, queer, & etc. & etc. lives for domination.)

So the white person accused of supremacy looks at his life, quite narrowly with respect to the Black person’s life, and says: “Bullshit — white supremacy is a myth.” He finds it very easy to believe Black and white people are equal (we elected a Black president, right?). He can’t see the extent to which Black people see the people with power over them as being overwhelmingly white. That means not only are the two people talking past each other, but the Black person’s claim often has a reactance effect, antagonizing the white person to the point that he shuts down and refuses to listen.

Or, worse, he may come to accept his position in white supremacy, but instead of acknowledging it as a problem that needs to be solved, he might accept it as a privilege to be defended. Given the way we talk about power, the white person is likely to infer that the only solution to this sort of white supremacy is to give someone Black or brown power over his life — Black power as Black supremacy, rather than as Black justice.

The more we try to force empathy and understanding on such a person, the more we insist he confront the horrors of white supremacy in our society, the more likely that is to harden his views: if white supremacy was so awful for Black people, then of course Black supremacy will be just as awful for white people. The dog-eat-dog, zero sum nature of power as we think, talk, and teach it forces him into a false dichotomy: fight or surrender.

Understanding this view of power helps us make sense of white supremacists’ claims: that they don’t hate anyone; that they are simply defending white people, culture, and ‘heritage’; that white people face “extinction”; they they support “white nationalism”, not white supremacy. It also helps explain their intense hatred of ‘social justice warriors’, the people whom they see as working to change the balance of power.

This zero-sum view of power helps us understand bizarre poll results, like this one: “Asked what racial group they think faces the most discrimination in America, 45% of Trump voters say it’s white people followed by 17% for Native Americans with 16% picking African Americans, and 5% picking Latinos.” That only makes sense if the respondents see increasing empowerment of other groups coming at the expense of white people’s power. Without this lens, it all seems delusional and therefore intractable.

This view of power also tells people to see their own shortcomings in terms of someone’s power over them. I didn’t get the job I want? It’s because immigrants are taking over. I didn’t get into the school l want? It’s because Blacks are taking over. I didn’t get the marriage I want? It’s because the gays are taking over. In the ‘power-over’ view of the world, the only possible explanation for your own lack of power is that someone else has stolen it from you. And power-over is what most people have in mind when they talk about white supremacy.

But power-over is just one kind of power; another is the power to do for yourself, to make choices, to live and define your life as you see fit. This is ‘power-to’ — and so there is a second kind of white supremacy, subtler but more pervasive, in which whites have power to choose for their lives any number of choices that are denied to marginalized people. For example, my education does not give me power over Black people, but it does give me choices in my life not available to most Black people. That white power-to affects all white people and all people of color seems to me inarguable, once we admit a difference between power-over and power-to.

So there are aspects to white supremacy: 1) white supremacy as power over minorities, and 2) white supremacy as relative power-to advantage compared to minorities. A lot of would-be allies seem willing to confront one but not the other.

My sense is that ‘privilege’ in the context of racial inequality refers primarily to white supremacy in the power-to sense, and for many white people [raises hand] it has been a extremely helpful way to look at and think about white supremacy in our society. In my case, though, I was already primed to think about power-to versus power-over. I fear that some white people hear ‘privilege’ and still frame it as a problem of power-over, thereby missing the point. For what it’s worth, the privileges named by Peggy McIntosh are almost exclusively power-to sorts of things.

I should say, just to be clear: white power-to is not the whole or perhaps even the most of white supremacy as experienced by people of color. We live in a society full of institutions and norms that marginalize people of color (and others), such that even a white person dead two hundred years still has considerable power over the lives of people of color. And it’s also true that through those institutions, white people enjoy indirect power over those lives — that is, structural oppression is a definite feature of our society.

Yet many of the white power institutions built into this country are things that even white allies feel relatively powerless to correct. For example, the U.S. Senate, which was designed to protect slaveholder states from representative democracy: there’s next to zero chance of fixing this problem in my lifetime, even if I want to do so and have specific ideas on how to achieve it. For example, the credit rating system, which is terrible and oppressive but I have no clue how to fix it. For example, legacy admissions at top universities — etc. etc. etc.

While these institutions use power-over to constrain Black and other oppressed people’s power-to, they don’t actually give most white people power over marginalized people. They do give white people more power-to relative to marginalized people, but that’s not quite the same thing as power-over. And because we think mostly in terms of power-over, white people see these structures as relatively harmless because they do no see them giving white people power over marginalized people.

The solution to these problems as power-over is to put Black people in charge of the Senate, credit rating agencies, and top universities. This is terrifying for white people in the power-over frame, and for that reason very unlikely. But the correctives to white supremacy in the softer, power-to sense seem more achievable; the solution is not to subordinate white lives, but to give people of color true equality of choice, opportunity, and self-actualization. Once made explicit, this sort of white supremacy is easier for white people to recognize in their own lives, and much easier to accept as a problem in need of solution.

If the distinction between power-to and power-over does not seem compelling, let me say that I believe one of the lies white supremacy tells us is that the only meaningful power is power over other people. It is the idea at the core of empire and the only necessary premise for colonialism.

Powering Down

When we talk about social justice and Black empowerment (or any other marginalized group’s empowerment), we should be specific that we mean advancing power-to and ending power-over. We should explicitly refuting the false dichotomy that Black power means the subjugation of white people.

If it helps to understand my approach better, I can describe the goal as 1) maximum power-to for all people and 2) minimum power-over for any people. That seems to me a solid working definition of justice. In our work for social justice, we have to attack and destroy the elements of white power-over, while advancing the power-to of marginalized peoples. If we do one without the other, we will never get close to true justice.

I think many white people have no problem with the empowerment of marginalized peoples because they intuit this is not zero sum, that it does mean surrendering to those groups power over white people. To the extent that they see themselves having power over marginalized people, they do not wish to use it and would be happy to be rid of it. They can accept the premise that a society that gives everybody more power will be stronger, freer, and more just than the one we live in now.

Unfortunately, to the extent these people still think of white supremacy primarily as power-over, they are not doing the work to address white supremacy as power-to. As I say, the language of ‘privilege’ is helping them to see the problem, although I suspect many people who do not see it as power-over do not see it as power at all. We will never address white supremacy square on until we do.

I don’t know if the people who marched in Charlottesville are remediable. I believe they are, as a matter of faith, but I will not argue it here. My more urgent concern in any case is with the people who have not yet joined the white supremacist movement, and who might be prevented from doing so. Thinking carefully about how we talk to those people about our white supremacies and white powers is, I think, an important step.

Much as we wish to wash our hands of these people, our social reality is made up of all the minds that inhabit it, even those we wish did not. The risks involved in ignoring or abandoning some people and their narrow minds should be well evidenced by now. To reiterate, I am not suggesting people of color or any other marginalized groups should feel obliged to or responsible for those minds. This post is about how white people talk to white people about what we learn from listening to other people. White people must end white supremacy, of course.

Power With

It’s all well and good talking about the different kinds of white supremacy, but we can — and must — take public visible stands against white supremacists of both stripes. Yet those efforts will be counter-productive if they serve to reinforce the power-over frame.

A counter-demonstration that stokes white supremacists’ fear of power-over white people only reinforces their narrative and affirms their zero-sum view of power. This is especially the case for violence or threats against white supremacists. Instead of changing anything, this will only harden their worldview and further their cause.

In the previous post, I pointed out that violence serves the white supremacists’ narrative, the story they want to tell. My point here is that violence also implies acceptance of their frame, and works within their paradigm of power. We should instead be working against their narrative and rejecting their frame. This means we have to be careful and disciplined and peaceful, in order to derail their narrative and demonstrate that power-over is not all there is to social order.

The sense of satisfaction we get from violence, of doing something substantive to change our world, is grounded solely in our belief in power-over. It requires us to be creative, to push our minds outside of the power-over framework, but I believe there are effective ways to counter white supremacists without resort to violence. In particular, mockery seems to me more effective at countering their message. I admire the tuba player in Boston for his approach (especially the wobbly Wagner bit), as well as this bagpiper in Scotland against a somewhat different foe.

Whether our response is comedic or not, it is important that they refute both the narratives and the worldviews white supremacists are trying to promote. Our demonstrations against white supremacy must demonstrate ‘power with’ — that we are more powerful with one another than we are in power over one another. We must demonstrate that we have the power not just to resist white supremacy, but the power to stop it.


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