Sociology Focus
Nathan Palmer
Author: Nathan Palmer

White Supremacy: Not Just Neo Nazis

White supremacy is often mischaracterized as only a person or group of people (e.g. Neo Nazis & the KKK), but thinking of white supremacy in this way hides too many people who are affected by it. In this post Nathan Palmer will push us to think about white supremacy as an ideology and explore how each of us may personally believe it.

Every year we had a “multi-cultural day” at my elementary school. Usually in January (around Martin Luther King Day) or in February (to “celebrate” Black History Month). We’d eat foods from other cultures (there was always baklava), watch a movie about Dr. Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement, and learn about how racism used to be a problem in the United States. The overall message was clear to all of us kids, “racism is something mean people used to do and if you do anything racist today, you’re a big meanie”.

I can still remember the befuddled look on my teacher’s face when I walked up to her and asked, “If today is multicultural day, then what are the rest of the days?” Her face scrunched together, she folded her arms, and told me, “Oh, just go back to your seat this instant!”

I was thinking about my multicultural day experience recently because last week was the 45th anniversary of the assassination of Dr. Martine Luther King. The message I learned at these multicultural days (that racism is only a problem at the individual level) I think is largely still present in our society. But in many ways the issue of racism is as much about acts of discrimination as it is about the ideas and ideologies that support prejudice.

The Ideology of White Supremacy

To fully understand white supremacy we have to separate it from the people who identify as white. White supremacy is not a person or group of people, it’s an ideology. Ideology is fancy-sociology-speak for a collection of ideas that work together to affect how we see and understand the world around us. As an ideology, white supremacy encourages us to value white people, white culture, and everything associated with whiteness above the people, culture, and everything associated with people of color. We can encapsulate all of that by using the common white supremacist tagline, “white is right.”

We also have to separate white supremacy from white supremacists. Too often when we hear the word white supremacy we immediately think of men in white pointy hats standing around a burning cross. There’s no argument that the Kl Klux Klan and Neo Nazis subscribe to the white supremacist ideology, but they’re not the only ones. Anyone and everyone can adopt the ideology and white supremacy is reinforced by a wide variety of actions both big/small and intentional/unintentional.

Everyday White Supremacy

Everyday people of color are the targets of discrimination and stereotypes in ways that are overt and intentional, but this is only half the story. Microaggressions, which we’ve discussed here at SIF a number of times, are subtle and unconscious affirmations of white supremacy. For example, a Hispanic American woman is told, “you’re daughter is so beautiful for a Mexican baby.” Or a woman clutches her purse when a Black man enters an elevator. Everyday there are countless examples of people who say and do things that reflect and reinforce white supremacy. The point here is that any of us can reaffirm white supremacy even if we are unaware that we are doing so.

Internalized Racism & White Supremacy

Within sociology there isn’t a unique term for when white people enact white supremacy; we might just call it “white racism”. However we use the term Internalized Racism to denote the ways people of color adopt white supremacy. The idea here is that when people of color internalize white supremacy this often whittles at their self-esteem and may lead them to dislike the aspects of themselves that they feel are part of their non-white racial-ethnic identity. Many people of color can easily think of times in their life where they felt shame or felt shamed by others for the non-white aspects of their identity. For instance an African American student recently said to me, “I hate my name [because it sounds afrocentric], people hear it and immediately assume I’m loud or… you know, ’stereotypically black’.” People of color are also just as capable of using white supremacy to stereotype or discriminate against other people of color and themselves.

So Internalized Racism & White Racism Are Equal?

But don’t be confused. White racism and internalized racism are not equals. White supremacy is a ideology that privileges white people. When people of color subscribe to the ideology to put down people of other races, people of their own race, or to put down themselves, it reinforces white supremacy which ultimately lifts up and privileges white people. Many of my white student’s hear this and say, “well that sucks! Now I’m responsible for other people’s racism?” No. None of us are responsible for other people’s racism, but you can benefit from other people’s actions even if you aren’t personally responsible for them. When we engage with white supremacy as an ideology that anyone can subscribe to, the world can quickly become a more complex place.

Dig Deeper:

  1. Take a moment to self-reflect. How do you subscribe to an aspect of the ideology of white supremacy? You may want to say, “I’m not affected by it.” But for the sake of this discussion, just momentarily assume you are.
  2. Did your elementary schools have “multicultural days”? If not, how did your schools address diversity, racism, etc.? What were the key messages they were trying to relay?
  3. Watch this video about racism. How does the idea of white supremacy play a role in how people respond to the accusation “you’re a racist.”
  4. If we all agreed that the ideology of white supremacy was something that affected every one of us to one degree or another, do you think that would reduce the anxiety people feel when discussions of race come up in public settings?
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