And does it matter?
A lot of people seem absolutely terrified of difference these days (or perhaps I’m just noticing it more). And I’ve genuinely been trying to “walk a mile in their shoes” and understand what in their worldview could be causing such an extreme reaction against people who are a different color, or social class, or religion, or sexual orientation, or whatever. “Other.”
My spouse being a pretty wise person, I brought this up to him, which led to a conversation about racism versus white supremacy. I will admit, I hadn’t done much unpacking of the difference between the two. The way I saw it, they were both based on incorrect beliefs and harmful stereotypes that produce terrible outcomes for both individual people and society as a whole. They were both bad and should be repudiated strongly in both thought and action by all people of good will.
Here’s the thing: They aren’t the same (I know, duh), and we shouldn’t be using them interchangeably.
Racism is about hating people because they’re a different color. It also has power implications, because it’s about systems as well as feelings. Only the group in power (in the US, white people) can be racist, although other groups could certainly be bigoted.
White supremacy, on the other hand, is more hidden and, likely, more powerful because of that. It’s about racial hierarchy, the belief that anything “white” is better than anything “not white” (music, literature, theater, movies, social norms, religion, ideas, governing structures, etc., etc., etc.).
I know this seems really elementary, but stick with me.
I think we’re calling people racist (which is a highly loaded term in the US), when what we really mean is white supremacist (which is maybe a little less so).
As my spouse put it, in the context of the faux Fox war on Christmas: No one ever told anyone they weren’t allowed to say “Merry Christmas.” People have been freaking out because they don’t want anyone to be able to say anything different back to them.
Here’s why it matters.
Let’s say your mom does something racially bigoted. Maybe she’ll only hire white contractors. Maybe she responded to so-called (for now) President Trump’s “shithole” comment by harping on poverty in Haiti. Maybe she’s against affirmative action because she thinks it’s “not fair.” Whatever.
And you respond, “Mom, that’s racist.”
And she says, “I’m not racist! I took the Jacksons, the black family that just moved in next door, a pie and invited them to the our cookout next weekend. Our church is one-third Hispanic, and I sing in the choir and serve on the deacon board and participate in the quilting guild with them! Lupe Garcia is my best friend! Six of my piano students are Asian!”
And she’s probably right. And “racist” is such a loaded term that the conversation probably ends there.
What she is is white supremacist. White contractors are “more reliable.” Even though Jim Crow only ended 50 years ago, black people should just “get over it” and compete without any “help.” When Dutty Boukman, Toussant Louverture, and Jean-Jacques Dessalines led their people to freedom and the white masters fled, those masters left behind a population that had been forcibly kept ignorant and illiterate, but that’s no “excuse.”
White supremacy is:
- I don’t hate black people – I just don’t want to live near them.
- I don’t hate Muslims – I just don’t want a mosque in my town.
- I don’t hate Latinx people – I just think they should stay in Mexico.
- I don’t hate Asians – I just don’t want them taking all the available slots in the incoming freshman class.
White supremacy is, as my spouse put it, “I can only feel safe when everyone around me is exactly like me.”
It all comes down to fearing anything that’s different.
If, like me, you live in a diverse “coastal elite” blue city and like to travel, you may have a hard time wrapping your head around that. But many of our fellow Americans have not only never left the country, they’ve never left the county where they were born. They’ve never been to even the mid-sized city that’s in driving distance, much less one of the big cities on the coasts. They’re used to everyone around them looking like them, talking like them, going to the same church they go to, going to the same school they went to, having the same beliefs, listening to the same music, eating the same food, watching the same TV shows. And anything else is to be feared.
How does this happen?
Kids are inherently curious. That can lead to them asking some pretty direct questions or making some pretty blunt observations. But they want to learn about the world and are fascinated by new things.
What causes that to change? What causes people to look at difference, not with curiosity, but with fear and mistrust? What causes us to close our minds and hearts, and abdicate our decision-making process to hurtful stereotypes?
I don’t know, but I think it’s one of the issues at the root of our current cultural and political chasm in the US.
One of the things that I think is most amazing about America is that, unlike most other places in the world, you can move here and become American. Even though my (long ago) family roots are there, I couldn’t move to Germany and become German, or to Scotland and become Scots, or to Ireland and become Irish. But people can move here from all over the world and become American, because being American isn’t about who your parents were or where you were born or the language you speak or the deity you worship – it’s about shared values and ideals. It’s about keeping some of what you came from – your foods, your traditions, your religion, your music – and adding it to what’s already here.
The richest, most vital, most unique local culture in the US is in New Orleans, and that’s exactly how it was formed: a gumbo of French and Spanish and Caribbean and West African and First Nations and Irish and Italian and American, each keeping elements of its own distinctiveness, while combining other elements to make something more, other, greater than the sum of its parts.
I’d like to think we as a community, as citizens, as a country, can still do that.
Image found here.
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