Anti-Racism 101

06 White Supremacy


In the anti-racism world, the systemic oppression that activists are working to dismantle is commonly referred to as “white supremacy culture.” This term is not about specific individuals, but rather is a blunt, truthful characterization of our mainstream institutions. But for some people this can be confusing or triggering because of the historic association of “white supremacy” with the KKK, Neo-Nazism and overt bigotry, and can bring on quick defensiveness.

So if you’re not familiar with the 2001 “Pillars of White Supremacy Culture” and if you’re uncomfortable or fear that someone might be accusing you of being hateful, nasty or anti-black, please remember that “white supremacy culture” as it’s used today refers to the thousands of unacknowledged and often unconscious ways in which American society is based on preferential treatment of people with light skin, as well as on exploitation and oppression of those with black or brown skin. If that doesn’t seem true to you, please withhold judgment and keep reading the content on this website.

It’s very hard to see or grasp facts that are so pervasive they’re like the air we breathe. Waking up to harsh truths that disturb your view of reality can be challenging and painful. If the term “white supremacy culture” turns you away from deeper consideration of the privileges and protections light-skinned people in our country enjoy, another designation could be “default culture,” which means that “normal” in America equals white skin, white-based culture, and white expectations, needs, desires. In any case, please notice your difficult feelings, suspend judgment as much as possible, and move ahead with openness and curiosity. Consider the fact that if you’re feeling defensive about the term “white supremacy culture,” that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re being attacked.

“There is massive, overwhelming evidence for the proposition that white supremacy is the only thing wrong with Black people. There is significantly less evidence for the proposition that culture is a major part of what’s wrong with Black people. But we don’t really talk about white supremacy. We talk about inequality, vestigial racism, and culture. Our conversation omits a major portion of the evidence.” –TaNahisi Coates

“White advantage, white supremacy, was baked into the country’s institutions from the start. And those systems have never been fundamentally rebuilt. All white supremacy needs to keep chugging along, even here in the 21st century, is for most white people to go about our lives being nice and being good non-racists. And that includes people doing the good work of the caring professions and social services and even charity work. If we just go about our lives, we can have a white supremacist society without individual racists. As it happens, we have individual racists, too….

To overcome our history and make a more just society, we will need a lot of white people getting involved, more than ever before, and being willing to sacrifice some of the advantages that come with whiteness.” –John Biewen

“But the truth is that what so often passes for American history is really a record of white priorities or conquests set down as white achievement. That version of American history is a sprawling, bewildering chronicle, relentlessly revised. It ignores or downplays a variety of peoples, cultures, religions, and regions, all to show that history is as objective and as curious and as expansive as the white imagination allows.…The winners, alas, still write history. To say this out loud, in this day and age, when whiteness has congratulated itself for its tolerance of other cultures and peoples, is to invite real resistance from white America.

My dear friends, please try to understand whiteness is limitless possibility. It is universal and invisible. That’s why many of you are offended by any reference to race. You believe you are acting and thinking neutrally, objectively, without preference for one group or the next, including your own. You see yourselves as colorless until Black folk dump the garbage of race on your heads. At your best moments you may concede that you started the race game, but you swear to the God you love that it is we Black folk who keep it going. You have no idea how absurd that notion is, and yet we have grown accustomed to your defiance of common sense.” –Michael Eric Dyson

We need systems that will distribute power differently. It’s not about leaving it up to individuals. –Chenjerai Kumanyika

“The legacy of that assault [slavery], its lingering and lethal effect, continues to this day. It flares in broken homes and blighted communities, in low wages and social chaos, in self-destruction and self-hate too. But so much of what ails us – black people that is – is tied up with what ails you – white folk, that is. We are tied together in what Martin Luther King, Jr. called a single garment of destiny. Yet sowed into that garment are pockets of misery and suffering that seem to be filled with a disproportionate number of black people.” –Michael Eric Dyson

“Obama-era progressives view white supremacy as something awful that happened in the past and the historical vestiges of which still afflict Black people today….I view white supremacy as one of the central organizing forces in American life, whose vestiges and practices afflicted Black people in the past, continue to afflict Black people today, and will likely afflict Black people until this country passes into the dust .…

There is no evidence that Black people are less responsible, less moral, or less upstanding in their dealings with America nor with themselves. But there is overwhelming evidence that America is irresponsible, immoral, and unconscionable in its dealings with Black people and itself.” –TaNehisi Coates

“Remember, your whiteness is not located solely in your individual body or your home. It is an entire structure and mode of operation that all non-white people are subject to.” –Imani Inami

“There is a big difference between the act of owning up to your part in perpetuating white privilege and the notion that you alone, or mostly, are responsible for the unjust system we fight. You make our request appear ridiculous by exaggerating its moral demand, by making it seem only, or even primarily, individual, when it is symbolic, collective. By overdramatizing the nature of your personal actions you sidestep complicity. By sidestepping complicity, you hold fast to innocence. By holding fast to innocence, you maintain power.”

“It is harder to indict forces and institutions than the individuals who put a face to the problem. Institutional racism is a system of ingrained social practices that perpetuate and preserve racial hierarchy. Institutional racism requires neither conscious effort nor individual intent. It is glimpsed in the denial of quality education to black and brown students because they live in poor neighborhoods where public schools depend on the tax base for revenue. Minority students, like the ones I teach at Georgetown, are more often beset by economic and social forces than by overt efforts to deny them equal education.”

“I told him [earnest young white man] that some of the greatest victims of whiteness are whites themselves, having to bear the burden of a false belief in superiority….I asked him not only to challenge white privilege, but also to resist the narcissism that celebrates one’s challenge to whiteness rather than siding with those who are its steady victims. Working as a white ally is tough, but certainly not impossible. Learning to listen is a virtue that whiteness has often avoided. I asked him to engage, to adopt the vocabulary of empathy, to develop fluidity in the dialect of hope and the language of racial understanding.”
–Michael Eric Dyson

“A Museum That Makes White Liberals See the Horrors of White Supremacy:”

“White Americans have a tendency to whitewash and deliberately downplay the reality and gravity of their past and present sins. Slavery is regarded as a minor error within the great tapestry of brutality, despite its long-lasting, systemic and ever-present effects. White people are simultaneously fascinated by slavery-era history and deeply scared of admitting how much they still benefit from generational wealth and privilege from as far back as 400 years ago. Slavery allowed land-owning, slave-owning whites to accumulate massive amounts of wealth while racking up major savings on labor costs (some economists estimate the value of slave labor to be as much as $14 trillion). This money was passed down for generations, while the descendants of enslaved people are still suffering from the effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws.” –Laura Witt

“Oh Lord, give us the courage to tell the truth to white folk who need it more than air itself – who, we pray, will come to hunger for it more than they hunger for our death.”
–Michael Eric Dyson

“I stopped the bullshit of thinking any white person in any situation at any time knows what black people need better than black people do. I made myself a strict rule that my reading and my marching orders come from black people.
I try to push myself to lean in and educate myself more when I see myself getting scared or thinking something is ‘too radical’ or screaming inside ‘no way–I would have noticed if things were that bad!’– but those voices are still there.” –N.R. on Facebook

“The question isn’t, is this person (me, you) or this group of people (us, them) bad or good? Rather, the question is, how can we find a plausible path toward smashing the systems that generate so much injustice? And here is where auto-exculpatory self-flagellation [of neo-liberals] falls so short. It hides the systemic, institutional causes of injustice behind a screen of personalizing moral righteousness and it eschews the development of strategies for winning, preferring instead to focus on the accumulation of social capital.

The way to relate to it is not with a counter-moralism that tries to shame the self-exonerator, but to analyze the causes of this phenomenon and develop strategies for undermining its influence. Above all, that means advancing radical politics as an attractive and effective alternative to liberalism. Liberalisms of every sort, as forms of individualism, thrive in contexts where the prospects for potent collective action seem bleak. It can be undermined only by showing in practice that collective struggle can win.” –Stephen D’arcy

“Beloved, your white innocence is a burden to you, a burden to the nation, a burden to our progress. It is time to let it go, to let it die in place of the Black bodies that it wills into nonbeing. In its place should rise a curiosity, but even more, a genuine desire to know and understand just what it means to be Black in America.” –Michael Eric Dyson

New Legacy of Lynching Museum

Swimming while Black:

History of “Black people can’t swim”:

“As you can see, swimming – EXPERT swimming – is directly present in the ancestry of Black Americans: before we were brought to the Americas in bondage, we were swimmers. After enslavement, our swimming skills were prized by slave owners and utilized as means to uphold the very institution that enslaved us. So how do we get to this reality where 70 percent of Black Americans do not know how to swim?

For this, we return to the plantation where non-expert level skilled enslaved people could still swim – mostly for recreation in swimming holes – but quickly became a threat to plantation owners. Plantations close to the Ohio River, in particular, began to notice that ability to swim made escape to Ohio a threat to a loss of their ‘property.’ In fact, in 1831 Tice Davids fled from Kentucky and swam across the Ohio River with his owner in pursuit in a boat. He arrived ahead of his owner and fled to freedom. It is claimed that Davids’ owner said at the time he ‘must of gone off on an underground road.’ This incident allegedly led to the naming of the Underground Railroad.

As fear of slaves escaping via waterways grew, slaveholders began to use water as a fear tactic to deter escape. Slowly, enslaved Africans lost the ability to swim as slave owners prohibited the activity to decrease ‘loss of property & wealth.’ The stories of escapes by swimming made slave owners take drastic steps to protect their property.

Because water was one well-known way to throw off your scent when being chased by dogs, slave owners were not content with simply prohibiting swimming, they sought to make enslaved people afraid of waterways altogether. One of the steps taken was to instill a fear of the water by dunking disobedient slaves in water until they nearly drowned and by creating fear through stories of creatures living in the water. In Florida, postcards and drawings of Black babies being used as ‘gator-bait’ were circulated widely. While the historical accuracy of ‘gator-bait’ stories is still debated, the effect of these images is not. Used to instill fear in Black people and circulated among white people as comedy, these pieces of propaganda were incredibly effective.” –Leslie Mac

“Inequality and racism exist not because of evil but because the unaffected majority put their interests above all others, and their inaction allows inequality to flourish.”
–Michael Herriot

“White supremacy is nothing if not predictable. To forge ahead, we require an outrageousness that sees beyond the tired tropes and easy outs that mass media provides. This path demands we organize with clarity about privilege and the shifting power dynamics of community. It requires foresight, discomfort and risk-taking. It will be on the Web and in the streets, in conversations, rants and marches. We need a new mythology.” –Daniel Jose Older

“‘American exceptionalism’ requires the endless promotion of American innocence and its perpetual righteousness at home and abroad. Internally, it has meant ignoring its past rooted in slavery and the resulting and particular demonization of Black people, as a way of dismissing Black poverty, inequality and oppression. There is no romance or sanitizing the history of Black people in this country so instead, its ruling class has concocted the lies of Black domestic dysfunction, lapsed personal responsibility and a culture of poverty as a way of dismissing systemic critiques of the United States.”

–Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

The history of lynching and racial terror in America is the focus of an ambitious new project launched Tuesday by Google, in partnership with the Equal Justice Initiative.

Google has helped create a new interactive site titled “Lynching in America,” which is based on an 80-page publication by the EJI. Its research has been adapted into a powerful visual narrative about the horror and brutality that generations of black Americans have faced. –Zeba Blay

Everyone in this country has been socialized for generations that Whiteness is central and supreme. That Brown and Black are worth less.

So how does a system designed to benefit Whites also exploit and fail them?

By deception. You have been lied to. The education you have received, that we all have received, omits the contributions of Black and Brown people. It teaches that these people are slaves, vagrants, animals, invaluable, and not worthy of compassion. These lies have been reinforced in all of our institutions—schools, legislatures, corporate industry—and courts and policing.

To protect the White supremacy narrative, you all have been duped. When you make excuses for the racial injustices or rationalize them—or, worse, cannot see them—you too have been failed by The System. –Zenobia Jeffries

“It is bad enough that much of white America sees fit to lecture black people about the proper response to police brutality, economic devastation and perpetual marginality, having ourselves rarely been the targets of any of these. It is bad enough that we deign to instruct black people whose lives we have not lived, whose terrors we have not faced, and whose gauntlets we have not run, about violence; this, even as we enjoy the national bounty over which we currently claim possession solely as a result of violence. I beg to remind you, George Washington was not a practitioner of passive resistance. Neither the early colonists nor the nation’s founders fit within the Gandhian tradition. There were no sit-ins at King George’s palace, no horseback freedom rides to affect change. There were just guns, lots and lots of guns.

We are here because of blood, and mostly that of others; here because of our insatiable and rapacious desire to take by force the land and labor of those others. We are the last people on Earth with a right to ruminate upon the superior morality of peaceful protest. We have never believed in it and rarely practiced it. Rather, we have always taken what we desire, and when denied it we have turned to means utterly genocidal to make it so.

Which is why it always strikes me as precious the way so many white Americans insist (as if preening for a morality contest of some sorts) that ‘we don’t burn down our own neighborhoods when we get angry.’ This, in supposed contrast to black and brown folks who engage in such presumptively self-destructive irrationality as this. On the one hand, it simply isn’t true. We do burn our own communities, we do riot, and for far less valid reasons than any for which persons of color have ever hoisted a brick, a rock, or a bottle.We do so when our teams lose the big game or win the big game; or because of something called Pumpkin Festival; or because veggie burritos cost $10 at Woodstock ’99 and there weren’t enough Porta-Potties by the time of the Limp Bizkit set; or because folks couldn’t get enough beer at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake; or because surfers (natch); or St. Patty’s Day in Albany; or because Penn State fired Joe Paterno; or because it’s a Sunday afternoon in Ames, Iowa; and we do it over and over and over again. Far from mere amateur hooliganism, our riots are indeed violent affairs that have been known to endanger the safety and lives of police, as with the infamous 1998 riot at Washington State University.” –Tim Wise

“The 20 Whitest Things White People Say to Black People, Ranked”