The Diversity of White Supremacy By Mark Levand, MA, MEd

White people like myself hear the words “white supremacy” and often think of a person as being a white supremacist, racist, neo-nazi, or conceptualize groups like the KKK or the Aryan Brotherhood. People or groups that emphasize the supremacy of whiteness focus on just that–valuing whiteness in a way that sees any other race, color, or ethnicity as a threat to their ideal. While white supremacy is most often associated with these people or groups, there is much more to the concept than a person or group’s racist attitude.

Elizabeth Martínes, on a website dedicated to identifying the problematic nature of the School of the Americas, identified white supremacy as “an historically based, institutionally perpetuated system of exploitation and oppression of continents, nations, and peoples of color by white peoples and nations of the European continent, for the purpose of maintaining and defending a system of wealth, power, and privilege.” This understanding of white supremacy gives voice to the ubiquity of the value of whiteness–wealth in economics, power in society, and privilege to live comfortably among fellow white people.

White privilege (also defined in more detail here) is a product of white supremacy. Peggy McIntosh elaborated on the concept of white privilege and unpacking an invisible knapsack—or looking at the areas that grant white people benefits that we may not have seen before. Even white people in lower socioeconomic situations hold white privilege despite being unprivileged in many other ways. The everydayfeminism blog succinctly discusses several ways that white privilege exists: personal interactions with police, various social institutions like the educational system, overwhelming representation of white people in children’s books or academic subjects, and the option to opt out of racial discussions. No matter where we go, whiteness has been historically and consistently advantaged over other races.

You may be wondering about the title of this blog entry. Where does diversity fit in here? You may be thinking that white supremacy benefits in a very non-diverse way—benefiting only white people. You would be very correct in this thought. White supremacy is very selective about the types of people that reap benefit from its existence. The diversity of white supremacy lies in who it oppresses, cheats, and sabotages.

In obvious ways, whiteness as the norm makes people of darker skin tone, other races, or non-European-based ethnicities appear as “others.” This means the predominantly white media decides how to depict People of Color and has done so for centuries. Being anything other than white means being disadvantaged in more ways than I can discuss in a brief blog post (see the sources linked above for more information).

Not only is white supremacy diverse in its disadvantaging of non-white people, but it also sabotages white people’s own experience of race and ethnicity. Whiteness as a norm means that white people can comfortably exempt themselves from reflecting on their racial identity. This is why people like Janet Helms discuss models of white racial identity development. Most of these models involve the progression through various stages of thought, seeing oneself as “just a person” to a white person situated in a historical context and what that means in the world. This has been overlooked in many racial discussions because when white is the norm, racial identities implicitly mean “non-white” identities. This leaves the white majority unreflective of their racial identity.

White supremacy allows white people to claim “color blindness”—refusing to see difference but only people. There are many articles discussing how this can be problematic such as the one right on this very blog. But this byproduct of white supremacy (which is white privilege) results in white people’s privilege to avoid discussions of race. One of the biggest failures of white supremacy for white people is that we are systemically ill-prepared to handle conversations about race. Many white people educated in the United States are products of a white-focused educational system, and have had the opportunity to avoid discussion about race if it makes them uncomfortable.

As a sexuality educator, I often encounter adult students who have never had quality discussions about sexuality and as a result find themselves unprepared to deal with discussions about sex. Also as a sexuality educator, I encounter adult students who cannot handle discussions of whiteness or process their white privilege. Just as our educational system has failed to provide students with skills around discussing sexuality, so too has our white education failed at preparing students to have meaningful conversations about race. A white normative educational system inherently carries the privilege of not examining the part it plays in the suppression of racial dialogue.

Educators everywhere are now faced with a particularly difficult task—engage with students on issues of race that they have never been prepared to have. Educators are often ill-equipped to engage students in critical discussions about race. While there are great resources for white people addressing racism in various ways, and a plethora of workshops and trainings you can attend, there is still much work to be done in the classroom, higher education, and the educational system as a whole.

How do you supply the skills for those around you to have meaningful discussions about race? Perhaps more importantly, as an educator, how do you engage with race?