My son was a sophomore in high school when I began fully realizing or becoming cognizant of the fact that white supremacy was still palpable in this country. See he had left home after we had had an argument. I was frantic trying to find him. I had joined MySpace that year in an effort to keep a bead on him so I logged on to see if I could figure out where he might be and who he might be with. He had just turned 16, had been skipping school excessively to which there was little I could do about it, and had been running with an expanding and new group of friends that I did not know well. He had no job or money. When I went to his MySpace page his background was red, white, and black. The background had the words, “White Pride, World Wide” and three 7s joined at the base which reminded me of a 3-legged Nazi swastika. My initial reaction was “Oh shit! What has he gotten himself into? What ideologies is he subscribing to?” And then I quickly tried to minimize it, explain it away, and then I moved to trying to understand.
One of the kids he had been hanging with was this white kid that he went to school with who lived in a neighboring small rural town. He had a swastika on the bottom of his skateboard and skated around school singing hate songs (to which the school did no re-education with him or the rest of the student body, they just suspended him). When this kid would come by the house, he never looked me in the eye or spoke more than a word or two to me. He gave me the creeps. At the time, I didn’t believe in forbidding my kids to hang out with anyone and I loosely monitored their social lives. I was raised in an era of free-range parenting – our parents let us run wild, rarely knew where we were or who we were with, so I didn’t have a really good idea of how to be the attuned parent I am now or any model by which to do that without being authoritarian (which I am very much am not.) Like Tupac said, “For a woman it ain’t easy trying to raise a man.” There were many other things going on in my house at this time as well – but that is for another day.
I always knew that white supremacy existed, that neo-Nazi’s were still around, and that their racist ideologies were not dead. I knew that we had some neo-Nazi groups in Washington State, even as Richard Butler’s compound in nearby Idaho was systematically dismantled. I also knew that living in the more conservative part of the state made it more likely that these ideas were still around. However, I grossly underestimated the pervasiveness of these ideas, living in a small college town that is exceedingly inclusive of difference. I have met neo-Nazi’s in a past life, chatted with them, asked them questions about their thinking, had beers with them – always one-on-one and from a more weathered, albeit naive, perspective than where my son was at. Since I am biracial and light skinned and my kids are fairer skinned than I, I rested in a place of comfortable complacency in teaching them, especially my son, about the vestiges of racism, white supremacy, neo-Nazi’s, and self-preservation in the off chance they might be confronted with this. Part of my privilege in being light skinned and living in Washington State my entire life is that I have been relatively unaffected by this overt white supremacy and had little reason to worry for my safety. I was lulled into a false sense of security by my education and the social narrative that these groups were most prevalent in southern states and I was living in a more progressive state. My privilege afforded me a lens through which I had little reason to be aware of these groups or their believers. Even when I moved over here from Western Washington in 1994 and my friend Marylin called me to tell me to be careful because there were neo-Nazi’s in the area (Butler’s compound), I paid little mind to the warning.
As I investigated the meaning behind his MySpace background, I came to learn that the phrasing and the images were from Stormfront, a neo-Nazi website. That is when my fears were confirmed and I began to really panic. I worried that he had been lured into a group that either knew he as part black or that they didn’t and if they found out, it could turn deadly. I called the local chapter of the ACLU and the local Human Rights Coalition to inquire about hate groups in my area and at the local high school, to which they both responded that they had no knowledge of any active group operating in the area. When he finally showed up back at home, I was overcome with relief. I held him and cried while I explained the meaning of his MySpace background and the fear I had felt. He explained that he 1) hadn’t really thought about what the images and words meant and 2) that the white race was also worthy of celebrating. Then we had a conversation about the fact that there is no such thing as a white race, more on this in a minute. He promised to take that background down, assured me that he meant no harm, and that he was not involved with a neo-Nazi group.
Through this experience I learned that I had to be more diligent and had to purposefully educate my kids about the signs and symbols of hate and these groups. Which meant that I had to further educate myself. So let me lay out a little bit of what I have learned – through reading scholarship, attending conferences, engaging with people who have spent their careers studying these things, and through my own research.
- Race is a socially constructed concept. This can be traced through colonialism and colonization – for a more thorough read, I highly suggest John Willinsky’s Learning to Divide the World: Education at Empire’s End. When European countries set out to learn more about the world, they did so as both state and church sanctioned explorations. As they encountered new people, lands, plants, and animals, they did so not from a place of trying to understand from the indigenous people’s perspectives but from their own. They renamed the things they saw, they drew borders that made sense to them, they created narratives of the indigenous people as being inferior to and less than themselves and their own homelands. And here I am talking about deep history, prior to the colonization of the Americas. This subjugation endured for…well, it still endures, so I’m not even going to go into all of that detail. Needless to say, by the time the Americas were colonized, these explorations and taking over parts of the world were seen as God’s divine will, the foundation of Manifest Destiny, the right of Europeans to lay claim to whatever they saw (I’m really thinking of Dr. Suess’ Yurtle the Turtle here). This saga has played out throughout the more than 400 years of history of Europeans on this continent. There are many things that people can read on this. Another book that I found particularly insightful was Nancy Lesko’s Act Your Age: A Cultural Construction of Adolescence which provides a more modern history and really illustrates how some of these ideas are built into the various systems that operate in this country. The bottom line is race was constructed as a way to delineate us/them, to claim superiority over other groups of people different from the colonizers.
- White supremacy built the economy of this country. Indian policy in the United States has followed 4 primary government sanctioned eras: Extermination, Removal, Assimilation, and Self-Determination. And I would argue that Self-Determination still has not been fully realized – look to Standing Rock, the fight for treaty rights to be recognized, the management by the federal government of Native lands and monies, and the minimal reparations that have been paid to tribes. The very economic system that constructed this country was based on white supremacy. The great land theft perpetrated by the federal government of Native lands, allowed the feds to allot land to people moving west, to public institutions, and to Land Grant Universities. This claim is not new and there is much that one could read and study on this – the 1862 and 1890 Morrill Land Grant Acts are two documents that provide some illumination here. And while I have linked to Wikipedia, I would urge people to read the history surrounding these two acts (John Thelin provides an excellent overview, as does Gieger, or Cohen and Kisker, and others) and the actual legislation. The 1862 Act came about during the Civil War after much consternation and when many of the men in Congress were off in battle. A fascinating history. This initial land theft forms the foundation of capitalism, which was further built upon by slavery. The free labor in slave states (northern and southern) was a huge boon to the economies of those states (primarily southern states and in fact, were the basis for the Civil War, because these states did not want slavery to be undone, they wanted to maintain and secure their economic dominance.) Slavery was an economy of its own, the likes of which the world has never seen before or since (unless we are talking about Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow or Ava DuVernay’s 13th – both lay out a compelling and important analysis how slavery has only changed shape and still is a huge economic benefit to corporations – corporate prisons as well as other corporations.) Anyways, the economy was further built on the backs of people of color: the Chinese built the railroads for meager pay, black soldiers and others built the Alcan Highway amongst others, while European American men (Vanderbilt, Rockefeller, Carnegie, Morgan, and others) reaped the benefits. And these highway projects were deeply racialized while opening up the economy further for the European elite. The Mexican-American war was another instance of land theft which created a false border situation that continues to be a point of contention between those who use coded (or dog whistle) language to demonize Mexicans and Mexico but fail to acknowledge the historical implications of the redrawing of borders and boundaries.
- White supremacy built the social structure of this country. Think of a 5k race where one person or group of people get a 3k head start. That is exactly what this country is founded upon. During every era of Native American governmental policy, Native people’s have been coming from behind. During Extermination it was the fight for survival. In the era of Relocation it was learning to live and survive in foreign lands. During Assimilation is was a fight to maintain their cultural heritage and traditions. Now, in the era of Self Determination, much has been lost and tribes are working to preserve and maintain that heritage and those traditions while simultaneously working to catch up. A similar story is true for African Americans. Enslaved for 400+ years, systematically and legally barred from education, freedom, and economic self-sufficiency people of African American descent are also coming from behind. And given the lengthy history of subservience for both of these groups and others, the recent inclusion into education, political life, and symbolic equality that occurred in the mid-1960s has not instantaneously leveled the playing field. The Civil Rights legislation of the 1960s was a beginning, but was like building a sub-par addition onto an already soundly constructed house. White supremacy had already been carefully constructed into every system – laws had been crafted, colonization had effectively educated groups about us/them and divine superiority, and the economic system of exploitation secured. More on this can be read in just about any of Joel Spring’s books, one of my favorites is Deculturalization and the Struggle for Equality. As different groups talk about reparations, others argue that reparations are not necessary (“my family never owned slaves,” “I don’t see color,” “we are all equal,” “that was in the past”.) However, when the laws of the land were constructed against ones humanity and entire systems built to keep different groups out – and effectively did so for many hundreds of years, and the laws and social structures still prevent full participation, it brings everything under scrutiny.
- Whiteness is a political construction. As Eastern and Southern Europeans, Jews, and the Irish immigrated to the United States and African Americans were being emancipated, the elite European Americans saw the need to expand whiteness to many groups that they were previously suspicious of, including the Irish, Italians, Germans, and others. They did this to maintain political dominance and out of political necessity. Zeus Leonardo studies and writes extensively about this and if one is attuned to this, can see it play out in one of my favorite movies, Gangs of New York. Whiteness has historically been contested space. Whiteness is a myth, is not real, and is predicated on white supremacy. The system of white supremacy is particularly insidious as it is embedded in absolutely every aspect of life in the U.S. and refuses to completely fade away. White supremacy works against people of color just as it works against European Americans. While a particularly violent system for people of color, for European American people it dislocates them from their cultural heritage and traditions, which is particularly useful when nation building and creating an us/them group cohesiveness. Whiteness is a myth and is not an ethnicity, a race, a culture, and is not celebratory. When people lament that there is no white history month or lament the decline of whiteness, they are playing into neo-Nazi tropes and white supremacy. The reason there is not a white history month is because every month is white history month. Whiteness is elevated to culture and heritage in history books and lessons in k-12 and beyond. Whiteness is worthy of study because the way it has come about is complex and is literally steeped in power and oppression. Now I know that this concept is threatening to many people who hold dearly to the idea that they are white and then are left questioning their own identity and place in the world. Instead of letting this idea be a point of contention, maybe take a minute (well realistically more time) to read some of the materials I have embedded and suggested here, explore some of that history, and examine why the idea of whiteness is so near and dear to you (and yes, I am talking to specific people, whether they are reading this or not.)
- Reverse racism is a myth. There is no such thing as reverse racism. For that to even be a thing would mean that people of color would need to be in power – widely, not a few here and there, be the majority of people making laws and running the national and state governments. Racism is about power and who has it to exert on others. There is no time in any period in the history of this country where people of color have had the power to construct laws, social policies, systems, or anything else where they could possibly exert power or dominance over European Americans. Reverse racism does not exist. And there is much that can be read on this. Sure, anyone can be prejudiced toward any one from any group, maybe even toward members of their own group but they are not in a position to exercise actual power over European Americans. And let me say, I am full aware that there are instances there a person of color might be in a position of power over a European American as an individual, this still cannot be reverse racism because this is individual not system-wide or systematic. Again, there are entire arguments that hash this out.
These 5 things that I learned are just a very brief sampling of all there is to learn and I can recommend oh so much more to read, watch, and learn around these ideas. However, as neo-Nazi groups are enjoying a resurgence and rebirth with the election of DJT and his pandering to white supremacy, they are working to carefully reconstruct their image to attract new unsuspecting youth to their movement. What my son taught me was that I have to remain diligent, informed, and knowledgeable about white supremacy and racism and the signs and symbols they use to recruit others. All of us who consider ourselves anti-racist must remain vigilant and keep our eyes on this movement – and I recognize this is not a monolithic movement, but many groups pushing their own agendas and ideas of white supremacy – some violent, some separatist, and some other amalgamations, but all white supremacist. For those who believe they are not racist because they have a friend or because they don’t see color, I encourage people who align themselves this way to explore and understand that colorblindness is another form of racism, that invoking that one friend of color is akin to saying something to the effect of, “don’t be offended” before saying something offensive. There were many things I learned from reading Tim Wise’s White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. First of which was that antiracism takes commitment and reflection. We all still have instant thoughts that are biased and grounded in racism and white supremacy, we have been educated and socialized into the same system and we must work to illuminate these beliefs and thoughts, interrogate them, and rid ourselves of them. For me, as I came into understanding and clarity, this was both liberating and insightful.