The gathering of right-wing, white nationalist extremists in Charlottesville this month – at which violent attendees murdered Heather Heyer, attacked Deandre Harris, and more – has unsurprisingly garnered international attention and condemnation… including from right-wing politicians such as Mitt Romney, Paul Ryan, and Arnold Schwartzenegger. This leaves me with a burning question: in a moment when prominent white nationalist figures feel comfortable, and even compelled to, publicly condemn other white nationalists, what exactly is the role of white nationalist extremism, such as that found in neo-Nazis groups, the KKK, and new online communities, in maintaining white supremacy in the colonized nations of the US and Canada?
First and foremost, it is crucial to observe that white supremacy is not synonymous with right-wing, white nationalist organizing or identities. Examining news reports and other accounts of the wake of Charlottesville, it’s commonplace to find the descriptor of “white supremacists” used to refer to the “Unite the Right” attendees. That is not inaccurate, of course. The problem, however, is the tendency in US and Canadian society – particularly among white settlers – to only associate the concept of white supremacy with such groups and individuals.
But white supremacy is not a movement. It is not an institution that some white people join but others live outside. The US and Canada are white supremacist, colonial nation-states, founded on the genocide of Indigenous peoples, built through the labor of slavery (which continues to exist today in modified form through prisons) and the exploitation of immigrants, with racial hierarchies deployed at every turn to manage and discipline masses of people into these roles. Every single one of us who live on these stolen lands benefits from these histories of oppression, violence, and coerced labor, and we all continue to be implicated in organized systems of white supremacy today. How many of the products that we buy have been produced in some way through prison labor that “pays” pennies per hour? Almost all of our food is harvested by immigrant farmworkers whose labor is coerced in some way, legally and illegally, by immigration and labor laws that encourage such abuses. Yes, white nationalists are white supremacists. But they are only a small subset.
In this sense, white nationalist extremists act as the figural monsters that legitimate less overt, institutionalized modes of white supremacy. For those of us who live in these societies as white, portraits of white nationalists like those in Charlottesville offer us consolation and absolution – materially, socially, and even in our own minds. Those people over there, we tell ourselves, they are racists. They are white supremacists. I’m not like that.
Except we are like that.
White supremacy isn’t a partisan issue, where one party in the US is full of white supremacists but the other is not. It’s exactly the opposite actually: white supremacy is one of the key organizing principles that unites them all. This is how right-wing politicians like Romney, Ryan, and Schwartzeneggar can join in calls for condemnation of white nationalist racist violence with moderates, liberals, leftists and more. Because the true power of white supremacy in the US and Canada doesn’t rest with a small group of fringe extremists, it resides in every institution – all the branches of government, the legal system, the military, the police, prisons, schools etc. – and in the minds of every one of us.
When we consider the psychical valences of racism, whiteness, and white supremacy, it’s crucial to pay attention to our desires to distinguish ourselves from white nationalists that comprise groups like the KKK. Most people want to, need to, understand themselves as “good people,” which is why even the mere mention of race is enough to cause many a white person to panic. In this context, we would do well, actually, to do away with notions of good and bad people when it comes to race, as these very concepts themselves are imbued with racist, white supremacist hierarchies in which all that is associated with whiteness is “good.” This is the very function of racial stereotypes: to build a society that legitimates the association of “badness” with people of color in a wide variety of particular ways.
As such, I write this, as someone who lives in the US and Canada as a white settler, not to mark all white folks as bad or to try to foster guilt and shame. Those are actually white supremacist constructs that encourage white people to ignore white supremacy or to do nothing out of hopelessness with regard to the extent of the problem. After all, how does one person change the entire fundamentally corrupt and oppressive nature of the society they live in?
But we are not alone. And one thing is certain: we will not transform our society by ignoring the fact of white supremacy or perpetuating the ways in which it operates near invisbily. We can start by letting go of notions of “good” or “bad” white people and instead focus our awareness on systems of white supremacy and what we can do dismantle them. There are lots of ways we can plug in: from fighting for prison abolition to standing in solidarity with Indigenous land and water protectors to supporting migrants to organizing for housing and health care for all. Policing, pipeline construction, deportations, and evictions, to name just a few sites, are all currently socially acceptable forms of white supremacist terror.
We can, instead, choose to spend less time worrying about being a “good white person,”™ and instead figure out where we are each best able to plug in… and do so.
** I’ve written this piece as part of the work I am doing on a new documentary about whiteness and white supremacy. Please consider donating to the film’s Kickstarter to support this work.