What’s in a Word: white supremacy

white supremacy

What does it mean?

White supremacy is a system or social order that keeps power and resources consolidated among white elites, using an ideology (or way of understanding the world) that upholds whiteness—including white people, white cultural values, and white institutions—as being best or most “normal.”

The system of white supremacy depends on interlocking, mutually reinforcing elements that include:

  • beliefs, such as the belief that white people are inherently or “naturally” more intelligent, attractive, or innocent than others
  • cultural norms and practices, such as norms around what is considered “professional” dress, speech, and behavior, and the fact that Band-Aids are made in white skin tones
  • media, such as the dominance of white representation in movies, television, and magazines, and the way news outlets report on crime differently depending on the race of the victims and perpetrators
  • government and law, such as immigration policy designed to benefit migrants from European countries, and the fact that 90% of elected U.S. politicians are white
  • policing and prisons, such as police, school officials, prosecutors, and judges treating white people as inherently innocent or worthy of second chances, and the fact that white people can generally depend on police for help
  • economic institutions, such as the fact that banks approve mortgages for white people 90% of the time, and the fact that the average white household has 16 times the wealth of the average Black household yet more than half of federal asset-building subsidies go to the wealthiest 5 percent of taxpaying households, keeping wealth accumulating among those who already have it
  • educational institutions, such as textbooks being written from the perspective of white people and presenting a racially biased, one-size-fits-all version of various subjects, or school funding policies that have led to schools that are 90%+ white having $773 more for each student, annually, than schools that are 90%+ non-white
  • religious institutions, such as portraying Jesus as white, or the white missionary practice of working to “save” non-Christian people of color
  • language, such as associating the word white and things that are white—like snow—with concepts like pure, clean, and safe, or upholding certain white accents and dialects as the most “proper” way to speak English

Part of the power of this system is that most individual white people are not conscious of it. Supporting white supremacy does not require hatred—or even dislike—of non-white people, nor does it require an active or conscious belief that white people are better than everyone else. The system works to keep white people at the center of what’s considered “normal” or “default” without most white people even being aware of it.

White supremacy works to disguise itself through coded language and behaviors (eloquently illustrated by Yawo Brown), as well as the mythology that only the most obvious and overtly racist institutions—such as the Ku Klux Klan—represent white supremacy.

The idea that the concept of white supremacy is limited to white nationalism is, in fact, a way in which the true system of white supremacy seeks to disguise itself. A person can passively perpetuate white supremacy without being a white supremacist, which, when used as a noun, generally refers to a person who actively promotes the superiority of white people.

This graphic, adapted/expanded by Ellen Tuzzolo from an original graphic published by the Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence, offers a great encapsulation of how the fullness of white supremacy hides behind its most obvious or glaring manifestations:

A pyramid with "overt white supremacy (socially unacceptable)" at the top, illustrated by a couple of things like lynching, hate crimes, KKK, and racist jokes, and "covert white supremacy (socially acceptable)" at the bottom, illustrated by myriad things like hiring discrimination, mass incarceration, English-only initiatives, bootstrap theory, tokenism, racist mascots, and colorblindness.

In the United States, white supremacy can be seen simply in the fact that “American” is popularly understood to be synonymous with “white.” White supremacy undergirds almost everything the general public takes for granted about what “American culture” is.

The genocide, land seizure, slavery, and indentured servitude perpetuated against non-white peoples in order to found and build this country was justified for centuries by the propaganda that non-white people were “naturally” inferior or even sub-human. Far from being dead and gone, this origin story of the United States lives on, woven into every facet of life in this country (see Elizabeth Martínez for more on this).

It’s important to note that not all white people benefit equally from white supremacy—because the ultimate aim of white supremacy is not to benefit all white people, but rather to keep power and resources consolidated (and accumulating) among white elites: wealthy, male, able-bodied white people who have a longstanding monopoly on power and resources. Nat Chioke Williams has written powerfully about this truth.

This reality means that white supremacy negatively affects the vast majority of white people—albeit to far lesser degrees than its effects on People of Color—because the vast majority of white people are not exceedingly wealthy, able-bodied men. It also means that patriarchy, classism, and ableism are tangled up in mutually reinforcing ways with white supremacy.

So know your radical vocabulary and use white supremacy accurately. It’s not active hatred of people who are not white or active belief that white people should rule over everyone else. It’s not limited to the most overtly racist fringe elements of society. It’s not a slur or an insult. It’s not a historical artifact. Rather, it’s the water most white people swim through without realizing they are wet. It’s a basic fact of U.S. culture and everyday life and a foundational truth of this country.

More on white supremacy:

What’s your take on white supremacy? Comment below! Want to ask a radical copyeditor something? Contact me!

3 thoughts on “What’s in a Word: white supremacy

  1. For the source of the pyramid graphic, this looks good though I haven’t dug up the 2005 packet:

    Original Image: Safehouse Progressive Alliance for Nonviolence (2005) “Building a Multi-Ethnic, Inclusive & Antiracist Organization-Tools for Liberation Packet for Anti-Racist Activists, Allies, & Critical Thinkers”.
    Adapted by: Ellen Tuzzolo (2016)


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s