As much as I recoil at the term, I have to admit that I grew up in White supremacy. White people do, generally. But it is often our deep connections to the memories and the people of our past that sometimes make people reject the idea of having been raised in White supremacy. When students or others in dialogue resist owning the term “White supremacy,” the teacher or discussion facilitator can ask, “What is your story? Where did that reaction come from?” Their stories are often like mine. They are hurt, even threatened, when their schools and neighborhoods are associated with White supremacy.
My story is that I grew up in Warren, Michigan, a predominantly and adamantly White suburb just over the Eight Mile Road demarcation between Detroit and many of its suburbs. I remember at least one house bombing when a Black family tried to live there in the 1960s, and the city spent many dollars on court fights to maintain its (segregated) “good schools” and “safe neighborhoods.” All of this was (is) part of White supremacy.
Asking for people to share their stories gives them an opportunity to admit their emotional attachment to racism in their past, even though they may not have known it then or had much power to change it, especially as children. Reframing the old stories in the context of new understanding about the damages that past racism caused gives students a chance to disassociate their identity with it. They don’t need to hate themselves or their parents, teachers, coaches, or civic leaders in order to walk away from that past racism as an adult ally of antiracism.
But people’s attachment to belief in White supremacy is not exclusively a thing of the easily excused past. While White supremacist and other hate groups continue to grow (See the Hate Map), other White people feel justified in disavowing any similar inclinations. “That’s White supremacy!” they cry. Although White people may not label our own implicit bias or lack of racial awareness as belief in White supremacy, it actually is. For example, White people often confess that we didn’t (or don’t) even think of ourselves as having a race (Sue, 2015 p. 193) but research has shown we are very aware of who else is in the room with us. We behave differently in the “front stage” (racially diverse spaces) than in the backstage (racially homogenous spaces) (Houts Picca & Feagin, 2007). Many Whites will also avoid spaces and situations requiring interracial interaction for fear of making racist mistakes (Sue, 2015 p. 197). Those responses are really products of being taught the superior separateness of White skin.
The life experience of White people is very different from that of people of color because of White supremacy. When a teacher or discussion leader invites others in the room to share their alternative experiences, the group gains new knowledge about the personal pain that White race “dysconsciousness” causes. African American scholar Joyce King explains, "Dysconsciousness is an uncritical habit of mind (including perceptions, attitudes, assumptions, and beliefs) that justifies inequity and exploitation by accepting the existing order of things as given…” (King, 1991 p. 135). Dysconsciousnes accepts White supremacy and makes a habit of not seeing how superiority creates inhuman conditions in other people’s lives.
African American Poet Caroline Randall Williams’s story of her own light brown skin dates from when her Black great-great-grandmother was raped by the plantation master. That horrific family history, lodged as monument in her own body, is good reason to remove public monuments to slave owners and Confederate army leaders (Williams, 2020). Those public monuments are visual elements of the “White racial frame” (Feagin, 2010) that continually reminds us all of our places within White supremacy.
It is important for White people to own the label, recognize and admit to the emotions, images, metaphors, beliefs, as well as practices and policies of White supremacy so that several other discussions can happen and real policy change can get underway. For example, we need to be able talk about (and enact) reparations to the descendants of enslaved or lynched people; restore Black business districts that were often ploughed under for expressways; re-extend GI benefits and housing loans to families of those who were denied because of color; reform the deficit mentality employed against Black and Brown schoolchildren; develop equity in school funding , and much more.
The current reckoning that is toppling statues and changing building names is the long overdue upheaval of some of the artifacts of White supremacy. Teachers and community leaders can help change White people’s resistance to owning responsibility for White supremacy by allowing space to talk about this history and thus envision a new order.
Feagin, J. R. (2010). The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing. New York: Routledge.
Houts Picca, L., & Feagin, J. R. (2007). Two-Faced Racism: Whites in the Backstage and the Frontstage. New York: Routledge.
King, J. E. (1991). Dysconcious Racism: Ideology, Identity, and the Miseducation of Teachers. Journal of Negro Education, 60(2), 133-146.
Sue, D. W. (2015). Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence. Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.
Williams, C. R. (2020). You Want a Confederate Monument? My Body is a Confederate Monument.The New York Times.