A White Moderate Misunderstands White Supremacy

When the scholar James Chase Sanchez recently wrote on social media, “White supremacy will destroy us,” a white man I will call Chad responded with a well-intended paragraph. His comment is so dense with common misunderstandings of white supremacy that I find it instructive to unpack line by line. The full comment reads:

Nah…theres way more good white people than bad. Polarism might. You should include white people as part of the team that improves race relations instead of beating them with white privilege and saying stuff like ” cry those white tears”. Those are smug words and immediately elicit a defensive response. Just how people work. I understand that white people have a head start in this country, but I also feel singled out when you cant have an opinion on anything because you’re white and a guy. You get discounted immediately by people that have a differing opinion. I voted for Obama twice, but I still cant have an opinion on a topic without being a bigot/sexist/racist unless I completely fall in line with everything that the democratic party is about. It’s why Trump won. I wrote in a candidate. Because I didnt want to vote for either. Vote for Trump or vote for a party that singles you out for being a white Christian guy. I’ll vote for Mickey Mouse. It happened A LOT.

I have given Chad a pseudonym, even though I have his permission to quote his comment, because I have nothing against him as a person. I assume he is a good person who means well. But this post is not about him. It’s about the ideas he happened to express so clearly and concisely, ideas we’ve all heard before, ideas many of us have held or still hold. These ideas permeate our culture. Had I not learned better from my antiracist friends, I would likely be saying similar things. The genius of his specific comment, and the reason I am writing about it, is simply that Chad packs so much into so few words. In unpacking the comment, I am not attacking any person. I am critiquing the “moderate” stance on white supremacy. I want us all to know better so we can all do better.

1. “Nah…theres way more good white people than bad.”

Although Sanchez had said nothing about white people being good or bad, Chad translated his post into something like “most white people are bad.” This knee-jerk misreading turns a critique of white supremacy into an attack on white people in general. It is a textbook example of what many call “white fragility,” a phenomenon that includes the white urge to take personally and derail discussions of racism. With this comment, instead of talking about white supremacy, now we’re talking about whether there are more good or bad white people. That could be its own fruitful conversation, starting with what being a good or bad white person even means. But it’s not what—and not more important than what—the post was about.

2. “Polarism might.”

The idea here is that antiracism is more divisive than racism. But it is racism that divides us. Literally. By race. Division is what white supremacy is. Attacking that division cannot add to it. When white people respond well to critiques of white supremacy, a degree of division is overcome. When we react badly, we exhibit the same division already in place.

3. “You should include white people as part of the team that improves race relations . . .”

First, the phrase “race relations” papers over the specific nature of these “relations.” White supremacy is not a problem of groups failing to get along with each other. It’s a problem of one group actively dominating others.

Secondly, it is not Sanchez’s job to include white people in the struggle for racial justice. It’s white people’s job to get ourselves on board.

4. “. . . instead of beating them with white privilege . . .”

White privilege refers to the “benefits” white people accrue from having structured the entire society for our own benefit—dominating government, business, home ownership, education, entertainment, law enforcement, etc., and having gone so far as to even define goodness, beauty, and normalcy in our own white image (Peggy McIntosh has written a famous and helpful essay on this). To say “beating” here metaphorically is ironic, since setting society up in this way and maintaining it as the status quo has required and still requires literal beatings of people of color by white people. After all of this, it’s the pinnacle of white fragility to complain about folks pointing out white privilege.

5. “. . . and saying stuff like ‘ cry those white tears’. Those are smug words and immediately elicit a defensive response. Just how people work.”

First, “white tears,” as Leah Donnella explains, is a term “used to gently tease white people who get upset at things they think threaten their white privilege.” Getting upset at the term white tears is an example of white tears. The term offers a bit of comic relief in the face of endless exasperation. More seriously, the term disarms white folks’ attempts to frame as bad any discomfort we may feel because of racial progress. 

Second, as a white person, I do not get defensive when people say things like this. I laugh along. So the notion that such words “immediately elicit a defensive response” generalizes about “how people work” based on the shortcomings of some people. Sure, many people share this shortcoming. But it is not inevitable. We can do better. Yes, we are entitled to our feelings. But we are not entitled to put our feelings in the way of dismantling racism. White defensiveness is our problem, not the problem of those we may feel defensive against.

6. “I understand that white people have a head start in this country,”

Here’s what this “head start” metaphor implies: “White people are ahead and people of color are behind. It will take people of color a little longer to catch up, which we can all appreciate is inconvenient, but at least we’re all moving forward.” However, this is not the situation we are in at all. Describing white supremacy as a “head start” not only minimizes its seriousness but also distorts its nature. White supremacy does not place people of color behind white people but beneath. White supremacy entails white people holding people of color down. People of color cannot “catch up” when white people shoot them down in the streets, lock them up in cages, block them from positions of power and influence, and hoard from them the resources of the nation. There is a reason the great anthem of the civil rights movement was not “We Shall Catch Up” but “We Shall Overcome.” 

7. “but I also feel singled out when you cant have an opinion on anything because you’re white and a guy. You get discounted immediately by people that have a differing opinion. . . . I still cant have an opinion on a topic without being a bigot/sexist/racist unless I completely fall in line with everything that the democratic party is about.”

Here, Chad conflates four separate claims. White men don’t get to have opinions . . .

  • because we are white men.
  • because those opinions “differ” from the opinions of others.
  • because those opinions do not completely fall in line with “everything that the democratic party is about.”
  • because those opinions are “bigot[ed]/sexist/racist.”

If we take “have an opinion” literally, all of these are false. Literally, no one is stopping anyone from having opinions. That’s not possible to do. What he seems to mean, then, is that the opinions in question (he does not specify what those opinions are) are being “discounted” or not considered as valid by others.

Regarding the first reason he offers for why this discounting happens, it would certainly be unfortunate for folks to invalidate someone’s opinion simply on the basis of that someone being white and male. However, in my experience, what’s far more common is that someone who is white and male will express an opinion that is invalid and others will respond to the effect of, “Ah, it makes sense that you would come to such an opinion given the experiences you’ve likely had as a white man.” Our identities do not determine our opinions. But our identities do make certain experiences more or less likely, which in turn make certain opinions more or less likely. It’s reasonable to suspect a causal relationship between those factors, as when when someone says, “You would say that, you’re a white man.” Still, the content of the opinion is what makes it valid or invalid, not the identity of the person who holds it. 

The second point of Chad’s claim takes us to what makes the content of an opinion valid or invalid. Folks in the movement against white supremacy hold a wide range of opinions. New perspectives are developed every day. Opinions that support white supremacy are invalid not because they “differ” from others’ but because they support white supremacy. Similarly, regarding the third point, it is quite odd to conflate the movement against white supremacy with the Democratic party. While white supremacist opinions sometimes contradict aspects of the Democratic party, other times they fit right in. Either way, it is not their relation to a political party that makes them invalid. In the end, as the fourth point hints, it’s really the bigotry, sexism, and racism that does. By blaming the invalidation of his opinions on other things, Chad avoids taking responsibility for the content of his opinions.

7. “. . . I voted for Obama twice, but . . .”

This gem is the political equivalent of “I have a black friend.” It has zero bearing on whether a person, action, or opinion is racist or not. In fact, it is racist to presume voting for Obama or having a black friend, or being in proximity to black people in any other capacity is a get-out-of-racism-free card. (My student Tenielle Mounts-Williams has written compellingly about this point.)

9. “It’s why Trump won. I wrote in a candidate. Because I didnt want to vote for either. Vote for Trump or vote for a party that singles you out for being a white Christian guy. I’ll vote for Mickey Mouse. It happened A LOT.”

Sanchez had not mentioned Trump in his post, so it’s interesting Chad would bring him up. Of course, he is correct to think of Trump during a conversation about white supremacy, since the president is one of the most visible and vocal proponents of white supremacist ideas today. But it is important to note that people did not vote for him because of opposition to racism. People voted for him because of racism. Some did so in support of white supremacy, while others did so in spite of it. But going along with racists, even without sharing their views, is itself racist because it puts other interests above the lives of people of color.

10. “Moderate”

I have called Chad a “moderate” because, later in the same social media thread, he refers to himself that way. Such a stance is one that many people take. We consider extremes a vice and moderation a virtue. Being a moderate feels reasonable, balanced, fair, impartial. Still, that term brings to mind Martin Luther King’s comments on “the white moderate” in his letter from Birmingham jail, worth quoting at length:

First, I must confess that over the past few years I have been gravely disappointed with the white moderate. I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen’s Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to “order” than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: “I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action”; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who lives by a mythical concept of time and who constantly advises the Negro to wait for a “more convenient season.” Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.

The very notion that one can be a moderate when it comes to white supremacy—the idea that there exists a neutral space to stand between racism and antiracism—appears to be the overarching misunderstanding behind Chad’s comment and many common misunderstandings of white supremacy. I do not want to present racism as a simple binary, since white supremacy occupies a whole spectrum, from active to passive, overt to covert, intentional to accidental, constant to intermittent, etc. And yet, there is a basic question: Do you stand for the notion that all people ought to be seen and treated equally regardless of race and do you desire that all barriers to that equality be torn down immediately—or do you not? Falling on the not side of that question, the moderate position is a form of white supremacy. Sanchez is right. White supremacy is destroying us. At best, moderation means it will destroy us a little more slowly. So to survive, thrive, and fulfill our human potential together on this earth, we must all become, as King says in that same letter, extremists for love.

 

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT. I appreciate Rose Gwynn’s feedback on a draft of this post.

IMAGE. The image for this post comes from the antitracist documentary Man on Fire (2017), co-produced by James Chase Sanchez, which I highly recommend watching. Sanchez is presently writing a book titled, The Salt of the Earth: The Rhetoric of White Supremacy. I eagerly await its publication.

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