The Problem With White Supremacy

The problem with white supremacy is the supremacy, not that it is white supremacy in particular.

I could not agree to that statement without reservations. These reservations arise because the way `white' is used as an identity marker can vary from community to community. In at least some cases -- for instance in the work of Sally Haslanger; it's also very common in cultural studies and swathes of the humanities, as well as activist circles influenced by these traditions --  `white' more or less picks out `people at the top of a local racial hierarchy'. Understood in this way then the initial statement might look like it's objecting to concreteness in analysis, objecting to focussing on an instantiation whereby a particular group of people have power, rather than an abstract form of supremacy as such. This, though, is not what I mean to agree to -- I don't want people to pay less attention to the particular mechanisms which underlie or uphold white supremacy, far from it. So since my readership includes people who use the word `white' in a manner that ties it to political domination, I cannot just agree to the opening statement.

There is, though, an interpretation under which I think it says an important thing that ought guide and shape our political action. This is the interpretation under which the opening statement is pointing out that swapping out one ruling class for another is not progress; it's moving sideways on the moral arc of the universe rather than forwards. When I say it would be a good thing to end white supremacy this is not because I think there is some other group of people who are properly to be given the arbitrary advantages, domineering power, or generally favourable position in a hierarchy, that white supremacy currently affords to some citizens. It is rather because I think that nobody should have those arbitrary advantages, nobody should enjoy domineering power over others, and I reject hierarchical modes of social organisation as completely as I can (subject to my own biases and oversights).

This came to mind recently when reading and reflecting on certain practices in leftist circles that I have very mixed feelings about. These, roughly, take the following form -- in conversations about matters related to race, the saying goes, white people need to `take a seat'; and generally acquiesce to what they are told. For an instance of the genre see here. Relatedly, faced with critique (calling out or calling in) for doing some troubling thing, it is for members of the dominant group to apologise and attempt to repair the damage they have caused, not ask for clarification on what they did wrong or attempt to defend themselves. This latter is less explicitly defended -- but I've observed enough cases of people accused of wrongdoing asking for clarification and being told in no uncertain terms that `it's not my job to educate you' or that the request for clarification is a further error, or people finding that attempting to defend themselves leads to general communal condemnation and acrimony.

Why the mixed feelings about this, and what is the relation to the initial point? First, I think there are people in these spaces who do not support these deference mandating norms, and people who do. Of the people who do endorse unequal treatment, there are  (at least) two classes of people. The first class explicitly and consciously endorses these norms because they've thought about the effects and have come to the conclusion that  these norms are instrumental for egalitarianism -- to get from where we are now to a better state, we are going to need (or at least it would be very helpful if it were the case that) a great many white people to suddenly divest themselves, or otherwise be divested whether they like it or not, of a lot of social power. One way to achieve this would be to normalise these different power relations in activist circles. The goal, then, is to get the relevant people used to suddenly having much less power, and vice versa to get people from traditionally marginalised groups used to suddenly having more power; all in a relatively controlled environment. For this first class, unequal treatment is something they would advocate for in these spaces because ultimately they believe it serves the goal of egalitarian relations in broader society. I am not sure if I agree to this strategy, but I can see something to it, and people who have done far more activism than I seem to think there is something to it. I respect their judgement, and trust these people to intervene or work to change the norms when they are no longer useful.

However, I think there is a second class of people who are responding to and deploying these norms without it being part of an explicit plan towards the aim of egalitarianism. For these people, the fact that the white folk are subject to these norms effectively becomes a license to indulge one's will to power. Now is a chance for them to gain the ability to domineer, to arbitrarily order about and sometimes even humiliate, members of the dominant group -- the tables turned, revenge shall be theirs, and a more congenial hierarchy is finally instantiated! I'm inclined to be supportive of the first group of people, while I do not support the second. However, given that it's hard to tell these two groups apart, I overall feel ambivalent toward the norms themselves.

Let's focus on the second group. Lacking explicitly egalitarian goals, this latter group, I take it, can end up supporting just what the opening statement is meant to rule out. It is no political advance at all to simply change who gets to dominate who. To parody a bit: I would not want to replace white supremacy with a beautifully diverse rainbow of oppressors, nor would I want to see white supremacy replaced by some kind of rule by the saints, wherein the woke may dominate the problematic. What is more, I think these norms can, if we are not careful in how we deploy them, generate a kind of servility in people, where they become accustomed not to having reasoned acceptance of claims and a sincere commitment to anti-racism, but rather a pledge to defer to members of a favoured class; a kind of faith-seeking-understanding in their attitude to anti-racist thought. This way lies dogmatism and a dead doctrine, rather than a living tradition. This may not seem a problem if it was just the white folk doing it (maybe the white folk in many Western societies should just be a bit more servile than they typically are when it comes to reasoning about race relations) -- but these norms don't just go for white folk talking about race, they go for any instance of a demographically dominant group reasoning about a matter related to which they have an advantage. We all of us fit under the category `demographically dominant' for some axis or another, and axis of advantage and disadvantage encompass all of social life. We all thereby grow accustomed to being servile, conversation becomes a matter of working out who to defer to on what.

For all that, I really do see the practical or instrumental advantages in something like the norms discussed. The first class of people really do seem to be on to something, even though I think the second class can badly misusing the opportunities for power this norm creates. How, then, to retain those advantages, serve those ends of acclimatising members of a dominant group to relinquishing power, without thereby enabling domineering behaviour, or inculcating servile frames of mind? Of course there are no easy answers, but I wonder if philosophy might help.

Philip Pettit has done much work outlining the Republican ideal of freedom as non-domination. A nice summary can be found here, with the key definition being:

Someone has dominating power over another if
(1) they have the capacity to interfere
(2) on an arbitrary basis
(3) in certain choices that the other is in a position to make.

A good Republican society is one in which we minimise or eliminate dominating power, we make it such that nobody has dominating power over another. I think we can take this and use it as the basis of self-conscious norm creation for activist circles. What we should like is norms for interaction that both acclimatise people to reversals of socially typical hierarchies -- which allow the black folk to tell the white folk what is really up rather than vice versa -- but which also do not allow for dominating power; in particular that do not allow for arbitrariness in application.

While there are difficulties defining exactly what counts as arbitrary, my sense is that a lot of the problems with these norms regulating the speech of dominant groups arise because they are effectively unconstrained in how they may be applied. I think we can agree we are in a situation that involves dominating power: in at least some circles one person or group can simply dictate to some others what is to be taken as the relevant consequences of these norms, and what is more can declare what counts as violation of these norms in a manner that cannot be challenged.  How do we go about removing this dominating power? I think having the Republican ideal in mind when self-consciously framing norms for how we communicate and interact with each other, and in particular framing them in such a way as to make it much more difficult for there to be arbitariness in application, may  be a path forward for trying to shape norms for members of dominant groups in activist circles. I do not know exactly how this would go, and even if I did I would prefer to just offer this as a starting thought and trust in people to reason their way to the better norms themselves; this is just where I think we should begin.

Finally, I want to stress something, lest I be quoted against people who I am actually in great sympathy with. My attitude here might seem like I am being harshly judgemental of people in the second class -- I accuse them of wanting to dominate and humiliate others, surely disreputable desires. But it is well to remember one's own position. While I am a black man in a white dominated field -- I am relatively light skinned, and generally rather meek and soft spoken thereby arousing less of that absurd superstitious fear from white folk than is typically aroused by black men with an otherwise similar build, I grew up in quite a racially integrated environment (South London represent) in a racially integrated family, and my profession and lifestyle grant me a far greater degree of personal autonomy than is typical under capitalism. To summarise, relative to the class of black people in white dominated fields, I am somebody who is least likely to face the kind of pressures, strains, and daily experiences of visceral discrimination that might make the chance to turn the tables so tempting. I would not want, and in any case would have no right or standing, to judge those who, faced with these pressures, use activist spaces to avenge themselves on a world that mistreats them so. The harsh critique of these folk I see from some quarters strikes me as coming from people even worse positioned to judge than me. There but for the grace of God go I, and I do not forget that.

(Lots of thanks to Yuzuko Nakamura for helping me write this post!)


  1. I wrote down a maybe-related thought a month ago:

    'The rules of social justice discourse make pretty good sense as institutional rules for arbitration in activist spaces, comparable to the rules of a trial procedure. Like in a trial procedure, the admissibility of any testimony, argument, and evidence is subject to a battery of rigidly mechanical tests (compare 'objection!' and 'the call out') that are partly fast-and-dirty heuristics for reliability, partly criteria for a speaker's moral right -- or lack thereof -- to personally bring the testimony, argument, or evidence at hand before the court, and partly proxies to a thousand institution-specific expediencies. Following rules like 'a marginalized person's description of her marginalization is authoritative' isn't the same thing as believing that marginalized people are magically immune to confirmation bias, really, anymore than following the rule 'always dismiss hearsay testimony' in a US court means you believe that hearsay testimony is never reliable. But social justice discourse isn't a discrete performance like a trial -- especially these days, it's mixed into every domain of cultural and intellectual life --, and it's increasingly impossible to both hold-on to this system of discursive rules and keep from reifying it into an epistemology. What is to be done?'

  2. Hello, apparently I am too long-winded for this website haha and so I've split my reply in two in order to get around the character count restriction:

    Part one:

    This is meant to be friendly, but I only got a few hours of sleep and just finished entering a hundred grades, and my brain is not in a good place for Making Sure I Sound Friendly. Feel free to mentally insert smiley faces as needed. (Maybe they're not needed, but I've had so many (white) people treat me as though I was yelling when I wasn't that I have forgotten how to be myself.)

    So, I really like your Du Bois post. Within the framework you've set up here, I appreciate many things about this post. I have had "this conversation" many times before and I appreciate your nuance and what you've added to the conversation.

    That said, I disagree with the framework. Strongly.

    Of course, I'd rather you had this conversation with my husband on Facebook. He is a cis het white man and he has more emotional room to debate the extent to which my needs ought to be valued by others.

    My problems begin with: "This came to mind recently when reading and reflecting on certain practices in leftist circles that I have very mixed feelings about." Here you are "objectively" contemplating the experiences of others. I wish you wouldn't.

    Now I have the option of telling you why I wish you wouldn't or not. If I tell you why, the natural response will be to take in my words and weigh them and decide how you feel. I don't want that kind of scrutiny, when it is not doled out to analogous requests that are more mainstream. Yet, if I don't tell you why, then I'm not playing fair. I'm rude. Blah blah blah. Like why even comment if I'm not going to explain myself, right?

    1. Part Two:

      But this setup is crap.

      I tend to analogize, so: If you accidentally stamp on my foot, I yell OW!! and hold my toes and focus on my pain until it subsides. Upon hearing my yell you look down in horror and feel remorse and apologize and ask me if I'm okay. It may take me some time to feel okay but when I am, I say so, and you are relieved, and we move on with our lives. If you didn't seem to care, I'd be offended and any onlookers would be convinced that you were a mean person and nobody would be concerned that I was upset. On the other hand, if you stamped *near* my foot, and I yelled and held my toes, you might look at me with suspicion. Maybe you'd apologize for startling me, but if I said you hurt me, you wouldn't believe it was possible b/c you didn't even touch me. I would be overreacting. Any onlookers would take your side. If you apologized for startling me and I didn't accept your apology and was in fact still upset, I would be seen as problematic. These two different scenarios constitute normal reactions. Nobody has to read a rule book to know how to respond. There is no "dominating" happening.

      The analogy is this. In a society of inequality, when dominant people stamp on marginalized people's feet, marginalized people feel exactly the right amount of pain, but dominant people don't see the event. Dominant people, and society as a whole, view it as stamping *near* the foot. Marginalized people's pain is erased as it happens. The rules that seem so harsh and arbitrary and potentially dominating to those who don't need them to survive are simply the rules we would naturally live by if the pain of oppression were a visible thing.

      I am not here to explain that stamping on my foot hurts it. I am not here to explain why you should believe me that someone hurt me. I am no longer debating these issues.

      If you want the rules to sound universal, they are: Treat everyone as you would if your brain weren't infected with oppression. If people weren't racist, Black Lives Matter would have been more or less immediately understood and accepted. If people weren't sexist, reproductive rights would not be a political topic. When a trans person tells me they need something that I don't need, the part of me that things I get to ponder this and have my own opinion comes from cissexism.

      I will be honest that I didn't read and reread this as thoroughly as I would have if it didn't cost me. I have been given life through these leftist practices that gave me a taste of what it means to have my humanity accepted without question. If you want to scrutinize this, scrutinize all interactions where pain is involved. Scrutinize all victims of harmful action, not just the ones whose pain is erased.

    2. Thanks for posting, and no worries this is perfectly friendly! My impression from these posts (please correct me if I'm wrong!) is that you're not looking to debate this here -- fair enough, and I'm in any case glad you posted because it's good for readers to have a counter point. I'll only add here that: I was responding to my own experiences in this post. Beyond that, thanks again, glad you liked the Du Bois post (may I ask which one?) and I hope you keep reading, and always feel free to chime in, even (especially) if it's critical as here :)

    3. Ok to cheat a bit -- but it's not debating but actually stating a point of agreement! I definitely do agree that people from dominant groups cannot always be trusted to recognise when they have done a bad thing, or overreached, or been domineering (etc), and this is what generates the need for norms of the sort under discussion here -- And I do see (now that you say it! thanks for contributing!) that there is a sense of ``arbitrariness'' in which it may understood be something like ``Appears as baseless to the person subject to the norms'', and that we actually need not worry about this kind of arbitrariness here (it's not arbitrary in any bad sense I am worried about); even if members of dominant groups do not appreciate that they have done the bad thing when they do it, they may still fairly be expected to comply with norms that allow oppressed or marginalised people to hold them accountable. So, just want to note explicitly that I agree with these points too!

    4. 1. re debate: debating is this thing where you don't have to listen to the other person, where whole ideas are discounted if they don't meet certain Standards, where you are trying to be convincing and thus may feel compelled to make certain contortions to show the other person how agreeable, how them-friendly, your position is. as such, i find it inappropriate to debate oppression issues except within the same group (viewed intersectionally). i mean, i don't care what others do, but i won't. not any more. because oppression is always personal and the stakes are always too high. when i'm debating some feminist detail with a man, i'm not just talking to that man, i'm talking to society. it adds a level of frustration and... i don't want to say helplessness in a weak way... but it's.... othering. it has a way of reminding me of my place. and i'm done sacrificing myself to the purported greater good of ally education (per my post Peli shared on fb). so, no, i personally do not want to "debate." i am happy to explain myself further and to discuss, but i'm not going to PROVE anything and i don't want to find my brain trying to frame things in a Convincing Manner. but i don't mind if other people debate on my behalf.

    5. 2. re experiences: i think i was imprecise. i'm used to a context that makes it okay to use "experience" as shorthand for the particular experience i mean, usually like "experience with racism." this post is about how people who have experienced racism don't wanna hear it from people who haven't, right? and the rules certain people impose as a result. well so i am a believer of those rules, but i don't think they are specific to oppression, i think they are just natural rules artificially imposed because society makes it hard to behave naturally. so anyway i apply those rules here. if we're talking about Are these practices the best? the voices i care about are the ones who have the most at stake. which is a third category of people you did not mention (as rob pointed out on facebook). the fact that you did not include Me in your categorization tells me that you and i are not in the same boat. though we both experience racism, maybe this is something that's more important to women of color? at any rate, that sentence i quoted may have not been sufficient to make the assessment i made, but it was the sentence that made me think no, this person does not have the relevant experience to be discussing this issue.

      now of course maybe we have been in the same boat and maybe we just disagree, i don't know. but nothing you wrote made me feel that way.

    6. 3. the "alt right" one! i appreciated your sharing of his arguments and also your commentary. i thought it was interesting and relevant and also GAHHHHHH i'm mad at everything, but you know, not your fault. :)

    7. last comment!

      4. i've also been talking to Peli about this and i've kinda hit my threshold. i'm putting this here, but emotionally it's not a reaction to what is happening here. if that makes sense.

      this is what it feels like to me, in play format. :)

      IN WHOM WE TRUST: a play

      Society is on stage even before the audience enters, quietly chanting mainstream views. Enter a burdened woman of color and a marginalized intellectual.


      Woman of color who feels on an emotional level the burden of society's distrust (to audience): Hey, allies! Here is your revolutionary act! TRUST MARGINALIZED PEOPLE or ACT AS IF YOU DO.

      Societal aside (whispers): do not trust the marginalized, do not trust the marginalized, never trust the marginalized, doubt them, use dominant standards, make them prove themselves, do not trust the marginalized.

      Marginalized intellectual who does not feel on an emotional level the burden of society's mistrust (to burdened woman of color, loudly): but that doesn't work in situation A! and what about all the people on both sides of oppression whom we can not trust?! Surely, you agree not everyone is to be trusted! and isn't this inconsistent with B?!

      Woman of color: ...

      Society cheers!

      THE END (audience leaves, confused and angry)

      so like what do i say? certainly i can't contest that there are flaws in the way The Rules are misunderstood by those whom they don't serve. but even if the misunderstood version were what i was advocating, i fail to see why that should matter. there are times when you have to have a default operating practice (eg either "innocent until proven guilty" or "guilty until proven innocent") and right now it is always set against the marginalized. that is unfair. it is unfair and it is flawed and yet those flaws don't render it untrue. we need to err on the side of justice. erring is never perfect it's about default and about tendencies. i haven't read any debates about whether innocent until proven guilty is okay, i wonder how similar they'd sound. but i'm rambling now. the truth is i do not think The Rules are actually in any way rigid or inconsistent or special. they just Feel that way from an "outside" perspective.

    8. Piper might disagree, but based on our conversations I believe that Piper's version of 'The Rules' is about a million times weaker than the widely practiced version even though it looks the same on the surface. Piper (if I understand our conversation yesterday) holds that 'x is oppressive' doesn't imply 'x is wrong,' as both further oppression-related considerations and non-oppression-related considerations might make x the best choice anyway, and that The Rules say that if a marginalized person says 'x is wrong, because x is oppressive to me' you must should unconditionally accept that x is oppressive to them, but you should decide for yourself whether this makes x wrong on the balance. I think every decent person would immediately support this version of The Rules. (Piper also believe - I think - that if you conclude that this doesn't make x wrong on the balance you should simply not do what the marginalized person asks, rather than suggest to discuss your disagreement, which I think is different from how many activists I know would like addressees to treat their argued calls to action, but I think that's a separate thing.)

      Piper, I hope that's an OK paraphrase?

    9. haha how can you tell that my rules are weaker than those practiced if they look the same? i'm starting to wonder what rules even are... i learned the rules from those who practiced them, but i suppose i imposed my own "a/moral compass" to it.

      my husband was recently ill and it totally ruined my night. :) but not as much as it ruined his! imagine that i couldn't see that. imagine i spent the night complaining to him about all the extra stuff i had to do because he couldn't get out of bed. that would make me a huge jerk! and imagine you're trying to explain to me how not to be a jerk. you're gonna say things that may sound rigid just to give me something actionable since yelling "stop being a jerk" didn't work. so you're gonna say "If the person you're talking to is in more pain than you are, don't complain to them about your pain." And I'm going to have all kinds of arguments against this b/c of all these counterexamples I can come up with. But your goal is not that I be cruel to myself. Your goal is to stop me from being a jerk. Where a jerk is perhaps someone who is *gratuitously* hurtful. And every day you have to spend carving out more and more precise rules that will work in every counterexample I find, is a day that I am *gratuitously* hurtful to someone in pain.

      i believe the rules i would write down look the same as the rules others would write down. if i and the masses say "stealing is against the rules" but i recognize that sometimes taking something that is not yours is totally justified, does that make my anti-stealing rule weaker? maybe i just have a decriminalized point of view, or something?

      i think it's important that oppression be viewed separately from morality. i mean oppression is immoral. but the way it is perpetuated daily by the not-so-powerful is separate from morality. at least under my understanding of morality. my understanding of good vs bad, moral vs immoral, is that it is intent-based. any useful discussion of oppression needs to be impact-based. (of course, "the path to hell" expression speaks only of impact, which i find fascinating.)

    10. re the last parenthetical, dominant people have no basis for "disagreeing" on whether something is oppressive. or rather, they can argue (to other dominant people) that something Is oppressive because they've been told as much by someone who faced it. but they can't argue that something is Not oppressive. if i tell a white person something is racist, they should accept that it is racist. they should not disagree or attempt to discuss a disagreement. but that doesn't tell them what to do. maybe they are not free to choose anti-racism in this instance. (a white woman who can't help that her fear of all men becomes racist when she crosses paths with a black man; all the white people who are not quitting their jobs or moving out of their neighborhoods in an attempt to stop hoarding their privilege, same with men, same with cis gender people, etc.; me every day that i take zero steps towards fundamental change in my department because i only have a one year postdoc and i want to be hired here again...) Being anti-oppression takes constant vigilance and even with that you will fail in some way most of the time.

      for that matter, while the "wrong on the balance" point is certainly what i was saying, once you make it abstract it can be weaponized haha. like if i tell someone not to say a racial slur b/c it's racist i certainly don't mean that they can decide, well, but it's okay on the balance. you know, b/c freedom of speech. part of the rules is kinda forcing the recognition of privilege that the person may not fully recognize. so it might be more like "x is wrong, because x is oppressive" has to be agreed to, but with the understanding that sometimes not x is actually so difficult or so risky that "on the balance" a "good person" may still do x, but hope to offset by being better in other ways.

      I don't have experience/opinions on how to deal with calls to action. but i'm also confused about the premise... if you conclude that you are not free to make the anti-oppressive choice, that's not a disagreement you're having with me. discussion of legitimate disagreements is not off the table, i just want to delegitimize certain things that pass in dominant people's eyes as disagreements.

      the revolution will not be paraphrased! :)

    11. I just want to apologise to everyone on this thread! I became distracted and then the holidays happened and I dropped this fascinating conversation! I promise I will return to it after this month; please do not feel discouraged from contributing, I feel very bad for neglecting such thoughtful engagements with my work!

  3. Weird way to look at this, but I think on a Bayesian inference picture Piper thinks of the discursive part of anti-oppression activism as primarily concerned with the dissemination of evidence, and you think of the discursive part of anti-oppression activism as (substantially if not primarily) concerned with working out likelihood functions and priors. On Piper's picture, a habit of unquestioning deference to members of marginalized groups means a habit of updating on E when they assert E. On your picture, a habit of unquestioning deference to members of marginalized groups means something more.

    1. Ack, so, for the record, I don't agree with this characterisation of my own position -- I am not really interested in learning about people's priors. I don't want to speak for Piper though, and in any case I think respecting the not-debating point extends to not debating things by proxy, so I shall leave it at that.

    2. haha i have no idea what those words mean. :) carry on!

  4. Just a note: folks interested in this topic may also be interested in the Truth Telling Project of Ferguson. I wrote a piece putting their important work into an international context here: -- I think they are doing great stuff to facilitate the self-empowerment of working class African Americans (whose communities many of the organisers are drawn from and live within) while also fostering intercommunal dialogue. It's good stuff, and I have found working with them to be a very productive environment. I highly recommend checking them and their work out. Also, some of the stuff said in that short essay relates to matters discussed in this blog post, but there I am coming at it more arguing the positive case for the kind of norms I am wary of in the OP.


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