Let’s get real about the recent horrifying events in Charlottesville: the venomous hatred on display was just as much about Christian hegemony, patriarchy, and other forms of oppression as it was about racism. Because in the paradigm of neo-Nazis, the KKK, and white nationalists, slap a yellow star on my shirt and my race is “Jew.” (If the concept of Christian hegemony is new to you, please read Lewis Schlosser’s powerful article, “Christian Privilege: Breaking a Sacred Taboo.”) Over the last year, I have experienced a deep fear for my safety and for the safety of my Jewish friends and family: a fear from which my skin color, European heritage, and geography have largely protected me during my life.
And let’s also get real about the media coverage and national discourse since the events in Charlottesville: if the verbal and physical violence were carried out by Muslim extremists or black or brown people, the narrative would be different. This week, the terrorists in Charlottesville have been described as members of fringe groups. The media has covered myriad white, Christian community leaders and public officials who condemned the white supremacists’ rhetoric and actions. Despite the fact that neo-Nazi, KKK, and white nationalist groups are responsible for the majority of terrorist attacks and resulting deaths in the U.S., Christianity is not on trial.
Conversely, if the perpetrators in Charlottesville were Muslim, black, or brown, I imagine this would be a part of the dominant narrative:
“Islam is a religion of terror. It routinely advocates violence against non-Muslims.” (Check out “Anyone who says the Qur’an advocates terrorism obviously hasn’t read its lessons on violence.”)
“Where are all the moderate Muslims condemning these attacks?” (Check out "The 712-page Google doc that proves Muslims do condemn terrorism.")
“Black and brown people are inherently prone to violent behavior.” (Check out “Race and homicide in America, by the numbers.”)
But I also have to be honest about the fact that I am both Ashkenazi Jewish and white. I am white in ways that are both similar to and different from white Christians. There are spaces in which my targeted-ness as a Jewish person surpasses my unearned privilege and power as a white person. We have multiple social identities that we carry at all times; I am a white, Ashkenazi Jewish, upper-middle class, able-bodied, English-speaking, U.S.-born, bisexual, cisgender woman in a life-time heterosexual partnership. I have a tremendous amount of power and privilege, but my gender, in particular, means my physical safety and access to power and resources are sharply limited on a regular basis. (As a fun exercise, take a few minutes to “check(list) your privilege.”)
I often hear from workshop participants, “I’m not white, I’m Jewish,” or “I don’t have white privilege because I am poor.” And my response is: “You are both. You are both white and Jewish. You are both poor and white. People are white in different ways, but having a targeted identity does not erase your unearned white power and privilege, but in specific circumstances, it surpasses it.”
The bottom line is that, regardless of our other identities, white people need to take responsibility for their own internalized white supremacy. I should note that I do not use “white supremacy” here to mean “white supremacists” like those we saw in Charlottesville. Rather, I use “white supremacy” to mean the belief – whether conscious or unconscious – that white people are superior to people of color: that white people are supreme. This was a new paradigm for me several years ago, and at first, I was skeptical: was this merely hyperbole from the far left, and how could it possibly reach a broader audience without automatically making white people feel profoundly defensive and shut down? But after trying on the framing and language, I came to see that it offered a more accurate characterization of the nature of racism in the U.S. than simply discussing “white privilege.” I now use it in an attempt to call it like it is despite how painful or uncomfortable it may be.
So how did I unwillingly learn and internalize white supremacy? I grew up in a predominantly white, liberal New England community, whose demographics were still affected by historically racist housing policies, including redlining (“The Effects of Redlining on the Hartford Metropolitan Area”). Car doors were locked when driving through predominantly low-income black and brown urban communities. I watched seemingly benign Bugs Bunny cartoons with images of “pickannies” and movies like The Jungle Book and Aladdin with no understanding of the historical contexts. At the time, no one around me thought to or knew how to give me the critical literacy tools necessary to deconstruct them. Some of my neighbors decried how the neighborhood was “changing,” and they worried out loud about increased violence and decreased property values. I rarely saw positive images of people of color (or any images, for that matter) on TV, in magazines, on in any other media. All but one of my childhood friends were white – my one friend of color was Taiwanese American – and all but one of our family friends were white. I cannot recall any beloved children’s books whose human protagonists were not white. When I bought pantyhose, I often chose “nude,” which matched my skin color. And so did the “flesh-colored” band-aids in the first aid aisle at the pharmacy.
I attended schools that served a tall glass of white supremacy Kool-Aid every day: my only black and brown elementary and middle school classmates, with the exception of one, were bussed in from Hartford under the guise of a program offensively named “Project Concern”; my high school mascot was a white person in a stereotypical First Nations outfit who ran around at pep rallies whooping and hollering with a tomahawk in hand; we almost exclusively learned history of white people (except for a brief discussion of slavery and an inaccurate history of Thanksgiving); until 10th grade, I was only assigned books by white authors; I had all white teachers and administrators; despite living 10 minutes away from large Central American immigrant and Puerto Rican communities, from fourth through 12th grade, I learned Spanish from Spain; none of the “Project Concern kids,” as all of the white adults and kids around me called them, were in my honors or AP classes; “Standard English” was called “proper English” or “speaking correctly”; no one talked about why all of the black and brown kids sat together at lunch, nor did anyone I know of talk about how those same kids were disproportionately disciplined. I didn’t ask to drink the white supremacy Kool-Aid, nor did anyone point out that I was drinking it. In fact, I would guess that most of the white adults around me never even noticed they were handing me a full glass.
And the Kool-Aid metastasized and lives in my body still. How do I know? I know because in college, I didn’t understand how to fully and authentically interact with the Black women in my classes. I know because I was on a plane five years ago, heard two black women talking loudly, and started thinking about the other “loud black women” I’d encountered, nevermind the fact that there were two white people sitting behind me who were even louder. I know because last month, I saw a young black woman walking with a young black girl, both of them pulling suitcases, and I wondered if they were homeless and toting their only possessions, nevermind the fact that they were one block away from a subway station, and the subway goes directly to two local airports. I know because I am sometimes surprised when a person of East Asian heritage speaks perfect English. I know because I am sometimes surprised when a Mexican heritage parent at my son’s racially diverse martial arts school is a doctor or lawyer. I know because I made racist assumptions that made me cringe about my mixed race students and students of color. I didn’t ask to have these thoughts. These thoughts do not make me a bad person nor do they reflect my conscious intentions. But it makes me wonder how many other racist thoughts I have and resulting racist actions I take that I don’t notice.
White people living in the U.S. today did not create racism, nor did we ask to inherit its legacy. But unless we are honest about the fact that we drank the Kool-Aid, we cannot fully comes to terms with the ways in which we continue to benefit from, collude with, and reinforce white supremacy; we cannot be effective in healing ourselves, reclaiming our full humanity, and advancing racial equity and justice for people of color. My fellow white people, in what ways and when did you unwillingly drink the white supremacy Kool-Aid when you were growing up, and how does it show up in your life today?
For more readings on intersections of whiteness and various targeted identities (Jewish, working class, etc.), as well as a discussion of white privilege vs. white supremacy, check out my “Resources” page.
And if you are wondering what you can do to directly support communities in Charlottesville, I am pasting below a recent communication from Bay Area chapter of SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), which includes several requests for action from Charlottesville Black Lives Matter and SURJ organizers:
On Saturday, white supremacists, white nationalists, the KKK, and neo-Nazis descended on Charlottesville to wage a war of terror and violence. That effort did not emerge out of nowhere -- it was the latest peak within a months-long campaign to intimidate and terrorize communities of color in Charlottesville.
This time, though, the soul of America cracked open a little wider than it has before. Images of assault rifles, stories of police protecting Nazis over neighbors, and the murder of activist Heather Heyer has turned the attention of the country to this small town. And while folks across the country are heeding the call from Movement for Black Lives to turn out to solidarity rallies at sites of white supremacy in their own communities (sign up for that here), we also wanted to amplify some asks from local activists with the BLM chapter and the SURJ chapter in Charlottesville.
Most of the time, we try to send emails that have one specific ask in them with some background and analysis to explain that ask. This email is different. We'd love for you to take as many of these actions as possible in order to truly show the people of Charlottesville that you have their backs:
1. Provide financial support for ongoing mental health care, trauma counseling, and living expenses for Black organizers in Charlottesville: https://www.paypal.me/blmcville
2. Call the office of Judge Richard Moore of the Charlottesville Circuit Court (434-970-3766) to urge him to dismiss an upcoming court case for which there is an August 30 hearing, disputing the ability of the City Council to remove the Robert E. Lee statue that white supremacists are defending. Here's a sample script:
I'm leaving a message for Judge Moore regarding the upcoming Monument Fund hearing, scheduled for August 30. As someone concerned about community safety, I strongly urge you to join the City of Charlottesville in dismissing this case, which will continue to sow violence in the community. Thank you.
3. Petition the administration at the University of Virginia to publicly denounce white supremacist alumni Richard Spencer and Jason Kessler, revoke their diplomas, and commit to ejecting them from UVA grounds if they ever show their faces there again: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/revoke-diplomas-from-spencer-and-kessler
4. Petition Mayor Mike Signer and Councilwoman Kathy Galvin to change their votes against removing the Robert E. Lee statue and to also remove all other confederate monuments, as a sign that they support community safety and reconciliation: https://actionnetwork.org/petitions/remove-charlottesville-statues. Failing that, local activists will ask for their resignations and for Police Chief Al Thomas to step down.
5. Remove all confederate monuments from public space. Organize locally; apply pressure nationally!
We're so grateful for everyone who has moved into action in this moment, and we look forward to continuing to support this network as we move beyond the moment and build a truly powerful movement.
In the struggle,
Erin, Evelyn, Heather, and the SURJ National team, in partnership with SURJ Charlottesville and BLM Charlottesville