Two terms jumped to the top of the most-searched at Merriam-Webster dictionary following the deadly white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Va., this past weekend: white nationalist and white supremacist.
Nationalist and supremacist are also the first suggested results on Google, appearing as options when you type the word “white,” suggesting widespread interest in the topic.
Merriam’s word nerds go one step further and do a fine job of explaining the difference between the two.
White nationalist is defined as “one of a group of militant whites who espouse white supremacy and advocate enforced racial segregation,” while white supremacist is “a person who believes that the white race is inherently superior to other races and that white people should have control over people of other races.”
You’ll notice Merriam-Webster’s explanation makes no mention of white hoods, Confederate flags, guns, swastikas or khakis.
Yet, as with racism, society acknowledges supremacy only when it bears these overt markers, ratified by the white majority, whether in language, in clothing or in accessories.
The Charlottesville protesters who carried torches, wielded bats and shields and chanted Nazi slogans were easily labelled supremacists. They matched the image of the bad guys seen in history books.
The rest of the time, though, it remains the burden of those affected by its oppressive machinations to prove its existence, to convince people in power that it is not simply a sin of the past.
It was heartening in these polarized times that a large number of counter-protesters who turned up to push back were white. At the same time, the nationwide indignation indicated that racial supremacy, the principle that powers the continent, continues to be recognized only at a surface level.
Still, if you were one of the liberal-minded progressives who supported the counter-protesters, this basic conversation is worth having again: what does white supremacy without the white hoods look like?
Supremacy is the invisible structure with the visible outcome of placing one group in the centre of financial, political, judicial, corporate, academic, social and cultural power. In other words, it vests one group with supreme control over society.
Earlier this year, Malinda Smith, a political science professor at the University of Alberta, compiled a “diversity gap twittorial” listing representational deficiencies in various sectors.
She demonstrated, with links for further reading, how we end up in Canada with a majority of police forces failing to reflect their communities, visible minorities and Indigenous people under-represented in the judiciary, corporate boards and the legal profession overwhelmingly white and male. As for the media – you’ve heard from me about that before.
What about universities, those ivory towers regularly excoriated as intolerable bastions of far-left thought?
The Equity Myth, a recently released book based on a landmark four-year study by a group of Canadian academics, including Smith, challenges that stereotype with the finding that “racialized and Indigenous faculty and the disciplines or areas of their expertise are, on the whole, low in numbers and even lower in terms of power, prestige and influence within the university.”
When I look at this pattern, I don’t see glass ceilings. I see steel-reinforced ones.
When a structure is this deep-rooted and its effects this widespread, you don’t have to consciously work to maintain it. In other words, not doing anything differently perpetuates it.
You know what this means in practical terms. You, as a person with progressive ideals, commiserate with your colleagues of colour about lack of representation in your office, but you don’t feel the need to take up the task of agitating for change. You’ve agreed more needs to be done, so you tell yourself you’re not racist and absolve yourself of further responsibilities.
The sad reality is if something is to be deemed systemically discriminatory, it is accepted more easily when raised or backed up by a white person; your voice carries more weight than that of your racialized colleagues. When you don’t see workplace diversity as your battle, you abandon those in need of your help. In effect, you may be an ally in thought but as long as you are a bystander in action, you perpetuate supremacy.
If you were outraged by Donald Trump’s refusal to call out the supremacists after Charlottesville, then you can’t allow yourself to effectively endorse structurally imposed supremacy with your silence.
Put simply, it’s easy to condemn people who chant “white power.” What are you doing to equalize it?
Shree Paradkar writes about discrimination and identity.