Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez went on Instagram this week and gave an hour of sustained rhetoric that will change the minds of no one, but will give her choir a whole passionate symphony to sing together.
One of the subjects she addressed was “white supremacy,” which is a term that has to be confusing a lot of us these days.
Forgive us. We are old.
And for like 50 of our 51 years, “white supremacists” were skinhead guys, swastika-tattooed guys and guys with hoods. They were guys who, when you accused them of being “white supremacists,” said, “Yer goddamned right!”
Now, leaders like Ocasio-Cortez and antiracist writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates are saying the whole American society is white supremacist, which means a lot of us regular old white people must be white supremacists. Which is totally ridiculous. Or was totally ridiculous, until like 15 minutes ago it seems like to most of us, who just spent five years deciding what we thought about cultural appropriation.
I don’t have a huge antiracist bookshelf, I admit. And I’ve already caught some reviewer hell for some words in my forthcoming book that question the usefulness of the term “white privilege,” as sometimes used in conversation. “I don’t think that’s the last you’re going to hear about that,” said my wife, who had urged me to spike that essay in the first place. But I’m happy to have that debate; and I won’t even much mind losing it. During this mind-stretching year, I feel like I’m in college again.
But what are we to think of the idea that “white supremacists” are prevalent among us—or even that many of us have white supremacists inside us? When there are still the shaved-head/swastika/hooded guys out there—and so prominently of late!—going by the same name?
Here’s what I think is meant by non-skinhead/swastika/hooded white supremacists (and I eagerly invite clarification, elaboration or refutation): White people who love all people. Who have Black friends. Who think Martin Luther King was terrific. Who think Mexicans are terrific. Who want the best for all people. Who may be Republican and may be Democrat. And who may even be Black! But just believe—no, just sort of assume—basically and maybe even so deep down that they don’t actually even think about it, that white people (and/or men) are the drivers of history and naturally belong in the center, and in charge of the future. (And in charge of defining terms like “white supremacist.”)
Because that was the social order they spent their formative years in, the social order they learned to operate in and the social order they believe they know how to live out the rest of their lives in—and raise their kids in. The only social order they’ve ever known.
They don’t hate the idea of not being at the center of the social order: They just can’t imagine it, exactly. That makes them feel dumb. And when grown-ups feel dumb, they feel scared. And when they feel scared, some of them behave defensively, dismissing white meditations like the one you’re reading as “woke virtue signaling.”
Now, if you define white supremacist like that, how many of us have to cop to white supremacist attitudes, if we’re being honest? I think it would be easier to count the number of us who can entirely declaim it.
But if we’re going to have a mainstream grappling with this kind of white supremacy, it does seem we need a new word that’s decoupled from another term that’s equivalent to, scum of the earth.
Which is different.