Our default setting: the audacity of white supremacy

The morning after last week’s U.S. Capitol Insurrection, my 6-year-old, Keziah, and I went on a mommy-daughter date to celebrate the end of winter break. We laid out an adorable picnic near a pond, played a game of Candyland, and giggled as the ducks ducked their heads underwater and helped clean one another’s feathers.

Last time we were at this park, we were enjoying watching the ducks in and around the pond. Keziah was walking up as close as she could to them, enjoying studying them. When she’d get close, they’d often scurry back into the water.

Near us, there was an older white woman throwing bread for them to eat. In a rude, impatient voice, she snipped at Keziah: “Stop chasing them away! I’m trying to feed them!” First of all, the audacity to take that tone with not even a fellow adult, but a 6-year-old.

Second of all, from what I could recall, feeding bread to the ducks is not even allowed. But not seeing any signage in that immediate area to point her to, I simply said, “Ma’am, she’s a child” and moved on.

But my mind went straight to that incident in reflecting on the armed white men who stormed our nation’s Capitol Building.

Whether or not our little duck-feeding incident was racially motivated, the analogy to white supremacy is spot-on: a person asserting their dominion and self-defined rules over a space that should be available to everyone, while at the same time excusing themselves from any rules laid out for the common good.

White people, this is our default setting.

Our education and life experiences have taught us to take up space, ignoring the harm caused to those whom we bump in the process. They have convinced us of our “rightness” and, at the same time, have assured us that the rules don’t apply to us. We will spend a lifetime unlearning this. No matter where we are on our journeys of racial justice advocacy, I hope we don’t walk away from yesterday’s display of unabashed white supremacy without continued introspection. When I enter a metaphorical room, do I look to see who may have been squeezed out? Do I stop and interrogate myself when I theorize in my head about how BIPOC activists “could have said/done that differently”? Do I justify ways in which my privilege has allowed me to bypass rules that my BIPOC friends must adhere to?

Food for thought. I will also shared some words on the topic from Brittany Packnett Cunningham — the most spot-on take on last week’s events that I’ve heard thus far:

“This is the literal example of white supremacy. What does white supremacy mean? It means that white people believe that they have dominion over everybody and dominion over everything; that they are, in fact, supreme. So we saw a group of white people, of white supremacists here, thinking that they own a country that they colonized and therefore they can do whatever they want with it. They think they can storm any building in that country because they believe they own it. They think that they can erect a noose on the side of a building that was built by enslaved Africans in America because they think they have full permission to do so — and did so on camera because they knew the police would do nothing about it. But they do not own this country. They do not own democracy. They do not own us. They are tragically confused, and we will not be intimidated, despite the fact that police did not hold the line today.”

On white exceptionalism

Last May, I had just finished a wonderful book (Untamed by Glennon Doyle) and so, in true stalker fashion, Facebook started giving me all kinds of ads about it. One was a book club enthusiastically describing Glennon (a white woman) as “the” voice of today’s women. A Latina woman commented to the effect of “um, I doubt it…” and my “helpful” self felt compelled to respond (despite typically swearing off internet comments sections, ha!) I said, “I totally respect if you only read authors of color, but just so you know, Glennon ‘gets it’. Her longest chapter is about racism. I’d invite you to give it a chance.” Cool — I’d prefaced my perspective with a respectful and honest intro so I was good, right?

Another commenter of color swooped in and, very bluntly, said “you didn’t acknowledge what she was saying. You dismissed it.” Y’all, I was HURT! My gut reaction (my “flesh,” to put it in Christian-ese) said, “this woman’s correcting ME?! Super-woke, grew up around Black folk, lifelong activist Ellie?! Surely not! You don’t know me! I ‘get it’!”

Layla Saad, in Me & White Supremacy, calls that “white exceptionalism.” We all think it’s someone else — that white supremacy has not poisoned sweet, good, little ol’ me. Which is why we want to pretend Amy Cooper was some far-right Trump supporter, or why, in times like these, we frantically send whatever signals we can that “I’m one of the good ones!”

We do this because it hurts to recognize the racism inside of us. I emphasize this so that, as we embark on exploring our white identity (as many white folks did last summer), we wouldn’t stop when we feel the pain. Because it will come. It hurts our pride, our self-image. But it’s necessary.

I got called out by a stranger on Facebook. And my stomach clenched, and my heart rate increased, and I had my fingers ready to pen a super-smart response defending myself and my “woke credentials.” And then I took a deep breath and read her words again. And I realized that she was right. This woman’s comment was a critique of a culture that centers white voices and treats others as invisible. Instead of honoring and amen-ing that, I expressed the “well-meaning, paternalistic, white liberal” version of what she was critiquing in the first place.

I share this as just one small example of how much is waiting for us to unearth and reflect upon, if we are willing to peel back the layers of our social conditioning. We can educate ourselves ‘til kingdom come about history and the Black experience in America, which we absolutely must do. But if we don’t do this crucial work of exploring our own identity, our own whiteness, our own poisoning by white supremacy, we will only have head knowledge, which won’t lead us (as white folk) to transformation. Head knowledge may change our actions, but introspection changes who we are. Actions ebb and flow based on circumstances. Who we are — how we show up in our daily lives and the actions that spring from that — is what will impact society over the long haul.

As Layla Saad puts it in her introduction,

“This work is not about those white people ‘out there’. It is about you. Just you.”