I contracted covid last weekend. I would be lying if I said I wasn’t at least a little afraid. There’s a personalization to the virus when covid is circulating in your own body. Still, I have health insurance and access to care. I have a loving spouse who is taking care of me. I can afford, in the long-term, to lose income while I’m recovering and off work. How many people infected in the last two years can say the same thing? I have immense privilege this week just being a middle-aged man in bed.
I’ve spent my entire life experiencing, incorporating, and rejecting aspects of white supremacy. Last month I read Tema Okun’s update to her long-cited handout, White Supremacy Culture. The revision, published in 2021, adds valuable context to the original document. She defines white supremacy as, “the ways in which the ruling class elite or the power elite in the colonies of what was to become the United States used the pseudo-scientific concept of race to create whiteness.”
White supremacy has done more than weave itself into the culture and laws of our society. It promotes disconnection and division between our culture and all aspects of life. White supremacy isolates itself from other cultures that share space with it. It separates and exploits the land, water, and air in ways that go beyond our borders and into space. It demands we treat everything outside of (and including) ourselves as worthy of exploitation.
In so many ways, white supremacy magnified the horrible effects of the pandemic. People in the thrall of this culture also continued to uphold and defend it during the pandemic. Here are three aspects of white supremacy culture (WSC) I’ve been thinking about the most in the past week. While I and others have written about them before, they are heavy on my mind right now.
sense of urgency
A sense of urgency in WSC happens in two ways. The first is in the disconnection of ourselves from the people around us. One way is by setting deadlines or resolutions to conflict on an individual scale. Okun describes the second way as a disconnect between us and our need to breathe, to take stock, to reflect. It doesn’t matter how complex the situation might be, people in power want it to end or change immediately.
Urgency has shown up in so many ways over the past two years. How many times has someone announced that the pandemic was over? Employers rushed their people back to work, to restaurants, to offices and bars. People are so desperate to get back to “normal” that those infected by covid are collateral damage. Politicians backed down from funding needs or providing tangible support. We pay taxes, in many ways, to this country. It’s not wrong to demand safety and protection in return.
Antidotes to urgency start with being realistic. Projects almost never happen on time or without unexpected issues. If we have committed to getting things right, we have to include the people we’ve ignored before. Memorial Day was the 4th-highest covid surge on record. With widespread access to at-home tests, the numbers might be even worse. People are understandably tired. Urgency without mindfulness only hurts more, costs more, and takes more time.
Okun describes individualism as our (white supremacist) cultural story. We can make it on our own without help from anyone. This has been untrue since the dawn of american society and even before then. Humans survived through connection and mutualism for millennia. Fossils of healed life-threatening injuries are but one proof of this. We survived as a species because for most of our existence we have helped others. Our extinction as a species may come about because so many have stopped.
Every step of the pandemic has been a trial of individualism. I wrote that white supremacy magnifies and magnified itself during the pandemic. Nowhere is that clearer than the protests about haircuts, about masks, about vaccines. People in WSC felt that their inconvenience outweighs the lives of people who serve them. It’s these individual choices, made en masse, that is a reason for why we’re still in this pandemic.
But decisions at a systems level set the stage for these personal decisions. The decision not to conduct a full lockdown at the start of the pandemic caused thousands of deaths. The decision to give vaccine first to countries that could pay for it caused millions more. WSC gives first priority to the needs of white people in the global north. This means that people in the global majority do not have the medical options we do here. It also means that people of color in our own country are at a higher risk of getting covid. They’re also have a higher chance of experiencing worse outcomes. WSC has declared time and again that those outcomes are a cost they are willing to pay.
Antidotes to individualism will take time. We have a deeply-rooted bootstraps mentality here. This view has infected every part of our lives. We need to emphasize the value of people who are Black, brown, or otherwise marginalized. We can create collective accountability to make sure everyone knows what’s going on. Everyone should know how decisions get made and why they get made the way they do.
Fear is at the heart of so much within WSC. Tema Okun writes, “White supremacy, white supremacy culture, and racism use fear to divide and conquer.” White supremacy intertwines with capitalism here. It concentrates “profit and power for a few at the expense of the many.”
Fear extends beyond and includes the pandemic. When we work to end white supremacy culture we go up against fear itself. Lots of people are comfortable with our current system. Change can spark in them the fear of the unknown. For centuries, the state and everything around them has existed for their comfort. It has always upheld and enshrined their beliefs. For people in white dominant culture, the state has always looked like them. It serves them. The face on the other side of most tables of power will look like them. The justice they receive will more likely be fair to them. They don’t need to know it’s there for it to work its magic.
john a. powell’s concept of bridging is where I’d begin as an antidote to this fear. We start with a framework of belonging. What does it mean to belong? How can we ensure belonging for all people? powell writes, “We are always both the same (humanity) and different (human). [We are also] multiple and dynamic, constantly renegotiating who we are.”
Fear is a strong emotion for me this week. I’m a superstitious former Catholic for whom omens are present in but do not occupy my mind. This week I worry that the thing that fells me could be the last thing that I write about. And I am well cared for! Yet the fear, the worry, is there nonetheless. I want to know if I can find common ground between our fears. I don’t know if it’s possible, to be honest I have my doubts, but I have to try.
The state exists to serve one group of people above all else. The state failed us all these past few years. It’s failed countless more for much, much longer. We cannot simply expand the net of supremacy to cover more groups. We need to rethink what it means to have safe communities for everyone. We need to find ways to trust and respect each other. It won’t always be easy. But it’s the only way to get us all to the same place.