This is an op-ed by Agunda Okeyo, a writer, producer, filmmaker, and activist, currently serving as the Communications Chair for the March for Racial Justice.
At the end of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke pointedly about white supremacy:
"Somebody told a lie one day," he said as the congregation rustled out of frame. "They couched it in language, they made everything black, ugly and evil. Look in your dictionary and see the synonyms of the word 'black'. It's always something degrading and low and sinister; look at the word 'white'. It's always something pure, high and clean. But I want to get the language right tonight. I want to get the language so right that everybody here will cry out, YES I'm black, I'm proud of it, I'm black and beautiful!"
If the sentiment of black self-love from Dr. King surprises you, that is white supremacy at work. We often remember Dr. King as a man who would say the word "negro" rather than "black"; a man who never claimed black self-love or called out white supremacy as a lie. Until the murder of Trayvon Martin, the nation preferred to remember Dr. King in much the same light we view President Barack Obama-- as a magical negro whose prominence ended white supremacy without ever having to name it.
Dr. King was a man with a dream and President Obama wanted us to say, "Yes we can." Both of these trailblazers had a certain magnanimity that white America could latch onto to save them from the pain of acknowledging their complicity in white supremacy. Dr. King ultimately embraced black power while he was fighting to unite diverse poor people across America. And then, he was murdered.
You see, a funny thing happened on the way to America getting woke-- we never did.
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According to the ideology of white supremacy, white people are superior to everyone and in particular black people. As Dr. King masterfully illustrates, whiteness is only superior with a foil and that is blackness. Without black denigration, there is no white supremacy.
Today, hearing the powerful words, "Black Lives Matter" stirs up a similar reaction for many people-- that, like Dr. King's misremembered legacy, the words are enough and black people once again will give their lives so that white people will not have to sacrifice anything personally in the struggle to dismantle systemic racism in America. That's how white supremacy operates: two steps forward, one step back, and a lifetime of white America never owning the legacy of white supremacy.
"Here, white supremacy isn't an anomaly, it's the norm. We must understand that most people who perpetuate white supremacy are not extremists."
In order to work towards racial justice, we must first all understand what white supremacy truly is-- both an ideology and a tactic of social control that has plagued the United States since its birth. Here, white supremacy isn't an anomaly, it's the norm. We must understand that most people who perpetuate white supremacy are not extremists. The majority are people we grew up with: our neighbors, co-workers, and even friends. Most white people can't see how they are complicit in white supremacy, probably because it's an overwhelming realization.
When we conflate white supremacy with white nationalism, extremism becomes the only form of white supremacy which we recognize and are expected to denounce. The young men who paraded through a Virginia town with tiki torches and finely pressed khakis were products of white supremacy: white nationalists, alt-right, Nazis, Klansman and the like. You don't have to wear a white hood to be a white supremacist-- it's often much more subtle than that. If we only define white supremacy by its obvious disciples, the larger and more rampant disease of white supremacy is given more room to grow.
If we strive to become a just nation-- one where policies and practices don't hasten inequality and dehumanize people of color, women, LGBTQIA+ folks, and the poor-- we have to accept that systemic inequality is propped up by all of white America and not just aggressors with weapons and hoods. Only when our white sisters and brothers begin to unravel this insidious thread and refuse to be complicit in it will we defeat white supremacy.
People of color have been leading the charge for generations and that work continues in Washington, D.C. on September 30, where we've organized the March for Racial Justice. We ask that white people to join us in the fight against white supremacy en masse.
White supremacy is a hell of a drug. Though it's intoxicating to exploit the liberties of whiteness in perpetuity, our ethical obligation is to create a more perfect union. Will you continue to feed into hate or march with us for freedom?