White supremacy isn’t harmless. But many Americans like to pretend it is.

It’s a new week in America, so we probably shouldn’t be surprised that Twitter has blown up with a picture of a majority-white class of teenage boys posing with the Seig Heil, a Nazi salute, dressed for what appears to be a school dance. Outside of a few boys, including one who confirmed he chose to abstain from doing the signal and that many of the classmates he was pictured with had bullied him for years, each was positively gleeful with joy in displaying a salute that recalls one of the most horrifying organizations in history, one which targeted Jews and other groups of people because of their identity, held them en masse in concentration camps, and systematically burned them alive.

What’s interesting to me is that the horrified uproar that launched on Twitter yesterday was actually a delayed response to the photo, and not one triggered by an act of literal violence–which is what usually forces the country to briefly face the consequences of white supremacist posturing. The photo of these students posing with the Nazi salute was released to the Baraboo community months and months ago. The photographer who took the picture (and who reportedly encouraged the boys to make the salute which he now claims was a ‘wave goodbye to parents’) had been displaying it on his website with no qualms. Parents had shared it on Facebook. Scores of adults were witness to this hearkening to one of the darkest periods of human history—to the point that they cheerfully helped spread it to their networks online—and evidently no one saw it as a problem that these boys were mirroring the markers of Nazis until a dude on Twitter questioned it.

It’s part of a larger pattern I’ve noticed in America, where people boldly communicate their support of race-based violence on all sorts of platforms (in New York Times interviews, on Twitter, on Gab, on Reddit) and witnesses to this—usually white people—bend over backwards to assure us that the implied and explicitly stated desires of the bigots—usually men—who virulently hate specific groups of people are nothing to worry about.

Friends of Dylan Roof, the white man who murdered 9 black people in a church in Charleston and had an online catalog of his genocidal fantasies, said the mass shooter “would talk about killing people, but none of us took him seriously.”

Cesar Sayoc, the Trump supporter who sent pipe bombs to a number of President Trump’s favorite public punching bags–including Jewish philanthropist George Soros, drove around in a van emblazoned with pictures of Democrats with red-targets over their faces, was known by his family and coworkers as a man who regularly sent racist texts, had run-ins with law enforcement due to previous bomb threats, and was asked to park his delivery van in a discreet area at the job where he worked earlier this year because, according to his former boss, it displayed:

“…puppets with their heads cut off, mannequins with their heads cut off, Ku Klux Klan, a black person being hung, anti-gay symbols, torchings, bombings, you name it, it was all over his truck,”

She added, “He always talked about ‘if I had complete autonomy none of these gays or these blacks would survive.”

The man who opened fire on a yoga class in California, killing two women and then himself, had shouted over and over again—seemingly into the void—about his violent inclinations. He publicly fantasized about molesting, raping, and killing women. He complained about ‘the invasion of Central American children’, admired the Toronto misogynist who shot 20 people because he couldn’t get a date, and recorded songs on Soundcloud like one called ‘Who let the F*gs’ out.  All over the internet, and in real life, he was positively brimming with the desire to have a human target on which to spend his rage.

I admit to being confounded by America’s steadfast adherence to free speech that often makes itself known most fervently when in defense of views that explicitly threaten the person-hood of huge swaths of people. Like the love of guns, the support of a theoretical ideal—that one should be able to say and wield whatever they want, no matter how abhorrent or dangerous—seems to hold more value here than the real human lives which are increasingly sacrificed for those inflexible rights.

We’ve seen white supremacy handled with a similarly indulgent approach; one where many are loathe to even admit it is inherently deadly. Like the school and parent community of Baraboo who did not initially interrogate why a group of boys carried out their best impression of Hitler Youth, the general response seems to be ‘boys will be boys’, as if flirting with white supremacy and reminiscences of genocide is just another benign adolescent phase, or a differing idea worthy of debate and reasoned consideration. Either way, nothing to really worry about and certainly nothing to proactively contain. Meanwhile, the real life implications of these beliefs are both festering and fatal:

  • Hate crimes have risen for the third year in a row. 
  • Our leaders have become bolder and bolder in employing rhetoric that dehumanizes whole groups of people by describing them as everything from dirt to infestations—which historically has preceded the forced elimination of people who’ve been similarly maligned.
  • The killings of Heather Hyer and the Emanuel nine, the recent shootings of randomly chosen black people in Louisville, the murderous attack on worshipers at a synagogue in Pittsburgh.

On the individual and institutional levels (including mainstream media outlets and the FBI, who has admitted it has no concerted strategy to address the rise of right-wing extremism, but has readily monitored groups like #BlackLivesMatter) the reaction to mostly white men saying plainly—over and over—that they are eager to use violence to assert their self-ascribed superiority in the social order has been decidedly timid.

My hypothesis is that, loathe as we are to admit it, the belief that whiteness inherently deserves precedence lies within many across this country. To acknowledge that that belief cannot be divorced from it’s logical ending throughout all of history: that non-whites should be subjugated, given less opportunities, brutalized, and their numbers regularly culled, forces the low-level racist to own their support of an ideology that is fundamentally evil. To have their cake and eat it too, to hold that white supremacy is just an alternative view, or even more disingenuously, a form of high-level comedy (or low-level, according to the ‘boys will be boys’ crowd) allows those who sympathize with racist beliefs to tell themselves they are separate from the deadly consequences of it.

But they aren’t blind to the fact that non-white people don’t get to escape the bullets of the men whose vile views they indulge, make excuses for, and rationalize away. They’re getting the end result they wanted—the terrorizing of minorities who arrogantly believe they have the right to equal opportunity and freedom from discrimination, to ascend to the schools, jobs, and neighborhoods that racists believe to be their birthright—while getting to pretend all they want is a safe space for white identity politics to be heard. They just want a little separate but equal, is that such a crime?

But white supremacy isn’t benign. It never has been, and never will be. It is invariably coupled with cowardice, and so its most pathetic proponents are driven to distance themselves from its inherently violent conclusions to convince themselves that they aren’t tacitly supporting attacks on humanity.

What those sympathetic bystanders fail to realize is that the race violence they stoke, wink at, and then disingenuously downplay won’t fit within clearly defined lines when it’s ready to devour whatever it needs to quench it’s thirst. It’s a little like Draco Malfoy in Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows when he sets a bewitched blaze to a room in hopes of harming those he deems lesser, and then almost loses his life in the flames himself. When the conflagration of radicalized, unhinged white rage takes its final shape of America, we’re all at risk for getting burnt. Even those who saw it coming and welcomed it with their silence.

 

The Audacity of Whiteness

People who are usually comfortable ignoring, downplaying, or just plain denying the existence of racial oppression are now co-opting the history of the oppressed to defend their own bigotry. It’s a sick hypocrisy that has reared its disingenuous head in the midst of one of the most inhumane actions taken by the US government in recent memory—the detainment of immigrant children after forced separation from their parents.

 

Lunch Counter protests
The ‘civility’ of the Civil Rights Era

 

Sarah Huckabee Sanders represents an administration that has implemented policies that specifically target people based on their race, national origin, sexual orientation, or faith. Sanders herself has stood at the podium in the White House Briefing Room doubling down on the administration’s defense of a baker who refused to serve a customer on the basis of his immutable identity—his sexuality. The President she serves has classed black men as sons of bitches, and many of his supporters take pleasure in reveling in their supposed racial superiority while alternately claiming racism is a figment of people’s imaginations. Republican policymakers have waxed nostalgic about the days of the confederacy while diminishing the horrors of chattel slavery—incredibly, even suggesting that the enslaved were happy with their lot. And the white moderate, who is more committed to “order” than to justice, has derided, stayed silent on, or been offended by the life and death urgency of the Black Lives Matter movement.

But a restaurant owner politely asks Sanders’ to leave their establishment due to the concerns raised by her LGBT staff, then comps the Press Secretary’s meal up to that point, and White political pundits begin evoking the most devastating experiences visited upon Black Americans in an aggrieved outcry. Arne Duncan, Education Secretary under the Obama Administration, had the gall to reference ‘the too raw, too real’ history of African Americans being denied use of public water fountains and bathrooms to decry Sanders’ apparently traumatizing experience. Jim Crow laws are now being weighed the same as marginalized people not wanting to serve a visible representative of state-sponsored bigotry. It’s not only absurd, it’s disgusting and offensive.

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Old white men, those erstwhile defenders of black people, have been falling over themselves to now identify with the struggle of African Americans in order to support Sanders. The fervency of this newfound ally ship is especially perplexing when it comes from old white Republican men. The self-righteousness of their outrage would lead you to believe they are also gravely concerned with the violence that agents of the state routinely visit upon black bodies. But that’s not the case. For too many, black pain and suffering is only worth mentioning when it can be used to protect against white people’s discomfort.

Martin Luther King Jr., who the prevailing narrative would wrongly suggest was the darling of white America when he was alive and disturbing the peace, has become a such crutch for people advocating for the tolerance of hatred that the practice could be its own meme. Last week a commentator on Fox News, the station that traffics in narratives about black people’s lack of gratitude for what this country has given them, suddenly cared about the quality of housing projects. Not due to a personal crusade to make the projects better for the human beings who reside in them, but because she was justifying the caging of brown children.

Let’s be clear: the very real and present systemic discrimination that takes place against people of color is not a file cabinet White America gets to rifle through when people of power are faced with the negligible consequences of their actions. The trauma of marginalized people is not your convenient cautionary tale when you’ve never been those people’s advocates or will never live their experiences. Equating the very civil treatment the White House Press Secretary received with the brutal water hosing, beating, and firebombing of black people is audacious in the way only whiteness can be. What it also confirms is the gulf of empathy that still exists between those with racial privilege and those without. To some, there are slight inconveniences people of privilege are expected to be above experiencing, and there is brutal treatment that people of color are implicitly expected to endure.

When the ‘It’ Factor is Less Melanin

Shenseea, a Jamaican performer on the verge of a breakthrough in the American mainstream, is the very embodiment of the specific kind of black woman the music industry and listening public embraces. She’s immensely talented, beautiful, charmingly irreverent, has a great stage presence and that particularly Jamaican knack for lyricism, and is light-skinned.

It’s the unspoken norm in American popular culture that the slang and sounds and trends that originate in the black community are more palatable to the consumer public when packaged behind a face with minimal melanin. Black men aren’t impacted by this as strongly as black women are, so while the Post Malones of the world rise to the top of the charts with what at best are facsimiles of rap music, so do the Migoses of America—who as Quavo so aptly put it are, “Black [men] with a lot of money, got the white man wanna off me.”

This conversation isn’t new, many before me have called out the music industry’s implicit and explicit biases against darker skinned women. One such a woman herself, rapper Azealia Banks, reignited it recently by pinning the consequences of colonialism, slavery, and racism on one individual—the light-skinned rap phenom Cardi B.

I have no intention of doing the same to Shensea or any individual artist who is a de facto beneficiary of systems and beliefs that have existed long before they were born. Banks’ disingenuous rants were fueled by her own bigotry and bitterness against anyone she encounters who is 1. A woman and/or 2. a person whose success she feels threatened by. But her attacks on Cardi B bore fruit because they were rooted in truth, a truth that Cardi herself has previously acknowledged. That, just as racism still permeates every inch of American culture, so does it’s offspring colorism. And because colorism is tied to white supremacist ideas of beauty, it most often makes itself known in the experiences of women.

Shenseea’s career is primed to take flight, and I have no qualms in admitting I eagerly await the global ascension of a fellow Jamaican. I take even more joy in knowing that Dancehall and Reggae will be rightfully claimed by one who is truly connected to those musical lineages, since the enchanting sounds Jamaica introduced to the world have too frequently been co-opted and repackaged by performers who just wear them as a costume.

But it has not escaped me that Shenseea’s mainstream success will add her to a long-list of black women at the top of popular music whose skin tone is what society has deemed attractive and most palatable. Her musical counterparts who are also of Caribbean heritage—Rihanna, Nicki Minaj, even Keida, another Jamaican singer who recently joined Shenseea on a track for Christina Aguilera’s new album—are not what you’d describe as melanin-rich. A similar pattern is also discernible in an overview of American-born popstars.

Though this pervasive discrimination has multiple consequences—including misplaced anger at its visible heirs in the music business—to me the real tragedy is the unknowable number of black women who have been robbed of their chance at success. Shallow (or bad faith) analyses will allege that the music industry is simply a meritocracy, and that society’s ingrained opposition to brown skin and blackness is a non-factor in the success of artists who are female. But the truth is, too many black women with musical ambitions have been sidelined, not because their talents were negligible but because their melanin was not. That this is still the status quo, in an industry consistently led by the artistry and contributions of the black race, is the saddest thing of all.