‘White racism, white supremacy, white privilege and the social construction of race

Omowale Akintunde, Multicultural Education v. 7 no. 2 (Winter 1999)

Racism is a systemic, societal, institutional, omnipresent, and epistemologically embedded phenomenon that pervades every vestige of our reality. For most whites, however, racism is like murder: the concept exists but someone has to commit it in order for it to happen. This limited view of such a multilayered syndrome cultivates the sinister nature of racism and, in fact, perpetuates racist phenomena rather than eradicates them. Further, this view of racism disguises its true essence, thus allowing its tenets to proliferate.

Racism conceived of in this way ignores the societal, systemic, institutional, and political institutions which both overtly and inherently ensure minority subjugation and protect white privilege. When racism is regarded in this way, it also helps white society to erect defense mechanisms to ignore its direct implication and involvement in the maintenance of white racism, white privilege, and the construction of “other.” After all, if racism is conceived of as the conscious employment of certain acts, using certain taboo terms (i.e., nigger, spic) and one does not consciously perform “racist” acts or utter certain taboo terms, then one can reasonably assert that one is not a racist.

This notion suggests that racism is an abstract hypothetical that functions outside of our human and social systems and that without conscious human choice cannot occur. This notion of racism and American society is illustrated in Conceptual Model 1 (see below).

Another view of racism in America, however, is that it is a phenomenon constructed by Americans socially defined as “White,” and that its primary role is to ensure that group’s primacy to the exclusion of all others at whatever cost. This view of racism refutes the notion that racism is an abstract hypothetical that exists outside of the social milieu that requires conscious and deliberate acts to manifest. Further, this view asserts that racism is integrally and inextricably bound to all of our “human” and social processes and that, in fact, American society itself is a function of racism and lies imbedded in racist ideology. This notion of racism and American society is illustrated in a Conceptual Model 2 (see below).

Racism is thus perceived of as abstract hypothetical cause for the emergence of other fallacious syndromes. If racism is perceived as functioning outside of societal processes and as having to be consciously chosen and enacted to become concrete reality then racism in theory can be practiced by anyone. That is, “non-Whites,” too, may engage in practicing racism and thus Whites themselves may be victims of racism.

Such a notion is exactly how racism is mostly perceived in American society, so that the possibility of deconstructing White supremacy, the progenitor and true underlying problem of racism and racist ideology, does not become the focus of racial investigation. That the entire infrastructure of American society is based upon and emanates from the Western canon; that European Americans raped the continent and decimated its indigenous peoples, instituted a system of society- and government-sanctioned chattel slavery for over three centuries; that the present population that is deemed “White” is still benefiting from these systems and institutions; these, it appears, are all points to be ignored.

By ignoring the historical specificity of the construction of race by “Whites,” as a tool to ensure that group’s supremacy and subsequent degradation of “others,” and by promoting the concept of racism as abstract hypothetical, White society not only can ensure that the system of White supremacy remains intact but can, in fact, successfully create smoke screens that actually implicate “others” in the maintenance of such a system.

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10 thoughts on “‘White racism, white supremacy, white privilege and the social construction of race

  1. Pingback: The Importance of Questions « alicia dk

  2. Yay! An argument that the term “white supremacy” continues to apply to American society. That’s always good to see. I also like the explanation here of how mainstream framings of “racism” obscure the ongoing fact of white supremacy. Thanks for posting this.

  3. Pingback: White Racism, White Supremacy, White Privilege and the Social Construction of Race | illvox: anarchist people of color, race, anarchy, revolution

  4. I am a European, not a North American. I have spent a long time in subjective introspection upon the question, “Am I a racist?”. This is what I have discovered. I am a Europeanist, not a racist. I feel comfortable and at home with all native Europeans regardless of race or religion be they white, brown, yellow, and black in complexion, as long as their ancestors have lived in Europe for generations. I do not feel comfortable with white people who are natives of Asia and Africa (yes, some African native are white). Being a European is like belonging to a huge inter-faith and inter-racial family. The trouble arises when Europeans are judged from North American Standards, for example I do not like Chines people, but yes! I do like native Europeans of the yellow race. When I am with Chinese people I want to get away from them as soon as possible, but I like yellow Eurofolk.

  5. I would like to add that I find Indian religions very interesting because they are like the kind of religion that we used to have in Europe before Christianity. Greco-Roman paganism was at a disadvantage because Zeus was the typical dirty old man archetype, but the North European gods of the Teutons, Celts, and Slavs were clean living and heroic. The Prussian ‘Kultur Kampf’ was very helpful in reviving paganism. Christian missionary activity has poisoned relations between Hindus, etc., and non-Christian Europeans. The ‘haus frau’ was a Christian invention, for an example of a liberated pagan women read Njal’s Saga. Also the Witchcraft Cult, witchcraft was not illegal in England and Wales until Henry V, so there is a huge amount of genuine historical evidence about this fascinating feminist cult that empowered women accross Europe.

  6. Linked via tumblr using the first paragraph as a pull quote about racism being system but some (a lot of) whites seeing racism as actions committed. I saw this and it completely blew my mind, because it totally explains a lot of incredibly frustrating discussions I’ve had because people are talking past each other. Now the trick is to convince someone that racism ISN’T just specific committed acts.

    Thank you so much for writing this, I’m sharing the link on my fb. Food for thought.

  7. Oh my goodness! Awesome article dude! Thanks, However
    I am experiencing difficulties with your RSS.
    I don’t understand why I cannot join it. Is there anyone else having similar RSS issues? Anybody who knows the solution will you kindly respond? Thanks!!

  8. I was onboard until you said whites can be victims of racism because they simply cannot. Racism refers to prejudices imposed by an institution (e.g. the white establishment) and people of color just do not have the institutional power to be racist against white people. Of course they can have prejudices against whites and discriminate against them, but that in no way will ever equate to the racism imposed from the institution of white people unto PoC. It’s the same exact logic that makes the men’s rights movement complete bullsh*t: because women do not have the institutional power over men to impose sexism. So, no, sorry, you’re wrong on that one.

  9. Where do Ulster / ‘Northern Ireland’ Catholics (‘Taigs’) come into this? We were second class citizens because we were ethnically sub-standard…

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