Currently, almost everyone in the U.S. has been feeling the resonances of the white nationalist marches in Charlottesville, VA. In Introduction to Ethnic Studies, my students have been feeling them too. Many of my students were shocked, angry, and struggling to process why such a hateful event would take place within our borders. However, as a queer person of color with a working-class background, I had to tell them that I myself was not surprised.
As a person raised within the backdrop of multicultural education and colorblindness—where children are taught that the color of a person’s skin does not matter and that not seeing race ensures seeing each other as humans instead—I can see why many cannot fathom how our current moment of white nationalist revival came to be. We have been taught to view each other as equals. We have been taught that everyone living in the U.S. has the chance to succeed despite their difficult backgrounds and struggles early in life. We are continuously reminded that the U.S. is a democratic nation that values freedom, liberty, and justice. But we are not taught that this democracy was built on the backs of racialized and subjugated others—the racial chattel slavery of Africans, the genocide of Native Americans, U.S. colonization of the Philippines, the exclusion of Chinese and Japanese immigrants, and the exploitation of Mexican labor. And now, with Islamophobia, xenophobia, anti-blackness, and Zionism peaking, we should not be surprised with the election (and retention) of Donald Trump and the (now) visible white supremacists in our midst.
I was not surprised when people were quick to denounce Trump and his followers with statements like “This is not us!” and even “Fuck Nazis!” These statements are not difficult to say nor are they revolutionary. Even though the U.S. defeated Nazi Germany in WWII, we are quick to forget that in the 1940s, Jim Crow laws were disenfranchising, segregating, and lynching African Americans in the South and the U.S. government incarcerated Japanese Americans in concentration camps during the war. Yeah, fuck Nazi Germany, but let’s also interrogate how this country fucks up the lives of people of color in order to sustain this system of white supremacy and privilege. “Fuck Nazis!” obscures the reality of white supremacy and situates it in a long ago, no longer applicable past, despite the fact it remains a governing apparatus foundational to our nation. This is what white supremacy is: it is beyond the white individual and the daily racial mircroaggressions we may face. It is a system of power and domination, a system that determines opportunities and life chances. It includes ideological and cultural coercion, but also economic, juridical, and militarized violence. White supremacy is a hierarchal organizing logic that permeates the personal and the social, and converges through the local to the global (1). This is why everyone—not just white individuals—can be unaware and completely complicit under this system.
This shocked my students—the reality that people of color can tout and uphold white supremacist systems. I had to remind them that there were people of color who voted for Trump who also openly align themselves with his white supremacist logic. I had to remind them that people of color in the U.S. do commit violent acts like terrorism and join these white nationalist marches, but the conditions that make it so are far more complex than the desire to assimilate and benefit from white privilege. White supremacy is inherently and systemically toxic, a totality that functions not only as racial formation and aggression, but a structure that maintains and upholds U.S. nationalism. As non-white individuals, we learn that inclusion into this system involves not only complying with this toxic nationalism, but evoking and sometimes even exercising it through violence and dominance. This dominance is not only exercised through white supremacy, but also through a violent masculinity that resonates with white nationalist identity. This idea is rooted in the formation of the U.S. nation-state, with the masculinist, militarized violence exercised by U.S. leaders like Andrew Jackson, whose Indian Removal/Genocidal project was also made possible through the sexual violence and death of Native American women (2). Thus, it is no coincidence that the vast majority of Charlottesville marchers were white men, and it is no coincidence that most U.S. terrorists are also men who exhibit this violent masculinity evoked in part by U.S. national identity. We forget that it is not only race that informs our current moment of white nationalist revival—gender and nationality also play a role in this matrix. Scholar Steven Salaita reminds us of this within the context of the 2015 San Bernardino shootings in regards to the shooter, Syed Farooq, being a devout Muslim:
“Guessing the identity of shooters—black or white, Christian or Muslim, man or woman (though masculinity is almost guaranteed)—has become a vicious social media ritual…You seem to be under the impression that a Muslim shooter absolves the United States of brutality, forgetting that Farooq is also an American…But we must acknowledge Farooq’s nationality, because his terrible deed does not arise from an unknowable foreign culture, but from one endemic to the United States.”
Salaita reminds us why it is important for us to think intersectionally—that we cannot just examine these terrible events through the single lens of white supremacy or denomination, gender, nationality (and the fervent nationalism that makes up this national identity), and other realities must be taken into account if we are to understand the historical, social, and systemic totality of white supremacy. If we are to truly tackle and put an end to white supremacy, we need to interrogate its permeation not only with the Charlottesville marchers, but with our neighbors, classmates, acquaintances, and even family members—who justify white nationalism’s resurgence. And this is why stating “Fuck Nazis!” or even “Fuck white supremacy!” cannot always be a revolutionary act. It obscures the work we have to do within ourselves—and within our communities—in interrogating and dismantling our own complicity.
(1) Definition of white supremacy summarized from Dylan Rodriguez’s “‘I Would Wish Death on You…:’ Race, Gender and Immigration in the Globality of the U.S. Prison Regime.”
(2) See Andrea Smith’s “Sexual Violence as Tool of Genocide” to learn further about the link between U.S. settler colonialism and sexual violence.