Dictionary definition: the belief that white people are superior to those of all other races and should therefore dominate society.
Antiracist definition: beliefs, behaviors, or systems which perpetuate white privilege
The dictionary definition of ‘white supremacy’ associates it with a belief in white superiority. In contrast, antiracists construe ‘white supremacy’ to refer to any system, practice, expectation, or norm which has the effect of privileging whites over others independent of beliefs about superiority or inferiority.
“When race emerged in human history, it formed a social structure (a racialized social system) that awarded systemic privileges to Europeans (the peoples who became ‘white’) over non-Europeans (the peoples who became ‘nonwhite’). Racialized social systems, [or] white supremacy for short, [are] the totality of the social relations and practices that reinforce white privilege.” – Eduardo Bonilla-Silva, Racism without Racists, p. 9
“Race scholars use the term white supremacy to describe a sociopolitical economic system of domination based on racial categories that benefits those defined and perceived as white.” – Robin DiAngelo, White Fragility, p. 30
“Young says that when white people use their emotions as a weapon against people of color, it’s a form of white supremacy.”
– Leah Donnella, “When the ‘White Tears’ Just Keep Coming”, NPR, Nov. 28, 2018
First, antiracists are right to call attention to the fact that ‘white supremacy’ (understood in the traditional sense) has been entrenched in the laws and institutions of the United States. The belief that whites really were a superior race of human beings has deep historical roots. We should recognize this shameful legacy.
Second, through their definition of ‘white supremacy,’ antiracists are trying to shine light on real phenomena, such as the fact that white Americans are disproportionately represented at the highest levels of virtually every significant segment of our culture. Whites are overrepresented at the highest levels of government, in business, in law enforcement, in medicine, and in academia. There is also a tremendous wealth gap between whites and blacks. Moreover, racial discrimination did not end with the Civil Rights Movement. Modern studies have consistently shown significant racial discrimination in hiring, housing, and other areas.
Third, antiracists are correct that the assumption that white culture or ethnicity is ‘normal’ and that other cultures or ethnicities as ‘exotic’ or ‘unusual’ permeates our culture.
The main problem with the antiracist definition of ‘white supremacy’ is that it is overly broad, conflating a number of distinct issues. For example, using the antiracist definition, both the Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan and Senator Bernie Sanders can rightly be accused being influenced by ‘white supremacy.’ Similarly, according to the antiracist definition of ‘white supremacy’, the Confederacy, South Africa under apartheid, and the 21st century United States during Obama’s presidency were all nations dominated by ‘white supremacy.’
My concern is that this definition will backfire. Instead of convincing whites that ‘white supremacy’ is far more subtle and insidious than they thought, I suspect that most whites will see the claim that “Bernie Sanders supports white supremacy” as a demonstration of the absurdity of the antiracist movement.
There is also an important qualitative distinction between a person who believes that “whites are the master race” and a person who sees white culture as ‘normal.’ The former is holding an immoral belief while the latter could be merely expressing the parochialism that’s typical of virtually every culture in human history. The fact that my white wife drew stares when she visited India is no indication that Indians are in the throes of Indian supremacy.
The inability to draw obvious qualitative distinctions is a major shortcoming of the antiracist definition. At the end of the day, labeling nearly everything as a form or vestige of ‘white supremacy’ will dilute the term to the extent that people will no longer take it seriously. I recommend retaining the traditional definition of ‘white supremacy,’ which associated it with immoral belief and behavior. For antiracists who desire to call attention to the way in which systems or behaviors can subtly perpetuate racial stereotypes or disparities, I would suggest choosing a different term like ‘racialized social systems’ or ‘racial ideology which privileges whites.’