Only for the Brave? Uncovering White Supremacy

Layla Saad provides a month-long approach to uncovering racism.

Posted May 02, 2020

Layla Saad seeks to become a good ancestor. She drew wide attention for her efforts at dealing with white supremacy through a month-long Instagram challenge. She wrote out the plans, activities, and explanation in her book, Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor. People can follow the daily challenge she designed.

Saad contends that everyone in a racist society is infected with white supremacy. She defines white supremacy as:

“... A racist ideology that is based upon the belief that white people are superior in many ways to people of other races and that therefore, white people should be dominant over other races.” (Saad, 2020, p. 12)

White supremacy is not just an attitude but conditioning and institutionalization that affects virtually all the structures of society, giving unearned protection, power, and privilege to a subset of humanity. It is infused into Western European and American culture and forays into the world where Western ways are presumed to be inherently superior to any other socio-political designs, no matter how many decades or centuries or millennia the other designs have been around (e.g., British taking over and remaking India).

Her work is for anyone who benefits from white privilege, including light-skinned people of color: “Interrogate your complicity within a system of privilege that is only designed to benefit you to the extent that you can conform to the rules of whiteness” (p. 16).

Saad focuses on the personal/individual level of transformation. The main goal is to benefit BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color).

Saad tells us that to do the work of self-examination, each person needs their truth, their love, and their commitment. This is not just a mental exercise, or one to make you feel good in the end (though you may feel healed). The exercises demand a commitment to justice, love for BIPOC, and deep honesty about one's privilege. You do the work because it is the right thing to do.

When you do the work, be prepared for all sorts of feelings to arise: confusion, fear, anger, anxiety, grief, remorse, and shame. Be prepared for the desire to discredit the whole enterprise, to run away physically or emotionally. You may feel the urge to list all the ways you are good and don’t need to go through the exercises.

What is needed to go through the work (and it is work) with several techniques:

  • Keep a journal and go at your own pace.
  • Stick to your personal experiences (not jumping to societal or group level issues).
  • She suggests that the first time through, an individual should go sequentially. The next time, move through the prompts intuitively. (Yes, more than one time is a good idea.)
  • Work alone or with a group.
  • Keep asking questions about your history and your reactions.
  • Remember that the shame, guilt, and pain you may feel is much less than that of BIPOC who have lived under oppression.
  • Most importantly, make sure to have plans for self-care because the process can be painful. It is like meditation, where you uncover layer upon layer of weaknesses (growing stronger in doing so) in order to reach your true self—the unobstructed wise self we all carry.

Each of Saad's topics has a set of questions about how the topic shows itself in your life.

Here is the first week of topics, how they have been defined, and sample questions to ask about each.

White Privilege: See Peggy McIntosh's list here. Sample questions: Reflect on your own life and what privileges you have, how these privileges have protected you throughout your life.

White Fragility is the inability to withstand the slightest pressure regarding one's whiteness. It is manifest in reactions where white people react like the victim (leaving a conversation about racism; calling authorities because of discomfort when a BIPOC is doing something, even getting into his own car; taking attention from the discrimination for their feelings to be quelled). Sample questions: How does white fragility show up in your conversations about race? Do you fight, freeze, or flee? Does hearing the words "white people" make you feel uncomfortable?

Tone Policing occurs when a white person indicates that the BIPOC is too angry or aggressive in their speech, or when the white person dismisses their comments because of their tone. Sample questions: Have you used tone policing to shut down or dismiss BIPOC? How often has your willingness to do antiracist work depended on people using the "right" tone with you?

White Silence refers to white people not speaking up against racism or supporting anti-racism publicly. Sample questions: What kinds of situations evoke the most silence from you? How might your silence be complicit in upholding racist behavior?

White Superiority is one of the core aspects of white supremacy. It is an implicit bias favoring everything white and behaving accordingly.

White Exceptionalism references the belief that you are not conditioned to be racist, that “you are one of the good ones.” You “have black friends” or “voted for Obama” so therefore you don’t have to do the deep dive that these exercises require. A key question in reflecting on your life: In what ways have you consciously or subconsciously believed that you are better than BIPOC?

White Centering comes later in Saad’s 28-day list of white supremacy characteristics. I find this one too to be a stumbling block among psychologists and academics who take their world view as the “real” one. White/European centering is infused in most media, school textbooks, and educational programs, no matter the discipline. Sample questions: How is your worldview a white-centered one?

Additional topics include: White Apathy, Tokenism, White Saviorism, Optical Allyship, Being Called Out/Called In, Feminism, Leaders, Your Family, Your Values, Losing Privilege, and Your Commitments.

After going through Saad's topics with full self-examination, it is easier to see how racism affects our attitudes, preferences, and behavior, even those of us who are light-skinned BIPOC.

Here are some additional online tools to help with the process of self-examination and transformation.

References

Saad, L. (2020). Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor. Naperville, IL: Sourcebooks.