Dismantling White Supremacy

Core Concepts

White Supremacy

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Whiteness is a worldview, internalized at an early age as a member of society. Growing up white in a society built on white supremacy, one learns to become white, and it feels natural. This whiteness, which is fundamentally a racist identity, is invisible to those of us who possess it. We need to unlearn it. Unfortunately the way most of us unlearn involves injuring people of color in the process as we thrash about. The fear of being labeled “racist” stems from a host of privileges, and a Judeo-Christian moral understanding that focuses on individual intentions (whether or not we mean to be racist). Leaving “intentions” aside, we profit from the privilege being white affords us. Whiteness as identity and oppression is systematic, sitting atop other so-called Western beliefs such as individualism and universalism.

Identity Politics

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First articulated by the Combahee River Collective, identity politics was originally posed as a challenge to binary, “either/or” thinking. As asserted in the 1977 CRC Statement, “We believe that the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity, as opposed to working to end somebody else’s oppression.”

Structural Violence

Johan Galtung introduced the term structural violence in his 1969 essay Violence, Peace, and Peace Research. Structural Violence refers to a form of violence wherein some social structure or social institution may harm people by preventing them from meeting their basic needs; according to Galtung, rather than conveying a physical image, structural violence is an “avoidable impairment of fundamental human needs.”


Anthropologist Faye Harrison used Gernot Köhler’s concept of “structural violence” to detail the ways in which neoliberal globalization and associated policies such as structural adjustment, and development projects such as “free trade zones,” result in death in Jamaica. Harrison noted how structural violence particularly harms low-income Jamaican women. In a later text, anthropologist Paul Farmer built on Johan Galtung’s use of the same term to analyze the deadly grip of international, and particularly U.S., policy toward Haiti. State violence is structural violence.

Institutional racism

Institutional racism—a term coined by Black Power activist Stokely Carmichael (later named Kwame Ture) and a colleague—impacts not only Black lives but Black bodies. Anthropologist Orisanmi Burton writes, “Not only does inhabiting a Black body increase the likelihood that someone will die from direct (state) violence, it also mediates processes of ‘slow death.’ Race impacts the quality of air we breathe; the levels of toxins we are exposed to; the quality of food we have access to; and the likelihood that we will develop chronic diseases such as asthma, diabetes, heart disease, cancers, and HIV.” The pollution of the water system in the impoverished, Black-majority city of Flint, Michigan, is an example of environmental racism perpetrated by the state. African Americans are more than 1.5 times less likely than “non-Hispanic whites” (the official federal term) to have health insurance, and this disparity grows over the life cycle. This means, among other things, that African Americans are twice as likely as European Americans to die as infants. In other words, as Burton demonstrates, racism has biological impacts, a point W. E. B. Du Bois argued in 1899. Given all this—institutional power and its reproduction of inequalities—one does not have to intend to be racist to act in a way that is racist, doing harm, reproducing structures of racial inequality. Sociologist Eduardo Bonilla-Silva described this as “racism without racists.”

Chapter Overview

While an anthropological imagination can help us identify specific connections between various local injustices and help construct the scaffolding of solidarity politics, it also underscores the point powerfully articulated by the Combahee River Collective, succinctly stated by #BlackLivesMatter cofounder Alicia Garza, “When Black people get free, everybody gets free.” Dismantling the institutional racism that devalues Black lives will make visible and start to unravel other forms of oppression that are entwined therein, such as climate change and xenophobia …. Pulling at this loose thread of racism requires action at all levels at once, from the global capitalist economy to the police state it actively supports and grows alongside it to the ways in which our own lives are complicit.

An anthropological imagination helps us

  1. Defend the importance of specificity in our struggles and the necessity of supporting marginalized identity politics.
  2. An anthropological imagination not only helps us highlight the strategic alliances we can form in a principled, identity-affirming solidarity politics, but also shows us that racism and white supremacy are core injustices created by the capitalist world economy.
  3. Racism or white supremacy is the fulcrum on which other inequalities rest. In effect, humanity learned this mass dehumanization on enslaved Black bodies and murdered Indigenous bodies.
  4. As such, dismantling racism is and should be at the heart of all struggles for humanity’s liberation.
  5. While particular struggles are connected, it’s also necessary to look at their specificities and begin in the local context of struggle.
  6. While humans have always been sorted into in-groups and out-groups, race and racism are products of global capitalism, particularly its genesis in plantation slavery.
  7. Dismantling structural racism and white supremacy entails a radical overhaul of the historical systems of oppression that marginalize others. We need to pay attention to how our lives and cultures are complicit in these systems.
  8. A world without white supremacy allows for solidarity between peoples, greater equality of opportunity, and better distribution of resources.
  9. Repressive state violence is called upon and legitimated to maintain the current obscene and criminal inequality.
  10. Subsequent movements, like the gay liberation movement, adopted the language, concepts, tactics, and strategies of the civil rights movement, just like tactics and strategies of the abolition movement were adopted by the (first wave) feminist movement. So, truly, the liberation of Black people provides tools for the liberation of humanity as a whole.

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We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy.

From Combahee River Collective Statement.