Understanding white supremacy beyond the far-right and the Daily Mail

Police outside Masjid Al-Noor.

In the wake of last Friday’s terror attacks in Christchurch, it has become embarrassingly clear that Muslims haven’t really understood the multi-faceted nature of white supremacy, writes Dr Sadia Habib

After the grief of Friday’s terror attack at two mosques in Christchurch, Muslims around the world have been mourning, reflecting and processing how this atrocity occurred.

More than ever before, we must urgently read and learn about the basics of how race, racism and white supremacy operate.

What is white supremacy?

The opening words of Charles W. Mills’ The Racial Contract introduce us to the meaning, function and nature of white supremacy as an ‘unnamed political system that has made the modern world what it is today’ (p1).  Mills details at length which theories you will encounter in your politics and philosophy textbooks, and it won’t be about the system of white supremacy.

Moreover, what we must never forget is that this ‘omission’ is ‘not accidental’: ‘standard textbooks and courses have for the most part been written and designed by whites, who take their racial privilege so much for granted that they do not even see it as political, as a form of domination’ (p1).

What is the function of racism?

Where, why and how is white supremacy pervasive in our world?

These are core questions we should be visiting and re-visiting.

Beyond far right racism

There are different ways we might begin to try and understand how Christchurch could have happened.  Comprehending what happened is incumbent on us all who yearn for a world without Islamophobia. We can’t simply bury our heads in the sand, and leave the few to speak up against rising Islamophobia. That’s not the Islamic way.

Christchurch massacre suspect Brenton Tarrant

Some have been reading through the killer’s manifesto – The Great Replacement – to try and make sense of what led to this unthinkable act of violence against Muslims.

That alone is not enough. It’s far too easy to blame far right extremists for white supremacy.

We need to move beyond focusing on far right racist rhetoric.  We need to do more than boycott the tabloid gutter press, like the Daily Mail.

We can’t just keep on sharing those clever memes and infograms that rightly highlight how mainstream media perpetually represents Black people as ‘thugs’, Muslims as ‘terrorists’, and Whites as a ‘lone wolf’.

BBC Newsnight platforming Islamophobes

Of course, we must keep on interrogating how the mainstream media is complicit in emboldening the far right, in normalising far right White supremacists, in readily giving extremist White racists a platform.

On the very day that the Muslim Ummah was grieving globally about Christchurch, popular news and current affairs television programme, BBC Newsnight, invited Generation Identity onto the show.

When criticised for airing White supremacist Islamophobes, BBC Newsnight attempted very badly to defend their poor decision as being in the interests of anti-racism: “It is important we examine and challenge ideologies that drive hate crimes in a wider context, whether they have been distorted, and the connection they may have with any European or UK groups.” And yet the big complaints made on social media by viewers were that not only was this an insult to the grief of Muslims, but that worse yet, there was no critique.

And that’s how white supremacy works – in the case of BBC Newsnight, we see how whiteness operates to serve and protect white supremacist thinking, ironically under the guise of faux anti-racism.  Are savvy enough to recognise this and tackle this?

Invisible Muslims

Where are we failing when it comes to knowing how white supremacy operates? Moving beyond the aforementioned examples of the Islamophobia of far right extremism and the mainstream media, more importantly, we must also dissect the invisibility of Muslims.

White supremacy doesn’t just perpetuate negative representations of Muslims, it also works in cunning and strategic ways to promote the positive representation of white actors, at the expense of Muslims.

Muslims are either painted as villainous, or they are erased. White supremacy isn’t just about Muslims being vilified in the media, whilst whiteness is typically glorified or vindicated. It’s way more than that.

It’s our responsibility to learn what constitutes whiteness and how it reigns supreme in multi-faceted ways.

EggBoy and PM Jacinda Ardern

Think deeply about the humanisation of whiteness – of white terrorists, white racists, white politicians, white pretty-much-everyone.  Even that young boy who we can’t help but cheer on – EggBoy.

Of course it’s very easy to commend EggBoy and the NZ PM Jacinda Ardern. Muslims and all seem to be understandably bowled over by the compassion of these two and their actions in our names.

But racism operates in such insidious ways that the media will keep on reproducing these actors as white saviours, again at the expense of the Muslim saviours and Muslim victims.

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern

Much as we might admire EggBoy and Jacinda, we must continue to ask questions about why Muslims aren’t at the forefront of positive media attention.They very rarely are. If they are, we feel we are expected to feel relieved, excited or grateful.

Why are Muslim victims not humanised in painstaking detail, as White victims of terror and even White terrorists are? Think Manchester. Think Je suis Charlie. Think about the killer of Jo Cox described as a timid man who loved volunteering and gardening.

When Mills refers to the political system of white supremacy that’s made the world what it is today, we can see how this relates to what is erased in media narratives about Muslim lives, communities and deaths.  Again, as Mills reminds us, this erasure is never accidental, but reflects, both wittingly and unwittingly, the status quo of white supremacy.

Humanising whiteness

That’s how racism operates at every level. Not just demonising Muslims, but importantly humanising white terrorists, white criminals, white regular folk, white politicians, white everyone.

White supremacy is reproduced everywhere. Seemingly benign words and actions relentlessly repeated by the institutions of politics and media are often not virtuous or harmless. They serve to perpetuate the myth of white innocence, white compassion, white saviours or white fragility. Whiteness as the norm. And construct everyone else as the opposite. As abnormal, and as deviant.

If we don’t educate ourselves on the meanings, practices, and systems of racist oppression, how can we ever even begin to disrupt and dismantle these insidious injustices?

Ask. Read. Reflect.

It’s imperative then that we keep on asking important critical and nuanced questions. We question. We read. We reflect. We write. And we continue until we better understand how racism and white supremacy operate at every level in society to keep us down, keep us ignorant and keep us oppressed.

Dr Sadia Habib is author of Learning and Teaching British Values (Palgrave, 2017). She is co-founder of The Riz Test and co-editor of The Bookslamist.  You can follow her on Twitter on @educ_research. 

Recommended reading

  • Knowledge, Power, and Education: The Selected Works of Michael W. Apple by Michael W. Apple
  • Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
  • White: Essays on Race and Culture by Richard Dyer
  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyaasi
  • Killing Rage: Ending Racism by bell hooks
  • The Fire Now: Anti-Racist Scholarship in Times of Explicit Racial Violence by Azeezat Johnson, Remi Joseph-Salisbury and Beth Kamunge
  • Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America by Ibram X. Kendi
  • Race, Whiteness, and Education by Zeus Leonardo
  • The Racial Contract by Charles W. Mills
  • A Virtue of Disobedience by Asim Qureshi
  • On Race: 34 Conversations in a Time of Crisis by George Yancy
  • A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn

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