What Is White Supremacy?

White supremacy is not new, but months of Black Lives Matter protests that erupted as a result of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and others have caused many BIPOC individuals to reflect on their rightful place in society. The impact reverberated throughout the world, sparking overlapping protests.

What Is White Supremacy?

Resmaa Menakem, in his seminal work, My Grandmother's Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies, refers to it as "White Body Supremacy."

He described it as originating in the body—that is, the white body became the standard of all of humanity. From that premise, anyone that doesn’t fit the mold is not as worthy in the spectrum of humanity—or rather even less than. 

White supremacy is also infiltrated throughout all of the systems that exist in our country and perhaps the world. From all of the major institutions of medicine to law to education, in any field, there is some form of injustice. All of it ties back to white supremacy and racism.

White supremacy reflects the perpetuation of a false narrative that white people are better than people with other skin colors and ethnic backgrounds. It is when those with the most power across all systems in society fail to adequately reflect the diversity of BIPOC people, and instead maintain the problematic status quo.

Here are some examples of harm inflicted on BIPOC individuals as a result of white supremacy:

  • In healthcare, research shows that African Americans have over 2 times the infant mortality rate as non-Hispanic whites. White supremacy impacts how Black children are treated from birth, regardless of what may be well-meaning intent of the medical staff.
  • From the age of 5 years old, data shows that adults view Black girls as less innocent and more adult-like than their white peers. Due to this adultification bias, white supremacist beliefs affect Black children's experiences from a young age.
  • When whiteness is considered more desirable in the workplace, job candidates may be written off for having "Black" or ethnic-sounding names, or for dressing or talking a certain way.

From systems that were developed to oppress BIPOC individuals and beliefs rooted in bigotry, white supremacy is unfortunately ingrained in our society. At every level, without explicit work to combat this, white supremacy continues to harm BIPOC people.

The History of White Supremacy

For a long time, white supremacy was only viewed through the narrow lens of the Ku Klux Klan or similar extreme representations of racist harms. While the KKK embodies white supremacy, so too do many other societal norms that are taken for granted.

White supremacy was pervasive from the beginning in the U.S. Thomas Jefferson, for example, advocated for some of the greatest individual freedoms the modern world has seen—while at the same time participating in the crimes against humanity of Indigenous and African genocides and enslavement.

White supremacy did not end with the historical theft of Indigenous land and enslavement of Black people. It merely evolved to take other forms. While slavery reduced Black people to property for white profit, Jim Crow laws continued to reflect the bigoted notion that white people deserved better than Black people. Nearly 60 years after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, we're still grappling with these issues.

White supremacy is grounded in these historical contexts, the vestiges of which continue today in so many ways. These systems have often been viewed as part of history, rather than a continuation of the discriminatory beliefs that established them. For example, they still impact how school funding is allocated based on property values, which marginalizes BIPOC children, who often lack the benefits of generational wealth, due to the long-term impacts of colonization and slavery.

The lack of generation wealth has many far-reaching implications—attending better-resourced schools, college attendance, long-term wealth-building, and more.

The Negative Effects of White Supremacy on Marginalized Groups

To work towards more equitable outcomes for Black, Indigenous, and POC individuals, we need to better understand how white supremacy works.

There are harmful physical and mental health effects with the most extremes being death by homicide and suicide. White supremacy is associated with a variety of negative chronic health conditions when it comes to the individual body. When it comes to the systems in society, there are poorer outcomes for education, housing, legal, etc.

Unfortunately, white supremacy and its associated racial disparities are rarely discussed. As a result, BIPOC individuals can internalize their challenges in these rigged systems as a poor reflection of themselves, which can have adverse impacts on mental health.

Considering how ingrained white supremacy is in our society, it will take a great deal of concerted time and effort to make strides towards dismantling it. Neglecting or ignoring the problem will only bring more harm to Black, Indigenous people of color, so despite how uncomfortable this work can be, it is necessary.

How Do We Address It?

With an understanding of how white supremacy has evolved, we can begin the crucial work to interrogate how it continues to operate in various ways. Such awareness is instrumental in allowing us to take the tangible steps needed to mitigate harm to BIPOC humans.

It can be uncomfortable to think about how white supremacy works, especially if you benefit from it. Thus, anti-racism work is needed to disrupt this problematic status quo. BIPOC individuals deserve access to equitable outcomes that are comparable to their white peers.

With an understanding of how white supremacy has evolved, we can begin the crucial work to interrogate how it continues to operate in various ways. Such awareness is instrumental in allowing us to take the tangible steps needed to mitigate harm to BIPOC humans.

We all have a role to play in addressing white supremacy. It should start in our individual lives, working on ourselves to eradicate white supremacy as much as possible on an ongoing basis. From there, we can work our way up to changing and ultimately dismantling systems when appropriate/needed to really get at the root of white supremacy within.

It is also essential to make a concerted effort towards preparing future generations to ensure the future of moving past this oppressive system. Improving BIPOC representation is one way to help make this happen.

People often imagine what is possible for themselves based on how they are represented, so there is a great deal of opportunity to challenge white supremacy in media, for example. In children's publishing, despite numerous initiatives aimed at addressing the lack of diversity in the industry over four years, there was a mere 3% decrease in white representation between 2015 and 2019.

This status quo of white supremacy can look like the difference between authentic or oppressive representation in the books that BIPOC children read. If children read or see stories with more equitable representation, they will grow up with a better view of themselves in society.

What You Can Do to Fight White Supremacy

Understanding your position in society—and holding yourself accountable—is a good start toward fighting white supremacy. If your race, class, and gender lend increased access to economic and political resources, you may have a greater ability to address these issues.

In this work, a thorough conceptualization of our positionality can help guide us towards accountability to address white supremacy. Such factors as race, class, and gender tend to mediate our social location and associated access to economic and political resources.

Keeping your place in society in mind, these are helpful questions to consider:

  • Are my actions reinforcing the status quo of whiteness?
  • How much space am I taking up and should I do so?
  • Is my opinion informed by white supremacist assumptions?
  • What needs to change to support BIPOC individuals more?
  • Whose stories are being told, and at whose expense?
  • Am I using words like dark to connote the negative?
  • How can I amplify the narratives of BIPOC individuals?

In this way, we can make meaningful strides towards recognizing and challenging white supremacy on a daily basis. Otherwise, we will continue to disproportionately harm BIPOC individuals, as has been the case historically, despite the best of intentions.

Part of understanding yourself could involve therapy to unpack the thought processes and pervasiveness of white supremacy within our mindsets. When going forward to pursue action, we must stay grounded, and try our best to ensure we are mentally prepared to deal with potential consequences.

In addition to therapy, get support from friends and family and be sure to take breaks when needed. Take care of ourselves (eat, sleep, exercise). Recognize our own limitations and understand that as individuals or even groups we will not be able to handle it all ourselves, as it is so pervasive and entrenched.

4 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Menakem R. My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Central Recovery Press; 2017.

  2. Ely DM, Driscoll AK. Infant mortality in the United States, 2017: Data from the period linked birth/infant death file. Natl Vital Stat Rep. 2019;68(10):1-20.

  3. Epstein R, Blake JJ, González T. Girlhood interrupted: The erasure of Black girls’ childhood. Georgetown University Law Center, Center on Poverty and Inequality; 2017.

  4. Lee & Low Books. Where is the diversity in publishing? The 2019 Diversity Baseline Survey Results.

By Krystal Jagoo
 Krystal Kavita Jagoo is a social worker, committed to anti-oppressive practice.