Sure, white supremacy is everywhere. It affects everyone. But from the attention paid to it, you would have to think that it, and perhaps male supremacy were the only kinds of supremacy that exist. But this must necessarily be false, as those who support using the term must recognize, for “white” as an adjective is meant to limit and describe the abstract noun, “supremacy.”
All forms of “white” supremacy are just a subset of the larger problem of supremacy itself, which is a general belief held by an individual or group that they are in some way superior to others. So while white supremacy is a problem, to comprehend white supremacy it must be seen as a subset of a wider range of supremacies that afflict all of us. Herewith, a list of some other supremacies:
- Gender supremacy: the belief that one gender is in some way, shape or form superior to other, or the belief that having a clear gender marker as clearly male or clearly female makes one superior to those without such clear gender markers. Subscribing to conventional gender roles is a form of gender supremacy. I’ve changed the term from the conventional “male” supremacy because people who don’t identify as male also display this form of supremacy.
- Sexual supremacy: the belief that one form of sexuality (gay, straight, bi, a, grey, demi) or relationship style (heterosexual, monogamous, poly, triadic, orgiastic) is inherently superior to others.
- Racial supremacy: the belief that one race is superior to others, for any reason. White supremacy, or the belief in superiority of the white race is the form of racial supremacy that we’re most familiar with, but racial supremacy, like gender supremacy, is any belief that racial categories are what define a whole person, that we are essentially only races, or that all social problems are really just racial problems. The stereotyping of Middle Eastern men as terrorists or as sharia apologists, or of Asian men as nerdy dorks, combines racial and gender supremacy in a particularly toxic mix.
- Moral supremacy: the belief that your conditions of suffering, or your victimization, or your support of various victims, makes you morally superior to those you define as oppressor(s). This insidious form of supremacy is based in the belief that when you and or your identity group gain power you will be more moral, more ethical than your oppressors. Many social and political revolutions display moral supremacy. Those who seek change in society almost without fail believe themselves to be good and others to be evil or lesser than they. Moral supremacy, like all supremacies, can combine with other supremacies in surprising and unexpected ways. Finding flaws in others while failing to examine your own superiorities is a particularly common and dangerous form of moral supremacy.
- Economic supremacy: the belief that economic status (e.g. being rich, poor, middle class) makes you better than people with a different economic class. So for example, Jane Austen in her novels, displays economic supremacy — the belief that rich men are better, more moral, more ethical than poor men.
- Intellectual supremacy: the belief that your intellect, learning, expertise, etc. makes you better than those with less training or formal education. The recurrent belief, for example, that people who attend prestigious institutions are smarter than those who don’t is a key sign of intellectual supremacy. While “experts” are necessary and experience is a useful teacher, there are many different kinds of knowledge.
These are some examples, but there are certainly others. The main point I wish to stress here, however, is that none of us is free from various forms of supremacy. While some individuals may seem to display more forms of supremacy than others, to suggest that this makes these individuals morally inferior is an example of moral supremacy on the part of the accuser and should be called out as such.
Arguments about “systems,” and “cultures” e.g. “systemic racism,” “rape culture,” etc., cannot be understood without reference to the ways in which all members of society (instead of particular groups or particular individuals) participate in and uphold—sometimes despite wishing otherwise—various forms of oppression.
Part of the challenge of building a better world is our own hierarchical ranking of the most important forms of supremacy. We spend a lot of time trying to persuade others that the forms of supremacy that matter to us should matter to them as well. But different people have different experiences, and indeed form their identities around having a distinct set of preferences: I like chocolate; you like vanilla. We are different but we can still share the experience of eating ice-cream together.
So to be clear: what you care about I may not care about. You’re worried about gender equality; I think the climate emergency is more important. Of course you can (and will) argue with me about the importance of what you care about. I wouldn’t and shouldn’t expect any different. But the fact that I might not agree that gender equality, for example, is worth a lot of attention doesn’t automatically make me a misogynist. I may have other priorities, like the loss of sea ice in Antarctica or the low quality of theatre productions in my local city. Neither of us can afford to pay attention to everything. At the same time, decisions need to be made, actions need to be taken.
It is unfortunate but true that society is organized as a hierarchy, with some people on top and others ranked below. This hierarchy is necessary for society to function: it is the public expression of our values, the closest thing we have to a consensus about how the world should operate. Of course, we will disagree, sometimes to the point of physical violence, about how this hierarchy should be structured — who should be on top and why.
This hierarchy of people matters because those in charge determine what we pay attention to: whether we devote time, money and energy to racism, gay rights, equal pay, or climate change. Again, money and time are limited; choices must be made. Disappointment about the fact that our priorities are not the priorities of others is a universal experience.