5 Social Justice Terms to Help Name and Deconstruct White Supremacy


“What white people have to do is try to find out in their hearts why it was necessary for them to have a n****r in the first place. Because I am not a n****r. I’m a man. If I’m not the n****r here, and if you invented him, you the white people invented him, then you have to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it is able to ask that question." - James Baldwin


Racism, the erasure of Native People, and anti-Blackness was all created to uphold White Supremacy: which encompasses the systems and institutions that benefit people considered white. White Supremacy has reigned in America for the past 400 years; dating back to the invention of the term in Anti-Miscegenation laws written by white men during the 1600’s. From James Baldwin to Rosa Clemente, prominent activities of color have noted time and again that deconstructing White Supremacy is the burden of white people - as we created it.  However, one of the biggest issues with deconstructing whiteness is the idea that it hides itself in plain sight - especially to white people. Below are 5 terms related to whiteness that can help to sharpen our lens so we can see and name whiteness in efforts to break it down.

1. White Amnesia

When a white person is outraged for being labeled as discriminating, or when white politicians use civil rights rhetoric to pass discriminatory policies like Voter ID laws, or when white people believe America is a meritocracy and you just need to work hard to beat the system - White Amnesia is often at play. White Amnesia is the cornerstone of the American worldview. It forgets the atrocities of the past; furthermore, it forgets the legacies of those atrocities. It erases any and all analysis of systemic power. White Amnesia facilitates the belief that white people experience discrimination in America today. White Amnesia exists because we have collectively and purposefully lost the history of the creation and expansion of whiteness, and when we are taught or reminded of it it often creates cognitive dissonance leading to white paralysis, guilt or fragility (all discussed later). But the key is we can fight this amnesia by simply remembering, reading and doing the work to connect our current oppressive behaviors and context to our violent past.

2. White Paralysis

When one takes the time to understand the past and present of whiteness and move beyond White Amnesia - it can overwhelm us, leading to cognitive dissonance and freezing. White paralysis is inaction, and a momentary loss of power in the face of racial stress. It is a form of white privilege to momentarily lose power and not take personal action to deconstruct whiteness. However, there is a remedy to White Paralysis… Action. We must take equitable action expecting and accepting loss and discomfort as we push past our paralysis.

3. White Guilt

Realizing our personal paralysis in the face of super whitey, along with confronting our privileges, like the privilege to momentarily lose power (paralysis), or the privilege to be free from considering, or the privileges of generational wealth granted to our ancestors and us, can often leave us white people feeling guilty. The fact is guilt does not redistribute wealth, guilt reinforces paralysis. To move past guilt we need to accept our history, accept our realities, and work to ensure our actions can always answer the question: ‘Will my action help redistribute wealth, power and access to resources?’ with a yes. Redistribution brings equity - and marks the first step towards liberation.

4. White Fragility

White fragility, defined by Dr. Robin Di’Angelo, refers to the disbelieving defensiveness that white people engage in when their ideas about white supremacy and racism are challenged. Defensiveness might include overwhelming guilt and crying; it may include paralysis; it may include shouting, or matter-of-factly arguing, “I was taught to treat everyone the same;” it may include listing one’s civil rights resume or history of familial activism; it may include moving the conversations toward a more “salient” issue like class or gender - what it does not include is facing one’s personal collusion with White Supremacy. And we all collude with White Supremacy due to the institutionalized nature of the beast. To move past fragility, we must stop acting fragile in the face of racial stress and find strength in our resolve to welcome discomfort and own loss.

5. White Rage

Carol Anderson coined the phrase White Rage to describe the unspoken truth behind racial divides. White rage describes the many examples of white police officers shootings unarmed black men, women, and children. It describes the white backlash to President Obama’s election, chants of “build the wall,” and why so many white women voted for Trump.

Let’s imagine for a moment... what if white rage weren't a term for backlash to the civil rights movement - but backlash to white supremacy, white amnesia, white paralysis, white guilt and fragility. Imagine… if instead of the streets filled with White people chanting “build the wall”, it was filled with White People chanting “Reparations, Baby! Reparations!” “Make America A Meritocracy!” or “Redistribution! Redistribution!

And then lets go further and Re-Imagine rage… what if instead of rage we fought oppression with love. As bell hooks reminds us: love and domination are incompatible.  Re-Imagine... if, when we heard the word “white” our first association was love. I constantly find myself slipping into moments of white amnesia, guilt, paralysis, fragility, and rage… but I’ve found the best way to combat these is with love - love of myself, my progress, my goals, my work, my students, my colleagues, my neighbors, our quest.


“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word ‘love’ here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.” - James Baldwin


Ian McLaughlin