Escaping the Logic(s) of White Supremacy

The practice of oppositional thought

In her article “Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy,” Andrea Smith advances the argument that there is no monolithic white supremacy. Rather, white supremacy should best be understood as a phenomenon “constituted by separate and distinct, but still interrelated, logics.” [1] She identifies three different racial schematics, corresponding to the different strands of white supremacist ideology. These are “slaveability/anti-Black racism, which anchors capitalism… [the] genocide [of indigenous peoples], which anchors colonialism… [and] orientalism, which anchors war.” [2] The most significant part of this formulation is its breadth; white supremacy is not unitary, but composed of multiple, fluid, networks of relationships. It operates based on the contingent needs of the specific (white) power structure. There is no need to expect that, in such a globally expansive network as capitalist-colonial white supremacy, all racially marginal people will be exploited in identical, or even generally homogenous, ways. Indeed, as racial-colonial relationships become more entrenched, differently oppressed sets of marginal subjects become integrated into the white supremacist system such that their personal success depends on the continued marginalization of others.

Although unmentioned in Smith’s work, an example of this sort of situation is the relationship between French colonial power and its Senegalese subjects in colonial West Africa. Under the Évolués (literally “evolved”) system, French authorities allowed some native Senegalese access to education, status, and the right to vote in return for loyalty to French administration. These newly legitimized French citizens in turn went on to operate much of the Empire’s African bureaucracy and played a key role in French domination of West Africa. More than mere capitulation, though, Smith believes that this multiplicitous white supremacy presents an incredible danger for the general capacities of an organized counter-power. In her own words, “our survival strategies and resistance to white supremacy are set by the system of white supremacy itself.” [3] In other words, the ways in which different people have historically responded to the threat of white racial domination have actually themselves participated in the upholding of white supremacist power.

This formulation, I think, is largely accurate. It still leaves us , however, with the age old question of political organization: What is to be done? Smith’s essay generally shies from advice on practical organizing, more concerned with an scholarly critique of ethnic and indigenous studies. By turning to Mia White, however, I believe that we can rectify this deficit, flipping the logic of white supremacy on its head. Central to White’s thought is a matrix of three concepts, which she believes organize and govern all social interaction: institutions, histories, and spaces. “Institutions” are the structures and mechanisms which govern the lives of individuals and work to enforce social order. White emphasizes race as a powerful example of this kind of construct. “History” is the end result of our contested, dialogical processes of meaning making. Finally, “spaces” are the actual material and epistemological grounds upon which institutions and histories exert themselves. Spaces are those places where living subjects co-exist with one another. As social and affective phenomena, White’s spaces have a rhythm of their own. They produce many series of physical and emotional links between subjects engaging in the same given place. These ties are incredibly powerful and have the capacity to dramatically alter the ways that people interact with each other and with the larger spatial imaginary. No space is fully ensconced within the logics of institutions and histories. Rather, the very nature of all spaces assures that they are basically creative and productive planes. Most important here is that marginal subjects — those oppressed by racial institutions and exclusionary histories — can and do co-opt spaces which are largely designed for their exploitation.

The multiple white supremacies of Smith’s essay do not seem nearly as all encompassing when seen through White’s viewpoint. By sorting all racialized subjects into the same imperial space, colonial administrators are in fact hastening the creation of bonded, affective relationships between those under their thumb, thereby hastening the creation of a consciousness among ‘the exploited,’ regardless of their specific form their oppression takes.

This is not to say that the mere fact of ‘being together’ is enough to destroy white supremacist power. This amounts to magical thinking. Spatial and epistemological proximity only create the capacity for resistance, not the energy for it, much less any opening in the edifice of colonial-imperial institutions and histories. The type of affective thinking proposed by White is a first step to a larger project of solidarity, however. White supremacy relies on strict hierarchies of perceived ability and capacity. Through our interaction with each other in racist or colonial spaces, the strict demarcations imposed by white supremacy begin to to blur a little. Affect can take over (at least a little) from ideology and we can begin to create new forms of knowledge and new ways of knowing and seeing the world.

Elizabeth Povinelli makes the distinction between the knowledge of ideas and the knowledge of affects much clearer. For Povinelli, “an idea represents something while an affect does not. An affect is not nothing, but it is also not something in the same way as an extrinsic or intrinsic idea. An affect is a force of existing (vis existendi) that is neither the realized thing (an idea) nor the accomplishment of the thing (potentia agendi).” [4] Affect represents “the perpetual variation between vis existendi and potentia agendi — between striving to persevere and any actual idea or action that emerges from this striving — provides a space of potentiality where new forms of life can emerge.” [5] This is a knowledge different from the ‘rational,’ ‘logical,’ racial-functionalist approach taken by white supremacists. It is an emotional, vulnerable knowledge that is open to dissent, subversion, and alterity, the kind of knowledge that comes from an internalization of ‘the Other’ and ‘the Outside’. This knowledge treats all human subjects as co-creators of communal space, rather than subordinate objects to be acted upon. Affective knowledge is a democratic knowledge, while the ideational, ideological knowledge of white supremacy seeks only order according to its presupposed first principles.

This sort of counter-knowledge, and more importantly the actual practice oppositional thought, is especially important as white supremacy strengthens its power, most recently signaled by the election of Donald Trump in the United States and the general surge in support for the far right in Europe. As refugees from Africa, the Middle East, and beyond pour into these areas, the spaces they inhabit will become increasingly politically charged. With all these racially marginal subjects inhabiting approximately the same places, it will become increasingly easier to see through the multitudinous network apparatus of Smith’s white supremacy, so long as we are adequately prepared for the challenge. The partisans of white supremacist power certainly are, weaponizing history and institutions to keep their authority unchecked. In order to mount a proper response to this challenge, those committed to anti-racism need to begin to change their thinking. While solidarity has played a large role in the self-expression of the activist left, this has largely been a symbolic gesture. True solidarity means changing the ways we understand ourselves. It means becoming affective, rather than rational, subjects — becoming truly comfortable with vulnerability and change. More than this, thinking spatially as White does, we need to imbricate our very subjectivities with those foreign to us, producing new spaces wherein the institutions and histories of racial domination have less grasp. In doing this, we challenge not only colonial and imperial violence, but the entire Enlightenment subjectivity of Western superiority. The spaces composing the institutions of genocide, orientalism, and anti-Black racism are not fully fixed. The guards are not always watching. The walls can be torn down.



[1] Smith, Andrea. “Indigeneity, Settler Colonialism, White Supremacy” in Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century, ed. HoSang, Daniel Martinez, et al. Berkeley : University of California Press, 2012. pps 67.

[2] Ibid . 68.

[3] Ibid . 70.

[4] Povinelli, Elizabeth A. Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging and Endurance in Late Liberalism . Duke University Press, 2011. pps 9.

[5] Ibid .

Mitchell Kosters

  • bryanj

    can you give a citation for Mia White’s work referenced in the essay?

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