A noose hung on a campus tree, a Latinx mural defaced, the n-word scrawled on the Mary Lou Center, a Swastika painted on the East Campus bridge, hateful words said to a student in a burka, students being told they shouldn’t speak their native language on campus. Each past event has a set of facts, known and unknown, that nevertheless flow from a root problem: Duke has a prevailing culture of white supremacy and cultural imperialism that must be named if we are to address it together and live into our status as a global university.
“White Supremacy” to most white people means “White Supremacists”—those marching in Charlottesville in 2017, chanting “Blood and Soil,” or committing the explicit acts of racial intimidation and violence that are unfortunately increasing.
However, I have come to understand that most people who are not white understand white supremacy to be the subtle rules and norms that privilege whites, to the detriment of blacks, people of color and anyone who cannot pass for white. White supremacy need not be noisy, and its essence is the quiet default that white America is the ideal, making everyone else “other” who must strive to belong.
The processes that make black children more likely to be suspended from school, produce college educated black household wealth levels that are similar to those of high school drop-out whites, and that have led me to assume that black male students on Duke’s campus must be athletes are some examples of white supremacy at work. Cultural imperialism is related, and assumes the English language and white American culture to be the ideal, with other languages and cultures representing deviations from the norm.
Some quick definitions:
- All humans have prejudices—assumptions about persons from other groups based on little or no individual information; this is inevitable in human beings.
- Discrimination is acting on prejudice to exclude, shun, ignore, slow, ridicule or harm others. Anyone can discriminate if they have situational power, just as anyone can be discriminated against. People can be unaware they are discriminating.
- Racism is when a group’s collective prejudice has the power to systematically discriminate, without having to be overt, or even aware. Some call this ‘structural racism’ to distinguish it from blatant acts like scrawling a swastika.
White Supremacy is a form of structural racism, and the book White Fragility, by Robin DiAngelo has helped me to learn about myself, and how I have both benefited from and helped to perpetuate this system.
If you have read this far, are white, and are mad or think I have lost my mind, try and force yourself to read her book. Or let’s get a cup of coffee and chat. I spent most of my life not having this insight, but after a season of reflection, I believe that our unwillingness to name the reality of white supremacy is a barrier to creating the Duke community that we claim to want. If you want an academic treatment, James B. Duke Professor of Sociology Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s classic Racism Without Racists is the seminal work.
Having a culture of White Supremacy does not undo all the good at Duke, nor say that everyone at Duke is a “racist” in the way the term is commonly used. In fact, sorting people into groups of “racist” and “not racist” in unhelpful and diverts attention from the systems that operate in quiet, efficient auto-pilot. My goal is to start a different conversation on campus, and I am primarily speaking to my Duke colleagues who are white—we will have to change if Duke is to make progress in this area.
If you are a white member of the Duke community, there is a good chance you are thinking “I am a progressive/liberal and believe in equality and reject racism so can’t be a part of structural racism, and I haven’t personally benefited from white supremacy.”
I have come to understand that sentiment is wrong on both counts, at least in my own life. DiAngelo’s book White Fragility makes a strong case that progressives and liberals who are intellectually committed to equality and oppose racism are blind to, and thus perpetuate white supremacy. Two personal examples to stimulate dialogue:
I received ‘White privilege’ while staying at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in Philadelphia a few years back when I went out a side door without my key to get a local newspaper dressed in what my adult children call my “homeless guy look”—an old overcoat and tattered wool toboggan. However, I strode through the main door of the Ritz, confident that I belonged despite how I was dressed. No one said a word.
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As I read my paper in the lobby, I watched as a black man elegantly dressed in a navy suit, red tie and electric blue scarf was stopped three times as he crossed the same lobby, each time being asked, “May I help you?” He didn’t need help.
White supremacy produced the unwritten rules that allowed me easy access to a space because I was white, even though I was dressed like I didn’t belong, and made a Black man who was dressed in Ritz-style still have to justify being there. Two of the three people stopping him were people of color, no one in Klan robes was anywhere to be found in the lobby, and we were not in the South. Friends and colleagues who are black tell me that being asked “Can I help you?” with a tone that questions their existence in that space, are a common occurrence. I have not had to endure the racial stress of striving to prove I belong across my 51 years on Earth.
Reflecting on this hotel experience triggered a memory from a spring afternoon in 1986, when I was caught skipping school, just a few weeks before I graduated from Goldsboro High School. I don’t recall the details, but do remember meeting with the principal, a black man, who ran a tight ship. I was braced for what was to come, but he asked me almost pleadingly “not to put him in a bad position like that again before I graduated,” and gave me no punishment at all. A black classmate would not have been treated the same way.
Extra burdens based on race in one direction—and extra lenience bestowed on the white default—are a fundamental part of our country and therefore, Duke University. They don’t invalidate the other parts, but they are real, and they add up. Whites do not have to overcome race to live into what we achieve, while people who cannot pass as White, do. All else being equal.
I know this is bracing to read because it was hard to write, but I do not wish to offer judgment. Instead, I offer my hand in friendship, so that we can begin a journey together, out of love for Duke.
Professor Don Taylor is on faculty in the Sanford School of Public Policy. He is the former chair of the Academic Council and the current Director of the Social Sciences Research Institute.