I fear a lot of white people in America don’t understand the pervasiveness of our culture of white supremacy. Growing up I was indoctrinated in racism and white supremacy and it’s taken many years to understand how those hateful ideas have invaded my mind and try to influence every aspect of my thinking. I think most white Americans are similarly indoctrinated and don’t recognize it. As we face a violent flareup of white supremacy in our current political world it’s important to understand how entrenched the idea is in white Americans that we are superior and the country belongs to us, the "real Americans". Recognizing this indoctrination is the first step in fighting it.
My grandmother was my personal teacher for white supremacy. Growing up in the 70s and 80s in Houston as a rich white boy, I was immersed in the culture of white superiority that is the birthright of most white Americans. But it was my grandmother who taught me the specifics. Content warning: the rest of this post discusses racist indoctrination in frank terms. It’s an awful thing, but it is my history and I need to claim it.
My grandmother, Lou Ward Jones, was a hateful woman in many ways both personal and petty and also large and broad. She was a virulent unrepentant racist, albeit a socially acceptable one. She was careful not to say N— out loud where polite people would hear her. That word was saved for moments of anger and for my private education. She interacted with Black people: the waiters in restaurants, a live-in maid in her house. But never as an equal. She wasn’t terrible to "her" maids but also was certainly not kind. That servant / familial relationship that is the uncomfortable way of the South.
Here’s some of the things my grandmother taught me
These are some of the nuggets of white supremacy I was taught growing up during weekend visits. Not as a programmatic thing, just the background radiation of the white South. But my grandmother made an explicit effort to indoctrinate me. It seemed entirely unremarkable to me at the time, a lot of white people I grew up around talked this way. I absorbed these lessons from my family just like any little kid does.
Fortunately I learned better. My mother would occasionally push back; while she thoughtlessly harbored racism herself she also knew her mother’s racism was wrong. She made it clear I would not be calling the maitre’d "boy". My school did a good job teaching critical thinking and historical facts somewhat free of Southern bias, particularly my junior year US History class. And I developed my own ideas of social justice starting in high school. I became skeptical, anti-racist, argued back. Not so much against my grandmother though; she was a cruel and abusive woman and none of us talked back to her. I learned to hate her instead.
But the indoctrination was strong. The core message was that as a white person I was inherently superior. That these other races of people were here to be servants, or dumb labor, and while regrettably we couldn’t own them any more we could still treat them as lesser people. No matter what challenges I faced I was white and America belonged to me. It’s a comforting and empowering belief, being raised a white supremacist. It is poison.
I’m sorry to write out all this hateful and horrible stuff. But so much of white America is still awash in these attitudes, infected with them. I’ve spent my entire adult life trying to get out of the grip of this indoctrination and I still have tendrils of it in me. Pervasive racism is the single biggest social challenge facing America today, one of the core reasons why roughly half the American population starts life with a significant disadvantage. It goes a long way to explaining Trump’s popularity; people voted for him because he’s a racist, not despite that. This is America.
This essay inspired by Michael Twitty's essay about white visitors to Southern plantations.