How to talk about white supremacy

A white person holds their hands over their face in exasperation. "How to talk to your doubting friends about white supremacy"
Click on the image to be taken to the full Instagram post

Last week I wrote about the importance of practicing mindfulness when talking about white supremacy so that we don’t get caught up in good/bad thinking (a major characteristic of white supremacy culture) about the people we are talking to. This week I will talk about how I choose what to say about white supremacy from a mindful place in these conversations. For the purposes of this article, I’m assuming that I’m speaking with someone who uses he/him pronouns and who disapproves of my use of the term “white supremacy.”

The first thing I try to do in this situation is learn why my conversation partner objects to the term “white supremacy.” By asking them to share more about their thoughts and feelings on this matter, and by really listening with respect, I may be able to build some trust. Many of us are used to people just yelling at us when we voice disagreement about something as charged as white supremacy. Remember when listening to be on the lookout for bodily signals that you are going into fight mode. This can be muscle tension, rapid heart rate or respiration rate, or fidgetiness, or something else. If this happens, take some deep breaths, exhaling through your mouth if possible, and remind yourself that it’s okay for this person to believe what they believe and to feel what they feel.

The second thing I try to do is find points of agreement. If my friend doesn’t like the phrase “white supremacy” because he believes it paints all white people as bad or at fault, then I want him to know that I agree with him that white people are not bad, and that I agree with him that throwing blame at white people isn’t productive.

Hopefully after my friend has felt listened to, he will start feeling some curiosity about my thoughts and feelings on the matter. Since I’ve had this conversation more than a few times now, I’ve made myself a cheat sheet that helps me keep my thoughts organized. Here’s my trauma-sensitive compassion-based white supremacy cheat sheet which I designed to include answers to some of the most common objections I hear to my use of the phrase “white supremacy”:

  1. I believe that white supremacy was originally a belief system about the superiority of white people and the inferiority of Black people that was created by rich Europeans in order to justify the mass enslavement of African people. (Ibram X. Kendi has demonstrated that racist policies predate racist ideas.)
  2. I believe that it became formalized and popularized in the American colonies (and later states) when rich white landowners became worried that poor whites were starting to see that they had more in common with enslaved Africans than they had in common with the power elite. 
  3. I believe that white supremacy is what convinced poor whites to turn their backs on enslaved Africans. 
  4. I believe that after generations of this kind of hatred and violence and oppression—and the economic advantage that it afforded to the power elite—it was next to impossible for things to just get better overnight after slavery was abolished by the 13th amendment. Therefore, white supremacy continued to thrive in our country for decades after the Civil War, both in people’s hearts and minds as well as in our national institutions. 
  5. I believe that the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s was the first major threat to white supremacy after the abolition of slavery. 
  6. I believe that southern segregationists left the Democratic party to join the Republican party during the Civil Rights Era, and that ever since, the Southern Strategy of the GOP has depended largely on stoking poor white people’s fears of Black people. 
  7. I believe that people of color have maybe had 50 years of something barely resembling relative equality in this country.
  8. I believe that a country founded on white supremacy will inevitably have white supremacy baked into its institutions and that the only way to root it out is to do a thorough examination of all of those institutions to see what can be salvaged and what needs to be completely redone.
  9. I believe that a country founded by people fleeing persecution who turn around and become persecutors of Black and indigenous people in their new home is clearly a country founded on unprocessed and unhealed trauma that goes back generations, and that it will take generations more and lot of uncomfortable self-examination before that trauma can be healed.
  10. I believe that until that trauma is healed, people will continue to hurt each other.
  11. I believe that all people are good people.
  12. I believe that all people are capable of becoming violent and oppressive if they have been sufficiently hurt, but that this doesn’t make them bad people.
  13. I believe that most traumas can be healed.
  14. I believe that you cannot heal a trauma without talking about it.
  15. I believe that people in the US are afraid of talking about white supremacy, which makes it next to impossible to heal it.
  16. I believe that the reason people are afraid of talking about white supremacy is that they are afraid of being thought of as bad or evil. Or they are afraid of thinking of themselves as bad or evil.

Why frame it in terms of beliefs, rather than stating it as facts? Two reasons:

  1. It’s well established that we all have our own facts these days, and I’m not interested in getting into a fact-off with someone. I trust my sources and my education, and I don’t need to defend them, especially when a major rhetorical strategy of the right is to sow doubt. If the person I’m speaking just wants to disagree with everything that I say, then that’s not a conversation that I’m interested in having.
  2. My goal is to explain to someone why I use the phrase “white supremacy,” not to make them agree with me. All they need to know to understand my reasoning is my beliefs. If they believed what I believe, wouldn’t they talk about white supremacy a lot, too?

One more thing: don’t do more emotional labor than is healthy for you. If the person you’re speaking with is not actually interested in building understanding, or if the devastating effects of white supremacy hit close to home for you, there’s no shame in choosing not to have this conversation at this time. But if your conversation partner is intent on understanding you, and you have the bandwidth, these tips might be helpful.

Too often we operate under the assumption that we can’t get along unless we agree on everything. I don’t believe that’s true. But I do believe that we need to get better at disagreeing. The first step is getting familiar with the thoughts and emotions that come up when we disagree. The second step is taking values-based action. If you would like help having better disagreements, check out my free weekly offering:

How to get along – A free weekly drop-in communication workshop

Are you having trouble talking to people about cultural problems like racism or transphobia? Do you find it difficult to set and maintain boundaries with other people regarding COVID safety? Are you struggling to get along with partners, family, friends, roommates, neighbors, or coworkers? I’d like to help you.

I provide education and guidance through an intersectional social justice and trauma sensitive lens to support:

  1. Healthy boundaries
  2. House meetings
  3. Intentional dialogues
  4. Nonviolent communication (NVC)
  5. Repair conversations

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Nauserbeartherapy at gmail dot com for more info


Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds) and a coach for HELPAs (Healers, Educators, Leaders, Parents, Activists & Artists) wanting to build a life of sustainable selfless service. To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy at gmail dot com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.

Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.

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