White Supremacy Acts Like a Bully, and It Can Be Dealt With Like a Bully
The less you think about your oppression, the more your tolerance for it grows.
— Assata Shakur
When I was nine years old, my babysitter put water on a grease fire and our house burned to the ground. My father, sister, and I moved to Grandma’s house, to a different part of town — leaving our small but separate bedrooms to share a bed in her living room — about 15 minutes away. And my sister and I started going to a new school. The thing I remember most vividly from that year is the walk home from school. I remember the sweaty palms, the dry mouth, the bravado, the focus, the running.
And I remember the fear.
There was a bully on our block on the walk home, always present, even when I couldn’t see him. And every day, the 10 minutes between the school parking lot and my grandmother’s yard were full of anxiety. I’ve thought a lot about that year since then, especially after teaching sixth grade and seeing the way children are taught about power — about who has it and who doesn’t, how to wield it and how to share it, and how one gains or loses it. And most important, what it is.
I’ve thought a lot more about the role of the bully, too — about how he moves, adapts, and survives over time; about his source of legitimacy; about the impact of his power. Of late, I’ve thought about the bully in the context of our present world versus the world that we aim to create for the future, and considering him has transformed the way I think about both.
The currency of the bully is fear. It is what he trades in and what he feeds on — fear and confusion. He is violent in the obvious ways that we see and feel, in the physical assaults, but also in the quieter ways, the belittling and the taunts, the mental assaults. His goals are straightforward: to harm you and then convince you that no damage was done or that you deserved it. He aims to strip you of your power, to normalize the interaction so that you are simultaneously traumatized and left questioning if what you experienced actually happened, if what you felt was real.
White supremacy is about the fleecing of power to gain more power. While the bully may not be after you today, he will surely target you in due time.
Every day after school, I anticipated him, even though he did not always show up in the ways I expected. But I was prepared, mentally and physically. I realize now that his power lay partly in his omnipresence — ever present in my mind even when he wasn’t there in the flesh. And long after the bruises from the bully had healed, I was left living in a world where I expected violence, where the anticipation of trauma served as a survival mechanism. It was a world that looked subtly different from the one I used to inhabit, a world without agency.
In the face of the bully, there are seemingly only two options: to challenge him or to accept him. I never understood the notion of “fight or flight” in this context, because “flight” would only be a temporary reprieve and not an actual stance. I couldn’t avoid the street forever, and I shouldn’t have had to. “Fight” feels like an equally false option — overcoming the bully should not rest on adopting his tactics.
Bullies don’t just happen; they are enabled. There were bystanders who lived on my grandmother’s block who chose to do nothing every single day. I think those people simply thought of bullying as another feature of childhood, a condition of growing up — just “kids being kids” or “boys being boys.” They didn’t suppose that simple child’s play could have any lasting negative consequences, and thus did not consider themselves responsible for ending it. So they chose a third option that, in some ways, was the most dangerous: They chose to ignore him, to pretend that he and his tyranny were not what they were. And then there was the bully’s family. They loved and cared for him but never corrected his behavior. Indeed, they never held a mirror up to show him what he was becoming.
When the world around you seems to accept bullying as normal, it’s hard to imagine a world without it. And if the burden is inevitable, why fight against it?
I am no longer on the walk home, but I still know the bully.
We would recognize him today as much as Bull Connor and Jim Crow, the poll tax, police violence, the Black Codes, and redlining were recognized in their own time. The bully is the ideology of white supremacy. It is the notion that the lives of white people are inherently worth more than those of anyone else.
In many ways, we live in one of the bully’s golden ages, a time when the mere mention of white supremacy is an anachronism. Absent the hoods and burning crosses, we presume the bully dead. But he’s still operating in the shadows; he’s just working through insidious means. The fact that many people refuse to acknowledge him means that we cannot dismantle what he has wrought. And in our blindness, we’ve created a host of studies to explain away his legacy. In the meantime, he is at work. When we see 21 percent of kids of color in poverty, that is white supremacy at work. When we see a president refusing to allow immigrants from majority people-of-color countries into this country, that is white supremacy at work. Defunding public education, gerrymandering, and scaling back the Voting Rights Act are all manifestations of this ideology.
While we are able to share the pain that we experience, to organize, and to act in ways and with speed not heretofore possible, many of the tools that we now have at our disposal have simultaneously been turned against us. The platform that facilitated community building in Ferguson and beyond is now the preferred venue for our president to lie and mislead the public. We now know that our election was manipulated through the abuse of social media information on Facebook and the like. So although the tactics of the bully are tried and true, there is an unprecedented sophistication to the bullies of our time.
I know the world better since that year I lived at my grandmother’s house. I know there’s no avoiding the bully — not when you move off that street, or exit that grade, or graduate from that school. In truth, the bully only becomes more vicious, more insidious, more institutionalized as time passes.
There’s no consensus on how to deal with the bully on our blocks. Do we confront him? Match violence with violence? Do we ignore him or try to kill him with kindness?
Paradoxically, many white people have been the collateral damage of policies enacted to uphold white supremacy. And thus we are all at risk. It’s the trick of the bully that some of us may not realize the risk. Indeed, there are those who don’t realize that the bully is coming for them, too; they have not yet learned the fear. But white supremacy is about the fleecing of power to gain more power. So while the bully may not be after you today, he will surely target your car or hop over your fence in due time — because the bully is aiming to amass power, regardless of its victims.
In the face of this ever-present threat, silence is tempting. Indeed, responding can be tiring, and it may even seem futile in the midst of the onslaught. You just want the pain to end. Or to acknowledge the risk and walk confidently down the street despite it. While understandable, silence too easily becomes acceptance.
To acknowledge the existence of the bully and his accompanying risks is not the same as accepting him as a permanent feature of our world. I know that if we accept trauma and fear, it wins.
Bullies don’t just go away. Their legacies don’t just disappear. The bully must be confronted intentionally, his impact named and addressed. Even so, it seems there’s no clear consensus on how to deal with the bully on our blocks. Do we confront him? Match violence with violence? Do we ignore him or try to kill him with kindness? I don’t think there’s a silver bullet to handling the bully, no one-size-fits-all strategy. Still, there may yet be a general blueprint for beating the bully. He is effective on the street because he knows the street. He knows which neighbors turn a blind eye. He knows what sections of the street have the lowest traffic and are farthest from the objecting gaze of concerned neighbors. The bully picks his spots. So we need to identify and name the things that enable him in order to address them head-on and remove them from the playing field. Then we need to expose the bully and all the ways he is able to perpetrate his actions, stripping him of the agency that he seeks to strip from us.
We need to remind the peers of the bully that they benefit from bullying even if they are not themselves the transgressors. Indeed, they benefit from it, but they are tarnished by it. To chip away at the humanity of select groups is to chip away at humanity itself.
When we think about engaging and defeating the bully, we must remember that it isn’t just about getting home—it’s about thriving—and that our goal is not to switch places with the bully but to end bullying.
We will also need a vision for the time when the bully is no more. If we don’t have a vision for our desired future, how can we plan to achieve it? If you cannot imagine it, you cannot fight for it. When we confront the bully, we are confronting our fear and reclaiming our imagination. There are those who cannot imagine a block without a bully. We must all imagine the block without a bully, otherwise we cannot get there.
When I am most in fear of succumbing to the bully, of allowing him to redefine my space, my world, I am reminded that the street existed before the bully did. We were free before we were enslaved. We are born to love before we know pain.
In each generation, there is a moment when young and old, inspired or disillusioned, come together around a shared hope, imagine the world as it can be, and have the opportunity to bring that world into existence. Our moment is now.