The Secret Power of White Supremacy — and How Anti-Racists Can Take It BackRoundup
tags: far right, racism, medieval history, Alt-Right
Cord J. Whitaker is an associate professor of English at Wellesley College and a consultant on antiracist communications strategies at Sagely. He is the author of Black Metaphors: How Modern Racism Emerged from Medieval Race-Thinking.
In June, while a large Black Lives Matter protest was staged in downtown Philadelphia, a much smaller one occurred in the Fishtown neighborhood to the north. As a counterprotest, a group of white men calling themselves “Old-time Fishtowners,” paraded through the streets carrying bats and antagonizing BLM protesters. At the end of the night, one Fishtowner boasted that, “We did our job.” Another claimed his aim had been “protecting the police.”
The language of white supremacists is full of such chivalric references to duty and protection. It was as if the police were medieval romance damsels, classic Disney princesses, imperiled and in need of defending. To these Fishtowners’ minds, their acts, which included beating a white BLM protester who passed by on his way home, were acts of valor.
I’m a medievalist, and for years now, I have researched and lectured about how the idea of chivalry motivates white supremacists. They apply it to multiple objects. They defend their families. They defend their neighborhoods. They defend their way of life. The flag. Western Civilization. The police. Always they use the language of honor. In their minds, they merely defend the defenseless. Never mind that some of the objects of their defense, such as the police and the United States at-large, are highly militarized and quite capable of effective offense, let alone defense. The object of defense does not matter so much. What matters to them is the act of defending.
Medievalism is the study and use of medieval Europe by modern people for ends ranging from education to entertainment to political ideology. White supremacists have used medievalism for a long time, from the pastoral pretensions of plantation owners in the antebellum South to the not fully understood relationship between the hooded vestments of Catholic penitents in Spain during Holy Week and the 20th century Ku Klux Klan’s hooded robes. Members of the KKK, after all, even refer to themselves as “knights.”
But the language of honor and chivalry can work two ways — even as it empowers white supremacists, it can be co-opted by their anti-racist antagonists. Anti-racists who understand the power that medievalist language and symbolism have on white supremacists, and figure out how to wield it themselves, will have a powerful weapon to combat the appeal of white supremacy.
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