Running With White Supremacy

Estimated Reading Time: 8 minutes

I was going to label this post with the hashtag "#RunWithMaud" in solidarity with others speaking out against the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, a black man out for a run who was shot and killed by two white men, deciding that he was a person worthy of murder rather than a person getting some exercise.  

A black and white selfie-photo of Lance Eaton
I've been sitting with this since it first came to my awareness and also when a friend shared with me the RunWithMaud site encouraging folks to run and post with the hashtag but also to sign petitions and make calls. I did the latter but I've been struggling with the former.  It challenges me because I think about the brutal murder of Trayvon Martin, another story wherein being black and being in a neighborhood doing something totally normal resulted not just in murder but in a criminal justice system refusing to investigate until spurred into action.  In that case, many (white) people wore hoodies to show solidarity and to point out that wearing a hoodie cannot be reasonably understood as a reason to be suspect, unless, of course, a racist lens puts together a black teenager and a hoodie as a criminal. 

It's a gesture that is often reaffirming to the folks who do it--a gesture, a symbol, a platitude--which can be important. But it can also feel limiting, disingenuous, or virtue signaling. I'm certainly not "above" it and have done my fair share of gestures and symbols.  But as a runner, I had to think about this one a lot.  

So I was hesitant to run this weekend and I was hesitant to post to social media about doing so. It felt wrong to do so.  But it felt equally wrong to not do or say anything. I regularly talk about white supremacy, racism, and antiracism and to stay silent--to not say or do something--would be a retreat into my own comfort bubble of white privilege. After all, there's a pandemic and other things going on, I could claim that this didn't get onto my radar. But it has and it has me thinking a lot.

As someone who thinks about how white supremacy and racism are embedded throughout society and embodied in most of us, I wanted to embrace the #RunWithMaud hashtag but it didn't feel right.  Instead of giving it just a hashtag, I wanted to give it more thought. I wanted to think about it while going for a run.  Much of this thought is peppered with a variety of books I've been reading lately that include:
Any one of these books is worth reading and reflecting on in general, but doubly so as one examines Arbery's murder.  These books are a rich discussion of white supremacy and how it has operated throughout the middle of the 20th century--but what's so damming is how in many ways things are similar. Blues for Mister Charlie is Baldwin's play wrestling with the death of Emmet Till and other young black men by white men for being seen as a threat because of their race (a race assigned by whites).  But Meridian, Me and White Supremacy and Blues for Mister Charlie also have deeper conversations about what it means to be allies, moderates (in the Martin Luther King sense of moderates), and just white people, oblivious from the racial structure that they help perpetuate by never or rarely considering the impact of hundreds of years of systematic white supremacy.  

Ain't I a Woman, The First Is Upon Us, and Begin Again, all reveal a rich history and understanding of the ways white supremacy has hurt people--both black and white and other distinctions.  From hooks, we learn just how much the systems of gender and race (as well as class) intersect over history to create, reinforce, and generate new ways of alienating people of color, particularly women and others who do not identify as male. Buccola's book was a fascinating comparative biography of James Baldwin and William F. Buckley as they eventually squared off in a famous debate. The lines from Buckley's writings (a famous and influential thinker for Republicans) and speakers are the seeds that give us the racism that has been inherent in Republicans for generations now and empower two white men to take guns and chase down a black man for running.  Glaude's book explores how Baldwin tried to make sense of the world after King's assassination and I think that's such a fitting model for many of us with the election of Trump, his praising of white-supremacists, caging of children, and never missing an opportunity to race-bait and dog whistle.  

Thus, these books have been swirling in my head while thinking about Arbery's murder and also made me think about my white body and what it allows me to do, how it allows me to be unimpeded, and how safety rarely needs to be factored into my actions in private or public spaces.

Ultimately, I can't #RunWithMaud because no matter what, I'm always running with white supremacy.  Just as Arbery couldn't be just a runner but had to be perceived as a threat to two white thugs, I can't shake my whiteness and the affordances it gives me in a society that privileges my white skin.

I've run in the dawn of the morning, the bright of the daylight, and the darkness of the night.  I never have to wonder if what I'm wearing in conjunction with my skin will be seen as shorthand for criminal.  White supremacy shields my appearance.  

In my recent run, I passed several police officers. I'm not wearing a mask despite ordinances (admittedly taking a risk, but one that is buffered by running at an hour when few people are out and I give them wide berth) and I'm not bothered in the least. Black people are being arrested and engaged more often by law enforcement disproportionately for not adhering to local ordinances around the pandemic. I'm not bothered because white supremacy is my mask.  

I run without fear or the need to reflect.  At a time, when black people are constantly policed and attacked for doing things that white people take for granted, running becomes one more thing that they must wonder if it is "safe" to do. White supremacy frees up my cognition to get to think about other things than fearing for my life.  

Within all of this, the discussion of the books and the running, I come back to Baldwin. One major through-line I've come to see with his work and his thoughts is that we tragically suffer in three profound ways in the United States. (To be fair, nearly all the other authors speak to this but I think Baldwin does it most elegantly and soulfully.)

The first suffering is the actual violence and alienation perpetrated directly onto black bodies. This toxic mixture of personalized violence manufactured by a depersonalize structure sits heavy in our culture without there ever been a geniune attempt to redress it.    

The second suffering is the witnessing (directly or indirectly) by black people who must often personalize the impersonalized violence of black people.  That personalizing comes in the ways they identify with the victim but also in the ways, it shapes "the talk" that they have with their children. It requires massive mental and emotional labor to have to not just vicariously experience the violence but to guard one's self and one's loved ones from a never-ending list of ways they could cross invisible lines.

The third suffering is how white supremacy as a system harms white people by coercing them into dehumanizing other people--and in doing so, dehumanizing themselves. Baldwin's argument here is that those who perpetuate the violence or don't see it as violence (or justify the violence as a reasonable reaction such as when people blamed Eric Garner's murder on himself for selling cigarettes) are truly suffering because they have lost their soul in some profound way if they cannot see another human as a human and feel empathy for the violence they face.  

I grapple with this one a lot, both as a white person and also towards finding empathy for that suffering in other white people. In some ways, it's the thing that I grappled with in participating in sharing a photo and hashtag. #RunWithMaud does necessarily help me sit with the first two forms of suffering and it doesn't help me better understand the suffering that white supremacy creates in me as a white person who inevitably participants and (knowingly or not) perpetuates it.  So instead, I decided that to write this and reflect upon how I cannot "#RunWithMaud" because regardless of my preference, I run with white supremacy.  

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