Earlier this week I was working with colleagues who think about data all-day everyday. They throw around words like data regression analysis, spiraling and not as it relates to a spiralizer in cooking, and other data terms I know little about. As they were talking and mapping out the project, we were working on we stumbled on the phrase superiority. We were talking about the motivations behind gatekeepers and their motivations. We had a fascinating conversation about attitudes of superiority as it connects to gatekeeping. Superiority is something we live with every day but rarely acknowledge or name. It is part of the power dynamics we live with, but it is also a cousin to power.
To explain this concept I’m going to use a metaphor from the cartoon and comics Avatar The Last Airbender by Gene Luen Yang. In the graphic novels, Aang is the last Airbender and he needs to master all the elements to eliminate the nemesis Fire Nation. Let’s say power is like the wind or air, always present and sometimes it is felt and sometimes it is still, but as an Airbender Aang can use his power to control the air and move it from a light breeze or a hurricane felt wind. Superiority is different, it isn’t always present but when it shows up it is like fire – it can be used to destroy by consuming everything in its path. We need to think about superiority because we currently don’t, and when we don’t talk about something it becomes a tool that destroys.
Superiority is the quality or state of feeling and being superior to others. In human and community concepts this can mean someone feeling superior, acting superior, or uses their power to make others feel inferior.
Supremacy vs Superiority
When I write white superiority, I do not mean white supremacy. A quick online search pulls up results for white supremacy, not superiority but the two terms are not interchangeable. I differentiate white supremacy from white superiority. To me superiority is the attitudes and beliefs that allow for white supremacy to take place. Feelings and beliefs of superiority allow people to unfairly use their power over others, which leads to white supremacy. I also want to pause and say I’m not an academic scholar who researches these terms, others may feel differently about my line of thinking and terminology.
As part of my working definitions, white superiority is the belief that white people believe they are better than others, this is their individual beliefs and actions. White supremacy is the collective actions that take place when white people believe they are entitled to whatever they want and they take it because they feel superior, they use their collective power to achieve their agendas. Superiority = the individual power, Supremacy = the group manifestation of superiority and power. This is an important distinction because when we only talk about white supremacy we don’t focus on individual beliefs that lead to the mob that shows up.
As we think about this in terms of race, we live in a society that places white people on top and gives them a superior position — who has the top jobs, who makes the most money, who is in control, who gets promotions, who can walk into a store wearing a bulky jacket and not be stopped by security, etc. White superiority is a real thing. Many white people feel and behave and feel like they are entitled to superior treatment simply by being white.
In an example, many of us saw the picture of the white teenage Catholic schoolboy wearing a red hat with the Trump slogan “Make America Great Again” while smirking at Nathan Phillips, a Native American elder. The two were standing less than a foot-apart. The MAGA hat wearing boy was exuding a posture of superiority. He was standing in a posture that said “I dare you,” I dare you to tell me to stand down, I dare you to do anything to me because I know I am more powerful than you as a white person regardless of age, wisdom, or group dynamics. White people saw the image and defended the teen – the comments saying the teen was right because Phillips walking into the fray, the teen was being unfairly persecuted because video clips only showed a narrow picture of what happened, etc. These superior beliefs of being right is rarely granted to people of color, or at least not without a fight. These beliefs leads to the white supremacy as a collective.
Superiority isn’t Real
Superiority only serves to uphold the patriarchy. While you may strive for superiority, doing so only makes you a tool of upholding a system in which you will never ever be on the top. There is no top, there is no superior place for you, it is all a farce and a myth created to hold us in place and to create a system that serves itself. If you do want to believe there is a top, it is for the .001%, and at what price does that .001% pay to hold that spot. Think about that and then work to undo the superiority and supremacy in your life. That is the path to justice and wholeness.
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