White supremacy and racism are often used to describe the same things, but they’re not identical, Pamela Merritt said in a panel discussion Friday night.
Merritt is the co-founder of Reproaction*, a group that advocates for reproductive health issues, including maternal and infant mortality and abortion rights. White supremacy is a system of power, while racism refers to the actions and beliefs of individual people, she said.
Her father, a former Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee activist, used to tell her that most people aren’t really dedicated racists.
“There are bigots, they’re racists, they have racist ideas, but they haven’t developed a theory,” Merritt said. “The difference is between someone who yells out the n-word at you as they’re driving by and David Duke, who has an organized system that is devised to maintain white people’s domination.”
CoMo Radish, a loose network of activists in Columbia, held the discussion, “Fighting White Supremacy,” at MU. Evonnia Woods of Reproaction moderated the discussion.
Merritt said only focusing on individual acts of racism doesn’t get to the root of the system of white supremacy. She said she sees white supremacy exercised through public policies that incentivize the birth of white babies over non-white babies.
"Seeing a country that, for the first time since settler colonialism, is going to go back to a majority-brown country, white supremacy is this reactive force," Merritt said.
Julia Ho of Solidarity Economy St. Louis, a social and economic justice activist group, said white supremacy is the culture that breeds racism.
“You wouldn’t feel as comfortable with someone talking about white supremacy as you would with someone talking about racism if you’re white, because it has the word ‘white’ in it,” Ho said. “And most white people don’t like to be called ‘white.’”
Woods said white people can distance themselves from racism but not white supremacy.
“People can distance themselves from that really easily and say, ‘Well, I’m not racist,’” Woods said. “White supremacy is a term we can use where there are no questions.”
Alex Ringling of Refugee and Immigration Services, who is white, said her work resettling refugees made her realize she hadn’t been working that hard to fight white supremacy.
“It’s really emotionally taxing, just hard,” she said of her work. “I was thinking of who is doing the work, I was thinking of the mothers of black people killed by the police, and that really put into perspective the work I should have been doing all along.”
Ho said the burden of fighting white supremacy is placed on people of color.
“It is the work of people of color, of people who have been living in systems of white supremacy and suffering to re-envision what takes its place,” Ho said. “And that labor is intensive; it is never-ending because we don’t have a choice. We don’t get to choose whether or not to engage in it. We are forced into that by necessity, for survival.”
Merritt said white people need to take on more of the work of fighting white supremacy. She’s disappointed by white people who use activism only to show how “woke” they are because it’s a popular thing to do.
“It’s almost like activism is the pumpkin spice of the moment,” Merritt said. “Going to direct actions in front of the St. Louis Police Department is, for some people, pumpkin spice lattes and leggings, and that’s not movement work.”
She said white people need to keep up the work outside of rallies by having difficult conversations with other white people about white supremacy.
“It’s easy to put on an ‘Assata taught me’ T-shirt and go down to the rally and get your kick of pumpkin-spice activism,” Merritt said.