In the COVID-19 era, white fragility intensifies a collective sense of white life in peril, paving the way for a rising fascism. How can we intervene?
Politics as usual seems to have been put on hold while we grapple with the pandemic, but the political forces and formations we were struggling with prior to this crisis have not disappeared. In fact, while the COVID-19 pandemic directly and radically challenges the globalized neoliberal order, for some political actors, moments like these are rich with opportunity.
We have already seen striking examples of right wing elites using the pandemic as pretext to seize even greater power. In the United States, the Department of Justice has asked Congress about crafting legislation allowing for indefinite detention, arrest without charge, suspension of court proceedings and denial of the right of asylum to those who test positive for COVID-19. In Hungary, parliament has passed legislation that puts no time limits on the state of emergency declared in response to COVID-19 that allows right-wing nationalist Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to rule by decree. In Canada, the government has closed the border to refugees and asylum seekers using COVID-19 as pretext to further harden the border to those most desperate, vulnerable and marginalized.
But in many ways these power moves are the fairly predictable actions of a ruling class primed to make use of any crisis to consolidate power. It is the resurgent radical right steeped in white nationalist identitarian politics that is truly pushing the envelope of the COVID-19 era as it seeks to seize the narrative around the pandemic and build its power in order to pave the way to a much darker future.
Since the earliest days of the pandemic a rogues’ gallery of the far right have peddled a variety of conspiracy theories about the novel coronavirus that trade in racist, outlandish scenarios about the virus’ origins, those alleged to be responsible for and at risk from it, and the measures aimed at mitigating it. COVID-19 has been a powerful attractor in this regard, bringing together a diverse collection of anti-vaxxers, QAnons, sovereign citizens, white power activists, far-right social media “lifestyle influencers,” militia members, and many more under the big tent of racist, nonsensical and often contradictory coronavirus conspiracy theories.
While these far-right “coronaspiracies” differ on many points, they have one very powerful commonality: they are steeped in a white identity politics that advances white power by recourse to an overwhelming, collectively experienced sense of white fragility. Using different characters, idioms and genres of storytelling, these conspiracy theories all orbit around the myth of white genocide, updated for the COVID-19 era.
As the long COVID-19 emergency deepens, we will see more examples of this toxic brew of white nationalism, pandemic trutherism and desperate, violent attempts to “secure the existence of the white race and a future for white children,” to invoke the infamous 14 words coined by white supremacist terrorist David Lane. What is particularly notable about this deadly cocktail is that it often minimizes the threat posed by the virus to individuals while proclaiming the broader threats to white life supposedly crystalized in our current moment. At the same time we see increasing examples, particularly in neo-Nazi circles, of exhortations to use COVID-19 as a bioweapon specifically against non-white people but most importantly in order to kickstart their longed for race war.
If we cannot craft ways of cracking the white power/white fragility dyad, particularly as the social crisis of capitalism intensifies, we will see increasingly brutal forms of authoritarian white supremacist nationalism take hold. Understanding the relationship between white power politics and the collective experience of white fragility is critical to devising effective strategies to disrupt far-right organizing. The stakes of this are incredibly high as the pandemic throws the business-as-usual of white supremacist hetero-patriarchal capitalism into disarray, clearing the way for something new to take its place.
Fertile ground for fascism
Contrary to the popular myth that “mature” democracies are inoculated against fascism, they have proven to be fertile ground for it. This is even more true in times of crisis. Historian and political theorist Roger Griffin has distilled the “mythic core” of fascism as a form of populist, revolutionary ultranationalism. Griffin and fellow travelers like Robert Paxton in his outstanding book The Anatomy of Fascism highlight the fascist obsession with the decadent, degraded and fallen state of the national community and its revolutionary aspirations for the nation’s rebirth and revitalization. Amidst entrenched relations of oppression and exploitation, the technocracy and anomie of modern life, and the alienation produced by capitalism, fascism gestates. When prevailing relations of power enter into crisis, it metastasizes.
While in the popular imagination fascism was defeated in World War II, in the years since it has morphed and become embedded in the fiber of many countries around the world. In From Fascism to Populism in History, historian Federico Finchelstein argues that right-wing populism should be understood as “the heir to fascism—a postfascism for democratic times.” In this regard, our current conjuncture represents its clearest, most muscular, and most public resurgence to date with the COVID-19 pandemic furnishing the necessary conditions for its spread.
Fascism is not necessarily white supremacist but, given the centrality of white supremacy and racism to the making of the modern world and its relations of ruling, it is unsurprising that fascism and white supremacy are political intimates.
While scholars continue to debate whether our current moment is an authentically fascist one or not, for those of us concerned with social change and social justice it is enough to recognize that the crisis this time provides fertile ground for the rise of fascistic political sensibilities driven by a profound sense of vulnerability, injury and degradation that abets fantasies of violent purification and renewal.
Disease is often invoked metaphorically by fascists to describe their enemies or the degraded state of the body politic, but an actual pandemic offers the political opportunity to channel people’s anxiety. As the initial phase of the coronavirus pandemic extends into a protracted emergency, the likelihood of far-right authoritarians and fascists seeking to take advantage of it only increases. As author and activist Rebecca Solnit notes, “[t]here are no simple rules for when disaster becomes insurrection.” To this I would add: nor is there any guarantee of the ends to which it will be put or the interests animating it.
White Injury and White Fragility
While racialized communities suffered the most significant losses in the 2008 financial meltdown, narratives extolling the plight of the white working class proliferated in its wake. Fast forward 12 years to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have already seen the far right engage in all manner of conspiratorial, xenophobic scapegoating blaming a variety of alien others for stoking panic, spreading disease, curtailing individual liberty, and basically being the reason that we cannot have nice things. This process of dehumanization and scapegoating is the foundation that paves the way for widespread racial violence. In both these cases the moral of the story is that white people, as faithful and upstanding members of society, are simply not supposed to suffer in ways considered entirely banal for others. When suffering, or the risk of suffering, is experienced by white-identified people under conditions of structural white supremacy, the consequences can be explosive.
Assessing the election of Donald Trump, author and journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that Trump’s power emanates from his embodiment and embracement of white supremacy which allowed him to build a cross-class alliance of white-identified supporters. In his prescient book Angry White Men: American Masculinity at the End of an Era, sociologist Michael Kimmel describes the sentiment animating the resurgence of far right politics and open white supremacy as “aggrieved entitlement.” In the context of not insignificant gains toward equality made by women, racialized minorities, immigrants and others who “had been successfully excluded for decades” as well as the deepening of capitalist precarity, alienation and austerity, white men in particular have experienced these changes and challenges as theft of what is “rightfully” theirs.
White injury is white power’s alibi, the excuse that legitimates the dehumanization of non-white people under structured relations of white supremacy, the license for the violence unleashed particularly by white men against racialized others. The stakes of this are only upped in our current context where existential fears about “civilizational” decline that, while potent, are relatively abstract and ideological are transmuted to intimate and experiential by COVID-19.
Already we have seen a swell of racist attacks aimed at people of Asian descent as ruling elites like Donald Trump refer to the novel coronavirus as the “Chinese virus” with the FBI warning of more racialized violence to come.
In another vein, there has also been a proliferation of social media commentary heavy on sentimentality and short on actual evidence that holds that humans, particular some humans, are the actual virus and COVID-19 is the cure. To call this a rising eco-fascist sensibility is not exaggeration.
This drive to identify enemies who can be collectively and justly punished is connected to a deep, collectively experienced sense of injury that animates white identity politics today.
These feelings are very real without being true. That is, they can be deeply, sincerely and collectively experienced without accurately indicating real injustice or diagnosing the root of the problem. These dynamics highlight the pairing of a sense of white injury with white fragility. As anti-racist scholar Robin DiAngelo explains in White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk About Racism, “[s]ocialized into a deeply internalized sense of superiority that we [white people] either are unaware of or can never admit to ourselves, we become highly fragile in conversations about race.”
Any effort to connect white people to structural white supremacy and racism is experienced by whites as a profound moral offense, an attack on their very being, and is met with a variety of emotions and behaviors from open hostility and anger to withdrawal, guilt and defensiveness.
White innocence, injury and fragility is on display in nearly every public accounting of an instance of white power terrorism. We have already seen the first instances of white power terror in the COVID-19 era and, unsurprisingly, it looks an awful lot like it did before the pandemic. As people have taken to online conferencing platforms like Zoom for social, political, and work purposes, there are the alt-right trolls who, after a decade of honing their skills in shitposting and meme wars, eagerly crash these virtual encounters to harass and propagandize.
But the dynamics of white fragility and white power are nowhere more clearly illustrated than in the recent case of Patrik Mathews. On January 16, 2020, news broke that Patrik Mathews, a reserve combat engineer with the Canadian Armed Forces, had been arrested by the FBI along with two other members of the neo-Nazi accelerationist insurrectionary group The Base.
After Winnipeg Free Press reporter Ryan Thorpe broke the story that Mathews was actively recruiting for The Base, leading to his investigation by the Armed Forces and the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, Mathews fled across the border to train US members of The Base. That Mathews’ investigation had to be triggered by an investigative reporter, that Mathews was not detained by military investigators or police upon discovery that he was organizing to incite a race war and commit acts of terror, that he was then able to cross the US-Canada border, and that he was regularly depicted in media stories as a curiosity rather than a clear public threat says much about white innocence and white fragility in these times.
When Mathews and his fellow Base members were arrested, they were on their way to a pro-gun rally in Richmond, Virginia. They had stockpiled 1500 rounds of ammunition, built a functioning assault rifle and made propaganda encouraging others to derail trains, murder people and poison water supplies. They had discussed killing a police officer and committing acts of terrorism at the rally in Virginia to incite a race war.
The far right have been the most dangerous domestic terror threat in the US and Canada in recent years, accounting for 73 percent of such killings from 2009 to 2018. The whiteness and maleness of the perpetrators distinguishes them insofar as it engenders empathy and a search for underlying causes that might have led them to this end. Unlike the violence enacted by non-white subjects, it is never taken as an indictment of an entire class of human beings. Indeed, the subtext to it often seems to be a certainty that diversity, multiculturalism, feminism—among other SJW boogeymen—have driven these men to commit desperate acts. Even when they are identified as perpetrators, they are never at fault.
Mere days after Mathew’s arrest, an article by the right-wing Postmedia News circulated entitled “Alleged Manitoba white supremacist had an African-Canadian girlfriend, his mother says.” Acknowledging Mathews’ undeniable white supremacist convictions and racial hatred of others, the article quickly launches into a narrative about how Mathews’ current beliefs did not seem to jibe with fond family memories of his childhood and upbringing. We are told that he has Asperger’s, that he dated a Black woman and that he was bullied in school. The article dwells on the contradictions of Mathews’ life and paints an undeniably sympathetic portrait of its subject. Mathews is a victim, his radicalization is understood entirely idiosyncratically, and we are left not with a clear window into organized white supremacist terrorism but a confounding, autobiographical and empathy-baiting human interest story.
White fragility is the alibi for actions that, carried out by any other racialized group, are regularly labeled existential threats to freedom, democracy and civilized society itself—to say nothing of legitimating practices like “special rendition,” massively expanded surveillance, travel bans and concentration camps.
Disarming White Fragility
So what? What if it is indeed true that white fragility is white power’s flipside and that both are tied not only to structural white supremacy but to the resurgence of far-right populism and fascism? What do we do with this? The critical work being done by a host of activists to track, document and publicly out those seeking to mobilize white fragility in defense of white power remains essential. Up until the pandemic, it also seemed clear that mass mobilizations against far-right and fascist organizing was absolutely necessary too but what does this look like in the COVID-19 era? The capacity for grassroots community self-defense in the face of far-right threats and violence remains as crucial as ever but how do we do this while practicing physical distancing? Online spaces and platforms are excellent for all kinds of organizing purposes but some work simply needs to be done physically and in common.
The COVID-19 pandemic creates openings and opportunities not only for fascists and the far right but for struggles for collective liberation too. This opening will be won by those who demonstrate the necessary creativity, commitment and audacity to seize it.
As author and activist Arundhati Roy has so powerfully expressed: “the rupture exists. And in the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves. Nothing could be worse than a return to normality.”
Before the COVID-19 crisis we seemed hard pressed to come up with effective strategies for countering the vexing problem of the cover provided by white fragility in what remain white majority societies. Whether we want to or not, white fragility is a state of being that is so ubiquitous that we must devise strategies and tactics to deal with it. This is really all the more true in a context where a globalized public health crisis has canceled business as usual, suspended the trappings of liberal democracy where they existed, buttressed the state, and gifted greater latitude to ruling elites. The situation actually only gets more explosive in the event that existing relations of ruling prove incapable of mitigating the crisis, opening the door to far-right accelerationist fantasies of social collapse, race war and the installation of new, fascist order.
As social crisis intensifies we should expect to see more examples of far-right populist revolt against the established order with a decidedly insurrectionary trajectory. On April 15, 2020, thousands of right-wing demonstrators defied social distancing orders in Michigan to carry out “Operation Gridlock,” demanding that the governor end distancing and closure measures aimed at preventing the spread of COVID-19. Similar protests took place in Kentucky and North Carolina as protesters gathered to decry public health measures they cast as tyranny. White nationalists and other members of the far right in Canada have expressed similar sentiments, seizing upon the anxiety and uncertainty of the moment to propagandize, recruit and dehumanize non-white people. Beyond them wait the avowed race warriors, eagerly anticipating the coming boogaloo they believe will usher in a fascist future birthed in the fires that consume the current order.
White fragility will only be amplified by the perception of the existential threat posed by the novel coronavirus. But how will white fragility and white power be expressed in our new reality? New dynamics of physical distancing pose significant challenges to the way we think about and practice politics. What does protest look like now? What are the implications for organizing collective power? What does movement-building look like in an age of separation?
Given the long history white power activists have with using the internet to propagandize, communicate, organize and instigate, as well as the alt-right’s adept use of digital platforms what can we expect to see from our opponents and how can we best organize to face this? There are no clear answer to any of these questions and most of them hinge on how long physical distancing remains a key plank of virus mitigation. The longer it goes on, the bigger the window to glimpse other ways of being. But if nothing is done to address white fragility, the way we will collectively emerge from this pandemic will be deeply shaped by the interests, anxieties and jealously guarded privileges of this dominant group.
The last thing we should want to do is to find ways to further coddle or encourage dominant groups who refuse to take any accountability for the oppression they are conscripted to and, ultimately, benefit from. But it is also strategically wrong. Unless and until we find ways of penetrating the shell of white fragility, we will continue to leave the hard core of racist and fascist being untouched.
White fragility must be acknowledged and addressed head-on by those of us committed to collective liberation, particularly in societies that remain white majority. Acknowledging the fact of white fragility makes it a problem to work toward solving, not an immovable object. It rightly galls many activists and organizers, particularly those whose identity is neither white nor male, to center white fragility in any kind of strategizing. They should not have to. Dismantling white fragility as a route to subverting white supremacy has to be work that belongs to white identified activists committed to a politics of collective liberation. Other people simply should not have to expend the time and energy on this, even if it is essential.
Think of it as proactive deradicalization work since white fragility is so key to far right attempts to recruit and organize other white people. It also cannot look like one-on-one therapy, such an approach will only play into white fragility’s inherent narcissism and nurture it. Whatever it looks like it will have to engage white identified people where they are at and in spaces that are non-judgemental and not part of established activist scenes. This may feel like a capitulation to an odious dominant power relation to many but, in the words of post-colonial scholar Ajay Parasram, “one does not transport a porcelain vase by putting it in checked luggage.”
Outmaneuvering the far right
If we are serious about taking on far-right populism, resurgent fascism and even the regular, run-of-the-mill white supremacist hetero-patriarchal settler-colonial capitalist paradigm, whatever that will end up looking like as we live through this pandemic, we are going to have to grapple with white fragility. In this we desperately need collective experiments in kickstarting our radical imagination but that also goes for what kind of society we will build on the other side of this pandemic.
What do non-oppressive and non-exploitative ways of relating to each other, non-human life and the world look like? What would a truly just, democratic and liberated society be like? These are big questions, maybe too big to start with. Better, perhaps, to start by asking how we achieve common survival in the medium term as capitalist globalization is undone.
One place we might begin is with the mutual aid networks springing up in towns and cities to address community needs and to respond with care in the spaces evacuated by the state and capital. Using involvement in these networks to not only respond to people’s daily needs but to have careful, open conversations about vulnerability and solidarity with white people is a critical way of defusing the lure of white supremacy at the grassroots.
As critical infrastructure and supply lines fray and fail such mutual aid networks will only become more critical both in terms of basic survival as well as offering opportunities to begin to build other ways of living in the world.
Without diminishing or rationalizing the terrible suffering caused by the pandemic, COVID-19 nevertheless presents us with a hiatus in the status quo that can allow for all kinds of possibilities to emerge. Initiatives that give people a sense of how they might think and live otherwise are absolutely critical. As we live through the worst economic downturn in living memory and a public health crisis of global proportions, we are also presented with an opening that radical movements have not been able to generate on their own as the profound brokenness of the status quo is revealed on a scale previously unthinkable.
How will we ensure our common survival in the face of this? How will we take hold of the institutions and infrastructure we need as the possibility of a return to “normal” slips further and further away? What alternative relations and institutions will we build beyond them? Having good answers to these questions and ways that people can participate in the alternatives they point to is a powerful ward against the lure of fascism.
While the ruling class may get to declare the state of exception in any given historical moment, they do not get to unilaterally determine how it will be resolved or what will follow it. The pandemic also poses challenges to the operation of power that primarily political or economic crises do not. Fascism is aggressive, ambitious, and opportunistic. Those of us committed to opposing it and advancing collective liberation need to be able to outmaneuver our far-right opponents on this new terrain.
Alex Khasnabish is a writer, researcher and teacher committed to collective liberation living in K’jipuktuk, Mi’kma’ki (Halifax, Nova Scotia), the unceded, unsurrendered territory of the Mi’kmaq people. He is an associate professor in Sociology & Anthropology at Mount Saint Vincent University. His research focuses on the radical imagination, radical politics and social movements.
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