Brandeis community members gathered over Zoom on Friday, Feb. 19 to discuss the Jan. 6 insurrection at the Capitol, white nationalism and white supremacy. “Let’s Talk About… White Supremacy” debuted as the Sociology department’s first anti-racism event of the semester. This discussion is part of a new series aimed at creating informal spaces outside of the classroom to talk about world events in an academic setting. 

Prof. Sarah Mayorga (SOC) led the discussion, and participants unpacked “From the Fringe to the Capitol,” an episode of NPR’s podcast “Code Switch” that discusses the significance of the symbols that appeared at the Capitol, as well as the implications that the attempted coup has warranted. Mayorga began the event by defining key terms, such as white nationalism and white supremacy, and then asked for attendees to jump in with their thoughts and reflections. 

Ph.D. student Kartik Trivedi expressed his feelings of conflict. Both in the framing of the episode as well as in the attitudes found in the media, there seems to be extreme public shock as to how this insurrection could have happened, Trivedi said. He has not recognized similar attitudes in other countries. Growing up watching “Indian, crazy politicians,” there has always been general acknowledgement of the possibility for such events to occur. And yet “there is still this veneer of American exceptionalism,” Trivedi said. “This ‘woah, this couldn’t happen to us,’ but it did.’” 

As Americans, we are boxed into the attitude, Trivedi said, that this is a one time event; a symptom of the current political climate we find ourselves in. Mayorga added that there is an urge to return to normalcy, “but this is a systemic issue, and business as usual is not necessarily the right course.” 

White supremacy has many religious undertones relating to religious prejudice, a major one being antisemitism. There were many antisemitic symbols at the storming of the Capitol, but how does this fit into white nationalism? “Antisemitism forms the theoretical core of white nationalism,” Mayorga said, quoting Talia Levin’s new book, “Cultural Warlords.” “Some secret cabal, some mythological power must be manipulating the social order behind the scenes. This diabolical evil must control television, banking, entertainment, education and even Washington, D.C. It must be brainwashing white people, rendering them racially unconscious.” This is how antisemitism fits in, she explained: Jews are the ‘all powerful, diabolical group of people’ making it happen. 

We see an infiltration where extremist groups are trying to adopt pop culture imagery — such as the Pepe the Frog meme, or attempts to make milk the drink of white nationalism — making “ the extreme no longer seem extreme in an attempt to make it seem like white nationalism is everywhere,” Mayorga explained.  

“That is the trickiness of doing an intersectional analysis… [a] white ethno state is also a white, Christian, patriarchal, anti-LGBTQ state,” Mayorga said. Understanding supremacy as power highlights the malleability of power, she continued. 

Mayorga then shifted the conversation to the subject of accountability and the implications of the use of the the word ‘terrorism’ in reference to white nationalism. “The liberal consensus to create the category of white terrorism will only lead to create policies that will target non-white people,” Crosser said. Mayorga echoed the podcast in saying that expansion of the police state would hurt BIPOC people the most. But if punishment or verbal acknowledgement of acts of terror aren’t the right course of action, what is? “What does justice look like? How do we properly acknowledge this moment?” Mayorga asked. 

Ph.D. student Sanchita Dasgupta outlined her reaction to the attack on the Capitol as an international student. She explained that she comes from an impoverished family and that her father was a beneficiary of the technology boom — which was largely white and Indian in his experience — and whose friend group through his profession largely consisted of white people. “White people are scary to me,” she said. Even knowing that she would be treated “better” as a Brown person compared to a Black person, Dasgupta explained that she would never go to the police for help.  

The insurrection, she explained, caused a “dissociative experience” whereby she had to reflect on the differences between her parents’ and her own experience of whiteness, exemplified by their shock at the police’s inaction compared with her more blasé reaction. 

Ph.D. student Sneha Gantla explained that as the Jan. 6 insurrection was unfolding, she was “momentarily hopeful” because the mass media was finally explicitly naming actions as “racist.”

However, her hope soon faded as the realities of America’s inability to recognize, address and confront racism took hold of the narrative, she said. Yes, these extremist acts were being recognized, she said; however, there’s the ‘white supremacist kind of white’ and then ‘the rest of us’ who have the “potential to be woke,” Gantla said. 

The recent acknowledgement by white people of BIPOC experiences has been validating, Gantla continued, but this acknowledgement has often been followed by a ‘but’: ‘racism exists, but I myself am not racist.’ The response has been to distance ourselves from racism, Gantla asserted, which strengthens the “disacknowledgement of the hegemonic perspective and the racist system and structures” that aren’t always as conspicuous. This idea of individual “culpability,” Crosser added — and the tendency to only see extremist actions (like those exercised at the insurrection) as racist actions, overlooking less overt racism — is a further attempt at the aforementioned plausible deniability that Jan. 6’s events have inspired.

In order to achieve a semblage of equity, “we need to start out at a point of honesty and acknowledgement.” This is where distinctions between what she called “the beneficiaries” and “the signatories” are important. “All white people are beneficiaries of racist systemes, but not all whites have to be signatories,” or people who sign onto and are complacent with racist systems, she said. Furthermore, in order to fully address racist structures, “we need to get past the moral distinctions [of] ‘Am I a good person’ or ‘Am I a bad person’” and reckon with the individual and collective responsibilities that contribute to systemic racism, Crosser said.