Opening the Flood Gates: ‘Backyard’ Racism, White Supremacy and Disruptive Discomfort in Academic Classrooms

Very few would deny that the 2016 US Presidential Election bolstered extreme-right movements globally, signalling an urgent need to understand specific ways white supremacist messages are packaged and disseminated. The Trump administration’s expression of sympathy toward white nationalists brought them into the political system in ways that has not occurred in decades. The White Nationalist Rally that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia on August 17, 2017 ended in the death of Heather Heyer, 32, and the injury of 35 others. President Trump responded by placing the blame on ‘many sides’ adding that the White Nationalists were ‘decent people’. Prior to the Charlottesville Rally, the extreme-right was largely thought of as a small, misguided group from low-income pockets of the US as opposed to a growing global threat.  Trump’s blatant approval inspired extreme-right groups around the world including the growing visibility of the True Blue Crew and United Patriots Front in Australia, and the National Front New Zealand and Right Wing Resistance in New Zealand. However, as menacing actions and rhetoric increase among the extreme-right, we must ask ourselves:  Are we equipped to engage in honest discussions of backyard racism in academic classrooms?

I use the term backyard racism to refer to day-to-day experiences of the people next door. Several US cases of white people calling the police on black, brown and Indigenous people for mundane actions such as napping, shopping, and grilling is evidence of the pervasiveness of backyard racism. In my work as an educator, I use this term to draw attention to how these same instances of everyday racism are often denied when brought up as testimonies of racism in students’ lives. Recognizing and responding to present-day racism require developing a sophisticated understanding of white supremacy and the various contemporary racist tactics that work to rule, confine and punish people racialised as non-white.

An important first step is to recognise disruptive discomfort as a powerful mechanism that has the potential to halt discussions of racism in academic settings, especially if the discomfort is that of racially dominant groups. I distinguish ‘disruptive discomfort’ from the natural discomfort that comes with the discussion of difficult topics, where participants are open to understanding. Disruptive discomfort arouses negative tensions; it is antagonistic and can lead people to assume victimhood. The assumption of victimhood occurs when racially dominant groups feel attacked or violated when being confronted with the mere reality of racism.

As a sociology lecturer, I have encountered varying levels of student discomfort, having taught Introduction to Sociology courses in two predominantly white countries (New Zealand and the United States) with vastly different histories. Gender, class, race, ethnicity and sexuality are core components of the syllabus. Race and racism trigger the most discomfort. Students either want to situate racism in the past or as something that only happens in a distant faraway place. Students go to great lengths to avoid delving deeply into the workings of racism, especially backyard racism, through expressions of subtle and sometimes unsubtle discomfort. Common responses to discussions of contemporary racism are (1) becoming less talkative and displaying a rigid body language; (2) offering pathologizing statements to dismiss claims of racism on the basis of the perceived innate character flaws of a group of people (e.g., black-on-black crime); (3) providing examples of other group oppressions (e.g., individuals with physical and mental disabilities); and (4) using individuals, such as ‘President Barack Obama’ or ‘Oprah’, as key indicators that racial barriers no longer exist. However, when I use the same example, in this case ‘Oprah’, to suggest that perhaps gender-based oppressions no longer exist, I am met with a plethora of examples as to why that is not plausible. Such contradictions are further amplified by racialised students’ revelations that they have been engaged and/ or exposed to racist commentary on social media, from family members and in social gatherings. Despite proximity to racist rhetoric, many students feel, as I have been told many times, that race and ethnicity is not what it once was, often, in the case of US students, referring to era of Jim Crow laws that legalised discrimination against blacks. In the case of my US students, several felt they were colourblind and did not see race. When I asked if they noticed that I am a black woman, they had to think about it.

It is important to identify factors that trigger disruptive discomfort. For instance, discussing racism as an historical phenomenon offers relief from the discomfort of having to confront contemporary racism and, potentially, one’s own racist beliefs. Conversely, backyard racism involves an examination of the present and is likely an exercise in interrogating many students’ deeply held racist beliefs.

Equipping students to identify and challenge racist tactics involves an ability to engage with and minimise disruptive white fragility. Robin DiAngelo, one of the leading authorities on white fragility, describes this concept as the condition of white people feeling stressed by being confronted with the material benefits they receive qua white people, even if they oppose racism. The fact that they do not confront systemic racism, despite their social class (poor), gender (female), or sexual orientation insulates them to the point that their comfort is taken-for-granted as a right. Even when attending diversity related functions and meetings, merely mentioning the word racism triggers a discomfort (e.g., shame, anger, ambivalence) among attendees that shifts the discussion away from the harmful realities of racism to assuaging the discomfort of those who are not subjected to the dehumanising experiences of surveillance, over policing, and confinement (e.g., mass imprisonment, low-income segregated communities, Native reservations).

In difficult situations we are encouraged to get to the root of the problem if we want to achieve meaningful results. Such processes often call for individuals to actively work at creating safe environments conducive to honest conversation, which may not always be comfortable but are necessary. In the same way, we as anti-racism scholars must tackle daily experiences of hostility that occur in our schools, universities, criminal justice systems, traffic stops, shops, and restaurants. Engaging in the simplest routines can be traumatising if not fatal events for black, brown and Indigenous people. Sociology, and other disciplines, can shed light on backyard racism by integrating the study of whiteness and white supremacy into course curricula. Unlike other racial categories, whiteness is usually unattended. Studying how whiteness operates in a system of racial stratification where the existence of whiteness is often rendered invisible and/or normalised through cultural practices illustrates how white supremacy is experienced, expressed and reproduced daily. Through this exercise, attention moves away from providing students with a few examples of white privilege (the social condition of whiteness) to exposing a white supremacist system (institutional practices). Compared to the former, which is more widely recognised, white supremacy is under-theorised.  Anne Bonds and Joshua Inwood define white supremacy as a multi-layered process:

White supremacy describes and locates white racial domination by underscoring the material production and violence of racial structures and the hegemony of whiteness in settler societies. The concept of white supremacy forcefully calls attention to the brutality and dehumanization of racial exploitation and domination that emerges from settler colonial societies.

The study of white supremacy calls for a grounded set of practices that reveal its enduring social, economic and political impacts. It is a system that cannot be relegated to a historical context but rather acknowledged as a dynamic process that informs the present and future formations of race.  Understanding the ubiquitous influence of white supremacy undoubtedly takes time, however, it is a process that involves elucidating how social actors everywhere are not immune to its logic. White supremacy informs all of our reasoning and engagement with society, which is not easily recognised or understood via a host of privileges. Enhancing our understanding requires us to examine ways white supremacy functions daily, even in our backyards. The lesson then becomes more about how to unpack ways we all actively participate in protecting and perpetuating a white supremacist system as opposed to teaching students about a few privileges.

For example, in a first-year Introduction to Sociology class in New Zealand, I delivered a lecture on ‘white supremacy and the eugenics movement’.  Students traced legislated sterilisation from the US to uncovering lesser known discussions of eugenics in New Zealand. Students learned that the white supremacist philosophy undergirding eugenics was the same in both countries, to control and do away with undesirable groups (e.g., poor, mentally ill, black, and indigenous). White supremacist rhetoric was quickly identified and linked to both historical and contemporary language in discussions of immigration policies in New Zealand and the US. Specifically, students recognised President Trump’s decision to end protection to immigrant from shithole countries (Central American and African countries) in favour of people from Norway as white supremacist rhetoric. To end the lecture, one first-year student remarked, “White supremacy is everywhere. No one can escape it. Even when we are complicit it is like pushing a moving car downhill. Our only option is to resist if there is hope for change.”

Fruitful discussions of racism involve helping students to identify white supremacy as an oppressive force. Disruptive discomfort and white fragility are not only the products of white supremacy but also operate to sustain it. This process may require identifying and interrogating our own personal discomfort with teaching and discussing white supremacy and racism before we are able to recognise and tackle classroom discomfort. As anti-racist scholars we have a responsibility to make the disruptive discomfort that thwarts healthy discussions of racism visible.

Former American Football player, Colin Kaepernick’s peaceful protest against widespread police brutality against black and brown people revealed a national discomfort with acknowledging daily realities of racism. Harry Belafonte, the Jamaican-American entertainer and civil rights activist, spoke these encouraging words to Colin which are also of immense value to anti-racist activists and scholars: ‘To mute the slave is the goal of the slave owner.’ Discomfort and white fragility operate in many ways to mute and silence contemporary claims of racism and inhibit understanding of our proximity to it. Thus, we need to examine who are the modern-day owners who work to silence the racism thriving in our backyards.


Dr Adele N. Norris is a lecturer in the Sociology and Social Policy program in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Adele’s scholarship uses Black feminist methodologies with a focus on racism and the criminal justice system. She is currently engaged in research on the rise of extreme-right groups and developing pedagogical strategies to manage disruptive emotional responses to discussions of white supremacy in academic classrooms.

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