hegemony noun \hi-ˈje-mə-nē, -ˈge-; ˈhe-jə-ˌmō-nē\
: influence or control over another country, a group of people, etc.
1: preponderant influence or authority over others : domination
2: the social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group
I was sitting in my college classroom and called on to lead discussion on a day when I hadn't read the material. Furiously skimming the text, and hoping I could somehow wing my way through this, my eyes hit a word I did not know--hegemony. I skipped the word, trying to infer its meaning and fumbled my way through class, but reading a word I didn't know bugged me. Language was my thing and I had built a reputation for waxing eloquent in class and on assignments. In an exercise of pure vanity, I hit up Merriam Webster.com and found the definition you see above, only 16 years later. Truth be told, I can't remember to what hegemony the author was referring at the time, but the word has never left me.
Over the last sixteen years I have learned a few other things. I began to learn about the historical underpinnings of my own Baptist faith which was born of conflict between abolitionists in the North and Southern slaveholders who felt slavery was a part of God''s design. I learned about the revolutionary work of James Cone and Cornel West, of Black Liberation Theology and I was captivated. What I had heard vaguely referred to at times as "privilege" and occasionally modified with the adjective "white" became exchangeable in these readings with the phrase "white supremacy".
I resisted that term at first, not because it wasn't true but because white supremacy for me was synonymous with white men in hoods cowering behind a cloak of anonymity in an effort to terrorize African-Americans, Jews and anyone else who crossed them. I was certain that I was not a white supremacist and it became easy to fill the spaces between words with unspoken "Amens" as I further distanced myself from white supremacy. It is only now that I understand the fullness of my own complicity in this catastrophically destructive system that has claimed the lives and yet never the dignity of millions of black men and women for hundreds of years.
The more I've learned about my own complicity in perpetuating this system, the more I have become persuaded that it is more than the notion, ideology and mythology of white supremacy. This phenomenon, largely experienced in the Western world, and uniquely embodied in the founding of the United States and the horrific legacy of chattel slavery isn't simply the belief of a few radical, racist, xenophobic idealists. It is the systemic and willful suppression of an entire culture born out of fear and cowardice. It is White Hegemony.
The word itself is Greek in origin, meaning "leadership" or "rule", but perhaps can best be understood as "the authority or sovereignty of one city-state over a number of others," Rule. Dominion. Authority and Sovereignty. With this language, the influence and trajectory of White Hegemony on my own life and path emerges.
When I attended a private, Baptist, Christian college White Hegemony helped build the school and put me there.
When I first read the word "hegemony", it was written by an author who had participated in an educational system predicated on formality, academic rigor and linguistic precision. White Hegemony created that system and dictated the rules and form which still govern academia.
When I heard a trusted colleague share that his Capstone thesis at my seminary was about how our Writing Style Guide was a form of institutional racism that unfairly forced over 50% of our students who are minorities to comply to a colonialist structure, I realized White Hegemony was alive and well.
When I read where Cornel West said ""White supremacy was in fact the reptile wrapped around the legs at the table upon which the Declaration of Independence was signed by the Founding Fathers," I knew he was speaking about the inescapability of White Hegemony.
When I read the Grand Jury testimony of Darren Wilson and saw words like "demon" and "hulk" I heard the familiar tropes of the "Big Black Brute", even when Brown and Wilson were physically the same height. I realized White Hegemony doesn't die, it just adapts.
When I heard an impassioned young gay black man say at a recent protest I attended "And to our White Allies--who say you are with us-I say 'Show me the receipts!' because I sign my petition in the blood of myself and my ancestors and you sign checks." I am reminded that not only is White Hegemony alive, but the means to overthrow it may tragically require the use of some of the strategies that have made it so entrenched in our world.
Perhaps you remain unconvinced that White Hegemony exists at all. If that's you, or someone you know, please consider the following.
According to the 2010 census, 13.2% of the General Population identified as Black or African-American alone. If racial equality exists and people are awarded positions and opportunity solely based on merit, then logic says that in every other category of human experience roughly the same percentage of the population should be represented--roughly 13%.
In terms of total wealth, African-Americans control only 2.7% of the net worth of people living in the United States.
In 2011 a study of Fortune 500 CEO's found that African Americans made up 6.8% of the total number of Chief Executive Officers, despite a deliberate push for "diversity" in 2001.
Of the 535 total seats in the United States Congress, 45 of them belong to African-Americans--8.4% of Congress.
The current U.S. President, Barack Obama, is a person of color, though not an "African-American alone" by census definitions, but considering the historic nature of his presidency, it is crucial to realize he is 1 of 44--2.3% by numbers.
In 2008 (the most recent year for which data is publicly available) African-Americans made up 13.3% of roles in television and on film and in 2013 minority directors (including, but not limited to African Americans) made up 16% of the directors of episodic television. Yet out of 30 major film studios, only Tyler Perry Studios is owned and managed by an African American-3.3% of all studios--the organizations which decide which films and narratives actually make it to screen.
Of the 50 current U.S. governors, only one is African American (2%) and there have only been four African-American governors in the history of the United States.
Across State Legislatures African-Americans occupy only 9% of elected seats.
There are 601 cities in America with a population over 50,000. Of these only 49 boast African-American mayors--8.1% of major urban areas.
Based on the best data available in 2000, African-Americans make up 10.4% of police officers nationwide, with notably skewed demographics in urban areas with a higher African-American population.
Among judges nationwide, African Americans account for 6.6% of all judges. Only 13.9% of those judgeships are in appellate courts are higher.
African-Americans currently make up only 6.6% of practicing attorneys nationwide, despite constituting over 40% of the U.S. Prison population.
If hegemony is the "social, cultural, ideological, or economic influence exerted by a dominant group" then the data above shows that despite making up over 13% of the U.S. general population, African-Americans do not find equal representation in the places of influence that contribute to social, cultural, ideological and economic influence.
This is to say nothing of history, of the disproportionate presence of African-Americans currently in the South due to the legacy of chattel slavery, of the domestic terrorism of Jim and Jane Crow or the "New Jim Crow" of mass incarceration, felons rights or selective police enforcement.
Three months ago I wrote an article imploring white men and women to take the tragic occasion of the killing of Michael Brown as a glimpse beyond the veil of double-consciousness to begin to approach, listen and understand black pain and black rage.
This time I am presuming that those of you reading this who are white and who enjoy many of the same privileges and freedoms I have enjoyed by the sheer lottery of birth feel a palpable sense of unease by not only the killing of Michael Brown but the open wound of racism and inequality that was reopened when Ferguson became a hashtag. I am assuming that those readers aren't quite sure what's wrong, nor are they quite sure what to do, or how to talk about it. There are brilliant resources for that, including regular conference calls through Black Lives Matter that you can sign up for through their facebook page or this excellent piece from the Root.
Those of you who are reading this who are people of color, I am assuming you have white folks who probably have deliberately or obliviously hurt you through careless words or faulty arguments and distractions. It is my sincere hope that this might be an entry point for them to engage this deep and painful conversation and to recognize there is such a thing as White Hegemony and it must be dismantled. This is not to say White Supremacy is not a plague on humanity, but it is a term that too many white folks feel they can distance themselves from. White Supremacy is the philosophy, but White Hegemony is the system. Help educate your white brothers and sisters by introducing the concept of White Hegemony.
These and many others can provide practical steps of action, but I sincerely believe this starts with having hard conversations with other white brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, friends and coworkers. Despite all of the talking points and arguments, there is a hard reality, the proverbially inescapable elephant in the room--and yet it is an inanimate object of human construction. White Hegemony is a carefully calibrated, deliberately contrived system which continues to prevent persons of color from attaining and asserting influence that is at least commensurate with the percentage of the African American population in the United States.
There is a reason for this and it is White Hegemony. May you and I dismantle it, brick by brick. And may we start right here, right now--one conversation, one person at a time.