A Review of
White Supremacy Culture
The Culture of White Supremacy in Organizations
Fifteen characteristics of white supremacy culture – and how to interrupt them.
In this practitioner’s guide, Dr. Tema Okun outlines how white supremacy can appear and operate in organizations. Defined by the Merriam-Webster Dictionary as beliefs and systems that “collectively enable white people to maintain power over people of other races,” white supremacy can show up in organizations in subtle ways. Whether through individual behaviors, group norms, or organizational standards, the cultural characteristics of white supremacy can be hard to see or name. This powerful and damaging form of white supremacy is called “white supremacy culture.”
White supremacy culture impacts everyone – people of color and white people. Without choice or intention, any group can exhibit the invisible attitudes and subtle behaviors of white supremacy culture, including white-led, people of color-led, predominantly white, or predominantly people of color organizations.
So how exactly does white supremacy culture show up in organizations, and how can it be interrupted? Dr. Okun outlines fifteen characteristics of white supremacy culture and strategies to counter them. As part of the Dismantling Racism Works (dRworks) workbook, she builds on the work of numerous researchers and practitioners, including but not limited to Andrea Ayvazian, Bree Carlson, Beverly Daniel Tatum, M.E. Dueker, Nancy Emond, Kenneth Jones, Jonn Lunsford, Sharon Martinas, Joan Olsson, David Rogers, James Williams, Sally Yee, and Dismantling Racism workshop participants. This guide also draws on the work of several organizations, including Grassroots Leadership, Equity Institute Inc., People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, Challenging White Supremacy workshop, Lillie Allen Institute, and Western States Center.
Methods and Findings
The characteristics of white supremacy culture, and their antidotes, include:
- Perfectionism, such as pointing out how a person or their work is inadequate. Instead, expect that everyone will make mistakes and that mistakes offer opportunities for learning.
- Sense of Urgency, such as prioritizing quick or highly visible results that can exclude potential allies. Instead, discuss what it means to set goals of inclusivity and diversity, particularly in terms of timing.
- Defensiveness, such as spending energy trying to protect power or defend against charges of racism. Instead, work on your own defensiveness and understand the link between defensiveness and fear.
- Valuing Quantity Over Quality, such as directing organizational resources toward measurable goals. Instead, develop a values statement which expresses the ways in which you want to work, and make sure it is a living document that people apply to their daily work.
- Worshipping the Written Word, such as valuing strong documentation and writing skills. Instead, work to recognize the contributions and skills that every person brings to the organization.
- Believing in Only One Right Way, such as concluding something is wrong with people who refuse to adapt or change. Instead, never assume that you or your organization know what’s best.
- Paternalism, such as decision-making processes that are only understood by those with power and unclear to those without it. Instead, include people who are affected by decisions in decision-making.
- Either/or Thinking, such as trying to simplify complex things. Instead, slow down, encourage people to do a deeper analysis, and sense that things can be both/and.
- Power Hoarding, such as feeling threatened when anyone suggests organizational changes. Instead, understand that change is inevitable and that challenges can be both healthy and productive.
- Fear of Open Conflict, such as equating the raising of difficult issues with being rude or impolite. Instead, don’t require those who raise difficult issues to do so in ‘acceptable’ ways, particularly if you’re using the ways in which issues are raised as an excuse not to address them.
- Individualism, such as wanting individual recognition and credit. Instead, make sure credit is given to everyone who participates, not just the leaders.
- Believing I’m the Only One, such as thinking that if something is going to get done right, then ‘I’ have to do it. Instead, evaluate people based on their ability to delegate to others.
- Believing Progress is Bigger and More, such as defining success as hiring more staff, developing more projects, or serving more people. Instead, make sure your goals speak to how you want to work, not just what you want to do.
- Believing in Objectivity, such as considering emotions to be irrational and destructive to decision-making. Instead, push yourself to sit with discomfort when people express themselves in unfamiliar ways.
- Claiming a Right to Comfort, such as scapegoating those who cause emotional or psychological discomfort. Instead, welcome discomfort as much as you can and understand that it is the root of all growth and learning.
By listing the fifteen characteristics of white supremacy culture, organizations and individuals can start to see how their attitudes and behaviors may unconsciously reinforce white supremacy culture on a regular basis. Indeed, white supremacy culture can become standard practice within an organization, making it hard, if not intolerable, for groups to practice and make space for other cultural norms. Even when an organization wants to be multicultural, they may unknowingly force people to conform to the norms of white supremacy culture. But by proactively identifying and naming the cultural norms they want to practice, organizations can take the first step to becoming truly multicultural and dismantling white supremacy at the personal, organizational, and structural level.
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