What is white supremacy culture?

November 2, 2020

When you think of white supremacy, many people think of people wearing white hoods, burning crosses, and terrorizing Black people, Jews, LGBTQ people and other people of color. But, white supremacy is also white supremacy culture – an invisible force that keeps people of color and those without power silent and powerless. Living and working in America, we all uphold white supremacy culture to some degree. White supremacy culture is so ingrained in American culture that it’s mostly invisible.

Some examples of things we’ve done to disrupt white supremacy culture at Neighborhood House include: staff and community engagement in our revised mission, vision, values, and goal statements; inclusive Executive Director hiring process, and starting NH Affinity Groups. We have more work to do to, which is why it is urgent that we understand white supremacy culture so we can begin the process to dismantle it. The following excerpt of an article written by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun of dRworks www.dismantlingracism.org does a good job of naming the characteristics of white supremacy culture. The full article also includes antidotes (what we can do to disrupt white supremacy culture).

This is a list of characteristics of white supremacy culture that show up in our organizations. Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. The characteristics listed below are damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. Because we all live in a white supremacy culture, these characteristics show up in the attitudes and behaviors of all of us – people of color and white people. Therefore, these attitudes and behaviors can show up in any group or organization, whether it is white-led or predominantly white or people of color-led or predominantly people of color.

perfectionism

• little time, energy, or money put into reflection or identifying lessons learned that can improve practice, in other words little or no learning from mistakes.

defensiveness

• people respond to new or challenging ideas with defensiveness, making it very difficult to raise these ideas.

sense of urgency

• continued sense of urgency that makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive, encourage democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making, to think long-term, to consider consequences.

fear of open conflict

• when someone raises an issue that causes discomfort, the response is to blame the person for raising the issue rather than to look at the issue which is actually causing the problem.

quantity over quality

• all resources of organization are directed toward producing measurable goals.

worship of the written word

• those with strong documentation and writing skills are more highly valued, even in organizations where ability to relate to others is key to the mission.

only one right way

• the belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it.

paternalism

• those with power think they are capable of making decisions for and in the interests of those without power.

either/or thinking

• things are either/or — good/bad, right/wrong, with us/against us.

power hoarding

• little, if any, value around sharing power.

• power seen as limited, only so much to go around.

individualism

• creates a lack of accountability, as the organization values those who can get things done on their own without needing supervision or guidance.

objectivity

• the belief that there is such a thing as being objective or ‘neutral’.

Right to comfort

• the belief that those with power have a right to emotional and psychological comfort.

One of the purposes of listing characteristics of white supremacy culture is to point out how organizations which unconsciously use these characteristics as their norms and standards make it difficult, if not impossible, to open the door to other cultural norms and standards. As a result, many of our organizations, while saying we want to be multi-cultural, really only allow other people and cultures to come in if they adapt or conform to already existing cultural norms. Being able to identify and name the cultural norms and standards you want is a first step to making room for a truly multi-cultural organization.