We generally associate “white supremacy” with extremes: bigoted diatribes and hateful slurs, jackbooted Gestapo, and hooded Klansmen. If that were all that white supremacy is, then “white supremacy culture” would be nothing more than the norms for white nationalist conventions or traditions for neo-Nazi potlucks. But it goes beyond those who openly self-identify as a white supremacist.
American society features systemic, institutional racism (ThoughtCo.). Recognizing this is why millions understood that George Floyd’s race was not incidental to his death. It is why they understood that Derek Chauvin was not merely a murderer but an agent of a murderous system. It is why the descendants of those targeted by slavery and genocide have the least today.
• Think about how white supremacy culture exists in your day-to-day life. How can you change these norms in the spaces you inhabit? What could you and others do differently?
• Consider: did your workplace, school, church, or other association make a statement in support of Black Lives Matter? If not, why? If so, have practices and norms changed since then? Is anti-racism an ongoing priority? What would that look like?
The product of ongoing institutionalized racism is persistent white supremacy. When we work, open a bank account, cast a ballot, form a family, shop — we are all engaging with inequitable, exclusionary, or oppressive institutions. This doesn’t mean that every person is racist. Instead, racial inequities are so seamlessly embedded in and produced by our everyday lives that it’s become routine. Racism is the default.
Tema Okun developed the concept of “white supremacy culture” to describe how the culture of organizations can perpetuate racism beyond explicit bias or bigotry (WSC). In their article, Okun includes such characteristics as perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, and paternalism.
Some people of color reacted with anger because they thought Okun implied that only white people could aspire to urgency or perfection. Many white people responded defensively to the idea that such things could be racist in any way. Instead, Okun’s goal was to highlight how these characteristics are used to maintain a system of superiority between white people and other people of color.
Since we all internalize institutional racism, people of color can also play into a culture that perpetuates white supremacy (Scientific American). While urgency isn’t adherently racist, these norms perpetuate power imbalances and hinder real change.
If management reacts defensively to critiques by their marginalized employees, those workers’ perspectives aren’t going to be acknowledged. Nothing will change if every idea for reform is viewed as an attack (WSC).
An organization consumed by a sense of urgency will probably never find the “right time” to undo inequities. Allies and marginalized people will keep getting pushed to the side to meet the latest deadline. And yet, racial justice is never an equally urgent matter (WSC).
In a paternal environment, where those at the top hoard power, subordinates don’t share their viewpoints or make decisions. This means internal problems and potential solutions get ignored. Even firms that loudly announce their “diversity hires” in the name of racial justice retain overwhelmingly-white management teams (CNBC, MSN). Racial exclusion is bad, but an underclass of non-white junior employees overseen by non-responsive, paternalistic white supervisors isn’t that much better.
The white supremacy culture framework also includes fear, either/or thinking, and individualism, among others. Though seemingly innocuous or even beneficial, each protects racial hierarchies within organizations when left unchecked. Each can perpetuate white supremacy, understood as
a political, economic and cultural system in which whites overwhelmingly control power and material resources, conscious and unconscious ideas of white superiority and entitlement are widespread, and relations of white dominance and non-white subordination are daily reenacted across a broad array of institutions and social settings” (Good Men Project).
Racial inequities don’t fall from the sky. But people, largely going through their normal lives without any ill intent, continue to recreate them day after day and generation and generation. This means that having a sincere belief that Black lives matter or wishing they didn’t put migrant kids in cages isn’t enough. We need to look at how our practices contribute to the world we live in. It’s more than our voting habits or reading lists. It’s the kind of neighborhoods, social groups, and workplaces we create. It’s what we prioritize and what we allow. It’s how we react and who we defend.
The last year saw an outpouring of organizational support for racial justice. But putting out a press release or changing a social media bio is easy, fast, and free. They require nothing.
Devoting resources to undoing racism is a commitment. It takes initiative, time, and money to truly look at the internal dynamics of an organization and interrogate the way it interacts with the society around it and treats the people within it. Changing internal practices comes with a cost. Sharing power and prioritizing inclusion and justice instead of profit and recognition do, too. Authentic anti-racism doesn’t stop at mission statements and fairweather allyship. Anti-oppression is a constant, ongoing practice that an organization can prioritize in its culture, practice, methods, and goals.
• Racial disparities aren’t exclusive to the actions of white supremacists.
• Cultural norms can support inequities without explicitly mentioning race.
• We need to actively push back against white supremacy culture in social, work, and educational settings.