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Undoing Racism within and without

Like so many of you, I have tried to immerse myself into the task of understanding and working to dismantle racism within myself and to seeing how it operates in the larger world.

This week I was given this document. “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” which has really grabbed my attention. Largely because I see myself reflected in every single one of these characteristics. (alas!). A group that I am in has challenged each of us to choose one of these characteristics that you identify yourself using – and to commit to spending the rest of the month trying to raise your awareness and to reduce your reliance on this strategy.

For me, it is the idea that there is “one right way” to do things… I see this in my life from dawn to dusk – in everything from how the towels need to be put on the towel rack to how the newspaper should decide who gets to have an editorial to how the President should conduct himself. And then there is the matter of; how meetings should be run, which news outlets are most reliable, how English should be spoken and on and on and on. I’m committing to identifying the times when I stand on my preconceived White notion of “how things should be:”.

Is there one that is particularly something you see yourself doing? Undoing our own racism is a huge task. This is a much longer post than I usually make. You can dip in and out of it, just read the highlights – or dive in!

This document comes from the “Dismantling Racism Works” website. See more by clicking here.


From Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups,

by Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun, ChangeWork, 2001

Below is a list of characteristics of white supremacy culture which 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 pro-actively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. They are damaging to both people of color and to white people. Organizations that are people of color-led or a majority people of color can also demonstrate many damaging characteristics of white supremacy culture. Perfectionism

  • little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing; appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway

  • more common is to point out either how the person or work is inadequate

  • or even more common, to talk to others about the inadequacies of a person or their work without ever talking directly to them

  • mistakes are seen as personal, i.e. they reflect badly on the person making them as opposed to being seen for what they are -- mistakes

  • making a mistake is confused with being a mistake, doing wrong with being wrong

  • 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

  • tendency to identify what ís wrong; little ability to identify, name, and appreciate whatís right

Antidotes: develop a culture of appreciation, where the organization takes time to make sure that peopleís work and efforts are appreciated; develop a learning organization, where it is expected that everyone will make mistakes and those mistakes offer opportunities for learning; create an environment where people can recognize that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results; separate the person from the mistake; when offering feedback, always speak to the things that went well before offering criticism; ask people to offer specific suggestions for how to do things differently when offering criticism 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

  • frequently results in sacrificing potential allies for quick or highly visible results, for example sacrificing interests of communities of color in order to win victories for white people (seen as default or norm community)

  • reinforced by funding proposals which promise too much work for too little money and by funders who expect too much for too little

Antidotes: realistic workplans; leadership which understands that things take longer than anyone expects; discuss and plan for what it means to set goals of inclusivity and diversity, particularly in terms of time; learn from past experience how long things take; write realistic funding proposals with realistic time frames; be clear about how you will make good decisions in an atmosphere of urgency Defensiveness

  • the organizational structure is set up and much energy spent trying to prevent abuse and protect power as it exists rather than to facilitate the best out of each person or to clarify who has power and how they are expected to use it

  • because of either/or thinking (see below), criticism of those with power is viewed as threatening and inappropriate (or rude)

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

  • a lot of energy in the organization is spent trying to make sure that people's feelings aren't getting hurt or working around defensive people

  • the defensiveness of people in power creates an oppressive culture

Antidotes: understand that structure cannot in and of itself facilitate or prevent abuse; understand the link between defensiveness and fear (of losing power, losing face, losing comfort, losing privilege); work on your own defensiveness; name defensiveness as a problem when it is one; give people credit for being able to handle more than you think; discuss the ways in which defensiveness or resistance to new ideas gets in the way of the mission Quantity Over Quality

  • all resources of organization are directed toward producing measurable goals

  • things that can be measured are more highly valued than things that cannot, for example numbers of people attending a meeting, newsletter circulation, money spent are valued more than quality of relationships, democratic decision-making, ability to constructively deal with conflict

  • little or no value attached to process; if it can't be measured, it has no value

  • discomfort with emotion and feelings

  • no understanding that when there is a conflict between content (the agenda of the meeting) and process (people's need to be heard or engaged), content will prevail (for example, you may get through the agenda, but if you haven't paid attention to people's need to be heard, the decisions made at the meeting are undermined and/or disregarded)

Antidotes: include process or quality goals in your planning; make sure your organization has a values statement which expresses the ways in which you want to do your work; make sure this is a living document and that people are using it in their day to day work; look for ways to measure process goals (for example if you have a goal of inclusivity, think about ways you can measure whether or not you have achieved that goal); learn to recognize those times when you need to get off the agenda in order to address people's underlying concerns Worship of the Written Word

  • if it's not in a memo, it doesn't exist

  • the organization does not take into account or value other ways in which information gets shared

  • 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

​Antidotes: take the time to analyze how people inside and outside the organization get and share information; figure out which things need to be written down and come up with alternative ways to document what is happening; work to recognize the contributions and skills that every person brings to the organization (for example, the ability to build relationships with those who are important to the organization's 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

  • when they do not adapt or change, then something is wrong with them (the other, those not changing), not with us (those who know the right way)

  • similar to the missionary who does not see value in the culture of other communities, sees only value in their beliefs about what is good

Antidotes: accept that there are many ways to get to the same goal; once the group has made a decision about which way will be taken, honor that decision and see what you and the organization will learn from taking that way, even and especially if it is not the way you would have chosen; work on developing the ability to notice when people do things differently and how those different ways might improve your approach; look for the tendency for a group or a person to keep pushing the same point over and over out of a belief that there is only one right way and then name it; when working with communities from a different culture than yours or your organization's, be clear that you have some learning to do about the communities' ways of doing; never assume that you or your organization know what's best for the community in isolation from meaningful relationships with that community Paternalism

  • decision-making is clear to those with power and unclear to those without it

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

  • those with power often don't think it is important or necessary to understand the viewpoint or experience of those for whom they are making decisions

  • those without power understand they do not have it and understand who does

  • those without power do not really know how decisions get made and who makes what decisions, and yet they are completely familiar with the impact of those decisions on them

Antidotes: make sure that everyone knows and understands who makes what decisions in the organization; make sure everyone knows and understands their level of responsibility and authority in the organization; include people who are affected by decisions in the decision-making Either/Or Thinking

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

  • closely linked to perfectionism in making it difficult to learn from mistakes or accommodate conflict

  • no sense that things can be both/and

  • results in trying to simplify complex things, for example believing that poverty is simply a result of lack of education

  • creates conflict and increases sense of urgency, as people are felt they have to make decisions to do either this or that, with no time or encouragement to consider alternatives, particularly those which may require more time or resources

Antidotes: notice when people use either/or language and push to come up with more than two alternatives; notice when people are simplifying complex issues, particularly when the stakes seem high or an urgent decision needs to be made; slow it down and encourage people to do a deeper analysis; when people are faced with an urgent decision, take a break and give people some breathing room to think creatively; avoid making decisions under extreme pressure Power Hoarding

  • little, if any, value around sharing power

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

  • those with power feel threatened when anyone suggests changes in how things should be done in the organization, feel suggestions for change are a reflection on their leadership

  • those with power don't see themselves as hoarding power or as feeling threatened

  • those with power assume they have the best interests of the organization at heart and assume those wanting change are ill-informed (stupid), emotional, inexperienced

Antidotes: include power sharing in your organization's values statement; discuss what good leadership looks like and make sure people understand that a good leader develops the power and skills of others; understand that change is inevitable and challenges to your leadership can be healthy and productive; make sure the organization is focused on the mission Fear of Open Conflict

  • people in power are scared of conflict and try to ignore it or run from it

  • 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

  • emphasis on being polite

  • equating the raising of difficult issues with being impolite, rude, or out of line

Antidotes: role play ways to handle conflict before conflict happens; distinguish between being polite and raising hard issues; don't require those who raise hard issues to raise them in acceptable ways, especially if you are using the ways in which issues are raised as an excuse not to address the issues being raised; once a conflict is resolved, take the opportunity to revisit it and see how it might have been handled differently Individualism

  • little experience or comfort working as part of a team

  • people in organization believe they are responsible for solving problems alone

  • accountability, if any, goes up and down, not sideways to peers or to those the organization is set up to serve

  • desire for individual recognition and credit

  • leads to isolation

  • competition more highly valued than cooperation and where cooperation is valued, little time or resources devoted to developing skills in how to cooperate

  • creates a lack of accountability, as the organization values those who can get things done on their own without needing supervision or guidance antidotes: include teamwork as an important value in your values statement; make sure the organization is working towards shared goals and people understand how working together will improve performance; evaluate people's ability to work in a team as well as their ability to get the job done; make sure that credit is given to all those who participate in an effort, not just the leaders or most public person; make people accountable as a group rather than as individuals; create a culture where people bring problems to the group; use staff meetings as a place to solve problems, not just a place to report activities

  • i'm the only one

  • connected to individualism, the belief that if something is going to get done right, I have to do it

  • little or no ability to delegate work to others

Antidotes: evaluate people based on their ability to delegate to others; evaluate people based on their ability to work as part of a team to accomplish shared goals Progress is Bigger, More

  • observed in systems of accountability and ways we determine success

  • progress is an organization which expands (adds staff, adds projects) or develops the ability to serve more people (regardless of how well they are serving them)

  • gives no value, not even negative value, to its cost, for example, increased accountability to funders as the budget grows, ways in which those we serve may be exploited, excluded, or underserved as we focus on how many we are serving instead of quality of service or values created by the ways in which we serve

Antidotes: create Seventh Generation thinking by asking how the actions of the group now will affect people seven generations from now; make sure that any cost/benefit analysis includes all the costs, not just the financial ones, for example the cost in morale, the cost in credibility, the cost in the use of resources; include process goals in your planning, for example make sure that your goals speak to how you want to do your work, not just what you want to do; ask those you work with and for to evaluate your performance Objectivity

  • the belief that there is such a thing as being objective

  • the belief that emotions are inherently destructive, irrational, and should not play a role in decision-making or group process

  • invalidating people who show emotion

  • requiring people to think in a linear fashion and ignoring or invalidating those who think in other ways

  • impatience with any thinking that does not appear logical to those with power

Antidotes: realize that everybody has a world view and that everybody's world view affects the way they understand things; realize this means you too; push yourself to sit with discomfort when people are expressing themselves in ways which are not familiar to you; assume that everybody has a valid point and your job is to understand what that point is Right to Comfort

  • the belief that those with power have a right to emotional and psychological comfort (another aspect of valuing logic over emotion)

  • scapegoating those who cause discomfort

  • equating individual acts of unfairness against white people with systemic racism which daily targets people of color

Antidotes: understand that discomfort is at the root of all growth and learning; welcome it as much as you can; deepen your political analysis of racism and oppression so you have a strong understanding of how your personal experience and feelings fit into a larger picture; don't take everything personally 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 multicultural, 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.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS: Which of these characteristics are at play in your life? In the life of your organization or community? How do they stand in the way of racial justice? What can you and your community do to shift the belief(s) and behavior(s) to ones that support racial justice?

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