Swimming and circling around me just as the undulating sea have been words like anti-racism, race equity, white culture, and white supremacy with an increased acceleration over the past year. Some of that is due to our political climate and some due to my own professional and personal internal work. Two national food system conferences I’ve attended this year have had these words either within most sessions or at the core of the very conference. I’ve been making mistakes, making myself uncomfortable, and learning. Then, I came across an article by Tema Okun in which it states that there are thirteen characteristics that comprise a white supremacy culture. These characteristics show up in how we interact with people, groups, and organizations. As the name suggests, these are predominantly practiced and valued by white people (whether knowingly or unknowingly) and experienced (or endured) by people of color. However, dominant culture is powerful, so that people of color can find themselves exercising these characteristics as Okun suggests. Powerful cultural patterns can run through, around, and within us unknowingly. It can be as inundating and invisible as air. We tend to be permeable sponges who suffer from the weight of dominant culture.
I remember the first time white supremacy was brought up in my professional world. It was at a work meeting with mostly white folks and a few people of color. Oh, and we were discussing ‘race equity’. A colleague said we shouldn’t be so shy and call it what it is: white supremacy. You could have sliced the awkward, nervous silence with a butter knife. It’s easy for the first thing someone to think about with those words is the KKK – something extremist which of course most white people would not associate themselves. However, that phrase is much more than that one extreme example. Supremacy itself is defined as feeling or existing in a state where one group is superior to others in authority, power, or status. Placing ‘white’ in front of it, simply means that one is saying white culture has supremacy over other cultures. I’m not sure too many people can really deny that a white person doesn’t have to feel superior to understand that the dominant culture is made for white people to excel more than others. I see this within the food system all the time. Let’s get back to the article.
The first couple of times I read it, I couldn’t pinpoint what made these characteristics specifically “white culture”. They seemed every day, as mundane as brushing your teeth. That was the ah-ha moment. The very point that they felt mundane was my answer. I experience them as a normal part of my experience as a white person whether I like them or not. Culture provides thought coverings, sheer linings that we begin to view the world from as soon as they’ve covered our minds. These linings and coverings allow dominant culture traits to become ingrained and normalized (for some) that we don’t even realize it’s problems.
Even when I didn’t see the traits as white culture, I still saw their problems. As I continued to read Okun’s article, what emerged was how each characteristic also inhibits social change by restraining the diversity of people and ideas. Reflecting on ourselves, our behaviors and actions, and our culture are essential to manifest sustained change. We cannot create change within the same paradigms that created our current structure meaning we cannot create change while still exercising these thirteen characteristics.
We have a low-context, expert-driven, specialized (white) culture that leaves people on the fray. It doesn’t allow for emergent leadership nor does it appreciate complex adaptive systems. It fears other ways of knowing, doing and being, as well as the power of networks, unless it’s to promote the self and ego.
To create change, those who identify as white must learn to see what dominant characteristics we are unknowingly using and promoting. Only then can we break free from them, see through them, and begin creating a new paradigm that promotes and enables each of our unique gifts. We need to re-claim our multiplicitous, complex selves that cannot be defined by simple labels. In fact, we must do away with labels to have honest conversations and promote change.
Perfectionism, sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity of quality, worship of the written word, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, right to comfort, progress is bigger, and objectivity is a who’s who list of anti-change.
Change is regenerative, open, complex, networked, diverse, deep listening, deep curiosity, inclusive, highly collaborative, many-people led, emergent, challenging, beautiful, and highly rewarding. Instead of constantly doing, in a state of reaction, say ‘yes’ to not doing. To not reacting, to process over action, to quality never quantity. When you can’t perfect, reflect. We do not exist in binaries and labels, we, and everything else around us, exists within ‘both/and’. It is the either/or and more.
Take a moment (or two) and read Okun’s article and lift the veil of thought coverings. Find the characteristics that you see unfolding in your professional or personal life. Don’t be critical of yourself or others. Think gentle honesty and loving compassion. This is not to find our faults and see if we’re “bad” people. Nor are we trying to point fault at others. This is an opportunity to learn and become better change agents and allies.
I’ll leave with this quote from Rudolf Bahro, an East German dissident: “When the forms of an old culture are dying, the new culture is created by a few people who are not afraid to be insecure.”