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Does Your Organization Unconsciously Operate with a White Supremacy Culture? 4 White Supremacy Culture Scenarios

 

 

As we endure the pain of lost loved ones, manage the anxiety of financial insecurity and potentially fret over becoming ill, it is a brilliant time for change in our country and around the world.

There is a special kind of racist exclusion in America. When I took my young son to live in India, initially, he struggled everyday on the bus to school. There was a lot of hazing and bullying from older students. I remember him begging me to please take him to school in a rickshaw so that he didn’t have to endure the school bus. At one point, my guilt got the best of me and I asked him if he was sad that he wasn’t back in the United States to attend school. I was shocked when he answered with a resounding “NO.” Apparently, rural India was better than being in Mrs. Kosac’s first grade class, where “no matter what I did, even when I had a green card, I didn’t get a full 45 minutes on the computer like Liberty did.” I thought it truly ironic that the most favored girl in the class was a blonde hair, blued-eyed girl named Liberty. It was his seven year old way of describing discrimination. He continued, “here, everyone is brown like me and we all get the same stuff.” 

A year later, when we moved to homogeneous China, I braced for the onslaught. My son was training in Kung Fu at the Shaolin Temple in Henan province. I was always fearful about how he would be treated. The temple is located in a very rural part of China; there is no indoor heat despite the frigid cold weather and on any given day you can wake up and find that the water is not running and/or the electricity isn’t working. People were curious and wanted to take his picture, but he was treated with love. And he was well respected for his work ethic and Kung Fu skills. When I taught in Chinese schools, despite my dred-locs and very ethic appearance, the parents showed me great love because I loved their children. How I looked didn’t matter. I had the opportunity to be judged based on my character. I’m sure it sounds very Pollyanna, but it’s true. I had racial encounters, but not in the community where I lived. We were able to transcend the differences as white supremacy culture wasn’t baked into the Chinese way of living. 

It feels very aggressive, even to me, every time I say white supremacy culture, but let’s take a 4 different scenarios:

Scenario One:

I work in behavioral health for a company that contracts with a Native American tribe. When we receive a referral for a new client, a staff member does an intake and then we discuss the client to plan appropriate programming. This process includes going over the client’s diagnosis, personal history etc. During one particular meeting, the clinician stated that she felt sorry for the client because he had been up all night taking care of his mother due to her being ill. The group went on to label the child as parentified and expressed empathy for the twelve year old’s responsibility to care for his mother. Indigenous cultures encourage children to be responsible for parents. We groom our children to feel a sense of responsibility for the group. A male child that is twelve will take great pride in taking care of his mother; this builds self-esteem. Other members of the family and extended family will praise the boy for taking care of his mother. Let’s remember that many indigenous elders are taken care of by family members and that dominant culture frequently struggles with elders being isolated in care facilities. I challenged the group by saying, “if the clinician said that the child had stayed up all night to take care of his sick dog, the boy would have been praised and called sensitive and caring. The boy stayed up all night to take care of his mother and we feel sorry for him, label him as parentified and look to cure this problem for the boy.”

CONSIDERATIONS FOR YOUR ORGANIZATION

White Culture defines what is considered normal―it creates the standard for judging values.

Think about by whom and how these terms are defined: good parenting, stable family, well-raised child, individual self-sufficiency and effective leadership. 

In your organization, what are the characteristics of a good employee? How were you informed? If unwritten rules, how did you learn about them?

Scenario Two:

When I travel to West Africa, I take a few duffel bags filled with just candy. I was born a mother. My traditional name and bestowed title means Holy Mother and Mother of the Universe. As such, I love to have candy to give children when I am on the Continent. If I see a single child with a parent and I offer candy to the child, I see the most beautiful smile beam across their gorgeous face. But, before they think about eating that piece of candy, they run back to the village to tell all the children about the yovo with the candy. It is not until each and every child in the village has received candy that the first child can enjoy theirs. This is because we are egalitarian people. We believe that the “we” is bigger than the “I” and that everyone should receive equitably. 

CONSIDERATIONS FOR YOUR ORGANIZATION:

White culture privileges a focus on individuals (not groups).

Are independence and autonomy valued and rewarded? Is the attitude that an individual is in control of their environment: “You get what you deserve.” 

In your organization, what is rewarded? Examples: Is there encouragement to compete? Collaborative decision-making? Decisions based on common good?

Scenario Three:

In a previous job, I had a company director schedule a private meeting with me. During this time, he explained how well he thought I was doing on the job. He expressed that he had spoken to the CEO about my progress and together, they decided that I would be promoted to a director’s position in another location. The director inquired about my willingness to relocate and specifically asked if I owned or rented by home and if I’d be able to move to a new territory within a five month period. I was elated. He requested that I discuss the promotion with my husband and family. I talked with my family and we began to prepare. We were to have a follow-up meeting in a week after I conferred with my family. Two weeks went by and I didn’t hear anything. Finally, 3 weeks later I reached out to the director and requested to meet. He put me on the schedule for a 10 minute conference. During our brief 10 minutes, he explained that there had been a change of plans, patted me on the back and started to walk me out of his office. I was shocked. I kept saying, “but how can you do that to someone? Why would you have me prepare my family if it wasn’t already approved? I don’t understand. Why would you do that?” There was no space for me to have emotions about the incident. There was irritation when I expressed how I felt. He began to become angry and quickly ushered me out of his office.

CONSIDERATIONS FOR YOUR ORGANIZATION:

White culture assigns a higher value to some ways of behaving than others. It often defines the “other” behaviors as dangerous and/or deviant.

For example: Right to comfort. Avoid conflict and emotion. Be polite. Comfort level is defined by whites, and those that cause discomfort or are involved in conflict can be marginalized. Individual acts of unfairness become equal to the pain and discomfort of systemic racism that daily targets people of color (based on Tema Okun’s White Supremacy Culture).

In your organization, what behaviors are considered uncomfortable? E.g. conflict, loud voice, crying? How does the organization’s culture respond when these behaviors happen?

Scenario Four

I met a woman that was very committed to her church family. She excitedly told me about a project she was doing which involved going to Namibia to build a well for a village community. The church pastor had previously visited the village, told the church about all the wonderful people he met and how the church would help the people. The church raised thousands of dollars for building materials and for parishioners to travel to Namibia and build the well. The project was a great success and the whole church community was proud of their good works. 

A few years later, the pastor traveled back to the village to see how they were enjoying the new well. When he arrived, he was amazed to see that all the PVC and materials used to build the well had been dug up and were being used for various different projects throughout the village. The pastor was mortified. He inquired about why the villagers would destroy the well. The women of the village explained that they used to walk the 5 miles to the well everyday and talk to each other. It was their time to commune and discuss marital problems and resolve family issues. Without their walk to the well, they felt lonely and many families were arguing. I’m sure that the pastor never asked the villagers what they needed. The pastor went to the village, made his own observations and decided to build a well.

CONSIDERATIONS FOR YOUR ORGANIZATION:

Decision-making often reflects white cultural assumptions about the primacy of individuals, standards of behavior and the use of power “over” others.

For example: Deciding and enforcing, either/or thinking, those less affected define the problem and solution. Reflect on the different groups you belong to. Who is included in the decision-making process? What is the rationale? Is the process different on paper vs. in reality?

If we really want to create a culture that is truly inclusive, we must begin to understand that white supremacy culture is imprinted in every aspect of being American. These are but a few ways that American culture perpetuates marginalized groups and people. Let’s take off our Western Christian lenses and appreciate that there are many, many beautiful ways to experience the world. The time is now.

 

**White Culture description comes from many sources, including: Tema Okun, White Supremacy Culture, 2001; Judith Katz, Some Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States, 1985; Robette Ann Dias, Transforming Institutional Values: Revisited, 2008; Joseph Barndt, Understanding and Dismantling Racism: The Twenty-First Century Challenge to White America, p. 234, 2007; Barbara Major, Chapter 7–“How does White Privilege Show Up in Foundation and Community Initiatives?”, Flipping the Script: White Privilege and Community Building, 2005.







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