Part 5:
Going Deeper—
whiteness, white supremacy culture, and dismantling oppression

As a white person, you might not feel like you have a racial identity, but you do.

In other words, the white race (and "whiteness") tends to have certain characteristics.

"White supremacy" is an important idea that explains many of the major problems happening in America today.

This touches on parts of our culture that you probably wouldn't associate with whiteness—things like perfectionism and rushing to find a solution to a problem.

  • You as a white person might never have thought of yourself as having a racial identity. Because our society is organized around white people, being white just feels normal. It feels like the default. Race can feel like it applies to other people
    • But white has become a race because it was built into the structure of our country
  • One of the hardest concepts for me to believe as I studied these subjects was the idea of "white supremacy culture" (and, specifically, which common aspects of modern American life might be part of that)
    • "White supremacy" describes the fact that this country was designed by white people in power to benefit white people
      • In other words, it's the culture that develops when whiteness is at the top
      • Remember that "whiteness" was created (or, more accurately, the white race was created, and "whiteness"—the characteristics of that race—was the result)
      • So, when we refer to white supremacy culture, we're not so much saying "this is what happens when people of European ancestry are in charge," but rather "this is what happens when the concept of race is invented—to keep a certain group in power—and people of the 'good' race are at the top with the 'bad' races underneath them trying to prove their worth so they won't be killed or tortured
    • Because of this, the dominant culture in America developed a number of distinctive characteristics that scholars of racism refer to as the attributes of "white supremacy culture" (or, it can also be referred to as "whiteness")
    • We're not just talking about Neo-Nazis and similar groups that you might think of as white supremacists. Rather, "white supremacy culture" refers more to everyday American life, which includes the structural racism and implicit bias we've already talked about
    • I know this is probably confusing because whenever you hear about "white supremacists" on the news, it typically refers to violent Neo-Nazi-type people marching in the streets. But here's how I think about this:
      • As I described in the implicit bias section, all of us have some degree of implicit racism inside us simply from having grown up in this country
      • However, I still probably wouldn't call someone "a racist" unless they were an explicit bigot. Instead, I might just say that they're "a person with some implicit racist beliefs and behaviors"
      • When referring to our larger culture, I would say that America is a country with many elements of structural and institutional racism (e.g., in its education and law enforcement systems)
      • Similarly, I would only call someone "a white supremacist" if they displayed explicit bigoted beliefs
      • However, it's fair to call America a "white supremacist culture" because of those structural and institutional elements that prioritize, protect, and empower white people over people of color (and, certainly, some parts of the country are substantially more white supremacist than others)
  • White supremacy culture includes characteristics like a drive toward perfectionism, a sense of urgency, and feelings of defensiveness
    • When I first heard about this, it seemed ridiculous to me to claim that seemingly basic things like that a sense of urgency in meetings at work has anything to do with race. I imagined that calling it "capitalism culture" might make more sense
    • It took a lot of discussions, but I understand it better now, and I'll try my best to explain

Key court rulings prove that the concept of "whiteness" didn't refer to a skin color or geographic ancestry but rather to being part of an "in-group" that those in power defined (and, they kept changing their definition over time)

White supremacy culture is a tricky concept, so I'll go back to the beginning and add some extra details I didn't cover the first time around.

Let's start at the beginning:

  • White supremacy began when rich white people wanted a cheap source of labor to make themselves richer
  • Along the way, they noticed that the lower class (including people of multiple races working together) kept rebelling
    • In other words, back then, people allied themselves along class lines rather than racial ones
    • The rich landowners wanted to retain their power, so they broke up the class structure and reorganized it by race so that the poor white people would feel more allegiance to the rich than to their fellow servants who happened to be black
    • They took it even further by providing very strong incentives for those people to ally by race rather than class. In short, they put people of color at the very bottom of the hierarchy by subjecting them to forced lifelong servitude. Then, they told the poor white person that they'd get the same treatment if they continued to ally with them
  • So, the creation of "whiteness" or "white supremacy culture" was built on a desire to retain power within an in-group, and it was put into practice through fear (threats of lifelong slavery)
    • If we wanted to be even more nuanced, rather than just calling it "whiteness vs. non-whiteness," we could think of it as "people who looked and sounded like the people in power versus the people who didn't"
    • The in-group included heterosexual cisgendered wealthy white men and excluded anyone else, including women, gay people, etc.
    • Again, it was really about people the ruling class identified with. That's why even though people of Irish origin were light-skinned, they weren't originally included in the "white" group—because they were seen by those in power as different and less civilized
      • This makes it easier to see how concepts like politeness and good manners are linked to white supremacy culture—because there needed to be a clear separation between "high-class" white people and "low-class" groups like the Irish or the Italians
    • There were several famous court cases that illustrate how the definition of "white" was arbitrarily defined by those in power and kept being changed to suit their agenda
      • At first, it seemed clear that "white" meant "light-skinned." But, Takao Ozawa was a light-skinned man of Japanese origin who loved America and had lived there for 20 years. He had tried to adopt as many behaviors and attributes of whiteness as he could to gain citizenship in 1915, but he was ultimately denied because he wasn't part of the "Caucasian" race
      • Then, only three months later, a Sikh immigrant named Bhagat Singh Thind argued for his citizenship on the basis that, as a high-caste full-blooded Indian, he was literally descended from the Caucasian race as defined by athropology at the time
      • The Supreme Court ruled that he still wasn't Caucasian according to the "common understanding" of the word. Whiteness no longer just referred to skin color or even geographic ancestry but to a set of undefinable characteristics that they claimed were "obvious" to anyone
    • With each of these cases, a line was drawn about what "white" meant, but when someone outside their subjective definition met that standard, the line was moved
    • In other words, they ruled that the white people in power got to decide who was and was not white, and that had all sorts of implications such as who could be granted citizenship
      • As you keep reading, remember that fact: that "whiteness" doesn't refer to a skin color or geographic ancestry but rather to being part of the "in-group"
  • Based on those and other examples, it's clear that a foundational principle of white supremacy culture was the idea of a hierarchy—that there's a clear ladder to climb with some people higher than others, and that it's important to impress those in power so that you'll be accepted and treated as a full human
    • This isn't to say that America invented the idea of hierarchy, but there was a unique flavor of it here because of how closely it was tied to slavery, torture, and genocide
    • The hierarchy here was so pronounced that to be lower on it meant that you weren't a full human—that your land, power, dignity, autonomy, and even authority over your own body could be taken away by those higher up the ladder
    • At the same time, everyone was encouraged to look upward to where it was theoretically possible to go if you were to follow the rules laid out by the white men at the top 
  • In effect, the creation of whiteness was also the creation of the American dream—the myth that if you worked hard, anyone could rise up the ladder and eventually reach that highest level where that ruling class of rich white men sat. Because of that ideal, certain behaviors were normalized and incentivized that we might now closely associate with the corporate world and capitalism. For example:
    • The idea that competing against other people is normal
    • The idea that impressing other people is important, particularly by having more wealth than others
    • The idea that meetings should be about reaching a conclusion and driving toward a specific solution rather than focusing on our experience in the moment, sitting in the murky uncertainty, and trusting our quiet and slow-working inner wisdom to eventually find answers
    • The idea that it's desirable to be the loudest and most powerful person in the room who can command a group, control people, and act decisively
    • At the same time, the idea that people lower on the hierarchy should physically sit still, avoid taking up too much space, and do what they're told

White supremacy culture runs so deep that it takes deep personal growth work to uncover who we truly are underneath the ways we've been indoctrinated to behave and to see ourselves.

Attributes of whiteness also affect people of color as they've sought to fit into the dominant culture of this country.

  • Everything about white supremacy culture described above is so well ingrained that it can be hard for many of us white Americans to even know who we truly are deep down. We've been so conditioned by white supremacy culture to act in ways that align with those ideals of whiteness described above. For example:
    • Is it you who wants to impress people, or is that coming from the way you've been socialized throughout your life in this culture of whiteness? 
    • Is it reasonable that people higher up on the socioeconomic ladder should have so much power?
    • Why are people in low-end service jobs often made to all wear the same uniform? Is it really just about marketing the brand, or is it about clearly displaying and enforcing hierarchy?
    • In the corporate world, why do people in management often refer to lower-level people as "resources" (e.g., "we need three more IT resources on this project," as if they're all interchangeable), but you never hear them using that word with upper-level people (e.g., "we need one more manager resource")?
    • When families sit down to perfectly-choreographed holiday dinners with all the fine china out and properly-arranged sets of cutlery while adhering to all the rules of "fine dining" and "cultured manners" (such as no elbows on the table)? Is that a nice tradition or is it an unconscious effort to prove that our family belongs at a certain level on the hierarchy?
  • By the way, the claim here is not that we're all doing these things consciously but that white supremacy culture is so deeplay embedded in us that we don't even fully understand what it is that's driving these behaviors and attitudes in ourselves
    • You might just think that you want to impress people and beat your competitors because it's thrilling or because that's just your personality—instead of seeing that your personality might have actually been a lot more cooperative and modest if you'd been raised in a non white supremacist culture
  • In light of all this, it becomes clear that being white is not an absense of race but very much a race and an identity itself
    • Whiteness has some very clear characteristics that came out of that original creation of hierarchy. It was necessary to impress those in power and have them see you as "one of them" (in other words: fit in, don't rock the boat, prove that you're a "high-class" individual)
  • The concept of "whiteness" even goes beyond just the "white race" (because, remember, it's not about skin color but about being part of the in-group of those in power)
    • Yes, the characteristics of whiteness are inherent in most members of the white race, but they also represent a larger structural aspect of American culture related to the upper class
      • For example, some people of color accuse others of "acting white" or "not being black enough" as a pejorative, like selling out
      • "Acting white" might include behaviors like getting good grades in school or speaking eloquently (by the standards of white American culture)
      • The desire to "act white" is based on the fact that our culture has always required people of color to behave more like white people in order to fit into high society and rise up the ladder
    • By the way, it might occur to you that there's nothing unreasonable about encouraging a person of color to "speak more eloquently" (i.e., like a white person) in order to be taken seriously in American society
      • I too used to think that "black English" such as "they allright" or "they be goin to school" are simply bad grammar and represent a lack of understanding of proper English. But the truth is a lot more complex than that
      • In fact, African-American Vernacular English (AAVE) is recognized by linguists as a perfectly valid form of English with its own vocabulary and rules of grammar similar to British English
      • And yet, Microsoft Office and similar tools of mainstream society will mark AAVE grammar as incorrect because it doesn't align with the form of language built into the dominant culture (i.e., white supremacy culture)
      • So, it becomes clear why black people who want to rise up the ladder in our society might feel the need to abandon the perfectly valid dialect of English they were raised with and instead adopt the one more associated with whiteness

So, white supremacy culture looks like this: perfectionism, a sense of needing to hurry up, and a focus on objective analytical "certainty" rather than subjective experience or bodily sensations.

And now we're in this tricky place in America where—because that culture is so deeply ingrained in us—we ourselves keep perpetuating it.

We feel the need to operate within it so that we're respected and we continue to have access to resources, favorable jobs, etc.

If we want to explain anti-racism work via a "diversity & inclusion" workshop in the workplace, we're (unconsciously) asked to do that through the lens of white supremacy culture: We're often given one single opportunity to present all this information (i.e., "perfectionism"); we're told we only have exactly one hour (i.e., "hurry up"); and, we're asked for metrics to prove it made an impact (i.e., "objective analytical 'certainty'").

If you work in the corporate world, it might seem almost impossible to approach workshops in any other way. And that's the point—that's how entrenched whiteness is.

But what if it didn't have to be that way?

Racism affects you the white person as well.

Doing the work of dismantling white supremacy culture doesn't just benefit people of color—it helps all of us.

  • Anti-racism work isn't just about helping people of color. It's about helping yourself (and other white people) too
    • White supremacy culture has certainly affected people of color the worst by far. But, it has a negative effect on you and me too because it's responsible for deeply ingraining into our minds all these ideas of hierarchy, needing to impress others, and needing to follow the rules and behave a certain way in order to be included
    • So, the idea of breaking free of some of those beliefs is what people mean when they use the phrase "dismantling internalized white supremacy"
  • One of the other behaviors that came out of the creation of whiteness was disembodiment—in other words, getting out of our bodies and focusing less on felt experience (bodily sensations, emotions, mindfulness) and more on cognitive experience (thinking, logic, and analysis)
    • Disembodiment is a common reaction to trauma in general. Psychologists often see that victims of physical or sexual abuse will dissociate from their bodies because—in the moment of trauma—they felt no sense of control, and the only way to cope with such an intense experience was to distance their minds from the physical sensations
    • Even if white people in early America didn't tend to experience physical trauma directly, it was closer than you might initially think
      • First of all, remember that those white people were told that—if they associated too closely with the people of color being enslaved—they would risk enslavement themselves
      • Next, think about the horrors they saw all the time. Imagine being a white mother walking through the market with her kids to buy some groceries and literally seeing a black mother and her kids being auctioned off nearby. It's important to remember that slavery wasn't happening behind closed doors—the slave markets were right out in the open
      • Later in American history, lynchings occurred very publicly, and white people would even proudly have their picture taken in front of these people being tortured
    • The only way those white people could have stayed sane during those kinds of traumatic experiences is by distancing a part of themselves from their present moment reality—by getting out of their bodies and logically rationalizing away their doubts and empathy
      • Similarly, in the world today with such easy access to information, we know how bad things are for a lot of people. It's clear to me as a white person how privileged I am
      • The only way for us white people to stay sane is to either actively work toward dismantling that oppression or to disembody to some degree and numb ourselves
    • So, the first step toward reversing all that is to get back in touch with who we really are. To get back in our bodies and reclaim the wholeness of ourselves that will allow us to fully empathize with others, to have access to all our wisdom, and to be fully present and fully aware of what's happening inside us and around us
  • Like I said, there's a huge amount of complexity to whiteness, and the connections aren't immediately obvious
    • But thinking through everything I just laid out allowed me to see that white supremacy culture is much more than just bigotry toward people of color—it's an entire set of behaviors related to hierarchy, ladder-climbing, feeling better than others, fitting into the group, and not rocking the boat
    • Dismantling that culture of white supremacy will help all of us reclaim our connections to our bodies, feel more empathy, and reduce the stress and overwhelm we experience as part of this culture of feeling like we're never enough and we always have to keep pushing ourselves to climb the ladder and push others down beneath us

Becoming a better ally to people of color shouldn't mean shaming other white people who make mistakes.

We're all in this together, so be kind to other white people who are trying their best, even if they get something wrong.

  • There’s a lot of talk today about political correctness. It’s easy to feel like you’re not allowed to say anything anymore without getting in trouble
    • You might have felt that it’s ridiculous that you’re suddenly supposed to somehow know all the new rules and vocabulary people are using around race and gender even though no one ever taught you
  • Political correctness can also lead to the practice of publicly shaming people (which can be called "call-out culture," or "outrage culture")
    • Even in a room full of progressive white people with no people of color present, it’s become common for someone to be shamed in front of everyone if they make a mistake by using an outdated term or asking a question that they “shouldn’t” be
  • Neither of these paths is beneficial
    • We shouldn't be striving to use non-racist language in order to be "politically correct" (i.e., to feel like we're following some set of rules that we don't fully understand or buy into simply so that we don't get in trouble). Rather, it should be out of a desire to care about other humans and not say things that they might experience as hurtful
    • When someone does make a mistake, shaming them is not a good way to win them over or inspire them to keep trying. Publicly shaming someone puts them on the defensive and sends them into fight-or-flight mode. From that place, they have far less access to the rational part of their brain that can learn from their mistake. Instead, they become hyper-focused on protecting themselves 
  • Yes, it can be helpful to offer someone feedback and to help them understand a mistake that they made
    • But, the goal shouldn’t to be a sense of “catching them in the act,” punishing them, or embarrassing them. Instead, that feedback could be offered in private or presented in front of a group as an opportunity for everyone to learn together
    • Try to start from a place of seeing people as trying their best. If they make a mistake, it might just mean that they haven't had the education or training that you have (or, it might mean that they're feeling insecure and they're responding from a place of fear)
    • Note that some people who identify as progressives or anti-racists do unfortunately use shaming tactics. But, they don’t represent all anti-racists. There are a variety of ways to approach this work, but shaming is probably not the most effective one. In fact, shaming is another artifact of white supremacy culture—it's a way of proving that you're higher up on some perceived hierarchy of social justice knowledge or that you're more "woke" than the person who made the mistake
    • The main point is this: We’re all learning together. This stuff isn’t easy. So let’s do our best and have empathy for each other
  • As a white person alive in America today, racism isn’t your fault. But it is your responsibility if you want to be a kind and empathetic human