White Supremacy Organizational Culture in the Time of COVID-19

A key resource we rely on in our anti-racism work is Tema Okun’s White Supremacy Culture, which describes how behaviors that are associated with white, European traditions and values come to be seen as the norm and the preferred. White supremacy culture is already pervasive in our workplaces, but the characteristics described below can surface in especially acute and vicious ways during a crisis. Much excellent writing has already been done on the “habits” of white supremacy, including a piece by Kad Smith at CompassPoint this week; our additional offering is to highlight how these dynamics are emerging during the COVID-19 crisis across our equity & justice partners and revealing how we default to white culture in harmful and inequitable ways.

If you’re thinking, “But I’m not a white supremacist!” you are not alone. We often get resistance when using this loaded term, as some only associate white supremacy with overtly and explicitly racist groups and individuals. Yet white supremacy is more pervasive, describing any situations when white ways of being and doing are valued over other ways of being and doing.

As you read further you also might ask, “What is wrong with feeling a sense of urgency during this crisis, or striving for ‘near perfect’ in what you do?” We want to emphasize that none of these characteristics are inherently inappropriate. Instead, problems surface when these are seen as the only right ways of operating or are propped up at the expense of valuing other (for instance, more relational) approaches. We note too that in the United States white people and Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) have all been trained in white supremacy culture – we are all swimming in the same water.

Sense of Urgency

The current crisis demands urgency. Our clients and the marginalized communities we work alongside, colleagues, and loved ones are experiencing disruption and harm on an unprecedented scale. We need to act quickly and decisively to preserve shelter, access to food and healthcare, income, and safety, particularly as we push against systems that are already inequitably distributing resources. This sense of urgency is exacerbated by the extreme scarcity mindset created by this pandemic, from limitations on life-saving supplies to economic stimuli responses that are first-come, first-serve and privilege those with greatest access to information and resources.

Urgency image, courtesy PixabayYet when we operate in crisis response mode, we don’t always create space for intentionality; we may fail to consult with those who are most affected by the decisions we make. We also struggle to separate out what is important or essential from what feels most pressing and enter into all of our decisions with the same sense of urgency.

To truly attend to this public health and economic crisis, now more than ever we need to accept that we cannot do everything. We must flex our triage muscles and identify strategic ways to prioritize our work, including allowing ourselves to let some things go, especially those things that only serve to sustain our capitalistic notions of productivity.  Instead of micromanaging and pressuring ourselves to stay busy for the sake of being busy, we can ask, “What is most important to tend to right now?” “What feels realistic and feasible for us?” As we tend to emergency needs and accept the reality that, for some communities the disparities being revealed are nothing new, we must also directly acknowledge the trauma we are collectively experiencing and practice grace with ourselves and each other. How can we translate our sense of urgency to prioritize the health and well-being of all people?

Perfectionism

Time and time again people share with us their fear of making mistakes. We often wrap our sense of self-worth and identity in “being good,” and mistakes make us feel like we ourselves are wrong or bad. Legal education (as well as many other forms of “professional” training) doubles down on expectations around perfectionism, training advocates to operate in a system where a brief or case may be thrown out for typos or late submissions.

Generating polished work is, of course, not in itself a bad thing, but it becomes harmful when we punish ourselves and others for slight transgressions and fail to acknowledge what is going well. Common examples of this tendency include receiving a performance review that is 99% positive but perseverating on one criticism, or redlining someone’s brief or memo or otherwise offering critical feedback without also regularly sharing what went well or what you appreciate.

Who gets to make mistakes is also racialized in our workspaces. White folks are often given the benefit of the doubt in instances where BIPOC are likely to be pressured to be perfect. In this COVID-19 moment we notice who is likely to be penalized. While CEOs may have the ability to safely work from home (with limited accountability) and continue to increase their net worth each day, front-line workers who are deemed “essential” must move ahead without necessary protective equipment or access to many income relief and support programs.

Wisdom vs perfectionism sign image, courtesy Pixabay

One small bright side of this crisis is that we are practicing making mistakes, constantly. Virtual meetings continually go awry, and we don’t have access to our usual tools and resources. Every working person is currently over capacity, meaning that we are adjusting to our work, our caregiving, and our crisis-schooling being simply, “good enough.”

We will create more human-centered and innovative workplaces as we get comfortable with our imperfections. Trauma Stewardship Institute encourages practicing daily gratitude (“even now, especially now”) and developing compassion for ourselves and others as strategies we can grow over time to sustain ourselves. We can also transform our organizations into learning organizations that adapt and grow from mistakes and failure.

Right to Comfort and Fear of Open Conflict

Perhaps the only thing white culture dislikes more than failure is conflict. Even legal advocates who are trained within an adversarial system try to avoid conflict in their personal lives, likely because few who are raised within white dominant culture see healthy conflict modeled. For instance, in a recent conversation with white legal and social justice advocates, 14 out of 15 participants indicated that their family of origin’s conflict style was either avoidant or aggressive. Our inability to engage each other productively, combined with our need to be perfect, stands directly in the way of talking openly about race and confronting injustices, for fear of saying the wrong thing.

Another reason we avoid failure and conflict is a belief that we are entitled to be comfortable. We exclude feelings and conversations about identity from the workplace because they feel “messy” or “too emotional,” and we shun people, often those of marginalized identities, who point out problems or ask for what they need, criticizing them instead for being impolite or uncivil. Some in positions of authority particularly fear change, because a disruption to the status quo may mean a personal loss of power or comfort. As a result, it becomes easy for those who hold institutional power to stay in power.

The current pandemic offers the latest reminder of how messy, complicated, and unfair our world is. COVID-19 is disproportionately harming communities of color, and essential (and typically underpaid) workers – from medical personnel to grocery store clerks, janitorial staff, and farmworkers – are putting themselves in harm’s way to maintain the safety and comfort of the rest of us. Interestingly, those who are pushing to open the economy are merging a right to comfort with a sense of urgency, in effect protecting (for the most part white) wealth at the expense of BIPOC, who are not even afforded the comfort of wearing masks without being targeted.

The least we can do is walk into discomfort intentionally and take more personal risks to build our collective resilience and push toward prioritizing the physical and emotional safety of all people, not just those in privileged groups. We – particularly equity & justice advocates – also must not avoid difficult conversations or hide behind notions of objectivity or (false) ‘neutrality.’ We live in a society where who you are – your race, your economic status, your gender identity, and so much more – still determines how you fare across just about every measure. As such, our workplaces and our jurisprudence must talk about and create space for different social identities and lived experiences.

How do we accomplish this? We can embrace strategies of targeted universalism, be in authentic relationship with people who are not exactly like us, do the difficult personal work of understanding what makes each of us uncomfortable or defensive, practice and continually learn from difficult conversations, and better understand and articulate the benefits of diverse workplaces.

We must be able to join in the fray as if lives depended on it, because they do.

Still with us? Stay tuned for Part II, which will examine Defensiveness, Power Hoarding and its cousin Disavowal of Power, Worship of the Written Word, Quantity over Quality, Individualism, and Paternalism.

Want to learn more?

 Tema Okun, White Supremacy Culture

  1. Center for Community Organizations, White Supremacy Culture in Organizations
  2. Woke @ Work, White Women Doing White Supremacy Culture in Nonprofit Culture
  3. CompassPoint,Pushing Back Against Habits of White Supremacy During a Crisis
  4. Trauma Stewardship Institute, Tiny Survival Guide
  5. Greater Good Science Center & Berkeley, How Gratitude Can Transform Your Workplace
  6. NDN Collective, Decolonizing Community Care in the Time of COVID-19
  7. The Rockwood Institute, 8 Practices for a More Emotionally Just Organization
  8. SSIR, The Bias of Professionalism Standards

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