White Supremacy Culture Part II: Time to Break Our Deadly Habits

By Jennifer Werdell, Executive Director, JustLead Washington

A few weeks ago JustLead posted about how the characteristics articulated in Tema Okun’s White Supremacy Culture article can surface in times of crisis. While we always intended to put forth a Part II that talks about more habits of white supremacy, our team, like so many across the country, is sitting with tremendous grief, pain, and anger in the wake of the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many more, while all the while COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc on Black, Indigenous, & people of color (BIPOC).

Now is a critical time to be centering Black and BIPOC perspectives and needs, so this offering is just a brief missive from one white person  to other white people working to make meaning. Looking back to our earlier piece, we noted that white supremacy cultural characteristics are problematic when they are propped up at the expense of valuing other approaches. But in this painful moment let’s be even clearer: The habits and practices of white supremacy are lethal.

The habits and practices of white supremacy are lethal.Each individual habit can be toxic and problematic. Power hoarding can concentrate power and  resource further into the hands of problematic leaders and decision-makers; paternalism infantilizes and dehumanizes those not in power and shields those who are from understanding complex realities and the lived experiences of others. When taken together, and mixed with feeling entitled to be comfortable, our society’s insistence on centering white feelings, and a lifetime of learning racist narratives and stereotypes, it is easy to see how these habits create dangerous, racist interactions like the one between Amy Cooper and Christian Cooper or worse yet police and vigilante killings, which have persisted over time and are only being magnified now through contemporaneous capturing on video and social media.

So what can well-meaning white folks do, to stop paving bulldozing this hellish path with our good intentions? I certainly don’t have all the answers, but it is well past time to move beyond collective hand-wringing and feelings of helplessness, shame, and guilt. We must also stop merely performative acts of allyship. (Yes, I realize the irony given that I am sitting here writing a blog post.) If you are going to post on social media, here’s a great resource on when, whether, and how to share to ensure it is not performative.

For one, make sure you have spaces to contain and process your own feelings that don’t require more emotional labor from BIPOC. And if you haven’t already, check in with your BIPOC friends and colleagues. This is not the time to intellectualize, show off what we may be learning, or use our fear of saying the wrong thing as an excuse to stay silent. This is a deeply painful, traumatic time, and folks are not ok. I know I’m awkward when I do this, and I perseverate afterward about whether I should have said something, what I said, and how it was perceived. But try something, even an “This is awful. I see you. I’m here.” Even if it takes practice to be imperfect.

Pile of antiracism books
Illustration by Jane Mount, Ideal Bookshelf on Instagram

Second, keep at your own learning and work. Dig deep to understand your identity and its relationship to power and privilege; uncover and check your biases; and explore the racist context, both past and present, for the systems you work within. And don’t remove yourself from culpability either. All white folks are contributors to our racist systems and benefit from them every  day. I may not have called the police on someone lately, but I know that I could without fearing for my safety. I also know that I hold power and make decisions that impact BIPOC every day. What are the ways I leverage that power and fall back into white supremacy culture habits to be an Amy, a Becky, a Karen in my own life and workplace?

Most importantly, words and learning are meaningless unless paired with meaningful, risky, bold action. Activist and community organizer Leslie Mac recently noted that “learning that racism and white supremacy exist is not an end goal.” Check out some of Leslie’s strategies in her Anti-Racism Bootcamp.

There are literally hundreds of actions we as white people can take to reject white supremacy culture and move toward more accountable and less harmful relationships with BIPOC. For instance, take a look at Medium.com ‘s great list of 75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice. Commit to and practice the principles articulated within the Black Lives Matter Movement and support the bold policy agenda of Movement 4 Black Lives. Practice talking about race over and over again, especially with people who don’t already share our beliefs, and constantly hold one other accountable. Oppose police violence, recognize why protests are happening, and put our bodies and resources where our mouths are, to act in solidarity with Black and Brown communities calling for justice and resisting the tyranny of toxic norms and institutions.

I keep going back to Leslie Mac’s words again and again, so want to lift them up here:

“White people should leverage the privileges they have at all times, specifically financial ones towards those doing direct on the ground organizing work. They need to consistently ask themselves how they can remove as many barriers for support as possible. When in doubt, give your money to Black women, especially Black trans women. It’s the very least you can do, and still be incredibly effective in taking that action…. [Push] your PTA to require anti-racism and anti-oppression training for all parents in a school system, a direct white outreach campaign to support bailing Black mothers out of jail, creation of a list of Black women to hire for everything from resume help to graphic design. All these examples are rooted in two things: 1) they are actions white people are able to take without Black labor and 2) they have direct benefit to Black people. Effective, accountable action is the goal.”

We can and should grieve for the state of the world, where it remains dangerous to run, bird, even live in a Black or Brown body. But please, fellow white folks, let’s remind each other not to stop there.

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