This is a short piece on the main characteristics of white supremacy culture. Below there are 15 characteristics, but I want to talk about perfectionism, sense of urgency, individualism, objectivity, either/or thinking, power hoarding, progress means bigger, and fear of open conflict. This is not a narrative on white culture or identity. Anyone or any one group that utilizes these characteristics to value or compare another person or group is also acting through the components of white supremacy culture.
Perfectionism has less to do with being precise and exact and more to do with the value you place on things that you consider less-perfect. I know on a personal level, the constant anxiety to be perfect or ‘ideal’ is exhausting. Imagine being an employee that has a manager who is a perfectionist. My gut tells me to run from that employment because those who always demand perfection never seem to be satisfied. I’m no Ph.D., but that screams to me that perfection isn’t real. Not to mention, I am always going to be a lousy employee because I can’t produce something unreal. I am a musician, and much of my experience creating music has been in search of perfection. I’m one of those types who often think the more simple the song is, the harder it becomes because the sound must be perfect. Maybe that’s true, but it takes so much time to get things perfect that there is little energy to spend on the emotion and performance of it all. A lot of lessons learned in realizing music is all about the emotion and performance and little to do with the perfection of sound. Maybe that’s why there isn’t a #1 single to my name.
Many of these characteristics, like a sense of urgency, are hard to grasp as white supremacy culture. A sense of urgency is hard to grasp, but I like to think about it in terms of policy (another thing where racism and white supremacy culture is hard to see.) It is easier for me to see how we place too much value on ‘both sides of the aisle’ so that Congress can quickly push out a policy to find out years later that policy harms people. If you are thinking of criminal justice in the 1990s, you might be on the right track, in my opinion. The times we live in right now are similar. I feel more like we are in front of the Hoover Dam breaking than we are at the end of a water hose. How much are we missing? What did we forget? What did we lose because every single thing is at a sense of urgency? I don’t know about you all, but I have an anxiety disorder, and these last few years have been the hardest to manage.
I hope no one tells you that you cannot be yourself. That is nothing I would ever advocate, but it is also not what individualism means in white supremacy culture. I think of it more as how the dominant social group tends to not view themselves as a social group in the same manner they do all the groups they believe are less than they are. Maybe to be a bit more academic – the dominant social group in the United States has benefited from ‘liberty’ and the ‘pursuit of happiness’ so much more than other groups that more individuals in the dominant group see themselves as an island not apart of any culture. That’s still a mouthful. Here’s another way of thinking about it – if you think this article is about you specifically, or white people in general, you might have an individualism problem. I see this a lot when the white racist on social media argues they are not racist, and to say anything about white people makes me a racist, but then are so entitled they immediately follow it up by eviscerating the group they hate.
Objectivity is how we learn to find absolute truth through facts and research in our science projects in high school, and you should listen to your science teacher. Even when studying humans, there has to be rigor and structure to that study. But it is not absolute and can never be the only way we study humans. Crazy, I know. Human behavior, culture, or society – however you want to classify us – has never been able to stand up to the rigor of objectivity. I dare you to prove me wrong. We do not ever seem to do what the experiment(s) predict we will do. I spent a lot of time in grad school reading the writings of old-white men talking about international relations, and that is one of the only things I believe they got right. For me, objectivity is easy to reconcile when thinking of constructivism and perspectives. Doing so creates the space for asking – whose objectivity? What is that person’s identity, what is their past, how do they construct their norms and reality today, and how will that all jumble together into the future. Be careful with objectivity when it comes to human behavior, it is so easy to think of something as objective, classify that as absolute truth, file it away in your mind, and go on with your day.
Ah, either/or thinking seems to be the preferred weapon of conspiracy theorists and white supremacists alike on social media nowadays. I’m not going to spend much time with this as I can get stuck in the binary of it all, and it’s mind-numbing. But here we go: it is so easy to dismiss facts and circle endlessly when the argument is either/or. It is even easier to get to the extremes of an idea if everything is yes/no, black/white, or with us/against us. If there are only two options, you run out of options quickly and have to resort to your most outlandish argument if you want to win! I admit if you see my social media, it will look like someone who struggles with this, and I might seem like a hypocrite at times. Like perfectionism, in human interactions, there is no such thing as either/or. White supremacy culture needs comfort, and things have to be simple to be comfortable. There’s not much work in them. I get it; I am a lazy guy sometimes. Binary arguments and thinking are simple, easy, and convenient (and they can go on FOREVER). Don’t waste endless time watching that goalpost get smaller and smaller. We’ve all seen those Twitter threads.
What’s the saying – ‘One step forward, two steps back.’ If you are like me, you think of the one step forward, but what about the two you lost? Power hoarding might be the most obvious to some, and maybe the easiest to dismantle. I might conceptualize this like many others do and think of voter suppression tactics compared with the real power our elected officials hold over our lives. I think of not only increasing the amount of voting but making things needed to vote more accessible and free. My progressive side just came out with that omission, but I do believe in sharing power. Even in my relationships, I sometimes think in ‘we’ to a fault, but that’s for another article. Jump to the voter suppression side of thing, and you see some officials forcing populations in the thousands to use a single polling location. Others might use the full power of the executive branch to smear the Postal Service and mail-in voting. The way things feel, we might even see armed militia patrol polling locations like back in the ‘make America great again’ days. Those things are power hoarding because, by design, policy, and fear, it discourages people from voting, which means the dominant group that holds power doesn’t have to share it. The list goes on with power hoarding, and we didn’t even get into capitalism.
Just kidding! We’re going to talk about capitalism in this part about ‘progress is bigger.’ Not to mince words, I think that ‘progress is bigger’ is a tool used to hoard power. A constant drive for growth, more profit, more expansion, more property, more production only adds to the anxiety and exhaustion we feel daily and to an extreme in the last four years. It certainly drives us to the fringes, which keeps us off our game, and I hope you see that all of these points are starting to interconnect. Just thinking sustainable is not enough; I can sustain myself at a malnourished rate. I sometimes believe that just focusing on sustainability doesn’t create the space for restorative practices that can mend past injustices – what major American city doesn’t have its own story of slamming a freeway through the black part of town? Considering what makes a healthy and sustainable community is more interesting to me. It gets more abstract on the international scale; I will say studying how capitalism fueled by white supremacy culture plays out in the resource-rich nations of Africa was gutwrenching. It did make me subscribe to critical theory, though. Speaking of finite resources, not only does ‘progress is bigger’ perpetuate power hoarding, but it is also killing the planet a lot faster than we thought. I remember Chris Hayes saying once the last time the earth heated 4 degrees, there were palm trees along the Arctic Circle. I’m not sure if that is a direct quote or not, but I can’t believe that statement doesn’t scare more people.
I am going to wrap fear of open conflict with right to comfort because I think they go hand-in-hand or are quite similar. Once again, jumping to my anxiety disorder, I cannot operate in a world that shuns and gaslights displays of emotions the dominant group deems too expressive. It’s too hard, and I put myself through too much consternation trying to simmer all of my emotions. Not to mention, I find it dishonest to hide behind comfort or a fear of conflict. I’ve been in many meetings trying to figure out messaging where we’ve contorted our words so much that it’s moved so far from any truth or semblance of what we originally meant. Allowing fear of open conflict to have too much space makes a passive-aggressive type of oppression that builds slowly but gets quite intense. It makes me feel convoluted, or that what I think is convoluted. It is what people mean when they say silence is complicit. What is worse, this dishonest pleasantry holds no value. What do you get out of it?
You might question the oppressiveness of politeness, and that is fine. I think about it as a quiet but mischievous person compared to an outspoken one. You will know when an outspoken person is going to do something because they say it, you cannot say the same about a quiet person. There is so much power in quietly disregarding everyone and doing what you want to do. Think about that process or norm playing out in culture on a larger scale. Try to imagine the ‘angry black lady’ stereotype because there is a lot of truth sacrificed on the altar of politeness. A lot of legitimate stuff is lost because it came from a place thought of as ‘too much.’ I’m not saying people need to grow a thick skin and get bullied with offensive speech, or have to go through hateful things, but I am saying real emotion is a very colorful spectrum. There is so much value in every single spot along that line.
While this article is both a list and not a list, these points do interconnect. They interconnect in a way that causes people who are not a part of the dominant group to feel powerless, confused, and without agency. It would seem like that is what the dominant group wants, even if they don’t see it. White supremacy culture is frantic and exhausting; it is similar to the generalized anxiety disorder I experience every day. It is rather pernicious to keep control by shoving an avalanche of distorted ideas at people and then telling them to sit tight and be quiet. It is sad because the vast majority of us do it for other people to maintain power and wealth while we go poor. It is criminal how long white supremacy culture has been playing out, and that it persists and morphs into new things. There is no denying that there is a vast body count attached to white supremacy. I’m not going to summarize all my points, and I didn’t write this to come up with solutions. I will say, I do believe wholeheartedly in truth and reconciliation, restorative justice, and peacemaking circles/interracial dialogue. I know, I am sorry. Those aren’t small ideas, but I admit they are hard to imagine as big. More to come on those later.
Thoughtful essay. Driving it all, for me, is fear and loathing of the “other”. It’s where misogyny and white racism collide. It’s what’s fuelled and excused Western colonialism for hundreds of years.
I often interchange colonialism and white supremacy, or think of them as two sides of the same coin.