This work is adapted largely from the works of Tema Okun, Kenneth Jones, and Partners for Collaborative Change. We are looking forward to seeing updates to Tema Okun’s initial work, which are coming soon!
Sources named: Andrea Ayvazian, Bree Carlson, Beverly Daniel Tatum, M.E. Dueker, Nancy Emond, Kenneth Jones, Jonn Lunsford, Sharon Martinas, Joan Olsson, David Rogers, James Williams, Sally Yee, as well as the work of Grassroots Leadership, Equity Institute Inc, the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, the Challenging White Supremacy workshop, the Lillie Allen Institute, the Western States Center, and Daniel Buford who has done extensive research on white supremacy culture, and the contributions of hundreds of participants in equity processes.
The characteristics outlined in this document depict those of white dominant culture that show up in our organizations formal and informal, big and small, as well as characteristics of culture that can allow space for inclusion of multiple talents, perspectives, and life experiences.
Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name or identify. Many of the characteristics listed below are damaging because they are habits and are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or consciously chosen by the group. They are damaging because, sometimes as stand-alone habits and frequently when experienced together, they promote experiences of white supremacy. They are damaging to both people of color and to white people. Organizations that are people of color-led or a majority of people of color can also demonstrate many characteristics of white dominant culture in damaging ways.
We have lifted up and listed the characteristics as spectrums where appropriate so that we might be able to reach a common understanding and make conscious and aware choices about our behaviors and our organizational norms rather than unconsciously defaulting to habits that perpetuate cultures of white dominance.
In our society, the dominant culture that shapes our institutions, our media, the way we see ourselves and each other is that of the white middle class. In the spectrums offered below, the left side depicts aspects of what racial equity trainer, Tema Okun, calls white supremacy culture. The right side depicts aspects that allow for a more inclusive and equitable culture.
We invite you to take a look at the spectrums and think about where the characteristics show up in your organization and in your own behavior. What might you and your organization want to think about changing? Where are more inclusive characteristics showing up that you might build on or share as norms across the organization?
White Dominance and Inclusion: Spectrums of Organizational Characteristics
|White Supremacy* Characteristics of Culture
|More Inclusive Characteristics of Culture
Believing people are racist or not racist, good or bad. Seeing incidents of inequity as isolated events.
|Systems and complexity thinking
Understanding context and intersectionality. Seeing patterns, holding contradictory thoughts and feelings simultaneously.
No consultation or transparency in decision-making. Taking over campaigns or other kinds of external work, mediating and facilitating the voices of others.
Decision-making is clear, affected parties are consulted. Evaluations include staff at all levels and communities. Leadership of communities is respected, grown, and valued.
Taking unearned credit for things that are not the organizations doing alone. Co-opting local efforts, or the work of other staff. Treating your issues/area of work as more important than that of other people.
Taking time to build relationships based on trust. Focus is on ‘building a bigger pie’ instead of fighting over a slice. Mutual support and promotion of each other’s work and issues.
Ideas from less senior people are not welcomed or are treated as a threat, information and decision-making is confidential. Holding on to resources and a scarcity mindset.
Ideas at all levels are valued for the wisdom or expertise they bring, ideas from others are requested and space is made for them to be heard. Budgets are made available for viewing, providing input, and resources are shared equitably and appropriately.
|Comfort with predominantly white leadership
Defaulting to all or mostly white leadership using urgency and lack of available, qualified people of color as justifications for doing so.
|Leadership is representative of the communities most affected by inequity
Take time to weave into the fabric of the organization a critical mass of equity-oriented people of color in leadership and on staff at large. Create inclusive culture. With graceful awareness, acknowledge that we’re all unconsciously socialized to see physical features that are more white European, including lighter skin, as ‘better.’ Be mindful of how norms of the white, middle class can easily permeate the main organizational culture.
|Individualism & separateness
Focus is on single charismatic leaders, working in isolation, from each other and from other organizations.
|Community & collectivism
Working together, working from a community lens. Understanding that to change everything, it takes everyone. Understanding interdependence of people and communities. Mission over organization. Ecosystem over egosystem.
|Fear of open conflict
Right to comfort. Politeness is valued over honesty. White fragility goes unchecked. Those who bring up discomfort are scapegoated. Useful feedback is not given in a timely manner resulting in underperformance, lack of growth, and a distorted sense of how one is doing. Smaller problems left unattended become bigger ones down the road.
|Direct and constructive feedback/growth and learning
Peers call each other in and continuously learn from each other. Staff is developed such that all are skilled at providing timely, supportive feedback in culturally and individually responsive ways.
|Priorities and timelines that perpetuate white supremacy culture
Sense of urgency for funder-driven deliverables, but not for community building, capacity building, or equity work implementation.
|Priorities and timelines set for sustainability and equity
People have space for what comes up that is important to address in the moment. More realistic timeframes set. Allocating time for the unexpected and based on how long things actually take.
|Superiority of the nonprofit written word
If it’s not written down, it is not valued. If it’s written down in any way other than “Standard American English,” it is seen as incorrect or less intelligent. Superiors “correct,” edit and change documents to reflect a particular normalized language for that nonprofit beyond consistency of message or accuracy of facts.
|All forms of communication valued and taken seriously
Communication is treated simply as communication, stripped of “right” or “wrong,” recognizing that an individual’s use of language involves culture, power, lived experience, and geography. Editing focuses on communicating more clearly to a particular audience and done with permission of the writer. Appreciation for how in some communities, information may be relayed more effectively through relationship networks, the spoken word, art, etc. not just the written word.
Continual research and writing that leads nowhere. Creating multiple reports, groups, committees that are working in isolation and don’t build on each other’s work. Vision, values, and goals that no one can remember nor easily refer to in a meeting.
|Clarity & alignment for action
Simple, memorizable, and repeatable shared vision, values, and goals.
Detached “professional” communication, for the purpose of completing a transaction and efficiency. Reaching out or acknowledging people only when you need something from them.
Building relationships internally and externally that are based on trust, understanding, and shared commitments. Even in the simplest ways, taking time to see, greet, and acknowledge each other to sustain caring connections, especially when there’s ‘no time’ to do so. Space to appropriately be fully present and share in each other’s cultural bounty.
Transactional/ quantifiable deliverables are ranked above meaningful engagement or qualitative goals. Rushing to achieve numbers.
Working towards meaningful engagement with depth, quality; using qualitative goals in addition to whatever deliverables a foundation or other entity is asking for. The timeline for the deliverables includes enough time for quality.
Nowhere to air grievances. Focus placed on protecting power instead of addressing harms, naming intentions instead of acknowledging impacts.
Give and receive feedback non-defensively, have a clear structure to hear and address grievances. Skills are supported in being both self-critical and self-loving.
|Progress is bigger, more
Focus on quantity; less focus is put on the cost of growth on people, communities, and relationships.
|Progress is sustainability and quality
Cost/benefit analysis includes all costs. Focus is on sustainability which actually requires growth and adaptability to maintain relevance and quality.
|Over-working as unstated norm
Encouraging people to work through weekends and into the night (directly or passively by setting up work plans that are unachievable in a 40 hr week or modeling this behavior by sending emails in the wee hours, while on vacation, etc.) Ignoring how Black and Brown people have been historically and systemically requested to take on physically taxing work without choice, recognition, or compensation especially by white bosses.
|Self care/community Care
Actively encouraging a culture of self care and community care in which people care about each other’s physical and emotional wellbeing, support time boundaries, and are considerate of time zone difficulties, parental needs, personal health issues, etc. Work plans include 20% of unscheduled time to enable space for the inevitable unpredictable tasks that emerge.
Mistakes are seen as personal, reflect badly on the person – the person is seen as a mistake. Little time for learning. Making a plan and sticking to it despite indicators that a change may be needed.
Mistakes are valued as opportunities for learning. People verbally show their appreciation for one another. Experimentation, risk-taking, and learning are encouraged.
As new hires slowly learn their job, it is subtly or directly communicated that they “must prove themselves,” setting them up to hide mistakes or face discipline.
As new hires slowly learn their job, they are supported, given the freedom to make mistakes and learn from them. Supportive feedback is provided in real-time or soon thereafter.
People of color given extra work, and scrutinized while white staff with more years and/or formal credentials are given a pass, or promoted.
|Fair evaluations and just promotions
Based on a broader range of competencies than what has been historically valued (skills in the left column).
Signing on to big lofty values, but not enacting them. Hiring people of color but not supporting a culture shift to retain them. Focusing on inclusion internally while the fieldwork perpetuates inequities or focusing only externally without looking at inclusion inside the organization.
Focus on all dimensions of the organizations’ work and behavior internally and externally.
|Official title outweighs experience
Regardless of someone’s broad skill and experience base, they are treated as though they only know how to do what is in their job description, and their ideas are valued based on organizational rank. When offering to do more or different, people are told to “stay in their lane.”
|Holistic view of people
People’s experience and skills are understood to likely expand beyond what they have been hired to do, and opportunities to contribute more of who they are, are offered.
|Changing the subject away from the role of race
Limited understanding of how biases (preferences and dislikes) based on race and culture interplay with all aspects of our lives and systems. Limited understanding of the role of race in all of our systems and structures and interactions. Holding the practice of seeing difference as bad. Perception that talking about biases is an attack on white people or that white people can’t handle the conversation.
|Compassionate curiosity about how race, cultural differences, racial bias may be at play
With 360-degree compassion, assume there may be unconscious biases at work with respect to race to some extent. Create an environment that celebrates the courage to explore racial bias in all its forms, avoiding ‘gotcha’ and good person/bad person dynamics and camps. Acknowledge we all carry unconscious bias that is not helpful and each have a role in addressing it. Focus on building stamina and healing for self-reflection; focus on the consciousness and behaviors, not on shaming the person.
|Narrow valuation of intelligence / performance
Assessing higher value to left column attributes over right column attributes. Verbal/linguistic and logical-mathematical intelligences treated as superior.
|Broad appreciation of differences
Valuing attributes on the right column. Including spaces for work that needs musical-rhythmic, visual-spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, interpersonal, intrapersonal, and naturalistic intelligences.
* In the spectrums offered above, the left side depicts aspects of what racial equity trainer, Tema Okun, calls white supremacy culture.