After a black man — George Floyd — was killed, in May 2020, by a police officer kneeling on his neck, mass national demonstrations erupted, and the culture focused attention on racism more than ever before. Anti-racism training programs proliferated.
One of the most influential had begun in 1999, when organizers Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun wrote a book which has become the website Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups. A central part, the essay “White Supremacy Culture,” describes characteristics of mainstream Western culture that contribute to and maintain the dominance of white people.
Okun identifies fifteen pf these characteristics. Here’s an extremely abbreviated list, with a few examples:
• Perfectionism – fault-finding
• Sense of Urgency (preventing reflection supports the status quo)
• Valuing Quantity over Quality
• Worship of the Written Word – something only has meaning if it is written down, in a certain way
• Missionary Thinking – “There’s Only One Right Way”
• Binary (Either/Or) Thinking
• Power Hoarding
• Fear of Open Conflict
• Proprietary Thinking – “I’m the Only One to Do It Right”
• Progress is Bigger, More
• Objectivity – valuing only linear, logical thinking but disguising as “rational” the emotion of those in power
• Right to Comfort
For an adequate description please see Okun’s presentation.
Okun observes that these “characteristics”
define and express white middle- and owning-class values and norms.
Political critic Matthew Yglesias points out that these ideas are norms because in fact they have value, are useful. They become destructive, he says, only when taken to an extreme.
But to those for whom these values and norms do become destructive, the point is not simply that they are taken to an extreme, but that they are the means by which an oppressive culture is installed and maintained in us: the tools of a whole system of oppression.
The Problem of Cultural Hegemony
Our relationship to our culture is like the innate trouble-avoidance reflex of our amygdala: we get locked into it, and can’t see how it could be problematic.
When faced with a situation requiring a response from us, our brains’ default reaction is to suspect danger, and to respond with fight, flight, or freezing. It takes effort to think about the situation with a more rational part of our minds.
I am so identified with my culture, that its values and norms seem to me universally good things; so out of generosity and fair-mindedness I want everyone to enjoy their advantages. But identification with our hegemonic culture blinds us to other people’s needs and experience. This has the effect of oppressing people, even when we do not mean to do so. It oppresses us, too, when we fail to obey any of the hegemonic culture’s dictates: our attachment to our culture creates stress when we can’t fit in.
When people exhibit or use the “characteristics of white supremacy culture” they do not generally intend to oppress people of color; they are just obeying the conditioning of cultural hegemony. When they teach these values and norms to others, they do it to help others enjoy cultural advantages. But the result is a system of oppression.
Critics of anti-racism training complain that
• It brands people as racist if they exhibit these characterstics. This confuses intention with conditioning. It’s not fair to blame people for their culture. It is fair to require changes in how people use these characteristics.
• It discourages teaching cultural values and norms — with the result that students are [more] disadvantaged. This “seems to objectively entrench racism” — In other words, the training is racist. This confuses intent and effect. It’s fair to label the effect “racist” but it’s still important to acknowledge the anti-racist intent.
“How to Work the System”
How about we teach antidote values at the same time as we teach those effectively racist but useful norms — With an ironic, consciously revolutionary attitude?