Four Ways White Supremacy Culture Hinders J.E.D.I. Progress


Within the past year, an increasing amount of J.E.D.I. teams are learning about white supremacy culture and how it shows up in their organization. Often the topic surfaces when teams analyze their organizational culture and evaluate what needs to change as the organization transitions from exclusive practices to inclusive practices.  

In the dRworksbook, white supremacy culture is defined as “the idea (ideology) that white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions.”  Some of you may be thinking, “why the ‘white supremacy’ term? Isn’t that the ideology of the Ku Klux Klan, neo-Nazis, and other white supremacists?” I think it’s important to differentiate white supremacist individuals and organized groups from white supremacy culture. Stand Up for Racial Justice provides a great explanation:

We believe it is important to use the term "white supremacy culture" because the norms, values, and beliefs that our culture reproduces act to reinforce the belief that "white" and people attached to "whiteness" are better, smarter, more beautiful, and more valuable than [people of color]. We think it is important to name what is really happening, which is that we live in a culture that reproduces—sometimes overtly and sometimes very subtly—the idea that white is supreme. Those of us who live in this culture, including those of us who fight against racism, swim in this culture… and unintentionally and unwittingly reproduce these norms, values, and beliefs.

One of my go-to resources on white supremacy culture is a written piece by racial equity trainer, Tema Okun. One of the many things I love about the article is that Tema practices collectivism rather than individualism (a white supremacy culture characteristic) by acknowledging the work of over 20 individuals and organizations who influenced her article. In the paper, Tema describes white supremacy culture characteristics that are commonly found in organizations, which include:

  1. Perfectionism

  2. Sense of Urgency

  3. Defensiveness

  4. Quantity over Quality

  5. Worship of the Written Word

  6. Only One Right Way

  7. Paternalism

  8. Either/Or Thinking

  9. Power Hoarding

  10. Fear of Open Conflict

  11. Individualism

  12. I Am the Only One

  13. Progress is Bigger, More

  14. Objectivity

  15. Right to Comfort

I want to pause to acknowledge that those of you unfamiliar that these characteristics are a part of white supremacy culture are probably agasp right now, thinking “OMG this is my workplace!” Maybe not all traits but, at least a number of them, describe your organization. It’s perfectly normal to think this. I did the first time I read Tema’s paper.  

Tema continues to explain that these characteristics are:

… damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group. They are damaging because they promote white supremacy thinking. Because we all live in a white supremacy culture, these characteristics show up in the attitudes and behaviors of all of us – people of color and white people. Therefore, these attitudes and behaviors can show up in any group or organization, whether it is white-led or predominantly white or people of color-led or predominantly people of color.

In the article, Tema describes how each characteristic presents itself in organizations. She also provides “antidotes,” or approaches to counteract each characteristic. Building on her approach, I would like to share how four white supremacy culture characteristics show up in J.E.D.I. work and slow down progress. I will also provide antidotes to overcome these obstacles and help shift to a more free-flowing J.E.D.I. culture.

Quantity over Quality

You may hear: “We measure J.E.D.I. by the number of people of color on our staff and board. Let’s direct our time, energy, and resources towards recruitment.”

What this means: This characteristic often shows up in a diversity-only approach. Numerous organizations today focus their J.E.D.I. efforts on adding people of color to staff and board. The measure that guides these efforts is numbers. I have never found these diversity-only approaches to be successful because even if an organization succeeds at recruitment, the gain is usually temporary. If people of color are at the organization to merely pad the numbers, they will experience many forms of oppression—such as exclusion, tokenism, microaggressions, and feeling devalued—and eventually leave. This quantity focused approach does not take into account the quality of experience, which is crucial for the inclusion, equity, and justice elements of J.E.D.I. work.

You may hear: “We are doing great at J.E.D.I. Do you see all the J.E.D.I. activities that we have completed?”

What this means: The checkbox approach to J.E.D.I. (i.e., we did a training—check; we hired a person of color—check; we have black people on our website—check) also lends itself to valuing quantity over quality. It incorrectly demonstrates that the act of doing something is more important than how well you do something. For example, the most important part of staff trainings is what staff learn, how they grow, how they apply their learning to their work, and how they build knowledge and competencies that lead to more effective J.E.D.I. outcomes (quality)—not just merely providing the training (quantity), which can be beneficial or detrimental to staff, based on the approach and experience of the trainers.

What you can do to counteract this characteristic: Measure people of colors’ quality of experience. Value qualitative data higher than quantitative data. Focus on the effectiveness and impact of the work. Create time and space to debrief after J.E.D.I. activities to analyze lessons learned (what you stop, start, and continue). Put most of your effort and resources into creating a culture based on inclusion and equity, not on increasing the number of people of color. I have found when organizations do inclusion and equity well and continue to grow, they become desirable workplaces for people of color.

Only One Right Way

You may hear: “This is just the way we do it” or “We can’t do that because it’s not the way we do it.”

What this means: This characteristic is a common inhibitor of inclusion, and is commonly seen in predominantly white environmental groups who want more staff of color but expect them to conform to the current culture. Current staff do not want to change their approach, which has always been the way (and mistakenly adopted as the only one right way). Often, “this is just the way we do it” approach is unclear to new staff and board members, which is where paternalism overlaps with this characteristic.

When I first heard a trainer say that there are many right ways. I was taken a back. I said to myself, “What do you mean? I thought my way was the only right way.” This new approach has since influenced the way I lead, supervise, coach, and co-create teams and has led to way more effective outcomes. A culture that allows for many right ways invites co-creation and a diversity of approaches (usually drawing from a diversity of experiences) to achieve the goal. Allowing for creativity leads to innovation, which we desperately need if we are to find solutions to the biggest environmental and J.E.D.I. challenges that we have ever faced.

What you can do to counteract this characteristic: Understand that there are many right ways to achieve the goal. Co-create—do not set your agenda or goals before you work with your team or partners. Allow time and space for the co-creation process. Always invite more than one approach. Adopt brainstorming sessions to think of multiple ways for accomplishing goals and to support outside-the-box thinking. Co-create “pilots” to experiment with new approaches. Adopt a growth mindset (individually and organizationally) that allows for mistakes and constant improvement. Practice listening to understand rather than listening to respond.

Sense of Urgency

You may hear: “We can’t do J.E.D.I. right now because we have more important things to work on, like solving climate change and species loss.”

What this means: Environmental organizations are often run by a sense of urgency to save [insert cause here] RIGHT NOW. They believe that if they delay, they will fall behind the curve, so they need to be “laser focused” with all hands on deck. This characteristic feeds into either/or thinking as people are forced to decide between false choices immediately with no time to consider other options. Funders exacerbate this franticness when they expect organizations to boil the ocean on tight timelines and follow time-consuming reporting requirements. This sense of urgency approach is dangerous because: (1) it leaves people (especially people of color) and new, more successful approaches (like J.E.D.I.) behind for the sake of a quick fix, and (2) the organization will continue to follow institutionally racist practices and approaches, which is the norm when doing nothing or very little on J.E.D.I.

J.E.D.I. work will actually slow down other work since staff and board will need time to learn, build capacity, and integrate J.E.D.I. into all aspects of the organization. However, the temporary pause will make the organization better, and in the long run will allow the organization to reach a higher level of success at achieving its mission. “Go slow to go far” is a common saying and approach I share with organizations.

Additionally, as demographics continue to shift, working with people of color will be inevitable. If organizations are not prepared and equipped to work effectively across difference, they will make mistakes. They will end up spending more time repairing damage and rebuilding trust than if they took the time to build a successful approach grounded in J.E.D.I. from the get-go. The real question is: will the organization do the work now or later, or do nothing and settle for failure?

What you can do to counteract this characteristic: Adopt a both/and approach by integrating J.E.D.I work with current work (many J.E.D.I.s share that they grow quicker when they apply J.E.D.I approaches to their current work). Educate funders by letting them know they need to make long term investments because short term grant cycles don’t work in the J.E.D.I. space and may actually cause more damage than good. Adopt realistic and manageable timelines and work plans that include J.E.D.I. Are deadlines self-imposed? Why? Can they be extended if you need more time to process? Adopt a “go slow to go far” approach. Include J.E.D.I. in performance evaluations.

Fear of Open Conflict

You may hear: “I don’t say anything about my oppressive experience for fear of being labeled a trouble maker and losing my job.”  

What this means: This characteristic commonly prevents people of color from fully sharing their often oppressive and racist experiences. If they say something, they feel they will be ridiculed, seen as the problem, and risk their job and emotional well-being. White people, especially those that have not intentionally built any J.E.D.I. competencies, often do not handle conflict about racial issues well. White people will feel they have a “right to comfort” and may retaliate against the person of color who raised the issue, believing they are the cause of the discomfort. This characteristic also prevents organizations from deeper J.E.D.I. work since they are preoccupied with who to blame or scapegoat rather than addressing the root causes of the issue raised. Also because of these fears of open conflict and retaliation are so prevalent across the movement, we don’t fully understand how widespread of an epidemic these oppressive and racist experiences are. The environmental movement’s culture is unsafe for people of color to talk about their experiences openly. Fortunately (or unfortunately) in my work, I am privy to many of these stories, and I would like to share a few staff of color quotes collected from another project.

I wish I could find a way to share how the many small microaggressions have affected me. I'd love to… share in a way that will not result in retaliation… my experiences can really shine a light on what institutional racism looks like every day and how those little things that we should ‘just let go of’ add up to real harm.

The organization feels like it needs an actual honest conversation and more diverse voices on leadership teams. But the last couple of people of color that pushed for this were put on work improvement plans and pushed out. So I struggle with the discomfort of conforming and feeling bad or speaking out and losing my job.

While I was made to use my social capital with other people of color and social justice advocates to build coalitions for the organization, my work was not taken seriously and at times that capital was squandered. I was also bullied when I spoke up.

What you can do to counteract this characteristic: Learn about white fragility and how it affects the organization. Consider strategic messengers to raise difficult issues. People of color and white allies could collectively bring up issues or white allies could be the voice to reduce the risk of backlash. Create a people of color only space, a white ally space, and a safe integrated space. Hire a consultant to collect J.E.D.I. data confidentially and share recommendations. Create systems for staff to share sensitive concerns. Build trust. Learn ways to communicate effectively across difference. Reward staff for raising difficult issues.

As I mentioned earlier, these are only some examples of white supremacy culture rearing its ugly head in our J.E.D.I. efforts. When looking for these 15 characteristics of white supremacy culture, you will find them everywhere, often intersecting in a multitude of ways. These characteristics have helped me name and apply language to difficult J.E.D.I. situations, and the antidotes have helped me think of ways to productively address these situations.

You will also find yourself displaying these characteristics. I do. I suffer from perfectionism, especially writing these blog posts. If you find a mistke, then it actually may be a good thing for me. Also, when someone dismisses J.E.D.I. work, often my immediate reaction is defensiveness. This is my craft, to which I have committed my career. In these situations, I calm myself down, acknowledge my emotions and triggered-state (if I am triggered), and open myself to the conversation with love, empathy, humility, and curiosity.      

While it is disheartening to observe and experience white supremacy culture characteristics even while doing J.E.D.I. work, there are countermeasures. The first steps in shifting this culture lie with you and me and our commitment to building our awareness, knowledge, and skills on a personal level (as I have described in my blog post, The Crucial Importance of Me). As we build our competency and increase our agency, we will know when white supremacy culture characteristics appear and then have the skills and approaches to counteract them.  As we do this, we will create an inclusive culture where we all can prosper.

Do any of these examples resonate with you? How do white supremacy culture characteristics show up in your organization? How do they hinder your J.E.D.I. work?  Have you implemented any antidotes?

Personally, how do white supremacy culture characteristics show up in your behaviors?