Updated: May 11, 2021
Why is it important to recognize a pattern of white supremacy within hierarchical structures in the United States, especially in the global non-profit sector? Outside of the U.S. there is a history of trauma for communities of color receiving development assistance or foreign aid from the West, specifically from white controlled countries and their citizens. According to Easterly in The White Man's Burden and Dambisa Moyo in Dead Aid, this "help" has been used as a means to maintain colonial ties in developing countries, and to protect the national interests of industrialized countries in the West.
While international development assistance has certainly improved access to education, to water, and to other variables of human flourishing, there have been many struggles in the process. Notably, the difficulties of rolling out programs that don't have community buy-in, refusing to tailor global programs to regional and local contexts, designing programs without clear measures to evaluate them/ hold organizations accountable, and pushing forwardinterventions without considering the negative externalities for the environment and local economies.
Ultimately, while well-intentioned, international development assistance can perpetuate oppressive systems of white supremacy if not dealt with at the core of organizations implementing those programs. In conversation with friends and colleagues, we noted how white supremacy can be difficult to identify in office culture when people believe if it's not in your face, then it doesn't exist, or those organizations are majority-white.
The truth is this notion of white supremacy shows up in many subtle yet harmful ways. And without reading the literature around white normative culture in the workplace, it can be quite challenging to see. According to Okun and Jones "Culture is powerful precisely because it is so present and at the same time so very difficult to name and identify. The characteristics (of white supremacist culture) are damaging because they are often used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen by the group." White supremacist culture isn't perpetuated just by white people, it is also perpetuated by people of color who do not challenge these oppressive norms and systems.
In asking clients to reflect very critically on white supremacy within their own organizational cultures, I feel encouraged to do the same within my own work using Okun and Jones “White Supremacy Culture” as a frame of reference.
Here are some take-aways I found from the readings:
(1) Individualism: Okun and Jones maintain that white supremacist culture is embodied by a desire to solve problems alone, and thus to seek individual recognition and credit which ultimately can lead to a more hostile and competitive work environment. In the early years of my career I saw this reflected in my own discomfort when asking others for help, and in attempts to pull off project deliverables with unreasonable deadlines. I know now to seek others' expertise, guidance, and support so that the quality of work does not have to suffer. I also see the value in bringing great minds together to solve grand challenges, as opposed to thinking of solutions in isolation.
(2) Sense of urgency: Okun and Jones mention how a false sense of urgency stands in the way of organizations being more inclusive, democratic, and engaging in thoughtful decision-making. White voices, which are the default or the norm, tend to triumph over the voices of communities of color which are less present or visible. I've seen this dynamic play out in my work even today. It seems that the more culturally responsive and participatory I'd like our evaluation to be, the more time and resources it will take to make that happen. I usually regret quick decisions based on incomplete information because they can be made at the expense of the views of important local actors. While I can't say we're 100% there, at P4C we try to be considerate of these voices, and budget more time for participatory design, analysis and reporting. A helpful resource has been Bamberger, Rugh, and Marby's Real World Evaluation book.
(3) Objectivity: This mind-set manifests in the belief that emotions are irrational, there is such a thing as an objective or neutral view, and that people must think in a more linear way. This thinking is actually quite dangerous because it protects the dominant culture, seeing whatever is the norm or "white" as objective and other ways of thinking as subjective. One practice I've learned is to expose my own world views and privileges to participants in my conference presentations or workshops before I launch into the program’s content. By admitting that I'm not a totally neutral participant, I feel more at ease in presenting my views. In addition, other participants appear to feel more comfortable expressing dissenting opinions. It creates a richer dialogue.
(4) Fear of open conflict: Okun and Jones explain how people in power are afraid of confrontation and try hard to avoid it. People within an organization who raise difficult issues in group settings are considered impolite, rude, or out of line because they challenge the white normative culture. In my own experience I know the time, thought, and energy I've put into designing the systems and structures I use to get work done. When people suggest other ways of doing things, I can sometimes feel a tightness in my chest and the urge to shut those ideas down. Because of this reaction, I have noted a few things which have been helpful for me in dealing with this, including:
• realizing it is the system or process that is being criticized, not my person or my
• reading books that help engage groups in healthy conflict and constructive
dialogue such as Scott's Radical Candor.
• taking deep breaths and remembering to pause a few seconds before responding
I believe there are many steps we can take to really see people's full humanity and to tackle oppressive systems within international development. Starting with our own place of work we can espouse the values we expect partner organizations and communities we work with to hold true. Okun and Jones' framework for understanding white supremacy culture is helpful in making visible a phenomenon that has felt invisible for too long. It takes a conscious effort to find the places in our organizations where we've embodied white supremacist culture and to take proactive steps to address these areas. While this is an ongoing journey, I hope the insights into the steps I've taken are helpful for others struggling with the same issues. I'd love to hear some feedback from you - on if and how you've identified this culture within your organization, and the work you've done to overcome it.