This series is oriented around a discussion of white supremacy culture norms as most recently edited by Tema Okun through dRworks.
For any of this to make sense or have meaning for you, you should take a quick read of their definitions of cultural racism and white supremacy culture. In case you’re refusing to click that link, here are two key elements:
Cultural racism uses cultural differences to overtly and covertly assign value and normality to white people and whiteness in order to rationalize the unequal status and degrading treatment of People and Communities of Color.
White supremacy culture is 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.
w h i t e s u p r e m a c y c u l t u r e – dismantlingracism.org
Although stemming from an academic framing, this is not going to be a full theoretical analysis. Instead, each of the white supremacy culture norms will be discussed with the question of how this norm, when applied to a culture, might benefit the economic logic of those who are complicit with those norms. A few summary notes before diving into the norms themselves.
- This is not to suggest that the behaviors associated with these norms are ‘bad’ in and of themselves. There are lots of times when striving for very high quality is important, but when for very different reasons. Same goes for urgency or any of these other white supremacy culture norms. The focus here is to question why you or the circles you are in behave that way, and who the behavior ultimately serves.
- One of my big challenges with approaches to strategy is that they are largely capitalistic, imperialistic, or generally domineering by genesis. Strategies are used to beat competition, to crush an enemy, to come out on top, etc. Many of the following considerations will focus heavily on competition, and implicit in the need to compete is a fear of scarcity. In very extreme cases, let’s take the Koch brothers, this might be less a fear of scarcity and more a deep fear that if there’s enough to go around, how will I have more?
- Many of these norms also create greater strategic value when taken recursively, which is to say that when they reinforce one another they become stronger and generate more value. Urgency without perfectionism doesn’t necessarily generate a good result. This is useful for systemic oppression because those who rush and get incorrect results will be weeded out just as readily as those who take their time to try and get incorrect results. However, when paired, we see the widening gap of those who achieve near perfection who also learn to jump to become faster and faster. Each adherence to a cultural norm is like an asset that can later be used. Those without assets are left behind in a kind of invisible gated community of cultural poverty, created strictly by lack of will, interest, or ability to adhere to these norms.
- Considering these white supremacy culture norms can also show us that this isn’t just about cultural racism – you can actually begin to identify a full spectrum of marginalized identities by observing what the norms are and how refusal of the norms are categorized (words and phrases like stupid, simple, push-over, communist, not ambitious, extremist and superstitious come immediately to mind).
- Finally – there are 15 of these norms so I will not be discussing all of them in a single post!
Perfection plays a key role in supporting the myth of meritocracy. In order to be perfect, there must be a right way, a right answer, a best result. This way of thinking automatically devalues all other work or progress as less than perfect. Meritocracy, a favorite way of doling out rewards and appreciation, uses this idea to celebrate those who are in best agreement with whoever is in the position of power to determine what is ‘right’ and ‘best’. See the discussion of objectivity later for more on this trap.
Particularly dangerous here is a bias against failure, and thereby against learning. This is especially true where the learning might contradict the predominant power structure that set the definitions of ‘right’ and ‘best’ to begin with.
As strategy, perfectionism as a norm drives quality and consistency as enforced by the designer’s vision, and provides the tools and mechanisms to reserve its profit for those who are aligned with this set of beliefs. An easy example of this was the normalization of four-year undergraduate degrees between 1980 and 2010, especially. Establishing a higher badge of cultural compliance also introduced more competition into the undergraduate applicant pools, increasing the value of the relatively arbitrary measures that we call a GPA and standardized test scores. A 4.0 GPA is a standard of perfectionism, and leaves very little room to question your learning, only to execute on the directions, maximize the content as given, and exceed that standard in ways potentially not articulated, but in line with the direction and approach of the overall curriculum and instructor.
Sense of Urgency
Here again, productivity is king. When paired with perfectionism, urgency creates the norm that not only should we all perform excellently with consistency if we are to have any value, but it adds the extra criteria that this should happen quickly, and preferably be started and finished as soon as possible. Sooner and more efficiently is always better when ruled by this norm. Strategically, urgency can be easily rationalized by fear of being beaten to the marketplace, or that whatever entity is rewarding you to show up will go elsewhere if you’re not ready first and fastest.
Next time we’ll look at the norms of defensiveness, quantity over quality, and worship of the written word.