White Supremacy Culture Norms: Defensiveness, Quantity over Quality and Worship of the Written Word

This series is oriented around a discussion of white supremacy culture norms as most recently edited by Tema Okun through dRworks. As with the first, I’ll start with a brief primer on the norms to give context to my commentary.

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.


This is the flipped face of competition and becomes especially valuable as a capability when there are either reduced capabilities for generating value, or deep insecurity about what value is offered, likely propagated by the outrageous culture of scarcity that these norms espouse.

Defense is critical in strategy because innovation can often be mimicked, but the uniqueness of how you operate and fit everything you bring together cannot be replicated. Value in uniqueness is what drives economic logic.
As a culture norm, defensiveness does this not by creating something unique, but by denying the value in other methods, approaches, and skill sets in order to elevate the status quo. This may often have the side effect of elevating mediocrity or toxicity as value while creating either an explicit or implicit threat to the group. The ability to hold up against critique invites the opportunity for growth and improvement, and if there are none at that time, then that too is learning within the group or organization.

Quantity over Quality

The big risk here is the lack of value ascribed to the non-quantifiable. Process only matters if it has a numeric result. This greatly serves strategy driven by economic logic, where even user experience is ultimately boiled down to a return on investment, with lots of intermediate metrics to prove that it’s worth the cost of generating value for that user group. This also can largely lead to determining the methods and processes to begin with, and favors scale over small and interpersonal. A probabilistic approach (aka goals based off of measured baselines looking at X% will do Y) is effectively an articulation of this norm. If we provide this service in this way, we will see some acceptable percent of you adopt/buy/change. If we do something else, we will see a loss of this amount or risk our net promoter among this cohort. Alone, this ignores our opportunity to understand how we feel about one approach over the other, or to value emergent processes for their joy and presence alone.

Worship of the Written Word

As with these other norms, it does not suggest the subject, in this case, writing and documentation, is inherently sinister or oppressive. It’s more about the lack of power, promise, or belief held in non-written forms of communication, or in non-verbal knowledge. An example might be where organization leaders have a strong sense or feeling that there is deep discontent within an organization, but feel they can only determine actions based on explicitly collected data or feedback. In these cases, since often raw feedback is not easily consumable at the scale of an organization, it is not even these directly written words that carry the most value — it’s instead the validated summary that interprets the feedback that is taken as the grail. How summaries are confirmed as valid or accurate signifies an important turning point in how knowledge is created within an organization, and since individuals providing their own feedback never see the whole data set, there is no party who can confirm that the interpretation of inputs in fact reflects a representative demonstration of what the accumulated knowledge could have been. From a strategic standpoint, the benefit is very clear as in almost all change management one of the most important leadership activities is to control the message. Defining the message, and thereby defining knowledge and truth gives you leverage to rationalize any kind of decision skillfully in a way that seems fair – it only brings into question how true the message was to begin with. Later we’ll get to paternalism, which serves as a natural extension here where it is best to simply be ‘cared for’ by a wise governor rather than be engaging in helping to build your own optimal reality. From a leadership stance that is more enabling and promotes emergence, this may allow people to wade through the ‘less than final’ state of created knowledge and allow time for commentary, processing and deliberation — but it still requires that the group comes to an understanding together of what was learned and what knowledge will be taken forward. There is power in creating space for co-creating knowledge in this seemingly inefficient process – instead of simply delivering a message that falls flat as any statement might that does not resonate with your experience, you create more embodied and experiential knowledge at the individual, group, and organizational level, enhanced trust, and cross-functional awareness all at once. Effectively you manage to increase cohesion within groups and organizations, leading to greater productivity in the long run, even if a few hours were re-purposed up front.

Image by mohamed Hassan from Pixabay