someone completing a wall of drawings of aspects of white supremacy culture

White Supremacy Culture in Organizations

For the last few years, our team has relied a lot on a document called “White Supremacy Culture, created by a project called Dismantling Racism Works- indeed, a training and facilitation project that had very similar work to our own, when they were still active.

This resource was important to us because it helped us, and our clients, name the unsaid, unwritten, unstated expectations that exist in our organizational culture that create harm- and in particular, harm for people of colour in our organizations. COCo has written before about how we don’t like to start with policy change when we are asked to support a group in becoming more anti-racist. This document has helped us to start elsewhere: with organizational culture.

What is White Supremacy Culture

Some organizations might not be familiar with the term ‘white supremacy culture. We use the following definition:

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 Colour and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions. White supremacy expresses itself interpersonally as well as structurally (through our governments, education systems, food systems, etc).

In this view, we understand white supremacy as not only speaking to the activities and beliefs of the far right/alt right/white nationalists- but understanding that those movements exist on a spectrum, as part of a North American society whose underpinning, history, beliefs, interactions, are marked and defined by a history of white supremacy. Although this document also does a beautiful job of acknowledging that these beliefs and practices are ones we can all participate in (people of colour and white people alike; white dominant organizations as well as BIPOC ones), it names clearly which direct racism runs in.

One reason to list characteristics of white supremacy culture is to point out how organizations that unconsciously use these characteristics as their norms and standards make it difficult, if not impossible, to open the door to other cultural norms and standards.

As a result, many organizations that claim to be inclusive are actually requiring the people in them to act according to existing norms. Naming these, and putting them up for questioning, is a critical step in building an inclusive organization.

White Supremacy Culture in Organizations

The document is divided into 5 overarching sections, describing aspects of white supremacy culture:

  • Perfectionism, including worship of the written word, “one right way” and “either/or” thinking
  • Concentration of Power, including power hoarding, paternalism, and defensiveness
  • Right to Comfort,  including fear of open conflict
  • Individualism
  • Progress is Bigger/More, including objectivity, quantity over quality, and sense of urgency

White Women in NonProfit Organizations

Right as we were preparing this document for release, we found this blog post, where Heather Laine Talley expands on parts of white supremacy culture that she has observed in herself and others and that might b more specific to how white women bring white supremacist behaviours into the workplace, like:

  • Disavowal of power
  • Obsession with the Future
  • Performative Anti Racism
  • Over Delivering
  • Niceness Above All Else
  • Confusing Informality with Equity

We love these contributions to the discussion and encourage you to read them as well.

How to Use this Document

We have loved this document so much we asked for permission to give it some new life. We’ve

  • given it a colourful redesign
  • Organized it into clearer sections, so it might be easier to read
  • Added reflection questions throughout, taken from another of our favourite documents
  • Added our own commentary and research to certain sections
  • Added clear examples of these cultural trends in organizations, using this document
  • Translated it (the French version is coming soon!)

One of the best ways we have found is to use the document in smaller chunks. You can choose a couple of sections at random or based on observations of the organizational culture. Talk together about how the characteristics listed apply to your organization and ask:

  • How do these cultural features exist in our organization or group? How are they hurting us, if they are? How do the descriptions mirror our experience or not?
  • Is there a difference in how people of colour in the group experience these cultural beliefs and how white people do? What could we learn from that?
  • What steps could we take to change these features in a day-to-day way? What solutions could the antidotes offer us? Are we ready and willing to do that?

Not all organizations are ready for this conversation. However, for those that are, our experience is that these kinds of conversations can be rich and invigorating. They allow us to explore the day-to-day experience of working together and offer a path to imagining and implementing a different way of being.

Download (PDF, 543KB)