Updated: Aug 10, 2021
According to Tema Okun, who we will discuss further in just a moment, fear is the number one strategy used by White Supremacy Culture to keep us trapped in its grasp. Fear is a powerful tool to employ in the pursuit of dividing people.
Fear makes us reluctant to change and hesitant to open our minds to new possibilities.
Odds are, if you’re afraid, you’re going to stick to the things you're most familiar with. You may even double down on what you're familiar with, and perhaps actively fight against things you perceive as being “other”. Fear tears communities apart and pits people against each other. If you feel threatened, your ability to accept a diversity of thoughts and opinions is severely limited. We cannot build community from a place of fear.
Not to FEAR! (pun intended) We have an amazing resource developed by Tema Okun - an anti-racist and anti-oppression activist, writer, and social justice advocate - and her collaborators. There is a document, created by Tema and friends in 1999, that explores the characteristics of white supremacy, and provides thoughts about how to push back against them. There is also an updated version of this work, released in 2021, available at this website. So far, we’ve examined “individualism”, “perfectionism”, "paternalism", the concept of there being only “one right way”, feeling a “sense of urgency”,“quantity over quality”, “defensiveness”, and “either/or” thinking
What is meant by “fear”?
“White supremacy, white supremacy culture, and racism are fear-based.” Tema Okun
Fear separates from each other. This disconnect can occur both along racial lines, within our own racial groups. Fear also removes our connection to ourselves, and from “god, creativity ... or whatever you call the wisdom we carry inside us.” (Tema Okun)
“White supremacy, white supremacy culture, and racism use fear to divide and conquer, always in the service of profit and power for a few at the expense of the many.” Tema Okun
Existing in a state of fear encourages us to pit ourselves against an “other”, in order to feel that we, ourselves, are adequate. Fear means fear of others even within our circles. This fear can manifest as the fear of not belonging, or of not being enough. An easy way to feel a sense of belonging, albeit a tenuous one, is to hate people outside your group.
So how does this relate to social justice issues?
It’s fairly easy to see how fear creates divisions and mistrust between groups of people. This can occur in even the most well-meaning of spaces. Everyone has fears, and fears are relatively easy to capitalize on in terms of manipulating people. If fear takes ahold of a group of people, or an organization at large, it can result in disconnecting the people involved from their original mission, and may cause lasting harm amongst and between communities. As described above, fear manifests as a fear of people/groups that are “different” and/or as a fear of not belonging to your group or organization. If members of social justice groups are feeling an elevated sense of fear, divisions can happen within the group, or even more detrimentally, between the group and community that they ostensibly serve.
What can we do to fight it?
“The antidotes to fear include first and foremost naming it when it arises, whether in a group or in us individually.” Tema Okun
Within ourselves, and within our communities, we need to develop and grow the skills we need to effectively manage fear. We need to be able to not only name our fear, but to hold it, and implement strategies to keep it from influencing our decision making. Navigating fear can manifest in any number/combination of ways, including: meditation, music, resting, and brainstorming. Both individually, and communally, fear practices need to be developed in order to meet the challenges fear will inevitably present.