White folx in this country exist in a space separate from their BIPOC community members. Of course terrible abuses, traumas, and injustices plague white communities, HOWEVER these issues are untouched by the oppressive hand of white supremacy. Having attributes which differ from the so-called Euro-centric “normal” marks people as secondary, less than human, less deserving of time and attention. In order to maintain this rigid system of race-based status, white people have to become numb and indifferent to the daily violence that is committed in the name of protecting their status.
Part of what we (the white community) need to do better is to FEEL the harm.
Not all of it all at once, but we need to reconnect with the suffering around us, and understand how that suffering exists due to systemic oppression. We need to actively recognize and work towards dismantling our privilege.
This all seems very overwhelming! Not to worry, we have an amazing resource from the anti-racist activist Tema Okun to help guide the way. Tema has created a document that breaks down the characteristics of white supremacy, and provides insight into how to remedy them. This piece is part of a larger body of work that has been compiled by Tema and others to fight back against the racist system that forms the backbone of the United States of America. We’ve broken down “individualism”, “perfectionism”, "paternalism", the concept of there being only “one right way”, feeling a “sense of urgency”, and “quantity over quality” so far, today we’re going to talk about “defensiveness”.
What is “defensiveness” and what does it mean?
Defensiveness serves to maintain power. Rather than empowering people to do the right thing, it pushes all criticism of power and alternate viewpoints to the side, in favor of not upsetting the power structure. The power structure itself is supposed to prevent abuse, but the people who have power do not respond well to criticism.
Push back against dominant ideas can result in an angry response, and the person pushing back may be labeled as “rude”. Either/or thinking fosters an environment where any ideas/narratives outside the norm are perceived as threatening. Often a good deal of energy is expended trying not to hurt people’s feelings, and this overall creates a very oppressive culture. Because defensiveness rejects the idea of thoughtful introspection and dialogue, it also rejects the possibility for growth and change. Because the status quo of this nation is white supremacy, when growth and change are shut down, that power structure is only made stronger.
So how does this relate to social justice issues?
Organizations that do not address defensiveness will inevitably fall back on white supremacist tendencies. White people who react to the “charge” of racism with defensiveness are not doing the work to acknowledge, and give space to, the role that racism plays in our lives. Because organizations are often headed by white folx with money and power, if they react with defensiveness to questions surrounding race, all conversation is effectively shut down and their power is unthreatened.
A natural emotional response to defensiveness and anger is to try to act in ways that do not induce that reaction. That mechanism is precisely how power is retained, people are too uncomfortable or too afraid to speak out.
Just because an organization claims to be in support of “social justice” does not mean that the people in the organization are uplifting and centering those most impacted. They may be doing just the opposite, AKA power-hoarding.
What can we do to fight it?
To combat defensiveness we need to question our own defensiveness, and work to dismantle it. It is also important that we label defensiveness when we see it, and work to recognize the connection between defensiveness and the fear of losing power and privilege. Another great way to counteract defensiveness is to understand that a power structure in and of itself will not prevent defensiveness, or the proliferation of an oppressive workplace culture.
What can ACTUALLY help prevent it is having a clear mission to empower people and to encourage conversation around how defensiveness and resistance to new/other ideas is counterproductive to achieving the mission of the organization. Social justice minded organizations can fight white supremacy by fostering an open and honest work culture.