Updated: Jan 21, 2022
White Supremacy is the dominant culture in the United States. It unites us under one regime of systemic racism and oppression, while simultaneously dividing us and pitting us against one another. Our society is broken under the crushing force of its collective weight. Looking at it all at once, it may seem hopeless. However, we know that if we stay strong and relentless, and channel our energy towards changing little things, we can truly move mountains.
This week, we will continue our discussion of the characteristics of white supremacy, and we will continue to be guided by the amazing work of Tema Okun and the late Kenneth Jones. The traits we are examining come directly from their anti-racist workbook - Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups. We are deeply grateful for their contributions to this work.
So far, we’ve talked about how white supremacy culture places an unhealthy emphasis on “individualism” and “perfectionism”. We know that practicing these “isms” will lead to isolation and a lack of community, and will negatively impact any attempt at social justice work. Community movements need to be inclusive, safe, and forgiving spaces for people to learn and grow in. That growth is stunted by “individualism”, “perfectionism”, and by today’s topic, the idea that there is “only one right way” to do something.
According to the workbook, the belief that there is “only one right way” is grounded in the preconceived notion that once people are exposed to the “correct” way of doing something, they will immediately do things that same way. What follows is the expectation of compliance, and the belief that if the “other” party does not conform, then there is something “wrong” with them (as opposed to there being something wrong with what you asked them to do). This way of looking at the world is similar to that of a missionary who disregards the local culture and only places value on the things the missionary is bringing to that community.
This particular characteristic of white supremacy culture is especially detrimental to the work of social justice movements. The “social” component of these movements is a critical piece whose importance cannot be overstated. Involving many people’s thoughts, voices, and opinions, reduces the risk that there will be one dominant voice that overrides all other input. The mindset that there is “only one right way” is toxic and results in power hoarding and the creation of intellectual echo chambers. When you expect compliance and label all alternative views as “wrong” you are, by default, endorsing the dominant view. Furthermore, when you label, not only the view, but the person holding the view, as “wrong” you take away that person’s humanity and right to exist. Silencing and dehumanizing people in this way serves to further the goals of white supremacy. If, as a social justice organization, people are being told there is “only one right way” to do something, then there needs to be a relearning process within the organization so that people can understand that there is no such thing.
Luckily there are some ways to learn to combat this characteristic of white supremacy! Make sure to keep in mind that there are many ways to reach the same goal. Never assume that you know what is best for another community; when you work with communities outside your own, be upfront about the fact that you’ll need to learn about how they do things. Finally, work on noticing when people are doing things the same way over and over and call it out. Being aware of our habits and patterns will help us approach social justice work with mindfulness.