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White Supremacy: Paternalism

Updated: Jan 27, 2021

White supremacy permeates every aspect of our society. It is what our country was founded on, and it continues to support the current systems of oppression that comprise our nation.

Without white supremacy, our culture and society would look radically different. Without white supremacy, our country could begin to live up to its potential.

When looking at the big picture, and the way white supremacy is tightly woven into the fabric of our society, making a change can seem daunting and impossible. However, if we break down our resistance into more manageable pieces, we can start to make real meaningful change. One way to deconstruct white supremacy is to challenge its cultural characteristics in both our personal lives, and in our anti-racist advocacy work.

This series of essays is guided by the work of Tema Okun. Tema wrote an anti-racist workbook called Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, which provides the foundation of this ongoing discussion. All the characteristics of white supremacy that we examine here come directly from the workbook; we continue to be deeply grateful for this contribution to anti-racist work.

So far we’ve thought about how “individualism”, “perfectionism”, and the concept of there being only “one right way” negatively impact social justice organizations, as well as ways we can push back against them. These various “isms” are detrimental to anti-racist work because they tend to result in isolation, an unwillingness to work together, and a rigidity that does not allow for mistakes and the growth that follows them. This week’s topic “paternalism” is yet another aspect of white supremacy culture that provides a barrier to achieving social justice.

According to the workbook, “paternalism” is a power dynamic that disenfranchises those who are not at the top of the pyramid in terms of decision making. Under paternalism, those with the power have a clear understanding of decision making that those without power do not have.
The people with power often believe they are capable of making decisions on behalf of those without power, often without a full understanding of what they need/want. The people without power know they don’t have it, and are also aware of who does. However, clarity on who is making what decisions and why remains elusive. Those that are disenfranchised are also very familiar with how decisions made by others impact them.

Let's be clear: We as people have power and the ability to enact change. The difference is there are also those with positional (i.e. mayor, county/corporate CEO, foundation president, nonprofit director) power who use a paternalistic approach to decision making.

This characteristic of white supremacy is relevant to social justice work because it is possible for it to manifest itself in organizing work. It looks like leadership not including their members in decision making, and not considering the wants and needs of the entire organization. Members of the organization that are not in positional power will not have a clear understanding of the decision making process and therefore are more likely to experience a sense that their work does not matter, which can lead to burnout and the decision to stop working with or inside a particular organization. Paternalism takes the power away from the movement. It denies the people who need the most support the ability to participate in decision making that directly impacts them. It can often look like those with the most power already (white folx) keeping and consolidating their power. This is counterproductive to the ideals of social justice work - those that advocate for empowering the less powerful.

Luckily there are some ways to fight back against this particular characteristic of white supremacy! According to the workbook, one important factor is to have those who are having decisions made about them involved in the decision making process. Another antidote is to have it be very clear who in the organization has the power to make decisions, and to ensure that everyone knows their level of authority and responsibility. All of these changes can be made to any organizing movement to create more equitable outcomes for those involved with the organization.

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