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White Supremacy & Perfectionism

Updated: Jan 27

White supremacy is so prevalent that many white people in this country do not recognize its existence. It is simply the status quo, the way that things are. This must change. To better understand how to dismantle white supremacy, we need to take a closer look at the different parts of this toxic system of oppression.

Last week, we began our discussion of the characteristics that define white supremacy. We unpacked how "individualism" leads to a lack of accountability and an inability to pull together and work as a team. The impact of individualistic traits and policies is detrimental to the work of social justice organizations, which require group effort and the ability to share responsibilities with others.

This week we will breakdown the negative impact of “perfectionism,” which is closely related to individualism.

As always, our discussion is guided by the framework established by the brilliant 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.

As defined in the workbook, “perfectionism” is the rigid view that there is one ideal outcome and that not achieving it amounts to being less than adequate, as a person.

Perfectionism is insidious in that it works its way not only into how people think and make judgments about others, but into how we perceive and evaluate ourselves. This mindset often results in little time being devoted to learning from mistakes, and a tendency to focus only on things that are “wrong”.

Perfectionism does not lead to a healthy or productive organizational environment. It discourages open communication, and encourages gossip and indirect communication. A lack of ability to communicate with and understand each other undermines the effectiveness of any social justice movement. This characteristic pushes people to focus on the perceived inadequacies of others and discourages dialogue about how to problem solve challenges that arise. Social justice movements require collaboration from all members of the movement - we are stronger together than we are alone. MANY HANDS MAKE LIGHT WERK. Actions and efforts are far more impactful when they are taken by a broad base of supporters, it’s impossible to do this work in a vacuum.

Finally, and most importantly, perfectionism results in the tendency to equate mistakes with a person’s character. In this view every misstep or error makes a person bad or inadequate, a person that’s less than and doesn’t deserve patience and support. This mindset applies not only to how we view others, but also to how we view ourselves.

Entertaining this world view results in an intolerance for mistakes, which subsequently results in not only a lack of motivation to try new things, but also a lack of ability to learn from mistakes. Social justice work is messy, we are continually challenged to think outside of our previous understanding, and to learn from the experiences of others. If you cannot allow yourself to make mistakes, how can you allow yourself to learn and grow as a person? People are not their mistakes. On the contrary, mistakes are often what allow people to grow and become better versions of themselves.

Luckily there are some remedies for the harsh and unforgiving environment fostered by perfectionism! Social justice organizations should focus on developing a culture of appreciation, emphasizing that mistakes don’t define people but can instead be great opportunities for learning. Most importantly recognize that being your own worst critic doesn’t help you, or anyone else.

How has perfectionism shown up for you? How have you dealt with it?

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