How Bad is White Supremacy?

By: Jo Burkholder

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Here is how it began…

A polite inquiry came in the other day online. A mere acquaintance (white and male, I noted) asked me:

I’ve been following your posts on #blacklivesmatter and I’m curious what you think. How bad is white supremacy?

As reports and rumors rolled in, lighting up my digital devices with stories of cities burning and violence erupting, in the wake of George Floyd’s death, it felt like a loaded question. I didn’t know if this was leading to an inquiry about my DEI consulting services, perhaps a bit of trolling, or a teachable moment of genuine inquiry. My response?

Depends on what you mean.

Most folks like to think about “white supremacy” as represented by groups like the KKK, or in my case the Proud Boys who have a “den” about a half mile from where I live. They are active, loud, and intimidating as they propagate hatred and fear. They have a reputation for deplorable violence. I find them scary. I’d like to see them change their thinking and their ways and I wish I knew a simple solution for healing whatever deep wounds and insecurities drive them.

“White supremacy groups,” however, are not what is primarily keeping systems of racialized oppression in place. We cannot simply blame a few “bad apples” for the overarching structures, processes, and values that have landed us where we are.

That falls on the rest of us.

[Related: Show Up]

Our evolving systems of oppression, especially racial oppression, are kept in place by what Tema Okun and others have called “white supremacy culture,” and others have called “covert racism.”

Because it is a system of beliefs that are now closely tied up with how we run our businesses, our educational system, and many of our social, religious, and civic organizations, it is harder to recognize, much harder to interrogate, and very much harder to change.

The list of values includes, but is not limited to:

  • Perfectionism: We work to point out and eliminate mistakes, rather than learn from them or embrace them. We celebrate being the “most” or the “best” and glorify the competition to get there.

[Related: Four Things to Consider When Hiring an Implicit Bias Trainer]

Many of us may recognize the inequality in the outcomes of this system of beliefs. We understand that it is unfair, and in fact have been pained by it ourselves at some point, maybe many points. Often, we use the pain of that trauma to justify denial, saying things like:

This can’t be about race because I am white and I have suffered, too.

And as long as we remain committed to that belief, we cannot build a truly inclusive culture.

For those of us in leadership positions, the slope can be even slipperier. Often we feel it is because of our ability to negotiate, navigate, and master this complex web of values that we have been able to succeed and get to where we are. Our exemplification of those values is what makes us worthy of the power and authority with which our organizations have invested us; they are how we measure our own worth. To think about putting them aside can be confidence-busting, unsettling, and downright frightening.

Authors like Resmaa Menakem, Ibram X. Kendi, and many others have articulated many of the ways in which it is a brutal legacy, especially for BIPOC, but ultimately for all of us. Reading between the lines and trying to connect the dots, what I hear people saying is that unhealed trauma causes us to reinvent and re-enact violence on others, resulting in subtly shifting but persistent undertows of oppression.

Yet, we have so long subscribed to the beliefs that it can be hard to imagine doing or being any other way. And often in our work to “undo racism” we ignore that the undoing is physical, social, and emotional all at once, and not something to be achieved with a bi-monthly workshop, yearly summit, or affinity group.

It is a system that has operated for a very long time and has become embedded in our social mythology. But, like our dependency on fossil fuels and plastics, it is slowly killing us, all of us. The current upheaval over racial oppression is only one visible, current symptom of this death. I don’t know how long it will take to end us all if we don’t do something more and make real change, but eventually it will.

So, my short answer to the question of “How bad is white supremacy?” is: It’s deadly.

[Related: Internal and External Challenges Faced by Women and Ethnic Minorities that Make them More Vulnerable at Work]

Jo Burkholder is a leader for positive change in communities, organizations, and industry. She is experienced in developing and leading programs and projects that span administrative units, diverse social groups, and international borders. She has engaged community partners and promoted creative, sustainable, research-based solutions to problems of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

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