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That "Characteristics of White Supremacy" Article Isn't The Problem...
...But the way we've been using it might be
Top notes: An alternate title for this piece could be “Why I don’t get asked to facilitate organizational diversity and equity trainings any more.” I’m not complaining about that. Others are better at those than I was, and I like what I’m doing instead. But I do love that a lot of folks use The White Pages in their workplace discussions, even if I keep encouraging you to spend less time at work. Whether you’re reading on “org time” or your time, thanks for being here. And thanks for all of you who support both my writing and the broader work of The Barnraisers Project. If you haven’t subscribed yet, thanks for considering. It’s $50 a year, which is much less than the cost of your time when you “hop on another overly platitude-filled company-wide Zoom to discuss our commitment to equity.” Heck, I think your workplace should reimburse you for a subscription, but that’s mostly because I think you’re worthy of all forms of professional compensation. They should also give you generous paid family leave.
[Also: Is there a rhyme or reason as to whether a White Pages essay comes on a Tuesday or Thursday on a given week? No, not really! I hope you enjoy a “Tuesday week.”].
I have never met Tema Okun. She seems great— thoughtful and smart and a terrific model for how to stay committed to justice over a long haul. It’s not her fault that I’ve seen her name a thousand times over the past decade. It’s not her fault that I have conflicted thoughts about the number of times I’ve seen her name over that stretch. I have a sense she has complicated thoughts about all that as well.
I know Tema Okun’s name because in 1999 she got frustrated after a multiracial meeting where the White people in attendance were making life hard for everybody else, so she went home and wrote a missive called “Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture (which she later updated here). She says that it just came out of her, that it wasn’t really her words but the product of a wider community of activists and thinkers. Sometimes the article is co-credited to Kenneth Jones. Okun—a White Jewish woman— wanted the joint authorship since Jones was a particularly influential mentor. Jones— a Black man who has since passed— disagreed, arguing that he didn’t actually write the article. Okun made a counter-argument about the worship of the written word, which was very on brand of her. Regardless, it ended up in a much photo-copied and Internet-disseminated workbook they co-wrote called Dismantling Racism and, as such, I’ve now seen both their names a thousand times. Throughout this piece, I’m going to defer to Jones’ wishes and refer to Okun as the author, but I wanted to acknowledge the nuance here.
“Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” is the kind of artifact whose simultaneous obscurity and omnipresence is itself telling. It is obscure enough that when professional hot take-haver Matthew Yglesias attempted a recent excoriation, he cited its adoption by “Atlanta Roller Derby” and “an organization of West Coast Quakers” as evidence of its influence. Having attended both roller derby matches and West Coast Quaker Meetings, I can assure you that neither institution is secretly running the world. That’s to say, there are no doubt that millions of people-- including many people reading this right now-- who have never encountered “Characteristics.”1
And yet every week, I hear somebody— an old colleague, a participant in one of my classes, a new connection from halfway around the world— reference Okun’s document. I have been required to attend trainings on it. I have been asked to give trainings on it. I have been asked to read her words solemnly before a conference could begin in earnest. In a previous workplace, I had it placed on my desk in the middle of the night and told I need to “answer for it”— a post-Ferguson update to Martin Luther’s 95 theses. I have seen bosses forced to resign for not taking it seriously enough. I have seen its various components used as proof that organizations are fundamentally rotten or that individuals themselves need to recant for their brokenness (“I know that my addiction to perfectionism is causing trauma for my BIPOC colleagues and am committed to the lifetime work of unlearning” is an actual sentence I have heard more than once).
This, of course, says more about the kind of spaces I’ve inhabited and the kind of circles I run in than it does anything else. I am a college educated American who has worked in nonprofits and schools and has been a member of various activist groups populated by other disproportionally-college-educated Americans. Most of my jobs have been email jobs. I’ve shuffled from one historically White-dominant-but-at-least-vaguely-social-justice-y space to another. I have attended countless meetings to debrief why the previous meeting didn’t go well.
And just to be clear: “Characteristics” wouldn’t be so omnipresent in these specific spaces if it hadn’t been useful to a whole lot of people. It is, of course, usually pretty awful being Black or Brown or Asian or Indigenous in White dominant spaces. There is real harm done by White schools, White organizations and White workplaces. Most of the times that Okun’s “Characteristics” have been placed in front of me by a person of color, it’s been with a spirit of exasperation— “maybe you will finally believe us now that everything we’ve been saying is available in an easily Googleable document.” I know many people who have valued being able to turn to something that looks and sounds authoritative for backup when their voice has been ignored.
So too have I known hundreds of White people who’ve found Okun’s “Characteristics” to have helped them process the ways in which they might be making life worse for Black and Brown people around them. Yes, there is occasionally an overly-flagellating struggle session quality to the way well-meaning White people confess their addiction to “urgency” or “fear of open conflict” to one another. But collective cringe seems a small price to pay if a document has helped so many White people recognize that they themselves have kept engines of oppression rolling.
There are, of course, a number of criticisms of “Characteristics” out there, but as is always the case with anything that looks anything like a culture war issue, the loudest ones are very bad and not terribly serious. Christopher Rufo, he of the manufactured Critical Race Theory Crisis of 2021 and its pugnacious younger sibling, the Great Reheated Queer Panic of 2022, isn’t a fan. Any time he sniffs out evidence that “Characteristics” is being used in a school setting, he’s quick on the case, warning White parents that their children are being taught that they’re evil just for wanting to study and work hard. As noted earlier, Matthew Yglesias– the kind of perma-contrarian guy who seems to believe that all the best ideas in the world have emerged from his own brain– offered his own critique. It was largely predicated on the old trick of “reading something that requires a degree of reflection and imagination, pretending to be stupid enough to take it extra-literally, and therefore declaring that it has no value." You can read it if you want, but you’re not missing anything.
So, if all of that’s true, if I can acknowledge the value this document has had, if I feel profoundly unpersuaded by the loudest critiques and if I admire Okun’s broader project, why am I not just crowing about how everybody should read “Characteristics?” Why the hedging? Why the complicated feelings?
I mentioned that Okun would likely be chagrined to discover the number of times I’ve had her document sent my way. It seems that she too has a few complicated feelings about the way that “Characteristics” is frequently deployed. She has recently revamped her work from a single document to a more holistic exploration of what it means to be White. She talks more explicitly about class and intersectionality now. She pointedly warns against using “Characteristics” as a weapon. In a recent interview, she discussed how her own definition of White supremacy has changed since 1999, how she now understands it not merely through the lens of individual characteristics or even merely as a system of racial oppression but “as a cultural project of disconnect in service of the power elite courting power and profit- wed to capitalism.”
That’s a powerful statement.
That’s a statement I can get behind.
If that’s what White Supremacy is, it’s self-evident why we have to dismantle it. I mean, let’s go! Let’s not rest until all the institutions of oppression and isolation that it props up are turned on their head. Let’s challenge our relationships to corporations and wealth and home ownership and property and cops and prisons and every myth we’ve bought that our life is just an individual competition between our family unit and others.
That’s not what I hear when White people from across the country talk about “Characteristics” though. I hear— implicitly if not explicitly— that the primary purpose of anti-racism is a never-ending process of individual reflection and “unlearning” (which isn’t bad, but which is often a destination-less, circular pursuit). I hear about endless meetings in professional managerial class workplaces— government, corporate and nonprofit alike—where the only end goal seems to be making upper middle class White people slightly less annoying to their upper middle class colleagues of color (a worthy pursuit as well, but woefully insufficient). I hear about the compulsive tinkering around the edges of White system-upholding institutions rather than about work that might actually challenge those systems.
All of this is how we end up with a multi-million dollar DEI training industry with very few meaningful results. It’s how we end up with REI executives doing a land acknowledgment at the top of a union-busting call. It’s how we end up with Coca-Cola in hot water for a training where employees are asked to “be less White” but not for its role in the deaths of labor leaders in Colombia or its multi-year history of campaign donations to candidates supporting Black voter disenfranchisement.
Others have offered similar critiques of the emptiness of this sort of institutional hijacking of anti-racism rhetoric. The most comprehensive (and best) example is Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s recent book Elite Capture, but you can find similar points in articles like Bhaskar Sunkara’s “Stop Trying to Fight Racism With Corporate Diversity Consultants” or Anthony Conwright’s “The Trouble With White Fragility Discourse” (the latter points out the irony that so many individualistic “reflection-based” diversity trainings are being called “Critical Race Theory” when CRT is, at its root, about systematic analysis rather than individual critique).
What is often missing from these thoughtful criticisms, though, is the recognition that we aren’t just stuck in endless cycles of white collar workplace discussions because a bunch of CEOs tricked us into trading revolutionary change for One More Meeting. Few of us know where to start with a task as daunting as “dismantling White supremacy.” And since we live in a post-Bowling Alone/post-Fordist world2 where our day jobs have (by social pressure and/or economic necessity) colonized every square foot of our free time and identity, it makes sense that the only place many of us can imagine exercising our social conscience is in our workplaces. Add to this the fact that a disproportionate number of self-identified socially-conscious White people are women or are gender non-conforming, identities that (still, in 2022!) are saddled with disproportional care-giving/household management responsibilities outside of work. Of course so few of us have any imagination or energy for any activism that doesn’t come in the form of one more biweekly calendar invitation.
We often talk as if unjust systems just keep rolling on because of apathy, or addiction to power, or because we haven’t reflected or unlearned enough. We don’t talk enough about the real barrier to change, to imagining, to building something better: We’re exhausted! And disconnected! And stuck at work!
And no, middle class workers aren’t uniquely exhausted compared with unemployed folks or blue collar workers. There is a parallel story about how the system ensures that the working class is less likely to have the energy to organize. I’m talking to and about the holders of email jobs right now not to contend that we’re the true victims, but simply because there are some interesting patterns as to what we do and don’t do as the result of workplace/life exhaustion.
It’s easy for smarty-pants socialists (particularly smarty-pants socialist men like myself) to wax polemically about how middle class White people shouldn’t spend all our social change energy perseverating on whether or not we’re keeping up with our fellow middle class Woke Joneses. For so many would-be world shakers, though, it’s difficult to know what to do outside the narrow confines of work, let alone muster the energy to do it. Sometimes, dissent is squashed through direct repression. Other times, millions of lives function on the brink of exhaustion and hopelessness and student loans and husbands that assume their wives will keep track of the kids’ soccer schedules and social media-fueled nihilism and so a nation of potential agitators just never gets started.
Sure, we all should be organizing mutual aid efforts with our unhoused neighbors and going to planning board meetings to fight for affordable housing and joining a prison visitation and letter-writing team and doing deep canvassing in rural, conservative areas but also… dammit that sounds logistically and spiritually impossible. And so, it’s easier to go to another affinity group meeting at our desk-based job and have another conversation about how “you know, the characteristic I’m struggling to unlearn the most is ‘quantity over quality’ and that’s why my Powerpoints always have too many slides and oh shoot I forgot to say that I’m sharing that reflection from the unceded lands of the Ohlone People and yes I’m realizing that’s probably my perfectionism coming out but I promise I’m working on that, too.”
I’ll admit, I have had my cynical moments, when “Characteristics” is trotted out for what feels like the thousandth time and I make the mistake of pessimistically projecting this conversation one year in the future and wondering if it will accomplish anything other than Mutually Assured Organizational Consternation. That pessimism doesn’t help anybody, though. Tema Okun saw that her words were taking on a life beyond her intent, so she offered the gift of clarification. It’s the least I can do to greet this situationally ubiquitous document with grace and appreciation.
Here’s the gift I’ve been trying to see in “Characteristics” recently. Whenever I hear its familiar language from another White person, I remind myself that I’m encountering somebody who is thinking about how to cause less harm in their immediate vicinity. That’s great! It also means that I’m encountering somebody who is interested in having honest, reflective conversations with other White people about what they might want to do better. That’s great too! And I do hope that those White people are thinking hard about how to be less annoying colleagues.
If I care about them and their potential impact though, I need to resist the temptation to pre-judge why they are or aren’t doing more, and instead become curious about what it would take to move forward, away from the comfortable cocoon of Slack and Zoom and further into their community. What would they need for child care? What would they need so that work colonized less of their free time? How can I help hold them accountable? How can I help cheer them on? What night coming up can I make them dinner? How can I show up?
I don’t think of myself as an expert on all the manifestations of something as ephemeral as “White Supremacy Culture.” I bet if I were to try to make my own list, it would be way less helpful than the one Tema Okun was inspired to write down a couple of decades ago. I bet my list would be even more likely to die a slow efficacy death in so many fluorescent-lit workplace conference rooms.
My best hunch, though, is that White Supremacy believes that it will always win, that it will have those of us who want to resist it perennially on the ropes of our own confusion and exhaustion. It thinks it will win because White people will always shove their kids to the front of the achievement line rather than fight for great schools for all. It thinks it will win because White people won’t be able to stand a single month of hearing “defund the police” before running back to the warm embrace of reactionary politics. It thinks it will win because it believes that upper middle class White people only care enough to look concerned and pretend to reflect— that we’ll never quit corporate jobs and join a picket line or spend more time with our unhoused neighbors than our friends from Wesleyan with the nice taste in natural wines.
If I’m right about the hunch, then I’ve got no time for judgment about why you or I or any other White person hasn’t done more to disprove that assumption yet. I just need to trust that there are many of us who want to move just a bit further away from the mere recitation of correct words and instead towards the messy, beautiful world of human action and interaction. The trick isn’t in persuasion, it’s helping each other do the work we truly want to do.
Song of the week:
Again, I don’t believe that middle class exhaustion is worse than everybody else’s exhaustion. Case in point: here’s one of the best songs ever about how being unemployed and broke is also exhausting (but how when that’s the case you still want somebody to love you and take you to the beach).
“Jobless Monday” by Mitski
This week’s subscriber’s only discussion:
We went pretty damned serious last week, discussing loneliness in all its aspects (it was really beautiful). We’re going to veer in the opposite direction this week, because sometimes its fun to get to be performatively definitive. The topic? “Top Five Rankings: You Choose The Category.” I’m probably going to do top five sandwiches, top five books about race and top five pieces of pop culture that I loved in high school that I still love today. Who knows though, maybe I’ll change my mind! Stay tuned! It comes out tomorrow, in every paid subscriber’s inbox (speaking of which, as always if you want to join the fun but the cost is a barrier, just email me and I’ll comp you; no explanation needed).
If you fall in that category, here is a quick summary: The original “Characteristics” outlines fourteen traits/ “ideals” that are privileged in White Upper Middle Class dominant organizations and institutions as well as “antidotes” for how to build cultures contrary to those values. The insinuation (contrary to popular misunderstanding) is not that every White person shares those values nor that people of color don’t internalize them, but that one of the ways in which organizations perpetuate White Supremacy is by rewarding those (of every race and class) who can act the most in alignment with a narrow set of White Upper Middle Class values and penalize those who can’t or won’t.
I realize I’m using buzzwords here (another overused one I could have used was “late capitalism”) but basically I’m cribbing from David Harvey and Robert Putnam to describe a world in which (a). our economy is less about making and trading goods and more about “services” and marketing and (b). where far fewer of us participate in collective community projects/organizations outside of our jobs.