The Attributes of White Supremacy Culture

This is the sixth email in a series about waking up, as a white mom, to progressive-variety racism in  the Berkeley public schools. To read the last post in this series, click here. To read the series from the beginning, click here

When I came across the now famous article by Tema Okun called The Attributes of White Supremacy Culture, I felt someone had let me in on a big, life-altering secret.

It was a feeling not unlike what I experienced when my Dad came out as gay when I was fifteen: we sat in the family therapists office and my father said, “Girls,” (to me and my sister), I have come to terms with the fact that I am a homosexual.” My mother sat beside him, looking at him with great sadness and love.

I didn’t really know what it meant to be a homosexual, as he had said. We had been conservative Christians my entire life. We had never spoken about homosexuality, but this sentence seemed at first like a departure from the kind of people I knew us to be. It was as if my Dad was admitting to something awful, like being a drug dealer or a prostitute. Something that happened in dark alleys somewhere by people who are nothing like me. But as I listened to what he had to say, with the same thoughtfulness and integrity with which he had approached all matters in his life, I began to feel a deep sense of relief… and even intrigue.

I had lived with a sensation my entire life that something was just not quite right. There was something I couldn’t put my finger on, but it nagged at me, creating an undertone of anxiety that infused my childhood. That evening in the therapist’s office, I felt that nagging something was finally beginning to be revealed. Instinctively, I knew that everything about our family life and my worldview would never be the same.

I felt I had been living in a black-and-white television that suddenly turned color. As disorienting as it was, I could also feel the ring of a deep, authentic truth in what my father shared. And in how my mother looked at him. His truth—and her loving reception of it—resonated with the core of me. It was profoundly reassuring and emboldening.

What I felt was the sensation of pretense falling away, and I loved it. In some sense, I had been waiting for this moment my whole life and, and I was ready.

When I read Tema Okun’s article, I had a similar sensation of pretense melting away. The attributes she laid out revealed the contours of another more ubiquitous untruth that I had uneasily lived with my entire life. As I read, I felt the possibility that the chilly and too tight reality of white culture, which—because of white hegemony—I had been taught was simply a given might actually be a girdle that one day, bit by bit, I might be relieved of…. And perhaps, one day… our institutions, our communities, even our world might be free of it.

The Attributes of White Supremacy Culture article itself is a simple, short read. It lists the attributes of “white supremacy culture” with a brief description of how these attributes play out in organizations—even organizations with an antiracist mission! The article includes antidotes, or alternate ways of being that when added up point to a fundamentally different way of being together. (Tema Okun has since fleshed out the article and dedicated an entire website to it, which is worth spending some time with if you have not.) The attributes include:

Attributes of White Supremacy Culture:

  1. Perfectionism
  2. Sense of Urgency
  3. Defensiveness
  4. Quantity over Quality
  5. Worship of the Written Word
  6. Only One Right Way
  7. Paternalism
  8. Either/or Thinking
  9. Power Hoarding
  10. Fear of Open Conflict
  11. Individualism
  12. “I’m the only one”
  13. Progress is bigger, more
  14. Illusion of Objectivity
  15. Right to Comfort

I found this article shortly after my daughter opened my eyes to the racism operating in our cherished school system. I did not know then that one of Tema Okun’s teachers, Daniel Buford, a Bay Area activist and organizer who was responsible for much of the content in the article, was someone I would later have the opportunity to speak with at length about what I was observing in the BUSD. He was one of the people who told me, point blank, that what really drives racial disparities in the BUSD is white parents—like me.

I printed and read this article many, many times. I used it as a framework to think about the various settings and organizations that had shaped my identity, from the church to academia to the nonprofits that had employed me over the years. I kept a copy of the article inside the cover of my journal, reflecting on it often. I made artwork about the attributes as they live in me. I shared the article widely, with anyone who showed the slightest interest.

And one day, in the Summer of 2020, when we were in the throes of the coronavirus pandemic, when George Floyd had recently been murdered by police and Black Lives Matter protests erupted across the globe, I had the joy of leading a small group of fellow BUSD white moms—each of them activists in racial equity work in the school district—through an 8-week Listening Circle where we examined how the attributes of white supremacy culture live in us, our families, and our schools.

That core group of white mothers, each of whom had developed our own trusted relationships in the African American community over several years, became a space of increasing warmth, authentic connection, and honest self-examination regarding our complicity in white supremacy culture.

Throughout the next school year, in close conversation with our African American accountability partners, this small group of mothers began to bring requests and demands to our school board. This was the natural exhale after the inhale of our self-reflective work.

The change we have participated in is quantitatively small. A mere blip following in the stream of those African American and Latinx parents and community leaders who have invested decades of their lives in equity for Black and Brown Berkeley youth.

And yet… qualitatively, something important happened. Something powerful has begun within us, as white parents.

In future email messages, I will share more with you about waking up–and, as I have come to think of it, thawing out–to progressive-variety white supremacy culture, as it lives in me and as it plays out in our schools and community.

In the meantime, I would like to extend an invitation to you to join us on this journey in real time, in doing our White Work.

White Work is an online class–or rather, it’s more like a self-reflection and healing space–for white parents and community stakeholders who wish to do the inner work of dissolving white supremacy culture as it lives in us, our families, and in the spaces where we spend time and take leadership.

As we do this work together, we will simultaneously invest in the Berkeley-based Black-led community healing initiatives of the Center for Food Faith, and Justice (CFFJ), a non-profit organization that comes out of the oldest historically Black congregation in Berkeley, the McGee Avenue Baptist Church. CFFJ’s mission is “Raising Healthy Communities from the soil to the soul.” CFFJ leads a range of community building, leadership development and advocacy efforts in the areas of youth violence prevention and interruption, food sovereignty and land justice, and affordable housing.

To read more about White Work and to register, please use this link.