Harvard organization lists 15 traits of “white supremacy culture”

July 12, 2022 • 12:45 pm

Here’s the rundown on this organization, which is in the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University.  The IARA project, under which this “policy portal” falls, is described like this:

The Institutional Antiracism and Accountability (IARA) Project is an initiative of the Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics, and Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School directed by Khalil Gibran Muhammad, Professor of History, Race, and Public Policy at Harvard Kennedy School and the Suzanne Young Murray Professor at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Studies. The goal of this enterprise is to use research, clinical knowledge and policy interventions to promote antiracism as a core value and institutional norm. IARA proposes to further explore and examine how understanding and engaging with institutional history impacts organizations when forging a path forward for racial equity. While the field of racial equity and antiracism is not new, it remains underdeveloped within the context of applied knowledge and implementation for organizational behavior and institutional change.

and the Race, Research, and Policy Portal is explicitly designed to further equity:

RRAPP is a FREE online resource dedicated to summarizing and promoting research publications on diversity, racial equity and antiracist organizational change in private, public and non-profit firms and entities. Many of RRAPP’s resources highlight academic studies, which are often hidden behind subscription paywalls and are subsequently underutilized. RRAPP helps changemakers learn and find the tools they need.

Two of its three goals (besides creating a repository for material on antiracism) are these:

  • GOAL TWO

    To further the field of racial equity, advance knowledge, and promote the implementation of effective interventions, while providing practitioners easy access to nationally significant materials to further sustainable change.

  • GOAL THREE

    Increase the use of this knowledge in the classroom, student research, and in curriculum at professional schools, such as law, business, and medicine; allowing for more dissemination and uptake of important antiracist learning.

That’s all well and good, but if you click on any of the icons below, you’ll see the kind of stuff they want to disseminate.

 

This list of aspects of “White Supremacy Culture” was compiled by Dr. Tema Okun, who you can think of as a lesser known Robin DiAngelo. Okun maintains an entire website, “White Supremacy Culture,” a culture she sees as institutionalized behavior of “white culture” that acts to oppress people of other races. Judging by her photo and bio here, Okun appears to be white; if that’s the case it’s another parallel to DiAngelo.

In this post, she lists 15 aspects of this culture, prefacing the list, in part, with this:

So how exactly does white supremacy culture show up in organizations, and how can it be interrupted? Dr. Okun outlines fifteen characteristics of white supremacy culture and strategies to counter them. As part of the Dismantling Racism Works (dRworks) workbook, she builds on the work of numerous researchers and practitioners, including but not limited to Andrea Ayvazian, Bree Carlson, Beverly Daniel Tatum, M.E. Dueker, Nancy Emond, Kenneth Jones, Jonn Lunsford, Sharon Martinas, Joan Olsson, David Rogers, James Williams, Sally Yee, and Dismantling Racism workshop participants. This guide also draws on the work of several organizations, including Grassroots Leadership, Equity Institute Inc., People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, Challenging White Supremacy workshop, Lillie Allen Institute, and Western States Center.

Here’s the list:

  • Perfectionism, such as pointing out how a person or their work is inadequate. Instead, expect that everyone will make mistakes and that mistakes offer opportunities for learning.
  • Sense of Urgency, such as prioritizing quick or highly visible results that can exclude potential allies. Instead, discuss what it means to set goals of inclusivity and diversity, particularly in terms of timing.
  • Defensiveness, such as spending energy trying to protect power or defend against charges of racism. Instead, work on your own defensiveness and understand the link between defensiveness and fear.
  • Valuing Quantity Over Quality, such as directing organizational resources toward measurable goals. Instead, develop a values statement which expresses the ways in which you want to work, and make sure it is a living document that people apply to their daily work.
  • Worshipping the Written Word, such as valuing strong documentation and writing skills. Instead, work to recognize the contributions and skills that every person brings to the organization.
  • Believing in Only One Right Way, such as concluding something is wrong with people who refuse to adapt or change. Instead, never assume that you or your organization know what’s best.
  • Paternalism, such as decision-making processes that are only understood by those with power and unclear to those without it. Instead, include people who are affected by decisions in decision-making.
  • Either/or Thinking, such as trying to simplify complex things. Instead, slow down, encourage people to do a deeper analysis, and sense that things can be both/and.
  • Power Hoarding, such as feeling threatened when anyone suggests organizational changes. Instead, understand that change is inevitable and that challenges can be both healthy and productive.
  • Fear of Open Conflict, such as equating the raising of difficult issues with being rude or impolite. Instead, don’t require those who raise difficult issues to do so in ‘acceptable’ ways, particularly if you’re using the ways in which issues are raised as an excuse not to address them.
  • Individualism, such as wanting individual recognition and credit. Instead, make sure credit is given to everyone who participates, not just the leaders.
  • Believing I’m the Only One, such as thinking that if something is going to get done right, then ‘I’ have to do it. Instead, evaluate people based on their ability to delegate to others.
  • Believing Progress is Bigger and More, such as defining success as hiring more staff, developing more projects, or serving more people. Instead, make sure your goals speak to how you want to work, not just what you want to do.
  • Believing in Objectivity, such as considering emotions to be irrational and destructive to decision-making. Instead, push yourself to sit with discomfort when people express themselves in unfamiliar ways.
  • Claiming a Right to Comfort, such as scapegoating those who cause emotional or psychological discomfort. Instead, welcome discomfort as much as you can and understand that it is the root of all growth and learning.

My first reaction was that this list, by stereotyping “white culture” and distilling it into fifteen aspects that are all portrayed as negative, is simply racist. But I still tried to see any merit in the list: anything that is characteristic of most white people and also acts—and presumably became part of the culture—because it helps maintain whites in a superior position over people of color (these include Asians). The only one I saw as valid was “Paternalism.” The history of Anglophones and their relationship to blacks, at least, has been one of unremitting paternalism. In the JIm Crow South,, blacks often had to remove their hats in front of whites, defer to them by getting out of their way, and of course all over America adult black men were called “boy” for decades.

The ironic thing is that this very post is also paternalistic, with a white person lecturing not to blacks here, but to her fellow whites about how they are deficient and need to change their behavior. This is not a list meant for discussion but a list to be accepted and promulgated.

You will recognize that there are differences in behavior among cultures, but every one of these “white” characteristics can be seen as important in other some other cultures, too (“perfectionism” and “sense of urgency”, for example, can be seen in cultures of East Asia, like Japan). Other characteristics of “white supremacy culture”, like “power hoarding” or “believing that progress is bigger and more”, are also found in many other cultures, and I don’t recognize them them as especially characteristic of my culture.

Most important, not all of these characteristics are bad. Is “perfectionism really bad? How about “belief in objectivity”? “Sense of urgency”? (You’ve heard about the meeting of health officials in Oregon that was delayed because, says the organizer in an email, “urgency is a white supremacy value.”) The fact is that some of the characteristics in the list above are good, while others can be good depending on how they’re expressed (“worshiping the written word”). “Perfectionism” can be maladaptive by delaying progress or eroding one’s self image.

But the list is meant paternalistically because it implicitly refers to nonwhite groups whose own culture is apparently the opposite of the one described above. And insofar as there are bad aspects of “nonwhite cultures”, as there is of white culture (Ibram Kendi doesn’t think there’s a difference), it’s meant to soothe those who are, for example, chronically late, or those who don’t achieve and can blame that lack of achievement on “white supremacy culture.” It’s a way of deflecting blame for underachievement as well as to make all white people feel responsible for that underachievement.

But in the end, what we see here are mostly individual characteristics, not ones shared by all whites as a way to oppress people of color. It is both racist and divisive to make such lists (imagine making them for other ethnic groups!). What would be more useful is simply to discuss these as individual characteristics that can have good or bad effects depending on how they’re expressed. But then Okun would be out of a job.

This kind of list, promulgated by the “elite” college of Harvard, is the kind of stuff that not only divides humanity into groups in zero-sum competition, but is also ready-made to hand the next election directly to Republicans. They’re already making hay over the “urgency is a white supremacy value” remark; imagine what they will do with a list like this!

Finally, do these people know anything about how to change human behavior? Pro-tip: you don’t do it by telling your opponents that their culture sucks. I can imagine as well what Dr. King would think of a list like this. But of course Dr. King is passé now, for he wanted people judged as individuals, not by their ethnicity.

h/t: David, Luana,

34 thoughts on “Harvard organization lists 15 traits of “white supremacy culture”

    1. Harvard is copying Canada?! Plagiarism being the sincerest of flattery, Gosh, I guess we’ve really arrived! It gives one such a warm feeling to be validated in these trying, troubled times with so many trusted anchor points being torn out of the deck and so many compass bearings gone magnetically astray..

      1. I wouldn’t go as far as to credit our uber-woke, low-information federal politicians with possessing any originality.

        My guess is that GA shamelessly spent thousands of taxpayer funds hiring some American-based CRT consultant from the DiAngelo school of thought and, like the self-flagellating, nodding heads they are, took this toilet-swirling, unrefined, and contextually-myopic tripe as gospel.

  1. Jesus Haploid Christ. If I didn’t know better, I would think it was an article from The Onion.

    “Worship of the Written Word” is a hallmark of white supremacy, writes the author who has… produced a written document on white supremacy.

    Apparently, so is the ability to recognize contradiction and irony.

    1. And if we can’t have either/or thinking, a number of items in this list will have to go.

      No self-awareness at all!

  2. While the approach seems bizarre, white supremacy, or good old fashioned racism still pervades USian culture. What I fear is that instead of working in a smart way to reduce racist culture, the extremism and irrational propositions will cause a delay in progress and further the forces of fascism.

    1. Well sure but only for some very specific values of “pervades”. Black public intellectuals have documented the ways in which American racism has measurably declined since the mid 20th century, the places and settings where it is pretty much undetectable, and the other places and settings where it’s still potent. Not disagreeing with you, just saying “pervasive” might not be the best way to describe this lingering racism.

  3. “develop a values statement which expresses the ways in which you want to work…”

    I want to work toward clear, measurable goals with a team of intelligent, rational people, instead of trying to score points or being constantly monitored for signs of thoughtcrime/white supremacy.

    Am I doing this right?

    1. Obviously very far from rightspeak:

      clear — Perfectionism
      measurable — Believing in Objectivity
      goals — Believing in Only One Right Way
      intelligent — Moronophobia
      rational — Believing in Objectivity again; you must “push yourself to sit with discomfort when people express themselves in unfamiliar ways”.
      diversity — You failed to mention this at all.

      For your own good you will be referred to the Ministry of Love. Have a nice day.

  4. My first comment is that there is more than one white culture. I have described “whiteness” to a number of friends and they’ve said, “Based on that, I’m not white.” Beyond that, some of these traits can be useful in some situations. I rely on the written word a lot, I’m a writer myself. But I have considered myself a progressive all my life, I still do, and I don’t think this stuff will lead to social change.

  5. If Dr. Okun is right, I guess we should applaud if doctors in the emergency ward dawdle and take their sweet time treating patients, since “urgency is a white supremacy value.” And from now on I will do my part in fighting racism by showing up late to meetings.

    Dr. Okun’s recommendations seem to operate on the assumption that we can best eradicate racism by first eradicating civilization.

  6. “The good news is that while white supremacy culture informs us, it does not define us. It is a construct, and anything constructed can be deconstructed and replaced.”

    Source: https://www.whitesupremacyculture.info/what-is-it.html

    “White supremacy culture is the idea (ideology) that white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions.

    White supremacy culture is reproduced by all the institutions of our society. In particular the media, the education system, western science (which played a major role in reinforcing the idea of race as a biological truth with the white race as the “ideal” top of the hierarchy), and the Christian church have played central roles in reproducing the idea of white supremacy (i.e. that white is “normal,” “better,” “smarter,” “holy” in contrast to Black, Indigenous, and other People and Communities of Color.”

    Source: https://www.dismantlingracism.org/white-supremacy-culture.html

    By saying that “white supremacy culture is reproduced by all the institutions of our society,” Okun and her friends from the Woke Cult equate white/western culture *as a whole* with “white supremacy culture”; and so they seek to “deconstruct”, i.e. abolish, white/western culture *as a whole*, including science!

    By the way, speaking of “sources”, Okun tells us the following about her personal life:

    “I use the word “source” to refer to what I understand as universal energy, the divine, god, goddess, one, the quantum field, essence – a state of being, an energy, a faith in our essential one-ness.

    ​Several ironies occur. I was raised by a fundamentalist atheist, a Jewish man who thought any notion of god or spirit or divine was unscientific nonsense. My mother, raised Methodist, never talked about her religious or spiritual beliefs although she did play piano for the evangelical church at the bottom of the dirt road where she lived in the summer.”

    Source: https://www.whitesupremacyculture.info/what-is-it.html

  7. How can one measure the level of racism in a society? How do we know if things are getting better or worse?

    Is there anyone here who wants to argue that differences in group outcomes are a good proxy for the level of racism?

  8. I am glad you published this. Some of the items in the list are actually good, but should have come under corporate culture or dysfunctional business culture or Minnesota Nice culture. Yes Adam Smith was white, but capitalism is and was everywhere. But when she goes on to point out that questioning any of her groups assumptions made about “white supremacy” culture is “fear of change” based and therefore should be disregarded is frankly gaslighting and this kind of argument is a favorite ploy of emotional abusers. You are right the right will have a field day with this. All of the people who put this together should not have jobs.

  9. I remember similar nonsense coming out of the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture a couple of years ago, which they eventually had to discard and apologize for: https://www.miamiherald.com/news/nation-world/national/article244309587.html

    As with the Smithsonian’s list, I’m amused by the contradictions within the list: “Quantity over quality” is a trait of white supremacy, apparently, but so is “perfectionism”. Who knows, perhaps Tema Okun was behind that list as well?

    1. I think that is right. The list from the website is an update of the original published as part of a workshop back in 1999. The original was the basis of the Smithsonian list. Same author, updated list.

  10. Reminds me of the list that the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture had up and then took down. Probably because it was blatantly racist and condescending as hell. It basically said that white people value hard work, the scientific method, being on time, and the nuclear family. Implying that black people do not do all those things. Thanks for that. Enlightening.

    1. It’s worse than that, it’s not simply a case of implying “…that black people do not do all those things.” (as stated in daramavros’s post) a lot of these activists state that blacks should not do those things as it will ‘harm’ them.

      1. Good thing then that they indeed don’t do any of those things anyway, pace Daramavros. I’m all for harm reduction at the source, poor dears. Nip it in the bud, like.

      2. The book and movie Hidden Figures highlighted African American women who helped NASA during the Space Race. As they used more than half of the things on the list, we should be grateful that they weren’t aware of using “white” cultural values.

  11. Imagine that the same list had been a magazine article titled “15 Good Ideas That Can Be Taken Too Far.” With one or two exceptions (paternalism) it would have been a bland little set of common sense advice about achieving balance in your life. Turn it into a list of characteristics of White Supremacy, though, and now there are problems.

    I do like this one though:

    Believing in Only One Right Way, such as concluding something is wrong with people who refuse to adapt or change. Instead, never assume that you or your organization know what’s best.

    Okay, so I can throw out your list, right?

  12. Are we allowed to push back against this crap on empirical grounds, or would that be racist for violating the Belief in Objectivity clause?

    This is a sickness that has come upon us as a society. Universities have succumbed worst of all and, since they have such influence on their students, they are ensuring that this sickness will be with us for a long time—at least until there is a crisis that requires society to recommit to reality.

  13. So all ‘white’ culture is the same, from Russian, to Irish, to Italian, to German, to American, etc. And this list boils it all down to 15 main features. Amazing.

    Actually, a lot of these traits seem like they’d go well with a list of traits that’ll get you to the moon, or find a cure for cancer. If America has developed an allergy to competence, then maybe China will become sufficiently ‘white’ to pursue these goals.

  14. I suppose the attitude displayed by these lists could be workable in situations where such performance conveys few risks.
    I would not want to fly on an aircraft designed or built by such people. However, the people who advocate these sorts of attitudes seem to exist with a worldview very far removed from that of people who do the sorts of things where attention to detail is critical to success.

  15. Tema Okun is white, I’ve read, and she was also a physical education teacher at one point in her life.

    BTW, those characteristics of White Supremacy Culture surfaced a few years ago in a slide show at the Smithsonian.

  16. My first thought was that such a list of traits as indicators of whiteness or white supremacy culture could only have been compiled by someone who knows nothing of the history of the world throughout the millennia apart from his/her particular scene within US academia of recent decades.

  17. Worshipping the Written Word, such as valuing strong documentation and writing skills. Instead, work to recognize the contributions and skills that every person brings to the organization.

    I work in In Vitro Diagnostics – you can’t work in the Medical Device/Pharma space without clear documents/records.
    I thought that was for evidence (safety, risk, efficacy etc) – I didn’t realise it was actually to keep my fellow non-white colleagues (who run the organisation and developed the technologies) down.

    (Also, I love how everything is presented (ironically) as a binary – you either worship the written word or you don’t. And ‘worship’? Really?)

    They are not describing racism – but (at best!) class or power inequality. God I lament that the inequity in class/power/income has been supplanted by inane racism-spotting.

  18. I read the first one

    Perfectionism, such as pointing out how a person or their work is inadequate. Instead, expect that everyone will make mistakes and that mistakes offer opportunities for learning.

    Ok, I thought. How are people going to learn from their mistakes if you don’t point them out?

    I could tell, at that point, that the rest of the list was going to be quite amusing. Some of them are downright stupid such as the “believing in objectivity” one but some are good advice. I particularly like the “Believing in Only One Right Way” one and the “Fear of Open Conflict” one. Both of those put undue stress on my irony meter.

  19. I recently took a community college course entitiled “Intercultural Competence.” I expected to learn more about other cultures and how they intermingle with mine. I entered the course already knowing that much of what is wrong in the world was caused by old white men like myself. I wished to rise above my conditioning and learn about cultures and sub-cultures that make up the melting pot of this country.

    Instead, we were flogged with the “15 Traits,” never learning about other cultures, just exercises in pointing out instances where these so-called traits rear their ugly heads in our daily lives. It devolved into mass virtue signaling, seeing if we could out-do each other showing the deficiencies of general American culture. I withdrew from the course.

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