Is There a White Supremacy Culture in Schools?

I am currently participating in a 21-day ‘Racial Equity Habit-Building Challenge.’ I signed up with several local friends, as part of our intention to build tolerance and equity in our mostly-white community. We met for a conversation, this past week, and we were all a little blown away by depth and transformative power of the resources and questions in this Challenge. So much to learn.

This is good.

The most striking thing I read is a piece from Day 5 (Confronting Whiteness).  I have learned not to presume that I know much of anything about identifying distinctly white-people beliefs and habits.

At this point in my life (closing in on seven decades), I understand that I’ve been unaware (to put it politely), for a long time, of just how white I am, and how that looks and feels to other people. What I can do now is acknowledge, learn and try to do better.

The piece that rocked me is from the Dismantling Racism Workshop. It’s titled THE CHARACTERISTICS OF WHITE SUPREMACY CULTURE.

To my shock and distress, it described, in great detail, every organization and institution I’ve ever worked for, joined or been associated with, all the way back to kindergarten. Including churches, universities, non-profits, musical and social groups—and most especially, K-12 schools.

Here are some of the basic characteristics (click on the link to read full descriptions as well as antidotes):

  • Perfectionism
  • Sense of Urgency
  • Defensiveness
  • Quantity over Quality
  • Worship of the Written Word
  • One Right Way
  • Paternalism
  • Either/Or Thinking
  • Power Hoarding
  • Fear of Open Conflict
  • Individualism
  • Progress = Bigger and More
  • Objectivity
  • The ‘Right’ to Feel Comfortable

Go ahead—think of a common public school practice or policy.

Mandated, standardized testing, for example. Does such testing not elevate perfectionism, urgency (especially now, when the data yielded will be useless and corrupt), quantity over quality, ‘objectivity,’ power hoarding by testing companies and state education departments, worship of the written word, etc.–over other worthy goals, like community, kindness or self-discovery?  

Virtually every issue, no matter how prosaic, in my long life as an educator, involved at least a couple of these. Staff meetings? (fear of conflict, power hoarding, announcing the one right way) Creating curriculum? (worshipping the written word, perfectionism, bigger and more) Teacher leadership? (defensiveness, paternalism, individualism) And so on.

Here’s the thing I wondered about: What makes these instantly recognizable behaviors represent white supremacy? I could point to these actions in every education ‘reform’ organization and probably every district central office, certainly. But are they inherently racist, or are they just the bad habits organizations accrue?

An African-American friend who is an accomplished veteran teacher took a job with a charter school chain, a few years ago. I was surprised—we’d worked on a number of professional projects together, and I knew she was committed to public education and equity in learning. She explained that the charter where she’d be teaching—and later, served as administrator—was created around the theme of social justice. It would serve Black children, with Black teachers and school leaders.

Besides, the mostly-white professional organizations she’d worked for hadn’t honored the gifts she brought to the work of school leadership. They were stuck on paternalism and hierarchies, silver-bullet thinking, bigger and more, saving the world one white paper at a time.  She wanted to teach kids, to make them understand their inherent worth. She took the job at a significant pay cut, and didn’t look back.

And also: are these traits uniquely American?

When he lectured in the United States, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget would invariably get what he called “the American question” from a member of the audience. After he had explained various developmental phases that young children go through in their understanding of concepts like length and volume, someone would raise their hand and ask, “How can we accelerate a child’s progress through the stages?”

Bingo.

Do most of us work, unthinkingly, in cultures that use the listed characteristics—‘damaging because they are used as norms and standards without being pro-actively named or chosen by the group’? In other words, are these practices so pervasive that white people don’t even notice them?

I sat for a long time with these questions, reviewing my professional and community organizations and work life, trying to look at things through this lens. How many times did I buy into these ideas, just because they made ME feel comfortable?

What is a white supremacy culture? Is there one in YOUR organization or school?

10 Comments

  1. I know, yes, I have lived in and been provided a privileged life by a white supremacy culture my entire life. It’s a hell of a thing with which to come to grips after some six decades feeling, “Things are not right, but, oh well, what can I do? It’s just the way things are.” In more recent years, I’ve benefited learning from a Social Justice group related to my own particular pedagogical “tribe.” Sadly, this particular pedagogical group practices, for the most part, in private schools–private schools which often harbor isolated and privileged communities, exacerbating problems of inequality and inequity.
    I want to be disappointed in the earlier generation that taught me, but then I need to question, “Who taught them?” And, now, more importantly, who is going to change things? I wish I’d known better, earlier; I wish I’d been taught truer historical, accounts. I can find and read these truer accounts, now. I can read any number of current books written by those who have lived at the other end of white-privilege. Who will change things? And how?
    Most recently I have taken heart in Heather McGhee’s book, “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together.” I will need to learn more about the group she mentions – Integrated Schools.

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    1. Thanks, Sheryl. Ditto, ditto, ditto. My own ‘tribe’–music teachers–struggles all the time with issues of cultural misappropriation, around practices that were once endemic. And professional development work for teachers cries out for developing more inclusive cultures and themes. It shouldn’t be about guilt–it should be about awareness, acknowledgment, then willingness to change.

      Loved Heather McGhee’s book. Chris Hayes had her on as commenter, and referred to her book as a Rosetta Stone for the age we live in–true.

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  2. I lived in Europe for years. This seems more to describe western European culture with some Calvinist influence. It does not seem to describe rural Italy, rural Spain nor the rural America where I grew up. All those have predominantly white populations, so I don’t think that white culture is being described, but rather some subset.

    Maybe it’s white elite culture, white urban/suburban culture, British/American business culture. Are those so dominant they define white culture for a farm family in Sicily or Poland?

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    1. Steve: I’m going to make this comment gently and with respect, but–might your comment be the manifestation of perfectionism in definition, or ‘objectivity’? Or defensiveness?

      In reading the original piece, White Supremacy Culture (linked in the blog), it begins by saying: Not all of these. Not everywhere or every time. Not exclusive. But the traits and habits listed helped to form cultures where what white people said and did were the most influential ideas and practices, in the majority-white organizations and institutions they formed and ran. Because they’re *cultural* markers, they are strongly associated with particular groups. Tribes.

      If, in fact, they don’t describe rural Mediterranean cultures, that doesn’t negate the point that white people in America (the land most associated with enslavement and denigration of BIPOC) use them to form white supremacy cultures. As for rural white Americans (as opposed, I guess, to ‘elite’ white Americans), I can only speak to my long experience living in rural, mostly white towns in Michigan: a whole lot of people who live there will say, out loud, that they moved there to get away from ‘them’–meaning non-white people clustered in cities. In fact, I think it’s in rural white America where the deepest reservoirs of the white supremacy culture are maintained.

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      1. Let me try again. Do I believe there’s a white supremacy culture in education (and police departments, and college footbalI and and and)? Yes.

        I question the notion that there is a single white culture that can be defined by 14 traits. So I’m reacting to Jones and Okun (2001) based on my experience living in several states and to my readings, including Albion’s Seed (Fischer 1989). My school years were in an area settled by Borderlands folk — high clan/family identification, an uncommon sense of place, oral tradition, low trust of authority figures.

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  3. the reasons you list/reference are barriers to diversifying the profession
    if you choose to get into the profession, once you get there and see that this is what it is really about, it is very hard to stay

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    1. Thanks for saying this. I think I stayed in the profession for 31 years because I was already swimming in the white culture, accepting some of these things as ‘the way things are.’ Diversifying the profession would be good for everyone–students and colleagues and leadership. But we can’t do that without honest conversations about stuff like this.

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  4. I find this article disturbing and racist. The characteristics list could lend itself to any individual in America. They are all a normal part of human nature; the good, the bad and the ugly. To suggest that there are distinctly “white people beliefs” is insulting and divisive. American education has three problems: it is underfunded because it is low on the government’s priority list, the experts (educators) are too often not trusted as professionals, and bad parenting sends the message to far too many students that FAPE is not worthy of respect or appreciation. Period.

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    1. If you read the array of comments, you’ll notice that there has been discussion about the list of characteristics not being exclusive to white people. But I believe (your mileage may vary) that white people, having had the upper hand in pretty much every American endeavor since 1619, find these things a ‘normal part of human nature’ while BIPOC do not, necessarily. I would urge you to look again at the list–defensiveness, the assumed ‘right’ to be comfortable when something irritates you, etc.–and read the full description (linked in the blog). Some of the things on the list might apply to this comment.

      American education has lots more problems than the ones you listed. But we have been moving toward segregation again, instead of making full diversity and integration our primary goal–also the first goal of public education: democratic equality, full citizenship for all. Moving away from equity is a function of white control and deep-seated racism. We can’t get away from it. We can only challenge ourselves to fight against it.

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