Do We Live in a White Supremacy Culture?
Are Ethical Societies, UU churches, and humanist groups immune, or do they participate in the wider culture?
I was recently reading a book that mentioned the phrase "white supremacy culture." I was reading it as an e-book, and my cursor hovered over the word “supremacy” so I could look at the dictionary definition.
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, supremacy is “the state or condition of being superior to all others in authority, power, or status; the supremacy of the king.” And superior in turn means “higher in rank, status, or quality.”
So if we want to know if we live in a white supremacy culture, we need to look at whether white people in general hold higher authority, power, or status, than do others.
While recent history has included some notable gains in inclusion of Black, Indigenous, and other people of color (BIPOC) in positions of authority, it’s hard to see there being equity overall. Looking at national government, there are nine current Justices, and one is Black and one is a Hispanic woman. Seven of the nine were named by white men who were president at the time and confirmed by a U.S. Senate which has a higher percentage of white Senators than are represented in the general population. So of the three branches of the federal government, the power rests primarily with white people. We have few state governments with BIPOC governors, and no state legislatures that aren’t whiter than the population. So yes, in power, white people have more.
That doesn’t even include others who have power over people’s lives: corporate executives and managers making decisions, for example.
In congregations where the membership is mixed, the likelihood is that most of the board members are white and the clergyperson is white. Not always of course, but quite a bit more than would be expected at random.
Congregations like UU congregations, humanist groups, and Ethical Societies relate to that larger white supremacy culture in two different ways: how we address it in the larger culture in the ethical action and social justice work we do, and how we address its dynamics in our midst.
The term “white supremacy” has been used in the past mainly to describe groups that were outwardly bigoted, that purposely tried to segregate, expel, or disempower any BIPOC people in our public life.
We often used the term “racism” in the past to include not just the overt racism of white supremacy, but the more subtle ways in which white people are preferenced in social, economic, political, and cultural ways.
But “racism” isn’t enough of a description of what we find in American culture. The kind of American racism we face is a racism which puts white people at the top of a racial hierarchy. It is a particular kind of racism.
And the indirect, sometimes subtle, ways that racism unfolds to support that white advantage are also part of white supremacy culture. Those indirect and subtle ways serve to support the more overt, even violent forms. (see the widely-used graphic of the pyramid of white supremacy)
We live in a nation which is increasingly diverse – in the last 50 years, population shifts have moved us in the direction of white people soon being in a numerical minority. Yet, as long as white supremacy culture, in the more subtle and supposedly gentle ways as well as the more overt and even violent ways, is still the norm, that population shift means less diversity in power, authority and status for those who are the majority in numbers.
And so many of our groups are in areas which are culturally diverse. If we measure the area from which our white members arrive, within that area, white people are often not even a majority. If our movements were truly serving equitably, our complexion on Sunday morning or at other meetings would look different, and our programming would likely reflect that.
We can reinforce white supremacy culture in our social justice work and in our internal life if we fail to be actively working against that tide.
Some would love us be “inclusive” SO long as we do the same kind of programs, have the same speakers, have the same rituals, we’ve always had. Let’s remember: our movements have changed over the years, evolving its programs, speakers, and, yes, even rituals to adapt to new generations and their needs. In the last 50 years, they’ve become more inclusive of women’s leadership and insights from women’s lives. So if we are going to be truly inclusive, that means more than the skin color or ethnic origin of people in the room.
To measure the worth of people by white people is obviously racist and assumes white supremacy in not just power and authority but quality. Most of us know that. What we fail often to see that to measure the contributions of life experiences and cultural heritage by whether it works for white people is also a white supremacy culture. To assume that what works for white people is automatically the norm is to ignore what many BIPOC have been trying to tell us for years. Often by their absence, or not coming back after a few visits.
If we measure whether change is good by whether white people feel comfortable with it, we’re assuming white people have the power and status and quality of culture that is best. That’s white supremacy culture. And, that’s difficult to figure out what to do with, when a group is majority white and we try to practice a simple vote-counting kind of democracy. It takes a decision to be open to that with which that majority may not yet be familiar or even comfortable, to get to the end of real inclusion and welcoming. Being inclusive of the needs of those who will later be part of the group, is one way to think about democracy. We are responsible to a future, not just to the present.
What would it take for our communities to become microcosms of the world we mostly believe we want to be? To be inclusive, welcoming, equitable, in our multicultural membership, as well as doing work in partnership and solidarity for justice in the world outside our walls?
To be inclusive, multicultural, anti-racist, anti-oppression, multi-generational communities isn’t something we do because it’s politically correct. It’s because that is how we model and learn the world we want.