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Confronting White Supremacy Culture in the Social-Impact Sector

Sheena Daree Miller profile image

Sheena Daree Miller

white hand pointing past legal scales

As organizations strive to become more inclusive, it’s imperative to recognize the difference between truly lifting up diverse perspectives and merely expecting new hires to accept and adhere to existing cultural norms that may be rooted in systemic oppression. Years ago, a former supervisor gave me a copy of “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” from Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups (Jones and Okun, 2001). From perfectionism to a heightened sense of urgency, the article traces behaviors we might accept as professional standards back to White Supremacy culture. 

One need not agree with every part of that book to note that, as of 2018, 87% of all executive directors or presidents at U.S.-based nonprofits were White, and that therefore, when dealing with power and systemic oppression in this country, any tool that can help us understand and change this situation may be useful.

Understanding and recognizing White Supremacy culture 

Discussions of White Supremacy are certainly on the rise: in 2010, the terms “White Supremacy” and “White supremacists” appeared in the New York Times around 75 times; in 2020, that number increased to 700

Racial Equity Tools defines White Supremacy culture as “a political or socio-economic system where White people enjoy structural advantage and rights that other racial and ethnic groups do not, both at a collective and an individual level.” 

White Supremacy culture is not just about extremists and extreme behavior; rather, it is a set of norms often so subtle that we may take them for granted. Though the thoughts, behaviors, and values inherent in White Supremacy culture stand to benefit White people, it is also true that people of color may practice, uphold, and reinforce this system. With effects spanning areas from healthcare and education to criminal justice and poverty, White Supremacy’s impact is far-reaching.  

Ways White Supremacy culture may manifest at work 

Dismantling Racism outlines 14 distinct and recognizable characteristics of White Supremacy culture. While at first glance they may be written off simply as bad management styles that occur in most workplaces, these characteristics can be dangerous. When left unchecked, these behaviors may even masquerade as professional norms that are accepted instead of challenged or reformed. 

The very inability to recognize White Supremacy culture for what it is and how it functions makes it almost impossible to work against. For example, early in our professional careers we learn that perfectionism is something we should strive for; when this happens we may overlook the reality that perfectionism can lead to burnout and foster unnecessary division between colleagues, or cause us to devalue the contributions of our peers. Perfectionism may become a subtle but reliable tool of White Supremacy because it holds a majority of workers in a perpetual state of improvement, ensuring that hierarchy and power imbalance continue. This shapes and limits our own understanding of professionalism and can have severe implications for how we treat others and are treated in the workplace.  

A few other characteristics you may recognize are:

  1. Only one right way: May include the belief that there is only one right way to get something done and that all parties must learn and adhere to the established rules. This practice stiffles change and growth, while reinforcing an exclusive business-as-usual approach. Suggested intervention: Provide opportunities for employees in varying levels of leadership to play a decision-making role and commit to learning about the cultures of the communities and clients you serve
  2. Paternalism: May include a lack of transparency around where power sits, including who makes decisions and how. Said decisions are decided in private without input from those who will be impacted. An example of this is an organizational restructuring that is not accompanied by any dialogue about how or why teams were reorganized; this practice ensures those in roles of leadership have access to knowledge and decision-making powers that others in the organization do not. Suggested intervention: Offer opportunities for people who will be affected to share their opinions and thoughts and call on leadership to answer questions. 
  3. Power hoarding: May include a belief that power is a limited resource that must be protected. People in positions of leadership may dismiss the demands of the broader workforce, and insist that leadership alone has the insight and expertise necessary to make organizational decisions. This practice maintains hierarchy and prevents those with less access to power from having a voice. Suggested intervention: Recognize that the sharing of power benefits everyone; organize employee resource and support groups to reassess how the organization is, and is not upholding its mission. 

Raise awareness and promote change 

Ondine Quinn, MSW, is a social worker based on Osage, Shawnee, and Cherokee land in Kentucky. When she noticed that White Supremacy culture was unaddressed in her education and ongoing social work training, she started the Decolonize Social Work podcast, where she encourages social workers to become anti-racist practitioners. 

Ondine notes that White Supremacy presents itself in the numbers, as noted above, a study conducted in 2018 found that 87% of all executive directors or presidents at nonprofits were White. She adds, “by prioritizing and protecting Whiteness, White Supremacy is at work from the very top, through funders and leadership, all the way down to frontline workers and field staff.” This is often accompanied by:

  • Expecting BIPOC staff to provide education and training about racism, while simultaneously accusing them of being confrontational and not focused on solutions when they point out the microaggressions and racism that they’re experiencing.
  • Engaging in endless DEI trainings, book clubs, and similar initiatives that don’t actually result in a safer workplace.  

I asked Ondine to share practical steps people can take to confront White Supremacy in their workplaces. Here’s what she had to say: 

“I want to push a bit here on the word practical, because when I hear that I wonder if this is more of White Supremacy culture at work—putting energy into ‘solutions’ that can’t really be sustained without a true dismantling of the system and its power imbalance. My first recommendation would be to start at the very top with the board and executive leadership. If you’re White, what is the plan for relinquishing your seat as a decision maker and ceding it to Black and Indigenous People of Color? Be specific and transparent about how you’ll do that.”  

At a minimum, leaders should be promoting and recruiting BIPOC people to positions of power, influence, and decision making within their organizations if this is not already happening. 

Some steps she suggested include:

  • Develop and implement a plan to close the wage gap between the lowest paid employees (who are often people of color) and the highest paid employees (usually White executives).
  • Redirect resources (power, money, connections, etc.) directly toward BIPOC-led individuals, organizations, and companies. Some starting points to reflect on: Are our grant processes as streamlined as they could be, or are there ways to cut back on unnecessary bureaucratic procedures, thereby increasing the odds that low-resourced individuals and organizations will be able to successfully apply (for grant-making organizations)? Are we making a point to hire experts from BIPOC-led organizations when we bring in external consultants and collaborators? Are we inviting and compensating BIPOC speakers for our events? Are BIPOC-owned companies represented among the vendors we use for catering, office supplies, and other organizational needs?
  • Make funding available to provide support, coaching, and professional development specifically for BIPOC staff.

Not in a position of power? You can still make a difference

These actions may not be accessible to you if you’re not in a decision-making role, and that’s not coincidental. But even if you don’t hold a leadership position, it doesn’t mean you can’t make a difference at an organizational level. You may try:

  • Bringing colleagues into the conversation, gathering suggestions, and organizing. Start by considering what your organization is (or could be) doing externally to promote racial justice and call for this work to be replicated internally. Start an informal caucus that is committed to furthering the cause and helping the organization acknowledge and grapple with the default norms under which it operates. Check for resources related to visioning, leading workshops, and organizing for use within your communities and organizations. 
  • Continuing to educate yourself about issues related to racial injustice and all inequities, and invite others to follow suit. Consult the Anti-Oppression Resources and Training Alliance
  • Using your voice and interjecting when you witness something inappropriate or know that information isn’t being made accessible. Challenge the majority and pay attention to the voices and experiences of your colleagues and clients. 

White Supremacy culture is pervasive and confronting it is an ongoing endeavour. Should you feel defeated, keep in mind Layla Saad’s, author of Me and White Supremacy, reminder that our efforts are not in vain, “Systems are maintained by people. But systems can also be changed by people.” 


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Illustration by Marian Blair

Sheena Daree Miller profile image

Sheena Daree Miller

Sheena Daree Miller is based in Brooklyn and divides her time between working in faculty development at a university and managing a black heritage center at a library. She is committed to promoting equity, with an emphasis on supporting graduating students and career changers.

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