In order to dismantle white supremacy, two things must be accomplished. More forms of difference must be allowed and valued in ways that are equal to how white ways are valued. Second, whites will have to give up the unilateral control that we have exercised ever since white settlers achieved political and military dominance over the land mass called the United States. Achieving both of these changes is very difficult. Both require whites to give up something and move out of our comfort zone into a new way of living.
Allowing More Forms of Difference
Every culture values and allows certain ways of being, and restricts others. The U.S. is characterized by a white Euro-centric culture. This culture is all around us. It defines how we relate. It defines how close we stand to each other. The Eurocentric culture is displayed in the way schools are organized, including the decorations in the hallways. It is embedded in how we conduct meetings and make decisions. The Eurocentric style of non-emotional, linear speech is the norm. That norm dictates that the speaker get directly to the point. Those who fail to adhere to this style have a much-diminished impact when they speak. In the workplace, the norms that define professional dress are also Eurocentric. This includes hair styles and attire. All racial groups are expected to assimilate to the Eurocentric culture. This even extends to how we deal with conflict, and which forms of emotional expression are allowed in public.
A large proportion of whites know only the Eurocentric culture in which they grew up. The vast majority of whites still grow up in neighborhoods and in schools that are overwhelmingly white. 82% of public-school teachers are white and the administrative positions are equally, if not more, so populated by whites. Because of red-lining and steering by realtors, whites still reside in neighborhoods that are far whiter than those in which blacks, Latinx and Asians live. Wherever whites are the majority, local elected officials are overwhelmingly white. Even in a city like Springfield, MA ,where whites comprise only 38% of the residents, white officials still rule the city. A more extensive break-down of this hold on power can be seen in my blog article of September 21, 2020, “Whites Do See Color, and the Color They Choose for Leaders is White.”
Giving up this dominance would entail learning to accept and function in a multi-cultural context. In order to do this, whites will have to learn and adopt more than one cultural style. This will entail not only learning new behaviors, but also getting accustomed to different forms of leadership, exercised by people who are not white and don’t act white. In order to function in a multi-cultural setting, whites will have to learn new ways of discourse, new ways of handling conflict and new ways of expressing emotion. All of this requires learning and every learning curve has its trial-and-error component that entails moments of feeling clumbsy and ineffective. All of it requires whites to step outside of our comfort zone. However, doing this is something that all BIPOC people have to do. In addition to their own cultural norms, they have to learn and use white norms when they operate outside of their community (in schools, in the workplace, when shopping, etc.).
Relinquishing Unilateral Control
Perhaps even more challenging than learning to function in a multi-cultural context is the prospect of relinquishing unilateral control. As a group, we whites have never done this at the institutional level. While we have had a Black president and Black Secretary of State (Colin Powell), they both maintained the norms and priorities of the Euro-centric. The degree to which he was expected to maintain that culture was evident with President Obama. If he said or did something that appeared to deviate in even the slightest way from those norms, there was an immediate outcry claiming that that he was supplanting US culture with foreign (Muslim or African) mores.
The white attachment to the status quo constitutes a major impediment to dismantling white supremacy. The indicators of just how strongly many whites are attached to this status quo can be seen around us almost daily. As the percentage of BIPOC people increases whites are confronted with the possibility that we will lose political control. Already we see in many states, we see a clamor to make voting requirements much more stringent, as a ploy to maintain white political control. Currently, the frequency of anti-Asian assaults by whites is at a high level.
It is only natural for people to hold onto what is familiar. What is missing though, is the fact that, the US population has never been mono-racial. Besides the native inhabitants who still live here, the US has had significant populations of African and Latinx since early in its history. After the Mexican War, the US took half of Mexico and that land today comprises the states of NM, AZ, CO, UT, NV and CA. The state of Texas is also territory that was originally part of Mexico. After conquest of these lands, the Latinx and native inhabitants became part of the US population. As a result, they have been subjected to white rule and white norms for over 100 years. In the in nineteenth century, the US also allowed immigration by Japanese and Chinese to cheaply fill the labor forces on farms in CA and on the teams that built the cross-continental railroad.
An Opportunity in the Workplace
Currently, I don’t see large proportions of the white population agreeing that we need to move beyond the Euro-centric culture that we know so well, and learn to function in other cultures, whether they be native, Latinx, black or Asian. Certainly, there is no widespread movement to do this. However, this resistance to change is not as immutable as it may seem. Most adults spend the majority of their waking hours in the workplace. Once this pandemic is finally contained, we will return to those workplaces. It is organizations that constitute a prime arena where whites can be exposed to new ways of being and working. In my experience, workplaces are one arena where whites are now, and can be even more so, exposed to a wider range of cultural norms. It is also an arena where whites can learn to operate with less unilateral control.
As independent entities, organizations have the opportunity to broaden their work culture so that it values and includes behaviors and norms that are still absent from the wider society. Whites in the workplace can, and are, exposed to co-workers who bring a different set of cultural norms. If the leadership of an organization legitimizes and accepts those cultural norms, the whites who work there have to coexist with, or adapt to them. We have seen this occur in the music and entertainment industries where styles of expression and dress that are not Euro-centric have been adopted by the whites, even when whites still retain the vast majority of executive positions in those industries.
The workplace is a prime arena where whites can learn to function without always being the ones in control. If organizations promote and choose BIPOC executives, whites in those organizations learn to function with BIPOC leaders. When those BIPOC leaders demonstrate that they can lead those organizations, the whites in those organizations gain the experience that it is possible to be successful, using styles that are not Euro-centric.
I am not saying that this is happening yet on any widespread basis. I do know, though, of various organizations where it is occurring. Often, it is happening in only one or a few units in any one organization, but in every case, it exposes whites to new ways of operating. The more they see that these ways of operating are as good as, or better than, the Eurocentric ways they know, the more the status quo is weakened.
In summary, we do have a strong opportunity to undermine white supremacy in a way that does not appear to be directly antagonistic. If white leaders of organizations promote and support non-Eurocentric ways of conducting business, they undermine the usage of only one cultural set of norms. If white leaders choose skilled BIPOC executives to lead significant divisions of those work organizations, they demonstrate to white employees that BIPOC leaders are also effective, even if they appear different and even if they utilize styles that are unfamiliar to whites. It is also an arena where BIPOC leaders, if appointed, can demonstrate to whites that their needs will still be taken care of, even if those in charge look and act differently than whites. It is for these reasons that I see the workplace as the best arena at the moment to (1) introduce whites to ways of operating that are different from Eurocentric norms and (2) demonstrate to whites that they do not have to be in charge in order for their needs to be met.