Language, Leaders, and White Supremacy

Language Matters.

In the work of racial justice in Christian contexts, I am most troubled when leaders do not understand or embrace the framework of white supremacy and specifically white supremacy culture. Once someone is responsible for organizational or institutional power in any way, they must rigorously embrace a theology that analyzes and accurately assesses power dynamics. Every leader should have three things

  • basic understanding of organizational dynamics. ( which I will address in my next post)
  • understanding of how white supremacy culture makes whiteness (and typically maleness) normal and neutral at every level.
  • humility to approach race as a pervasive system, not isolated incidents.

Does my organization/church/non-profit have white supremacy culture? 

Just ask these questions.

  • Is it in the United States?
  • Was it founded by white people?

Yes to those questions, then yes to white supremacy culture!

  • Bonus Round– was it started by white Christians? If the answer is yes, you now have extra strength white supremacy culture- in its extra strength formula- Faith Based White Supremacy

But wait you say…

  • They were well intentioned!
  • They were so nice to their kids!
  • We’re really diverse now!
  • They did that one thing, that one time, that was super racially prophetic!
  • Our publicity is full of people of color!

Doesn’t matter.

Bracey and Moore’s fantastic study entitled “Race Tests”: Racial Boundary Maintenance in White Evangelical Churches” puts it this way.

[W]hite institutional space is created through a process that begins with whites excluding people of color, either completely or from institutional positions of power, during a formative period in the history of an organization. During this period, whites populate all influential posts within the institution and create institutional logics—norms of operation, organizational structures, curricula, criteria for membership and leadership—which imbed white norms into the fabric of the institution’s structure and culture. Although the norms are white, they are rarely marked as such. Consequently, racially biased institutional norms are wrongly defined as race neutral and merely characteristic of the institution itself (e.g., “the appropriate way to act in church”), masking inherent institutional racism. Upon this tacitly racist foundation, institutional inertia and actors build a robust culture that privileges whites by vesting power in white leaders’ hands, populating the organization with white membership, orienting activities toward serving and comforting whites, and negatively sanctioning non-white norms.

And this white normativity (aka white supremacy culture) can be perpetuated by people of color, because typically only people of color who agree to maintain this white supremacy culture are allowed to move up in leadership. That is why there can be diversity and white supremacy culture in the same organization.

The focus on defining racism and white supremacy as extreme and isolated acts allows people to be undisciplined in their work towards racial justice. Naming and understanding that white supremacy shapes organizational culture at every level is a necessary step towards justice.

Language Learning

When I began my Masters program with the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies several years ago, I was inundated with language I didn’t understand and frameworks that were completely new to me. I was a Korean and white woman entering a space led by all Indigenous leaders from across North America.

I made an insensitive joke by calling someone my spirit animal.

I didn’t understand jokes, like when someone teased me for being “extra colonial.”

I didn’t understand the honor of blanketing someone.

What was smudging?

What did it mean to be a boarding school survivor?

And I had to catch up on years of conversation around contextualization and decolonizing theology.

I was disoriented and felt like an idiot most of the time.

But as someone coming in from the outside, as someone who benefits from colonialism and white supremacy, and as someone who is a settler on this land, it was (and is) my job to learn from Indigenous people about the systems in which I participate. My job in that space was not to reject the language of those who are most impacted. My job was to learn. Those who are most impacted by an injustice have the greatest clarity on how it works and should frame the discussion. I submitted to their language and the ways they wanted to frame the conversation.

Point #1When we are on the privileged side of any systemic injustice, we are blind to it. Part of the system is to limit our language and exposure to the injustice. Any kind of helpful participation requires learning. 

 

Indigenous people have been forced to live under the deadly confines of white supremacy for hundreds of years. They have been forced to use the language and frameworks created by those who were murdering them, exploiting them, and committing intentional cultural genocide against them. As Indigenous people seek their liberation, as they always have, they rightfully reject the language imposed on them by their colonizers, instead choosing their own language and analysis. Instead of pilgrims, I hear settlers and colonizers. Instead of progress, manifest destiny, and pioneers I hear broken treaties, exploitation, murder, and robbery. Missionaries are not lauded as heroes, they are often instruments of abuse, slavery, and exploitation. This is not the moment to say, “Well that seems a bit harsh, my denomination has the nicest missionaries.” My job is to learn and submit. My job is to be humble and let my understanding be changed.

Point #2The communities that are most impacted by an unjust system know the most about it. It is our job to learn from them. New language is an important part of moving towards justice and restoration. 

 

Normal and Neutral

These linguistic shifts are hard for white people because they have been taught to view their word choices as normal and neutral, not as a white supremacist framework that maintains their power. This language was hard for me, as someone raised up in evangelicalism, and discipled by faith based white supremacy. Saying white supremacy felt too harsh and conflictual, but I’ve come to see it as critical. Here are a few examples of how whiteness presents itself as normal and neutral in our language, but is actually an expression of power.

  • When white people read a book and see, “a man walked across the street.” They will assume that that person is white, unless they are told, “a Latino man walked across the street.” White people think of them themselves as people, not white people. The power of being the norm. 

 

  • White people label European art as fine art, and the art of Indigenous people as fit for the anthropology department. The power to categorize and label, the power to rank oneself as superior.

 

  • White theology is simply theology, everyone else’s theology must be categorized as feminist theology, black theology, mujerista theology. But lets be real, white theology is really the theology of white male power. The power to name one’s own experience as the Truth. 

 

  • White worship music, white preaching, white church services, white social activities are all viewed as the norm, not a cultural choice.  The power to label one’s own culture as normal and comfortable and Christian. 

 

  • When white people say “Let’s wait for all the details to come out,” they perceive themselves as more objective and neutral in situations of injustice, but it is code for, “Lets keep things the way they are.” The power to disguise racism as objectivity. 

 

  • When white people say, “those activist are too angry/disruptive/ungrateful/disrespectful.” It is a way of saying, “Our acceptance of systemic oppression is normal and neutral and should be maintained. Unless resistance is pursued within unachievable parameters of our creation, it is not valid.” There is further discussion of this topic in the article “Waiting for the Perfect Protest.The power to stifle and reframe resistance 

And it goes on and on, what is labelled as leaderly, professional, emotional, and appropriate are embedded in white assumptions.

Point #3- White supremacy culture trains people to use language that positions whiteness as normal and neutral. White people wanting to control the language used to discuss racial injustice is a manifestation of white supremacy culture.  

 

Resources

There are many resources that define white supremacy culture, so I won’t unpack all of that here. Google is your friend. But here are a few quick resources.

This chart can help organizations and churches evaluate where they are on a spectrum and appropriate next steps.

Once an organization has located itself along this continuum, it can use a tool like the one below to articulate how white supremacy culture is at work in the organization.

 

This list by Jones and Okun  expands on several specific dynamics that I see at play in many organizations that have a value for diversity but don’t engage with white supremacy culture. Workshopping how these dynamics marginize and silence people of color and reinforce white power is a worthwhile exercise for leaders. They close their list by explaining

“One of the purposes of listing characteristics of white supremacy culture is to point out how organizations which unconsciously use these characteristics as their norms and standards make it difficult, if not impossible, to open the door to other cultural norms and standards. As a result, many of our organizations, while saying we want to be multicultural, really only allow other people and cultures to come in if they adapt or conform to already existing cultural norms.”

 They highlight

  • defensiveness
  • quantity over quality
  • worship of the written word
  • paternalism
  •  and fear of open conflict,

as a few aspects of white supremacy culture in organizations.

 

What about relationships? 

This image belongs to an EDM band called Lets Be Friends.

I often hear that white supremacy language closes the door on relationship.That is nonsense. It simply changes the dynamics of relationship. In my last post, I discussed how the racial reconciliation model allows white people to shape the parameters, pace, and language of the conversation and hence the nature of the relationship. When members of the dominant culture are willing to acknowledge systemic and institutionalized injustice by using the language of white supremacy culture, they are saying, “I am interested in a relationship where I have to learn and where I agree that the problem is systemic, pervasive, institutionalized and steeped in power dynamics.” For many people of color, encountering members of the dominant culture who understand white supremacy and have done real work to decolonize their thinking and theology, makes friendship much easier. It signals that we could have a friendship where I won’t have to spend half my time convincing you that my lived experience is real and valid. And I won’t have to spend the other half of my time walking your sensitive and defensive ego through the baby steps of awareness.

I grew up steeped in white supremacy culture, language, and theology. I too am on a journey to liberate myself from these frameworks. I was trained to believe that white theology was the best theology. I was taught to minimize the power of systems and amplify my intentions. All of us are steeped in white supremacy culture in one way or another, and must labor to become free of it.

Understanding and dismantling white supremacy culture isn’t the final vision, but it means that we are starting in a similar place in terms of diagnosing the problem. It means that POC don’t have to fight the same fight every time a racial incident comes up, or at every organizational decision point. By accepting white supremacy culture, leaders acknowlege that every hiring decision, choice about funding, or musical choice for gatherings, is located in white supremacy culture and if not actively addressed will, by default, center whiteness. It means that everyone in leadership must get training on what has already been accepted as a pervasive issue. It means we can move towards shalom, or beloved community, or the Kingdom of God together, with greater truth, justice, and healing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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