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.  



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.







































Real Native Americans and Mattress Sales

I can honestly say that for most of my life I have given no thought at all to Columbus Day. Similar to Ortho-Mattress-Columbus-Day-Sale1
President’s Day, Memorial Day, and Labor Day I think of the holiday in terms of mattresses going on sale and hopefully getting a day off of school.

Recently I have embarked on a new season of learning. I have begun a Master’s in Intercultural Studies. The program is in partnership with George Fox seminary- but run by NAIITS– the North American Institute for Indigenous Theological Studies. So the program is taught by all Native American/Indigenous Christian professors, and many of my classmates are Native and Indigenous people.

I am a newbie to this world. I have only taken a couple classes, attended one conference, and just begun to learn about smudging, sweat lodges, and indigenous spirituality and worldview.  So what I offer is purely 101, or maybe even less than 101. I’m offering the pre-req’s before 101.  Here are a few lessons that I have been learning as I have entered into this new community.

Not all Indians are dead.

Kind of an abrupt statement. But I have learned that for someone like me, educated from the perspective of the dominant culture- the narrative is that Native Americans are a part of our history. Something along the lines of “It’s kind of sad what happened- but that was a long time ago. All the Indians died and we don’t need to really worry about them today.” We are taught to think of Native Americans as part of our past, not our present. This is part of how we reconcile ourselves with our colonial, genocidal, and racist history- we think of it as something that was perpetrated a long time ago by other people, not something that we need to be affected by today. Real, living, non-historical Native Americans, are troubling to this comforting worldview. My comforting worldview.

Everyday is talk about Colonialism Day

When I am in predominantly African American contexts or with activist minded POC, we talk about race all the time. We talk about systemic injustice all the time. We talk about what is bothering us about our churches, organizations, cities, and white friends- ALL THE TIME. We process the stress and dissonance of our racialized experience ALL THE TIME. It’s just normal. It’s just talking. But when white, and some Asian American folks, get around this they experience dissonance. It seems extreme, like we are making everything very racial. It has to be a special occasion (usually a crisis) for most white and Asian American people to talk about race.

Well I experienced this dissonance as I entered into my NAIITS context. Talking about colonialism and settler colonial issues is not special occasion talk in my new circle. It is everyday talk. I called something a hoe-down- which is part of my charming and whimsical slang, and got told, causally over lunch, that it was very colonial of me. I had to laugh at myself. When is the last time someone casually callethought-i-was-nnjcwtd me colonial!?!

At the NAIITS conference the Indigenous people introduce themselves by their tribe and geography, and everyone else introduces themselves by name and as a settler. I’m a settler!!! Ha- no free pass cause I’m a WOC. I have to own my identity as a settler on this land. Not just on special occasions, but everyday. It’s just normal talk. It seemed so militant at first. I was no accustomed to having this as a normal lens on life. But it would be weird to say to my Native American classmates and teachers- “Why do you keep referencing this totally normal part of your daily experience and worldview? It’s not something I usually talk about, so lets stop.” That would be ridiculous. Now after a short time, talking about how colonial I am, is as normal as talking about my next hair color.

So here we are at Columbus Day 2015. Most of us know that Columbus did not 11800361_894716260622089_5228560746448242866_nin fact “discover” this land. And we have become aware, to varying degrees, that he was a raping, pillaging, enslaving, violent man. Read this biography of the man for a helpful history of his life and the holiday. But what can be done and who wants to expend any real effort? Well, Native Americans have been expending effort to end Columbus Day as a holiday for a long time- since 1954 in my hometown of Portland.

So my application of my 101 lessons is to proactively support the trend of cities changing Columbus Day to Indigenous People’s Day. I know that many people will write off this change as politically correct and irrelevant. I disagree. It matters. It matters who we want to honor in our history. It matters that we are willing to even think about our history and our present. And it matters that we begin to bear the fruit of repentance in any way we can. So if Indigenous people are lobbying for this change- why wouldn’t we listen to them?

Indig.PeoplesDayI for one will pay attention to October 12th for the first time in my life. And I will celebrate Indigenous people and their presence. I will continue to try and learn from them. I will urge my community of friends to honor actual real Native American leaders and stop using them as costumes, mascots, and festival gear.

Do you want to listen to some North American Indigenous voices to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day? Don’t just turn to history, listen to contemporary voices. Here are a few interesting options.

Unexpectedly, MTV took an episode of its Rebel Music series to feature several next generation Indigenous artist. Here is a write up on the mic about several artists they are featuring. And below is the episode. Absolutely worth the 30 minutes.

Here are some additional resources, mostly Christian Indigenous perspectives.

Rescuing the Gospel from the Cowboys by Richard Twiss

Shalom and the Community of Creation by Randy Woodley

God is Red by Vine Deloris Jr.

Singer Cheryl Bear’s music

Band Broken Walls

Here is a list of cities from www.usuncut.com that have changed Columbus Day to Indigenous people’s day.

  • Albuquerque, New Mexico – The city’s formal declaration”encourages businesses, organizations and public entities to recognize Indigenous Peoples Day, which shall be used to reflect upon the ongoing struggles of Indigenous people on this land, and to celebrate the thriving culture and value that our Indigenous nations add to our City.”
  • Lawrence, KS– Since September, students from Haskell University in Lawrence, Kansas have been taking initiative and pushing for the city to honor their ancestors by declaring October 12th Indigenous Peoples’ day. Just this Wednesday, they won.
  • Portland, OR– Portland’s City Council declared Indigenous Peoples’ day on Tuesday, something tribal leaders have been seeking since 1954.
  • Paul, MN– In August, St. Paul followed Minneapolis by declaring Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day. Minneapolis passed its own resolution last year.
  • Bexar County, TX– The resolution was passed Tuesday, and local activists intend to press for the same thing in San Antonio.
  • Anadarko, OK– In September, Anadarko declared Indigenous Peoples’ Day. Anadarko Mayor Kyle Eastwood signed the proclamation while surrounded by tribal leaders from the Apache, Choctaw, Delaware, Wichita and others.
  • Olympia, WA– Mayor Pro Tem Nathaniel Jones presented Olympia’s proclamation at a rally in August. Nearly 150 people showed up to support the initiative.
  • Alpena, MI– In September, Mayor Matt Waligora declared Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The city says they desire “to develop a strong and productive relationship with all indigenous peoples, including the Saginaw Chippewa Tribe, based on mutual respect and trust.”

These cities are following in the footsteps of Seattle and Minneapolis. Meanwhile, Oklahoma City    came close to passing it in September and will try to pass it again on October 13th, the day after the holiday.


Happy Indigenous People’s Day!