How Did we Get Here – White Supremacy Culture?

by Jay Kiskel

I was reading the May 24, 2020 Sunday New York Times when I came across a full-page editorial entitled, “Why Does the U.S. Military Celebrate White Supremacy?” I immediately thought about the UUA. It is somewhat of an ironic marketing coup that the UUA has become so identified with such an odious term.

“White supremacy culture” sprang into public view in UUism in the spring of 2017 when the UUA Board of Trustees declared the UUA was based on white supremacy culture.

We all have a keen understanding of the meaning of the term “white supremacy culture” and, more importantly, the implications of such a sub-culture within our greater society. The Times editorial traced successful efforts in the early decades of the 20th century to name Southern U.S. military bases after Confederate generals such as Bragg, Benning and others. The recognition that the names of such installations should be re-considered appears to be the next step following the removal of Confederate monuments from public squares and the stars and bars from state flags.

With such progress underway to address historic roots of white supremacy within our society it makes one wonder why the UUA did not put the muscle of the denomination behind this growing movement but instead veered off into some eddy of self-reflection.

The initial explanation of this self-declaration of white supremacy by the UUA Moderator on April 8, 2017 only added to the confusion. It was offered that the term “white supremacy culture” should be seen in a new light. “In recent years the term has come to refer to a culture, or a social narrative that places the needs, desires, stories, well-being, and the very lives of white people over and above those of people of color.”

The Moderator’s new definition, however heartfelt, that something new had been discovered actually restated the already obvious. As the children of Civil War veterans who lived in a Jim Crow South pressed for monuments and U.S. bases to honor “their heroes” of the Lost Cause they were explicitly placing the needs, desires, stories, well-being and the very lives of white people over and above those of people of color.

Others began using the work of Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun to define “white supremacy culture.” Their work stated that white supremacy culture was defined by 15 characteristics. Several versions of the list exist. The list presented below is from Okum’s University of North Carolina 2010 Ph.D. entitled The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race and Racism.[1]

Perfection
A sense of urgency
Defensiveness and/or denial
Quantity over quality
Worship of the written word
The belief in one right way
Paternalism
Either or binary thinking
Power of hoarding
Fear of open conflict
Individualism
Progress defined by more
The right to profit
Objectivity
The right to comfort

Dr. Anne Schneider, using an earlier list found in a 2001 Jones/Okun essay entitled “Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture,”[2] provided a review of the list in her book The Self-Confessed “White Supremacy Culture” of the U.S. Left Emergence of an Illiberal Left in Unitarian Universalism. She notes that Jones/Okun did not rely on the standard definition of white supremacy culture. The authors offered instead that their list of characteristics defined white supremacy culture.[3]  Schneider went on to observe that “the authors presented no empirical evidence – not a single citation – that any of these 15 attributes are any more characteristic of White culture, White organizations or White people that of Black, Hispanic, Asian, American Indian or any other cultures, organizations, or people.[4]

Schneider’s observation that the list of 15 characteristics was not based on any empirical evidence was confirmed by Okun in her thesis. Rather, the list was a cathartic by-product of an after-work venting session.

Sometime in the mid 1990s, I arrived home after a particularly frustrating consultation with an organization I was working with at the time. In a flurry of exasperation, I sat down at my computer and typed, the words flowing of their own accord into a quick and dirty list of some of the characteristics of white supremacy culture that show up in organizational behavior.[5]

Okun added many of the 11 items on the list could be discarded and then spent considerable time in her thesis on just four characteristics. Those four characteristics will be the topic of a future Fifth Principle Project Discussion.

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Footnotes

[1] Okun, Tema. “The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race and Racism,” PHD dissertation, University of North Carolina, Greensboro, 2010.

[2] The essay was published in Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups (2001) based on their work at ChangeWork.

[3] Schneider, Anne. “The Self-Confessed “White Supremacy Culture” of the U.S. Left Emergence of an Illiberal Left in Unitarian Universalism,” self-published, 2019, 21-23.

[14 Ibid., 24. Schneider added in a footnote, “The author includes an odd disclaimer that some of these

characteristics may be found in organizations run by People of Color, but they offer no explanation although one might surmise that the POC running such organizations learned this from White people.

[5] Ibid. 28-29

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Sandra Rudd
Sandra Rudd
4 months ago

After two years of being a dissident, I left UU, even though I think the world of the members of my Westside Seattle congregation.

My question is: Has this new UUA accomplished anything to make the lives of POC better? We are spending this time making things worse. I am 80 years old and spent a lot of time working for underdogs.

What really irritates me is the narrow mindedness of the UUA. If you aren’t with us 100% you are racist. I may have made mistakes, but I will never call myself a racist.

Jay Kiskel
Jay Kiskel
4 months ago
Reply to  Sandra Rudd

Sandra, I am sorry the need arose for you to leave your home congregation in Seattle. You are a half generation ahead of me so we have both seen seismic changes in our society regarding race, women’s rights and our relationship with our environment. I would like to think these changes were examples of the arc of history being bent towards justice. I can not say what “good” the UUA has achieved. I can observe the acrimony, the drop in national membership and the polarization that has appeared in our congregations following the embrace of white supremacy language by UUA leadership. I don’t… Read more »

Tom Couch
Tom Couch
4 months ago

According to Marriam-Webster, racism is “A belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race”. Based on that definition the promotion of the idea by UUA of a White Supremacy Culture is racist! The Chinese provide preference to Chinese people over others of different races or cultures as do the Japanese and the are not of the caucasian (white) race so it doesn’t seem to be unique to whites. It’s more likely to be associated with the majority culture.

Jay Kiskel
Jay Kiskel
4 months ago
Reply to  Tom Couch

Tom, I understand there’s a group that believes in the inherent worth and dignity of every person. I think I’m going to hang out with those guys!

Robert Kent
Robert Kent
4 months ago

Being a UU used to be a really good time. Intellectual ferment with warm regard among people who share the love of free thought, rigorous cross examination and mutual respect. Care for the individual and bemused tolerance of the cantankerous. A congregation within which you had to stay on your toes but could work out your own spiritual issues unencumbered by other people’s doctrine. Cops, soldiers and even conservative Republicans are UU people, too, with a legitimate perspective. Often disciplined, loyal, dedicated to the common good, (helpfully rich) and funny too. If they are unwelcome then it isn’t UU any… Read more »

Jay Kiskel
Jay Kiskel
4 months ago
Reply to  Robert Kent

Bob, “Intellectual ferment with warm regard among people who share the love of free thought, rigorous cross examination and mutual respect.” Well spoken…

Susan McWethy
Susan McWethy
4 months ago

On May 21 a post appeared on UUA’s FaceBook page that presents a clear example of the insanity that Dr. Schneider discusses in her book. It is suggested that white people not participate in the discussion to leave “room” for black and brown people’s remarks. And when whites ignored that suggestion, they’re told that they are “defensive.” UUA has become an embarrassment. Their thinking is infantile–they see the complex subject of racism in simplistic, win/lose paradigms. They see absolutely no irony in their contrived belief system. They trot out the same old arguments to respond to any and all questions… Read more »

Jay Kiskel
Jay Kiskel
4 months ago
Reply to  Susan McWethy

Susan, thank you for your comment. These are challenging times as a relatively small group of people have assumed the right to speak for all UUs.  It is clear that we are in a storm without any safe harbor insight. I like Bob Kent’s post above and hope for a time when once again we can have UU congregations in “which you had to stay on your toes but could work out your own spiritual issues unencumbered by other people’s doctrine.”

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