Pushing Back Against Habits of White Supremacy During a Crisis

April 24, 2020

We’re using our blog to share reflections and responses from our team as we navigate the reality of a COVID-19 world together. We hope you find ideas, affirmations, and inspiration here that help you think about what it means to lead right now and beyond this crisis.

An abstract painting with red, yellow, and blue paint strokes.
[Image by Steve Johnson From Pexels]

If you’ve checked out our offerings at CompassPoint before, you know that we’ve referenced the habits of white supremacy culture frequently. It’s become one of the guiding frameworks that’s helped us build a common language around racial justice and equity at CompassPoint. As we all find ourselves being pushed, challenged, and transformed by this moment in time, it should be no surprise that dominant culture habits may be creeping back into our work, our teams, and our organizations. 

This popular post, which has been making the rounds on social media, brilliantly diagnoses how habits of white supremacy are showing up in virtual spaces now that many of us are working remotely. 

Resource: Joanna Gattuso on Instagram: “White Supremacy Culture.. But Make it Remote”.

It should be no surprise that these habits are hard to break. In fact, as I’ve stared at this blog post over the last few days, the habit of perfectionism has deterred me from feeling good enough with just about anything I’ve typed up. The perfectly made cocktail of imposter syndrome and an existential crisis prompted by the world around us hasn’t helped either. 

During a crisis, it can be easy to fall back on habits of white supremacy and forget the hard work we’ve done to cultivate different ways of being. So what are some antidotes, alternative mindsets, and practices we can center right now?

Antidote #1: Letting go of productivity for productivity’s sake (the idea that above all else, we should be producing as much and as quickly as possible) 

The crisis we face right now is exacerbated by a norm that “producing by any means necessary” will lead us to some promised land.  In fact, this pandemic has demonstrated that one of the clearest failures of Capitalism is how we’ve designed a society and economy fueled by the production of a lot of non-essential things. Just as we are letting go of non-essential things in other parts of our lives, we should—where we can—slow down and reflect on what we’re holding onto to feel productive for the sake of productivity in our organizations. 

In our respective areas of work, we need to ask the question, “What’s essential right now?” And we need to keep asking it. We should be working in coordinated ways to solve problems that threaten the livelihoods of the communities we are a part of. But that doesn’t mean “staying busy”. Busy-ness is not a virtue. How much you can produce right now, in the midst of multiple crises, is not a measure of your worth or your value as a person. We have to make peace with the fact that not everything is going to get done right now.  

Positional leaders have to model that our productivity cannot come at the expense of our sanity, our well-being, and our ability to tend to our loved ones right now. Realize that this moment is as much a time to reflect, re-focus, and reset as it is to move, generate, and flourish in new ways. The permission leaders can provide by encouraging a principled approach to our prioritization (operating from our values, our politics, our missions) can’t be understated. We need to acknowledge our bandwidths are not the same in this time and pretending they are will cause inequities in the requests and expectations we set for each other. 

If your organization is one that requires reporting out of tasks completed while working from home, or stipulates the use of intensive time-tracking measures and other forms of often tedious surveillance, now would be an appropriate time let go of micromanaging and ask what really needs to be tracked and why. We have to ground ourselves by asking, “What goals can we realistically move toward during this time and why are these goals critical to what we do?” 

Antidote #2: Learning from our mistakes and striving to be far from perfect

We’re going to make a lot of mistakes as we adjust to this new reality. That’s certainly been the case for us over the last month. The weight of this moment may make those mistakes harder to come to terms with. Anxiety and fear might mean that we forget to extend grace and forgiveness. That’s an understandable dynamic for many of us, but it’s the illusion of perfection that often keeps us from building a new reality together. The choices we make, both big and small, will be full of missteps. However, they will also be laced with opportunities for us to get rich feedback, integrate learning into our next actions, and build trust in a way that the standard of perfectionism doesn’t allow for. Let’s ask what we’re learning from failure instead of believing, wrongly, that we’ll be free from it. 

Rejecting perfectionism right now is an act of compassion and extension of grace. As adrienne maree brown says, “What we pay attention to, grows.” If we continue to tend to a false sense of perfection being achievable, we will only further set our folks up for failure. That sets up cycles of blame and shame, which stop us from being creative in a moment where we need flexibility and imagination.

Antidote #3: Recognize comfort is fleeting and check your fragility

One of the habits of white supremacy that might be rearing its head right now is “right to comfort”—the belief that those with power have a right to emotional and psychological comfort. Let’s be clear: we all have a right to emotional and psychological safety—especially during times like these—but that doesn’t mean we can’t and shouldn’t be challenged outside of our comfort zones.

For the positional leaders out there, don’t let the sense of urgency or capitalistic demands of this moment keep you from tending to the self-work necessary to combat fragility. We all deserve spiritual, emotional, and mental well-being amidst this crisis.

Resource: CV-19 Healing Response Initiative from Genesis Healing Institute

However, self-care should not be weaponized as a way to reject feedback, hoard decision-making power, or to further marginalize those who may cause you personal discomfort by speaking truth to power when reflecting back how your leadership is affecting others. 

Of course, there’s a lot to be anxious about in this particular moment as folks leading and working in nonprofit organizations. Leaders are dealing with tough decisions every day and the burden of financial hardships becomes increasingly real for our organizations and teams. Uncertainty casts a shadow over the future and can make even our sunniest days feel gray. But within our organizations, the way in which comfort and safety are perceived and experienced is not the same. If you have the ability to make decisions that impact the livelihoods of others, your personal comfort cannot and should not come at the expense of those further from the center of gravity where power lives. You need to be ready to be challenged instead of running for the hills when things get emotional or uncomfortable. Those of us with positional power should tread carefully and understand that our comfort is a luxury, not a right. Acting as if we deserve it only further serves to distance us from the realities of those who’ve never felt a remotely comparable sense of protection from criticism and accountability. 

Now is an opportunity to demonstrate how growth and transformation can be catalyzed by discomfort. Your call to leadership should always be about those you choose to lead. How can you sit with the discomfort you feel and use it to build individual, interpersonal, and organizational resiliency?

Antidote #4: Embrace complexity and both/and thinking

If there was ever a time to break beyond binaries and sit with the complexity of possible paths forward, it’s now. The world as we know it could very well be ending and the world we’ve been so desperately dreaming of could be arriving earlier than we had anticipated. 

Either/or thinking is often driven by a rush to over-simplify. It’s easy to fall back on because it reduces ambiguous realities into a frame of “this or that”. One thing I’ve been reflecting on is that either/or thinking is often presented in organizations that are straddling questions around “Here’s what we’ve always done” and “Here’s what’s needed of us now”. This dynamic shows up in our internal practices, our external programming, and everything in between. Instead of it being an either/or headspace, how do we create the conditions necessary to honor the value of thinking through a both/and lens whenever possible? Either/or thinking is a habit of white supremacy because it often preserves the status quo and stops us from imagining new ways of being and doing. It creates dynamics of gridlock and stalemate. It forces us to take one of two sides and pushes us into team dynamics of “us versus them”.  Now, more than ever, we need to adopt whatever both/and strategies and perspectives that let us rid ourselves of a status quo that’s quite honestly not working for our organizations or the communities we work for. 

We got this, y’all

These are just some of the habits of white supremacy culture, also known as white dominant culture. This isn’t by any means a comprehensive take on how all of these habits may be showing up. I’d encourage anyone working in an organization to start a conversation on where you see these habits appearing. The truth is, they are called dominant culture habits for a reason—it takes constant tending to push back against them. I’ve felt their presence in all five of my years at CompassPoint. 

But it’s not the presence of the habits that I want to wallow in, it’s the brilliance of my colleagues who actively work to break these habits that I’m choosing to celebrate. From what I’ve seen, it takes practice, rigor, self-awareness, and exercising empathy. Even with that commitment, these habits aren’t broken easily or magically cured. But naming them in real time and honoring a commitment to create new norms is now more critical than ever. I remain deeply hopeful that our sector will come out on the other end of this pandemic transformed in ways I can barely begin to imagine. We got this y’all. 

Kad Smith is a project director at CompassPoint. 

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Kad's essay made me feel in my body specific ways white dominant society has shaped me as a white person. I have been trying to bring the lenses captured and have sent it to many. Very grateful as well that CompassPoint seems in such full blossom. It's been a couple years since I dived into the website and your work is giving me life through the engaged conversation you are inviting with community.