How White Supremacy Culture Shows up in our Families + Practices for How We Can Dismantle It

written by AMANDA K GROSS

I have long found Okun and Jones’ document on White Supremacy Culture (WSC) to be an incredible resource for anti-racism. I appreciate how the document names the hidden parts of dominant culture, the parts we as white people are especially taught not to see (kinda like an iceberg). I also love that they include antidotes. For all the helpfulness of critical analysis, studying history, and self-reflection, the critique alone will not necessarily inspire us to dream alternatives and motivate us to practice them.

In using Okun & Jones’ resource in non-institutional settings, there have been many times when it didn’t quite fit. When sharing it with someone in White Women’s Group who worked exclusively in the home, when examining how we learned WSC in our childhood (within an awesome collaboration with Ivonne Ortega), or when applying it to my own family patterns, the institutional leaning of the document has often left me curious about how WSC shows up more specifically in our family cultures. Besides, I am especially interested in this question because the cultivation of family culture is an area in which status quo and passing white ladies have extraordinary power to make change.

Then, my extended family offered me an unexpected opportunity to facilitate an anti-racist white affinity space, which finally gave me the structure and push to draft my own list of how WSC plays out at the family level and what practices might support us in dismantling it.

A couple notes before you delve into the tenets and practices: The tenets are directly drawn from Okun and Jones’ list of WSC tenets. A few of the descriptions/practices are from their list, but mostly I have adapted and added descriptions and practices based on relocating the tenets in a family context (considering how the tenets might play out in childrearing etc.). I intend this list as a living document and recognize that it is absolutely not comprehensive. It’s also very much inspired by how I see WSC showing up in my own family, which is highly influenced by European Mennonite puritanism and pacifism. Please use what is relevant for your family context and feel free to add and amend, while respectfully giving attribution to its sources (Okun & Jones and this blog post). Lastly, I am choosing to use the word “Practices” rather than “Antidotes” because of connotations of “Antidotes” with being one-time cure alls (perhaps from childhood cartoon storylines?) and because I want to reorient us to focusing on dynamic processes which can be messy, change, and take the self-discipline of ongoing commitment.

PERFECTIONISM

  • Little appreciation for the work others are doing, especially when work is within prescribed/assumed gender roles.
  • Little, if any displays of affection, use of words of affirmation, or other types of positive behavior reinforcement. Certain “positive” behaviors and accomplishments are assumed as normative and unspoken (such as bringing home an A report card, or heterosexual marriage and having children, etc.). If these don’t happen, an explanation/reason/justification is required (i.e. I didn’t get married because I was focused on my career).
  • Erasure and devaluing of emotional, relational, and reproductive labor.
  • Common to point out how a person or their work/actions/behaviors are inadequate, as in punishment-based childrearing practices.
  • Making a mistake = being a mistake = sin. Mistakes are seen as a personal negative reflection on the individual and/or family and involves shame.
  • Mistakes aren’t seen as growth and learning opportunities.

Dismantling Practices

  • Practice authentic generosity with words of affirmation, appreciation, and rituals of gratitude.
  • Create space and acceptance around making mistakes. Discuss ways/expectations about how family members can make amends and learn from mistakes. (Understand identity and who is situated to support this process.)
  • Create a family culture where people can recognize that mistakes sometimes lead to positive results and transformational change.
  • Separate the person from the mistake, while acknowledging the context and history of systems of oppression. Use mistakes as an opportunity to deepen everyone’s understanding around these issues.
  • Disrupt fixed roles (i.e. gender). Value, celebrate, and prioritize emotional, relational, and reproductive labor.
  • Approach people directly about concerns and also build relationship through non-conflict-based interactions.
  • Understand the role of shame and trauma. Work on healing around shame.
  • Create a family culture that celebrates and encourages authenticity of each family member.

EITHER/OR THINKING

  • It’s either/or, good/bad, right/wrong, with us/against us. Binaries persist everywhere (gender, ability, race, Mennonite/not Mennonite, believer/non-believer, liberal/conservative, etc.). Note: Systems of oppression are all rooted in this dualistic power dynamic and ascription of value.
  • Closely linked to perfectionism in it’s difficult to learn from mistakes or accommodate conflict.
  • No sense of both/and. Little ability to take multiple perspectives, frame, ways of being into consideration or see the potential for new, emergent, nuanced alternatives.
  • Results in trying to simplify and compartmentalize complex things.
  • Creates conflict and increases sense of urgency as people feel pressured to choose sides or do this or that.
  • If people don’t agree/conform, then they are completely excluded (historical roots to shunning, and theologies of hell).
  • Family members feel that they must code switch (language and culture) in order to ensure belonging and safety within the family.

Dismantling Practices

  • Notice and name when only 2 options and either/or language comes up. Work to come up with more alternatives. Disrupt binaries. Give children more than 2 choices.
  • Slow down decision-making and support the development of an analysis of power with deeper investigations of how systems, cultures, identity, history, etc. impact decision-making. Take breaks when you need to. Avoid making decisions under extreme pressure.
  • Embrace mistakes as learning moments and growth opportunities. Teach this to children.
  • Understand how you’ve internalized dualistic thinking and ascription of value.
  • Strive to abolish the use of “good/bad,” “right/wrong,” “with us/against us,” “either/or” from your vocabulary. Notice when punitive models of accountability come up.
  • Work with family members to address the root causes of harm and establish supportive communities focused on accountability through learning, taking responsibility, and staying in relationship.
  • Refocus/orient accountability processes around what the goals and values are (i.e. BIPOC family members are safe).  
  • Integrate collaborative creative practices, artmaking, and play into family time and culture, including as a way to envision and engage alternatives. Note: right/left brain integration and embodiment practices and other modalities (music, images, etc.) help us get beyond an intellectualized, linear, binary way of thinking.

FEAR OF OPEN CONFLICT

  • Those with power are scared of conflict and try to ignore it or run from it (can show up as silence).
  • When someone raises an issue that causes discomfort, the response is to blame the person for raising the issue rather than look at what is actually causing the problem.
  • Conflict is punished and ignored.
  • Emphasis is on being polite and not bringing up things about which family members disagree (politics, religion, etc.).
  • Raising difficult issues = being impolite/rude/out of line/un-Christ-like/etc.
  • Tendency to talk about issues and disagreements to other family members but not directly to the person.
  • Conflict is repressed until it reaches a boiling point. After the boiling point, the lid is put back on.
  • Family teaches and models that we don’t talk about certain topics (these are often associated with shame: sex, race, ability, etc.). Questions and curiosity are also shamed.
  • While family culture openly supports narratives around being polite/peaceful/Christian/etc., there is also a deep undercurrent of passive aggression, especially in conflict.

Dismantling Practices

  • Distinguish between being peaceful and raising hard issues. Don’t require those who raise hard issues to do so in acceptable (peaceful) ways.
  • Once a conflict feels resolved, take the opportunity to revisit it and see how we could have handled it differently.
  • Understand your own experience in family around conflict. Notice your own patterns of triggers, reactions, and ways of responding.
  • Practice courageously sharing what you think and feel with an openness to others’ responses. Build relationships based on authenticity—practice speaking your truth with the little things.
  • Accept conflict as a natural part of life, relationships, and family dynamics.
  • Acknowledge power dynamics and begin to learn how to differentiate between “principled struggle, conflict, abuse, harm, misunderstanding, mistakes, critique, and contradiction. “(from adrienne maree brown’s book, We Will Not Cancel Us)
  • Support children in raising dissenting opinions, naming their emotions, listening to their intuition, and noticing their embodied response.
  • Reorient family culture around values of authenticity, care, preventing and addressing harm rather than centering comfort and being polite.
  • Begin to see conflict and decision-making as opportunities to build and deepen family relationships.

INDIVIDUALISM

  • Little experience or comfort working in collaboration. “I’m the only one who can do this.” “If something is going to get done right, I have to do it.” Think you’re responsible for solving problems alone.
  • Accountability is one directional (up) to authority figure (parent, elder, God, etc.), not two ways or horizontal.
  • Supports the idea that everyone can think/be their own person without being connected to systems and power, especially if your identity reflects invisibilized (to you) power (white, straight, cis, wealthy, able, man, Christian, etc.).
  • Strong desire for individual recognition, credit.
  • Competition is more highly valued than cooperation. Little time or focus on developing cooperative skills, such as play, in games, etc.
  • The same family members do the same tasks/have the same roles year after year. Little focus on leadership development, supporting younger family members to take on non-tokenized leadership with developmentally appropriate support.

Dismantling Practices

  • Cultivate a family culture that prioritizes leadership development, apprenticeship, collaboration, and delegation.
  • Name, notice, and celebrate shared goals.
  • When one family member makes a mistake or is unable to follow through with a responsibility, see it as a collective responsibility to support that individual to figure out how to follow through with the responsibility.
  • Establish clear processes of accountability.
  • Integrate cooperative and non-competitive games.
  • Plan to rotate responsibilities and apprentice family members to learning them.
  • Create and celebrate shared family goals and accomplishments. When celebrating an individuals’ achievement, notice and name who else in the family played a role.

RIGHT TO COMFORT

  • Those in power have a right to emotional and psychological comfort (often at the expense of marginalized family members’ discomfort) and those who cause discomfort are scapegoated as the problem.
  • Equates individual acts of unfairness against white family members with systemic racism which daily targets BIPOC family members.
  • Equates false harmony/unity with healthy family systems.
  • Little to no experience, skill, culture, and practices to navigate discomfort in the body and support regulating the nervous system and emotions.
  • Projects discomfort towards the blames of others. Little capacity to identify, acknowledge, and take responsibility for one’s own feelings of discomfort. Like sense of urgency, the impulse to discharge discomfort immediately and often at other’s expense.

Dismantling Practices

  • Understand that discomfort is at the root of all growth and learning. 
  • Notice your comfort threshold and practice things that help you to sit with discomfort (yoga, somatics, breathwork, singing, etc.). Teach these to your children.
  • Be curious about discomfort (as an individual and as a group).
  • Deepen the family’s analysis of racism and oppression so that we can see how expectations of comfort are tied to one’s conditioning into their identity.
  • Practice receiving boundaries set by marginalized family members and realize that part of that boundary may include not receiving an explanation. Rely on other family members to learn in these moments.
  • Celebrate those who shake things up as a gift to the collective. Celebrate and value the art of struggling together.
  • Notice, name, and take responsibility when you feel uncomfortable.
  • Support children in being with their discomfort—don’t appease or protect them from feeling uncomfortable. Support them in recognizing the difference between comfort and safety.

DEFENSIVENESS

  • Prioritizes protecting power dynamics as they exist (the status quo) rather than facilitating the best, most authentic relationships or clarifying who has power and expectations around its use.
  • Criticisms of those with power or the status quo viewed as threatening and inappropriate/rude.
  • Family members respond to new ideas with defensiveness and make it difficult to raise these ideas.
  • A lot of energy is put into making sure (certain) family member’s feelings don’t get hurt and/or strategizing around defensive family members.
  • Punishment for “getting caught” doing something “wrong.” Little focus and energy on harm, how to repair harm, self-accountability, and opportunities for sincere apology and acceptance of apology.

Dismantling Practices

  • Understand and work with the links between defensiveness, fear, and trauma response.
  • Work on understanding your own defensiveness, where it shows up in your body, what triggers it. 
  • Support a culture of learning and self-reflection in which we can always change our minds.
  • Give family members credit for being able to handle more than you think.
  • When defensiveness shows up it is an opportunity to get curious and continue engaging with your process.
  • Cultivate joy practices. Teach and practice self-love. It’s okay and natural to make mistakes; that’s part of what makes us human. You are still loved and belong even when you make a mistake.
  • Model making mistakes and taking responsibility, especially to and with children.

OBJECTIVITY

  • Belief that there’s such a thing as objectivity. Belief that emotions are inherently destructive, irrational, and should not be part of discussions or decision-making.
  • Little support and skill in developing emotional intelligence, embodied intelligence, and/or cultivating intuition and energetic senses.
  • Requires linear thinking, while ignoring and becoming impatient with those who think, act, and communicate in other ways.
  • Erasure/minimization of power dynamics (i.e. equating political viewpoints).
  • Does not contextualize or take into account personal experiences, especially based on nondominant social identity markers.

Dismantling Practices

  • Realize each family member has a worldview (even you) and that each person’s worldview frames the way they understand things.
  • Practice sitting with discomfort when family members express themselves in ways that are new to you.
  • Assume everyone has a valid point based on their worldview, and your job is to understand what that point is.
  • Encourage family members to share their feelings and notice embodied responses.
  • Celebrate, uplift, and prioritize non-linear/cyclical thinking and non-linear ways of knowing, doing, expressing, and learning (multimodalities).
  • Understand historical power dynamics and value personal experience.
  • Move your body in new ways. Play games that encourage creative thinking and multisensory investigations.

WORSHIP OF THE WRITTEN WORD

  • Only one right way/only one right interpretation (i.e. biblical supremacy).
  • Assumptions that all family members share the same beliefs, etc. Use of religious texts to control the framing of an issue or conflict.
  • Those family members with strong documentation, writing, literacy skills or higher levels of education are more highly valued.
  • The belief that there is one right way to do things (like conflict) and once people are introduced to it, they will see the light and adopt it. When/if they don’t adapt or change, then something is wrong with them—not with us.
  • Sees only value in one’s own beliefs about what is good (i.e. missionary thinking).
  • Prioritizes reading books/articles for learning and as the preferred way to communicate perspectives and feelings.

Dismantling Practices

  • Accept and celebrate that there are many ways to get to the same goal.
  • Notice and name when one right way shows up.
  • Acknowledge that white family members have a lot to learn about and from BIPOC family members and BIPOC cultures.
  • Integrate body-centric and emotional ways of knowing and being.
  • Create spaces where family members feel able to share a diversity of faith perspectives, including not having one. Don’t assume family members share your same religious, political, etc. orientation.
  • Use learning and teaching tools that engage multiple intelligences.

PATERNALISM

  • Those with power (based on identity and within the family structure):
    • Are dismissive of concerns
    • Don’t think it’s important/necessary to understand the perspectives of those for whom they’re making decisions.
    • Think they have the right to make decisions for/on behalf of/in the interests of others
  • Those of marginalized identities:
    • Understand how they don’t have power, what that means, and who does have it.
    • Don’t really know how decisions get made and who makes which decision yet are completely familiar with the impact of those decisions on them.
  • Connected to one right way, often legitimized by religious doctrine. View of divinity as paternalistic.

Dismantling Practices

  • Clarify and make transparent decision-making roles and processes.
  • Include those most impacted in decision-making processes
  • Get clear about the value that each family member brings to the family. Name and acknowledge this. Create space for family members to contribute and lead with their gifts/talents/experience/skills.
  • Consider how collaboration, leadership development, and role-sharing can happen (i.e. teaching family members who haven’t historically cooked or cleaned to do so).
  • Take concerns seriously and make space for them.
  • Practice and celebrate asking for help when you need/want it (also an antidote for individualism).
  • Engage with stories and media in which people with marginalized identities have agency (that don’t emphasize victimhood).
  • Understand the difference between charity and justice.

SENSE OF URGENCY

  • Difficult to take time, be inclusive, encourage democratic thoughtful decision-making, think long term, or consider consequences.
  • Scarcity mentality
  • Focus is on task and doing over authentic relationship (i.e. preoccupation with logistics at family gatherings and not on the quality of communication).
  • Family culture is shaped around time, logistics, doing, scheduling, etc. Impatience with those (children, etc.) who don’t fit into prescribed time frames.
  • When a conflict arises a fix, solution, or resolution must be found and offered immediately.
  • Discomfort with conflict and multiplicity of viewpoints.

Dismantling Practices

  • Establish realistic goals and practices that support family members to be with each other in the moment.
  • Create more spaces for family to be together without pressure of time-sensitive tasks. Take breaks from planning.
  • Cultivate a family culture of abundance and generosity: there is enough (time, energy, space) for everyone.
  • Develop patience, especially in understanding that long-term vision and goals take time.
  • Integrate embodiment practices to support noticing discomfort and being with it, especially for and with children).
  • Practice self- and community care.
  • Meet family members where they are at.
  • Prioritize the quality of relationships over time and task.
  • Notice and name when being motivated by a sense of urgency.

POWER HOARDING

  • Little value around power sharing. 
  • Power seen as limited, scare, zero sum.
  • Those with power feel threatened when anyone suggests changes in how things should be done and take it personally as a reflection of their leadership, parenting, etc.
  • Those with power don’t see themselves as hoarding power and assume they have the best interests of the family at heart (like in paternalism) and assume those wanting change are ill-informed, emotional, inexperienced, wrong, misled (by Satan?), etc.
  • The ways marginalized family members express needs, concerns, desires, etc. get demonized, suppressed, and/or shamed.
  • Power flows through the father who is divinely appointed. Divinity is seen as masculine.
  • Decision-making processes are unclear to those who are marginalized within the family.

Dismantling Practices

  • Have conversations about decision-making processes and leadership. Define leadership as developing the skills of others.
  • Embrace metaphors, rituals, spiritual practices that acknowledge change as inevitable and that celebrate change (cycles of the earth, etc.).
  • Develop a process for the creation of a family values statement that includes how it will be regularly revisited and put into action.
  • Study your own reactions, trauma responses, and coping mechanisms. Embrace a trauma healing framework that makes space for embodiment and self-reflection.
  • Play games that encourage cooperation. De-emphasize competitive games and talk about competitive impulses when they show up.
  • Learn about and lift up feminine and queer divinity, leadership, and ways of knowing.
  • Create spaces that center BIPOC family members (like affinity spaces), can be used to support decision-making processes.
  • Continue to educate yourself and family members on history, power, oppression, resistance, and resilience.
  • Cultivate joy practices.
  • Practice sharing power as both giving and receiving. Notice and name when this is happening.

PROGRESS IS BIGGER, MORE

  • More value and attention is placed on family members who have achieved certain accomplishments, who are already more public/celebrated, particularly within the celebrated norms of the family culture (being a pastor, missionary, married mother, etc.). Little celebration of accomplishments outside of achieving bigger, more, and family norms.
  • Progress is a family that grows and expands. Family members who don’t have children, have fewer children, or have children in non-“traditional” ways (adoption, step children, etc.) are relegated to the margins and become less central to the family structure.
  • Attributes little to no value (even negative value) to the costs and consequences of idealizing bigger, more (how larger events may sacrifice the quality of events, how larger events may ignore the interests/safety concerns of marginalized family members (children, BIPOC family members, those with disabilities, feminized labor, etc.).

Dismantling Practices

  • Consider how these decisions will impact future generations.
  • Consider a cost/benefit analysis that includes all types of costs (how it might harm our relationships, etc.).
  • Identify and center processes (shared agreements, etc.).
  • Create space for feedback loops and self-reflection in order to check in within ongoing relationship.
  • Begin to see conflict and decision-making as opportunities to build and deepen family relationships.
  • Celebrate those who have accomplishments outside of the family norms and the status quo.
  • Consider how to be inclusive of non-“traditional” family structures. Move beyond inclusion to appreciation, celebration, and normalizing these.
  • Plan a variety of types of family gatherings. Consider how to make space for different types of interactions and relationships.

QUANTITY OVER QUALITY

  • That which can be measured is more highly valued than that which cannot, for example making an income versus unpaid reproductive labor.
  • Little or no value attached to process.
  • Discomfort with emotion.
  • No understanding that when there is a conflict between content (what family members disagree on) and process (family members’ need to be heard) decisions that have been made are undermined and/or disregarded.
  • Few collective skills at facilitating processes that humanize and that don’t replicate oppressive systems/punishment models.
  • Classism in the ways status is given to those who have more (money, degrees, etc.). Activities require resources to participate in family events.

Dismantling Practices

  • Celebrate and develop rituals for milestones that are not already marked by the status quo. Base these on quality, not necessary on what’s more or most.
  • Acknowledge and express appreciation for unpaid work (i.e. emotional labor).
  • Reframe conflict and decision-making in terms of process and relationships as the highest value.
  • Develop non-punitive abolitionist accountability processes.
  • Practice naming feelings aloud. Integrate emotional and intuitive decision-making into family processes.
  • It’s okay to revisit the past.
  • Consider accessibility in family activities (cost, location, police presence, representation, etc.).
  • Focus on doing one thing at a time.

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