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Leadership + White Supremacy Culture’s Characteristics (An Introduction)

Illuminating White Supremacy Culture Part 1

Do you experience white leaders with the ability to navigate racial power dynamics in a way that brings racial equity and inclusion?

Why is this important? In the United States, we experience inequitable outcomes by race in every sector, including health, education, and housing, just to name a few. This is unconscionable. 

How can we white people hold leadership roles without having deep, personal consciousness of our racial identity and its impacts? Leadership requires an understanding of how race impacts our relationships. and how racial dynamics show up in our organizations' formal and informal policies, practices, and outcomes. 

If this country wasn’t built on and continues to thrive because of racism, what could be another reason? Individual responsibility? Lack of education? Lack of effort?

We’ve been taught these lies to divide us and perpetuate the current power structures based on race. 

We aren’t helpless to change this. 

122822_Deanna Blog Image 2The myth of whiteness was created, yet we’ve been taught the myth of colorblindness. 

The myth of rugged individualism was taught to us, yet we all need community and pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps is literally and metaphorically impossible.

The myth of the culture of poverty blames people that live in poverty for their plight. We are taught to blame the victim.

What, then, do we do? 

Let's not forget the current sociopolitical context in which the majority of states have proposed or passed legislation to NOT talk about race, whiteness, inequity, and equity, let alone diversity.

We need to talk about race more than ever.

We wouldn’t have racialized outcomes in every one of our sectors if whiteness was not deemed supreme—the ugly truth struts around like an emperor with no clothes. 

Buckle up, because this is going to take some time to introduce. It'll be worth it, I promise.

The framework of White Supremacy Culture helps us see the system that we are enculturated into. Consciousness of White Supremacy Culture's characteristics is crucial for leadership.

Tema Okun defines White Supremacy Culture in this way:

“Culture reflects the beliefs, values, norms, and standards of a group, a community, a town, a state, a nation. 

White supremacy culture is the widespread ideology baked into the beliefs, values, norms, and standards of our groups (many if not most of them), our communities, our towns, our states, our nation, teaching us both overtly and covertly that whiteness holds value, whiteness is value. It teaches us that Blackness is not only valueless but also dangerous and threatening. It teaches us that Indigenous people and communities no longer exist, or if they do, they are to be exoticized and romanticized or culturally appropriated as we continue to violate treaties, land rights, and humanity. It teaches us that people south of the border are "illegal." It teaches us that Arabs are Muslim and that Muslim is "terrorist." It teaches us that people of Chinese and Japanese descent are both indistinguishable and threatening as the reason for Covid. It pits other races and racial groups against each other while always defining them as inferior to the white group.

White supremacy culture is reflected in the current realities of disproportionate and systemic harm and violence directed towards BIPOC people and communities in all aspects of our national life – health, education, employment, incarceration, policing, the law, the environment, immigration, agriculture, food, and housing. We would not allow any of the ways in which our society prioritizes profit over people if we did not have dominant cultural beliefs that make normal what is deeply and alarmingly inhumane.” 


122822_Deanna Blog Image 3Okun shares details about the components of White Supremacy Culture’s characteristics, and the best part is that antidotes help us see and practice leadership that brings about more racially equitable relationships, organizations, and systems. 

As I've supported large, complex systems in applying and integrating these antidotes in the last ten+ years, they have transformed how I understand power and race. I hope that it supports you in your leadership as well. 

White Supremacy Culture’s Characteristics Include:

  • Fear
  • Perfectionism, One Right Way, Paternalism, and Objectivity
  • Qualified
  • Either/Or and the Binary
  • Progress is Bigger/More and Quantity over Quality
  • Worship of the Written Word
  • Individualism and I’m the Only One
  • Defensiveness and Denial
  • Right to Comfort, Fear of Open Conflict, and Power Hoarding
  • Urgency

The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture

Source: Caroline J. Sumlin

You can read more here: White Supremacy Culture: Still Here. Friendly warning: you may want to rage and throw your computer across the room, whether you are initially inclined to embrace or resist. 

If you are white and this is the first time you've engaged with the concept of White Supremacy Culture's characteristics, you may want to start here:

Let's talk about whiteness - Part 1: Who are you, white person, to work for racial equity? 

Part 1 - Anti-White Supremacy: Who am I, as a white person, to be anti-racist?

Please note that White Supremacy Culture is different than White Supremacy as an ideology. Although incredibly related, White Supremacy Culture is baked into the very fabric of the United States, whether intentionality is present or not.

“The term white supremacy refers to the ways in which the ruling class elite or the power elite in the colonies of what was to become the United States used the pseudo-scientific concept of race to create whiteness and a hierarchy of racialized value in order to 

    • disconnect and divide white people from Black, Indigenous, and People of Color
    • (BIPOC);
      disconnect and divide Black, Indigenous, and People of Color from each other;
    • disconnect and divide white people from other white people;
    • disconnect and divide each and all of us from the earth, the sun, the wind, the water, the stars, the animals that roam(ed) the earth;
    • disconnect and divide each of us from ourselves and from source (see below).

The power elite constructed white supremacy (and construct it still) to define who is fully human and who is not.”

Source: White Supremacy Culture

122822_Deanna Blog Quote

To lead well, all leaders need to understand race, how it was created, and how it plays out daily today, from neighborhoods to board rooms to the halls of Congress and the White House.

To start, Tema Okun shares that  “White Supremacy Culture Comes After All of Us.

“We are all swimming in the waters of white supremacy culture. We are all navigating this culture, regardless of our racial identity. We are not all affected in the same ways – some of us are encouraged to join and collude without awareness that an invitation has been extended, some are invited to participate at the cost of separating ourselves from our communities and families, some are shamed because we can never fully join no matter how hard we try, some are denied any invitation in order to be targeted or exploited or violated.

White supremacy culture is constantly encouraging all of us in all our racial identities to cooperate and collude. Because we all live in this white supremacy culture, these characteristics have the potential to show up in the attitudes and behaviors of all of us, particularly as we strive to survive and gain a foothold in institutions and fields that either overtly or covertly adopt white supremacy culture values.

White supremacy culture always operates to target Black, Indigenous, and People of Color communities and individuals while, in theory, “benefitting” white communities and people. My current position is that this culture and its characteristics are toxic to all of us. They are damaging because they are self-perpetuating and promote white supremacy thinking and behavior, which is the source of our social, mental, emotional, and material disconnect. I am not suggesting that the harm white supremacy culture inflicts on white communities or white individuals is similar to or proportional to or comparable to the harm it inflicts on BIPOC communities and people. I am suggesting that white supremacy culture harms us all.” 


122822_Deanna Blog Image 1Understanding and dismantling White Supremacy Culture is liberatory work. Racially diverse teams work daily (together and separately because those with racially marginalized identities need healing spaces separate from the gaze of whiteness) to unpack White Supremacy Culture’s Characteristics and apply the centuries of wisdom, truth, and effectiveness of the antidotes to White Supremacy culture that Okun shares. 

I’m curious about what you see in those definitions of White Supremacy Culture. Where do you see these characteristics celebrated as the only way?

Fellow leaders and learners, I wish you courage and resilience for the journey.

Deanna Signature


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Questions to Consider


Questions for Consideration Regarding This Topic:


      1. Where do you see these characteristics celebrated?
      2. Which characteristics are you inclined to defend?
      3. Around which topics are you inclined to employ binary/either-or thinking?
      4. Which antidotes have you tried? Which ones do you want to try?

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Deanna Rolffs (they/them)
Post by Deanna Rolffs (they/them)
December 28, 2022
Deanna Rolffs (they/them) is a strategist, facilitator, coach, systems thinker, and Process Consultant who works with executive leaders and teams at the intersection of organizational theory, leadership development, justice, and equity. Their process consulting approach focuses on organizational transformation via thriving teams, brave leadership, equitable systems, and inclusive communities. Deanna served as a Senior Consultant with Design Group International since 2018, became a Senior Design Partner in 2021, and launched L3 Catalyst Group in 2023.