Tema Okun's "White Supremacy Culture" work is bad

Prestigious universities and worthy nonprofits shouldn't push nonsense

Debating abstractions is difficult and frustrating, and the discourse about “wokeness” and “cancel culture” has become a snakepit of semantic debates, bad-faith actors, and people of goodwill talking past each other.

So I want to talk instead about one specific document, not because I think it’s the most important document in the world, but because I don’t really see anyone who I read and respect talking about it even though I’ve seen it arise multiple times in real life.

I’m talking about “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” by Tema Okun, which I first heard of this year from the leader of a progressive nonprofit group whose mission I strongly support. He told me that some people on the staff had started wielding this document in internal disputes and it was causing big headaches. Once I had that on my radar, I heard about it from a couple of other nonprofit workers. And I saw it come up at the Parent Teacher Association for my kid’s school.

It’s an excerpt from a longer book called Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups that was developed as a tool for Okun’s consulting and training gigs.

But today, even though it’s not what I would call a particularly intellectually influential work in highbrow circles — even ones that are very “woke” or left-wing — it does seem to be incredibly widely circulated. You see it everywhere from the National Resource Center on Domestic Violence to the Sierra Club of Wisconsin to an organization of West Coast Quakers.

Which is to say it’s sloshing around quite broadly in progressive circles even though I’ve never heard a major writer, scholar, or political leader praise or recommend it. And to put it bluntly, it’s really dumb. In my more conspiratorial moments, I wonder if it’s not a psyop devised by some modern-day version of COINTELPRO to try to destroy progressive politics in the United States by making it impossible to run effective organizations. Even if not, I think the document is worth discussing on its own terms because it is broadly influential enough that if everyone actually agrees with me that it’s bad, we should stop citing it and object when other people do. And alternatively, if there are people who think it’s good, it would be nice to hear them say so, and then we could have a specific argument about that. But while I don’t think this document is exactly typical, I do think it’s emblematic of some broader, unfortunate cultural trends.

Whiteness detached from race

The craziest thing about “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” is that it has literally nothing to do with race.

Some of the things she condemns are genuinely bad. For example, it is true that some people have “the belief there is one right way to do things and once people are introduced to the right way, they will see the light and adopt it.” That is in fact not true and not a productive way to live your life, conduct political work, or run an organization of any size.

Mostly, though, she’s against things like “either/or thinking” and “perfectionism” where it’s pretty clearly a case in which you just don’t want to take things too far. I am the very opposite of a perfectionist, and in my old blogging days, I was infamous for my typos. Today I am still like that, but thanks to the help of Marc and Claire, I try to keep dumb mistakes out of Slow Boring since this is, after all, my job, and thousands of subscribers have kindly agreed to pay for it. But I still frequently find myself encountering people who are too perfectionist-oriented, and there are absolutely people who are too hung up on dichotomous thinking and false binaries. But there are also people who are too sloppy or too indecisive.

But big picture, none of this has anything to do with race or white supremacy!

And I don’t mean that in, like, “it’s not racist unless you’re wearing a Klan hood and burning a cross in my lawn.” I mean, nothing. If you don’t know any non-white people who sometimes strike you as excessively rigid in their thinking or seem like too much of perfectionists then you need to get out more. But then Okun herself concedes that there’s no necessary relationship between manifesting white supremacy culture and being white yourself, nor even the ethnic composition of the group.

Because we all live in a white supremacy culture, these characteristics show up in the attitudes and behaviors of all of us – people of color and white people. Therefore, these attitudes and behaviors can show up in any group or organization, whether it is white-led or predominantly white or people of color-led or predominantly people of color.

So if the minister of a Black church is asking for more changes to something and one of the people he’s working with feels the minister is being too much of a perfectionist — and therefore advancing white supremacy — he can’t point to his own racial identity or that of his flock as a defense. It’s in the culture!

Institutional acid

A big Okun theme is that organizations are too focused on getting things done and not focused enough on process.

  • For example, she labels “sense of urgency” as a characteristic of white supremacy culture that manifests as a “continued sense of urgency that makes it difficult to take time to be inclusive, encourage democratic and/or thoughtful decision-making, to think long-term, to consider consequences.”

  • She worries that “things that can be measured are more highly valued than things that cannot.”

  • Another thing white supremacy culture causes us to do is believe in “little or no value attached to process; if it can’t be measured, it has no value.

  • She complains that “those with strong documentation and writing skills are more highly valued, even in organizations where ability to relate to others is key to the mission.”

Obviously, with all of these things, it is certainly possible to take things too far in terms of attempting to quantify everything or pushing so hard and fast that your work is unsustainable or loses track of the big picture.

But it’s also totally possible that you have a person, or a team, or a whole organization that is simply failing to do a good job. They are not creating measurable results, they are not accomplishing things on a defined timeline, and they are not even properly documenting what it is they are spending their time doing. That’s reality. Not everyone is good at their job. Not every idea pans out. Not every group is performing well. And sometimes institutional leaders need to pressure people to raise their game, pick up the pace, or otherwise deliver the goods.

Telling the staff of an organization that a wide range of negative feedback one might expect to receive from supervisors or funders is in fact a form of white supremacy is just incredibly damaging to the idea of making an organization that operates well.

If somebody called me a white supremacist because I was upset that they weren’t delivering any measurable results, I’d get upset. But “defensiveness” is also one of the characteristics of white supremacy culture. An example of white supremacy culture under that heading is that “criticism of those with power is viewed as threatening and inappropriate (or rude).” And if you say that these proposed new ground rules are bad, well it turns out that this is a form of white supremacist “power hoarding” where “those with power assume they have the best interests of the organization at heart and assume those wanting change are ill-informed (stupid), emotional, inexperienced.”

Strange ideas about nonwhite people

At this point, I think it’s worth pointing out that Tema Okun is white.

She doesn’t put forward any evidence or arguments in favor of her claims (and indeed, “objectivity” is seen as a manifestation of white supremacy culture), but this is also not a lived experience argument. Instead she credits the second-hand wisdom of the late Kenneth Jones who was her co-author on the original version of the workbook that featured the list. And the reason it feels like an op to destroy progressive politics is that she’s pretty clearly not talking about race or racism at all. This whole document instead comes from a place of extreme characterological aversion to hierarchy and structure.

And we know from a range of evidence that if you look at the white U.S. population, being a Democrat correlates with the personality trait of openness to experience and being a Republican with the personality trait of conscientiousness. And indeed Christopher Frederico and Rafael Aguilera document that among the white population, having a high score on racial resentment batteries is associated with high conscientiousness and low openness.

In other words: if you filter the white people to find only the white people who are most fired-up about anti-racism, you will end up with a high-openness, low-conscientiousness group of people who are probably inclined to agree with Okun’s general sentiments.

But these are facts about white people.

White Democrats are eccentric because most white people are Republicans. In non-white communities, most people are Democrats and consequently, non-white Democrats are less ideologically left-wing than white ones and also have personality types that are closer to the broad population average. That’s why the ex-cop, tough on crime mayoral candidate in New York City is Black. That’s why religiously observant Democrats tend to be non-white. Generalized aversion to hierarchy and discipline is not a characteristic of people of color at all — it’s a characteristic of white leftists.

From any normal standpoint, the idea that “requiring people to think in a linear (logical) fashion” is racist is itself racist. People of all ethnic backgrounds can think logically! I promise. Go read my former professor Kwame Appiah’s intro to philosophy book, “Thinking It Through” (or if you really want to bore yourself, read his “Generalising the Probabilistic Semantics of Conditionals” in The Journal of Philosophical Logic) and see for yourself. Obviously characterizing an emphasis on writing skills as “worship of the written word” makes it sound bad, but thinking that writing is important is not a distinctively white characteristic, as even a cursory read of the past several thousand years of human civilization would tell you.1

Tema Okun is weirdly influential

Now I know in some quarters the response to this is just going to be “who cares?” and to an extent, what can I tell you if you tell me that you don’t care about something?

But way back in May of 2019, the New York Post reported that the then-chancellor of the NYC public school system Richard Carranza was using Okun’s work in his trainings for school administrators. So it’s not like this is some totally marginal thing. 

And Carranza isn’t some huge outlier in the public education space here either. The National Education Association, a big teachers union, has it as one of their recommended resources. The NEA is particularly telling here because, of the two major national teachers unions, NEA is larger but generally lower-profile and less left-wing. Most of America’s big-city school systems have AFT-affiliated unions, and those are the ones that tend to get media coverage and be a bigger deal in national politics. 

But that more than the Post’s story about Carranza is typical of Okun’s influence. She’s not a major thinker, but she is widely hired and cited as some kind of authority.

The city of Seattle has a Race and Social Justice Initiative that mashes her work up with the ideas of Judith Katz that were made infamous when the Smithsonian did a graphic saying punctuality and the scientific method are white.

Then you get second-degree stuff. There’s a fellow public middle school principal named Joe Truss who’s a big Okun fan and has his own company where he does anti-racism trainings in public schools from Montgomery, Alabama to Kodiak Island, Alaska.

Okun herself doesn’t have a publicly available client list, but searching around you’ll find her everywhere from the Minnesota Public Health Association to an open-source software group to the Los Angeles chapter of Democratic Socialists of America, Atlanta Roller Derby, and the Society of Conservation Biologists. She’s currently got a gig at Duke where she’s running a Teacher Equity Fellowship program in which she runs workshops that “are specifically designed to address a number of teaching and mentoring topics that may arise around race and identity.”

Okay, but really who cares?

I think enough attention has been paid to the view that Cancel Culture Is A Totalitarian Menace Threatening Our Freedoms that a lot of people have trouble hearing any other kind of criticism, and it leads them to immediately retreat into whataboutism and minimization.

So for the record, I wholeheartedly agree — I do not think a bunch of folks running around telling the world that asking for written memos and focusing on measurable results is racist are going to take over the United States and extinguish human liberty. Frankly, I don’t think they’re going to do anything at all other than run a bunch of basically useless trainings and disrupt the internal functioning of progressive organizations. My concern is less that Woke Conservation Biologists are going to oppress us and more that they aren’t going to do conservation biology very well.

But this can still be very harmful.

If you tell teachers and principals that having a sense of urgency about teaching kids to read is a form of white supremacy, then that is going to hurt kids’ learning. And if young people entering the progressive nonprofit sector believe that any effort to construct disciplined, hierarchical organizations is a form of white supremacy, then they are not going to accomplish anything.

I would also say that the political faction that tends to pride itself on ideas like “taking the science seriously” and “trusting the experts” should ask itself how a white physical education major from Oberlin got to be such a guru on this subject.

Duke employs a lot of distinguished scholars who know what it means to gather evidence and marshal arguments for a hypothesis. But Okun just isn’t doing that, and in that respect, she’s very typical of a lot of work happening in the diversity training space. And, through education schools, it’s seeping down into a lot of K-12 education. My strong guess is that most people at Yale Drama School don’t actually believe that perfectionism is a form of white supremacy. But there’s going to be a new class in the Technical Design and Production Department that uses Okun’s work “to investigate the roots of racism within the theatrical production process.” And what everyone has learned is that unless you want a whole new persona as a right-wing culture warrior, it’s best not to criticize anything that’s done in the name of racial justice.

But that not only has a range of first-order harms, but it also creates a situation where you then find yourself turning around later and wondering why nobody trusts the experts anymore. Some of the reason is that they’re under assault by bad-faith operators who derive personal benefits from discrediting the concept of neutral expertise. But some of it is that the participants in these institutions can’t be consistently bothered to uphold those values and ask really basic questions of the influential practitioners who happen to be aligned with the right politics.

1

Writing was invented in the Middle East and then Egypt; the Chinese state was built around written exams for centuries; there was an independent invention of writing in Mesoamerica — one could go on and on like this.