by Mary Pender Greene, Sandra Bernabei, and Lisa V. Blitz
In previous columns, we discussed the first two racial equity organizing principles identified by the People’s Institute: Undoing Racism and Learning from History. We move now to the third: Sharing Culture. Culture is the life support system of a community; if it is respected and nurtured, the community’s power grows.
Sharing culture is not the same as cultural competency. Competency focuses outward, helping us develop skills to work with people different from ourselves. Sharing respects the power of culture and invites a focus on White culture. Honoring the power of culture in conjunction with understanding “White” as a culture is crucial to undoing structural racism.
Culture is a way of life and fundamental to all communities. White culture is infused and embedded throughout the systems of laws and governance upon which American society is built, because White people founded the country and created the structures. In most nations, we think of culture as ethnicity or nationality. In America, White became the dominant culture because we started as a nation of multiethnic groups of white Europeans who united as “White.” Joining “White” culture became important to assimilating into America. People of color, who were systematically subjugated and eradicated during this time, could not join in the assimilation, and their cultures were devalued.
Any community whose culture is feared, ignored, or exploited must struggle to maintain fundamental dignity and is depleted of the energy needed to sustain organized power. Consider the slogan fueling a movement, “Black lives matter.” But our history includes 350 years of human trafficking and enslavement of Africans and indigenous peoples, 100 years of segregation, and 50 years of mass incarceration. We must recognize that even today, aspects of White culture can dehumanize Black people, devalue Black culture, and ignore Black experience. As a result, Black citizens in America must maintain vigilance on the most essential human right: We matter.
Okay, this is big and hard to wrap our arms around. But social workers work for social change, equity, and inclusion, and we start by validating experience. Are there any points made here so far that gave you pause, made you cringe, caused you to question or disbelieve? Start by asking yourself, “What if it’s true?”
Then take the next step. Look at institutional culture—the place where you work and the systems that regulate it. This is where we have power and the potential for collective action that can create change now. As you learn to see subtle, usually unintentional, manifestations of racial inequity in your organization, the next steps you can take to create change become clearer.
Any of us who have been in a situation where we feel culturally out of place can understand that an organization does not need to be intentionally racist to create a culture that results in a greater degree of fit for some people and subtly—and not so subtly—excludes others or requires that they work harder to find their cultural comfort zone. If you are White, how often do you find yourself in situations where you do not need to think about your color? If you are a person of color, how often do you find yourself alone, the only person of color in the executive suite? Whose cultural comfort zone does your organization support?
Knowing the characteristics of White institutional culture helps us to begin to see and name exclusionary practices, and promotes anti-oppressive leadership. We offer aspects of White institutional culture from Dismantling Racism, by Jones & Okun, 2001): perfectionism, urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, demand it in writing, paternalism, either/or thinking, power hoarding, avoid conflict, individualism, objectivity, and right to be comfortable. The issue is not whether these characteristics are exclusively tied to White culture (they’re not), but whether their presence in an organization serves to foster the success of White people and hinder the success and leadership potential of people of color.
Assess the racial climate of your organization by starting dialogues on race. Understand that people of color may see things that White people do not, but may be hesitant to talk openly at first. Ask whether leaders and staff in your organization:
- Talk openly about race, including White culture and privilege
- Critique policies and practices from a race-aware perspective
- Reflect the racial diversity of the people served
- Consider the racial climate of the organization as part of assessing staff morale
- Encourage and reward anti-racist multiculturalism in all aspects of practice and governance
- Act decisively to correct biases when they are identified.
Next time, we’ll begin exploring how to get to Yes!
Mary Pender Greene, LCSW-R, CGP, is an organizational consultant, psychotherapist in private practice, career/executive coach, professional speaker, and co-founder of the AntiRacist Alliance.
Sandra Bernabei, LCSW, is President of the National Association of Social Workers—New York City Chapter. Sandy is a founding member of the AntiRacist Alliance.
Lisa V. Blitz, Ph.D., LCSW-R, is a social worker, researcher, and educator with 25 years of experience in mental health and social justice centering on culturally responsive trauma-informed practice and organizational development.