When Amy Hayes, from Baptist News Global asked to speak to me about the Wild Goose Festival, I was initially hesitant. I had just begun a leave from church work (which I am currently still on), in part to regroup from having had to do intense professional and personal race work on top of managing the pandemic with my congregation since March 2020. But when I look at the resulting article, I’m proud to have been included. This piece affirms a call for rebirth and reimagining that many people of color who work with predominantly or historically white organizations are often left to shout alone into the hurricane of white supremacy. The message here travels far beyond “the Goose.”
The self-conscious approach to dismantling white supremacy reinforces white priorities thereby affirming white supremacy.
Having a person of color on your board, on your staff, leading your organization, etc. will not solve your diversity problems. In fact, my own experiences over the years have indicated that this approach as the sole answer to the question of diversity, creates many more problems than it solves.
What is more, “dismantling white supremacy culture” sounds great and challenging in the best kind of way that white liberals like to be challenged, (finite, well defined goal, etc.) but it is not the actual issue. The issue is how organizations continue to answer to cultural priorities that are affirmed by whiteness and one’s proximity to the power of whiteness (regardless of race) and the way in which this proximity is the driver of the larger social narrative.
I am currently navigating several professional spaces and situations, and I am in conversation with several different organizations that all hold “dismantling white supremacy culture” as a priority. The problem is that for all their efforts to do so and even achieving some success in identifying and locating the sources of this specific problem, I’m not so sure that the overall efforts can stick. You can hire the young queer, person of color to lead your effort, that’s nice. But if they are required to answer to and fulfill white cultural priorities in order to be “successful” then no progress will be made. You can have a person of color on your board, but if you only call on them to do cleanup in the wake of misplaced white priorities, their board presence is a failure. You can invite a person of color to lead your organization, but if there is no appetite or capacity to follow their leadership or if their leadership is “invisible” because the environment doesn’t understand how to recognize guidance that comes from priorities outside of cultural whiteness, no change is possible.
I’m willing to make the bold statement that “dismantling white supremacy culture” is not the actual problem. Something that can be labeled and packaged this tidily is too easy and as the title of this piece indicates, whiteness being tasked with dismantling itself is a pretty “meta” feedback loop (“meta” in the Urban Dictionary sense – https://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=meta). The real challenge for diversity comes from organizations, people, etc. that do not have real interest, capacity or understanding of what it means to embrace cultural priorities that sit outside of whiteness. This is a problem for everyone, white and non-white and it is a problem for any dominant culture. For example, if the only framework we have to understand the historical roots of European domination is based on being “post-colonial” that means we first have to accept “colonial” as some kind of starting point…and colonial is a framework defined by historical whiteness. The gamechanger would be to instead understand what it is to be “a-colonial” that is, what it means to be defined entirely outside of the context of western historically oppressive systems of slave based capitalism and genocide and evolve outside of the assumption of whiteness as a defining dominant priority.
…although the dominant culture has a role to play in dismantling white supremacy, it doesn’t get to define what is built in its place.
This is a deep question. For example, in many ways, African American culture is shaped by its resistance to white oppression. White supremacy is a crucible that has forged in African Americans one of the most resilient, creative and arguably valuable and diverse cultures on the planet. So, what then does it mean to define Afro-Americanness without or beyond the history of slavery? Without the imposition of European Christianity? Without the response to being globally dehumanized?
Native and Indigenous people around the world have powerful responses to these questions. For example, currently, Māori leaders of Aotearoa (New Zealand) are calling for a return to the native name of the islands. Now that they have greater representation in the current dominant Western government, and as the original inhabitants of the land, it makes sense for them to self-define outside of the colonial name applied to their indigenous home. Embracing this definition does not require anything from colonial progeny other than getting out of the way. Just because Westerners have called it “New Zealand” for nearly 400 years doesn’t make it right. Māori leaders have effectively infiltrated the Western structure for the purpose of making space to be defined outside of that structure.
When people of color are brought into leadership of traditionally or historically white organizations as part of an effort to create diversity, it cannot be that we are there simply to be the status quo in brown face. If an organization is serious about diversity, it must first (before bringing in people of color to leadership) understand what kind of organization it is (culturally) and how it is defined by the dominant culture. Then it must determine if it is truly willing to not just invite but accept and embrace the leadership and guidance of people of color, understanding that the prior dominant culture definitions will likely need to be significantly changed or even thrown out entirely.
Ultimately, although the dominant culture has a role to play in dismantling white supremacy, it doesn’t get to define what is built in its place.