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White Supremacy Isn't What You Think and How to Extinguish It: Part 2

Part 2: Defensiveness and Quantity Over Quality

This is the second article in a six-part series that addresses the characteristics of a white supremacy culture*. As noted in Part 1, Okun and Jones have identified 13 characteristics baked into a corporate culture that promotes and/or supports structural racism. The characteristics are applicable to our personal lives as well.

Identifying and addressing these characteristics is critical for building an inclusive work environment in which everyone feels psychologically safe, heard, and respected. Behaviors we think nothing about are often inadvertently discriminatory leading to a perpetuation of privilege and hierarchical behaviors.

Okun and Jones define the purpose of a white supremacy culture as maintaining the power structure in which only a privileged few have the right to have power or to succeed; everyone else is subservient. However, they expand white supremacy thinking beyond just oppression to dividing and disconnecting each of us from ourselves and one another thus eliminating all threats to the status quo.

They also note that white supremacy cultures can exist in organizations where people of color lead or hold a majority of the senior leadership positions. No one is immune to its influence since we were raised and live in a society rooted in white supremacy thinking.

Part 1 reviews “Perfectionism,” its behaviors intended to protect the power structure, and actions to extinguish them. White supremacy cultural behaviors are subtle and similar to microaggressions. On the surface they are easy to dismiss as being negative until you take a closer look and realize they either protect those in power or belittle others and nothing in between. (Read Part 1 for more details.)

Part 2

The next two behaviors Okun and Jones identify as characteristics of white supremacy culture are “defensiveness” and “quantity over quality.”


It is well-known that defensiveness occurs when people feel under attack, or their power is threatened directly or indirectly. Few individuals are comfortable with being challenged and prefer to retain their “superiority” in thinking, acting, or achieving regardless of their background.


Many of these behaviors are easy to identify in ourselves, others, and in the workplace culture which permeates all levels in an organization. While defensive behaviors are less obvious in this context, they have significant impact on the overall success of an organization, teams, and individuals. Recognizing and mitigating them is critical for fostering employee engagement and innovation.

  • The organizational structure protects the hierarchy of power and considers criticism or feedback regarding either the structure or those in power as a threat and unacceptable.

  • Whistle blowing is discouraged, punished, or silenced.

  • New or challenging ideas elicit defensiveness or negated, making it difficult to raise new ideas or approaches.

  • Significant organizational energy is spent on protecting people’s feelings or working around defensive people.

  • The defensiveness of the hierarchy results in an oppressive culture.

Actions to Extinguish

It is the actions of individuals that perpetuate or prevent defensiveness verses the organizational structure. They can either reward, punish, or neutralize defensiveness. For example, a learning organization promotes risk-taking and exploration of new ideas rather than viewing them as a challenge to the existing approaches, methodologies, and/or leadership.

  • Recognize the direct relationship between defensiveness, fear, loss of power and “face,” insecurity, and shame.

  • Observe yourself and commit to transforming your own defensiveness into curiosity.

  • Be open to identifying defensiveness as a problem when it exists.

  • Promote an inclusive mindset through encouraging curiosity, collaboration, recognition of the value of differences, and taking calculated risks.

Quantity Over Quality

Data is critical for both making informed business decisions and for evaluating the culture of an organization. Quantity is a tangible number and easy to quantify; quality is intangible and more elusive. While the latter is more challenging, it is critical to ensure an inclusive and equitable environment required for attracting and retaining top talent, engaging employees, and innovation.


  • Quantifiable results drive strategic decisions.

  • Measurable results are valued over intangibles such as managing conflict, the decision-making process, team dynamics, or flow of information.

  • Lack of clarity of who has power and acceptable use of it.

  • Process or how things get done is unimportant.

  • Display of emotions and feelings cause discomfort and strongly discouraged.

  • Default to process when there is a conflict between content and process.

Actions to Extinguish

  • Ensure planning includes process (how goals will be reached) as well as measurable outcomes.

  • Have a well-defined values statement that describes the way in which work gets done and is the foundation of day-to-day activities and interactions.

  • Have a method for monitoring process (e.g., measuring inclusion beyond headcount).

  • Heighten your personal awareness when to shift focus from the agenda to answering a person’s underlying concern. Help others develop this same awareness.

White supremacy is typically considered a societal issue. As microcosms of society, this mindset is embedded in the culture, processes, and procedures of an organization. Like microaggressions, they are more subtle or unrecognizable in this context but equally as


Part 3 addresses “paternalism” and “either/or thinking” as expressions of a white supremacy culture.

The only way progress can be made is encouraging dialogue no matter how challenging it may be. So, what are your thoughts? Do you agree, disagree, or have no opinion?

*Source: "Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups," Jones, Kenneth; Okun, Tema; ChangeWork, 2001

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