Friday, January 6, 2017

'Whiteness' and Internalized Superiority

What is 'whiteness'? It is a flawed concept, but useful to a degree in explaining racism in the USA.

'Whiteness' is a reference to 'power' more than race.

'Whiteness' is a normative political power (rooted in law, religion, science, and the media), crowned with the ability to distribute wealth, resources, and opportunities. You can see this in US history in laws like the 1790 Naturalization Act, which were influenced by other embedded political institutions like religion and science. For instance, some interpretations of biblical stories like 'The Curse of Ham', and Ishmael created disfavored groups of blacks, and Arabs.

Why is 'whiteness' a flawed concept? It is a flawed concept because it links oppressive power to 'whiteness' as a racial construct. When used in extreme rhetoric like George Ciccariello-Maher, associate professor of politics and global studies at Drexel, in his Christmas Eve tweet for a 'white genocide,' it can perpetuate cycles of racial violence, and misunderstanding.

The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond call this 'whiteness' internalized superiority, which I think is a much more appropriate, widely applicable, and accurate label.

The Institute connects internalized superiority and 'whiteness' with the history of power dynamics and social norms in the USA.

Internalized superiority in the USA centers norms and power in 'white' spheres of influence. It is a power structure that only 'whites' are born into. Internalized superiority is 'a way' of acting that perpetuates favoritism and inequality. In the USA, the favored group, the group in power, the social norms, are centered on 'whiteness.' In other countries or historical contexts what is considered 'white' might not be the group in power, or the norm.

This way of acting superior affects American culture beyond racism. In fact, in the workshop, facilitators focused on how 'white' people treat each other -- and how internalized superiority creates abusive, inauthentic, and dehumanizing social interactions based on ego in 'white' spheres of influence.

These interactions -- this way of behaving -- is counterproductive to addressing issues of equality/inequality. Internalized superiority is a number one reason why the USA has made such little progress in the area of racism, according to the People's Institute for Survival and Beyond's co-founder, Ronald Chisolm:

This is reflected in my experience with the GSV United Way, and other leaders from Lewisburg, while trying to work with them on anti-racism efforts in our community. You can see an analysis specifically about my experience with this group and internalized superiority in the next blog here.

So, what is 'whiteness' again, or internalized superiority?

'Whiteness' as rightness: social and cultural norms in the USA are centered on what seems 'right' to 'white' people. For instance, black professionals are often asked to straighten their hair, and are asked to not wear cornrows or afros; 'Americans' don't want to hear a 'foreign' accent when they call customer service; covering the head or wearing certain dress is taboo in the workplace.

If we look, we can see this pattern in smaller ways within 'white culture' itself -- restrictions on died hair, piercings, tattoos, dress codes -- basically demanding conformity, and creating a hierarchy of power to maintain the comfort levels of one section of the population, over others.

There are other, more nefarious, patterns of behavior that tag along with 'power always being right,' and it is not surprising that these patterns line up with bullying and toxic organizational culture.Things like: taking credit for other people's work; dismissing consequences of decisions/actions to 'others,' and focusing on maintaining power for the favored group; blaming the victim; hording knowledge; assuming to 'know better'; using hierarchy to punish/lock out 'others'; double standards; etc.

The end result is an inability to form authentic and meaningful relationships with 'others,' and a breakdown of community. What The Institute conveyed to us in the workshop was that internalized superiority is harmful, not only to disfavored 'non-white' groups, but to 'white' groups as well.

In a racialized context, because the pattern favors those at the top of the hierarchy, those at the bottom come out with the least access to power, resources, and opportunities -- hence institutional disparities for black Americans are the worst in our culture. 

Examples of Acceptable dress/behavior/ideology: 
Suits/slacks and button down shirts/shaved (men and women)/
trimmed hair of natural color (even died 'natural')/
compliant to conforming/light skinned/
speaks without an accent, and with 'proper' English (even 'American' accents like from Boston/Wisconsin/Texas are discriminated against)/
Christian/'American' as European Centered/
more education should correspond to more power

Who meets these descriptions?: 'Professionals,' Christians, descendants of European culture, and those who will follow these standards/norms/requirements to be 'accepted.' So, at the top here, we have 'proper whites.' Well educated, light skinned, professionally dressed, 'well' spoken, Religious (Christian)  

Are citizens with these characteristics afforded more access to opportunity and resources? Should they be? Are citizens who do not meet these norms denied access to opportunities and resources? Should they be? Does it align with American values, to answer yes to any these questions?
Another poignant question is: should we blame those who do fit this description and/or those at the top? I argue no. Our Undoing Racism (R) training also tried to relay that 'white' people are not to blame, but are subject to the same cultural requirements. Looking at the roots of these requirements in history, religion, science, and media can help us to understand how social stratification has been perpetuated.

This is why Undoing Racism (R) focuses on institutions, and leaders of institutions as change agents. It is difficult to challenge norms in our textbooks, or organizational/institutional culture, and indeed, The People's Institute notes 'resistance to institutional change' as one of the greatest challenges to 'undoing racism.' Institutional leaders are uniquely positioned to implement change -- by taking down the arbitrary boundaries of 'norms' concerning dress/lifestyle/culture/religion/ideas; by becoming more democratic vs. autocratic in management; by examining their own institutions history, mission, work, and outcomes; identifying racial disparities; naming where internalized superiority may have blocked the right leadership, or  contributed to racial disparities in their work's outcomes.

When power is an end, when power is continually put in the hands of one homogeneous normative character, inequity is inevitable.

All people have value, all people in our communities have something to give -- different perspectives, different strengths, different knowledge. Our country, and indeed our All-American ideals are what have made the US the envy of the world. We lose community, profits, innovations and more by having a narrow definition of what is 'acceptable' and required before someone is a valued member of society -- worthy of equal respect to those who are 'Well educated, light skinned, professionally dressed, 'well' spoken, and Religious (Christian),' or otherwise part of the 'in group.'

Too often those in our communities who fall away from this norm, are less valued, and denied access to equal legal protections, voting access, jobs, leadership roles, investment etc. Those who fall away from the norm are asked to prove more, to be 'exceptional exceptions' in order to gain respect and equality in our communities. Conversely, those who fall away from the norm are judged more harshly, often characterized, and dehumanized -- all of which can lead to harm for the disfavored individual/group.

Connecting internalized superiority to 'whiteness' as a racialized concept is wrong, and harmful. However, reflecting on how internalized superiority has benefited 'whiteness' historically in the USA, religious texts, science, and laws, is vital to understanding what racism is, and how we can stop it.

How too much education can lead to ignorance
Asset Mapping-- there are many excellent resources about this online.
Double Standards of reactions to riots