In “Building Resilient Organizations: Toward Joy and Durable Power in a Time of Crisis,” Maurice Mitchell unpacks the interrelated tasks facing our movements today. He identifies internal issues that have roiled and sometimes broken organizations over the last few years while pointing to the “challenging terrain on which we struggle and grow.” The piece can contribute a lot to evaluating the ways we work—but it is not primarily a management guide. It is a call to clarify our ideology and strategy and use those to anchor all our decisions and practices. Nothing else will do if we are to move forward in this time of overlapping crises and distinct opportunities. Mitchell offers his article as a starting point. To feed and stimulate our collective reflection, Convergence and The Forge are presenting a series of responses.


Tema Okun’s “White Supremacy Culture” has become ubiquitous across the progressive movement in recent years. The article — which identifies characteristics of “white supremacy culture,” including perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, worship of the written word, objectivity, and the right to comfort — has been used by organizations as far flung as the Sierra Club of Wisconsin, the Los Angeles branch of the Democratic Socialists of America, the Smithsonian, and the Washington State Governor’s Office. It has also proved an easy target for the right — a caricature of “woke culture” run amok.

Okun, a white woman, wrote the article in the late 1990s as part of a longer workbook for the racial equity workshops she facilitated. (Originally, Okun listed her co-trainer and mentor, Kenneth Jones, a Black man, as a co-author, but he asked to be removed since he did not co-author the paper.) Okun has written that she intended the article as a tool for reflection, though she notes that it has often been weaponized against organizations and individuals — including growing numbers of Black and Brown leaders. Okun created a website to supplant the original article in part because she found that “many people are misusing this material and that misuse seems to most often take the form of pulling out a characteristic or using all of them as a kind of checklist to target people, to accuse people of colluding with white supremacy culture.” (The website also incorporates a class analysis and adds new characteristics, such as fear and denial.)

Others have warned against attaching “white supremacy” to organizational practices like using metrics, setting deadlines, or employing the written word — which can make it more challenging for progressive organizations to meet their goals in an increasingly urgent political moment. As Maurice Mitchell writes, “uncritical” use of the paper “has at times served to challenge accountability around metrics and timeliness or the use of written language. Yet metrics and timeliness—and the ability to communicate in writing—are not in and of themselves examples of white supremacy.”

The Forge brought together five longtime racial justice leaders — Sendolo Diaminah, Scot Nakagawa, Rinku Sen, Sean Thomas-Breitfield, and Lori Villarosa — to discuss why the paper resonates, the problems with relying on it to criticize organizational practices, and the path forward for racial justice work. This transcript is an edited, condensed, and combined version of two conversations. Tema Okun participated in one of the conversations but declined to be included in the published transcript.


About the panelists:

  • Sendolo Diaminah is the Co-Director of the Carolina Federation, where s/he works building governing power for working people and communities of color in North Carolina.
  • Scot Nakagawa is co-founder and executive director of the 22nd Century Initiative, a national action and strategy hub supporting efforts to defeat white nationalism and build upon the democratic potential of the U.S.
  • Rinku Sen is the executive director of Narrative Initiative, where she works with social movements to build narrative power. A longtime racial justice organizer, journalist, and strategist, she is the author of Stir It Up: Lessons in Community Organizing and Advocacy and the former publisher of
  • Sean Thomas-Breitfeld is the co-executive director of the Building Movement Project, a national organization that develops research and practical resources to foster diverse leadership and inclusive practices in nonprofit organizations, and build relationships across the sector in support of movement building efforts and transformational solidarity.
  • Lori Villarosa is the founder and executive director of the Philanthropic Initiative for Racial Equity (PRE), which for the past 20 years has focused on increasing the amount and effectiveness of resources aimed at combating institutional and structural racism, guided by racial justice movement leaders.


Lori Villarosa: Let’s start by talking about the context of the time when “White Supremacy Culture” was written. So, I come to this work having started in philanthropy in the period that preceded the article. We were investing deeply in People's Institute and other antiracist work in the early '90s. And my role at the time was very much focused on moving an agenda within philanthropy and within the foundation itself to support work that was focusing on combating institutional and societal racism, what we later called structural racism, and now everyone's calling it systemic racism. This was a time when we were trying to shift predominantly white leadership away from the notion that racism only meant folks in white hoods and skinheads. We were trying to get them to understand the very basics of how institutional racism played out.

Rinku Sen: The biggest shift in the context of today's discussion for me is that there were a lot fewer Black and Brown-led organizations 30 years ago and certainly 40 years ago. And some of the big organizing networks, in fact, have really shifted. So, the field in which this framework lands, it has far more leaders of color than it used to. And more women too, I'll note.

Scot Nakagawa: Most of the progressive organizations were led primarily by white people. And when people like me would enter into those groups, it would become pretty clear to us that, with many of them — and especially the most influential ones — raising issues of race was considered divisive. And we would actually be told things like, "In order to be able to win, we need a majority so we can't deal with minority issues." So, it was a really different kind of time. Like Rinku said, there was much less people of color leadership. There was much less women's leadership, and a diversity, equity, inclusion-like industry was just beginning to develop.


What are some of the ways it’s been useful? And why do you think it has resonated so much over the years?

Sean Thomas-Breitfeld: It’s a useful article for reflection. And I could see it being particularly useful in activist communities, to help white activists in multiracial spaces be more aware and self-regulating. But I don’t think it’s very useful in the contexts where we’re all seeing it used, as a tool for organizational change and nonprofit management. I think that’s the big concern around misuse.

Sen: I think the good faith reason that this particular tool has taken off is that there are a fair number of terrible workplaces in our movement. And if you are a person working in one of those terrible workplaces, the characteristics provide a frame on your experience that feels accurate, that feels true. So if you're a person of color looking for a way to understand this terrible work experience and political experience that you're having, the tool provides a name for that experience and a set of potential solutions — that's a pretty complete package. So that's one reason I think it resonates.

The other reason is that its presentation is visceral. Its presentation is meant to generate gut level responses. So if I look at the website, for example, on the page where the characteristics are laid out is a graphic — it calls the characteristics poison. It's in the form of a pharmacy poster and you're looking at jars of these practices and they're called poison. Well, poison is an emotionally resonant word. The reaction to poison is something urgent and immediate like a purge. You want to get the poison out of your body. Whereas the reaction to namby-pamby nonprofit speak formulations of the same inequitable practices is a memo that's very well thought out and not very gut- based or immediate. So I think its presentation elicits certain emotional resonances and that, combined with good faith use, has made it take off.

Sendolo Diaminah: What Rinku is saying resonates with me. There are so many terrible workplaces in our broader society. But I want to say that even our poorly run movement organizations are miles better than most extractive corporations. When I waited tables, I was not confused about what the owners of the restaurant I worked in were interested in, and they were not confused. They didn't ask me if I felt like our work was sustainable and whether I felt fulfilled. They were like, "You are here to wait tables and you need to turn those tables quickly." That culture of capitalism and white supremacy in our society is the wider context. So then when we get politicized, as so many of our folks have intensely and quickly in these last few years, there can be this like, "Oh, this seems like it's similar to these other things.”

When you are healing and figuring out a new paradigm — and you've been immersed in an old one that was so painful — having a framework that says the pain you've been experiencing is real and it was wrong is powerful. And in order to get out of that old framework, you need something that gives you the strength to be like, "Yeah, that was wrong. That was evil." The article gives folks the resources to make that move.

Nakagawa: That point is really important. I have had every kind of messed up job with horrible supervisors in fast food, in the agricultural sector — you name it. Janitorial work and whatnot. When I was picking pineapple, if I said to my boss, 'This is white supremacy culture," I would have been fired and all the other workers would be laughing while that happened because, who's that naive that you say something like that to your supervisor in those circumstances?

You come to a social justice organization and all of a sudden the people are saying, "Be yourself, express yourself." There's a value articulated that holds you and makes you present. So there's something about the responsiveness of the vessel and the opportunity for catharsis that it can provide.

We live in a world with all kinds of bullshit happening. And so, of course, people legitimately feel like it's time for primal scream therapy or something. And, as Rinku said, this is a very visceral kind of document. It opens a door, and it can feel fucking fantastic to go down that road even while it's being really destructive.

Sen: I think it's always helpful to have tools that help us examine power dynamics in organizations, in movements, in relationships. Power is at the core of everything we're about, the things we analyze, the things we shift. And I think people who lead organizations — and for me that includes program and line staff — have to be thinking about power all the time and be really aware of how it's showing up so they can organize it in deliberate ways.

But I think I just disagree with the premise that ties these traits and these particular practice questions to white supremacy. Questions like: How will our organization communicate? How will we supervise staff and have accountability to a plan? Who will be involved in our strategy creation? These are things that all of us have to figure out among many other things. And having some set of those choices — like urgency and use of time or how much we write things versus how much we value oral communication — so tightly tied to white supremacy limits us. It makes it harder to make certain choices because they are associated with white supremacy.

And just to put a name to it, the word essentialism comes up. And in racial justice work, in feminism, in economic justice, I think we're trying to break down hierarchies that are based on assignment of essential traits to large groups of people. So having this so deeply in our mix is challenging.

Nakagawa: When I was looking at the document again, what it made me think of was, what if you were evaluating surgeons? Would you not want that person to be a perfectionist who's rigorous in their study, who's constantly learning and making themselves better and better all the time, who’s read every handbook on the subject of your illness and who's going to be on time in the surgical theater? When you start to apply it to many different things, there's a part of it that kind of collapses under the weight of these demands that are based on things that people resonate with emotionally. I don't like being messed with. And paternalism in the sector is a real thing. It does happen and there are lots of messed up workplaces. But the thing is that when you really start to think of it, in different settings where it’s about life or death, holding the highest possible standards feels like it should be a right. You want some objectivity even if it might be slightly messed up so at least you know what you’re supposed to be getting.

Diaminah: When I first heard folks use the “White Supremacy Culture” framework, it was a shock to me. Instead of saying, "I disagree with how we are using metrics in this organization,” people are saying, "Y'all are on some white supremacy shit because white supremacy says numbers matter." And I think that interrupts our ability to have effective struggle because then the question is: Are you or are you not in support of white supremacy?

I grew up in an Afrocentric community, and our people were like, "We invented math. We invented science." And the community I came from was basically like, "White people didn't invent nothing. They just stole shit, and now they're trying to tell us they're the ones who run it." So I remember my dance teacher being like, "Malcolm X had a watch, and if you were late, you got locked out or you had to do laps." I don' know if that's actually true, but that was the story that I was told.

Bringing down this system requires us to have rigor. I would love to see people get more precise about exactly what it is they would like to see change in the organization and why that would better serve the organization and our results.

Thomas-Breitfeld: I want to echo Sendolo's point. Dismantling white supremacy actually requires our organizations achieving results, and it requires people organizing and doing the work that is aligned with the core mission of our organizations.

The piece that I hear most often is the way that the article gets weaponized against leaders of color. At the Building Movement Project, data from our Race to Lead initiative shows that leaders of color feel more pushback internally. When we ask leaders about some of the challenges they face, leaders of color report less of a feeling that they'e supported in their leadership by staff. And then the difference is even more marked when the question is whether staff “accept me holding them accountable for high performance.” The article is being used as a tool, but it is being used in a way that adds to the challenges that leaders of color, and I think especially Black leaders, end up facing inside of organizations. I remember a conversation last year with EDs [executive directors] of color where one colleague leading an organizing group was saying that the complaints around white supremacy culture were actually being brought against them as a Black leader by white staff, which was mind blowing to me.


Villarosa: Others have said that speaking about this as supremacist culture and not essentializing it to white supremacist culture might be useful in terms of recognizing dynamics of cultural or organizational power. Is that something folks want to examine?

Nakagawa: Well, I've heard that said a lot — that perhaps we should think of this as supremacist culture. But we also have to ask ourselves what supremacy serves. Supremacy serves the construction of hierarchies, and we live in a political economy that requires hierarchies. White supremacy is a manifestation of capitalism. We should also never forget that race was introduced into our culture as the primary way to understand human differences in order to make those hierarchies seem natural.

So we always have to be really careful to avoid falling into the trap of using race as a guide to how people will behave, as if it's an essential quality of one's race to be one way or another, rather than an effect of hierarchy. So when you talk about white supremacy culture, many, many people will pick up on that and react to it like, "What you're saying is that this is what white people are like." And so then it becomes a reification of race. That is really dangerous, I think.

And then the last thing is, as an anti-authoritarian, this meltdown of organizations that we see around us is something that concerns me as a big historical component of the slide to authoritarianism. In organizations, people are focusing a lot of criticism internally and less externally. These kinds of tools end up getting used in those internal attempts to sort things out and rank things and figure out where you fit. Because in tough conditions when meaning and identity are in flux, our tendency is to dig in. We start to think of the organization as more than an organization that serves a mission. It's a home. It's a safe place for identities under attack, and can become a proxy for the stuff going on outside that is confounding and scaring us.

I've seen people use [“White Supremacy Culture”] and other similar ideas to take down organizations and to persecute people in the most horrible ways. The conversation's just a phantom because it too often fails to address the details, the management breakdowns that are caused because we’re just human and flawed, you know? But when those flaws and failures get racialized, it can appear as though the only solution is a purge, rather than, say, a management audit. When that happens, the conflicts can go everywhere and consume the organization. And so I just feel like in these times we have to be really, really careful about how we deploy various different tools. They will get weaponized.


Villarosa: Does anybody else want to build on that?

Diaminah: There are people who engage with this text for different purposes. For some people, it’s like, "This was relieving to me because I've been in these dominant white institutions, and I have felt a sense of shaming and deep questioning of my own value. Reading something like this can help me shake loose of that and be like, 'Oh, that's actually a set of standards that I don't want to participate in.'"

If this is the way that that happens for folks, great. It's not the text that I would use. I have other things that I found liberatory, but if people find their way through this text and that's their purpose, that's one thing. But there are people who are just trying to hustle.

There are people who see this article and are like, I'm going to be able to do what I want and anytime anybody disagrees with me, I'm going to cut them down with this article because I've seen that people are weak to it. And I think there's a reluctance to name that that is one of the intentions that some people bring to this text and some people bring to the conversation when Maurice [Mitchell] is talking about neoliberal identity — the turning of identity into a form of capital to then use as ethical capital.

There are ways that people are like, “This can become a form of capital for me that I can use to advance my career. I can use this to beat down other people's arguments, so I don' actually have to have arguments.” So, I just think that we need to name that there are some people who are hustling and we need to be willing to be like, “I'm going to struggle with you because we are not going to let our organization be taken over and manipulated by hustlers who are more interested in their benefits than in the liberation of our people.”

Sen: Building a culture is hard in organizations; it's hard anywhere. It's a daily kind of activity. And it is leadership’s responsibility to build a constructive, pluralistic culture that moves the mission. One thing it requires is super good strategy and the ability to clearly communicate it. Many leaders get in trouble because their strategy is not that clear so how people should arrange themselves in relation to their power in the organization is also not clear.

Sendolo, I want you to talk about responsible use of power from top to bottom in an organization because I think that it is something everybody has to bring to the work. It's what distinguishes the hustlers from the real people.

Diaminah: I have often been afraid of using power decisively because, in our movements, power is so associated with abuse and we struggle with distinguishing between the two. You're not supposed to want power, you're not supposed to use power; you'e supposed to tear it down. I think what that disguises is that we are always using power in many different ways: it's not just people at the top of an organizational structure who are engaged in power. There's a need for all of us in movement to be like: We all have power. How are we using it? Are we using these terms [from “White Supremacy Culture”] in order to deflect the ways that we ourselves are using power? And are there ways that we can actually turn the light on ourselves and say, "How do I take responsibility for this moment right now?"

Villarosa: Can we dive further into how this document should or shouldn't be used? It is out there. It is so widespread. I can't tell you how regularly institutions want to focus on dismantling “white supremacy culture” within the organization as their primary focus.

One of the key challenges I’ve seen over the years is the way the essay frames these as “characteristics of white supremacy culture.” It creates a false syllogism, which has been part of why it is so easy to misapply even when well-intended. The essay took what People’s Institute and others named as some of the practices of institutions that maintained and perpetuated white supremacy — and then simplified them in ways that implied that the opposite was true – if these practices are occurring, then they must be perpetuating white supremacy.

So, for example, “urgency” can be used to negate a more inclusive process. And many of us who have worked in or with predominantly white-led institutions have experienced some arbitrary deadlines or other scheduling “efficiency” that makes more collaborative or inclusive processes challenging. So the “characteristic” resonates. But of course this doesn’t mean leaders moving with a sense of urgency are advancing “white supremacy culture.” And, in fact, this one is among the most ironic because an equally valid critique of white-led organizations is that they spend too much time studying and thinking about racial justice rather than taking action. They often have no sense of urgency when it comes to tackling racism.

And then I've heard Black women leaders talk about how [the “White Supremacy Culture” article] is just used as another way for white people to condescend: Well, we can't expect people of color to write, we can't expect people of color to be on time or things like that.

Thomas-Breitfeld: I think part of the challenge is that there is a growing DEI [diversity, equity, and inclusion] industry that is utilizing the article in the way that you just described, Lori. There are a lot of organizations where people are feeling hurt by leadership and there is a legitimate opportunity for DEI consultants to come in to try to help those organizations function better. And interrogating the ways that people are being treated and how standards of timeliness, grammatical minutia, and things like that are being weaponized against staff is absolutely worth doing.

But I think we also have to recognize that there are ways in which the DEI industry is an example of what Olúfémi O. Táíwò writes about in his book Elite Capture. I think everyone should read that book, and everyone should read Maurice Mitchell’s article, and people should also read what Tema Okun has updated for her website. I worry that people are sort of latching on to what Táíwò describes as “deference politics” instead of a “constructive politics” that would focus on outcomes over process. The thing that consultants and coaches using the white supremacy culture article need to grapple with is that organizations aren’t only employers of staff. Organizational processes should also be contributing to outcomes that will be powerful and deliver something, some real material change, for communities.

So much of the focus of DEI consultants and capacity builders is on internal processes, but that has the potential to become captured by staff interests and sideline community impacts – what Maurice describes as the “glass houses” trend. When leaders struggle to satisfy those internal demands, it’s often because they don't have all the power in organizations anyway. Most leaders – especially leaders of color – are trying to survive the constant competition for grants so that they can make sure their organization is up and running and people are getting paid to do the work.

Diaminah: I really want to dig in on this. Some ways that comrades talk about this is as if oppressive power structures — if we tell them that they're fucked up, they'll stop doing that and we're waiting for that to happen. I'm like, no, these are the conditions that we have and we have the capacity to generate power such that we are going to be able to break through. And I'm not asking white supremacist institutions to stop being white supremacists. I am building the power to force a change in how things function. If in order to do that I have to write grant reports or deliver a certain amount of numbers around a thing because it enables us as an organization, as a community, to wield a certain amount of power, then I’ll do that.

There's something about wishing, cajoling, being upset with the dominant power structure that I don't think is actually going to get us where we need to go. There is a limit to what this kind of shame-based leverage can do. And it basically only functions with white liberals who feel bad and patronizing about our communities. The GOP doesn't give a fuck. They're like, “white supremacy culture? Great!” And so, if we think we're going to dismantle white supremacy by telling them that they have bad practices, I don't think that's going to work.

Nakagawa: I was nodding my head really hard when I was listening to that because I think that there's a lot of truth there. One of the things that we need to address is this question of excellence. So, excellence feels oppressive when your job is a job job and you're not really aligned with the mission because then it feels like exploitation; it's extra. And so, I think that part of this is about onboarding, about who we are integrating into organizations and what values they're bringing. People deserve to have a good job. I'm not trying to denigrate folks about that, but if they're not mission-aligned and they aren't able to focus on the external goals, it becomes really problematic, right? And so, that's to me an onboarding and organizational culture-building thing.

We need internal political education that focuses on power, and our power analysis needs to run parallel to organizing. Unless we make sure it's fully integrated, things become so abstract from the actual realities of being accountable to the people who we are trying to serve. The most fragile organizations to me are the ones in which these things are blurry. That blurriness opens the door to all kinds of destructive ideas. In all of this, we have to remember that people's reaction is not totally illegitimate. It's just politically destructive. And so, we need to deal with that part of it: the effect and the intent.

And then, just because I'm so obsessed with the rightwing, I really feel like the way that we get mired in these internal dynamics puts us in a position where these [rightwing] movements are actually capturing major institutions and turning us into a minority rule state, while we're not preparing and reacting in real time. We end up having to bring a knife to a gunfight. We know what characteristics we're not supposed to have, but what are we supposed to be doing? And so, I think that one of the effects is that we get mired in how we are treating each other as opposed to what we are dealing with in terms of these external threats. And that is confounded by these DEI tools that don't really center power.

Villarosa: Thank you for that. I don't disagree with what's being said by Sendolo and Scot in terms of recognizing where we are now and what's most important — investing in people of color-led organizations and doing what it takes to combat white nationalism, authoritarianism, and so on. But I do come from a position of not wanting to just let problematic organizations go on as they are. And if they are white-dominant organizations, I'm not trying to say, “Well, they're not going to change and we just have to do what we're going to do.” I worry that that almost implies, “Yeah, this [“white supremacy culture” tool] might have changed them, but that's not even what's important now, so let it go.” I wonder if it [“White Supremacy Culture”] actually could be changing them for the worse. This is where I do think that being clearer on what is and isn't useful about this [tool] is still important.

Sen: Setting aside the expectations of funders, the expectations of government, these institutions that we deal with — I think that it's our responsibility to have a strategy that has at least a 60% chance of working, of delivering something real to actual human beings.

And what I have learned is you can't just craft a strategy one time and then be like: Okay, everybody execute. The leader of that strategy has to over-communicate about why that's the strategy, what their relationship is to that strategy, where I'm coming from that makes me think this is a good idea, and what is required to carry out the strategy, including: What are the tactical alliances? What are the deep partnerships? Where are we trying to take those over time? So it is the responsibility of the leader or leadership team to make sure that the strategy can withstand some scrutiny and some obstacles.

And then the second thing I want to say is that the culture of any team of people has to be built. Any defaulting of the culture is going to lead to trouble because cultures have to be sustained, and they have to be flexible to grow and change with the strategy. We have to be willing to work harder at building the cultures we want in our organizations and in our movement. And it's a lot of time — time, time, time, and headspace. And if we don't plan for it, we lose the ability to shape it. And the dominant everything, whether that's a popularization of this article [“White Supremacy Culture”] or the Harvard Business Review stuff — those are the things that will determine our cultural directions.


Villarosa: With the endless attacks from the right and the absurdity of how they're framing everything — demonizing critical race theory and trying to undo anything that is advancing racial justice — is there danger in this being one of the things that's the easiest for the right to caricature? Scot, given how much you focus on the right, I don’t know if that’s something you want to address.

Nakagawa: The original article seems to be driving a kind of toxic polarization. There's good, healthy polarization that organizing requires in order to build power and to clarify issues. And then there's toxic polarization that means, basically, divisiveness without a plan for resolution, just in order to blow things up. I do think that that seems to be happening. I've witnessed it happen. And I feel like the solution may be to think about inoculation as part of the integration of people into organizations.

Because part of what we're facing here is a weak field situation. We have lots of strong people, but as a field, we're not very strong. And so just ask people, what is rigorous? What is rigor in racial equity approaches? And you would get 10 different answers, from really abstract stuff to really different things that are very, very concrete.

We would benefit from having more of a shared understanding of what is required of us. Shared language, shared tools, shared practices all benefit us even if we may be critical of some of the approaches — at least there's a standard you're reacting to that then allows us all to contribute to a project of building together.

I think we need to build it into the culture of our organizations to think about things in nuanced and detailed ways, and not simply go for the applause line understanding of critical problems. And that also needs to be a shared project that we do across organizations because, otherwise, the field doesn't benefit from what individual organizations achieve in terms of becoming better at addressing these issues.


Villarosa: How do we move forward?

Sen: I think there are deep management questions, power-sharing questions, like how we set ourselves up best to meet our political visions and ambitions. And I'm going to suggest that, as a movement, we have to be more honest with each other and with ourselves without having to live in binaries: "This is white supremacist culture and this is some kind of liberatory culture.” All cultures are much messier than that and in flux all the time. Whether the changes are obvious to everyone or not, cultures are dynamic, they're not static. So we can shape the ones we want to have, but we have to be able to say what's real. And honestly, I think we need to worry less about hurting each other's feelings and have more trust that we all know how to manage ourselves and that we can handle difficult choices and difficult situations. So I'm going to make a plug for building more of that kind of muscle without relying on viral shorthand like this particular tool has become.

Nakagawa: A bit like we've been conditioned by social media, isn't it? How do you make something just go? You keep it simple. So I think that the fact that this little document has had such a huge impact is an indication of something that we should be paying attention to, which is, I said it before, but the field is weak. There's not a lot of connective tissue between the organizations. We don't have standards and practices that are responsive to us and our needs, just the stuff foundations want to impose. They need to be responsive to what practitioners need. But we don't have those things in place, not yet and not enough. And so one small thing like this paper can cause a lot of commotion as it gets picked up. We've generally tended to resist evaluation, to resist the idea of standardization because we want to create opportunities for creativity and to reflect our diversity. And those things are important. But I do think that some discussion of, "What is rigor? What is it to be in this practice together? What are the standards we're holding ourselves to?” would be useful. And to start to develop the shared language and practices and tools that are necessary for people to be able to then experiment with those things and talk back to us.

Villarosa: I want to challenge the phrasing of “the field is weak.” I think there is incredible strength in many parts of the field that, one, are saying much more nuanced and much more meaningful things that aren't necessarily getting picked up and spread in this way. I disagree with the idea that it's just that the field is weak versus what gets amplified.

Nakagawa: When I say weak field, I don't mean that Sendolo's weak or Rinku's weak or that Rinku's organization or Sendolo's organization is weak. I mean that the way that everything comes together, the infrastructure necessary for the whole to become greater than the sum of its parts and to be able to actually articulate an idea that holds us together, that part of it is really weak. And I think that it's weak because of underinvestment and I think it's weak because of a lot of different things. But it doesn't mean there aren't brilliant strong individuals and really effective organizations and clusters of organizations out there.

It's just what you said: some things get out there but then other things can overpower it because they come from a different place. That lack of being able to sort things against something that we understand to be kind of foundational is problematic. As long as we can continue to challenge what's foundational, you know what I mean, if we can be in that debate and be dynamic —

Villarosa: Maybe there's a subtlety about where I actually think that there is more cohesion and it just gets masked by weaker things being elevated — sometimes by funders and consultants.

Diaminah: For me, there's a question of: have the frameworks and perspectives that we believe in become the most common sense? That is incredibly challenging to achieve because what we're putting forward is such a new cultural framework. So I think that's the challenge we're up against. And I think there's a need for both courage and squads. It takes courage to take a stand for sustainability and excellence. And you need a squad to give you feedback and back you up when that position is unpopular.

And to get granular about it, I think it's really important that during the hiring process, we’re absolutely clear about the culture of the organization. For the Carolina Federation, I think we made a mistake in not giving that kind of clarity. Now when we do hiring, we tell people that we are a ranked organization. It is a hierarchy. We believe that actually serves our community as a whole. And if that's not your jam, no bad. You should form another organization and go do that.

Comrades who are like, "I'm not into hierarchy. The way that people are talking about rigor is not my thing"— don't join an organization that requires this many one-on-ones a week, this many doors being hit in order to win the election. Be courageous. "Here's the kinds of organizations I want to be a part of. I don't want to have metrics attached to the work that I do. That won't be a match." And I think we need that courage on both sides so that folks can consent or not into that kind of culture.

Sen: I want to offer the work that Deepa Iyer, Sean’s colleague at Building Movement Project, has done to help people find their role in social justice and social change work. Different organizations do different things and they have different requirements for getting the work done. I, for example, have never worked on an electoral campaign because I'm not the one who wants to be accountable for the number of doors I'd knocked on in a day. So I don't try to run such an organization because it doesn't actually go with my skills and my interests and what's inside me.


Villarosa: Sean, you're the one who is the most closely connected to a lot of the parts of the movement that are continuing to use the tool. And so I think it puts a greater onus on you and your peers in that part of the field to think about where you move forward with this. I'm eager to hear your thoughts on that.

Thomas-Breitfeld: The field that is oriented towards capacity building, DEI, all of those sort of supports for organizations — to the extent that they're utilizing the “White Supremacy Culture” article in their race equity work, they have to do it in a much more rigorous way for themselves in terms of intentionality, in terms of laying out context, in terms of being clear that it's not something new that's just getting discovered.

As Rinku said earlier, too often the article doesn't facilitate conversation. It's the thing that people read and then they shut down conversations. They're like, "Yep. This is all white supremacy culture and so we are going to stand in resistance to the organization." I just think people need to be much more thoughtful in their use of the article. And people shouldn't just be using one thing. They should be pairing articles with different viewpoints.

The other thing is that often the default for consultants and capacity builders is to think of their “client” as the staff of the organization, not the community that the organization is working in and on behalf of. I think the consultants who think about the impacted community as part of the organizational system have more intentionality and sensitivity about the frameworks and concepts they introduce to organizations, whether they're rigorous tools or just slogans that end up not serving the organizational mission. Yes, organizational change should benefit staff — and it should also benefit the end that the organization's trying to serve, which is building power, changing conditions, making policy work better for communities.

Diaminah: I would encourage people to stop using the article. If people feel like the article is an important perspective, I would match it with a number of other things. One, William Cross has an article about political identity development. Two, on the other end is Adolph Reed's critique of identity politics and professional middle class folks having a class interest in wielding their identities. I actually don't agree with his perspective, but I think it's helpful to read because it highlights the class interests at play in ways that often get left out of these conversations. All of these can be important and useful perspectives rather than just letting the “White Supremacy Culture” article stand on its own.

Nakagawa: We also need to recognize that this came into popularity because of the internet and, just like we vet news on the internet, we need to vet all this other stuff that comes at us through the internet too. And it's just the case that the internet is much stronger than our social justice communications infrastructure, and there's not much we can do about that. But it would be helpful if we were better able to identify and repel dangerous narratives when they arise. I think that requires a filter rooted in analysis. And so a stronger shared analysis would be helpful. That means people talking to one another about all of these tools and trying to figure out where these fit in and what works and what doesn't work. We need to start to try to figure out what's connecting with people but also moving us forward.


Villarosa: Do you think it's possible for this tool to be nuanced?

Sen: I don't think it's easy to nuance because I have to show people the graphic that says this thing is poison and then they're going to be like, "Oh, then I want to purge it." And then what's to talk about? You either purge poison or you let it kill you.

I favor having a robust other set of tools. In our organization, we just took a deep dive into “The Master's Tools” essay for example. But we didn't dive into it as, "This is going to set the rules of our organization." We dove into it as like, "How do we interpret it and how do we contextualize it?"

Thomas-Breitfeld: I think it is possible to use it in a nuanced and rigorous way. I've seen it discussed in classroom settings in ways that I thought were actually nuanced and rigorous. I haven't seen it used as successfully in workplaces. I think the stakes feel different when it's being used to challenge a particular organization, a particular organizational leader. But that's not to say that it's not possible for it to lead to a productive conversation.

Part of why I think it can be used in that way is because there are some surprises when you explore the context. So when people read it and think that it's of the moment and then find out that it was written at the end of the 1990s. When people read it and assume that it's written by a person of color and then they find out that the author is a white person. Those are interesting opportunities for people to challenge their assumptions and then recontextualize what they've just read as they get more information.

Diaminah: Polarity mapping tools are very helpful. Like, "Great. Let's all as a whole organization talk about what can go wrong when we do urgency too much. What can go bad when we're like, 'There is no urgency at all'?" Having that conversation in an organizational context is more useful than just reading a number of articles because you can actually surface that visceral thing.

Villarosa: I'm concerned that this is not how [the “White Supremacy Culture” article is] used and those things aren't going to happen. These are great things for people to consider. But I hope people don't walk away and think, "Oh okay, yeah. We're doing that. And okay, we're good because we are doing all this," because very few people think they're misusing a tool. And I'll just say very few facilitators who are using this think they're coming in and not being nuanced. Very few facilitators think they're coming in and not trying to do the added framing. And yet we see what's happening. So I do think it's worrisome.

Sen: I think it's just hard to nuance poison and that's kind of the bottom line. You either want poison or you don't. And if you want it, it's only for one reason, to make yourself ill.

Nakagawa: What I would say is it should not be used as a management tool or as a management audit tool. We should be asking ourselves, are our workplaces safe and decent places to work, are we treated with dignity and respect, and is management doing the best it can? And also what can we do to help management do the best that it can? Those questions should always be asked about fairness in the workplace. But this is a very poor tool to assess how we're relating to one another inside of an organization in terms of human resource management. In a situation where some grace can go a long way toward figuring out solutions, it inspires an emotional response that’s, as Rinku said, visceral and hard to get around. I wouldn't use it for that at all.


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