Reservations About the Okun and Jones Handout on White Supremacy Culture

[What follows is a lightly edited version of what I sent to others participating with me in a recent series of trainings about diversity/equity/inclusion for an organization on whose board I serve.]

In the materials I received for the diversity/equity/inclusion ‘trainings’ I’ve taken for two different organizations is a handout from Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones entitled “White Supremacy Culture.”  Various versions of this handout are widely used in anti-racism workshops.  (One version I’ve seen is here, another is here, and there are many others.)

Before saying anything further about this handout, I want to say clearly that I believe our country’s history is deeply infected with racial injustice.  I believe that there is no more important work to be done than to address and repair the devastating centuries-long damage of racial injustice.  Responsibility for this damage is widely shared.  I believe we all have important work to do about this.  My reservations have to do with how this handout encourages us to think about the roots or causes of this injustice. 

All the versions of the Jones/Okun handout I’ve seen list characteristics of “white supremacy culture” and some “antidotes” to this.  Throughout, the handout takes a difficult feature (‘individualism,’ for example, or ‘writing,’ etc.), caricatures it, then uses the caricature to declare it in need of an antidote.  The Jones/Okun handout has no citations telling you how its authors came to think it true – or to give it a basis for you to think it true.  On what basis should we think their approach is the right way to think about racism? 

That’s part of what begins to make this feel like a catechism, a rote learning approach.  I want us to be serious and determined in our work on racial justice.  I don’t think we are likely to be well served by a catechism or orthodoxy that says this (and only this) is the right way to think about it.  Such a catechism/orthodoxy is especially unhelpful when it’s shallow.  I don’t think this handout will help us very much or look very adequate in the future. 

In many versions of this handout, the 13th of the 14 characteristics is “objectivity.”  It says that the belief that there is such a thing as “objectivity” is one of the characteristics of white supremacy culture.  That gives me serious pause.  It gives me pause because ‘truth’ matters to me, and ‘justice’ does too. 

For about two centuries the question of objectivity has been one of the most contested topics in philosophy.  (Here’s a link to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s entry on Scientific Objectivity.)  The conclusion: that while there are many deep problems with ‘objectivity’, dismissing it altogether would undermine the enterprise of science. I’m a believer in the enterprise of science.  Consequently, I’m reluctant to dismiss objectivity as simply one of the characteristics of white supremacy culture to which we need an antidote. 

It isn’t just scientific objectivity that is important to me.  Truthfulness – the pursuit of truth – is important to me in all ways, not just in matters of science.  The possibility of objectivity is connected to the possibility of there being a truth we can know. I’ve had enough of ‘alternative facts.’  My own wrestling with truth over the years has led me to be not just a scholar/teacher but also to be a religious person.  The truth I know is that there is a unity, a oneness, to the world in which I live.  That oneness holds the truth together.  Knowing that oneness is hard; it’s elusive.  But I never doubt that unity is there to be sought.  

I’m saying this, too, because I believe this oneness is also the deep foundation of the equality I understand among human beings.  We are all participants in that oneness, every single one of us.  I would also express it in this way: we are all children of God.  Because of this oneness, I believe there is the possibility that we may understand one another, that mutual comprehension is possible.  I do recognize that, in all sorts of ways, we come to see things differently from one another.  It takes hard work to get beyond those differences of perspective and I believe we can.  We may never quite achieve full mutual comprehension, but I believe in the possibility. And I hope others do, too, because in our common humanness lies the possibility of what many have called the Beloved Community.  That’s what I hope we are seeking. 

The possibility of racial justice – what I believe we are working on – depends very much on our believing in a oneness to the world.  I reject the view that you have your justice and I have my justice.  I reject the idea that ‘justice is nothing other than the interests of the strong.’  To sustain the very idea of justice I am compelled to believe in oneness and in the possibility of our understanding one another. 

The handout and other materials introduce us to one way of thinking (there are others) about why people do what they do – another difficult topic.  I have other objections to the Jones/Okun handout approach to this, but I’ll just mention one, very briefly. The framing word ‘culture’ (as in ‘white supremacy culture’) gives me pause.  ‘Culture’ is a complex, fraught term, and I’d urge us to be very careful about using it.

I’d especially urge us to be reluctant to ascribe beliefs or responsibilities to any individual because they are a member of a particular “culture.”  The Jones/Okun handout encourages us to make such ascriptions.  Human behavior is rarely that simple, and we diminish people if we proceed this way.  Most of us are shaped by the people around us and yet we are each quite distinctive.  Because of the oneness to the universe, because of the possibility for mutual comprehension, individual human beings will always surprise us, sometimes (not always) happily.  Working from culture to individual motive, as if culture shapes us completely, will do more damage than good, I believe. 

I’d especially urge us rather to look at actions and practices that have harmful or unjust consequence and ask how we can make these different – more just. 

[You can find another critique of the Okun/Jones handout by Matt Yglesias here.]

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
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