Zach sits down with activist Tema Okun, author of “The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race And Racism To People Who Don’t Want To Know,” to have a chat geared around white supremacy culture at work. She and Zach take a deep dive into a piece she wrote on the subject, dissecting several of the named characteristics present in the document. Check out the show notes to reference the piece and to find out more about her work!
Connect with Dr. Okun on Twitter.
Read her “White Supremacy Culture” piece by clicking here.
Interested in her book, “The Emperor Has No Clothes?” Check it out on Amazon.
Donate to the Justice for Breonna Taylor GoFundMe by clicking here.
Find out how the CDC suggests you wash your hands by clicking here.
Help food banks respond to COVID-19. Learn more at FeedingAmerica.org.
Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and, you know, we continue to live in really extraordinary times for some people. Frankly, these times have been this way for a while for many of us, but we have this, like, seemingly [?] to awareness and consciousness, and so I want to respect that. I want to respect where we are. And, you know, we’ve actually shifted up our interview schedule, and we’re having more and more pointed conversations about the reality of white supremacy. So you’ve probably noticed a few episodes, and we’re gonna continue to do that. You know, I shared on Twitter a couple days ago that, like, I think my baseline is just much angrier these days, and I’m at peace with that. And so with that all being said, you know, we have conversations on Living Corporate that center marginalized voices at work. We do that by engaging thought leaders from across the spectrum to really have just authentic discussions. Today we have a phenomenal guest, just like we do every single week, but it makes no less true that we have a great guest today, Dr. Tema Okun. Tema has spent many years working for the social justice community. For over 10 of those years she worked in partnership with the late and beloved Kenneth Jones as part of the Change [?] Training Group and now facilitates long-term anti-racism, anti-oppression work as a member of The DR Works Collaborative. She is a skilled [?] facilitator, bringing both an anti-racist lens and commitment to supporting personal growth and development within the context of institutional and community mission. She holds a BA from Oberland College, a Masters in Adult Education from NC State University, a doctorate at NC Greensboro, and is on the faculty of the educational leadership department at the National Louis University in Chicago. She is active in Middle East peace and justice work with Israeli Committee Against House Demolitions USA. Dr. Okun, how are you?
Tema: I’m great, and I want to apologize upfront because some of those biographical facts are no longer true. I left the faculty of NLU several years ago, and I’m now active with the Jewish [Voice?] for Peace. Just to update everybody so that they don’t think you or I are lying about [?].
Zach: Thank you for correcting me, I appreciate that. So, you know, you’ve been in this work for quite a while. Like, we talked some months ago actually before my daughter was born, and–
Tema: Oh, you have a beautiful daughter.
Zach: Thank you very much. Yes, yes, you’ve seen her. Yeah, she looks great, and she’s getting bigger every day. It’s just so cool that she’s changing all the time. What I’d like to know though is if you’ve ever seen anti-racist, anti-state-sanctioned violence protests like this in your lifetime in terms of just scale and scope?
Tema: You know, you gave me that question ahead of time, and I want to say both yes and no, and I want to say yes because [?] during the Vietnam War protest time period and I lived during the AIDS protest time and the growth of the LGBTQ movement, and I do want to acknowledge that the grief and rage and resistance that we’re seeing today is part of a longer legacy of people who have been full of grief and rage and resistance before us so that we don’t isolate ourselves and we also take credit for this particular moment, which is unique in the sense of the reach, the brilliance, the clarity about the demands, and I’m very excited about, you know, the defund the police direction that this is taking, and so it’s a yes and no answer. I’m so excited to be alive in this moment, and I feel like I was honored to live through those other moments as well.
Zach: And, you know, it’s interesting because it’s easy to kind of forget about the history of protest or the history of, like, anti-racism work, and so then, like, things kind of come in cycles, and so, you know, new voices come up in new generations and it’s almost as if these conversations have never been had before, but, like, I’d like to get your perspective on really, like, just these concepts, the concept of whiteness and then also, like, the concept of anti-racism. And I know those are big questions. I’ma give you space, but I’d love just to hear you talk about that.
Tema: Well, I think part of what’s really unique about this moment is that these concepts are more broadly understood within the resistance movement that we’re seeing now than they ever have been in my lifetime, so that part is definitely true. When I started doing this work a gazillion years ago, [?] years ago or so, you know, a lot of people–there was not what I would call… I don’t want to use the word sophisticated, so the deep understanding about what whiteness is, how white supremacy operates, how white supremacy is the culture that we’re swimming in, how it informs who we are although it doesn’t define who we are. There was not that clarity, and I feel like I’ve been a part of the generation of people who helped think about, develop, and–and I’m not taking credit for it. I mean, I’m part of the wave of people who sort of understood that it was important to ground us in understanding that, understanding the ways that white supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, all of these symptoms of oppression have really shaped who we are, and we need to understand how they operate if we’re gonna do something different and have a different vision. So what I’ll say is I think–and this might be one of the questions you’re gonna ask later, but I think that the thing that we need to be careful about is that white supremacy and capitalism and patriarchy are very, very ingenious, and what we’ve seen happen in every movement that has ever occurred historically in our country is that they get diverted from a justice focus to an access focus and that capitalism and white supremacy know how to lure us just enough to say, “We’re gonna let you have power of a certain extent in our institution. We’re going to let you have access. We’re going to say good things about you. But don’t rock the boat too much.” Leaders going, “Defund the police? It’s too vague. You don’t have a plan.” You know, when we talk about access to healthcare, people don’t demand [?]. It’s like, “Yes, we have a vision. We have a vision of communities where the billions of dollars that are spent on militarized police are spent on schools and community centers and making sure people have enough food to eat.” That’s the vision that we have [?] defund the police, and that’s what we’re gonna do and not get distracted by–so part of the backlash is gonna be fierce and hateful and violent, but the more dangerous part of the backlash is gonna be accomodation.
Zach: It’s interesting, to your point around, like, respectability, right, and so how people, like, use the concept of civility, like, as a cudgel, right, to really stymie progression. You know, we had Dr. Robin DiAngelo on Living Corporate a few months ago, and we talked about her work in studying white fragility, and, you know, and–and, not but… not but, but I’ve listened to perspectives on how white fragility is not necessarily, you know, anti-racist work. Can you share your perspective on that?
Tema: Sure. One of the dangers of our movement–and, you know, I love our movement, and I love many things about it. One of the dangers of our movement though is that we can get really [?] about what being in the movement or what activism is, and so my feeling is–so I’m 68 years old. I’ve been around a long time, and [?] point in my life is that we need it all. We need it all. This is not a competition about, you know, who’s doing it right and who’s doing it best and where the focus needs to be. So our frame, the way–The DR Works Collaborative has also been closed for about three or four years. All of our materials are on our website, which we can share the address later, but what we–our frame is that typically racism shows up on three levels, on the personal level, the ways that we are with each other and ourselves, on the cultura level, the beliefs and values and standards and norms of the groups of people that we’re operating within, including sort of white supremacy culture overall, and then our institutional policies and procedures and practices, and one of our racial equity principles is that you have to work on all three levels. And so what I hear Robin saying, and I think it’s really important, is that those of us are white who work pretty consistently on our conditioning, [?] the invitation that we are extended to join whiteness and, in joining whiteness, to both disconnect from people of color, disconnect from other white people and disconnect from ourselves, because that’s what the invitation is. An example of white fragility is if you are angry, if you are in full grief about what’s happening and my fragility says, “Well, you need to tone it down, because I can only accept your [?] if it comes to me in a certain kind of package,” then I’m completely disconnected. I’m disconnected from you, and I’m disconnected from myself because I’m not allowing myself to feel my own grief and rage, right, because I’m so scared of yours I’m certainly not gonna feel my own. So I think what you’re speaking to, you know, there’s a thing that people say about white people and navelgazing and that we just like to navel gaze, and what I like to–you know, we like to agonize, and Maurice Mitchell talks about how his liberation or the liberation of black people, of people of color, is not tied up with my anxiety as a white person about getting it right. So I think that there’s this balance between [?] our personal work, because all of us have invitations extended to us by white supremacy in some form or another. So all of us doing work on our internalized self and then continuing to be in the world and relationships and figuring out what our role in this resistance movement is. So it’s not an either or. It’s very much to me a both and, because if we don’t do our personal work, then the way that we’re gonna show up is just gonna replicate all of the [BLEEP] dynamics and clinging to power [?] and not understanding who we’re accountable to and posturing and, you know, just things that aren’t helpful, and fear of our fear and all of those things. I think it’s a both and, right?
Zach: I appreciate that, and I agree, right? I think one, white fragility is just so real, and it creates so many barriers and, frankly, causes so much harm in ways that we don’t even consider, like, literally every single day, and because white supremacy is such a reality, white fragility impacts behavior of black and brown folks even when white people aren’t around. So to make sure that those who are in power are examining and interrogating themselves, like, that’s critical. That doesn’t mean it’s the only thing, but it’s important to do.
Tema: Yes. I think that living in white skin in a white supremacy culture obviously confers power and privilege, but not to everyone, and not in the same way, right? And so I think that it’s really important, for me–’cause I’m speaking for myself–to understand how many white people are caught up in the same crapola of white supremacy and the ways that racism targets people of color, are caught up in that without [?] seeing it clearly. And I’m not saying that racism targets white people, I’m saying white people who are working class and poor or white people who have had no opportunity to understand how whiteness operates are swimming around in ways that are completely not in their self-interest, and, you know, are continually encouraged, for example, to look to middle class wealthy white people as their community when in fact their community are other people in the same economic and social situation that they’re in. So, you know, I’d like to make sure we understand how many white people are hoodwinked by this whole thing as well and invited to participate in ways that make no sense [?].
Zach: I think that’s a really good point. One piece of literature that has really gotten, frankly, over the years consistent attention, but at this time it continues to get attention, is “White Supremacy Culture.” It’s something that you wrote, and we’ll put the link in the show notes for everybody, but we’re gonna walk through this research, this document. But before we do that, can you talk to us a little bit about how you arrived at the points that you made within the work that you wrote?
Tema: Sure. So I’ve only written one book, and it’s called “The Emperor Has No Clothes: Teaching About Race and Racism to People Who Don’t Want to Know,” and it basically was a chance for me to sit down and write all the things I and other colleagues have learned about teaching about race and racism to people. So that’s what that book is, and White Supremacy Culture was written before the book, and I wrote it in either [?] or [?], so a long time ago. Kenneth and I were doing a lot of work on the West Coast, and I had just come from a People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond workshop with Ron Chisholm and Daniel Buford and probably a few other people, and The People’s Institute is based in New Orleans and is sort of, in my view, the grand daddy of people doing anti-racist education and training in my lifetime and so were our mentors and, you know, people that were doing the work that we were doing, so I was full of their wisdom when I wrote the piece, and I also had–and I can’t remember the meaning, but I had just come from a meeting of predominantly white people where pretty much every dynamic in that sheet of paper, in that article, showed up, and I was frustrated beyond belief, and people say this, and this is my only experience of this phenomena, which is that “it wrote itself.” Like, I didn’t–I sat down at the computer and it wrote itself. Just sort of “This behavior, this behavior, this behavior, this behavior.” It was like I was in a fury, and then I showed it to my mentor [?] Martinez, who was running a challenging white supremacy workshop at the time in the Bay Area, and she said, “You can’t just list the terrible behaviors. You have to list antidotes. You have to talk about what to do,” and so that was such good advice, and so I added those into it, and I will say–so it was written a long time ago. It was written without a class lens, which it needs, and it [?] things out, and it didn’t–so I’m actually, in this moment, my project is creating a website rather than another article, but rather a website based on the article so that it can be more flexible. Lots of people have used it and adapted, and all the ways that people have used it and adapted it I’m gonna add a class lens, tell some stories, give examples. So that’s my current project.
Zach: Can we talk about, like–because in this document you essentially have these different characteristics. I’d like to walk through the characteristics that you list and then really just have you talk about each of them, because again, there are a lot of people that I respect, and I’m gonna shout-out Dr. Oni Blackstock because she’s one of the most recent people who I saw tweeting about this and talking about this, but it’s all over YouTube. Like, I don’t know if you know this, but I just saw a video where somebody put this document up on a video and then, like, slow-scrolled it and talked about it, but I caught myself reading it and I said, “This is exactly like every work culture I’ve ever been a part of.” So let’s do this. Let’s do each characteristic, and then you just kind of explain, you know, how these attitudes and behavior, you know, reinforce or drive white supremacy at work. Can we do that?
Zach: So you start off with perfectionism. That’s your first one.
Tema: Mm-hmm. I started with that one I think probably because that’s the one I’m the most guilty of myself. So, you know, I talk about how white supremacy culture is–the purpose of white supremacy is to disconnect us from each other [?] so that a few people can exert their control, cultural control, in ways that allow them to profit at our expense, and so perfectionism is this [idea?], it’s very connected to professionalism, and it’s this idea that there is a perfect way to do something, which is completely nonsense, and that there’s somebody or some group of people who can determine what that is and encourage you to aspire to it. And then we internalize that, and I don’t think I know a single person who actually feels completely comfortable with who they are and how they show up and how they’re doing things, because the culture is so [?] I feel like we’re continually falling short, and if we’re continually falling short, then we have to buy products to make ourselves look better and feel better, and it’s just a vicious cycle. And another thing I’ll say about this list is that these things aren’t just used to perpetuate racism and white supremacy and to target people of color in different ways at different times. They impact everybody, and they’re toxic. There’s nothing good about them at all at any time unless you’re the one trying to control other people, and then you’re so disconnected from yourself it’s not even–Trump is a very good example of someone who’s completely disconnected from anything. So I think that perfectionism is used as a tool of professionalism and as a tool to keep people from positions of power and also to keep people off balance about who they are and their worth and their value.
Zach: You know, it’s interesting. One of the things you say in here is, “Little appreciation expressed among people for the work that others are doing, appreciation that is expressed usually directed to those who get most of the credit anyway.”
Tema: Mm-hmm, yeah, exactly. And then the way that we internalize that, even when we’re fighting hard not to. You know, I was talking to a friend yesterday who was applying for a position at a foundation. It’s completely, completely clear to me, and I think to her, that she is not only qualified for the job, she is over-qualified for the job, and my guess is they won’t hire her because it’s clear to them too, you know? And it’s so pernicious, the way that that works, where a lot of white people here who are not called to account for our lack of understanding about how racism and white supremacy works because it’s not ever part of our job qualifications. No one is evaluating us based on our ability to understand how that works, and we’re about to invite somebody in who does understand, and that makes us really uncomfortable, so maybe [?] somebody who’s gonna not make us feel uncomfortable all the time. That’s part of how that works.
Zach: And so it’s interesting. So I was about to move to sense of urgency, but to your point, in the recommended antidotes for racism you have “develop a culture of appreciation where the organization takes time to make sure the people’s work and efforts are appreciated. Develop a learning organization where it’s expected that everyone will make mistakes and those mistakes offer an opportunity for learning.” It’s interesting, even in organizations where they’ll say things like, “Oh, it’s okay to make mistakes,” I’ve noticed that–and this is a common experience for most black folks at work, black and brown people to be clear, we don’t have the same grace to make mistakes. It’s interesting because–and I’ve had this conversation already with a colleague, but there was a time at work I put a PowerPoint together, and one I just think PowerPoints overall have to be one of the biggest examples of, like, subjectivity to the max, because what you think is a good PowerPoint or nice design I may genuinely think is abhorrent. I may really not like the design of your PowerPoint, right? Like, I might hate it. But anyway, I did a PowerPoint. Someone didn’t like it, and so then that PowerPoint and then me, in their eyes, not doing well on a PowerPoint, was then a justification for me to blocked from [a multitude] of opportunities in very public ways, right? And so it’s like, what does it look like to really create objective, safe, equitable spaces for everybody?
Tema: Right. And what does it look like for that particular person to admit to themselves that they may not have the corner on how something needs to be done? I mean, I remember–each one of these, there’s so much that’s also interconnected, and two things come to mind. I remember Kenneth–so Kenneth was my mentor and my colleague for 12 years, and he died way too early in 2004, but as we were working together I remembered saying to him… ’cause my style, we were both about the same age, and my [?] style is sometimes to say or admit I’ve made a mistake or to show some vulnerability, and I said to Kenneth, “You never do that, you never show any vulnerability.” “Tema, I can’t afford to do that. People are watching me, waiting for me to make a mistake. So even if I make one, I’m not gonna say that I did because people are ready to pounce all over me for it.” You know, and again, just another example of how long it took me to learn that, he had to sort of say that out loud to me [?]. So yeah, I think there’s that part of it, and I had another thought, but I’m sure it will come to me as we keep talking. So here’s the other story, which was that I seemed to be the details-oriented person, and sometimes I’d get really frustrated because I felt like he wasn’t paying attention to, like, air fare or flights or when we had to be somewhere, and so I started to develop a little bit of an attitude about how I was doing so much more than he was, more important [?], and we were having a discussion and he said something to me like, “I talked to So-and-so the other day,” and I said, “So-and-so? They were in our training a year ago,” and he went, “Yeah, yeah.” I said, “You’re talking to them now?” “Oh, yeah, yeah,” and then he proceeded to tell me that he was fostering relationships with most people in almost all the trainings over time and that that’s what he did, and it just was such a lightbulb moment for me. I’m like, “Oh, my God. This man,” who was a brilliant trainer, there was no question about that, “is leading and offering things that I’ve never even dreamt of being able to lead or offer that makes such a difference in this work, while I’m sitting here feeling all superior because I know how to schedule a plane flight.” It was just like… so many of us, and so many white people in particular, but so many of us are walking around thinking that we know how things should work when we don’t know at all, [?] open to how other ways of doing might actually offer so much more. So yeah.
Zach: I appreciate that, and that resonates with me too because I think about, especially if you have, like, these majority white organizations, you know, again, people attract, or they’re attracted, to people that are like them, right? And that’s not just in appearance, but also in, like, ways of thinking and doing, and so, like, if you’re in this space, the majority are really good at tasks or really good at [?] things off a box, if there’s someone who can do those things but that’s just not their wiring, then that person’s automatically seen as a problem or as inferior in some way. In reality it’s like, “Okay, I don’t need–there’s eight of y’all who tick off boxes and who are very, like, transactional. Is it possible for me to be different and at the same time be just as good if not add more value than you do perhaps?” I think, for me transparently, one of the biggest mistakes I think I’ve made in my career is that I think I’ve been too transparent and vulnerable about me wanting to learn and grow, ’cause I say “Hey, I’d like to learn this. I don’t know this,” but I’ve learned, in the spirit of perfectionism, when you communicate that you don’t know something or you’re new to something, I’ve just learned that we don’t know, black and marginalized people, just don’t have the grace to communicate that they don’t know. They don’t have the grace to grow. They just don’t.
Tema: Yeah, and it’s infuriating. It’s completely infuriating, and it’s a complete loss. I think the thing that I would like to get across with my audience, my commitment to working with other white people, is for those of us listening to this to understand the deep violence in that, you know? In working side-by-side with people who feel like they are not allowed to offer their vulnerability or their desire to grow and learn because–my God, it’s intense.
Zach: So you have a lot of terms here, and you know, we might have to do a part two, but I want to see how many of these we can get through so I’m gonna back up and let you talk more. Sense of urgency.
Tema: I think that, again, the point of urgency–so every organization I’ve ever worked with operates with a huge sense of urgency and everything is so critically important right this minute, and it completely perpetuates racism because–the example I’ll give is we were doing work with an organization of mostly lawyers that do very good work on a state-wide level, and they had just sort of unpacked all the ways in which [?] of color on the staff and in the community that they served were not feeling heard, were not included in decision making, their ideas were shut down, sort of what we were just talking about, and then an emergency came up, and I think there might have been an arrest, but something urgent happened within the community, and the white leadership, the white lawyers, felt like they had to respond right this minute and if they didn’t the organization would be at stake, and right in front of our eyes all of the dynamics were playing out in front of us, and the two of us who were facilitating the workshop tried to suggest to them, “This is happening right in front of our eyes. We know that this is urgent, and we suggest that you sit down and you take a breath and you understand there are other people in the community who are handling it in this moment and that what you all need to do is really sit and take a breath and see how you can approach this differently,” and so they just repeated the–you know, you could see it. The white people were circled around, making all these decisions, and the people of color were [?] them on the outside, trying to listen in and then getting disgusted and walking away, and it was just–when things are urgent, if we’re not paying attention and we haven’t set up the relationships and we haven’t set up the procedures to say when things get literally urgent this is what we’re gonna do, when things feel urgent but they aren’t this is what we’re gonna do. Is this really as urgent as we think it is? Because it’s urgent we need to take a breath, we need to take a breath and make sure that we’re all in this together rather than walking all over each other in our attempt to prove something, which is to prove that, like, we’re the organization that’s gonna respond like that, even if the way that we respond, you know, tramples over people. And then I think a lot of us internalize urgency. A lot of white people feel like, “If we don’t act right now, if I don’t fix this right now, then I’m not gonna be able to prove that I’m a good white person,” so then we go in and fix something and we make it worse because we haven’t stopped to take a breath to consult with other people, to see if our intuition, our impulse is actually the right one. I’ve seen that happen over and over and over again.
Zach: Let’s talk about quantity over quality.
Tema: Well, you know, we live in a capitalistic society, and we love to measure things, and we love to believe that value has to do with amounts of things, usually money. And again, so I see some of the [thunder patterns?], all of the thunder patterns that I’ve seen in my lifetime and work, is thunders trying to get people to prove that they’re effective by the numbers of things. “How many people did you impact?” Not the quality of things, not the depth of things, not the sustainability of things but, you know, the number of things, which is such a limited measure of how we’re doing, and the research I’ve done on culture shift shows that it’s actually not a numbers game. We don’t need a majority of people to shift culture. We need deep relationships, we need generational change, we need clusters of people coming to new beliefs simultaneously, but they don’t have to be a majority. So I just think it’s good to be able to have a sense of what we think progress is, but often we aim towards–I do a lot of work in schools, and the story I often tell–so I’m sorry if anyone’s heard this before–is how our schools often, if not always, have a story that what they’re trying to do is prepare students for success, and what they mean by that is “We want students to stay in school, get good grades, graduate, get a job, and go shopping, and if we can measure that we’ve done that it doesn’t matter if our students are leading meaningful lives. We’re not measuring that. We’re not measuring if students know how to find themselves. We’re not measuring if students have gotten in touch with their spiritual side or their artistic side. We’re not measuring whether students know how to be in a relationship with themselves and with each other. We’re not measuring the things that matter, you know? We just don’t know how to measure those things. We’re obsessed with graduation rates and, you know, how much money people are making.
Zach: You have another one here about worship of the written word.
Tema: Mm-hmm. So I’ll give an example if you’ll give an example, but this is our history, sort of the theft of indigenous land, the theft of land from Mexico, the broken treaties, the enslavement of people, it’s all built on worship of the written word and the whole, you know, all of our Southwest and Midwest states that became US property after the Mexican-American War and the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, all of that theft of land was made possible because Congress passed all kinds of legislation requiring people to [?], and most people lived in a culture where that’s not how people [?] that they owned land. So that’s just one example, and just the ways that we hide behind “If it’s not written down, then it doesn’t exist.” “It’s only wisdom if it’s written down,” and then only if it’s written down by certain people. What comes to mind for you?
Zach: So here’s where I found the application interesting. So there’s a way that I believe those in power and in the majority will essentially place the burden on the oppressed to have evidence, like, tangible, documented evidence, but then in the instances where that evidence is undeniable, then at best it simply just saves that oppressed person from being harmed, but it doesn’t necessarily guarantee justice for that oppressed person.
Tema: Yeah, or they’ll say it’s not written right or the form was not filled out correctly or–
Zach: Right, or “We still don’t have all the facts,” or “What about the other person’s side?” And so there’s still this–it’s such a jig, because you’re gonna lose, but the question is “While this may have saved you from getting fired, it’s not actually going to absolve your name completely after all. These other people said something.” Right?
Tema: I think about when Bhagat Singh Thind sued the Supreme Court for citizenship, and he was from India, and he was suing based on how science classified people from India as Caucasoids, and the year before a Japanese person who had done the same thing lost the case because people from Japan were classified as mongoloids, so they were not white, but the Supreme Court said, “Well, it’s true science classifies you as Caucasoids, but you’re not seen as white by the common white man, therefore you’re not white.” So it’s the written word, but also the word is, as you said, controlled and considered by those in power, and whose written words will be paid attention to and whose won’t?
Zach: Yeah. I think about Breonna Taylor. We know that she was murdered by the state in her own bed, but then when you go back and you look at the report it’s completely blank, right? And so, like, anybody with good sense should be able to understand that Breonna Taylor’s bullet-ridden body and that piece of paper are not congruent. So one of those [?] is lying. Breonna’s own blood testifies that she is not lying, so why are Breonna Taylor’s murderers still free? It’s the worship of the written word.
Tema: Yeah. Sandra Bland, all of that, yeah.
Zach: Yeah, Sandra Bland as well, right? And countless others. Tony McDade. And it’s frustrating, but I think about that. I think about how manipulative and–you used the word pernicious, it’s a really appropriate word in that, you know, documentation really matters until it doesn’t. I always tell marginalized people to document everything, because again, while documentation might not ever hold any accountable, it at the very least can make sure that you don’t get fired, or it can delay you getting fired because you have something, hard evidence, that if someone says something, you’re like, “Well, what you’re saying is clearly not true.” Okay, so paternalism was another characteristic that you had in your research.
Tema: Yeah. I’m gonna bow here to a man named Paul Kibble, who does a lot of writing on Christian hegemony. It’s just the way in which–and so many of these intersect, and I’m adding one called “qualified.” I don’t know if that’s on the list explicitly there, but it’s the way in which white people assume that, because we’re white, we are qualified to act and make decisions that are outside our lived experience, and I think about–when I taught it, when I wasn’t on the faculty in educational leadership, when I taught undergraduate students in education, you know, most of them are young, white women who were coming into teaching because they loved to–and please know I admire teachers beyond belief because they work so hard for so little, and yet they come in, these young white women come in very idealistic and very hopeful, and they have no experience, most of them, working with people of color and very little preparation for doing that, and yet have not internalized that they’re not at all qualified to do the job, and the education system hasn’t internalized that either, and so just the ways in which we’ve got almost every [?] institution is operating out of a sense of paternalism. Like, “We know what’s better for you without consulting you or asking you about your lived experience.” And I think about doing work with the department of social services where it’s about a woman who, in order to make it through her week, had to visit 11 different offices in the Department of Social Services to account for herself, you know? And it’s the way in which–if we look at Congress. Banks are completely involved in writing policies having to do with banks. Poor people and working people have no say in policies that impact their lives, and the laws that impact their lives are written by people who think that they need to be punished for being working class and poor or who think that they need to be exploited or, you know, who have absolutely no care or concern or lived experience, for the most part, of what it means to be black, brown, working class poor, and paternalism is just this idea that “We know better than you,” and it can be very deeply embedded in religious thinking, in Christian thinking, and [?]–it’s just sort of the idea that “We know best. We’re going to convert you to our ways,” and that’s white supremacy is all about. The goal here [?] is “Act like us if we can exploit you more that way.” Assimilation, and if not assimilation exploitation and violence, you know? It’s just all based on this idea that we know better, and one of the things that we know better is that [class?] is more important than people.
Zach: I think that’s true. I think it comes down to a lot of power and control. So, you know, one of my larger concerns right now, even as corporations and larger organizations are looking at Black Lives Matter and people are taking these statements and stances, and organizations are mobilizing their employee resource groups and different things to have these conversations and do real talk and all this kind of stuff, and how much of this is about really hearing and including their marginalized employees, and how much of this is about, like, really making sure that you’re retooling, reshaping your organization to be equitable and inclusive, or how much of this is really about you just trying to put some gates and borders around this to maintain control, right? That’s my biggest concern.
Tema: So I think there’s two parts to this. So I think there can be conscious paternalism and there can be unconscious paternalism, and probably lots of gray [?] in between, and so I for one completely hate the terms diversity and [?] because I don’t think that they–it’s about window-dressing or table-dressing or whatever term you want to use. It doesn’t ask the question, “What are we including people into?” Because if we were to ask that question, we would have to admit that a lot of what we’re inviting people into is toxic. So it’s not about including people. It’s about reshaping everything, and I think that’s what I was talking about in terms of what we need to be wary of, that some of the backlash is going to be very direct and hateful. Now, a lot of it is gonna be about accommodation, and forget about justice, let’s just accommodate, accommodate, accommodate. And paternalism really plays a role there, and we can see it reflected in older leaders often, people who have been around a long time, who are scared they’re gonna lose power by these young people who are coming up full of fervor and demanding justice, and some of us have accommodated for so long in order to just often survive that we’ve forgotten what the goal is, and some of the paternalism is–I’ll speak for myself–is internalized entitlement, the internalized belief that I’m qualified to do things I’m not qualified to do, and it didn’t require any intent on my part. And I tell a story on the website, and it might be in the book I can’t remember, of essentially pushing my black colleague aside in an environment where I knew absolutely everything. This was a different colleague, a colleague named Kamayu [sp] [?], an incredible organizer, and he was in [?], the room was packed full of African-American people living in the [?], economically poor, culturally incredibly genius and rich, and, you know, I didn’t think he was doing a good job, so I walked up to the front and I pushed him aside, and I didn’t know anything about [?] in the [?], right? But I had this instinct in my body that he wasn’t doing it and I needed to fix it. It was–so there’s that, the way I internalized this paternalism and this idea that I know how to do things. We just cause so much harm, and again, it’s a complete tribute to Kamayu that we’re still friends. He actually didn’t say anything to me for years, and finally I started to think about it and I’m like, “Kamayu, what about that day?” And he went, “Oh, I figured you’d figure it out sooner or later.” You know? So there were, like, five years in there where Kamayu was not–I was not in a genuine relationship with him because he was waiting for me to figure it out, you know?
Zach: To your example, I think about it in ways that, like–so it’s interesting, you have these cultures that are very racist, right? Like, you have these organizations that have harmed black people for a while, but it just so happens that there’s a certain confluence of events that are forcing organizations that have been historically harmful to black and brown people, now they’re having to do things differently. But what’s challenging, what’s interesting, is that some of the people who just six months ago were very harmful are now self-appointing themselves as leaders to have these conversations, right? And, like, there’s a certain–of course that’s emotionally inauthentic, but I think there’s also a certain level of entitlement and paternalism in that.
Tema: Yeah, totally. And again, I think–so this is my job, it’s not your job, but as someone who identifies as white, who is white, who lives a white life and thinks a lot about what it means to be in relationships with other white people, part of [my job?] is to encourage myself and other white people to think about, “What are we doing here?” And what is the cost to you of this posturing, and what would it be like for you to actually authentically sit down with yourself and go, “Okay, what am I afraid of? What kind of help do I need? What are the things I really need to change?” And I think all of us need to develop a much better practice of what I would call radical honesty with ourselves about why we want to live in a world where we actually are able to have authentic relationships with other people and ourselves and live in a world where people are well-cared for and people can thrive and we don’t have to be so afraid of [?] and all these other things. So yeah.
Zach: So I’ma pick one last one. Fear of open conflict.
Tema: Yeah, that goes back to perfectionism and some of the other things that we talked about. The story I’ll tell is that–well, it’s a common story, which is that some racism is happening, and rather than deal with the racism that’s happening we will label or target the person who’s naming it, and sometimes that happens to white people too because we’re so afraid of the truth-telling that’s gonna happen of how racism is happening. So it’s just this–we’re too afraid to talk about things that are real and are gonna have emotion attached to them and might lead us, as white people, to feel like we’ve done something wrong or that we may even essentially be bad in some kind of way, so let’s not talk about it. Let’s blame the person who’s trying to make us uncomfortable. This is attached to “right to comfort.” Let’s blame the people who are calling us in and say that there’s something wrong with them so we don’t have to feel our feelings, we don’t have to be uncomfortable, we don’t have to look at ourselves. We can stay in what feels like control, and it’s such a–again, it does such harm, to other people and also to ourselves. The ability to sort of say, “Bring it on. Okay, tell me more. Tell me more. That was so racist? Okay, tell me more. I want to know. Tell me more.” It’s such a different energy. It’s opening. Or “You’re racist.” “No, I’m not.” “Yes, you are.” “No, I’m not.” There’s nowhere–it’s, like, you’re building conflict and you’re not–it’s like, “So tell me. How am I racist? Yeah, I want to know, because I think I probably am. So tell me.” There’s so much more fruit there, even if you end up not agreeing with what they say it’s like there’s more fruit, more juice, more ability to–it’s like, “We can handle this. We can sit in this discomfort, and in fact, if we don’t learn to do that we’re not gonna get anywhere.”
Zach: But see, I think that in the context of, like, a business, like, the fear with that is that if I admit that I’m racist, if I admit that I’ve harmed you, then that gives you byway to pursue the company, right? And so there’s this fear of creating risk or opening your company up, opening yourself up to risk by admitting your faults, you know?
Tema: So people just need to figure out a way to deal with that.
Zach: [laughs] I love how you just dismiss that.
Tema: Oh, come on. I don’t–you know, legalese and laws and policies [?] in service of connection and not in service of fear and abuse, right? It’s like Trump saying you can only come to the thing if you’re not gonna sue me if you get the coronavirus. Like, no. And I would also say, for me, one of the racial equity principles [?], you’ll see this list of characteristics, and you’ll also see our racial equity principles, and one of the ones I love the most is called Organizing Mind, and what we mean by that is you start with the chorus. People go, “Oh, you’re preaching to the chorus,” and I go yes, because our chorus is very out of tune, so let’s get in tune, and then we can start preaching to people outside the chorus and bring them into the chorus. So it’s, like, start with the people who want you want, and figure out what your power is, figure out the risk that you’re willing to take, and from there each one reach one teach one, as Sharon Martinez would say. So in a corporate environment it’s, like, figuring out what are the roadblocks that we need to get rid of so we can actually do this, or whwere are we willing to have authentic conversations regardless of the risk and can we start doing that? So figure out what’s within your power to do and do it. Don’t wait for permission. Don’t wait for–you know, there are lots of things that we can do and build our power that way without people giving us permission to do it, as we are witnessing across the country and across the globe, right? All these beautiful people, many young people, not waiting for permission. Bringing down statues, [?], and it’s a beautiful thing to see right now.
Zach: It’s brought me joy, frankly, to see. Dr. Okun, this has been a phenomenal conversation. I just want to thank you so much for being a guest. I want to make sure that everybody knows that the document that we were walking through and that I picked a few characteristics out of for our guest to beautifully expand upon is gonna be in the show notes, and we’re going to also be promoting it–you’ll see it this week on social media and things of that nature, so make sure that you check it out. This has been Living Corporate. You know, we do this every single week. We’re having conversations, real talk in a corporate world, that center and amplify marginalized voices at work. We’ll make sure to catch you all next time. In the meantime between now and next time, we’re all over Beyonce’s internet. You just type in Living Corporate, we’ll pop up. Catch us on Instagram at LivingCorporate, and man, if you have anything you want to talk to us about, just contact us through the website, living-corporate.com. Please say the dash–living dash corporate dot com. ‘Til next time, y’all, this has been Zach, and you’ve been listening to Dr. Tema Okun, activist, educator, speaker, organizer. Peace.