“White Supremacy Culture,” an article by Tema Okun, was first written to outline and analyze how white supremacy operates in organizations. But in the past few years, with renewed attention on the racial justice movement, the short article has been used as a weapon within progressive organizations and by the right. As organizational infighting continues, many have used the article as a way to claim that basic elements of organizational life — editing, performance reviews, deadlines, urgency, the written word, perfectionism, etc. — are actually all characteristics of white supremacy culture. This week on Deconstructed, Tema Okun joins host Ryan Grim to discuss her article, its evolution, and its misuse, speaking out for the first time against its weaponization. Okun breaks down the history of her article, how it has been used in ways she did not intend, and what the true intention of the piece is.
Ryan Grim: In the late 1990s, a consultant in the burgeoning diversity and equity training industry named Tema Okun put together a short paper titled “White Supremacy Culture.” Although calling it a paper is a bit of a stretch. It’s eight pages long and it consists of a series of bullet points listing out what Okun describes as characteristics of white supremacy culture followed by antidotes to them.
If you work in an office that has an even slightly progressive-leaning workforce, you’re probably familiar with the bullet points, even if you’ve never seen the paper. Or if you watch Fox News, which loves to lampoon it, then you know what I’m talking about. The bullet points list some of the characteristics of white supremacy culture, including things like perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, worship of the written word, individualism, and objectivity.
So starting in the late 2000s, the paper began to be circulated widely in progressive spaces. After George Floyd’s murder, it was everywhere, and it started to morph into something different, often wielded by employees during performance reviews, or when pressed about a deadline, or it was otherwise weaponized in the internal battles that continue to engulf institutions, organizations, or even corporations around the country. Now, it took me a while to fully comprehend the impact of the paper, but, trust me, it’s been profound.
Along the way, I heard from people who had reached out to Tema Okun, pleading with her to clarify the document. In 2021, she did update and clarify it on a new website, though, as far as I can tell, nobody in the progressive world has noticed.
For the first time, she’s agreed to do an interview about the paper and its evolution. And she’s doing so, she told me, because she feels a particular responsibility, given her role in getting it out into the world.
Tema Okun, welcome to Deconstructed.
Tema Okun: Thanks. I’m very happy to be here.
RG: So, really excited to have you on to talk about your paper and the way it’s evolved over the last couple of decades, and really evolved in the last couple of years as it’s circulated so widely around progressive spaces, and I think, probably even beyond progressive spaces.
And so let’s start at the beginning. So you drafted this paper, and it’s short, and I would encourage people to actually read it. Because sometimes people hear “paper” and they think: This is going to be 25 really dense academic pages with a bunch of footnotes.
But no, it’s a pretty short, digestible piece of work that you put together in the late 1990s, I think in 1999. Can you talk a little bit about how the idea came to you, and what you were doing at the time when you produced it?
TO: Yeah, I’m happy to hear that the context is really important, and I think gets lost sometimes when people read the paper or use the paper — or article.
So, at the time, I was about six years in working with a really beloved teacher and mentor named Kenneth Jones. And he and I were two of the co-founders of a group called ChangeWork. And we were doing racial equity teaching and training with community-based organizations all across the country, mostly at that time in the Northwest, although I’m from the South, we have done a lot of work in the Southeast.
Kenneth died in 2004, way too soon. So I like to call his name and just say that we worked together for 12 years before he died. And at the time, when we were teaching, we were teaching about how racism and white supremacy operate, so that people and organizations and communities could have a shared language and a shared history and a shared understanding, a shared framework for thinking about how to tackle it. And so the piece on white supremacy culture was part of this larger piece of work around trying to work with people in communities to understand how racism operates, so that we’d have some tools to dismantle it.
It was not actually even drafted in the normal kind of way. What happened was that I was living in San Francisco that year, Kenneth and I were doing a lot of work in the Northwest, in Portland. And, a couple of things: I had just gone to a wonderful workshop by the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond. And I refer to them as the grandparents of racial equity training, at least in my generation. They still exist — they still do great work out of New Orleans — and a wonderful trainer named Daniel Buford did an incredible presentation on linguistic racism at the workshop. And I was captivated and listened hard to what he had to say.
And I’d also been taking a workshop called The Challenging White Supremacy Workshop with a woman named Sharon Martinas. So these two influences, and my work with Kenneth, all three things, were navigating my mind and body and I went to some kind of meeting and I don’t remember any details of the meeting, but I went to a meeting and it was a very frustrating and horrible meeting. And I came home and I sat in front of the computer. And the article literally came through me onto the computer. It was not researched. I didn’t sit down and deliberate. It just came through me. And I’ve never had that experience with my writing, before or since.
And so I wrote it down. And I shared it with Sharon and Daniel. Daniel felt that he wanted credit, which I was happy to give him for some of the pieces that I talked about. So I give him credit. And Sharon said to me that she felt I couldn’t offer characteristics of white supremacy culture without offering antidotes. So she’s the reason why there are antidotes in the piece.
And then it’s been shared with lots of people since. So at this point, in the revised edition, I don’t actually feel it’s mine in the traditional sense of the word. But the importance is that, at that time, this was before the internet era — as I like to joke, before Al Gore invented the internet — and so we had workbooks, we had paper workbooks, and it was part of a much larger workbook. And someone, somewhere along the line, once the Internet became more active, just took the workbook and posted pieces of it on the internet.
RG: So you hadn’t even posted it?
TO: No, I never posted it.
TO: I never once posted it. I never ever expected it to be used, certainly, out of context of the whole piece. So then it just started circulating. And it kind of started to have a life of its own.
And then when George Floyd was murdered, it really started to have a life of its own and started having a whole lot of use. And I had been thinking for a long time that it needed to be updated and revised, which it very badly did need. And so I spent about a year working on revising it. And that’s where the website came from.
So the website is a much more nuanced version of the article. It introduces issues of class; it talks about Christian hegemony and capitalism. And so I really urge people, if they’re interested, to go and look at the website — it’s very dense, I don’t expect people to read it all at once — and/or to download the article. Yeah.
RG: How did you realize that it was really increasing in circulation?
TO: Well, again, once the Internet and email and all that — social media— became active, people started letting me know, they either told me they were using it, or they would tell me they’d gone to a workshop where it had been used.
RG: So in like the 2010s, it starts moving around in circles.
TO: Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I don’t even really know how to say this tactfully, or — I wasn’t looking to promote it. I’m someone — I like to just sort of quietly do my work and be about doing my work. And I was happy if it was useful to people. And I was happy to hear that people were using it, until it became clear to me that quite a few people were misusing it.
TO: And so now that’s something that I’ve realized I have to take some responsibility for and start to talk about. So I’m beginning to think about ways to do that.
RG: And how did you realize that? And was that post-George Floyd people started reaching out?
TO: Yeah. Well, I have two stories. So maybe that will help.
So one is about, in the early days, a colleague of mine and I were doing a workshop for the National Lawyers Guild, which is a progressive lawyers association, and we worked with the characteristics, we had them in small groups, and we sort of listed them out and asked them to talk in their groups about how those characteristics show up in their work. And we asked them to report back, and one person stood up and said: Well, basically, these characteristics are what the law profession requires.
And everyone in the room both laughed and groaned. And so in that way, it sort of reinforced the idea that this is the water we swim in, these characteristics do reflect some kind of reality for a lot of people. And I’m not claiming it’s the only reality. And I’m not claiming anything beyond that many, many people resonate with in terms of: Oh yeah, now, this helps me make sense of what I’m dealing with. So that’s one story.
And then about two or three years ago, I went on a retreat, and I was paired with someone who’s a white leader of a large organization, and we had known each other but we didn’t know each other well. And we get in the room and we put our bags on the bed and she turns to me, and she says: Well, I’ve just been kicked out of my organization, and your article was used to do it.
RG: Hmm. How’d that feel?
TO: Well, I gave her a wry smile. And I said: I’m sure it was.
RG: Because this wasn’t the first time you heard it was being weaponized in that way?
TO: And then we started to talk about it, and because she is a very emotionally mature person, she was working through the pain of that; she understood that it wasn’t my tool that was the problem, that it was the use of the tool that was the problem. And, to her great, great credit, she also used it as an opportunity to look at herself and go: Oh, now let me look at what’s true about what’s been happening. Let me look at what’s true about what people are saying about my leadership, and started to make some shifts.
And I just hear all kinds of stories. I’ve heard a story about a young white man here locally, who went after a black woman who was his supervisor with the list. I’ve heard about young white people going after both white bosses and people of color bosses. I’ve heard about Black, Indigenous, and people of color employees going against white bosses. So it’s been misused by lots and lots of people. It’s been well-used by lots and lots of people.
RG: So let’s go through a little bit of it, so people can think about how, from your perspective, it ought to be used and ought not to be used. And I think the first characteristic that you start with — correct me if I’m wrong — is perfectionism. How have you seen perfectionism be misused and weaponized? And you’ll see the right-wing lampoon some of these and say deadlines, perfectionism, and urgency, are all white supremacy characteristics. So what do you mean, and what should people kind of take from this? And we could just start with perfectionism, which you say: “perfectionism, one right way, paternalism, objectivity.”
TO: Yeah. They are all kind of linked together. So I don’t think anybody uses one characteristic. The way it’s misused is that people turn it into a checklist to assess or target someone and say: Look, you’re exhibiting these characteristics. And that means you’re colluding with white supremacy culture, and you’re a bad person, you’re a terrible person. Or to accuse them of being a tool of white supremacy culture.
And generally what I find is that when people misuse it in that way, they haven’t actually read it, or they certainly haven’t read the website, because there’s no way you could read the website and come away feeling like it’s meant to be used as a checklist in that way.
So when I’m talking about perfectionism, I’m not talking about excellence and I’m not talking about hard work. And so many people — and certainly, a lot of white people that I know — really resonate with this idea that there is this place to land that is perfect. And so it just destroys our ability to enjoy the process of whatever it is that we’re doing. It makes it much more difficult to collaborate with other people. If we think there’s one way to do it, we have to find the perfect way to do it. It begs the question: Who’s deciding what perfect is? It’s nonsense.
I could imagine we were looking at a sunset and going: Oh, that’s a perfect sunset. But the sunset didn’t have to effort to be perfect. And it’s just our appreciation of how beautiful the sunset is. And there could be a perfect sunset the next night. But that’s different from this notion that we have to get something perfectly right without even knowing who made up the rules about what perfection is.
RG: In your updated version, you contrast it with excellence, which, from what I’ve heard from people involved in organizations, I think that they’ll appreciate that because sometimes when you’re doing say, a performance review, and you say: Your performance was substandard in X, Y, Z ways.
They’ll say: Well, perfectionism is a characteristic of white supremacy, so you’re judging me now?
TO: Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes. Yes.
RG: And so what you’re saying is no, no, excellence is still a thing.
RG: As long as we’re cautious about how we collectively define it. Is that about, right?
TO: I think that’s very right. And I think: I aspire to be excellent. And most of the people I’m fortunate enough to be around aspire to be excellent. And usually, we are having conversations about what that even means. And usually, we’re also having conversations about giving ourselves a lot of grace when we make mistakes, because making mistakes is the only way to even aspire to be excellent, or to do what we consider a good job, because we learn so much through our mistakes. And so I think that’s all of a piece.
You made me think about another way — so another misuse is the worship of the written word. And I’ve heard of examples where people —
RG: Mhmm. Yeah, we could jump to that one. Yeah.
TO: — say: Oh, you’re making me account for myself at my job and write a report of what I’ve done, and that’s the worship of the written word.
I mean, that’s just absurd. That’s not what worship of the written word means at all. And again, it just lets me know that people haven’t actually read the website or read the article; don’t understand what I’m saying — but here’s the thing: I think if people are trying to get around being responsible for themselves, or doing hard work, or living up to some agreed standard of excellence — if it’s not this tool, they’ll find another one. That’s my feeling about it. Yeah.
RG: And you and I talked earlier about Maurice Mitchell’s article that he wrote recently in The Forge, which people can find, called “Building Resilient Organizations.”
TO: Yeah. Yeah.
RG: And he mentions you, and this gets to one of the other kinds of categories. He writes: “Certain phases and words carry cultural currency and cachet. We often find words like ‘revolutionary’ employed non-ironically in the service of bourgeois individualistic demands. Decontextualized or uncritical use of intellectual material, like the Tema Okun essay on white supremacy culture, has at times served to challenge accountability around metrics and timeliness or the use of written language” — as you just mentioned. “Yet metrics and timeliness — and the ability to communicate in writing — are not in and of themselves examples of white supremacy.”
And in the preceding paragraph he talks about, and this is related to one of yours, he talks about “small is all” and you have a category that’s similar. So I want to read this real quickly. He says: “For example, using the term ‘intersectionality’ to, let’s say, defend edits to a press statement. Or employing the Audre Lorde quote, “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence…’ to give gravitas to a desire to stay home from an action or take off time that you’ve earned and deserve as a worker.”
In other words, he’s saying: If you need time off, just take the time off. You don’t have to quote Audre Lorde to me.
“Or arming yourself with the concept ‘small is all’ from adrienne maree brown’s Emergent Strategy framework — outside of its global fractal context — to resist taking responsibility for a larger scale intervention or growing your community group into a mass organization.”
So how are people misusing that one? This small is all and more is bigger. How are you seeing that play out?
TO: Well, first of all, I want to say that I love that article that Maurice — Maurice Mitchell wrote. I don’t know him, so I shouldn’t be calling him by his first name! And I am a fangirl. I wrote him a thank you on LinkedIn. And he responded, and I was so excited.
And I agree with everything he says there and I feel like he’s saying things that needed to be said, and I think it’s really great that he said them out loud.
And so I think what I want to say about this is that what he’s saying and what I would wholeheartedly agree with is that all of this is very nuanced and complex. And when I’m talking about progress is more and bigger, I’m just talking about how sort of inculcated in the way that we think about things in our culture is that to move forward, to progress, means we have to get bigger we have to grow exponentially. And in some cases, that may be the right thing to do. And in some cases, it might be smarter to stay small and mobile.
And that it’s part of the way in which these cultural norms, the way that they shape our thinking, really limit us. And the argument I’m making is they not only limit us, they disconnect us from ourselves, from each other, from spirit if we believe in that kind of thing, from Earth. And so anything, in the way I think about white supremacy culture, is that it just operates to limit our thinking, and often to make it fear-based or to get us moving from a fear-based place. And when we’re in a fear based-place, we can’t think very creatively or open-heartedly. And so if we’re feeling like we’re not doing a good job, we’re not achieving excellence because we’re not progressing by getting bigger, then we haven’t allowed ourselves some room to think creatively about what it is we’re actually doing. It’s the imposition of these ways of thinking that, I think, get in our way.
RG: And I think the characteristic that I see circulate the most, and get misused the most, and lampooned from the right the most might be urgency. Yet, it’s also one of the ones that, to me, has the most obvious relevance to the question that we’re talking about, if you can grapple with it seriously, And what I mean by that is that I’ve seen in plenty of institutions and organizations that I’ve been a part of, let’s say there’s an effort underway to diversify the staff, like, they look around and say: Wow, this is bad. There’s just a whole bunch of white people around here. And there’s something wrong with that, like, we need to do something about that. And a job opening comes up and doing the work to try to make sure that the opening gets to all the places so that you get a diverse batch of applicants is hard work. And it’s really important that we fill this position really quickly. This is an urgent thing. And so we’ll do it next time. We’ll deal with this next time.
Meanwhile, the way it seems to be used out in the real world, is people saying: What do you mean that that’s due at noon? This is just more white supremacy culture coming from my boss. So what have you heard about this one? And what are people getting right and wrong about it?
TO: Well, yes, this is a nuanced one, for sure.
So I think we are living in very urgent times where we’re a nation on fire. I’ve never seen, I’ve never seen the kind of overt white nationalism in our national politics since I was growing up at the end of Jim Crow here in the South. So yes, these times are urgent. What I’m talking about is, in a community or particularly in an organization, when there starts to be a culture of urgency, so that that’s the default way of being, that everything is urgent. And when everything is urgent, then it’s so easy for racism to perpetuate itself.
And I think, for example, a colleague and I were doing a workshop with another progressive legal group. And most of, if not all of, the lawyers were white, and most of the staff, if not all the staff, were people of color. And we had just spent the morning talking about the ways that decisions were made in the organization and how the people of color in the organization felt like they were excluded from decisions that were affecting their work and, and that were affecting how effective the organization was in the community because in many cases, the organization was doing work in the communities where people of color lived, not where the white lawyers lived.
And in the middle of all of this, there was a phone call about something that had just happened. And I don’t even remember what it was, it might have been an arrest of a Black activist, or some kind of emergency came up. And, in that moment, while we were at the workshop discussing this very thing, all of the lawyers gathered in a circle and started talking over each other trying to figure out what to do. The people of color were standing in a circle behind them, all of them deeply invested in what was happening, but having absolutely no voice. And when we as facilitators tried to say: Can we take a pause, and just sit down together and figure out what we’re going to do in a way that meets this dynamic that we’ve just been talking about? The answer was: No, we don’t have time, we can’t possibly do that, we don’t have time, no, no, no.
So in the middle of a workshop meant to help and support them to deal with the ways in which their culture was perpetuating racism, they were unable to stop. And that’s what I mean by There’s just the sense that things are so urgent, we can’t possibly pause for anything. So we lose the ability to pause for anything. And people get run over in that situation. And it just keeps things in place.
RG: And It does seem difficult for people to keep both of those things in their minds at a time, just kind of begging people to understand that. Like, these are urgent times, but if you start to see yourself using urgency as a way to avoid thinking about anything else, then you might have made a wrong turn.
TO: And I will say that I see it in myself.
So another really good use of this document is as a sort of an internal map, a way of looking at yourself; I use it to look at myself, like how are these characteristics showing up in me? And the way urgency shows up in me is I feel like: I’ve got a deadline, I’ve got to get this done.
Very often, I’m talking about deadlines that are self-imposed. And what I have found, I’m quite a bit older now, I finally understood that if I don’t, as my friend says, push the river, if I can allow some spaciousness in the way that I approach my work, or what I’m responsible for, often things happen in that spaciousness, that wouldn’t have occurred or wouldn’t have been possible if I pushed forward like: I’ve got to get this done.
And so I’ve come to really value that spaciousness because of what can emerge if I can allow the urgent voices inside me to just take a nap and see what might be possible.
RG: And you also write in the update more about kind of class and race essentialism, or pushing back against race essentialism, which Maurice Mitchell touches on, as well. Did you assume a class lens in your first draft, and not include it for that reason, or is a class lens something that you’ve developed since then?
I can read a little bit here. You write: “A class lens, and issues of intersectionality are important to address. And a caution against weaponization of the list seems critically important right now.
So you included class right at the very top of your update?
TO: Well, that’s just the result of my experience over the last however many years, 23 years, since I wrote the first article, and I think these characteristics are characteristics of what I would call middle class, upper-middle class, wealthy class whiteness. And again, not people; whiteness. And because I’ve been in relationship with many more white people who are poor or working class, who have pointed out to me that many of these characteristics don’t really apply to them, or don’t apply their lived experience, I’ve come to understand that white supremacy — and this is a very nuanced idea, so I hope it’s alright to share it — but white supremacy targets white people in some of the same ways that it targets people of color. Not in the same ways, but in order to assimilate into the kind of whiteness that I’m describing in this document, working-class people have to learn to change their language, to learn to assimilate into whiteness in a way that forces them to leave who they are behind, pieces of who they are behind. And I think that’s what whiteness does. And so it certainly does it to people of color. And it also does it to working and poor people.
RG: I haven’t seen the update circulate with the same velocity that the original did. Have you gotten any feedback on it? Or are you doing this interview to help get it out?
It was published in, like you said, 2021, but I only discovered it last summer or so.
TO: So the original article definitely was circulating a lot more. So mostly what comes across my feed is appreciation. Like: I’ve used your article, thank you so much.
And whenever I get a message like that, I write back and say: I hope you’re using the new version. So the good thing I can report is that when you put “white supremacy culture” at least in my Google feed, my website comes up first. So I think gradually, slowly, but surely, it is getting out there more and more. The original is still circulating. And I do ask whenever I can, that people stop using it and start using the new one.
RG: As somebody who’s been involved in the DEI industry before it was even called that. What is your sense of its value as it evolves? And are you surprised or concerned to see corporate America so thoroughly adopting it in recent years?
TO: No, I’m not concerned. There was a recent opinion piece in The New York Times claiming that DEI does more harm than good. And I’m working on a response to that now.
My position is that there are multiple ways for us as a nation, and for those of us who care about racial justice, there are multiple ways to work towards it. And the way I do it is one way and the way you do it is another way, and I think there was a time in my life when I was much younger when I felt I had the right way, and I felt people had to do things my way. I don’t believe that anymore.
And so I also don’t feel like I have any certainty about how the transformational shifts we need to make as a nation are going to happen. So I do my work and I celebrate the work that other people do. I do share concern — the thing I agreed with the author about is — that I don’t think shame and blame are a good way to lead this work. What I’m saying in my response is that shame and blame are inevitable feelings, particularly for white people, because once we confront our history, we are going to feel shame and we’re going to feel blamed and that’s just part of it.
And the cleverness of white supremacy and white supremacy culture is that defensiveness against understanding it is built into it. So defensiveness is going to come up. Any DEI practitioner with any kind of experience is going to have to address defensiveness; that’s just part of the work. So any implication that we can do this without making white people defensive is just uninformed.
RG: Yeah, I guess what I mean by concerned about corporate America adopting it is that you see more and more reports of, first of all, and probably the most obviously concerning would be corporations wielding it against union drives.
TO: Yes. Yes.
RG: Like, explicitly.
TO: Right. Right.
RG: And tactically using it in that way.
But then second, oftentimes when they’re bringing in DEI consultants, is because they had a real problem in the workplace.
TO: Yes. Yeah.
RG: And the criticism would be this, there, they’re just papering over this problem: Look, what do you want from us? We hired these consultants. We gave you a half-day, we gave you a day to talk about your feelings about white supremacy culture. Now move on, we don’t need any structural reforms. We don’t need any regulations, we definitely don’t need the EEOC coming in here and looking around. So just everybody moves on, we’re good. So I guess that’s what I mean about if it becomes a kind of cover for the thing that it’s trying to dismantle.
TO: Well, it absolutely does. There’s no question about it.
And I think that, again, it’s the nature of this culture, [laughs] and how this culture is so adaptive, and figures out ways to do this.
For six years or seven years, I worked at a prestigious university, in something called the Teaching for Equity Fellows Program. And I understood that I was providing cover for the university that was sort of half-heartedly committed to this program. And every year, we didn’t know if we would be refunded from a private university that has more money than God. And I understood that the university could use us when convenient to say: Look at what we’re doing!
At the same time, in that program, I came in touch with literally hundreds of faculty who were either interested in figuring out how to teach better about race, class, and gender, or do a better job of serving all of the students in their classrooms. And in that experience, I had some very deep, and wonderful, and graceful, and hard, and challenging conversations, and aha! moments. And I think one of the great gifts of that program was that these were all faculty who cared about students and cared about teaching across disciplines, and just the power of being in a room with other people who cared about it, too.
And that’s what I mean by saying there’s change happening at different levels that we can’t even know or see. And so looking at the outside, should I have been, quote-unquote, pimping for the university? No. I don’t want to do that. And while I was there, I think I was able to — and I’m not taking credit so much in just saying, as a group, as a community, we were able to really understand some things, do some things differently, try some things, better serve students better serve ourselves. So I think that we’re in the dilemma, we’re in this dilemma of being in this culture, operating in the constraints of this culture.
Another criticism of DEI is that a lot of people hang out a DEI shingle who have very little experience, and it is becoming a DEI industrial complex with all the problems that that brings.
But I kind of wonder: What’s the alternative? Are we not to address it at all? I mean, if we can’t address it right, do we not address it? This is 400 years in the making. And it’s one of the reasons I’m so annoyed at the Times for giving space to this opinion. It’s like 400 years in the making, and it’s so easy to criticize those of us who are doing incredibly challenging work to try and bring light to how racism and white supremacy operate, and how it’s impacting all of us, and how it’s harming all of us, and how it’s toxic to all of us. So I try to take the attitude that the more things people are trying the better, the more of us in the fight, the better. The more wisdom and ways of doing things people bring the better, and along the way, yeah, it’s going to be messy, and people are going to go after each other.
And part of the reason for my being here today is just to say to those people who are misusing my work: Please stop. Just don’t. It’s not meant to be used to target people. That’s not what it’s meant for. It’s meant to bring people together to talk about how we’re getting in our own way and what we can do differently.
RG: One of the other things that you mentioned in the update is that the original version that circulated, and because you didn’t post it yourself, it just kind of started circulating on its own. The original version had your mentor Kenneth Jones listed as a co-author. And you write here that he later said: No, no, I don’t actually want my name on this work.
And you guys argued, you said: Well, you influenced it so much you should be.
And he said: No, I don’t want to be on there.
RG: So you took him off.
And I’m curious if you’ve heard, because I’ve heard some complaints from people who are black leaders of organizations, who are like: I’m getting hammered by all of these white staffers with this document, written by a white lady —
TO: Mhmm. Mhmm.
RG: And allegedly a Black man, but the Black man’s name isn’t actually — he wasn’t actually an author of it. And it’s killing me here!
TO: Mhmm. Mhmm yeah.
RG: Have you heard that from people?
TO: Yes! Yes.
RG: And what do you say to them when they say that?
TO: I say: I’m so sorry, it’s not what it was meant for in any way, shape, or form. And, I mean the thing is that people don’t come to me to tell me directly, they tell somebody who experienced that or heard that tells me. So that’s why I’m trying to think about the strategy moving forward to make it clear that this is not at all how it’s meant to be used.
And one of my deepest values is transparency. So with the website, I tried to be as transparent as possible about who contributed to it and how it evolved, so that there’s no mistake.
I was invited to facilitate a day-long workshop on the document, in the Northwest, in an organization that was mostly young people of color. And one of them didn’t know that I was white until I showed up, or she said she didn’t find out that I was white until two days before, and they were not having it. They didn’t think I had anything to offer to teach them. And once I understood that, I was like: OK. That’s OK. That’s where you are, that’s how you feel, I don’t want to waste your time or mine. And so I left — and we agreed that I would leave.
And so I don’t take this personally. This work is meant to support people who want to understand the water that we’re swimming in so that we can get free, and we don’t get free, we don’t get justice alone. It’s a collective and collaborative process. And we don’t get free and we don’t get justice by going after each other. And sometimes we’re at our limits.
I feel like the misuse of the article comes from a place of just deep yearning to be seen, to be valued, to be included, to be heard. And so I understand it in that way. And I think we all know, so many of us, if not all of us, are in some kind of deep pain; a lot of us have experienced direct and indirect trauma. And everybody, generally speaking, there are exceptions, most of them in Congress, are doing the very best they can. And we do what we’re capable of.
And I see racial justice work as a dance. If I’m capable of something and you’re not, then I’ll show up. If I’m at my limit, and I can’t show up, then I’ll ask you to show up. And if you’re at a place where you just can’t have me in the room, I’ll leave the room. This is not about me. And it’s for me. Both of those things are true.
I want to say one other thing about the misuse. If people misuse the document because they don’t want to be accountable to their boss, so it’s this white supremacy culture, making me write a report, or urgency, or whatever — and there seem to be growing complaints that a lot of people in workplaces now don’t want to be accountable or don’t want to be rigorous — and again, when something’s happened, I try and really sit with like, why is that happening? What’s the very good reason that that’s happening?
And we’re in such destabilized times. And we have so little support, or so little role modeling for what it means to show up at work and work collaboratively and have each other’s backs. And I think individualism is running rampant, and authoritarianism is running rampant, and having a media presence is running rampant. It’s so our ability to rest in collective values is really challenged right now.
So yeah. I don’t want people to misuse the article. I try and understand why they are doing so when they do, and try and encourage them to think about how It’s more fun and joyful it is to use tools like this as a way to understand who we are and how we can be with each other in what I call fierce love.
RG: Yeah. If you look at the misuse of this article, the weaponization of this article as a symptom of a broader disease, what would you suggest people do instead?
TO: Well, I mean, first of all, I think the one page that people I would love to direct people’s attention to on the website is the Racial Equity Principles page. So it’s 10 principles that reflectively derived over a decade of work with colleagues that we have found really work in trying to tackle racism and white supremacy, and in trying to build racial equity and justice. And so I would point people there. This is things like: Think like an organizer, think collectively, act collectively, use transparency, be transparent, choose love over fear.
So I don’t have a prescription. I think that my job at this point in my life, I’m 70 years old, at this point in my life is to remind people that we do this work from a place of great love. And that coming from a place of great love is not easy — sometimes it requires setting boundaries; sometimes it requires challenging people’s ways of being and thinking; sometimes it requires speaking truths that people don’t want to hear. And there’s a big difference in doing those things from a place of love than in doing it from a place of chastisement or fear, or one-upmanship. So just to come back to the reason that we’re in this movement for justice is love — for each other, and ourselves.
RG: And when you think back to that evening in 1999, when you returned from that meeting, and put this down on paper. Are you glad that you did? Or do you wish you could go back and tell yourself: You know what? Just turn on “60 Minutes” tonight.
TO: [Laughs.] I’ve never been asked that question before. I think, in the end, I am glad I did. Because, again, I don’t feel like it’s mine. I feel like, in my language, it was spirit moving through me because it was something that came through me, in this case, onto the computer not onto the page. And I feel like I have had so many people talk about what a transformation it has made possible in their own lives. It’s sort of like being able to see something that helps you make sense of why you’re so ill at ease, or why the voices in your head are so hateful. So I think, in the end, because anything I write or anything you write, or any tool that anybody makes — a hammer can be used to hammer a nail, it can also be used for violent purposes. So it’s part of my job, as a community of people, to support us, to use the tools that we have well. And I am, in the end, glad that I was able to offer a tool that I think has some use.
And it’s a small, small, small piece. So many people have written about white supremacy, and white supremacy culture, both before and after me. There’s such a plethora of incredible resources now that this does not in any way need to be or ever should be anything but a small contribution.
I guess I just want to reiterate at the end that the misuse of the article for me, it’s quite heartbreaking. And I never meant it to be used that way. And if you are listening to this and are using it in that way, please, please stop. And come back to the website, read the whole website, and how you can pull from it in a way to support your own development or to make it a collective or collaborative enterprise to understand how to build the culture that you want, the culture that we want, so that we can all thrive and be in a loving community with each other.
RG: And that website, the address, is whitesupremacyculture.info, for people who want to go search it. You can probably just Google it and find it quite easily.
Tema Okun, thanks so much for joining me. I really appreciate this.
TO: Well, thank you for having me.
[End credits music.]
RG: That was Tema Okun, and that’s our show.
Deconstructed is a production of First Look Media and The Intercept. Our producer is José Olivares. Our supervising producer is Laura Flynn. The show was mixed by William Stanton. Our theme music was composed by Bart Warshaw. Roger Hodge is The Intercept’s editor in chief.
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