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Whiteness and the Norm, Pt. 1

Culture is a powerful entity. It's expressed through the many observable ways we show up, how we engage with one another, what our core values may be, and how we see truth. At its core, no one culture is any better than another. But in our society, the dominant culture that shapes all of our institutions, the messaging in our media, the way we interact and see each other and ourselves, is that of the white, predominantly male, middle class (of course, also cisgender, heterosexual, and Christian, but that's for another blog post). It is through this lens that we form the mainstream or 'center' of our culture, and define characteristics that are 'acceptable' or what can be called 'norms.'

Have you ever thought about what makes norms 'the norm'?

In essence, within our white dominant culture, white people and their practices, beliefs, values, and culture have been normalized over time and are considered 'standard' or 'norms' –– what is normal –– in this country. These attitudes, characteristics, values or beliefs are seen as morally correct -- outside of which is seen as less morally sound. They have become acceptable as mainstream, and are not considered marginal or on the outskirts of what is okay. They become familiar, an outgrowth of our day to day lives and to us. They're just the way things are done, and that which the average person is expected to know and adopt without question –– and these norms are not open to contradiction or correction (evidence A: Mitch McConnell on the 1619 Project).

Racial Equity Trainer Tema Okun suggests that our norms have emanated from "the explicit or subtle ways that preferences or fears of white European-descended people overwhelmingly have shaped how we see ourselves, organize our work and our institutions, interact with one another and with time, and make decisions." So, basically, we've been socialized to follow the lead of white people from across the pond.

These norms aren't always conscious, and are acted upon by both white people and people of color, but can be harmful to persons of color because these are white dominant standards that have been imposed, and not been pro-actively named or chosen by any other group. Imagine living your life out by someone else's rules.

These norms aren't always conscious, and are acted upon by both white people and people of color, but can be harmful to persons of color because these are white dominant standards that have been imposed, and not been pro-actively named or chosen by any other group.

But we can change that. We just need to know what they are, recognize our participation within them, understand why they're harmful and work towards our own moral corrections. Now, there are at least a dozen or two 'white dominant norms' that we could delve into (thank you to Tema Okun building on the work of so many others), so I'm going unpack a few today (hence pt. 1) and continue this conversation moving forward. Let's begin with those 'norms' that I'm almost embarrassed to say, pretty much define me.

As a mom, I have tried my hardest to raise my kids to internalize the idea that not only does everyone make mistakes, but that making mistakes is a critical part of growing up and proof of trying new things; mistakes aren't to be taken personally, but to be learned from, and an important way for them to move on to new ideas and a more fulfilling life. Oh, how I wish I subscribed to my own words of wisdom, but alas, I fancy myself a bit like Mary Poppins –– practically perfect in every way. More than that though, my self worth is inextricably tied to my ability to be seemingly perfect. I live with a constant and harsh inner critic and have been reared and socialized to take mistakes super personally, sitting with the weight of them, and beating myself up with an inability to let go easily. I didn't make the mistake, I am the mistake. I didn't do something wrong, I am wrong.

Perfectionism is a white dominant norm. A characteristic of our white dominant culture that we bring into our worlds, and an impossible standard to try to live up to. Not only might it lead to the feelings I've noted, but it also fosters a lack of appreciation for all work that is done, as the bar for approbation anywhere less than perfect is high. It has lead to a world where it is far more common to identify what is wrong versus what is right; far more common to point out to someone else their inadequacies versus their strengths; far more common to provide feedback only when something has gone wrong rather than appreciate when something is going right. We are geared to the glass half empty, with far less time, energy or effort put into reflection or identifying lessons learned and moving on.

What's the alternative?

Imagine a culture of appreciation, where you express and provide positive feedback for a job done (notice I didn't say 'well done'), and the effort is appreciated. Imagine a culture of learning, where it's expected that you will make mistakes and those mistakes you make will be opportunities for your own personal growth and the benefit of others. Imagine within that culture, when feedback is being given, that positive feedback is given (what went well) before offering criticism, separating the person from the mistake, and providing suggestions on how things might be done differently. Maybe mistakes could be rewarded, tracked, learned from and lead to positive results that are then recognized as such. In a world where mistakes are valued as opportunities for learning and people verbally appreciate each other more often than they tear each other down, we can begin to shift away from the norm of perfectionism.

I mean, I don't even know what my life would be like without living out this norm every split second of every single day. Oh, what I wouldn't give to move away from it. Again, as a mom, I'm all about 'the journey is the destination', blah, blah, but really, I am hyper results driven with expectations that mirror my need to deliver. ASAP. And because my sights are typically set on the destination, the journey is truncated. At times, it doesn't allow for the time it would take to be more inclusive of others, to allow for space –– aah, space for what might come up in the moment –– or encourage the kind of thoughtful decision making that would allow for more substantive community building. There's just no time.

A sense of urgency or creating priorities and unrealistic timelines perpetuate white supremacy culture and works to dismantle a sense of community –– a sense of shared belonging. We lose sight of the need to attend to the interests, the points of view, the potential connections to all others as we race to the end as quickly as possible.

What's the alternative?

Maybe we can begin by giving ourselves permission to wander a bit. Recognize that things do and should take more time and likely longer than we might expect. Set more realistic timelines for yourself or for a given goal, building into the plan time to include other voices along the way. The whole is greater than the sum of its parts, we know this. So let's take the time to build greater wholes, connect with others on our way towards the end game, and even work to communicate to others how we may be making even better decisions –– those that take the time to build community –– in an atmosphere of urgency.

This 'norm' is wrapped up in the belief that things are either/or, good/bad, right/wrong, with me/against me. When I try to see the grey in life, I'm thrown back into the black and white –– only able to feel one way or another. It's precisely this way of thinking that traps me into seeing things in isolation, and ignoring the intersectionality of it all. The irony is, there can't be an either/or because it's never just about the way in which I see the world. There must always be a both/and because there is always another point of view that must be considered.

What's the alternative?

Nothing is so simple that it can't and shouldn't be approached from a multitude of angles. I've oft mentioned the either/or thinking that fosters white fragility in that it's so difficult to see oneself as good and racist. But why not make room for the possibility of it all? Why not slow down a second and think about the alternatives outside the either/or box. If there only seem to be two options, try to think through to a third. Or try to see different patterns that may intersect, even so far as holding two opposing thoughts or feelings at the same time. Maybe both/and can become the new either/or?

In continuing the work to decenter whiteness, and its dominance and oppression within our culture, I know there's much to be done. But while culture may be a tricky thing –– in that it's omnipresent, but so difficult at times to identify –– what is not as difficult to identify is our role in perpetuating cultural norms. And so, the more aware we are and the more antidotes we can find, the closer we will get to dismantling white dominant norms in our work, our homes, and in our communities. And the closer we will get to doing less harm to the people we love.

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