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A Crushing Recipe for White Supremacy Culture in Change

Updated: Apr 4, 2021

and Practices for Stepping Into “Something Different”

As we’ve examined leading change, we have explores how leaders need to step out of their default leadership patterns , empathize with the experience of their people, and take concrete steps to inclusively collaborate along the way . We know that requires embracing the discomfort that change work brings.

As we reflect on this journey, we hope you see that leading with an equity mindset isn’t another layer that you add. It is infused in your orientation to the work. Leading change inclusively comes from shedding white-centered ways of leading and bringing cultural competence in the way we use power, value others, and invite them into co-creation.

In the last blog, we showed that leaders’ could either reinforce a culture of white supremacy, or begin to build a culture of “something different.” Today, we want to draw explicit lines to what that looks like in change, and to offer concrete suggestions for a more liberating approach to leadership.

A Crushing Recipe for White Supremacy Culture in Change - and Something Different

Organizational change brings with it predictable pressure. As change leaders, the tensions of managing both the process and others’ emotions can leave us hustling to perform and defend, rather than tuning into our values of equity and inclusiveness.

In her seminal work, Dr. Tema Okun listed fifteen characteristics she defined as white supremacy culture. We will hone in on a few of them today (in orange) to paint a “recipe” that shows just how they could play out in change. (You’ll see a little fun dramatization here, but we suspect some parts may sound eerily familiar too!) Then, we will illustrate (in green) some simple moves inspired by White Dominant Culture and Something Different that you can pilot in your upcoming change projects to step into leadership where all can thrive.

Here’s what’s ahead:


Sense of Urgency

Sense of Urgency is characterized by timelines that are too short to live our professed values, a belief that we must sacrifice ourselves for the good of the community we serve, and a culture that prioritizes getting things done over connection and care

A recipe for urgency

Decide a problem (which is likely not new) that must be fixed immediately. Declare that it is urgent for kids. Agree to a timeline that senior leaders set which will require extraordinary sacrifice. Make sure you have to forego things you say matter in the name of urgency, like teacher input and diversity of voice. When concerns are raised about the timing or process, silently (or loudly) judge others for being focused on adults instead of kids.

How to create a focus on sustainability and equity

As a leader, be crystal clear on your values. What will you stand for no matter what? Have the courage to say “I will be happy to take this on if ________.” Map out before it starts what it would look like for this change to center equity and inclusion and align with your senior leadership on how you together will live your commitments. Then, take stock of the change from the vantage point of each stakeholder impacted by the change (especially those who are not usually at the table). Plan how you will include them before you agree to timeline.


Perfectionism focuses on being seen as competent, “always on it” and never letting anything slip. Perfectionists focus on what is not working rather than celebrating what they and others have achieved.

A recipe for perfectionism

Senior management, please anoint a “high performer” to take the lead on the project - and make sure she knows leadership is watching this closely. High performer, decide this is a really important opportunity to show what you can do. “Hero up” by deciding you must do it perfectly. By all means, focus on process over people - project plans, meetings schedules and best practices are your best friends to ensure the project is under control.

How to step into appreciation of others

Perfectionism is an instrument for controlling situations and people to keep you feeling safe. Interrogate the unrealistic narratives that you carry about others expectations of you. Remind yourself that relying on others isn’t weakness, and the ability to be imperfect together is a beautiful, gracious way of leading. Understand the triggers that leave you feeling you have to please others, and tune into your equity values. Turn the lens outward to focus on people before process (because both matter). What about their identity or lived experience might bring up fear or resistance to the change? What is a culturally competent way to engage them in a way that fits their needs?

Sometimes perfectionism can overcomplexify even human connection. The antidote is simplicity. Simple and human is often the best answer.


Paternalism is the practice of people in power making decisions for those without power, and believing it is not important to understand the viewpoints of those for whom they are making the decisions. Individuals in power believe they must take it all on their own shoulders in order to do it right.

A recipe for paternalism

Take on the mantle of hero leadership. “I am the person to lead this and I will make it happen.” Coordinate with your boss and senior leaders to develop a solution you all believe in. Decide you have the expertise and knowledge needed for the project, and don’t need input from the field until you’re ready to tell them the proposed solution. Make sure you’re really bought into the solution after all the work you’ve put in. When you do share, be very vague as to how the decision is being made and how much of it is already a “done deal.”

How to step into partnership and collectivism

Presume others are smart, good, hard working people with important skills, experiences and perspectives that may have a better answer than you. Begin to see yourself as the Facilitator of their wisdom, not the hero in the change. Ensure the lived experiences of those doing the work are heavily weighted in figuring out the “right” solution. Leverage working groups to bring solutions up from the people most affected. Ask authentic questions that you are really excited to learn about from them, and be open to being changed by their answers.

Be transparent at all times as to what is decided, what is next to be decided, how people will be involved and who gets the final say.


Objectivity is the belief that our choices / actions are perfectly logical. Emotions are seen as irrational, and irrelevant to the decision making process. Right to comfort works hand in hand with objectivity to ensure people who speak up against a “perfectly logical” decision are labeled as “not on board” or “culture problems.”

A recipe for objectivity / right to comfort

Overweight the value of external input when making a decision, and discount the value of the live experiences of your own people - particularly those closest to the ground. Pull in "best practices” and data to provide bulletproof logic for the solution you believe in. Build voluminous and text-heavy slide decks to prove why this is the right thing to do. Presume that people will understand and agree with your perfectly logical solution once they see the rationale.

Be so committed to being right and perceived as “on it” that you only enter into situations that minimize the risk of disagreement. Script meetings carefully to ensure resistors don’t get air space. (Hard hitting questions or pushback could trigger your inner critic who says you should look good in front of others and know all the answers.) If emotions do arise, put unrealistic expectations on yourself to fix it so things can keep moving. Never let your emotion or other people’s fears and misgivings allow you to lose focus on the progress you are pushing for.

How to accept humanity and allow discomfort

Remember that emotions are a normal part of change in the neutral zone. Research by Jonathan Haidt shows that humans first assess decisions on the basis of “gut feelings,” and later construct logical reasons to support what our guts already said. Haidt and the Heath Brothers’ book Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard both remind us to “speak to the elephant first” (people’s emotions) then to the “rider” (reasoning). If you want to capture people’s hearts and minds, think first of their hopes, fears, and experiences and second supporting data.

If emotions arise, have faith in your own ability to be with the discomfort and be okay. Reframe success as a healthy dialogue, not a perfectly scripted meeting. Hard questions and challenges are an opportunity to invite people in. When your inner critic invites you to eject out of the discomfort, bring self-compassion to remind yourself that this is a normal part of change. Your worthiness as a human being is not on trial.

You may be surprised what emerges after discussing “unmentionable” or uncomfortable issues. Many times others will arrive at a similar answer to what you were leaning toward, but now be engaged supporters helping the change go well. And just as often - magic happens - and they make the answer even better than you could have imagined.

Putting It Into Practice

Ibram X. Kendi taught us in his celebrated book How To Be An Antiracist that continuing our current ways of leading, working and leading will guarantee that systems of oppression continue. We cannot create diverse workplaces where all people are celebrated, thrive and co-create a more just world until we have the courage to try “something different.”

We hope you see that stepping up as antiracist leaders isn’t just about attending DEI training or changing human capital policies (although both are important). We can’t speak out when in the spotlight and then lead in the same old ways. We can - and must - discuss what it looks like to bring our equity values into the fabric of our everyday work.

Dr. Tema Okun’s work with Dismantling Racism and Partners for Collaborative Change’s dream of something different provide us just the first steps. There is no blueprint; we will have to figure out a different future together. Here are a few suggestions for getting started:

  • As a Leader - Select one or two of the “something different” suggestions we shared as a first step into antiracist leadership. Check with leaders of color to test out your ideas.

  • As a Change Team - Invite a diverse team to the table. Spend time together unpacking the change ahead of you - and design a change process around “not white supremacy culture!”

  • At Every Level of the Organization - Stop hiding from the topic of white supremacy culture - or making it scarier than it has to be. The only way to dismantle our cultures, step by step, is to talk about it - at every level and in every aspect of our work. We can’t fix something that we can’t see.

We firmly believe that leaning into a “something different” way of leading allows for a richer culture that will allow all of us to thrive and flourish together. In the end, stopping the hustle, centering others, and allowing the magic of working together is a victory for all. We know it will take a lot of re-learning - and human connection - to find new ways. We look forward to learning with you as we aspire together.


Interested in learning more about the practical steps of leading inclusive change? Join us for our foundational workshop series, Leading Inclusive Change.


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