Seeking Diversity without Dismantling White Supremacy is Dangerous

Most institutions want racial diversity, though perhaps not for the right reasons.  It’s good PR.  It’s a good way to signal that an institution is righteous.  It makes governments and accreditation agencies happy.  And if intuitions aren’t careful, it does nothing to undermine white supremacy.

Some folks hear “white supremacy” and think of KKK members, neo-Nazis, and tiki torch marches.  Those are revolting.  But to interpret the phrase along those lines is to reduce it to the conscious attitudes of individuals.  It’s also to signal that we’re among the good guys.  It’s to ignore America’s past and to pretend we can operate in an ahistorical vacuum.  White supremacy is in the air we breathe, in the culture we inhabit, and in the assumptions we inherit.  It’s baked into our institutions.

White supremacy is the way our culture and institutions normalize and elevate whiteness and white culture.  “White is right” isn’t something we say.  We don’t have to.  We get that message thousands of times daily.  In my field—theology—, there’s Latino theology, black theology, feminist theology, but what flies under the banner of just plain ‘theology’ is the work of white males.  Similarly with entertainment, schools, churches, and most every sphere of our lives.  Band-Aids by default match my kid’s skin color.  If my wife and I watch a romantic comedy the leads will almost certainly look and talk like us.  My church is just a church; my friend Warren’s church is an ‘ethnic church.’  White is normal; the rest isn’t.

White supremacy is part of our American heritage.  I see it in my neighbourhood, my church, my kid’s school.  I’m on a journey to undo it both without and within.  But it’s stickier than we’d like to admit.  When we confront it head on it can strike us down (yes, even if we’re white).

Talk of white supremacy makes people uncomfortable.  So our guard comes up.  “But my boss is black and we get along great!” is a defense mechanism against seeing it at work.  So are things like, “Hey, I grew up in a Latino neighborhood!”, “But I loved The Wire!”, and “My cousin married a black man!”  On a corporate level, “But we have people of color here, check out the cover of our brochure!” usually shows that diversity is being used to distract from unaddressed white supremacy in an institution.  People of color can be actors and/or pawns in systems of racial injustice.  Milwaukee County’s sheriff David Clarke is an obvious example.  Omarosa Manigault is another.  But it often happens in more subtle ways, even unwittingly so for those involved.

When we pursue diversity without first beginning to dismantle white supremacy, people of color get hurt.  Diversity initiatives can provide cover for the insidiousness of white supremacy.  The result is harmful situations where, for example, students of color at a large university have an all-white counselling department.  People of color are often underrepresented in leadership positions and those that are there must conform to white culture to stay there.  The natural hair of black folk is viewed as unprofessional.  Native Americans generally consider maintaining eye contact to be a sign of disrespect but white people tend to view a lack of eye contact as lacking attention, trustworthiness, and integrity.  People of color are told in a million small, subtle ways that they matter less, that they are ‘other’.  And most white folk don’t see it happening.  Most won’t see it happening because we are conditioned to consider it normal and because confronting white supremacy makes us uncomfortable.

Dismantling white supremacy means that institutions need to do things like actively invite candidates of color to submit an application.  When the list of faculty is mostly white males, scholars of color hear the message loud and clear.  Higher learning institutions need to cultivate relationships with people of color years before they are on the job market.  Schools need to invest in them and their educational training.  The fact that white people are given so many advantages along the way to becoming a PhDed professor is white supremacy at work.  White students are more likely to have a professor mentor them while in college, more likely to get accepted into strong postgraduate programs, and more likely to get job interviews.  Along the way I have benefited because my name is Shawn Bawulski and not DeShaun Jackson.  And that’s not OK.  White supremacy is not undone by hiring a few token people of color while letting everyone know that challenging the culture of white supremacy is out of bounds.

Diversity without dismantling white supremacy is dangerous for white folks, too.  A system that treats some as less than human poisons all of our souls.  Lack of diversity is the symptom, the branch.  The root of the problem works at the level of institutional culture.  It’s hard to uproot.  Doing so is dangerous, too.  But if white people aren’t willing to spend their privilege, to use their advantages afforded them by white supremacy to dismantle white supremacy, then meaningful change won’t come.  Injustice will continue.  Diversity task forces and multiethnic brochure covers alone will do nothing but make white people continue to feel comfortable.