White Supremacy Culture in a Pandemic

Over the past two weeks I have been posting daily on Facebook and LinkedIn some ways in which white supremacy culture, as described by Tema Okun, Kenneth Jones, et al., might be showing up in the midst of this pandemic. The following is all of those posts in one place.

Note: the values and norms listed here are not exclusive to western white culture. We don’t have a monopoly on paternalism, for instance. This list merely describes often invisible ways of being that are part of our socialization. If we want to create a more just and equitable world, we have to interrogate these values when we notice them coming up, checking to see if an alternate way of being might provide better results.


We might be seeing perfectionism come up for us as expecting ourselves (and/or others) to continue doing a good job at life, even if we’re suddenly thrust into anxiety about where our next paycheck is coming from, or working from home with a less than ideal setup, or trying to “homeschool” children when we have no actual educator training. 

ANTIDOTE: Cut yourself (and others) some slack. This is a global pandemic for which none of us were prepared. It’s okay to not be okay right now.

Sense of urgency

Phew, this is a tough one right now. A lot of things feel urgent, and a lot of things genuinely are. Other things, however, are imbued with a sense of urgency that isn’t actually legit. If you’re working from home, you may feel like you need to be accessible to your boss and colleagues at all times, just to prove you’re working. But you got to take bathroom breaks when you were in the office, didn’t you? 

ANTIDOTE: Assess the actual downside (and upside) of getting to some of the things that feel urgent more slowly: will you be able to gather more research, think of solutions that are a little more outside the box, provide thoughtful responses to your colleagues’ and clients’ needs?


Defensiveness often shows up as taking something personally that wasn’t meant to be. In a time when we are being told we need to do our best to carry on as usual while maintaining physical distance and reducing any excursions to only those considered necessary, it can be easy to feel defensive about our actions. Defensiveness, however, can inhibit our ability to take in and evaluate new information. 

ANTIDOTE: Expand your ability to take feedback or criticism: Notice how your body feels when you start to get defensive (does your stomach knot up, do your shoulders rise toward your head, etc.?) and file that information away for the future. The next time you start to feel your body reacting, take a mental pause and ask yourself if the thing that triggered this response is actually about you. If it is about you, is it useful?

Quantity over quality

I could make a toilet paper joke here, but I won’t. Instead I’ll ask you the following: How many jobs have you applied for? How many activities have you provided for the children in your care? How many emails have you sent today? How many Zoom meetings have you been in this week? How much money have you donated to local businesses or nonprofits? How many boxes of gloves or hand-sewn masks have you dropped off at your local hospital? Phew. This is starting to feel like urgency is taking over again. 

ANTIDOTE: How much time can you spend checking in with loved ones? If you’re feeling distracted, can you stick with one thing long enough to make a discernible impact on it? Assess your capacity and make your to-do list accordingly, rather than the other way around.

Worship of the written word

Requiring workers to have documentation of COVID-19 infection in order to access benefits and requiring labs to have FDA approval to test for COVID-19 early on in the outbreak are just two examples of worship of the written word we have seen recently. More mundanely, people working from home may feel they need to be writing email after email to prove that they’re actually working. 

ANTIDOTE: Recognize that the spirit of a rule is often more important than its letter and that even if a few individuals who don’t fit the criteria get benefits meant for people who are ill, the vast majority of people being helped genuinely need it. In addition, make space for the understanding that the best way to see if work is getting done is *if it is actually getting done*, not if it is being documented at every step of the way.

Only one right way

Oh my gosh, there’s a lot of advice out there right now telling us the best way to do this or that during this pandemic. The thing is, no piece of advice works for everyone, no matter how smart the person giving the advice is. If we’re the advisor in this scenario, we might be taken aback that other people aren’t jumping onto our bandwagon for the best way to educate a 10-year old child or the best time to go grocery shopping. 

ANTIDOTE: Aside from actions that cause real harm, respect that others have made a decision that’s right for them, and be open to learning from their experience.


Paternalism might be coming up for you now in expectations of what your supervisees’ work day should look like. If you previously worked in an office with your direct reports 8:00-6:00, Mon-Fri, you may be expecting that same schedule from them while you all work from home. By making the assumption that this is possible or reasonable for all of your supervisees during a pandemic, you are making a decision about their work without their input. 

ANTIDOTE: Check in with your direct reports to see what other responsibilities they have at home and ask what would work best for them.

Either/or thinking

Either/or thinking sets up us to work inside a false dichotomy, right/wrong, with us/against us, or healthy/sick, for example. Now that we know COVID-19 comes with a fairly long period before symptoms start, we know there is no real healthy/sick distinction. I may be infected and be contagious, but I am not showing any symptoms. When we structure our response to this pandemic in terms of being either healthy or sick, we cannot provide services for people who may be carrying the virus, nor can we accurately measure how many cases of infection exist. To be clear, when I use the word “response” here I mean governmental, occupational, and personal. 

ANTIDOTE: When you notice either/or thinking happening, take a moment to ask if there is a possibility of both/and. Can people be both healthy and sick? Can we structure a response that includes rather than divides?

Power hoarding

In the sudden rush to physically distance ourselves, able-bodied folks have missed an opportunity to learn from people who are often forced to keep their distance all the time: chronically ill or disabled people. Those of us who are able-bodied may never have thought about what it takes to get tasks accomplished when our movement is limited, and therefore we have never made appropriate accommodation for it. This is a type of power hoarding, one that silences chronically ill and disabled people, relegating them to an afterthought. 

ANTIDOTE: Listen to the voices of people who are familiar with the situation we find ourselves in now. Search out books, articles, podcasts, poetry, films made by chronically ill and disabled people, and expose yourself to a new perspective.

Fear of open conflict

If you share living space with another person you have almost certainly experienced some conflict in the past few weeks. The way we handle that conflict can determine if our living situations will continue to be harmonious or not. Fear of open conflict often results in us tamping down hurt feelings and being polite in order to not rock the boat. 

ANTIDOTE: Before you’re in the midst of conflict, talk with whoever shares your space and even role-play a conflict situation. Remember that everyone expresses themselves differently, but all hurt feelings are valid.


Individualism often leads to isolation, because we think we need to do everything ourselves. Many of us are experiencing physical isolation right now, but many more of us are experiencing emotional isolation. 

ANTIDOTE: Realize that we are in fact in this together, and others are feeling much of the same things as you are. Reaching out right now over telephone or video chat breaks down isolation and reminds us of our place in the community.

I’m the only one

This one manifests in an inability to delegate and a lack of trust in the people who surround you. Maybe you see this in a work situation where you’re not sure if your colleague, who is also working from home, will get a particular task done in time. Instead of talking it over with that colleague, you decide to just do the task yourself. 

ANTIDOTE: Have the conversation with your colleague; ask them the necessary questions about capacity and timeliness.

Progress is bigger, more

This one is related to quantity over quality in that it asks us to consider what progress means. Are we making progress if we work more hours? Are we successful if we create more educational activities for the children in our care than we did last week? 

ANTIDOTE: Consider what success and progress mean to you and then assess your plans to see if they are of actual benefit.


Objectivity denies that emotions have any value and that information presented in an emotional way is less valid. I think it’s safe to say that we are all feeling pretty emotional these days, and it’s possible that you’re having to have some pretty emotional conversations, maybe with your staff, family, friends, or boss. I know I feel the desire to present myself as calmly as possible, but that isn’t particularly honest, especially in this moment. 

ANTIDOTE: Respect emotions and what someone who is coming off as “highly emotional” is telling you. Try to remember that the way in which words are delivered does not affect the validity of the experience being expressed.

Right to comfort

We want things to be comfortable. Some of us want things to go back to the way they were before COVID-19 reared its head. But that’s not an option for any of us. The right to comfort shows up when your boss wants things to be business as usual or when your child laments not seeing their friends on a daily basis. It shows up as your desire for a professional haircut or your disdain for those people who just won’t keep 6 feet away from everyone else. It shows up when it feels like there are more unhoused people than usual on the bus, and it shows up when you can’t find any flour in the grocery store. 

ANTIDOTE: Discomfort is the key to growth, and as Tema Okun said in the document this whole project is based on, “welcome it as much as you can; deepen your political analysis of racism and oppression so you have a strong understanding of how your personal experience and feelings fit into a larger picture; don’t take everything personally.”

© 2020 Judy Blair LLC

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