Acknowledging and Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in the Workplace

I was introduced to the document “White Supremacy Culture in the Workplace” at the 2016 Theatre Communications Group (TCG) annual conference in Washington, DC.  The document, I learned, is being used as a foundation for the equity, diversity, and inclusion work TCG is conducting.  Throughout this post when I refer to “white supremacy culture” it is through the lens of this document.

My first response upon reading the document was shock.  Not only did every item listed in the document show up in the way we conducted business at our organization, they were embedded in the DNA of how we function.  My next response was rationalization: “why would we not strive for perfection?”, “of course there is a sense of urgency, we have to move fast, there is so much to do!”  

I was deeply concerned about how our modus operandi was so perfectly aligned with the document and deeply uneasy and unsure about how to even begin the conversation internally.  So, I put the document, my concern, and my uneasiness aside…for a year.  I completely recognize the privilege inherent in my ability to put it aside for a year.  But, that is what I did.

My reintroduction came at the 2017 TCG annual conference in Portland.  I saw a session called “White Supremacy Culture in the Workplace and How to Dismantle It” in the schedule and committed to attending.  The organizers provided the link to the document in the session overview and I read it again.

The session was pragmatic and effective, using facilitator and attendee experiences as case studies and discussing ways to address each situation.  I felt the urgency and necessity of tackling these issues and also the enormity of the problem…there is a reason they call it systemic racism.  It isn’t necessarily racially biased hiring practices, it is how we do or do not allow other voices a true place at the table and true participation in decisions.

I reached out to Tirzah Tyler, one of the session’s facilitators, for help.  I expressed the shame and overwhelment I felt recognizing how deeply white supremacy culture was embedded in the culture of the organization I help lead.  Tirzah looked at me with compassion and a bit of surprise and said, “that is true of most organizations.”  This both soothed and depressed me.  Our organization wasn’t alone in shutting down dialogue through our very work practices, but we have a tremendous amount of work to do as an industry and a society.

I pushed the industry and society piece aside for the moment and focused on our organization.  How to start this conversation?  There was no quick fix, but we couldn’t make any progress if we didn’t start talking and acknowledging the problems.

First, I had to come to grips with my own issues with the phrase “white supremacy.”  That phrase evokes visions of hooded men with torches.  That’s not me.  That’s not our organization.  How could I go back to Virginia, distribute this document, and say to our predominantly white employees that we are perpetuating white supremacy culture in our organization?  Those are some loaded words right there.  How do we compassionately, yet unflinchingly, unpack the issues embedded in those words?  It took me a year to own this reality.  How to bring all our employees along this path more deliberately and quickly while not shocking/scaring/shaming them into not wanting to walk out onto the path in the first place?  How to best work through our white fragility?  We firmly believe Shakespeare’s work is for everyone; how do we cultivate a more mindful and inclusive culture that invites the diverse perspectives we welcome in the Playhouse?

I chose a side door.  Another 2017 TCG session mentioned the Harvard Implicit Bias Tests.  I thought if we could start getting our heads wrapped around bias in general we could make our way to dismantling white supremacy culture in our workplace.  I wanted to discuss the way we individually look at the world and how those perspectives could be coloring the way we interact and, therefore, limiting our ability to have true dialogue and  uncover the best ideas.  I’ve always loved self-examination and sociological imagination.  Learning how the my history affects my present actions; how the way I interface with the world affects the way people respond to me; bringing unconscious motivations to the light so that I can choose my approach and not let my assumptions control me.  I, naively as it turns out, believed everyone loves to do this.  I thought we could work through some of the tests and that those discussions would organically dovetail into an examination of our workplace culture and the “White Supremacy Culture…” document.

We have a full administrative staff meeting each month.  All full-time employees within our Finance, Marketing, Tour Operations, Education, Box Office, and Development departments attend.  I decided this was the easiest place to start.  After an overview of my experience at the TCG conference, I expressed my desire for a more self-aware and inclusive workplace.  I announced we would be working through the majority of the Implicit Bias Tests together and the group decided to start with the “Male/Female, Home/Career” test…it seemed the least fraught.  The consensus in the room was that we wanted to get more comfortable with the language around bias and how to talk about it before tackling the issues of racial bias.

This became much more complicated than I expected.  Turns out, not everyone approaches this stuff with the same enthusiasm I do, shocking, I know.  Some folks fundamentally don’t feel it is appropriate and/or useful to discuss these personal beliefs/perspectives in a work environment.  I could (and may) write a whole post about this process and how Brené Brown’s TED talk on vulnerability is helping us, but that will have to wait.  I started to believe that it was going to take much longer to get to the topic of our workplace culture.  Then the rally and violence in Charlottesville happened.

I want to, and we will, continue to unpack and work through the issues coming to the surface within the administrative staff meetings.  However, knowing the horrifying events 40 minutes down the road from us were motivated by extreme belief in white supremacy, I could no longer allow my personal squeamishness with the phrase to keep us from talking about our corporate culture, not just with the administrative staff, but with the whole company.  

We’ve wanted to establish quarterly full-company meetings for some time.  Our touring troupe happens to be back in town for a couple of days in October.  With the support of our co-founder and Director of Mission and our Associate Artistic Director, we are using this opportunity to start the conversation.

I don’t know how it is going to go.  The Implicit Bias Test process has driven home the fact that there are as many reactions and approaches to this work as there are people in the room.  It won’t be easy.  It will be uncomfortable at times (often).  It will take a lot of trust from every single person in the company.  But, this work is no longer optional, it is essential to our ability to be the best organization we can  be.

We are experiencing one of Malcolm Gladwell’s “tipping points.”  This isn’t just about history or statues or names on buildings; we have to look deeper.  It is about how we interact as individuals; how we run our organizations; how we welcome, value, and embrace other perspectives; how we allow those perspectives to inform and change our own; how we become better because of those changes; better people, better organizations, a better society.  These are not “them” issues, these are “us” issues.  It is time to take responsibility and make changes.

2 thoughts on “Acknowledging and Dismantling White Supremacy Culture in the Workplace

  1. Amy, I’m glad you’re on this path, and I’m glad you have the leadership to welcome your colleagues to join you. Couple, three things… 1) I love Brené Brown and excerpt her talks all the time in my storytelling curriculum! 2) One of my colleagues from Alternate ROOTS, who is originally from Staunton, is writing a show about white privilege called Good Ol’ Boys. Would love to connect you. 3) Speaking of Alternate ROOTS, I couldn’t help but think of that organization the whole time I was reading your post. I believe there are a wealth of resources there that could aid your journey with grace and vision. Particularly, I’m thinking of a few uprooting oppressions using arts strategies consultants/trainers who would be valuable assets. Please let me know if you’d like to talk further. In community, Shannon

    1. Thanks, Shannon! Yes, PLEASE, I would love to connect with your Alternate ROOTS friends. The more we can help each other the more useful and long-lasting this work will be.

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