Reflection Pool: White Supremacy Culture in the Workplace

Perfectionism--- check
Sense of Urgency-- check
Progress is Bigger, More--- ummm... check!

As I read through the "Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture," I felt an unease growing in the pit of my stomach. The anxiety and stress that I've experienced over the past year, the nights I laid awake listing out all the things that still needed to get done, the overwhelm that I sensed within our team and in myself as we planned our next steps -- suddenly these feelings and dynamics that I had previously accepted as part of the gig began to take a different form in my heart and my mind. They became suspect, symptoms of something deceptive and malignant deep in my subconscious that I hadn't noticed or named before. Am I, through the norms and standards I've set for my team and our work, simultaneously perpetuating and suffering from white supremacy culture? 

I've been wrestling with this question for the past several weeks and, as difficult as it is to reckon with this, I admit that I am indeed implicated in maintaining a work culture that is damaging to the well-being of my colleagues, our partners, and myself. Despite my sincere and lifelong commitment to dismantling racism, the pervasive ideas, expectations, and values of white dominant workplace culture are deeply ingrained in me and the way I see and move in the professional world. As I dug deeper into resources and writings on white supremacy culture via the SURJ network (Showing Up for Racial Justice), I was reminded that “the longer you swim in a culture, the more invisible it becomes.” Here I was, always on the lookout for overtly racist behaviors to call out, while blindly swimming in a sea of oppressive behaviors, beliefs, and values that I accepted as ‘normal’. Realizing this is incredibly painful and shameful, and at the same time I feel a peculiar sense of relief at having my blindspots brought into the light. There is power in naming something—we have to see something and name it before we can do anything about it. And with that realization comes a great responsibility to do something about it.

I share these reflections with you, our friends and colleagues in the Food Systems Leadership Network, because I want to ask for your help. I know we're not the only ones seriously examining our own assumptions, norms, and practices, to do our part in breaking down the dominant culture that reinforces white privilege while oppressing and harming people of color, in our communities and in our workplaces. Have you identified these and the other characteristics of white supremacy culture in your own lives and organizations? Can you share with us how you've dismantled it and reconstructed more inclusive teams and organizational cultures? What resources have you leaned on for guidance along this journey? We invite your ideas, suggestions, and encouragement, and also ask you to hold us accountable as we go about resetting our expectations, shifting our practices, and creating a workplace culture that is rooted in equity. If/when you see us perpetuating white supremacy culture through our role as facilitators of this community of practice, please let us know. 

I'm deeply grateful for and honored to be a part of this community, and want to give particular appreciation and a deep bow to the leaders of color who have been extremely generous with their time and expertise to help guide this work while teaching me about equity, sovereignty, and resistance. Thank you for the opportunity and the privilege to share this journey with you. 

In solidarity and service,
Susan Lightfoot Schempf

As the Wallace Center's Program Officer in Community-based Food Systems, Susan provides leadership for the Center's programs and initiatives in support of community-based organizations using food systems as their platform for positive social change. She can be reached at or (501)313-7405.


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    Teri McKenzie on 1/3/2019 5:18:20 PM

    Thanks for writing this Susan. I just read the Characteristics article that you cited and wanted to say that one of my greatest challenges/frustrations in facilitating a paradigm shift is that all too often (always?!) we are working in an environment that runs counter to the end goals. For example, funders want to see the impact of their grant money within a year to perhaps three, even though systemic change takes years, if not decades. Driven by the need to ensure that our orgs have adequate funding, all too often we compromise our ideals "in order to get the job done."

    This is not to say that we as individuals or organizations are conscious of racist attitudes/beliefs/ways of operating. Clearly, there is much work to be done. It seems that each of us has an opportunity to interject as many of the characteristics (or really, the antidotes!) as possible into our work places with a long term eye to slowly, but surely, normalizing this new way of working together. We need to create organizations that serve as role models to educate/inspire others. Then, slowly, slowly, we can begin to reap the benefits that a more equitable world has to offer.

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    Joe Bobman 2 months ago

    Hi Susan! Thank you for naming this and calling for more conversation around it. That SURJ resource on White Supremacy Culture has also been incredibly helpful for me in working towards a healthier relationship with my work and with my colleagues. I work a lot with our organization's technology tools and data, and there is a pretty big and troubling overlap between conventional "Data Culture" and White Supremacy Culture.

    I'm curious whether you have received or found any further resources or recommendations as a result of posting this call for conversation.

    Thanks for your work!

FSLN Admin