Unlearning Racism Newsletter Week 6 – Aversive Racism and White Supremacy Culture

Hi everyone!

Thanks for another great dialogue Sunday night, to those of you who could come. We are constantly wowed by how this group helps us grow and how thankful we are to be in this community. We are still structuring our curriculum moving forward but are excited to say that we’re digging in our heels and making plans for months to come – covering a broad swath of topics ranging from “cancel culture” to a many-weeks series on the history of the Americas from pre-1492 until now, to modern explanations about race and education, medicine, the criminal punishment system, and so much more. If there is anything in particular you want to see from these newsletters, please reply to this email and let us know! 

As always, you can tell us about your experience through this form. We’re also still running our anonymous question form for anyone to enter any questions that might not be as comfortable to voice to the full group or directly to us (we’ve gotten some GREAT questions that we’re slowly answering in newsletters and dialogues as we go). We’ve also made an website with an archive of all our newsletters to make it easier to share with friends (it’s not very cute because we’re not very techie but it’ll do for now. If you want to help us make it more aesthetically pleasing, we would love that!!). And if someone forwarded you this newsletter and you want to sign up to get newsletters directly, you can do so here

This week, we’re looping back to our first conversations about white supremacy culture and its role in unlearning the more subtle racist beliefs that shape our interactions with the world around us. These subtle racist beliefs are expressed through acts of aversive racism. Aversive racism is rooted in a lot of our beliefs about what is “normal” and “moral,” so our readings this week are going to be focused on the prongs of white supremacy culture that shape aversive racism. If you read the supplemental readings in our very first email, congratulations, you are ahead of the curve! If you haven’t yet, don’t worry, we have them linked here again as the primary resource.


Aversive racism refers to the practice of being vocal against overt forms of racism while subconsciously harboring negative attitudes about certain races or ethnicities, or the actions or lifestyles that may be most closely associated with certain races. It’s not as blatant as overt racism but is more prevalent and harder to combat, because it can be harder to identify. Some examples that you may have seen in your own life might include:

  • Saying “of course I’m against racism” but actively avoiding eye contact with the Black people they pass on the sidewalk.
  • Peers posting black squares for #blackouttuesday but also posting photos of them with Trump flags on the 4th of July (we’ll get into the political structure of Trump politics and why they are in direct opposition to believing that Black lives do, in fact, matter, but for this week, I think we can all at least peripherally understand why we include this particular hypocrisy. If you don’t, reply to this email and we can talk about it.)
  • People (ok, Joe Biden) saying things like “poor kids are just as bright as white kids” (because aversive racism doesn’t end where the Democratic party begins)
  • Denouncing xenophobia toward Asian people on social media but also refusing to eat at a Chinese restaurant during COVID-19 out of irrational fear of the virus.
  • Speaking out against racism while discouraging interracial dating or admitting discomfort with the idea of dating a Black person or person of color.


In layman’s terms, white supremacy culture is the idea that white people and the ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions of white people are superior to Black, Indigenous, and People of Color and their ideas, thoughts, beliefs, and actions. We all live in a white supremacist culture in that white people and our ideas, beliefs, and norms are taken more seriously; white people and our cultural norms are what our leaders and friends think is most appropriate and acceptable. From the first books we read and movies we watched as children, to the media’s messages about who is more likely to be a hero and who is more likely to be a criminal now, we are constantly inundated with information about who is “deserving” and who is not. [This was our first “word we’re learning” word of the week from our June 1, 2020 email (if you want a refresher of the whole definition, you can re-read that message here!)]

This week we are evaluating the characteristics of white supremacy culture that we are *never* taught to talk about or acknowledge as an extension of white supremacy. Those characteristics include the following:

  • Perfectionism – mistakes are seen as personal, deeper flaws within an individual who made a mistake, rather than a singular error.
    • For example: someone’s problematic behavior from many years ago resurfaces as their defining characteristic OR the resistance to identify problematic actions by people that we *like* because mistakes and flaws are seen as so all-consuming that they could not recover. 
  • Sense of urgency – quick, often shortsighted results in order to meet deadlines are higher priority than long-term impact.
  • Defensiveness – when presented with new ideas or feedback, the default position of those in power is defensiveness or deflection.
    • For example: universities telling student athletes to “not bite the hands that feed them” or “be grateful for what they have” when those individuals express that they do not feel supported on campus as Black people. 
  • Quantity over quality – things that are measurable are given more weight than things that are not quantifiable; over-valuing of numbers and under-valuing of people’s lived experiences.
    • For example: believing data about Black people having negative interactions with the police while silently disbelieving a Black friend’s story about a scary, could-have-been-fatal encounter
  • Worship of the written word – if it’s not in a memo, news article, or book, it isn’t believable.
    • For example: believing only what is written down about an encounter, rather than oral history or other forms of sharing information
  • Only one right way – the belief that there is one correct way to do something and that if someone is unwilling or unable to conform to that “right way,” there is something wrong with them.
    • For example: the belief that children are supposed to sit quietly while learning (and that children who cannot sit still need to be “fixed”)
  • Paternalism – the belief that people in power know “better than” those who do not hold formalized power and do not feel the need to get input from those who are most affected by the actions or policies of those in power
    • For example: laws that prohibit people with SNAP benefits from buying certain foods, hygienic products, etc.
  • Either/or thinking – oversimplifying complex issues to “us/them,” “for us/against us,” or “right/wrong” binaries; increasing false-urgency by not allowing gray areas that could provide more alternatives.
    • For example: assuming that Black Lives Matter must be anti-white; believing because pro-white movements have always been anti-black that pro-Black movements must hold that same hostility, rather than 
  • Power-hoarding – power between individuals or groups seen as limited; those with power feel threatened when told that they have more power or when asked to share decision-making power with others
    • For example: “if we create opportunities for BIPOC students to get scholarships that white students aren’t also eligible for, white students will not have the same chance to succeed”
  • Fear of open conflict – emphasis on politeness, blaming those raising issues for their approach to raising the issue rather than focusing on the issue itself
    • For example: “your sit-in is making our school look bad, it doesn’t fix anything to embarrass us!”
  • Individualism – prioritizing individuals’ needs should be met before the needs of the group; focus on individual actions, credit, and shortcomings rather than external decisions of policy-makers
  • I’m the only one – the belief that if something is going to get done, I have be the one to do it because others aren’t as capable or as effective
    • For example: “I can’t delegate this task because I don’t trust others to do it as well, I have to be the one to do it”
  • Progress is bigger/more – prioritizing expansion with no value to the long-term cost; observed in how we define success (more money, more influence, more power)
    • For example: all fast fashion – build the business so big and make profits so enormous at the explicit cost of the environment and company workers, but sell it in such a way that buyers need to have a new style each season (this is true for companies and individuals alike – more sales, but also more stuff)
  • Objectivity – prioritizing “neutrality” over emotion; the belief that there is such a thing as being “objective” and “logical”
  • Right to comfort – the belief that individuals with power have a right to comfort; conflating systemic violence against oppressed groups to individual acts of unfairness toward groups in power
    • For example: “you’re attacking me!” as a default to being told that we did something that was racist.

Thanks to Tema Okun for this comprehensive list (our primary resource this week!)

Ok, but, I see lots of Black people doing these things, too? How is this a “white” supremacy culture when it seems like I know lots of people who are “perfectionists” or want to be “objective”, etc.?

Because we live in a society based on white supremacy, elements of white supremacy culture will exist within all racial groups within the culture. Many possibilities are true; it could also be the value of their culture, it could be internalized racism, or a hybrid. Internalized racism is the development of “ideas, beliefs, actions and behaviors that support or collude with racism… In other words, just as there is a system in place that reinforces the power and privileges of white people, there is a system in place that actively discourages and undermines the power of people and communities of color.” So often, “individuals, institutions and communities of color are often unconsciously and habitually rewarded for supporting white privilege and power and punished and excluded” if they do not comply with these systems. 

As two white women, it is not our place to delve into the how and why of internalized racism; however, we think this is an important takeaway: white supremacy culture is a systemic issue that we will ALL perpetuate and all create/suffer harm at the hands of. 

It is not inherently evil to want numerical data to back up facts or to value written information (in fact, we think that statistics and books are invaluable to anti-racist work). However, we must be conscientious that in our attempts to get numbers, we don’t disregard anecdotal evidence from people’s lived experiences. We must be aware that in giving particular attention to the written word, families’ oral histories and unwritten traditions are still valuable and worth learning. While we aspire to perfection, we must allow ourselves the space to grow AND to be held accountable, without placing our entire value on the worst things we’ll ever do. 

Why are we talking about aversive racism and white supremacy culture at the same time?

Aversive racism is often rooted in these unspoken standards of what is “normal” or “correct.” It’s hard to unlearn our subconscious belief that there is a “right” way to behave, speak up, or give feedback without identifying that so many of our beliefs about “appropriate” behaviors are really rooted in white supremacy culture. For example, if we are valuing “objectivity” but only basing the objective standard off of the values of a white, wealthy, heterosexual, able-bodied Christian-oriented culture, we’re not actually being objective, we’re just perpetuating the belief that white, wealthy, heterosexual, able-bodied Christian-oriented culture is the norm and anything else is deviant, and therefore less valid. 

Our purpose in listing characteristics of white supremacy culture is to note how individuals and organizations unconsciously use these characteristics as their norms and standards for what is “appropriate” behavior. These standards aren’t more “morally” correct, they’re just what we are used to. These usually unspoken standards for behavior make it difficult, if not impossible, to open the door to other equally-valid cultural norms. To unlearn some of these biases about certain behaviors or standards, we have to first acknowledge their existence.


This week, as COVID-19 cases surge around the nation, we want to direct our attention to people who are incarcerated and the massive risk that jails and prisons present to all of our health, particularly during a pandemic. Emily has been working with a South Carolina group that advocates for the humanity of people who are incarcerated and who specifically is focusing on getting bars of soap and pulse oximeters into prisons through the coronavirus surge. Please consider donating via PayPal to heartsforinmates@gmail.com or via Cashapp at $heartsforinmates or $h4inmatesrebirth (if you need the donation to be tax deductible). If you would rather send a check, you can mail it to:

Hearts for Inmates

PO Box 50754

Greenwood , SC 29649

ONE WAY TO TAKE NON-FINANCIAL ACTION (Or, inaction for this week)

Today (Tuesday, July 7th) Black leaders and allies are asking those of us who are working toward anti-racism for a day-long economic blackout. Today, if you MUST spend money, consider buying from Black and Latinx owned businesses instead. Here is a directory of alternatives for your favorite brands, owned by Black-women


Primary Resource

  • Characteristics of White Supremacy CultureTema Okun presents a list of characteristics (the one off which we based our list from above) that she has identified in organizations. She presents the characteristic and the antidotes for mitigating harms that may emerge as a result of them. 

Supplemental Resource

  • Seeing White – a Scene on Radio podcast hosted by one of Emily’s heroes in activism, Chenjerai Kumanyika (Chenjerai also has a podcast called Uncivil that debunks the myths of the Civil War, which we will absolutely get to in the months to come. If you want to get ahead, you can listen here)
  • Whiteness – Talking About Race with the Smithsonian Museum of African American History & Culture (a great overall primer on whiteness)

Other Resources We Loved This Week

A. Philip Randolph, a civil rights leader and activist who organized the first predominantly Black labor union, said “Justice is never given, it is exacted.” Freedom is not bestowed, we fight for it — just as the activists of the Freedom Summer did more than 50 years ago.”

  • How I Became A Police Abolitionist – the brilliant Derecka Purnell explains her journey to police abolition, as a person who grew up in a community that was heavily policed. We’ve intentionally waited to talk about police abolition in our newsletters until some of the initial shock has died down but every week get a question about it and thought that this article summed it up very well: 

“When people dismiss abolitionists for not caring about victims or safety, they tend to forget that we are those victims, those survivors of violence.” → (we’ll be talking about the history of policing and the relationship between race and police in the months to come, but this is a great article for the time being)

We’ll see you on zoom this Sunday, July 12 at 7PM EST! Until then, wear your dang masks and drink more water!

In solidarity,

Ellie and Emily

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