Dominant groups have the most narrow or limited view of society because they do not have to understand the experiences of the minoritized group in order to survive; because they control the institutions, they have the means to legitimize their view. (DiAngelo and Sensoy, 48).
White supremacy is blinding. It obfuscates our perception of the world, distorting some truths while burying others. The funds of knowledge I’ve attained over thirty-six years represent only a tiny sliver of what’s out there. Only now am I coming to grips with just how little I know.
I’ve always associated myself with perfectionism. I’ve written about it, read countless self-help books on the topic, and attended out-patient support groups for it. As a result, I’ve bought into the standard explanation that perfectionism stems from an unbalanced combination of nature, nurture, and external factors. I attacked it with therapy and medication. I took my failure to “get rid of it” as just more evidence that I had it. And then I came across White Supremacy Culture by activist, educator, and author Tema Okun
In the article, Okun discusses the various ways white supremacy influences individual personality traits by favoring certain ways of thinking, knowing, and being in the world. The article explores fifteen personality traits including perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness, quantity over quality, paternalism, individualism, and objectivity.
Okun explains that these characteristics are damaging because “they are used as norms and standards without being proactively named or chosen by the group.” She explains how these norms and unexamined traits damage everyone. Certain traits on the list such as individualism, fear of open conflict, and objectivity have all made appearances in various books and essays I’ve read. But I’ve never seen anything that positions perfectionism as an outgrowth of white supremacy culture.
Perfectionism is only one example of my recent unlearning. Every few days seems to bring some new revelation that causes me to reread the world. Consider the recent shooting in Las Vegas. In the past, I’ve responded to similar white-on-white terrorism by calling for stronger gun reform and excoriating the gun lobbies. And then I read this Twitter thread from @Queersocialism. That led me to look into the relationship between the Black Panther Party and modern gun laws. I’ve existed on this planet for three decades without being exposed to this perspective on gun violence and gun control.
My understanding of reproductive rights is another example of how white supremacy breeds ignorance. Growing up in a staunchly pro-choice household, I’ve always considered myself to be informed on the topic of abortion. And then I began researching reproductive justice and Black women for this month’s Safety Pin Box assignments. What I’ve learned about eugenics, the history of violence against pregnant Black women, and women of color’s contribution to family planning does more than offer “another side” to consider. It demolishes everything I took to be true about how the world works. It forces me to see what I’ve been allowed to ignore.
Turning back to perfectionism, when I posted the article on social media, a number of my white colleagues voiced their disagreement. They said that the traits discussed in the article are just that, individual traits. Aspects of someone’s personality uncoupled from larger social and historical factors. Where the article saw ideology, they saw a sort of agnostic and deracinated individualism.
Understanding perfectionism as a component of white supremacy asks many of us to take a theoretical leap of faith. We can’t connect the dots until we’re willing to reconsider everything about the way we’ve been socialized to see the world. For many of us, we’ve come to understand white supremacy as something that happens when bad white people do things like march with torches on Charlottesville. But this limited understanding of white supremacy as local and individual acts of explicit racism misses the point. It lives everywhere and it informs everything. A metanarrative of systematic oppression that’s been able to render itself all but invisible to so many of us white folks.
In Darren Aronofsky’s 1998 film Pi, a tortured mathematician struggles to reconcile genius, the divine, and numbers. Towards the end of the film he comments that “If we’re built from spirals, while living in a giant spiral, then everything we put our hands to is infused with the spiral.” This strikes me as an apt description of white supremacy culture. We were born into it. We live within it. And without relentless and careful introspection, everything we do perpetuates it.
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