white columns

Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun’s Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture

By Owen Sullivan

The Noise Project explores culture through a scientific lens. This term, culture, is most often used when describing ethnic and religious customs that shape the decisions and lifestyles of individuals. Yet a different sort of culture–organizational culture–is another powerful force that shapes behaviors and decisions in the workplace. Kenneth Jones and Tema Okun examine the pervasive organizational culture that many workplaces exhibit under the current status quo. They condense this prevailing organizational culture into fifteen characteristics that are frequently exhibited, calling them the “15 Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture.” Importantly, Jones and Okun found that these characteristics were exhibited by both white-led and people of color-led organizations. It’s important to study these white supremacy culture characteristics to become aware of these potentially harmful organizational norms that exist in our workplaces.

The full fifteen characteristics of white supremacy culture can be found here, and below, I’ve outlined a few of the most common themes of white supremacy culture that appear throughout these characteristics.

A Narrow Definition of Success 

A key aspect of white supremacy culture is that, in many workplaces, success is often seen as a binary that is measured only by quantitative results. Projects, when examined through this lens, either succeed if they generate profit or make some other quantifiable impact, or fail if they do not make profit and fail to make some impact that can be quantified. Such a definition of success is indifferent to the importance of process and to the qualitative benefits that can result. Additionally, this common viewpoint causes individuals to view a project as either a success or failure, without any in-between, which oftentimes leads to the oversimplification of complex issues.

Relationships Between Employees

Many characteristics of white supremacy culture pertain to the power and interpersonal dynamics between employees at organizations or corporations. This organizational status quo enforces the notion that strict power dynamics should exist between bosses and workers. White supremacy culture dictates that power is limited and that only some employees should be involved in planning and decision-making processes. Finally, relationships between employees in an organization that exhibits white supremacy culture characteristics are often competitive, with employees fighting amongst each other for power and recognition, rather than collaborative. It is important to be aware of this dominant culture worldview that sees power as a limited commodity for which employees must compete.

Desire to maintain traditional norms and ways of operating

All fifteen of the characteristics that are displayed in white supremacy culture stem from one foundational mindset: a desire to maintain tradition. The use of phrases such as “this is the way we’ve always done things” are common in workplaces, leading to a continual reinforcement of the status quo. For those people and corporations who have reaped the benefits of the status quo, this approach often goes unquestioned. Additionally, those who propose variations from the traditional way of operating are often seen as rude and unhelpful.

Moving Forward

White supremacy culture is clearly a powerful force in our workspaces that affects our relationships, interactions, and even our definitions of important concepts such as success and power. And now, to leave you all–and myself–with a final question: how can we as individuals, scientists, and thinkers innovate and change a culture that is so deeply ingrained in our institutions and the individuals who exist within them? This is a question that lies at the heart of the NOISE Project.