News & Update

Finding Myself Beyond White Institutional Culture

As a white woman, my anti-racist work is two-fold: supporting people of color, particularly Black organizers, who are working towards new, equitable systems, and doing the internal work required of white people to break down how we have internalized racial superiority. The latter is about how I can grow into the person that I want to be. Doing so requires acknowledging and working to dismantle my past and present entanglement with upholding racism.

At Living Cities, we recognize that centuries of oppression have set the context for where we are now, and that oppression manifests in our current systems and spaces. When we look at the scale of the racist systems we are challenging, it can be hard to know where to start. We use the person, role, system framework to understand that it is essential to begin with ourselves and our relationships with others.

At Living Cities, we have employee resource groups (ERGs) to grow through relationships with others who share our identities. The white woman ERG has offered me a place to interrogate how I may be preserving systems that were constructed to harm or exclude people of color, namely white institutional culture.

White institutional culture is the default in most workplaces. It shows up in the narratives we have around what “professionalism” and “productivity” look like. White institutional culture emphasizes time, structure, rules. It operates on assumptions of scarcity, thus emphasizing and encouraging competition. Relationship-building and vulnerability is trivialized with minimizing mantras, such as, “Leave your emotions at the door.” Ultimately, white institutional culture diminishes the humanity of everyone involved, and it is especially harmful for Black and brown folks.

White people created this system, and there is a lot of work we need to do to dismantle it.

Living Cities’ white woman ERG has offered community in one another as we work together towards becoming the anti-racists we aspire to be. Our conversations often extend beyond our office as we talk about how we can organize our families, friends and neighbors towards racial justice, and how we can be more active bystanders. Anti-racist work cannot be confined to our workplaces; it must be central to how we define ourselves and move through the world.

As I engage with my colleagues, friends and family around what it means to be a white person engaged in anti-racist work, I see with more and more clarity how my own humanity is also restricted by these systems. I’ve been looking deeper at the characteristics of white institutional culture that I’ve internalized, and thinking about how I might work against that.

A fixation on efficiency and productivity are two hallmarks of white institutional culture. In white institutional culture, time that isn’t spent on production is considered time wasted. Exhaustion is justified by the reward of checking something off our list. This element of white culture is inseparable from our capitalist system, and it values our bodies based on what we can produce. It isolates our personhood from our work, and it is hard on our bodies and minds.

I am challenging white institutional culture by making time for rest, reflection, and art. In a culture that doesn’t value creativity and reduces rest to “time-wasted,” making space for these habits is an act of resistance in itself. Finding joy in creative processes is a form of healing– whether it is from a stressful day or from a 400 year history of violence. Making time for joy and relaxation is a means of self-restoration. The work of becoming an anti-racist is life-long, and knowing the racist systems we are up against can feel deeply daunting. Rest and creativity keeps us healthy and able to stay in this work for the long-haul.

At Living Cities, we have been building these self-restoration practices into our work to challenge white institutional culture and to build a culture that honors our humanity. Art and reflection is an element of our work that is just as legitimate and necessary as capturing data and completing deliverables. We build drawing activities, meditation, and movement into our meetings. We have normalized visual art and poems in our check-in questions. Additionally, our ERGs offer dedicated time and space to process, hold one another accountable to our anti-racist principles, and build community.

As we build these practices, I have noticed that it is more natural for my ERG group to push one another in our anti-racist work. Because we have been honest with one another about what we are feeling and what our needs are, we have grown in relationship with one another. It goes against white institutional culture to acknowledge our bodies and how we are feeling, but we have been working to name and talk through our physical selves. While being vulnerable in this way can feel uncomfortable at first, it is part of the work. Our growth is dependent on the depth of our relationships.

Anti-racist work has brought depth and vibrancy to my relationships, spaces, and sense of self. It has encouraged me to reclaim my creativity. I have found room to honor my feelings, art, and relationships as the essential parts of my life that they have always been– but that white institutional culture had demoted. This is the work of coming back to ourselves that white people need to do– to confront how we have legitimized systems that are harmful to people of color and dehumanized ourselves in the process.

Subscribing to white institutional culture holds us back from joining folks who are working to build a world where every person is affirmed for their inherent value and where each of us can thrive in community with one another. I want to live in the world that they imagine. To get there, I need to start with me.

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