White supremacy & cultural therapy: change starts with you

A hand is extended towards a mirror, with the index finger touching its reflection. The following words appear across the image: "White supremacy and cultural therapy: change starts with you."
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Last week, I wrote about four characteristics of white supremacy culture—fear, perfectionism, either/or thinking, and quantity over quality—and the need for cultural therapy. I believe it’s important to highlight (especially for white-identified people, or people who are skeptical about the relevance of white supremacy to their lives) that white supremacy culture harms all of us in different ways. People of color often experience the most material harm from white supremacy, but speaking as a white-passing bicultural person, it has been eye-opening and life-changing for me to reflect on how much of my own emotional and spiritual pain stems directly from the ways that these characteristics have impacted myself and my family. This week I’ll talk about four more of these characteristics—individualism, defensiveness and denial, avoidance of conflict/discomfort, and sense of urgency.

The characteristics of white supremacy culture that I am focusing on come from Tema Okun’s article at http://www.whitesupremacyculture.info/. You can find her most recent article about the characteristics here.

A point of clarity: it is not my intention to prove that these characteristics are indeed essential to white supremacy. I’m starting from that assumption. Additionally, it is not my intention to criticize, judge, or in other ways pathologize people who are struggling with these issues. White supremacy is a cultural problem and it affects all of us in different ways. To the extent that it affects us by impairing our ability to face reality or to respond to the pain of others with compassion and a desire to help, this is a sign of trauma and disconnection from self. We can name the impact of such behaviors without shaming the person. It is important to remember that the urge to shame and punish others for their behavior is itself a manifestation of white supremacy culture.

Individualism, white supremacy, and cultural therapy

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic and the shelter-in-place and social distancing protocols that it gave rise to, there was already an epidemic of loneliness in the western world. Individualism teaches us that we stand alone and that we can’t and shouldn’t expect support from our community. It teaches us to resent others who are in need. It teaches us to disregard the impact that we have on each other, which is damaging to our relationships. Attachment is the normal human drive to stay connected to each other. An infant naturally reaches for its primary caregiver when distressed. If separated from its parents for a prolonged period of time, the infant can become so overwhelmed that it disconnects from its desire for closeness. The next time that the parents return, they may be surprised to discover that their infant no longer “needs” them. This is not true. What is actually true is that the infant has given up on hope and is now avoidantly attached. The false belief (illusion) that you don’t need anyone is a natural response to trauma. It is a brilliant survival strategy when you truly cannot count on anyone, but the lesson is often overgeneralized and is a major reason that people enter therapy.

Defensiveness and denial, white supremacy culture, and therapy

It is obvious how defensiveness and denial are foundational mindsets for white supremacy culture. In order for American society to continue to reproduce itself, the culture has to be in denial about the reality and impact of the history of slavery and other anti-Black racist policies, and individuals must experience defensiveness when asked to examine this denial.

Defensiveness and denial are also strong impediments to personal growth and healing. They are evidence of unbearable pain in an individual’s psyche. Defensiveness and denial must be overcome before someone can truly receive help for addiction or mental illness. Defensiveness and denial serve to maintain a dysfunctional family system by making it taboo to talk about how a certain family member’s untreated pain is affecting the family as a whole. Upon closer inspection, it becomes clear how the role that defensiveness and denial play in maintaining harmful social situations is a natural extension of the role that defensiveness and denial play in maintaining harmful internal situations. The personal is political. Or rather, the political is an extension of the personal.

Right to comfort, fear of open conflict, power hoarding

When we believe that we have a right to comfort, we prime our nervous system to reject anything that makes us uncomfortable. Since growth only happens through discomfort, this belief stunts our growth. When combined with fear of open conflict, which is often the result of being uncomfortable with another person’s emotions, the belief in the right to comfort also harms our relationships by making it difficult to accept other people as they are. When we don’t allow ourselves to accept other people as they are, we desire control and power. Since it is impossible to truly have control over anything but ourselves (and since that only comes with patience and—paradoxically—self-acceptance), the desire for control can only lead to suffering in the end.

Sense of urgency

The current form of globalized capitalism encourages a sense of urgency. The constant feeling of stress we all experience as we try to pay the bills and take care of business takes a toll on our mental and physical health. It is also based on an illusion that this way of being is necessary and inevitable. It is of course a necessary component of our current consumer culture. When “growth” is defined in terms of dollars and cents, then we can’t afford to think about our health, our relationships, or the impact of our actions on future generations. This alienates us from our true selves and what makes life worth living.

The thing to remember about all of these characteristics of white supremacy culture is that they are mindsets. They are ways of thinking. Practiced over time, they lead to a baseline state of consciousness and nervous system configuration that is self-perpetuating and unconscious. When we stop and reflect on how much inner work it will take to change our individual lives, we begin to realize that the effort required to change the world is beyond anything we’ve ever imagined. The other thing to remember is that, just like with any mindset, these mindsets can be addressed through (cultural) therapy, but we have to start where we are. No one expects you to know everything about changing your mindset when you start off. The need to know everything is yet another manifestation of white supremacy culture. Fortunately, you don’t have to change your mindset before you start changing your behavior, and seeking help and acknowledging that you don’t know everything is a great place to start.


Nauser Bear is a licensed marriage and family therapist in California (LMFT#123099; licensed with the BBS as Nicholas Jon Reynolds). To work with Nauser, send an email to nauserbeartherapy@gmail.com, call (510) 394-5373, or schedule a free 20-minute consultation by clicking here.

Disclaimer: This blog and comments on it do not constitute medical or mental health advice. If you are in need of support and live in California, contact me to set up a consult to see if working together is a fit. Otherwise, seek mental health support in your area. If you are in danger of hurting yourself or someone else, please call 911 or the National Suicide Prevention hotline, which is available 24/7, at 800-273-8255.

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