If you’ve any interest at all in the current roiling contretemps over “critical race theory,” then you’ve seen “The List,” which is a compendium of 15 qualities that purportedly constitute “white supremacy culture.”
The List is ubiquitous, in workshops on campuses, in corporate diversity sessions, in secondary school programs, and in New York City education workshops for teachers. Versions of the List appear on government websites, on “anti-racist” nonprofit sites, and have made it onto the Race, Research, and Policy Portal of Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center.
The List even briefly appeared on the Smithsonian Website for the National Museum of African American History in 2020, before someone with risk management sense took it down.
According to a recent essay in The American Mind, the List is used in Denver Public Schools as well as the newly infamous Loudoun County public school system in Virginia. Authors Frederick M. Hess and J. Grant Addison note:
In Loudoun County, Virginia, one of the nation’s wealthiest counties, the Dismantling Racism Workbook used to train teachers this summer highlighted ‘15 Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture,’ including a weird admixture of positive and negative stereotypes, including ‘perfectionism,’ ‘progress is bigger, more,’ ‘right to comfort,’ and ‘defensiveness.’
This List does, indeed, appear in a manual called the Dismantling Racism Workbook, a non-academic tract published by DR Works, a now-defunct organization based in Durham, North Carolina.
This workbook made one of its most infamous appearances in New York City at the behest of the city’s controversial Department of Education chancellor, Richard Carranza. Carranza is controversial chiefly because he believes in critical racialist ideology, and virtually all of his statements and actions substantiate this.
Shortly after assuming his post in 2018, Carranza ordered that all teachers and administrators—125,000 employees in all—be subjected to a $23 million program of mandatory “implicit bias” training.
Bluff and Bluster in the Big Apple
So in May 2019, critical racialist ideology came to life for New York’s unsuspecting teachers and administrators, who found themselves subjected to “training” run by a shadowy nonprofit called the Center for Racial Justice in Education (CRJE). It offered the List drawn from the racialist document Dismantling Racism: A Workbook for Social Change Groups, one of several cut-and-paste versions circulating.
The event caused a brief kerfuffle in the press, but with its typical short attention span, the media moved on. Questions remained.
Who generates this racialist material, where, and why? Is it the result of sophisticated theorizing? Did this “White Supremacy Culture” emerge in the findings of an extensive, multi-year social science study?
Of course, the most obvious question is: Where did this list originate?
You can be forgiven if you believe that the list was generated from social-science studies using academic research methods to create knowledge, or perhaps a survey that engaged feedback from thousands of subjects. Or perhaps you believe that this list of “White Supremacy Culture” emerged from a careful theoretical exposition offered by university faculty with standing and respect.
But you already know that it was none of these things, don’t you?
You suspect that the entire edifice of critical racialism sits on a foundation of fakery and fiction, storytelling, and superstition. Your suspicions are spot on, and the “White Supremacy Culture” list is one of the most egregious examples.
As with all of critical racialist material, it’s traceable to the unsubstantiated opinions of a mere handful of critical racialists. The author of the List is Tema Okun, a would-be academic. Okun has been trading in the lucrative racialist workshop industry since at least the mid-1990s when she was a disaffected corporate trainer.
The List appeared in Okun’s 2010 dissertation written for an obscure “school of education” program at the University of North Carolina-Greensboro. Her work itself is a parody of scholarship, a personal narrative of her days working with nonprofits, variously called “Grassroots Leadership,” “ChangeWork,” and “DRWorks.” The dissertation is what is called, in the lingo, an “autoethnography” of Okun as a workshop facilitator. Okun spins a tale of her time with off-campus nonprofits and the people with whom she was consorting at the time. Readers are free to judge its quality for themselves. The List in her dissertation first appeared in an article Okun wrote for ChangeWork in 1999.
But as for the List itself, where did Okun get it? What was the source Okun used for the List in the original article?
Let’s allow Okun to tell us in her own words, found on page 29 of her dissertation.
Sometime in the mid-1990s, I arrived home after a particularly frustrating consultation with an organization I was working with at the time. In a flurry of exasperation, I sat down at my computer and typed, the words flowing of their own accord into a quick and dirty listing of some of the characteristics of white supremacy culture that show up in organizational behavior. The paper I wrote in such a frenzy on that afternoon so many years ago lists 15 behaviors, all of them interconnected and mutually reinforcing—perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness and/or denial, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, the belief in one ‘right’ way, paternalism, either/or binary thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, progress defined as more, the right to profit, objectivity, and the right to comfort.
Okun simply concocted the list, like some medieval alchemist.
She made it up, then put it into an article, then put it into a workbook, then used the workbook as part of her dissertation, then published her dissertation as a book with an obscure independent publisher, and she continues to promulgate this fraudulent List today with the help of hundreds of folks who, most likely, don’t know better and who repeat it in a way designed to legitimize it. As Nobel Laureate economist Daniel Kahneman observes, “A reliable way to make people believe in falsehoods is frequent repetition, because familiarity is not easily distinguished from truth.”
Are you surprised that this is the origin of the List?
Are you surprised that a disaffected diversity hack scribbled the List in a fit of pique and then cobbled it into an article in 1999, which now appears nationwide in materials presented as fact to the nation’s schoolchildren, teachers, corporations, and college students?
This is how academic fakery enters the popular consciousness to become conventional wisdom. It becomes ritualized, repeated, and unquestioned until its origins become obscured.
Medievalism Comes Back Strong
Fakery such as the Okun list of “white supremacy culture” becomes part of what anthropologists call a myth-dream or collective story for an ideology. The process is like that found in primitive magic-driven societies, which provide excellent examples of communities constructed around a core myth-dream, like the one we deal with here—Okun’s list of “white supremacy culture.” Let’s look at the similarities.
Take, for instance, the Pacific Island communities in Melanesia, where storytelling and myth-building are conventional ways of understanding the world. The core myth of a society is eventually ritualized, and it becomes a “historical truth” that is referenced but never challenged as the foundation of a growing corpus of stories and narratives.
The Melanesian cargo cult, for example, has been studied for decades. It’s grounded in magic thinking that exemplifies this process of developing the collective story. As time goes by, the ritualized “truth” enters into the stream of what is commonly believed. It contributes to what the anthropologist Kenelm Burridge calls an increasingly secure “lodgement”:
Once a statement or proposition is given consent it becomes True, a part of truth, assuming an existence which is not necessarily contingent on explicit withdrawal of consent. For, having achieved objectivity or truth in a myth a statement may persist in the myth long after those who retail or who listen to the story say they discount its validity for the present. Then the statement becomes a historical truth. And, so it would seem, the longer a statement is contained in a myth as truth the longer it will persist. New truths, or rather, statements which are becoming truths, and which are expressed in the additions of individual storytellers, are extremely vulnerable to, and dependent upon, consent. But once the first tentative consent begins to harden into solid approval the lodgement becomes more and more secure, more and more independent of explicit consent or inarticulate dissent.
Moving from primitive Melanesian myth-building back to the United States, we can see that Okun’s “white supremacy culture” list is fast becoming a primitive “lodgement.” It is her contribution to the critical racialist myth-dream. Critical race theory, which is more properly labeled critical racialist ideology, is constructed of these types of “lodgements.” Okun’s list is just one fabrication. There are others.
A Litany of Racialist Fabulism
Here some of these fabrications—“lodgements”—of the critical racialist myth-dream and those who made them up or popularized them:
“White privilege”? Popularized by Peggy McIntosh in the late 1980s and into the 1990s; McIntosh was a comparative literature professor who specialized in the poetry of Emily Dickinson and who today bizarrely claims to be a “senior research scientist.”
“Racism as prejudice + power”? Concocted by a teaching assistant called Patricia Bidol in 1971 and published in a pamphlet for use in Detroit schools.
“White fragility”? Popularized in the 2000s by a woman named Robin DiAngelo, who falsely claims to be a sociologist and who lifted the term from a person by the name of David G. Allen, who apparently coined it sometime in the 1990s. DiAngelo carries a lot of baggage.
“Racial microaggression”? Conjured by psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1970 and given new life in the 2000s by racialist psychologist Derald Wing Sue, whose entire program was substantially debunked in 2017 by Emory University psychologist Scott Lilienfeld.
“Racial fatigue”? A relative newcomer in the lexicon that purports to describe a psychological reaction to “battling racism,” as in: “I’m so exhausted.” This concept is popularized by diversity workshoppers such as Mary-Frances Winters, who runs a consultancy called The Winters Group.
In all of these, the technique is to simply fabricate something ideologically useful, to pass it off as fact, and then to circulate it with bluff and bluster. It demonstrates the power of medievalist thought, action, and repetition to achieve legitimacy as a ritualized “truth,” a secure lodgement in the critical racialist myth-dream.
The effervescence of this neo-medievalist turn in our discourse should give us pause. If we ask ourselves how fearful peasant villagers in the feudal middle ages could have been so easily duped by the fakery of pseudoscience and magical thinking, we need only look at ourselves in the 21st century to witness how the same kind of medievalist superstition has found a comfortable home in America’s respected institutions. The fraud of Okun’s “white supremacy culture” and its sibling fabrications is not just tolerated, it is celebrated and propagated. It is taught to our children, and it is imposed in the workplace.
As for Okun, she is still active and even maintains a website created in 2021 called “White Supremacy Culture,” where she continues to propagandize the List she fabricated in 1999. She has parlayed her efforts into a gig at Duke University’s Human Rights Center.
The unintended irony of Okun’s list is that the title of her dissertation is The Emperor Has No Clothes. Given that the “white supremacy culture” list is a primitive document, sourced from the fevered imagination of a disgruntled ideologue, and passed along in ignorance, the description fits. Meanwhile, the racialist medievalism that it represents continues its assault against logic, reason, and the scientific method.
We began dismantling medievalism three centuries ago. Perhaps it’s time to finish the task with its racialist descendant.