Tema Okun Speaks: The author of a profoundly consequential document says people are getting it all wrong
Even if you haven’t heard of Tema Okun, you know her work. In the late 1990s, she was a consultant in the burgeoning diversity and equity training industry when she put together a short paper titled “White Supremacy Culture.” Actually, calling it a paper is a bit of a stretch. It’s eight pages long, and consists of a series of bullet points, listing out what Okun describes as characteristics of white supremacy culture, followed by antidotes to them.
If you work in an office that has an even slightly progressive leaning workforce, you’re probably familiar with the bullet points, even if you’ve never seen the paper. The bullet points list some of the characteristics of white supremacy culture, including things like perfectionism, sense of urgency, defensiveness, worship of the written word, Individualism, and objectivity.
Starting in the late 2000s, the paper began to be circulated widely in progressive spaces. After George Floyd’s murder, it was everywhere, and it started to morph into something strange, often weaponized in the internal battles that continue to engulf institutions, organizations, and even corporations around the country. It took me a while to fully comprehend the impact of the paper, but trust me, it’s been profound. Maurice Mitchell, director of the Working Families Party, recently mentioned her in an essay about dysfunction at progressive organizations. “Decontextualized or uncritical use of intellectual material, like the Tema Okun essay on white supremacy culture, has at times served to challenge accountability around metrics and timeliness or the use of written language,” he wrote. “Yet metrics and timeliness—and the ability to communicate in writing—are not in and of themselves examples of white supremacy.”
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A recent essay in the New York Times on the DEI industry noted that “the activist Tema Okun’s work cites concepts like objectivity and worship of the written word as characteristics of ‘white supremacy culture.’... And microaggression training workshops are based on an area of academic literature that claims, without quality evidence, that common utterances like “America is a melting pot” harm the mental health of people of color. Many of these training sessions run counter to the views of most Americans — of any color — on race and equality. And they’re generating exactly the sort of backlash that research predicts. Just ask employees at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, which had to issue an apology after it posted an Okunesque graphic that presented rational thought, hard work and ‘emphasis on scientific method’ as attributes of ‘white culture.’”
Over the past year or so, I’ve heard from people who had reached out to Tema Okun pleading with her to clarify her influential document. And she’s done just that, updating and clarifying it on a new website, though as far as I can tell, few in the progressive world have noticed. I reached out to see if she’d be interested in talking publicly for the first time about the paper, its evolution, how she views it, and how she thinks others should use it. She agreed to do so, saying she feels a responsibility for it, and wants to encourage people to stop weaponizing it in the service of internal feuding or personal advancement.
I’ll send a transcript later, because I thought it was a fascinating conversation, but for now you can hear it wherever you get podcasts by searching for Deconstructed.
P.S. I’ll have a big story out on The Villages, Florida, this weekend. If you know anybody there, tell them to sign up for this newsletter (free version suffices) so they can see it when it publishes. They won’t be disappointed, I promise.