White Supremacy Culture & Burnout in Caring Professions

This post is part of a presentation for my Sustainable and Resilient Spiritual Leadership class at Starr King.

So, what is white supremacy culture?

As poet Guante says in his poem “How to Explain White Supremacy to a White Supremacist,”[1] “white supremacy is not a shark – it is the water.” White Supremacy Culture is the culture of oppression that we all live in, which disproportionately benefits white people and puts Black People, Indigenous People, and People of Color at a disadvantage. This system defines whiteness as the default and anything else as the other and centralizes the perspectives and values of white culture.

But wait, we have laws and policies about discrimination and racism. Why are you making this about race?

Well, the fact is that racism is systemic, which means that it’s a lot more than the overt acts of discrimination that we see in the news and in our own lives. This culture of white supremacy is everywhere, and it shows up in our organizations in many ways.[2]

This can mean a sense of urgency (which is often false or exaggerated) and the idea that we must be productive at all times and at any cost. White supremacy culture tells us that perfectionism is the expectation, and mistakes are moral failings rather than opportunities to grow. It also tells us that there is often only one right way to do things, and perpetuates a lot of other either/or thinking. This can lead us to overwork, overperform, and stress ourselves out over being perfect. And it doesn’t leave a lot of room to be human.

In fact, that’s another huge part of how white supremacy culture shows up in our organizations. Have you or someone you’ve worked with ever been accused of being unprofessional for showing emotion at work? What about for having to miss work for being human, like when you’re sick, a family member is sick, or you just really need a mental health day because being human is hard? Turns out, that’s white supremacy culture in action, too. This model devalues our humanity and only values the logical, the rational, and the productive. Moreover, it might decry “teamwork” as a manipulation tactic – accusing someone of letting their team down for taking time off work, but still placing the onus of success on the individual rather than the team. This individualism and depersonalization makes for highly productive capitalist societies – and truly miserable employees.

We cannot dismiss and devalue our needs and emotions and expect to thrive, and we have the research to back that up.

Burnout, especially in caring and helping professions[3],[4] , such as social work, medicine, teaching, and ministry, is rooted in causes such as unsustainable workloads, poor work/life balance, experiencing secondary traumatic stress, and unsupportive work environment[5]. Now of course, some of that just comes with the territory. One of the great honors of those roles is the opportunity to show up for people experiencing incredible hardship or trauma. However, much of the rest is shaped by our culture.

The resounding theme that I saw through the many examples of WSC in organizations is that it shows up as generally devaluing relationships and humanity. When we expect our people, especially our caring professionals, to be highly-educated, highly “professional” and unemotional production machines who give themselves tirelessly to their causes and care more about the bottom line than their health and time with their families, we are choosing to perceive them as a means to an end rather than as human beings with needs and inherent worth and dignity, and we are perpetuating systems of oppression that harm all of us, regardless of race.

As Brene Brown says, “I used to believe that we were thinking, rational people who occasionally feel emotion. We are actually emotional people who occasionally think.” In fact, Brown posits that vulnerability and humanity – all those icky, “unprofessional,” “unproductive” things that are so discouraged in our society – are the key to our success and thriving as human beings.[6]

Rather than dismiss our humanity in favor of productivity and professionalism, we would do better to lean into our messy, emotional natures and make room for that in our work. Our human needs to feel appreciated, connected, and supported are not as easy to calculate as our productivity, but they are more important for our general satisfaction and longevity in our fields. When we center relationships and humanity in our work, we cause a holy disruption to the status quo that allows us to engage in our work more deeply and more passionately, knowing that we are recognized and valued as people, rather than merely as producers. Such disruptions are radical acts of justice and of self-love, which is a radical act of rebellion all its own.

PS – The day after I submitted my presentation, I stumbled on this episode of Brene Brown’s “Unlocking Us” podcast that is specifically about burnout. Check it out here: https://brenebrown.com/podcast/brene-with-emily-and-amelia-nagoski-on-burnout-and-how-to-complete-the-stress-cycle/


[1] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DbwcXDunxA8&pbjreload=101

[2] https://www.showingupforracialjustice.org/white-supremacy-culture-characteristics.html

[3] https://hbr.org/2019/07/when-passion-leads-to-burnout

[4]  https://medium.com/@jardana/centering-wellness-reimagining-justice-care-and-change-making-professions-e7ef05ae766a

[5] https://ada.com/signs-of-burnout/

[6] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7o

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