The Supremacy Trap
How the Structures and Values of European (White) Cultural Supremacy Replicate in Our Home Countries
by Farzin Farzad
There has been a profound shift in how systems of oppression present themselves. If you’re on the receiving end of this form of oppression, it may be something you recognize easily, something palpable to you. But if you’re from a dominant culture in your home country, you are most likely oblivious to it. It can actually be confused with social progress. This shift is the evolution of supremacy culture–and its globally dominant form, white supremacy–from the construction of biological superiority to cultural superiority. And it is something we’re replicating in our own countries with our own peoples. It is the natural evolution of the divine right of rule, adapted to our modern racial/caste-driven capitalist system. While this shift is nothing new, and a process that has been evolving for decades, it’s being adopted on a broader scale, and it’s something we must resist.
Nowadays, you have to go to extreme elements of society to find notions of biological superiority among races or ethnicities. In the United States, the deserved backlash from the infamous Bell Curve study forced the discussion into the racist fringes (and surprisingly, it’s growing more and more taboo to espouse the supremacy of “Western Civilization,” which I view as coded language for white supremacy). When eurocentrist biological superiority was debunked in the U.S., descendants of Europeans reframed supremacy into a function of culture. An entire mythos was developed to claim that whiteness remains dominant because it is culturally superior, and that European dominance was a direct result of the centuries of specific cultural traits that allowed the region to advance beyond all others.
For many readers here, the concept of European biological supremacy is easy to counter, but its cultural evolutionary form is less so. It is something much more esoteric, difficult to recognize, and thus something we have readily internalized. It also gives us the illusion of access. One cannot easily change one’s biology, but if they adopt these white cultural traits, views, and norms as a methodology, they will be granted access to the growth, wealth, and power that Europeans acquired over time. This cultural supremacy has become embedded in the very fabric of our reality, in the collective unconscious; in the values we uphold; and especially, in the conceptualization of how privileged classes and castes psychologically justify their grip on power. It is something happening on a global scale, being adopted throughout the Global South.
The scholar Tema Okun famously created a list of 15 characteristics of white (European) supremacy culture to name these traits. If one critically reviews their work, it quickly becomes evident that these are traits espoused by those in positions of power, designed to inhumanely extract from subaltern peoples, to maintain that power. It just so happens that the construction of whiteness or European-ness itself, and the imagining of the entire concept of global racial categories, were designed to justify European colonial dominance over the planet. Whiteness, white culture, and European civilization are entirely constructions of power. And while countries of the Global South are aware of their colonial histories, many have not adequately deconstructed white cultural supremacy, but instead have adopted and even reconstructed it in a culturally relevant form to fit their countries and peoples. This means that the dominant groups in our home countries are replicating the same methods of cultural supremacy learned directly from their colonizers.
It’s not hard to hop on social media these days and listen to elites in our countries tout how their habits, ideas, and work ethic were all that were required to achieve their wealth and social status. The myth of meritocracy has become a global phenomenon despite the overwhelming research that shows that power and wealth are much more often determined by societal, socioeconomic, and familial factors. The propaganda of meritocracy should, in fact, be viewed as a legacy of colonialism.
A broader trait that should be deconstructed and re-imagined in a more culturally inclusive framework is the nature of formality in our societies and workplaces. In dominant cultures, there is not only a heightened respect for the written word as Okun suggests, but also the entire conceptualization of what is formal, and thus valid. On the contrary, many cultures across the globe value organic/fluid dialogue and decision-making, and view supremacist models to be unnecessarily rigid. There are cultures in our own countries that grew through oral traditions, whereby they created spaces for authentic dialogue, healing, and communal co-creation, rather than the top-down command and control structures preferred in supremacist systems.
In other regions, this lack of formality can also be attributed to the fact that communities were barred, often under threat of violence, from organizing into formal structures. Oral communication and distributed networks, including leaderless movements, were often a means of survival. While I’m uncertain whether the eurocentric concept of formality evolved as a function of European values or is a natural product of civilizational evolution, I can recognize that cultures evolve to reflect or survive the power structures in which they operate. And just because cultural markers and traits evolved to survive oppression, do not make them any less valid than a culture borne out of a well-resourced and extractive colonial civilization. Therefore, we must respect the value systems created under great stress and social constraints, knowing that historically, power has had great influence over cultures and values. We must respect that less “formal” or codified social relations should be given the same type of respect that formality is given.
Additionally, because of its sheer dominance, supremacy culture has made us less imaginative. We can’t possibly comprehend new futures under a cultural value system which is a legacy of colonialism. This is often evident in the supremacist desire to plan and anticipate outcomes. While central planning isn’t necessarily a culturally supremacist trait in itself, over-reliance on it has resulted in forms of unyielding bureaucracy that leave no room for emergent thought and strategy (see Adrienne Marie Brown’s work on Emergent Strategy). The supremacist ideal of bureaucratic central planning is one that assumes simplicity, that information is readily available and outcomes can easily be predicted. But in a lot of cases, we don’t have that luxury, and we operate in very complex environments with lots of uncertainty.
This heightened reverence for formality has allowed for codification of norms and values which were in turn replicated by our own elites. Europeans and their descendants imprinted their value systems onto structures as procedural norms. In this manner, white supremacy embedded itself into the culture and has rendered white supremacy more automated and harder to uproot. We’re essentially on Eurocentrism autopilot.
What does this mean for our social spaces, organizations, workplaces, etc.? It does two things. First, it removes the individual oppressor from the equation. If organizations are perpetuating supremacist norms, then it’s simply a matter of adhering to organizational, systemic, or cultural values. There is no perpetrator because we are doing things as they should be done; “should,” of course, being anchored to white/European norms and values. It essentially gives cover for bad or oppressive behaviors. “I can wash my hands of it because that’s just how things are done; not my fault!” Secondly, it puts the perpetual stranger, or outsider, in a constant state of heightened alert, which requires a high and sustained degree of energy to operate and eventually assimilate into these foreign cultural frameworks and value systems. Folks who didn’t grow up in these formal systems have an extremely difficult task of learning and assimilating. This directly contradicts the myth of meritocracy that supremacist culture espouses as mentioned above.
We cannot fall into the trap of replicating supremacist systems in our own countries, and in any of the social spaces we’re a part of. In my line of work, I have been anecdotally seeing countless folks in different parts of the world adopting a lot of the oppressive supremacist propaganda that have their origins in a very specific American form white supremacy, and that is disheartening. We must learn to pinpoint and counter the supremacist cultural norms and values that were imposed on our home countries and peoples through colonial expansion. We cannot be willing participants in this evolution of supremacy culture that is molded to look more like us. We must build truly inclusive systems and structures that account for the values, norms, and desires of all who they govern, where no one culture system coercively overpowers another.