Finding Space to Imagine: How White Supremacy Culture Stifles Creativity
August 11, 2021
August 11, 2021
Launched just over a year ago, the upEND Movement seeks to end the child welfare system, which we call the family policing system, as it relies on surveillance and separation of children from their families. Many are calling for reforming this harmful system. There is an urgency to help families and communities experiencing these harms and to quickly come up with new solutions. But how do we collectively and collaboratively create new ways of supporting and caring for families without replicating the coercive structure, surveillance, and separation in other forms?
Grounded in abolition theory, the upEND Movement advocates for families to have the resources to keep their children safe and nurtured in their homes, and for their communities to have the resources to determine and provide support to minimize and address harm when needed. upEND recently published How We endUP, an initial set of ideas about how we can, in community, improve support and care for children, youth, and families as we move toward the abolition of family policing. These ideas address what must be dismantled as well as what must be created and supported. They are not a prescription with detailed policy and practice recommendations—we believe that work must be done within communities.
Launching the upEND Movement and sharing the ideas in How We endUP have sparked a number of questions. Most common among them is: If your goal is to abolish the child welfare system, what would you replace it with? The all too clear subtext of this question is: What, very specifically, will you replace it with? What is the evidence-based, detailed, point-by-point strategic solution that will safely and immediately solve the problem you have identified? Depending on your vantage point, this may be a perfectly logical question, or may invoke exasperated eye rolling. The point here isn’t to debate whether it is or is not a fair question. The point is to understand it as a question rooted in the culture of White Supremacy.
As Black Lives Matter activist and author DeRay McKesson notes in his book On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case for Hope, the challenge of White supremacy culture is that it is so primordial, so insidious, and so normalized that it can be difficult to see; recognizing its presence can be a struggle for everyone. White supremacy culture often operates in subtext, swimming just below the surface but strongly directing the current. A few characteristics of White supremacy culture that show up in the subtext of the “but what would you replace it with” question are perfectionism, a sense of urgency, and either/or thinking. These serve to stifle creativity, to stifle even the idea of holding space to do some creative thinking that might not be wrapped up in a flow chart after a one-hour brainstorm session. And that is by design. It speaks to another characteristic of White supremacy culture: the need to control the solution and define whose expertise is centered versus who merely gets to have input.
This brings us to another frequent question in response to the idea of abolishing the family policing system: If you gave families and communities more financial resources (for example, redirecting money that goes to foster parents to birth parents) to prevent and minimize child abuse and neglect, how do you know they would spend it… wisely? (Subtext: how can you trust that they won’t spend it on drugs? Fancy sneakers? Sugary soda?) This question also holds characteristics of White supremacy culture, as well as racism and anti-Blackness. In this case, the characteristics are a focus on individual responsibility and only one right way, as well as perpetuating a myth of laziness and lack of work ethic as a way to justify paying people who were formerly enslaved inhumane wages. The question holds fast to the myth that any person can Horatio Alger herself out of poverty if she just tries hard enough and makes good choices, ignoring centuries of structural racism and policies created to prevent her from having good choices to make in the first place.
Of all the responses that the idea of abolishing the family policing system invokes, one is particularly troubling. We too frequently hear, “But there is nothing in these communities.” Subtext: there are no strengths, there is no resilience, there is no love. There is no humanness. This statement most perniciously reveals the ubiquity of White supremacy culture, as it places the utmost value on material and financial resources while erasing the beauty, complexity, strength, love, and resilience alive in every community and among all people. Moreover, it disregards the context that the “nothing” that is seen derives not from individuals who lack motivation or strong character, but from centuries of systemic oppression that has, by design, excluded minoritized people and communities from accessing basic resources and opportunities, actively undermined the accumulation of wealth and education, and destroyed neighborhoods with highways and toxic waste.
We are ready to move beyond these questions, ready to move beyond the White supremacy culture that breeds them. It is important that we call them out for the ways in which they uphold existing power structures and the racist tropes that enable them and also for what they stifle—room for the creativity to imagine and build different, antiracist ways of being in the world. They serve to keep the conversation about abolition swimming above the surface, confined to the boundaries of what White supremacy culture knows and understands about child protection, safety, and well-being.
One framework from which we draw inspiration is Afrofuturism, “a way of imagining possible futures through a Black cultural lens.” We note and embrace the plurality of the word “futures” in Ingrid LaFleur’s definition. There is no one right way, there is no tidy Answer with a capital A. There are wonderful examples in local communities across the country, and in the longstanding work of activists and organizers, such as those who collectively helped to shape How We endUP. There is, we hope, space in community that must be protected; the spaces to dream, to build, to pursue, to fail, and to try, try, try again as we forge a thousand paths to a liberated world.