Qualities of Regenerative & Liberatory Culture
By Daniel Lim | July 2020
White supremacy is not fringe extremism that occasionally rears its ugly head when “White power” groups, like the KKK, hold a rally. White supremacy is an entire economic and political apparatus that pervades all aspects of White-dominant societies. White supremacy is also a cultural apparatus that reinforces a particular set of values, norms, and narratives that place White, European people and their way of life, beliefs, and customs on a pedestal above other cultures. Many people doing anti-racism work have probably encountered by now the insightful article on White supremacy culture written by anti-racism educator, Tema Okun. If you haven’t read it, I would recommend reading it here before you continue with this article.
When I read Okun’s article for the first time, the qualities of White supremacy culture felt immediately familiar to me because I recognized them from my own Chinese culture. They could have easily been used to describe Chinese supremacy culture. Chinese civilization has been a dominant imperialist force for most, if not arguably all, of its 4,000-year history. Due to this long history of cultural, economic, and political dominance, Chinese people possess an internalized Sinocentrism, or sense of Chinese superiority. Many times, that sense of superiority is expressed overtly and consciously. In other times, it is expressed unconsciously in subtle ways. I recognized the qualities of White supremacy culture because I grew up with them as Chinese values in my Chinese community and Chinese household. I am particularly familiar with the qualities of perfectionism, defensiveness, paternalism, and fear of open conflict.
When it occurred to me that White supremacy culture and Chinese supremacy culture shared many qualities, I realized that these qualities were not unique to White supremacy culture or White-dominant societies. All supremacy cultures possess similar qualities. In fact, it is these qualities that make a particular culture a supremacy culture. All imperialist societies are supremacy cultures - Western European and American societies, Chinese society, Russian society, Indian society, Japanese society, and so on. Supremacy cultures don’t all share identical values, of course. Chinese supremacy culture does not uphold the value of individualism that White supremacy culture does, but it does uphold the value of filial piety, which the latter does not. But all supremacy cultures share a majority of the same values.
Since supremacy culture is so oppressive and toxic, I’m inspired to think of what the alternative is. What is an alternative culture whose qualities are rather liberatory and healing? Okun did identify in her article specific “antidotes” to each of the qualities of White supremacy culture. But an antidote is not quite the framework I want to use. An antidote is by definition a curative response to poison, and therefore the idea of an antidote is limited in its imagination because it is bound to the thing that it responds to, which in this case is supremacy culture. I want to escape the orbit of supremacy culture. I want to explore what a liberatory and healing culture looks like on its own terms, not simply as medicine to the harmful effects of White supremacy culture or any supremacy culture.
I immediately turned to nature. There is no need for humans to invent an alternative culture blindly when we can just turn our eyes and ears to the living world around us. Nature provides the blueprint for a culture that is liberatory and healing. The domain of life is a place where no supremacy culture exists, because life operates by a completely different set of motivations. All living things are inherently sovereign. Bee colonies and mycelial networks are the inventors of democracy, not the Ancient Greeks. Forest ecosystems are made up of cooperative relationships among living things that regularly engage in mutual aid and generative conflict. Organisms are infinitely experimental and creative in their pursuit of survival. Living systems in short are life-affirming and regenerative - everything that a supremacy culture is not.
Naming the qualities of supremacy culture helps us diagnose the problem. Turning to nature helps us find a better path. To that end, I want to present here a collection of qualities of what I call regenerative culture. Inspired by ecological systems thinking, I like to define regenerative as creating conditions that replenish the life-sustaining powers of the Earth, or as biomimicry expert, Janine Benyus, famously said, creating conditions that are conducive to ever more life. When applied to human beings, regenerative can be interpreted to mean the creation of conditions that help all of us replenish ourselves, enjoy life and work, and fulfill our highest creative potential.
Many of the ideas in this article are drawn directly from living systems, but I want to acknowledge that there are also ideas discussed here that are unique to the human species and come specifically from indigenous cultures and communities of color/global majority that have known and practiced these ideas for millennia. In order to honor this social lineage as well, I am calling these qualities not just the qualities of regenerative culture, but more fully, the qualities of regenerative and liberatory culture. The term regenerative honors the ecological lineage, and the term liberatory honors the social lineage. I also recognize that many of the ideas in this article resemble the antidotes that Okun identified in her article. While I do not use the framework of an antidote, Okun’s writing does serve as an inspirational starting point, so I want to credit her for naming many of the qualities I discuss here.
Below are the qualities that describe organizations, communities, and societies that maintain regenerative and liberatory culture.
- People understand that who they are as individuals is primarily shaped by their relationship to others
- Proverb attributed to African cultures: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.”
- People engage in reciprocity and mutual aid to foster resilience and ensure collective survival (also shows up under Communal Wealth further below)
- Solidarity and collective achievement are celebrated (also shows up under Spaciousness and Timefulness further below)
- People understand that collective creativity drives innovation more often than individual talent does in an organization or society
- Contrast with White supremacy culture’s emphasis on individualism, specifically competition that results in one winner and a telling of history that puts prominence on individual change-makers
- People understand that interdependence does not mean conformity or obedience; that each human being is ultimately free to act according to their own values, perspective, and interests
- People regularly self-organize
- Consent is practiced at all levels of society and in all facets of life
- People are trusted to have the talent, creativity and good judgment to get the job done without being micromanaged
- People are able to exercise creativity and executive decision-making within their realm of responsibility (also shows up under Decentralized and Participatory Leadership further below)
- People are able to self-actualize their highest creative and human potential
- Contrast with Chinese supremacy culture’s insistence on obedience to an authority figure and denial of the self in order to advance some notion of greater good
- Conflict is welcomed as a portal to stronger relationships, greater trust, and mutual growth and learning
- Conflict is not seen as something bad to be avoided just because it feels uncomfortable; in fact, conflict can feel liberatory, like a weight off one’s shoulders, when it is done right
- People have the courage and know-how to engage in conflict in order to name and disrupt harmful dynamics and make space for healthier dynamics to emerge
- People regularly engage in truth and reconciliation processes and take accountability for repairing harm
- Contrast with the fear of open conflict, defensiveness, and insistence on the right to comfort that are common to supremacy cultures
- People recognize that knowledge is largely co-created by people engaged in the act of relating to one another; that meaning and information become literally embodied in relationships that form the threads of a community
- Diverse modes of knowing and different bodies of knowledge are placed on equal footing, particularly those that have historically been marginalized such as traditional indigenous knowledge, somatic wisdom, emotional intelligence, spiritual and mystical knowledge, and women’s knowledge
- Ordinary people and communities are able to define for themselves what constitutes knowledge and the parameters of the knowledge-making process
- Cerebral and academic learning is balanced with and reinforced by lived experience, somatic and heart intelligence (also shows up under Learning Culture further below)
- Complexity and uncertainty are embraced (as described further below)
- Contrast with the supremacy culture values of objectivity, worship of the written word, belief in only one right way, and the primacy of the Western scientific method and the subsequent concentration of expertise and the act of knowledge creation in academic institutions
Decentralized and Participatory Leadership
- Leadership is an ecosystem of roles that many different people can play, and not a formal position that can only be occupied by one person
- The most nimble, creative, and responsive organizations are ones in which the power to decide and act is shared by everyone
- Everyone in a group or community is given the information they need to help shape important decisions
- The voices of those who are historically left out of decision-making processes but who are most often impacted by decisions is intentionally centered
- People are able to exercise creativity and executive decision-making within their realm of responsibility (also shows up under Autonomy above)
- Contrast with the supremacy culture values of power- and information-hoarding, hierarchy, paternalism, and the belief that single individuals are responsible for doing things that matter
- People understand that true abundance and true wealth (the kind of wealth enjoyed by all, not hoarded by a person) grows the more it is shared
- People engage in reciprocity and mutual aid to foster resilience and ensure collective survival (also shows up under Interdependence above)
- Wealth and success are defined and measured holistically to account for quality of life, quality of relationships, presence of justice and equity, opportunities for creative fulfillment, and the health of communities and natural ecosystems
- Contrast with the supremacy culture values of power-hoarding, quantitative measures of success (most notably money), and the belief that progress is defined by ever more growth
Complexity and Uncertainty
- People are open to and actively cultivate a sense of mystery, wonder, and magic; they are okay with not knowing and being uncertain
- People are at ease with the fact that the universe is full of paradoxes and apparent contradictions; and that ecological and social systems are inherently complex and messy
- People are humble and kind in the face of cognitive dissonance in oneself and others, and do not project shame or guilt over the fact that human beings don’t always live up to their values
- Discomfort is appreciated as a portal to learning; not conflated with being in danger
- People are able to hold multiple truths and work with difference
- People embrace the relative nature of truth and the relational nature of knowledge (related to Relational Knowledge above)
- People appreciate more than one way of getting something done
- Contrast with the supremacy culture values of either/or thinking, objectivity, insistence on having only one right way to do something, and insistence on the right to comfort
Whole Self and Whole Systems
- People understand the world as an integrated whole, so they are adept at taking an interdisciplinary lens to understand and solve complex problems
- People can identify and care for the interconnections between health of the individual, health of the community, and health of the land
- Audre Lorde: “There is no such thing as a single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives”.
- People’s experiences of privilege and oppression are examined through an intersectional lens
- People recognize that work is often personal, so space is made for people to bring their whole selves to work while healthy boundaries are maintained between the personal and the professional
- Contrast with the supremacy culture values of objectivity, either/or thinking, standards of professionalism that exclude the personal and emotional, and the tendency of Western science to try to find linear, reductionist explanations for complex phenomena
- People recognize that learning never stops and that all living things continue to learn throughout their entire lifetime
- People receive from others the generosity they need to make mistakes while being held accountable to learning from their mistakes
- Cerebral and academic learning is balanced with and reinforced by lived experience, somatic and heart intelligence (also shows up under Relational Knowledge above)
- People’s good work and achievements are recognized, appreciated, and celebrated
- People stay humble and curious
- Projects have realistic timelines so that people can carve out time to challenge assumptions, introduce multiple perspectives, and engage in periodic reflection (also shows up under Spaciousness and Timefulness below)
- Contrast with the supremacy culture values of perfectionism, defensiveness, and the belief that learning happens primarily in school and through academic studying, and the tendency to devalue other forms of knowledge
Spaciousness and Timefulness
- Problems and questions are given the space and time they need to be meaningfully examined and deliberated
- Decision-making processes are inclusive, equitable and move at the speed of trust
- Efficiency is defined and measured by how well a body of work endures in an organization or community, not by how quickly it was implemented
- Organizations stay centered in their values, mission, and long-term vision rather than constantly pushed and pulled by the allure of short-term wins and demands from others
- Solidarity and collective achievement are celebrated (also shows up under Interdependence above)
- People are paid and projects are funded what they’re worth
- Projects have realistic timelines so that people can carve out time to challenge assumptions, introduce multiple perspectives, and engage in periodic reflection (also shows up under Learning Culture above)
- Contrast with a perpetual sense of urgency, desire for efficiency, and emphasis on quantity over quality that characterize supremacy culture
- People enjoy individual, communal, and ecological healing rituals that process trauma and grief
- Organizations and communities are able to name direct and structural forms of harm and violence
- Contrast with supremacy culture’s inability to name structural violence and recognize trauma, and its tendency to abort grief by weaponizing it into xenophobic rage towards an “other”
Affinity for Systemic Transformation
- Systemic transformation is defined as transformation that dismantles the paradigm, values, and overarching goals of a system that does not work and that builds a new system with a new paradigm, values, and goals that better serve us
- People demonstrate the bravery and courage needed to dismantle broken systems and build new systems
- People possesses the faculty for radical imagination and futurism
- People center care and love during systemic transformation so that change does not inflict even more harm on the most vulnerable populations
- Contrast with supremacy culture’s desire to maintain the status quo and produce insipid solutions to complex problems that show a lack of imagination and willpower
We all live in supremacy culture. We are participants in systems of privilege and oppression. Given this reality, one of the most important things to remember when transitioning from supremacy culture to regenerative and liberatory culture is to take it slow. The qualities of regenerative and liberatory culture themselves point the way for how we should do this work. We need to do this work in community. Maintain a learning culture and create room for mistakes since we know we won’t get it right the first time. Focus on a few things at a time and give each thing the attention it needs since we also know that we can’t do it all in one try. Conflict will happen, lean into it. Lean into the messy and uncertain nature of this journey. Take care of yourself, your community, and the land while you are doing this work.
The ideas presented here build on the work and teachings of innumerable teachers, human and more-than-human, who have entered my life. The greatest teacher in my life is, of course, the living world. To this, I can name several more-than-human teachers who have taught me much: the grandmother red cedar tree who protected my family’s old home, the forests, lakes and waterfalls of Minnewaska State Park, the trees and birds in my neighborhood, the salt marsh of Brooklyn, the rain and thunder beings that bring glorious storms to New York every summer, the waters of Lake Champlain and the forests of the Green Mountains of Vermont, and the deserts of the American Southwest, a particularly sacred and healing place for me.
As for my human teachers, there are many from whom I learned directly, while others I’ve only had the pleasure of learning from their writing. The human teachers whose work this article builds on include: John Todd, Margaret Wheatley, Janine Benyus, Tema Okun, Melissa Nelson, Juanita Brown, Fritjof Capra, Winona LaDuke, Donella Meadows, Beverly Colston, Matt Kolan, Deane Wang, Dot Brauer, John Mohawk, Robin Wall Kimmerer, bell hooks, Anastasia Yarbrough, and David Abram.