World Trust

White Women, Patriarchy, and White Superiority

Posted by World Trust Team on June 3, 2015

 system_of_inequityWithin the World Trust frame of the System of Inequity, the relational elements among the internal and external components of Racialization are named. In this piece written by World Trust collaborator, Tilman Smith, she shares a personal story of the weight and invisibility of her own internalized white supremacy. 

World Trust is committed to envisioning and creating a world that flourishes. We engage one another, and the general public, in an ongoing, exploration of a system that churns out inequities through a simultaneous focus that engages the deeply internal work and the external structural change that is necessary to create a world that works for everyone.


White Women, Patriarchy, and White Superiority

As a white woman, there is a fleeting moment just after a person of color describes the racist behavior of another white woman, but before there is any additional commentary, when I feel as if a stone has been dropped into my stomach. It hurts just enough that I almost feel it hitting bottom; but it also happens so fast that I could ignore it if I want to. It is in this split second that I have a possibility of understanding how white supremacy works within me.  The reality is that I most often choose to ignore it and move the conversation away from me and towards the noted offender. I do this for several reasons; to try to be a true listener, to offer information if asked, and more surreptitiously to avoid any connection to culpability. But, after many years of actively listening to these stories there is no ignoring the pattern of white women such as myself to behave in mean spirited ways when we perceive that we are out of control, feeling under-appreciated, and/or on the verge of being called racist.

Because of countless similar conversations, I have spent years focused on this behavior pattern in white women, and have landed on the idea that these behaviors stem from the collision of our internalized sexism and our internalized white superiority. The strategies that white women have learned to survive sexism (control, certainty, linear and dichotomous thinking patterns, passive aggression to name a few) rarely are helpful in our efforts to be anti-racist and cross-cultural. It is often in this collision that we behave in mean-spirited ways that we profess to be innocent but whose impacts have painful consequences for people of color.

These stories are always easier for me to explore and to “diagnose” when they are about other white women; there is even a degree of satisfaction when I can present my very best anti-racist analysis with succinct words like white privilege, white superiority, and white supremacy. It is all of a sudden much fuzzier when I sense that I am the perpetrator of this meanness.

An example of this happened at work not too long ago, when I was in a meeting with a mostly white women and one woman of color, and we were tackling a difficult situation that I determined to be time sensitive and had heavy financial implications. The fact that I had this situation framed in such a way and was insisting that we move forward in a linear and speedy fashion were indicators of how deeply I have internalized white, male organizational culture.  We were moving forward, except that the woman of color, who is my elder, colleague and friend, kept putting up what I considered to be road blocks to a timely solution. I became frustrated and impatient, but instead of stopping to ask why she was doing this, my voice became louder and my remarks became more sharply directed at her. While this strategy resulted in meeting my immediate needs, meaning it allowed us to move towards a “reasonable” solution in a small amount of time, it also resulted in my colleague literally recoiling from me and shooting me a look of deep betrayal. Here was that moment when I could have felt that stone dropping to the pit of my stomach if I had been open to it. But, I had no analysis at this point; no pithy words to describe my own racism and internalized superiority. That stone sat in my stomach, and over the next few days, I tried relentlessly to pry it loose with rationalization, defensiveness, and righteousness.

But it stuck, and so I talked to my colleague. She described my face in that moment as becoming contorted, so much so that she barely recognized me. Her response wasn’t a fear of my power, but a recognition of the speed with which my racism and white superiority trumped all else. I didn’t want to recognize the ugliness in me that caused my colleague and friend to see me as a malevolent, contorted person. No part of me wanted to analyze the institutional and structural support that situated me to behave in such a disrespectful way.  My internalized sexism told me that she didn’t understand the pressure I felt, and that we’d all be in trouble if we didn’t find quick solutions!  My internalized white superiority told me that she was lucky that I was looking out for all of us, and that only I could save us from disaster! And, of course she was right. My insistent denial that I had behaved in a mean-spirited way and caused her this pain didn’t mean that it didn’t happen.

In order to stop the meanness, I have to be willing to give up my need to be regarded as a good, nice, pure, perfect person and explore the confluence of sexism and white privilege that encourages me to hold on to these identities. It is in those moments when I feel most challenged around my oppressed identity as a woman that I call on my areas of internalized superiority. This is an invitation to all white women to explore when and how we are doing this in the hopes of causing a little less harm to both others and ourselves. This is an invitation to sit with the stone.

Using the Infinity Loop Frame with Tilman's Experience:  


In Tilman's story we see her reflect on how she has internalized messages of white superiority and see how that bias influences her treatment of her colleague.  We learn some about the emotional chain of reactions Tilman experiences and how much processing and analysis it takes for her to unravel the confluence of privilege, bias and the effects of living within a patriarchal society that Tilman experienced internally which manifested in external behavior with her colleague.

These patterns aren't unique to Tilman and her colleague. Unchecked, these patterns permeate work environments and other institutions.  In this way, one interaction at a time, one work place at a time, one institution at a time, white superiority becomes embedded in our culture and in our structures and generates the messages, the patterns of relating, that create the internal biases and ways of being that create experiences like Tilman's and her colleague's.  All parts work together to perpetuate and continue to churn out inequity.    

Questions for Reflection:

Do you recognize some of the elements of this story? If it you were in the white author's position, how might you have responded?  If you were the person of color in this story, how might you have felt/responded?  After reading and considering the content of this article, what might you do differently if you found yourself in a similar situation as that of the white author or the person of color?

TCS_Pic_LHN2Tilman Smith, author - For the last 30 years, Tilman has worked in early learning, predominantly focusing on projects that provide culturally relevant support to educators of pre-school children and families impacted by poverty and racism. Currently, she is a Regional Coordinator/Coach Manager for a statewide early learning quality improvement system. Early on, Tilman realized that she needed to understand how white privilege impacted her anti-racism practice and began actively seeking out education in the hopes of more honestly addressing the disparities that exist in the United States, and especially in our educational system. To deepen this practice, she has concentrated on the intersection of internalized sexism and internalized superiority in white women and how this intersection creates both challenges and opportunities for white women in multicultural situations.


Ilsa Govan, editor - Co-founder of Cultures Connecting (, has extensive experience as a facilitator, consultant, writer, classroom teacher, and social justice activist. She has led conversations about racial equity at workshops and conferences across the country. Prior to Cultures Connecting, Ilsa worked as an Equity and Race Specialist for Seattle Public Schools. She earned her Bachelor's Degree in Special Education from Western Washington University and her Master's Degree in Bicultural Human Development from Pacific Oaks College Northwest. Ilsa is deeply invested in examining how her own identity influences her interactions with others, particularly through the lens of privilege and oppression.


Guest blogger Tilman Smith appears in Cracking the Codes: The System of Racial InequityWorld Trust's acclaimed film supports viewers in drawing connections between the internal experiences of racism, its external demonstrations, and the policy and law that shape it. By exploring the big picture of how racism works it gives each of us a starting place to make a world that works for everyone. 

You can also find a broad exploration of the System of Inequity as the Core Racial Equity Learning Module on REL Volumes 1 & 2.

Topics: System of Inequity, White Privilege, Talk about Race