In June, while Americans were focused on the protests and riots that engulfed U.S. cities in the wake of the horrific police killing of George Floyd, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) released an online “teaching tool” called “Talking About Race.” The page dedicated to “whiteness” includes an infographic attributing various aspects of American culture to “whiteness” or “white dominant culture.” Among other things, this graphic suggests that the nuclear family, science, capitalism, and the Judeo-Christian tradition are forms of oppressive “whiteness” that non-white people should reject as part of an oppressive system.
“Whiteness and the normalization of white racial identity throughout America’s history have created a culture where nonwhite persons are seen as inferior or abnormal,” the Smithsonian “whiteness” page reads. The “teaching tool” suggests that “whiteness” needs to be overthrown in order for non-white people to become liberated from an oppressive “white culture.”
The Smithsonian “teaching tool” takes a radical stance on “white privilege,” arguing that every white person in America has benefited from his or her skin color (“If you are white in America, you have benefited from the color of your skin.”). While it is true that white people do not have the same struggles as various racial minorities, some white people (like some Asian people) have been passed over in some cases due to affirmative action programs. White people have also been unfairly demonized as oppressors.
“Whiteness (and its accepted normality) also exist as everyday microaggressions toward people of color,” the Smithsonian page argues. “Acts of microaggressions include verbal, nonverbal, and environmental slights, snubs or insults toward nonwhites. Whether intentional or not, these attitudes communicate hostile, derogatory, or harmful messages.”
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This concept of “microaggressions” is rightly controversial. As Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff explained in their Atlantic essay that became a book — The Coddling of the American Mind — teaching people to read malice and oppression into unintentional insults involves training them to magnify unimportant episodes and label language and people dangerous. This trains them to adopt harmful psychological pathologies.
While the Smithsonian page is right to condemn white supremacy and white nationalism, it suggests the dismantling of various positive aspects of Western culture in the name of fighting “whiteness.”
The Smithsonian’s “whiteness” infographic
The Smithsonian presents an infographic attributing cultural trends like the nuclear family, individualism, an emphasis on the scientific method, the Protestant work ethic, English common law, some aspects of capitalism, and Christianity to “whiteness” or “white culture.”
“White dominant culture, or whiteness, refers to the ways white people and their traditions, attitudes and ways of life have been normalized over time and are now considered standard practices in the United States. And since white people still hold most of the institutional power in America, we have all internalized some aspects of white culture — including people of color,” the infographic warns.
According to the infographic, “whiteness” includes cultural aspects like “Rugged Individualism” and the “Family Structure” (including the nuclear family, the husband as the breadwinner, and the wife as homemaker and subordinate to the husband).
An “emphasis on the scientific method” is supposedly part of “whiteness,” including three bullet points: “Objective, rational linear thinking;” “Cause and effect relationships;” and “Quantitative emphasis.”
The Smithsonian claims that white history is “based on Northern European immigrants’ experience in the United States,” with a “heavy focus on the British Empire” and “the primacy of Western (Greek, Roman) and Judeo-Christian tradition.” The “holidays” section notes that holidays are “based on Christian religions” and “white history & male leaders.”
Basic work ethic principles such as “hard work is the key to success” and “work before play” are attributed to the “Protestant Work Ethic.” In the field of religion, the infographic claims that “Christianity is the norm,” that “anything other than Judeo-Christian tradition is foreign” and that there is “no tolerance for deviation from single god concept.”
The infographic also aims to present capitalism in a nefarious light. Under the section “Status, Power & Authority,” it claims that “whiteness” involves values such as “wealth=worth,” “your job is who you are,” “respect authority,” and a “heavy value on ownership of goods, space, property.” The Smithsonian also presents a “future orientation” and “time viewed as a commodity” as aspects of white culture. The infographic also has a section on “competition,” claiming that whiteness urges people to “win at all costs,” and inculcates a “winner/loser dichotomy” and a desire to “master and control nature.”
Under “Justice,” whiteness allegedly involves following English common law, protecting “property & entitlements,” and considering the intent of an action. The infographic also suggests a propensity to cheat. Whiteness allegedly involves “majority rules (when Whites have power).” Even simple values like “be polite” qualify as especially “white,” according to the graphic.
What does the whiteness infographic mean?
In the context of the Smithsonian page on “whiteness,” this infographic connects various aspects of Western culture — many of which make life concretely better for all involved — to an oppressive “whiteness.” This follows a Marxist interpretation of American history and involves a call to reject the evil “whiteness” in the name of empowering minorities and restoring “social justice.”
Marxism interprets history in terms of economic power. Modern cultural Marxism takes it one step further, viewing history as a cycle of oppression and liberation involving various minority groups such as black people, Asian Americans, and others. According to the Marxist narrative, white males have oppressed blacks, Asians, women, transgender people, and others, and the key goal of “social justice” is to dethrone the whites and empower the minorities.
The Smithsonian definition of “whiteness” reads like a particularly nasty caricature of the American right. Most of the cultural aspects identified as “white” have nothing to do with race. They touch on social conservatism, Western heritage, science, and capitalism while twisting most of these out of recognition. While the most cynical person may say that wealth is the same thing as worth, only a few psychopaths actually believe that.
Furthermore, the idea that Christianity being the norm is part of “whiteness” ignores the fact that black people are statistically more likely to believe the Christian gospel while white people are statistically more likely to reject the existence of God altogether. I myself belong to a Christian church that looked to Africa for leadership.
Perhaps the greatest weakness of the infographic is its complete historical illiteracy. While white supremacy has a long history in America, the definition of “white” has changed a great deal in the last hundred years. In the 1930s, no one would have considered an Irishman, an Italian, or a Greek person “white.” Yet the Irish, Italian, and Greek Americans who faced routine discrimination are not considered “people of color” but lumped in with the privileged “whites.”
The elements of “white” culture delineated by the Smithsonian are not only shared by people of various racial groups but they also help define modernity and technological progress. Does the Smithsonian really want racial minorities to reject the scientific method as an exercise in “white” oppression? Embracing ignorance would not further the cause of “racial justice.”
Why should I care?
The Smithsonian Institution boasts the “world’s largest museum and research complex,” with 19 museums and 9 research stations. Located in Washington, D.C., and operated by the federal government, the Smithsonian receives about two-thirds of its $1.2 billion annual budget from taxpayers. The Smithsonian admits 30 million annual visitors without charge.
The Smithsonian carries a great deal of cultural weight and its decision to demonize many central aspects of American culture as relics of “whiteness” will only add fuel to the movement to overhaul America’s culture and founding principles.
As the Smithsonian was rolling out its project against whiteness, vandals toppled a statue of George Washington in Portland, spray-painting “1619” on the statue, a reference to The New York Times‘ “1619 Project,” which claims America’s true founding came with the arrival of the first black slaves, not with the Declaration of Independence.
As destructive and deadly riots broke out across America, Claremont’s Charles Kesler wrote in The New York Post, “Call them the 1619 riots.” The 1619 Project’s founder, Nikole Hannah-Jones, responded (in a since-deleted tweet) that “it would be an honor” to claim responsibility for the destructive riots and the defamation of American Founding Fathers like George Washington.
In a November 9, 1995 op-ed, the 1619 Project founder condemned Christopher Columbus as “no different” from Adolf Hitler and demonized the “white race” as the true “savages” and “bloodsuckers.” She went on to describe “white America’s dream” as “colored America’s nightmare.” Just this week, Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) expressed a similar sentiment when she called for the “dismantling” of America’s “economy and political system,” in order to root out supposed racist oppression.
In this context, the Smithsonian’s attack on American culture as a relic of “whiteness” is particularly noxious. The federally-funded institution should be defending American culture, not demonizing the nuclear family, capitalism, the Judeo-Christian heritage, and science.
Tyler O’Neil is the author of Making Hate Pay: The Corruption of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Follow him on Twitter at @Tyler2ONeil.