Learning About Racism From the Smithsonian

Learning About Racism From the Smithsonian

The museum deep-sixes a poster that went viral – but keeps up a website that teaches noxious “lessons” on race.

Bruce Bawer

“War is peace. Freedom is slavery. Ignorance is strength.”

That’s George Orwell in 1984, of course. But the picture those words conjure up seems unpleasantly familiar in 2020.

In 2020, everything’s upside-down. The inmates are running the asylum. The animals are running the zoo. The children are giving orders to the adults.

A group called Antifa (“Anti-Fascist”) is fascist. A group called “Black Lives Matter” is utterly indifferent to all but a minuscule percentage of black lives.

In 1976, Time Magazine reported on a comment made by Secretary of Education Earl Butz on a plane trip in reply to a question by Republican singer Pat Boone. Boone asked Butz why the party of Lincoln couldn’t attract more black voters. Butz said something that I will he have to redact heavily: "I'll tell you what the [black people] want. It's three things: first, a tight [female body part]; second, loose shoes; and third, a warm place to [defecate]."

Butz lost his job. And with good reason. His remark to Boone was a perfect example of what used to be called racism.

In 2020, however, racism is different. Today we’re told that all non-blacks, or at least all whites, are racists. Some of us, indeed, are racist without even knowing it. If you claim to be colorblind, you’re definitely racist. Ditto if you claim to care about the content of someone’s character rather than the color of his skin. Even if you’ve got a black spouse or a black child, you almost certainly harbor unexamined assumptions and exhibit behaviors that peg you as a racist.

If you had told me a few years ago that tens of millions of Americans would be accepting this diagnosis of themselves, and abjectly apologizing for their own purported racism – which, while apparently quite toxic, was totally off their own radar screens a few months ago – I wouldn’t have believed it. I thought I knew my country. I didn’t realize the degree to which many Americans, in 2020, are sheep, pliantly nodding along as some sanctimonious stranger calls them bigots. I didn’t realize the degree to which so many people were terrified of the word racist.

What’s not racist? Well, for the answer to that one we have to go to the experts. Or look at the website of the National Museum of African American History & Culture (NMAAHC) at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C., where a page on “whiteness” breaks the whole thing down. (An important part of that page was taken down last night after widespread backlash, but we’ll get to that presently.)

“Since white people in America hold most of the political, institutional, and economic power,” the NMAAHC page instructs us, “they receive advantages that nonwhite groups do not.”

Take that, Mr. Coal Miner in West Virginia. Got you, Mr. Lumberjack in Maine. And same to you, guy who cleans the subway toilets in New York City.

To be sure, the website goes on to acknowledge that “Being white does not mean you haven’t experienced hardships or oppression. Being white does mean you have not faced hardships or oppression based on the color of your skin.” Then why talk about skin color in the first place? Why not focus on hardship and mistreatment wherever they’re found?

Oh, that’s right: because then the racism industry would go out of business. Because then, all those white people who get paid the big bucks by corporations for telling proles that they’re bigots would not only have to find other jobs – suddenly they’d be on the hotseat, answering questions about their unearned wealth.

But back to that “whiteness” page. America’s “white-dominant culture,” it tells us, “operates as a social mechanism that grants advantages to white people, since they can navigate society both by feeling normal and being viewed as normal. Persons who identify as white rarely have to think about their racial identity because they live within a culture where whiteness has been normalized.

Or as Toni Morrison once wrote, in a line quoted at the NMAAHC site: “In this country, American means white. Everybody else has to hyphenate.”

For example, Morrison was forced to identify herself as an African-American professor at Princeton and an African-American winner of the Nobel Prize, Pulitzer Prize, and Presidential Medal of Freedom. Oh, the pain of that hyphen!    

The NMAAHC site goes on to quote some examples, from Peggy McIntosh’s groundbreaking 1989 essay “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” of “what white privilege looks like in day to day living.” Here are two of them:

If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live.

I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me.

These examples aren’t about white privilege – they’re about economic privilege. McIntosh, as I noted in a recent piece, has an upper-class background, has lived her entire life in luxury, and when writing about whiteness consistently extrapolates from her own quite atypical jet-set existence.

Here are three more of McIntosh’s examples of white privilege:

I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.

I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.

When I am told about our national heritage or about "civilization," I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.

These aren’t about white privilege either – they’re about an unhealthy preoccupation with skin color. Why would one care about the skin color of somebody on TV? Why should a child need curricular materials to tell him that his race exists? And if Western civilization was mostly built by whites, what should be done about this? Should history be rewritten? Or erased?

Erased, I guess. (Which I suppose explains the tearing down of all those statues – of Union generals as well as Confederate generals, and of abolitionists as well as slaveholders.)

Several of McIntosh’s list items imply that everybody constantly wants and needs to see people who share their own skin color. This isn’t new, of course. We’re constantly being told these days that kids looking for role models need to see “people who look like them.” Since when does having the same skin color as somebody else amount to “looking like” them? Does Halle Berry look like Gabourey Sidibe? Only to somebody who’s so racist as to be off the charts. News flash: unless you have a twin, nobody in the world looks like you (unless it’s one of those freaky Prisoner of Zenda deals).  

The NMAAHC website moves on to a 22-minute video of Robin DiAngelo, author of the current bestseller White Fragility, who’s gotten rich doing corporate, university, and government “training” sessions about racism. Like her book, which I reviewed here recently, this video reveals a mind pathologically drenched in race. DiAngelo asserts that it’s “not humanly possible to treat everyone the same” regardless of race. She insists that blacks and whites have “fundamentally different experiences.” As far as she’s concerned, we’re not the same; we’re not, as she puts it herself, “all one.”

If you assure her that you’re not racist, she won’t believe you she’ll tell you that you have an “unconscious bias.” She can’t prove it, but she knows it, and if the company you work for has hired her to “train” you and you know what’s good for you, you’d better knuckle under and say that she’s right, or you’ll be screwed. It’s accusation, trial, and conviction without proof. 

Not that you can ever be rehabilitated from your racism: addressing it, analyzing it, confessing it, is a “lifelong journey.” It’s a challenge you’ll have to confront every moment of every day until you die, a prison you’ll be stuck in forever. For racism, in the view of DiAngelo, is in the air we breathe, the water we swim in. We live with racism as we live with carbon and oxygen.

You may ask: if we can’t eradicate it, why obsess over it? Answer: as a form of eternal penance. For at bottom, the exercise DiAngelo presses upon us is a religious one, rooted in a concept of religion that involves martyr-like contrition and self-flagellation. It’s a religion, moreover, in which white people are born in sin and require constant confession, while black people are akin to angels or saints, serving as not-quite-flesh-and-blood vessels of virtue and truth. Note that in this cosmology, white people are humans, while blacks, however idealized, are dehumanized.

DiAngelo’s whole schtick isn’t just humorless – it’s inhuman, based on a grotesquely dark and twisted reading of interpersonal relations in American society. She’s a woman with problems, and the more you watch her or read her, the clearer it becomes that her obsession with racism is an illness. But she’s tailor-made for our bizarro, upside-down, through-the-looking-glass times: as I said in my review of her book, she’s a psychologically disturbed woman who’s made a career out of healing the psychologically healthy.

One question. We’re often warned against the “white savior” complex. Complaining about Western men who liberate women from sex slavery in non-Western countries, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, a professor at Columbia University and pioneer in postcolonial studies, has famously – and sneeringly – accused such heroes of being “white men saving brown women from brown men.” Her point is that these rescuers are guilty of a morally offensive presumption based on Caucasian concepts of racial superiority. But if we’re expected to snottily dismiss as self-imagined “white saviors” these remarkable men who liberate child prostitutes – usually at great personal expense and great personal risk – why shouldn’t we charge Robin DiAngelo and Peggy McIntosh, whose writings and lectures have earned them lavish praise and profit even though they’ve undergone no danger whatsoever, with the same offense? Why aren’t they “white saviors”?

Another point. Reading through the “whiteness” page at the NMAAHC website, one keeps being confronted by a boxed exhortation: “Stop and Think!” (For example: “Stop and Think! What are some misconceptions about whiteness that DiAngelo or McIntosh have [sic] helped you unveil?”) But how many people are stopping to think? Everywhere you look today, people are mindlessly climbing onboard the I’m-a-Racist Express.

Anyway, there are more videos on the NMAAHC’s “whiteness” page: Bell Hooks talking about intersectionality; a white guy named Michael Welp lecturing other white guys about how to discover their “cultural blind spots”; a  video entitled “How to Talk to Kids about Race.” But until last evening, the pièce de résistance was a handy poster based on the work of yet another white person: racism expert Judith H. Katz, whose 1978 book White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training was allegedly “the first systematic training program to address racism from a white perspective.”

The poster, which has been shared extensively on social media in recent days, presents a list of “Aspects & Assumptions of Whiteness & White Culture in the United States.” As it explains, “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 practice 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.”

There follows a series of forty-odd bullet points summing up the apparently insidious mentality of white Americans. Among other things, they believe in “rugged individualism,” the “scientific method,” “objective, rational linear thinking,” hard work, the nuclear family, respect for authority, private property, politeness, delayed gratification, responding to circumstances with action, and being places on time.

In other words, all the traits associated with civilization. Traits without which you can’t be a good student, a good citizen, a good employee, a good spouse, or a good parent. 

What do black people believe in? The poster doesn’t say. But the obvious implication is that they’re the opposite of the above – devotees of primitive superstition, irrational and magical thinking, laziness, lateness, lawlessness, rudeness, anarchy, irresponsibility, indifference, and a lifestyle based on booty calls and baby mamas.

In 2020, in short, not being racist means embracing pretty much the same views of black people articulated by Earl Butz in 1976.

I mentioned that the poster was on the NMAAHC website until last evening. That’s when, in response to a tsunami of criticism, it was taken down. In a tweet, the Smithsonian – which is 62% taxpayer funded, by the way – explained that in response to “public sentiment” it had “removed a chart that does not contribute to the productive discussion we had intended.”

Sure enough, the poster is no longer there. But everything else on that page is still up and running. The lightning rod has been removed, but the message remains the same. And there’s absolutely nothing productive about it.

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Photo credit: screenshot from NMAAHC website