Editor’s Note: Richard Thompson Ford is the George E. Osborne Professor of Law at Stanford Law School. His books include “The Race Card: How bluffing about bias makes race relations worse” and the forthcoming “Dress Codes: How the laws of fashion made history.” The opinions expressed in the commentary are his own; view more opinion at CNN.
For a brief time, the magnificent National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, DC, in a surprising misstep, posted a document entitled “Aspects and Assumptions of Whiteness and White Culture…” which purported to educate the viewer about how “White people and their traditions, and attitudes and ways of life have been normalized… and are now considered standard practice in the United States.”
According to the chart, which The Washington Post reported came from a 1978 book, the elements of White culture include, “rugged individualism,” the nuclear family, the scientific method, “rationalism,” the Protestant work ethic, conflict avoidance and the “written tradition.”
I’m the son of a Black Presbyterian minister and university professor and a Black university librarian and these practices and norms are very familiar to me.
So, when I think of “White Culture,” I am reminded of what Mahatma Gandhi supposedly said when asked what he thought of Western Civilization: “I think it would be a good idea.” But the notion that the culture in question is White, is actually a very bad idea.
In fact, the very idea that cultural practices belong to racial groups misunderstands both race and culture.
Thankfully, the museum removed the document in response to widespread criticism. But it reflects a fairly common misconception that races are defined by distinctive cultural practices and norms.
The problems with this idea are apparent in the chart’s opening statement, which insists that “we have all internalized some aspects of White culture – including people of color.”
The obvious conclusion to be drawn from this is that “White culture” is really the culture of people of color too but instead the chart suggests that White people, who “still hold most of the institutional power in America,” imposed their culture on everyone else.
This might explain why many people of color exhibit and in some cases even exemplify “White culture,” but it doesn’t explain why many White people don’t: for instance, the current, White, President of the United States exhibits a marked lack of respect for science and the sanctity of the nuclear family – to say nothing of conflict avoidance.
And the bigger problem is that the notion that “White culture” – individualism, the work ethic, the written tradition, rationalism, conflict avoidance and so on – was imposed on, or passively “internalized” by people of color ignores the contributions and achievements of generations of industrious and self-sufficient Black scientists, philosophers and writers, to say nothing of Black Protestants who made an ethic of non-violence a guiding feature of their lives.
The most obvious example of the latter is, of course, the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. who made a profound and enduring contribution to the development of many of the values the chart attributes exclusively to the White race.
It’s an insult to suggest that King “internalized” his faith or his ethic of nonviolence because a White power structure imposed them on him.
To the contrary, he developed them from his own intelligence, experience and studies; moreover, his ideas, forged in the struggle for Black liberation, are now an integral part of both Protestant faith and popular morality in the United States and elsewhere.
“White culture” in fact reflects the ideas, experiences, sensibilities and perspectives of people of all races – especially African Americans whose contributions to American culture are as widespread and profound as those of the stereotypical Mayflower pilgrims.
A defining feature of White supremacy has been to take credit for the labor and accomplishments of other races, whether that labor involved physical toil extracted without wages or intellectual and cultural work copied without attribution.
The idea of “White culture” advances this White supremacist project, crediting Whites for the work ethic, when no group of people in human history have worked harder and for less reward than Black people; for the Christian faith, when Black faithful and religious leaders have both furthered and revitalized Christianity and set the tone that Whites have later adopted, for good and for ill; for “delayed gratification” when generations of Black people delayed their own gratification even up to the day they died in the hope that their children might have better lives in a more just society.
Similarly, as to the “written tradition,” many renowned White authors incorporated aspects of literary traditions developed by Black writers such as Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison and Gwendolyn Brooks.
This isn’t a case of cultural appropriation but of a cultural conversation between people of all races, yielding new forms of expression that no one race can lay exclusive claim to but that all can take pride in.
If, as the great Black philosopher, activist and sociologist W.E.B. DuBois noted at the very beginning of the American century, Black folk created “the only American music,” they also did more than their part to shape a shared American culture.
Of course, the chart’s description of White culture is meant to be somewhat disparaging – owing much to counter-cultural critiques of soulless American capitalism and uptight bourgeois respectability.
If “White culture” was imposed on people of color, we’re off the hook for all of that: the flip side of the denial of Black accomplishment inherent in the idea of “White culture” is a denial of Black responsibility. But ultimately this is almost as insulting and dehumanizing.
Because there is no White culture – only American culture – people of color deserve their share of the blame as well as of the credit.
We bear some of the responsibility for an ethic of “rugged individualism” that, at its worst, has fostered alienation and selfishness; if the veneration of the nuclear family has stigmatized other ways of caring and physical intimacy, we get some of the blame for that too.
That’s what it means to be a vital part of a culture and a civilization – not to have “internalized” it as passive victims but to have been a part of it in all of its glory and horror.
The idea of White culture – indeed the idea that any set of cultural practices belong to any race – ignores or repudiates the defining development of the modern world: the cosmopolitan mixing of older, face-to-face cultures made possible by the expansion of communication and migration.
Much of this involved violence and exploitation, and so perhaps it’s understandable that some would want to recover the practices and folkways of some unsullied past.
But Black Americans are not displaced Africans who could return to an ancestral homeland – we, most of all among America’s mistreated racial groups, are the children of modernity, a new people born in the violent encounter with avaricious and ambitious Europeans who created a new identity and new culture from that trauma.
For better and for worse, the United States is our only home: we have no “pure” traditions to go back to. What we have instead are our profound contributions to what remains, for all of its flaws and hypocrisies, one of the most dynamic, inventive and promising civilizations to emerge from the chaos of human history.
The notion of “White culture,” whatever the motivations of those who advance such ideas, seeks to replace that priceless inheritance with a combination of pity and condescension. Unlike Western Civilization – an incompletely realized but worthy aspiration – White Culture is just a bad idea.