McWhorter on “white values”

April 23, 2021 • 2:00 pm

A while back, the  National Museum of African American History and Culture, a museum in Washington, D.C. that’s part of the Smithsonian Institution, posted these guidelines on a page called “Talking about Race: Whiteness“.  These traits were taken to be characteristics of White Culture:

I can’t say that I rejected these posters out of hand when I first saw them, for, after all, these are mostly characteristics seen as useful for success, and many were established in cultures that were white. Could they really be connected with racism?  But thinking about it, I realized that these aren’t limited to one racial group, for many are traits seen by many societies as useful for success (“hard work”, “respect authority”). If anything, these are probably traits more characteristic of capitalism that of whiteness. And some, like the man being “head of the household” are features of many cultures, though no longer anything to aspire to. At any rate, I thought it was both false and patronizing to African-Americans to divide up cultural traits this way. The Museum realized it, too, and after a lot of blowback the Smithsonian took down these figures. That page, though, is still heavily larded with Critical Race Theory (CRT).

This view of what John McWhorter calls “Critical Race Theory’s transmogrification into education for children” is what he discusses briefly in his column this week (click on screenshot below):

McWhorter remembers that Smithsonian display, and criticizes it far better than I can:

Yet, seeing this educational philosophy laid out in the sunlight, The Elect cannot dismiss it as fringe “kookiness” — unless they want to insult the curators of a national museum devoted to celebrating the very black people The Elect live to liberate. At the African-American History Museum in Washington, D.C., for a hot minute or two in 2020 you could see a variation on the Jones-Okun business, an expanded presentation of what we must reject as “white” evil. An educational poster was displayed that slammed not only objectivity, individualism, and writing, but linear thinking, quantitative reasoning, the Protestant work ethic, planning for the future, and being on time.

Yes, this was real – from people who surely bemoan the stereotype of black people as dumb and lazy! Again, only a mental override could explain why the people responsible for this display would allow that emblazonment of precisely the stereotypes lobbed at black people for centuries. Tarring whites as imposers of alien values felt more important than considering that the poster depicted black people as gorillas – and was created by a white woman!

And because this was enshrined at America’s flagship museum of black history, we can’t say that this sort of thing is just “woo-woo” sidebar nonsense. The museum yanked it down when the media got a sniff, but they had made a highly indicative statement in having hung it in the first place. Namely, they subordinated logic – that black people should not embrace being semiliterate, unanalytical and tardy – to the religious score of identifying racism regardless of logic (as in, here, the racism of whites expecting blacks to in any way be “like them”). Let us pray.

The Elect’s last stand will be that this was just a mistake made by a curator or two at that one museum. But the idea that it is unfair to expect quantitative reasoning from black people has taken quite a hold among many black academics.

And he brings up Dr. Kendi in this connection:

Ibram Kendi is an advocate of the idea that precision, and being able to demonstrate it, is to ask black kids to perform “inauthentically.” That there are ways of “knowing” beyond the kind that require rigorous training to master is behind passages such as his venturing in the Elect Biblical testament How to Be an Antiracist:

“What if we measured intelligence by how knowledgeable individuals are about their own environments? What if we measured intellect by an individual’s desire to know?”

Anyone who sings of this book as prophecy is saying that a passage like that makes sense, despite it being a savage smack in the face on any black person in America. Translation: we should elevate that which students take in subconsciously without effort – e.g. street smarts, emotional empathy, and “spunk.” If a white man smilingly encouraged black people to be satisfied with this he would look like a bigot in a daguerrotype. Kendi thinks we should redefine braininess as just being “swell.” As opposed to the oh-so-benighted idea of helping black kids do better on tests – but no: to him that’s giving in to “whiteness.” But the world of decentered “whiteness” – i.e. that spunky, funky, holistic, intuitive world where everybody dances to hiphop and does what they feel like and, if they do science, focus on telling the older folks that they need to pay more attention to spunky, funky, holistic, intuitive, hip-hoppyness  — would be one without electricity.

And in this Kendi is not a lone wolf, but a representative of a kind of thinking that has become “a thing” especially in the 2010s.Glenn Singleton is a black man and heads a diversity consultant firm. Asked how this notion of precision as whiteness will prepare brown kids for the world as we know it, he spoke of “a new world, a world, first and foremost, where we have elevated the consciousness, where we pay attention to the human being.” Note that first, this means nothing whatsoever. Note second that if it makes any kind of sense at all, it is as scripture. It sounds like something somewhere between Lost Horizon and The Ten Commandments, and has no more place in a modern educational philosophy than the Rigveda. The “diversity consultant” like Singleton is a priest.

Any white person who embraces the idea that precision is “white” is, quite simply, a bigot.

How can you agree with turning what used to be bigoted stereotypes into virtues? I don’t see how a society can succeed if people simply reject hard work, study, and “conventional” achievement in favor of street smarts or other traits that antiracists like Kendi find admirable.  And by “succeed,” I really mean “provide equality of opportunity for everyone”.  If we are to provide that opportunity, then it’s necessary to inspire people to internalize certain values that help them seize opportunities. If you want to become a surgeon or a pilot or a biology professor, you’re simply going to have to adhere to hard work, dedication, and “scientific” thinking. I can see why McWhorter, an academic success himself, and one who clearly works like a demon, is so opposed to the rejection of “conventional” values.

While I adhere to certain forms of affirmative action, dismantling a whole meritocracy of talent and dedication isn’t helpful to anyone. And we can start by reinstating the standardized tests that schools and colleges have been eliminating because they’re seen as reflecting the kind of culture shown in the posters above.

24 thoughts on “McWhorter on “white values”

  1. How would anyone like to be a Black person who works hard, is smart, and is successful in the world, having many others looking at him/her like, “It is just affirmative action”?

    When you make it on your own merits, even with a hand up, you deserve credit.

    It always rots my socks to hear people saying that about Barack Obama, that he got where he is because of affirmative action, or other special considerations. Even if he got into Harvard Law by getting some kind of break (which he didn’t), you don’t get to be president of Harvard Law Review unless you have the chops.


    1. Don’t forget Barack Obama is actually half white and was brought up by his white parent. clearly he had white values inculcated into him by his white parent. How dare she deny his black heritage (/sarcasm).

  2. It always blows my mind how much human potential we throw away with this kind of nonsense.

    Can you imagine where we would be as a society (or societies) if we focused on education, in the widest sense, instead of trying to limit people’s options?

    The whole concept of “culture” is a limiting concept. If you don’t “fit in”, for whatever reason, does that make you less of a contributor?


    1. I find it instructive that when one speaks about “white culture” one can replace culture with “traits” and not changing the meaning at all, except to make clear that this is just plain racism. To say that “hard work” is exclusively a white trait, is to say that laziness is a black trait, and we call people who say that racist.

    2. The whole concept of “culture” is a limiting concept. If you don’t “fit in”, for whatever reason, does that make you less of a contributor?

      This is a good point. I was discussing (thanks, Prof. Dawkins!) the question of transracialism vs transgenderism yesterday and it was (what I would consider) a very productive conversation. One item we came to was things that stereotypically belong to a race’s ‘culture’ – and how a person not of that race but feels connected to those traits, would be more likely to embrace the idea that they are that race. This is not dissimilar to my feelings about some of the gender-essentialism I see some trans advocates embracing (that because an AMAB person likes pink & glitter they must be a transwoman). I’m probably not articulating this well, as I’ve only had the one lengthy conversation and don’t know a lot of other people I’d feel comfortable discussing it with.

      All that to say, if we just embraced people wholly as they are I think people would be less likely to feel they are wrongly in the body they are in.

  3. One wonders what people like Kendi, who push this new racism (same as the old), imagine the world that results from the adoption of these ideas would be like. Their argument isn’t “you live your way and I’ll live mine,” but that one way is bad, and must be eradicated, so it must be a world with no objective standards and no reason. (No reasons as the West means it. Lots of room for “lived experience,” which is bad news for witches and crones.) A true utopia. Utopia is never achieved, but we can be sure what the period of revolution that seeks to usher in the new age will be like. All we have to do is look at the histories of the revolutions in Russia and China. I wonder how Kendi would be received if he went to Nigeria or Uganda (or Russia or China), and made these arguments. It’s hard to argue to farmers that delayed gratification and adherence to schedules don’t matter. Maybe Kendi needs to read Aesop’s fables.

    1. Kendi is working a lucrative dodge. Perhaps he even believes some of it, perhaps not. I am reasonably sure that he has little or no concern for how anyone is effected by his rhetoric and actions.

  4. This poster is bananas. There are so many things wrong with it, mostly that they are pointing to economic markers more than racial culture ones (kids having own rooms? I shared a bed with a sibling until I was 9). Also, Judeo-Christian isn’t a thing.

    1. Yup, my father (90 next month) in his “white privilege” shared a bed with his two brothers, the youngest of whom regularly wet the bed. Dad left school at 14 to work in the local coal mine – so I guess he was at least black on the outside (though he would be cancelled for “blackface” now, of course).

  5. McWhorter is brilliant as always:

    But the world of decentered “whiteness” – i.e. that spunky, funky, holistic, intuitive world where everybody dances to hiphop and does what they feel like and, if they do science, focus on telling the older folks that they need to pay more attention to spunky, funky, holistic, intuitive, hip-hoppyness — would be one without electricity.


  6. Way back when, I was told that if I wanted to be a success, I should show up to work on time, and if I really, really wanted to be a success, I should dress nicely. I didn’t think of it as a white thing, and I am white. I will be glad when we get to the point that Dr. Martin Luther King spoke to in his ‘I have a dream’ speech, where he said our character, and not the color of our skin, will be the primary reason for our success. We have a way to go.

  7. What struck me about this list the first time I saw it was that its’ a vulgarization of some valid, yet challengeable concepts in social science theory. I’m still not exactly sure what “critical race theory” is and is not, and how or whether this “popularized” version differs from its academic version. It also strikes me as inconsistent with what I think are its at least implicit philosophical foundations. This idea that cultures can be dichotomized as “rational/emotive, industrial/pre-industrial, modern/traditional” has its roots in Durkheim and Weber, who seem to get implicitly but unthinkingly absorbed into what is termed “critical theory” in general by way of some other more contemporary theorists, without even necessarily acknowledging their debt to Weber and Durkheim. But a lot of other theory has critiqued the idea that these are even useful dichotomies: they are more like points along a continuum. In order to have this kind of strong separation of “white culture” and “black culture” I think you would need to have much stronger boundaries between the two groups then you do. W. E. B. Dubois made the argument after slavery that blacks were more poetic and that whites were more rational. But he was making it in a very different context and he never suggested in his writings on Black Schools that black children should not be taught the kinds of knowledge that one needs to thrive in an industrial society which I think is why he argued for the black elites to provide leadership. The other issue that leaps out at me is the argument about “different ways of knowing”. It strikes me that its not so much that there are different ways of knowing as different things we know about (e.g. the molecular structure of DNA as opposed whether or not a piece of music is beautiful). The other issue is the divide historically in the social sciences about how we look for explanation-whether we explain in terms of general principles or we explain in terms of the thoughts and mental processes of the actors themselves. These are very long, complex debates in the philosophy of the social sciences. When I see this kind of stuff it just strikes me that people make a hash out of these long debates and take an extraordinarily vulgar interpretation of one side. There is a very long tradition of left wing critiques of social structures that serve to disenfranchise black kids as well as hispanic kids and poor white kids that is about under investment in schools and lack of jobs in urban areas. This all seems to get ignored. This is why rigorous scholars Adolph Reed can be ignored or smeared, even as they advance structural critiques of power that offer much better explanations for the continuance of structural racism than does this sort of thing.

  8. Does LeBron James know he’s acting white when he goes to practice and games on time and does his best to be #1?

  9. “white values” — Reminds me of when, back during the presidential campaign of 1976, in response to an inquiry from archetypal square Pat Boone as to why the GOP couldn’t attract more support among black voters, Gerald Ford’s secretary of agriculture, Earl Butz, said there were only three things “the coloreds” want: “tight pussy … loose shoes … and a warm place to shit.”

    Ford was forced to fire Butz over the remark. But Roy Blount, Jr., a Georgia-bred humorist in the mold of Mark Twain who was on kibbitzing terms with some of Jimmy Carter’s top advisers, told ’em that, if Jimmy had any balls, he’d respond by saying that that sounded like a set of priorities a whole lotta while folk could identify with, too.

    Okay, sorry, now back to our regularly scheduled programming regarding the erudite Mr. McWhorter.

  10. “If anything, these [hard work and respect for authority] are probably traits more characteristic of capitalism that of whiteness.”

    I see what Jerry is getting at here, but I disagree. Hard work and respect for authority are not characteristic of capitalism or whiteness; they are characteristic of every human society since the dawn of agriculture, out of necessity. Centuries ago, if you didn’t work hard, you starved to death; if you openly disrespected authority, you got imprisoned, tortured, and/or killed. I believe that if the average serf from, say, twelfth-century England could time-travel to modern America, he/she would be astonished both by how little hard work we do (we don’t have to fetch our drinking water from a well!) and by how disrespectful of authority we are. Said serf would not have had the option of mocking the lord of the manor on Twitter.

    Other than that, I agree with everything written here. It’s appalling that anyone thought the “Whiteness” poster was a good idea.

  11. I would urge anyone to take a second look at this “White Culture” poster and replace the title with “Black Culture.” Then go through each section and try to fill it in with new values… I can’t do it. I have no idea. Do I take out “hard work is the key to success?” Am I supposed to believe black people don’t believe in hard work? Was this thing written by a white sociologist?

  12. Those are also — minus the religious labels — characteristics of Asian culture. This may explain why the worst abusers of Asians are Blacks. So, Critical Race Theory basically assumes that anybody successful is other than Black!

  13. I lived in the US for 21 years, and although many people would consider me as “white” based on my European appearance, I always felt a foreigner and could never identify with “white” Americans. For example, before coming to the US, I never lived in a society in which religion had so much prominence. In particular, I had never been exposed to Protestantism and did not really know what it was about. Many traits described in the white culture poster are the total opposite of the values I was raised in. For example, individualism was always a bad thing for me. I was never taught to work hard, or become successful, or accumulate wealth. Also, competition was the worst, I should never try to become number 1, or be aggressive or an extrovert. Now I live in China, and although my physical appearance makes me look foreign, I have never felt so much at home.

  14. McWhorter reads into Kendi’s words things that do not appear to be there. Given what a bee in his bonnet McWhorter has about Kendi, I do not trust that his interpretation is justified by additional writings not quoted..

  15. How insulting to 40 million black Americans, that people who perform as “allies” to them assume that they are not capable of simple good habits. We have lost our minds in the last few years. If white people want to do something, let’s start by not infantilizing our fellow citizens. Kendi (and his ilk), this is his career. I doubt he believes much of what he peddles, but it’s made him successful. He has no choice but to keep it going, to keep finding new racisms to write books about. It’s a shame. Unserious hucksters are driving us apart, and people like McWhorter, who put real academic thought into serious matters, don’t get the same amount of attention.

  16. It is very difficult to imagine how the Stormfront version of this poster would look any different. It’s abhorrent.

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