I have visited and enjoyed the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture several times, but like countless Americans, I was disgusted by a now infamous graphic (linked to by the museum), which declared ideas like self-reliance, the husband-headed nuclear family, the Judeo-Christian tradition, and a belief in hard work as the key to success were all “Aspects and Assumptions of Whiteness.” I realize these assertions have been roundly criticized (and the graphic itself, attributed to research by diversity consultant Judith Katz, has since been removed from the museum’s website), but I found it so offensive that I thought it was worth piling on.
Not only are self-reliance, hard work, faith and family NOT exclusively white, but they have also been the essential building blocks of black American success. To suggest that adopting such ideas is “white” is to deny the accomplishments of millions of people of all races as merely mimicking “whiteness.” Indeed, if we take Katz’s assertions at face value, almost the entire contents of the museum itself could be viewed as a celebration of whiteness.
Harriet Tubman, whose shawl and work on the Underground Railroad feature prominently in the museum, said in 1865 “I prayed to God to make me strong and able to fight, and that’s what I’ve always prayed for ever since.” Malcolm X declared, “There is no better than adversity. Every defeat, every heartbreak, every loss, contains its own seed, its own lesson on how to improve your performance next time.” Do these sound like the words of people who believed faith, self-reliance and hard work to be “white”?
My own hero Frederick Douglass said in his speech Self-Made Men, “Such men as these, whether found in one position or another, whether in the college or in the factory; whether professors or plowmen; whether Caucasian or Indian; whether Anglo-Saxon or Anglo-African, are self-made men and are entitled to a certain measure of respect for their success and for proving to the world the grandest possibilities of human nature, of whatever variety of race or color.” Katz would have us believe that the self-respect built through human accomplishments—to which Douglass, Tubman and Malcolm urged their fellow African Americans—is merely the imitation of “whiteness.”
Since the 2006 sobering op-ed “Marriage is for White People,” plenty of ink has been spilled on the state of the black family. And at first glance, declining black marriage rates might appear to affirm Katz’s assertion that the husband-headed traditional nuclear family is indeed a “white” norm. Just two generations ago, however, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s statement that “The group consisting of mother, father and child is the main educational agency of mankind” was considered neither controversial nor “white.”
Yet at least to some degree, the dismantling of the husband-headed nuclear family is not coming from minority communities, but from white progressives. In their excellent book Marriage in Black: The Pursuit of Married Life among American-born and Immigrant Blacks, scholars Katrina Bell McDonald and Caitlin Cross-Barnet point out not only that marriage remains important to most blacks, but also that “Changes in gender attitudes and social norms have focused to date primarily on white, middle class patterns of marital life.” In their qualitative study of successfully married black couples, they concluded that, “emphasis on a patriarchal ideology often worked to make marriages more egalitarian in practice.”
The idea that white men with high status jobs have a much easier time relinquishing the “head of the household” title at home is commonly understood enough to have gotten a nod on the popular ABC sitcom Blackish. And of course the fact that black Americans are far more likely than whites to attend church, own a Bible, believe in God and pray regularly—along with the Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the Egyptian Coptic Church predating colonial missionary activity—should be enough to dispel the idea that the Judeo-Christian tradition is “white.”
As far as I can guess, Katz’s ideas are rooted in some kind of outdated “noble savage” trope, where scantily clad people of color nap their afternoons away in tropical paradises. But perhaps what the graphic really reveals is our need for a better term to describe the combination of virtuous and productive living that has at times been referred to as “bourgeois” or “middle class” values. As Thomas Sowell pointed out, “Cultures are not museum-pieces. They are the working machinery of everyday life. Unlike objects of aesthetic contemplation, working machinery is judged by how well it works, compared to the alternatives.” Cultures that embrace hard work, self-reliance, faith and family have a great track record of producing peace and prosperity for their members. The worst thing we can do is attribute those accomplishments to one particular race.