In the wake of the police killing of George Floyd and subsequent protests over police brutality, interest in “anti-racist” education has exploded among educators and advocates. The case that educators should seek to combat racism seems self-evident. What’s less clear is how the admirable cause of “anti-racism” is fueling, in some corners, the inclination to denounce universal virtues and useful skills as the product of “white culture.”
Witness last week’s contretemps at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum, which bills itself as “the only national museum devoted exclusively” to educating the public on these topics, recently debuted the online guide “Talking about Race.” The guide included a chart cataloguing the “aspects and assumptions” of “white culture” that “have been normalized over time and are now considered standard practices in the United States.”
What are these sinister aspects of “white culture,” you ask? Well, according to the Smithsonian, values like “hard work,” “self-reliance,” “be[ing] polite,” and timeliness are all a product of the “white dominant culture.” Indeed, it turns out that conventional grammar, Christianity, the notion that “intent counts” in courts of law, and the scientific method and its emphasis on “objective, rational linear thinking” are all proprietary to “white culture.”
There are several things that might be said about all this. But the place to start may be by observing just how insidious it is to teach black children to reject intellectual and personal traits that promote personal and civic success — in the U.S. or anywhere else. After all, in what land are students well-served when they’re encouraged not to work hard, make decisions, think rationally, or be polite and on time? Among the extraordinarily accomplished people honored by the museum, those such as Frederick Douglass; Harriet Tubman; Jackie Robinson; Martin Luther King, Jr.; Toni Morrison; John Lewis; Oprah Winfrey; Michael Jordan; Condoleezza Rice; and Barack Obama might be surprised to learn that hard work and rational thinking are somehow alien to black culture.
A 2020 National Association of Colleges and Employers poll found that four in five employers expected job applicants to exhibit a strong work ethic, the ability to work in a team, and analytical thinking skills. If one asks parents — of any race — what values they want their kids to learn, more than four out of five will similarly name concepts like “hard work,” “being well-mannered,” and “being responsible.” In fact, black parents are one to three percent more likely than white parents to think traits like “hard work,” “being well-mannered,” and “persistence” are “important to teach children.”
This all makes obvious sense. These are the traits that make for good neighbors and colleagues, and support strong communities. Perhaps we’ve blinkered vision, but we’re still looking for the culture, anywhere, where parents say that they’d like their children to slack off, be rude, and shirk responsibility.
After an online outcry, the Smithsonian removed the chart on Thursday night — but not with any denunciation of the chart’s content, only the bland understatement that the chart turned out to “not contribute to the productive discussion” they had wished [ … ]