You would think that the National Museum of African American History and Culture would be dedicated to fighting the scourge of racism, particularly vicious caricatures and stereotypes of African Americans.
Yet toward the end of May the institution posted one of the most racist documents I’ve ever seen, as part of a web page about “whiteness.” This graphic didn’t gain widespread notice until last week, at which point the museum promptly yanked it down.
But the Internet is forever, so here it is:
Which just goes to prove my theory that the harder you try to be “progressive,” by today’s standards, the closer you get to the alt-right.
What does that infographic—and the supposed “anti-racist” theory on which it is based—tell us?
It tells us that the distinctive characteristics of “whiteness” and “white culture” include:
- Hard work
- “Delayed gratification”
- Planning for the future
- The “nuclear family”
- Rational thinking
- Personal responsibility
- Speaking standard English
And by implication, it’s telling us that black people are not characterized by any of these traits.
When I saw this graphic it gave me an immediate, creepy feeling of déjà vu. Specifically, it brought me back to that period in late 2015 and early 2016 when all of the white nationalists and “alt-right” types migrated out of the comments sections at Stormfront and descended upon Twitter.
Do you remember what those people kept insisting? Exactly what the National Museum of African American History and Culture is telling us: That all of these desirable characteristics are distinctive and unique to the white race.
That’s “dindoo” as in “dindoo nuffin”—”I didn’t do nothing,” but rendered in a caricature of a “black” dialect. The same for “gibsmedat”—a caricatured version of “give me that.” You get the idea. The crude stereotype that was supposed to lodge in our brains is that black Americans refuse to take personal responsibility, want government handouts instead of work, and are incapable of speaking grammatical English.
And now we’re getting this slime from the dregs of white nationalist Twitter echoed back at us by the Smithsonian Institution.
What the hell happened?
It should go without saying—though in these confused times I suppose we have to say it—that none of these caricatures is remotely true.
I get why the white nationalists would want to promote them. For the alt-right, it’s a form of unearned self-flattery—an attempt by a bunch of pathetic losers to puff themselves up as exemplars of hard work and responsibility (which must really take the sting out of living in your mom’s basement). What seems incomprehensible is why black museum curators would want to denigrate themselves. Worse, why would they want to boost the careers of white academics such as Robin DiAngelo and Judith Katz (the source for that infographic) to spread these vicious stereotypes in corporate “anti-racism” seminars across the country?
The key to the answer is one item on that list of allegedly “white” characteristics: “individualism.”
It is now a standard part of “anti-racism” to describe “individualism” and “universality” as the key components of racism and “white supremacy.”
It is really quite a spectacular feat, when you think of it, to so completely invert the meaning of a concept. In reality, individualism and universality are the opposites of racism. To view each person as a unique individual is to reject caricatures, stereotypes, and prejudices based on race. To regard ideas and values as universal is to reject the claim that physical differences create an inherent conflict or incompatibility that overrides our shared humanity.
These ideals may be hard to implement fully in practice, but to the extent they are achieved, individualism and universality are anti-racism.
So what is to be gained by turning this on its head? Who benefits by promoting a relentless racial collectivization and building up the artificial divisions between people of different skin tones and ancestral origins?
Sadly, there is political hay to be made out of herding people into separate and irreconcilable interest groups and pitting them against each other.
As one activist put it, while explaining why it is important to capitalize the word “black,” the idea is to emphasize that this is “a specific group of people with a shared political identity.” How convenient.
For the profiteers of a tribalistic, us-versus-them politics, the worst threat is the person who sees him- or herself as an individual.
But herding people into collectives requires that we invent inherent differences between them, which requires carving up various attributes of human character, ability, and culture and assigning them to one group or another. One of those groups is always going to end up being assigned the least desirable characteristics.
In a way, though, I suppose today’s “progressives” are going full circle. Recent debates over the legacy of Woodrow Wilson—the president who brought segregation back to federal hiring—have reminded us all that the first batch of “progressives” were barking mad racists obsessed with eugenics and steeped in racial caricatures.
Let’s not allow their successors to drag us back to those days while insisting that they’re moving us forward.