The Myth of White Culture

Professor of Law at Stanford Law School, Richard Thompson Ford, author of The Race Card: How bluffing about bias makes race relations worse,” tells his audience in an op-ed for CNN, “There is no ‘White culture’.” I have written about Ford before (see Race and Democracy; Race-Based Discrimination as a Model for Social Justice) and appreciate his work, so I was excited to see his essay appear in my news aggregator. 

The matter around which Ford organizes his essay is the exhibit in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington titled “Aspects and Assumptions of Whiteness and White Culture in the United States.” The chart introduces the subject this way: “White dominant culture, or whiteness, refers to the ways white people and their traditions, attitudes and ways of life have been normalized over time and are now considered standard practices in the United States. And since white people still hold most of the institutional power in America, we have all internalized some aspects of white culture—including people of color.” 

See that? People of color are said to have internalized aspects of “white culture.” Let’s be clear about what this means: white cultural notions identified in the chart are not intrinsic to black culture, but an alien, external thing that has wormed it way into the heads of black people, colonizing their minds. Supposed ideational patterns, the products of history and ideology, are hypostatized in the abstraction of racial type. Can one know in the tangle of hundreds of years of shared life what ideas belong to which race? Or should we concern ourselves with which ideas advance collective interests and personal development? Might we find these among the items the Smithsonian identified as common “white culture”?

Here’s the chart:

Rugged individualism sees the person as the primary unit of history. Autonomy, independence, and self-reliance are values embodying individualism and there are rewards for embodying them. An alleged tenet of whiteness is that, having more deeply internalized these values that other groups, white people more readily ascend the ladder of success. In an individualist conception of society, the nuclear family is the ideal social unit. There is a husband and wife. A small number of children have their own rooms. They are expected to be independently minded and responsible for their actions.

In the antiracist worldview, “white culture” makes a fetish of the scientific method—i.e. objective, rational and linear thinking, cause and effect relationships, a focus on quantitative operations. Scientific thinking, which is held by its practitioners to be universal, stands in contrast to postmodernism, which conceptualizes the scientific method not only as one of innumerable narratives that project power, but deny that there is any external, mind-independent reality and truth. There is no reality in itself, only accounts of it, and prevailing accounts of it, as well as the epistemic character of those accounts, alert the observer to the prevailing structure of power. French philosopher Michel Foucault famously argued, “There is no power relation without the correlative constitution of a field of knowledge, nor any knowledge that does not presuppose and constitute at the same time power relations.” Or, more succinctly: “Knowledge is not for knowing: knowledge is for cutting.” 

The whiteness of science goes also for Western Judeo-Christian traditions, which are considered primary by white people and nonwhite people who have internalized whiteness. The Protestant work ethic looms large here: the values of hard work, work before play, and accepting personal responsibility for failure. Put another way, white culture prefers an internal locus of control, where success and failure are a function of the character and quality of human agency. This is bound up with the Judeo-Christian tradition. Christianity is normative and other religions are considered foreign and their practitioners outsiders. Islam is the alien religion that looms largest here. As I have pointed out in past writings, those at war with white culture makes a fetish of Islam. Paradoxically, the postmodern left has so othered Muslims in its war against the West that it reflexively treats Muslims as people of color, even though Islam is, if we use antiracist rhetoric, a product of a white culture—just not the European one.

In white culture, notions of justice are based on common law, where the logic of law is pragmatically discovered through dispute resolution typically between individuals and small groups, and culpability is shaped by attribution of intentionality. Adjudication of the law proceeds a lot like adjudication of science, with the goal to find truth through an adversarial dialectic. Individualism comes with personal responsibility and just desserts. Those of you who have been following my podcast and blog have heard me talk about critical race theory and the distinction this standpoint draws between, on the one hand, the “perpetrator perspective,” emphasizing individual responsibility and culpability/intentionality, and, on the other, the “victim perspective,” where assertions and feelings expressed are valid by virtue of hailing from an oppressed category. The oppressor advocates the former perspective because it protects his privilege. It isn’t really better, rather it’s the narrative that prevails because the oppressor is in charge and can make it so. Indeed, it is worse, because it is the perpetrator’s perspective. From the victim perspective, justice does not require proving the individual acted intentionally; all that is needed is that some group harm is alleged and supposed to result from the actions of—or the failure to act by—the other group. This is how one gets notions of “white privilege,” where no white person stands outside whiteness (by definition), all are stigmatized by it, and therefore all are responsible for the harm resulting from its wages.

This is not merely a cracked theory of justice. It is dangerous, and we can see why in the riots occurring on our streets. Here’s what makes it dangerous: From the Western justice standpoint, an individual who harms another individual is held responsible in a process that (ideally) carefully examines the facts in a criminal or civil procedure. Only those persons materially involved in the wrongdoing are held responsible for it. We don’t punish others who look like the wrongdoer in some way; not everybody with blue eyes is responsible on account of the perpetrator having blue eyes—or blonde hair, or freckles, or whatever. Only the perpetrator is held responsible because the perpetrator perpetrated the wrongdoing. If, in contrast, we suppose that every member of a group is responsible for the behavior of individual or individuals presumed to belong to that group, then any individual of that group is a suitable target for retributive or restitutive. The concrete individual is a stand-in for abstract group. Any white man can substitute for any white man. If, furthermore, the harm claimed is abstract, then adjudication in a rational process becomes impossible. All that is left is targeting of individuals on the basis of race. We have a word for that: racism.

There are several other features noted in the chart. Competition. Mastering nature. White culture is said to be action oriented. The majority rules with the caveat that only when whites have power, a caveat failing to acknowledge white minority rule in Rhodesia, South Africa, and, after othering Arabs, Israel (if they don’t other Jews, as well). White culture emphasizes written communication, reason over emotion, privacy, civility, and politeness. The chart identities the Western civilization values of respecting authority, property, and space. White culture is future oriented: planning, delayed gratification, optimistic, promoting progress. Life—work and leisure—is time-oriented, with schedules, the commodification of time. Of course, none of this is white culture. If you want to put a label on it, how about bourgeois culture, at least in many of its elements?

Before turning to a fuller analysis of Ford’s take on “white culture,” I want to expand on the bourgeois culture tag by summarizing an op-ed by Amy Wax, a law professor at University of Pennsylvania, and Larry Alexander, law professor at the University of San Diego, “Paying the price for breakdown of the country’s bourgeois culture,” published in The Philadelphia Inquirer in the summer of 2017. This op-ed riled up the cancel culture warriors, who drew up a petition (and secured several thousand signatures) to get Wax fired. It didn’t work.

According to Wax and Alexander, bourgeois culture “laid out the script we all were supposed to follow: Get married before you have children and strive to stay married for their sake. Get the education you need for gainful employment, work hard, and avoid idleness. Go the extra mile for your employer or client. Be a patriot, ready to serve the country. Be neighborly, civic-minded, and charitable. Avoid coarse language in public. Be respectful of authority. Eschew substance abuse and crime.” Insisting on the relevance of bourgeois culture in a progressive America, Wax and Alexander write, “Banishing discrimination and expanding opportunity does not require the demise of bourgeois culture. Quite the opposite: The loss of bourgeois habits seriously impeded the progress of disadvantaged groups. That trend also accelerated the destructive consequences of the growing welfare state, which, by taking over financial support of families, reduced the need for two parents. A strong pro-marriage norm might have blunted this effect. Instead, the number of single parents grew astronomically, producing children more prone to academic failure, addiction, idleness, crime, and poverty.” I hear a lot of things on the Smithsonian’s white culture list.

If you find bourgeois culture appealing, welcome to the club (Heather Mac Donald has also extolled the the values of bourgeois culture). These are the values that have produced the most advanced civilization in world history. These values emerge from the dynamic of nationalism, an approach to organizing populations in which legal and political structures elevate individuals from subjects to citizens, placing them under the rule of law, and affording them democratic processes to affect change, to expand and entrench democracy itself, detribalizing them by emancipating them from the provincial structures that limit personal development and self-actualization, providing for them a common culture and language and access to common knowledge for problem solving. As I argue in my writing, individualism is the necessary basis for human rights, as it allows individuals to become defined not by the tribe or the religion but by their universal connection with all human beings independent of ideology, i.e. their species-being. This is an objective standard. Group right, in contrast, are destructive to human rights because they assume relative ontology, putting the subjectivity of the tribe or religion before concreteness of individuals and then put those individuals defined by tribe and religion above the individuals of other groups.

Turning now to Ford’s op-ed and the Smithsonian controversy …. After receiving blowback, interim director Spencer Crew apologized and removed the material in mid-July (which had been online since May 31), not because it he considered it wrong and racist, but because it did not contribute to the discussion as planned. Indeed, Crew insisted that the chart was not racist. “We’re trying to talk about ideology, not about people,” he said. “We are encouraging people to think about the world they live in and how they navigate it. It’s important to talk about it to grow and get better.” But while criticizing culture is not inherently racist, condemning a culture because it is said to be white is profoundly racist.

Ford argues that the notion that there is a “white culture” with these features “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.” Ford contends, for example, that it is “an insult to suggest that King ‘internalized’ his faith or his ethic of nonviolence because a White power structure imposed them on him.” He points out that “‘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.” 

Ford identifies a paradox in the “white culture” narrative: “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.” He also criticizes the identification of the “written tradition” with “white culture” given that “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.” 

Ford writes that “there is no White culture—only American culture,” because of this “people of color deserve some share of the blame as well as of the credit.” He continues, “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.” He suspects that the narrative the charts is shaped by a counter-cultural intention to disparage “soulless American capitalism and uptight bourgeois respectability” in order to relieve the burden of shared responsibility for that by supposing these were impositions, but finding that denying black responsibility also denies black accomplishment. This is “insulting and dehumanizing,” he contends. “Because there is no White culture—only American culture—people of color deserve their share of the blame as well as of the credit. 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,” he writes. “Black Americans are not displaced Africans who could return to an ancestral homeland.” Blacks 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.” 

That Western civilization emerged in Europe, a region inhabited by lighter skinned people, lighter skinned because of an unintended process of human development (the development of large-scale agriculture), doesn’t make it “white.” If history had been such somewhere else, the values of the Enlightenment might have emerged there. But it didn’t. And we can’t change that. We are fortunate that it emerged at all. It’s not just that there is no need to racialize culture, Ford contends that racializing culture is a bad idea. The values of Western civilization are to be preserved and advanced because they are the values that abolished slavery and racism, emancipated women, and achieved equality for gays and lesbians. Western culture is for everybody.

Tragically, though, we see a countermovement prevailing that is racializing the West in order to  delegitimize it on that basis—by promoting hatred and loathing of white people and making all of the good it has done for the world problematic on that basis. This is the central problem with Black Lives Matter and its sister countermovement Antifa, both variations on a synthesis of critical theory, postmodernism, and Mao Zedong thought (for a wonderful summary of the development of the toxic mixture sans Maoism, listen to Social Justice Explained with James Lindsay on Triggernometry). The sentiment is anti-West and sees in rhetoric equating the West with whiteness, an ideology promoted by intellectuals in the humanities and social sciences and progressives in corporations and government, an opportunity to bring down modernity with third worldist and tribalist sensibilities.

Make sure to catch my next podcast, coming very soon, in which I follow up on this episode and blog by telling you where the idea of the Smithsonian exhibit on whiteness came from and show how it represents the basis of diversity and racial sensitivity training.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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