Has Cancel Culture Gone Too Far?
Updated: Aug 20, 2022
If common sense behavior is now associated with white supremacy, it will only deepen the effects of systemic racism
Last week, the National Museum of African American History and Culture
MAAHC) removed a portion of a new exhibit called “Talking About Race,” citing concerns that it hadn’t contributed to “the productive discussion” the curators had hoped. The move came after mounting pressure and criticism from conservatives.
But if we were living in less insane times, the outcry wouldn’t have been partisan. In a sane world, any reasonable person, regardless of political persuasion, would have seen this exhibit for what it clearly was: racist.
“Talking About Race” had a noble goal: to provide tools to advance open, honest and respectful “conversations” about race. But a graphic illustration embedded within it — “Aspects & Assumptions of Whiteness & White Culture in the United States” — undermined this effort.
The chart was based on a book written by Judy H.Katz in 1978 entitled “White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training." In her book, Katz argued that because white people dominate the power structure, all Americans (including non-whites) have internalized certain beliefs and practices. This, of course, makes sense.
But here’s where it gets bizarre.
The chart highlighted 14 categories of “white dominant culture” that have been “normalized” over time. According to “Aspects & Assumptions,” even characteristics and behavior such as hard work, punctuality, and a desire for progress make non-whites feel “inferior or abnormal.” Why? Because they’re oppressive. Again, why? Because these are “white” standards that people of color simply can’t meet.
The irony is that if a KKK Grand Wizard (or Donald Trump) claimed these as “white” characteristics, we all know what would happen. They would be vilified as racists. The blowback would be epic. The media would spin the story 24/7 for days, and maybe weeks.
Yet when those teaching anti-racism suggest that non-white Americans can’t be expected to meet standards of conduct common to most people of all colors across the world, the silence is deafening.
What happened last week should be a wake up call to anyone committed to eliminating systemic racism in the United States. We’re on a slippery slope. We’re living in a time when anyone or anything that’s deemed offensive can be ejected or terminated. If characteristics demonstrated by most functional adults can now be considered symbols of “whiteness,” they could also be on the chopping block at some point. They could be “cancelled.”
And if that happens, these well-intentioned crusaders may end up sabotaging the quest for equality.
America needs to talk about race.
It’s a dialogue that’s long overdue in a country built upon the blood and sweat of enslaved people, a nation where black and brown still labor under the legacy of institutional discrimination. And any meaningful and productive conversation about race needs to examine the impact that attitudes, traditions, and behavior have had on the way Americans see themselves and treat each other.
“Aspects & Assumptions” identified more than a few insidious aspects of white culture I’ve battled all my life: European-based aesthetics and an anorexic standard of beauty; an emphasis on repressed or restrained emotions; and an Anglo-centric version of history.
The exhibit also highlighted aspects of white culture that have been detrimental to Americans of all colors: the concept of wealth = worth; your job is who you are; a “win at all costs” mentality; master and control nature; the winner/loser dichotomy. I could even add a few more: imperialism, debt, and capitalism run amok.
If “Aspects & Assumptions” were limited to these traits, there wouldn’t have been an issue. But it went a step further and added a laundry list of others, conflating the worst aspects of whiteness with behavior that most people of any color — in any country — exhibit. In doing so, the curators implied that all of these traits are part of an oppressive white culture that's harmful to people of color.
And that’s when the lesson got crazy.
One of the most bizarre — and offensive — traits on the “Aspects & Assumptions” chart is the nuclear family: a father and husband, who is breadwinner and head of household, and a wife who is homemaker and subordinate. It’s completely detached from reality.
To begin with, the concept that the nuclear family is an aspect of “white” culture is completely detached from reality. Historically, black families also adhered to this structure. From 1880 until about 1940, extended families comprised only 22.5% of black households. Two-parent households were the norm, and black children benefited significantly: they were better-educated, enjoyed greater employment prospects, and experienced lower levels of incarceration. It was only after a wave of drugs and crime began to ravage communities in the mid-1960s that black families disintegrated, and households helmed by single black mothers became the norm. The end result was a multi-generational spiral into poverty and crime.
Moreover, the reality is that most American families today, regardless of color, aren’t nuclear: one-third of children live with one parent, 67% of married mothers are employed, and 41% of women are the sole breadwinner. By this standard, even most white people must feel inferior or abnormal now. That said, a disproportionately high percentage of these single parent households are black (65% ) and Hispanic/Latino (41%).
A variety of systemic conditions— institutionalized racism, high rates of incarceration, unemployment, and chronic poverty — have contributed to the collapse of the nuclear family in communities of color. No reasonable person would blame anyone born into these circumstances for raising children the best way they can. My partner and I struggle to raise a single child, so I can’t imagine the effort it takes for a single adult to hold a family together. Women and men who bear the burden of raising children solo under these conditions deserve our respect, and neither they nor their children should be shamed.
Given these circumstances, making nuclear families a part of white culture may have been a compassionate attempt to de-stigmatize single parent families — but in doing, the curators effectively normalized broken homes. By identifying the nuclear family a white standard, it implied that people of color aren’t naturally inclined towards these family units and only replicate them in order to assimilate into white culture.
This isn’t just racist; it’s irresponsible.
Imagine what a single black mother who saw this exhibit might think: “Yeah, that whole two-parent family thing is for white people, but I’m not trying to live their life. I didn’t know my father, and I got by. So will my kids. That’s the way we do it.”
This isn’t a message we should be sending to young black women. It’s well-established that having a partner in childrearing — whether it’s two women, two men, or a heterosexual couple — is a tremendous advantage to children and parents. Kids raised in single-parent households are twice as likely to drop out of high school, 2.5 times as likely to become teenage parents, and 1.4 times as likely to be unemployed.
So while it’s important to de-stigmatize broken homes in communities of color, it’s even more important to encourage behavior and attitudes that will help young people re-establish nuclear families. But by designating these family units as symbols of white supremacy, NMAAHC curators were doing precisely the opposite. The lessons they were teaching would weaken non-white families by lowering their expectations. The tools they were using would condition people of color to expect and accept a lifestyle forged by the consequences of systemic racism.
According to the NMAAHC, the nuclear family isn’t the only aspect of white culture that makes people of color feel inferior and abnormal. There are a bevy of other traits, behaviors, and traditions that belong to white people:
Independence and autonomy
Cause and effect relationships
Work before play
“The King’s English” rules
Following rigid time schedules
Progress is always best
Planning for the future
Hard work is the key to success
Think very carefully about what this chart is telling us. In the minds of the museum curators, these are all traits that reflect “white” culture. The characteristics on this list don’t invite a productive conversation about race and understanding cultural differences; to the contrary, they reinforce negative stereotypes that people of color struggle to overcome.
There’s no question that non-white Americans have been marginalized by a legacy of systemic racism, but we’ve also been damaged by behavior we‘ve internalized as a result of this discrimination. But we can’t unwind the effects of past and ongoing discrimination if we associate the characteristics on this chart with white supremacy.
How can you get a well-paying job if you think that proper English is only for white people?
How can you keep that job if you don’t think you need to follow a rigid time schedule?
How can you have peaceful encounters with police if you don’t feel the need to be polite, respect authority, and avoid conflict?
How can you teach your kids to practice family planning or encourage them to get an education if you don’t understand the importance of delayed gratification?
How can you invest or own a home if you don’t think it’s important to work hard and plan for the future?
How can you teach your children to be responsible citizens and obey laws if you don’t believe that actions have consequences?
How can you hope for a better future if you don’t value or expect progress?
How can we ever eliminate the consequences of systemic racism if we stigmatize common sense behavior as symbols of oppressive white culture?
The answer is you can't.
That the NMAAHC ultimately removed this chart from the “Talking About Race” exhibit came as a relief to its critics, but we’re still left to wonder why it was included in the first place.
How could people charged with educating others about race have been so clueless about the message they were sending? Why would those with a vested interest in advancing equality encourage a conversation about race that normalizes the devastating effects of institutional discrimination? Why would race educators create a behavioral narrative that deprives people of color of the very tools that can help them combat system racism?
And most importantly, why was there no outrage from the movement that stands ready to attack anyone and anything when there's the slightest hint of racism?
Despite its systemic breakdowns and at times unforgivable history, the United States remains one of humanity’s greatest experiments. Yes, it’s an experiment that’s going off the rails now, but it hasn’t completely failed — at least not yet.
As this experiment has unfolded, we’ve all internalized a wide array of traits and habits. Some are aspects of “white” culture that have become toxic to us and the rest of the world; others are part of common sense behavior that people in almost all countries embrace and practice.
And still others are traits that have allowed people of all colors to advance in this experiment. They are fundamental principles that guide and unite all Americans: self-determination, the pursuit of freedom, happiness, and prosperity, and a commitment to hard work and independence.
These aren’t “white” traits; they are American traits.
They are principles that have attracted people of all races from all over the world — not because they were forced on them by oppressors, but because they made sense to them. Because they came from countries where these ideals weren’t even on the table for discussion.
Because even people who were born here as slaves understood that these axioms held the greatest potential to advance human equality.
But if we’ve now reached a point where common sense behavior has become a symbol of white supremacy, then we’re in trouble. If those who claim to have “tools” to educate us believe these characteristics are symbols of oppression, then those born into poverty will stay there.
If we convince ourselves that the only way to overcome systemic racism is by stigmatizing valuable traits that have benefited Americans of all colors, then equality for all will forever remain beyond our reach.