In the summer of Our Racial Reckoning, a controversy erupted around a poster on the Smithsonian History museum website with the title “Aspects and Assumptions of White Culture in the United States.” The poster presented a list of largely positive cultural values—things like delayed gratification, be polite, action-oriented, rugged individualism, and hard work—but attributed them to "whiteness" and seemed to frame them in a negative light. President Trump and others condemned the poster and it was soon taken down. Just another skirmish in the Great American Culture War.
The poster was derived from a popular handbook for anti-racism training written in 1978 and still used in classrooms and seminars. The book, White Awareness: Handbook for Anti-Racism Training, by Judith H. Katz has a 4.1 rating on Amazon and is “an important book that needs to be read by all professionals,” according to a reviewer who signed off as Allen Ivey, a “distinguished” professor of education at UMass, Amherst.
The poster also resembles the work of another influential antiracism trainer, Tema Okun, who jotted down a list of “The Characteristics of White Supremacy Culture” after a frustrating day of work sometime in the late 90s. She turned the list into an article and then the basis of a consulting practice, a website, and a book. Although Okun and Katz are not as prominent as currently fashionable race gurus like fellow white diversity trainer Robin D’Angelo, or African-American writers Ta-Nehisi Coates and Ibram X. Kendi, their ideas are widely circulated, showing up in a wide variety of settings, from elementary schools to the Sierra Club and a national history museum.
Katz and Okun have a point. A lot of the features they attribute to white culture can be annoying or worse—and they become particularly annoying during a long and frustrating work day. Much of our unhappiness, I think, comes from the effort to live up to these cultural expectations. They seem connected to Americans’ obsession with work and the fact that 55 percent of us don’t even bother to use up all of our paid vacation allotment.
Consider just one item on the poster: “rugged individualism: the individual is the primary unit.” We may be the loneliest people in human history. Since 1960, the percentage of Americans who live alone has risen from 13 to 28. The self-liquidating nuclear family is a clever arrangement that sustains the population but keeps it atomized. You have children and raise them to adulthood, then send them to college five hours away in a different state where they meet a boyfriend and end up spending Thanksgiving with his family, who also live five hours away (this is a totally hypothetical example, with no connection to actual events).
The extended family—once the “primary unit” of humanity—is soon to be joined by the neighborhood in the dustbin of history. Twenty-six percent of millennials say they don’t know the name of even one neighbor.
But what does any of this have to do with skin color? Are Black and brown people all living in extended-family heaven? Have they all mastered work-life balance?
No say Okun and the Smithsonian: “Since white people still hold most of the institutional power in America, we have all internalized some aspect of white culture—including people of color.”
Hard-working, individualistic Black people, it seems, are not authentically Black. That’s "a racialist view that imputes a singular, authentic consciousness and values, aspirations and mores to racially designated populations," according to Adolph Reed. Policing the boundaries of "authentic Blackness" is a common weapon that has been used by mainstream race activists to dismiss the ideas of Black Marxists like Reed as well as Black conservative like Thomas Sowell. It seems particularly objectionable when wielded by white people.
What annoys some whites and a lot of Blacks about the Smithsonian poster and Okun’s formulations is that they seem to accept a fundamental premise of racism—that a person’s skin color comes with certain essential characteristics. Critics of contemporary antiracist thinking often level this charge of racial essentialism, and also race reductionism—the belief that racism is the cause of every social phenomenon—against antiracists activists and diversity trainers.
To be fair, Okun, Katz, and those who agree with them would disavow those charges and say they are talking about cultural, not biological or genetic, essences. But their work makes culture seem less fluid than it is.
And the poster gave conservatives an easy win in the culture war.
I’d like to suggest that Okun and Katz—and the Smithsonian—could have avoided a lot of grief if they had grounded their analysis of culture in history rather than skin color.
I write as a fairly recent convert to “big history”—an approach to the discipline that looks at the whole sweep of the human story rather than just the relatively small part of it reflected in written historical documents. When I first saw the Smithsonian poster I thought about James C. Scott’s book Against the Grain, which hinges on the development of grain-based agriculture and chronicles the long conflict between the people inside and outside of states. Because civilization depended on the labor-intensive cultivation of grains, inhabitants of states were coerced into working much harder and longer than the hunter-gatherers, pastoralists, and horticulturalists who continued to reside outside the city walls. He describes those stateless, uncivilized “barbarians” as mostly happier and better off than the poor slobs living under the yoke of the state, in much the same way that Okun and Katz think of non-white people as having certain advantages over lonely, repressed, over-worked whites.
But it’s historical developments like agriculture and the rise of states, according to Scott and other big historians, not white skin that is the source of our misery. Civilized states sprang up all over the world, from Mexico to China, so the civilized-barbarian dichotomy does not represent a racial distinction. The barbarians outside the European states were just as “white” as the folks inside. But not all civilized cultures are alike—and Okun-Katz are onto something when they suggest that Europeans have developed a more intense version of civilized culture. It did not arise as a product of their whiteness, however, and even now not all Europeans share these characteristics equally, though they all live in states.
Long before the advent of “whiteness studies,”* historians have been trying to understand European exceptionalism. Why, they ask, did Europeans come to dominate the world? Like Okun and Katz, 19th century European historians credited essential characteristics of races. Europe took over because Europeans were biologically superior. Thankfully, 20th century historians moved beyond racial determinism to explore other possible causes.
A few years back, for example, Jared Diamond offered a compelling argument based on geographical determinism in his popular book Guns, Germs, and Steel. Other explanations have included things like the competition among European states, the Black Plague, and the invention or adoption of various technologies ranging from the printing press to the lateen sail and from eye-glasses to gunpowder.
A new book advances another compelling theory that seems particularly compatible with antiracism, even though it contradicts some of the premises of the movement.
In the WEIRDest People in the World, Joseph Henrich, argues that the European people he calls WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, and Democratic) and that Katz and Okun call white, got their peculiar characteristics not via biological evolution and not because of any physical feature like skin color, but through the evolution of culture. And because the key to that evolution was fluky, it implies no sense of inherent superiority among individuals in one culture over individuals in another. It wasn’t planned or willful, and it didn’t happen because the Europeans were naturally smarter or more industrious. It wasn’t in the genes.
According to Henrich, it emerged from a quirky set of policies, imposed on Europeans by the Catholic Church starting in the fourth century, which radically changed the nature of families, by, among many other things, prohibiting cousin marriage. Henrich call it the Marriage and Family Program (MFP). All these policies—his appendix lists six pages of them—had the effect of breaking down big extended families—clans—into smaller units until we ended up with that unsatisfying nuclear family mentioned above and the lonely, repressed, rugged individual.
Just as you don’t have to have a white skin to adopt “white culture,” Henrich shows how you don't have to be white or even Catholic to adopt WEIRD culture. In fact, Protestants ended up WEIRDer than Catholics, especially in terms of what the Smithsonian poster refers to as “the Protestant work ethic.” And more recently, Henrich says, Japan, South Korea, and China have adopted many features of WEIRD culture and psychology so successfully that they threaten to surpass Europeans in WEIRDness (Henrich, 476). Cultural evolution—and history—is a seesaw battle with no inevitable outcome.
Like the Smithsonian, which lists white qualities that are both advantageous and a bummer, Henrich points out that the culture that helped Europeans conquer the world, carries some very unsatisfying elements. On the plus side, he cites things like patience, inventiveness, industriousness, and my favorite, positive-sum thinking. On the downside, WEIRD people are more guilt-ridden, materialistic, and prone to suicide than people in kin-based societies (471, 427). And Henrich acknowledges “very real pervasive horrors of western colonialism, slavery, and genocide (487).
And even the people who benefit the most from WEIRD miss out on the warmth of kin-based societies, which Henrich describes as “both impressive and beautiful,” characterized by
relationship specific kindness, warmth, reciprocity, and—sometimes—unconditional generosity as well as authority and deference. It's focused on the in-group members in the networks. If you're in the group or the network it can feel like a long and comfortable hug (Henrich, 300).
Of course Henrich and Okun-Katz are not the first to notice the negative side of Western culture. During the colonial period in America, Europeans frequently ran away to live with the Indians. (Graeber and Wengrow, 18-20). Nineteenth-century utopians created a cottage industry in pointing to the flaws and contradictions embedded in a culture they found unsatisfying. Some of them formed communes, others, like Karl Marx, fomented revolution. Such people, Henrich notes, noticed that a culture supercharged by market capitalism “sometimes led to alienation, exploitation, and commodification." And our yearning for that "long and comfortable hug" has never gone away. This fall, my daughter moved to a commune in Virginia in search of that hug.
While Henrich agrees with some of their critiques of western culture, I have a feeling his theories won’t sit well with many in contemporary social justice movements for a number of reasons.
For one thing, although he acknowledges positive and negative features of WEIRD and kin-based societies, he argues that WEIRD culture has advantages that account for its dominance, and suggests that a process like natural selection will lead people in other cultures to adopt those features. This pushes against the cultural relativism of the left as well as a paradoxical inclination to see non-western cultures as morally superior and more humane.
These tensions may explain why he was denied a job in the anthropology department at the University of British Columbia and ended up with a joint appointment in the perhaps less-woke economics and psychology departments.
But qualities like moral and humane matter little in the contest between cultures, Henrich would say. Rather evolution rewards the ability to “scale up” and gain competitive advantage (87-122).
Henrich identifies a number of competitive advantages of WEIRD culture.
At the heart of his analysis is the unique, western nuclear family, which he sees as the key to the WEIRDness of the West and its success. The Catholics’ MFP included prohibitions on cousin marriage, which led people to seek partners outside the clan and thus shrank and weakened extended families and clans in relation to other institutions, like the church and the state. Perhaps more significantly, the banning of polygamy led to significant changes in male psychology that suppressed competition among males, and reduced crime, violence and zero-sum thinking
while promoting broader trust, long-term investments, and steady economic accumulation….Low status men in monogamous societies have a chance to marry, have children, and invest in the future. High-status men can and will still compete for status, but the currency of that competition can no longer involve the accumulation of wives or concubines. In a monogamous world, zero-sum competition is relatively less important. So, there's greater scope for forming voluntary organizations and teams that then compete at the group level.
In Henrich’s fascinating and surprising chapter on the subject, he calls, monogamous marriage a “peculiar institution” and a “testosterone suppression system,” citing studies that show dramatic declines in testosterone levels among men in monogamous marriages compared with men in polygynous societies, which have been the norm through most of human history, and are still fairly common today, while “nearly all modern legal prohibitions on polygynous marriage derive from WEIRD foundations, ultimately rooted in Christian doctrines” (255-283, 262).
It’s not hard to imagine how this might make life better for women. Yet, the Smithsonian devotes four bullet points to the monogamous nuclear “white” family, noting that the wife is “subordinate to the husband”; and it has become fashionable in the social justice hothouse of universities, which Henrich says is ground zero of WEIRD culture, to rail against the “patriarchal” two-parent “heteronormative” family as an oppressive, outdated relic of the past.
While a student at Yale, Rob Henderson, who grew up in foster homes, noticed that classmates who came from affluent two-parent families, would say “’monogamy is outdated’ but then they personally plan to get married and have the same kind of family that they had.” This experience inspired Henderson to coin the phrase “luxury beliefs,” which he attributed to elites who condemn elements of western culture—like hard work and two-parent families—that are the key to their prosperity.
According to Henderson, the notion that the Protestant work ethic is an element of white supremacy culture is a luxury belief developed by people who have every intention to work as hard as necessary to get ahead.
As people sought mates outside of clans, WEIRD societies became more cosmopolitan and less tribal. Survival came to depend on being able to “engage in a wide range of mutually beneficial transactions” with strangers, so people adopted “market norms” of fairness, honesty, and cooperation, “qualities that will help them attract the most customers as well as the best business partners, employees, students, and clients.” Those values were internalized and led to a culture of “impersonal prosociality.”
People in clannish societies focus more “on nurturing and sustaining enduring webs of interpersonal relationships,” which promotes their warmth—that comfortable hug. Since there is little need for transactions among strangers, there’s no incentive to conform to “market norms” and develop values of impersonal prosociality (293-294). If you live in a kin-based society, you’re more likely to take care of your aging parents and to cheat a stranger in a business transaction, according the Henrich.
Critics of European capitalism have long focused on negative values cultivated by market imperatives and Henrich acknowledges that in addition to making us more trustworthy to strangers, markets tend to erode communal warmth and “make people self-centered, individualistic, calculating, and competitive” (300, 299).
The Smithsonian chart is full of values connected to market norms—with nine bulleted items under “competition” and three under “Protestant work ethic.” But these values are not equally held by all white people, or all people living in Western countries. They were less prominent among the people Rob Henderson grew up with and more prominent among his undergraduate classmates. In my own experience, I can say they are much more widespread in the racially diverse elite boarding school where I teach than they were in the white working-class neighborhood where I grew up. They are not determined by skin color.
The concept of justice is also unique in WEIRD culture, Henrich says, and he presents it mostly as an improvement over kin-based justice, because it is based on individual responsibility, guilt and punishment rather than corporate responsibility, guilt and punishment. It seeks to apply universal principles (however imperfectly) rather than maintain in-group loyalty.
The Smithsonian poster lists as an element of white justice “intent counts,” but doesn’t mention what a better alternative might look like. Henrich contrasts Western law’s “intentionality in moral judgement” with legal systems that don’t consider intent. Consideration of intent, which is connected to the principle of individual rather than “corporate responsibility,” seems like a wholly positive development in the western legal tradition. It’s good that we treat first degree murder differently than a death caused by an accident. In some kin-based societies the individual perpetrator’s intent doesn’t matter at all. Rather than a prison sentence, kin-based societies often impose payment of “blood money” to the victim’s clan “and the size of this payment won’t depend on whether you killed the guy by accident.” Failure to work out an agreement on the payment doesn’t lead to judgement by a higher court, but to an ongoing “blood feud.” The goal is not fairness to the accused, but restitution to the clan (Henrich, 219-222; and Weiner, 117-126).
The Smithsonian poster’s reference to intent is neutral, but it seems to reflect a growing tendency among diversity advocates to de-emphasize or discount intent, and focus mainly on the impact of a harmful act—which is more often a “microaggression” than a murder. For example, see “Why Your Intentions Don’t Really Matter,” in Everyday Feminism.
Henrich’s thesis would not be appealing to anyone looking for a neat historical dichotomy between an evil oppressor society and a world of romanticized victims. It lacks the “moral clarity,” for example, of the Times’ 1619 Project, which posits racism as inherent to western civilization, especially the American capitalist system.
Like Scott, Henrich points out that slavery was universal throughout human history among all races. Henrich also acknowledges, like the 1619 Project, that slavery became more brutal under European market capitalism. But he also agrees with critics of 1619 when he argues that Europe’s WEIRD culture with its Enlightenment values, was uniquely responsible for the abolition of slavery.
He attributes it to their belief in “moral universalism” (403). Unlike most other peoples, Henrich writes, WEIRDos tend to think analytically rather than holistically (a contrast not lost on critics of white culture) and so they “hate contradictions.” “Much of the development of Western law has been about ferreting out and resolving contradictions that emerge when one tries to isolate a set of principles and apply them more broadly” (404). Thus, abolitionists and others were motivated to end slavery to resolve a glaring contradiction.
It could have gone another way, Henrich notes. While abolitionists were trying to resolve the contradiction between Enlightenment ideals and slavery via emancipation, slave-owners were resolving the contradiction by convincing themselves that “slaves were a different kind of creation and thus not subject to the self-evident assertion about unalienable rights.” Thus, WEIRD culture didn’t make abolition inevitable and it’s still important to study history so we can understand how the abolitionists triumphed over the pro-slavery theorists (569, n.8).
One thing that Henrich makes clear is that there is a spectrum of WEIRDness. Some parts of the West and of the United States are WEIRDer than others. If he is right, it would explain why Southern white people in the antebellum US who still married their first cousins (rates of cousin marriage tend to correlate with degrees of WEIRDness according to Henrich) were less bothered by the contradictions between slavery and the democratic ideas of the revolution while people in the WEIRDer North abolished slavery in their states after the Revolution and then fought a war to abolish it in the nation.
WEIRDness is still uneven. Henrich’s book includes maps that show the relative WEIRDness of the different US states and different European countries. A great irony is that according to Henrich the WEIRDest people on Earth today are the inhabitants of the western universities—especially in the United States—that are the epicenter of antiracist efforts to dismantle “white supremacy culture.”
Which gets to the problem of racism in contemporary WEIRD societies. If WEIRDness abolished slavery, why hasn't it ended racism? Henrich might argue that any remnants of racism in America are a function not of too much white culture, but of too little WEIRD culture.
Racism persists in America, he would say, to the degree that the Catholic MFP has not fully stamped out intensive kinship and in-group prosociality, and racism would be more likely to thrive in places where that was the case.
On the other hand, a WEIRD tendency to believe in “internal attributions” leads to what psychologists call the “fundamental attribution error” (“the tendency for people to under-emphasize situational and environmental explanations for an individual's observed behavior while over-emphasizing dispositional and personality-based explanations”—Wikipedia). In the words of the Smithsonian poster, “you get what you deserve.” Thus, if a particular racial group is disproportionately poor, for example, it must be caused by an internal attribute of the people in the group.
On yet another hand, the principle of individual rights also grew out of the belief in internal attributes, according to Henrich. We see the right to a fair trial as an inherent right of every individual, not something to get or be denied because of membership in a group. You get the job because you are qualified, not because your uncle is doing the hiring. Once you concede the humanity of different-looking people, you have to acknowledge their inherent rights.
Thus, WEIRD culture is a mixed bag when it comes to inspiring antiracist attitudes.
Henrich’s theories may or may not be true but I found them persuasive, and also compatible with antiracism. For one thing, they offer a satisfying synthesis of the two sides in the debate over the 1619 Project. He offers something to those who point out the western character of anti-slavery abolitionism but he also explains how racism could persist in that same culture. And Henrich’s “WEIRD culture” offers much more ground for hope than the 1619 Project or the Afro-pessimist formulation of “white supremacy culture.” Hopelessness is the greatest foe of any kind of activism.
(Read about the 1619 conflict here.)
Second, Henrich dismisses biological or genetic explanations of human evolution as significant causes of differences among various groups of humans, focusing instead on how cultures evolved. Unlike biological evolution, cultural evolution assumes human equality. We are all, he argues, born with equally impressive brains that are designed to adapt to whatever environment we are born into. Plop any kind of kid with whatever skin color into any village and his psychology will develop in a way that is suited to thrive in that culture, just as well as anyone else. All human brains did evolve, he says, to be self-programmable, ready at birth to adapt to the social environment we face. (487) Not only is that argument persuasive, because it’s supported by so much documentary evidence; and not only does it undermine racist beliefs; but it also offers a great deal more hope for the survival and improvement of multi-racial democracy in the West.
But Henrich’s book should not be taken as the last word. In their just-released book on the history of Humanity, David Wengrow and the late David Graeber, say that new research that has been accumulating in recent decades “points towards a completely new account of how human societies developed over roughly the last 30,000 years. Almost all this research goes against the familiar narrative” and we are only in the very earliest states of incorporating this knowledge into an understanding of the broad sweep of human history.
I’ve only gotten through the first couple of chapters of their book, The Dawn of Everything, but I’m excited to find out how their version complicates the stories that Scott and Henrich have told.
NOTES AND SOURCES
(Go here for a guide, with links, to the essays in my series on teaching anti-racism)
Some of the books that have helped me think more globally
Joseph Henrich, The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Phychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous (New York, 2020). Henrich considers and persuasively dismisses the evidence that psychological differences among human groups are caused by genetic evolution. The inclination of WEIRD researchers believe in “internal attributions” leads them “to assume that any observed or inferred psychological differences among populations are due to genetic differences.” “It’s important to confront this possibility head-on,” he writes. He concludes that genetic evolution is too slow to account for all the differences we see across the globe. “The many lines of research explored in this book suggest that cultural processes have dominated the formation of the psychological diversity that is apparent around the globe as well as within Europe, China, and India.” See 481. On the fundamental attribution error, 386.
James C. Scott, Against The Grain: A Deep History of the Earliest States (2017)
Anyone who is inclined to romanticize kin-based societies should read Mark S. Weiner, The Rule of the Clan: What an Ancient Form of Social Organization Reveals about the Future of Individual Freedom (2013). Weiner's eye-opening book offers a close up look at what justice looks like in kin-based societies. Like Henrich, he also acknowledges the appeal of kin-based societies and warns that modern individualistic societies are always in danger of reverting to tribalism. Liberal modernity, he argues, does not replace and eliminate the rule of the clan, it merely suppresses it and the "ache for everything that is lost" in the transition, is never fully overcome. "Addressing that ache is an essential challenge for liberal society," he argues. Intellectuals and artists, he says, seek to meet that challenge, "sometimes to liberalism's detriment, but sometimes by reimagining the clan in ways that advance and sustain the culture of the liberal rule of law" (168).
Sebastian Junger, Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, (2016) gives a vivid sense of the big hug that is missing in the modern west and how it is sometimes recreated in modern western societies.
Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Societies (1997).
Daniel Lord Smail, On Deep History and the Brain (2007).
Yuval Noah Harari, Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014).
John Keane, The Life and Death of Democracy (2009).
On the impact of eye-glasses on human progress and as a minor factor in European dominance, see David Landes, The Wealth and Poverty of Nations: Why Some are So Rich and Some So Poor (1995).
Reviews of WEIRD
This essay discusses the reception of Henrich’s 2010 paper—a prelude to the book—by other social scientists.
An essay here by Rob Henderson in a conservative publication offers a thorough, uncritical summary of the book.
A New York Times review by Daniel Dennett, offers a good summary and speculates about its reception among other scholars, calling for respectful engagement and concluding: “This book calls out for respectful but ruthless vetting on all counts, and what it doesn’t need, and shouldn’t provoke, is ideological condemnations or quotations of brilliant passages by revered authorities. Are historians, economists and anthropologists up to the task? It will be fascinating to see.”
A review in EH Net—an economics history site—evaluating the book as a work of history. A Note on The Dawn of Everything
David Graeber and David Wengrow, The Dawn of Everything: A New History of Humanity
(2021). The authors devote a whole section of the book to Scott’s argument in Against the Grain,
but Henrich ignores his work. Henrich and Graeber/Wengrow seem to be talking past each other. Their names don’t appear in each others’ indices nor is their scholarship listed in each other’s long bibliographies. Dawn
is blurbed on the dust jacket by four luminaries on the academic left: Scott (“dazzling, original, and convincing”), Robin D.G. Kelley, Rebecca Solnit, and Noam Chomsky. The most recognizable name among Henrich’s blurbers, Francis Fukuyama, whose book on early humanity is held up by Graeber/Wengrow as a typical example of the wrong way to tell the story (9).
As we might expect from a further-left perspective, Graeber and Wengrow seem to have a more favorable view of non-western societies than Henrich or Weiner but they also seem to be moving away from Scott’s view of grain-based agriculture as a sharp dividing line between state and non-state societies. A key argument of Henrich is that socieites develop through a process of “cumulative cultural evolution” which individuals in the society are unaware of. The products of that process are “much smarter than we are. . . . Cultural evolution assemble highly adaptive and complex recipes, procedures, and tools over generations without anyone understanding how or why various elements are included.” Individuals to whom these products are handed down generally don’t understand how they work, so best not try to mess with them (66-67).
Graeber and Wengrow, argue that people are natural political philosophers, who over the millennia, have come up with all kinds of different ways to organize societies. The greatest mistakes that chroniclers of early humanity have made is to assume all the people living outside of states, civilizations, and without settled agriculture were simple primitives who lived natural lives. The chapter I just read resurrects a lost history of dialogue between early European explorers and colonizers and “indigenous intellectuals” of North America in which the Americans proved to be the superior debaters and who offered unanswerable and devastating critiques of European culture. The Wendat “philosopher statesman” Kandiaronk, for example, said “I have spent six years reflecting on the state of European society and I still can’t think of a single way they act that’s not inhuman,” and then spelled out how obsession with money led to a culture of “lasciviousness, intrigues, trickery, lies, betrayal, insincerity” (54-55).
The two books also differ in their views of the relative freedom of people in different cultures. Henrich sees democracy as a unique feature of WEIRD culture—it’s the D in WEIRD—along with individual rights and freedoms. He says they weren’t consciously developed by the political philosophers of the Enlightnment—“fancy intellectuals, philosophers, or theologians positing grand theories of ‘democracy,’ the ‘rule of law,’ or ‘human rights.’” Instead, they were an inadvertent product of the psychological changes caused by living in a WEIRD culture.
Graeber and Wengrow also demote fancy Enlightenment philosophers—they got their ideas about freedom from indigenous intellectuals of America. But the version of liberal democracy they came up with was vastly inferior to what the indigenous American practiced. All Europeans—rich and poor—were slaves to their material self-interests, engaged in endless competition over status and private property, subject to coercive hierarchies and punitive laws. Because indigenous peoples practiced a “baseline communism” in which, for example, “it would have been quite inconceivable to refuse a request for food,” they enjoyed a truer freedom. Their different experiences of freedom involved
very different concepts of individualism. Europeans were constantly squabbling for advantage; societies of the Northeast Woodlands, by contrast, guaranteed one another the means to an autonomous life—or at least ensured no man or woman was subordinated to any other. Insofar as we can speak of communism, it existed not in opposition to but in support of individual freedom.
Tema Okun and the Smithsonian would seem to be invoking this contrast in their critique of white culture. It seems doubtful, though, that she or anyone she has encountered in 21st century America has any direct experience of a culture like those of 16th and 17th century Northeast Woodlands peoples.
One important thing that both books have in common is that they stand firmly against any kind of deterministic view of history or a notion that any outcome was or is inevitable. It think it’s also safe to say that they both see human societies perpetually in flux and that humans do have a big impact on their own history. Graeber and Wengrow, though, seem more optimistic about the ability of humans to consciously change their social arrangements for the better. The worst thing about modern WEIRD societies, they seem to be saying, is that they have forgotten that rich history and thus have an impoverished sense of how we could make things better.
When I tell people that my daughter has joined a commune, they look at me with sympathy, as if the first thought that flashed through their minds was “Jonestown.” But if you read The Dawn of Everything, I think you will come away with the sense that what is weird about our modern world is not the rare commune that pops up, but the fact that there are so few of them. Having studied the rich history of those rare communal societies in America, I was not opposed to Emma joining this one, which I had read about—it’s been around for 50 years—but reading this book made me feel even better about it.
White Supremacy Culture
A Washington Post story about the Smithsonian controversy.
According to the museum’s interim director, the poster was derived from the book, White Awareness: Handbook For Anti-Racism Training, by Judith H. Katz (1978). The UMass professor’s review can be found on Amazon.
A black author reacted to the Smithsonian poster on CNN’s website: “There is no 'White culture,'” by Richard Thompson Ford, August 18, 2020
Tema Okun’s website, where she discusses how she wrote her original list, in 1997, at the end of a long day in the consulting salt mine in a “flurry of exasperation”: The list included “15 behaviors, all of them interconnected and mutually reinforcing–perfectionism, a sense of urgency, defensiveness and/or denial, quantity over quality, worship of the written word, the belief in one “right” way, paternalism, either/or binary thinking, power hoarding, fear of open conflict, individualism, progress defined as more, the right to profit, objectivity, and the right to comfort.” Also on the site, Okun acknowledges that her list often seems to do more harm than good, even in the workshops she runs. She never foresaw that
people would take the analysis and framework we offered and use it to beat each other up—"My analysis is better than your analysis," "I am/we are more righteous than you." Similarly, some people report that this list gets used as a weapon to accuse, shame, and blame in ways that perpetuate disconnection. …
Another, a skilled facilitator, reports that "I could not possibly tally the number of hours I have spent over the last three years dislodging people from the reductive stance they construct based on the tool. In its current form, just to name one area, it tilts people towards a behavioral and ahistorical frame. And because it couches things in a way that can be read as absolutist, it can generate almost ridiculous orthodoxies of exclusion. I worked in one situation where the communications function had come to a grinding halt because a segment of the staff had decided that editing was white supremacist and, while yes, there are elitist and racist frames around proper language, the organization was locked in an either/or frame that was incredibly unhealthy and unproductive."
An activist talks about how the list has been used to scold white people, to tell white people we are inherently problematic and that our work, those of us who are white, is to never trust ourselves. A BIPOC person shares that the list is traumatizing and triggering.
Working with each other across lines of difference is really hard. We cause harm, we operate out of our conditioning, we are rightfully enraged, deeply hurt, exhausted.
See also, the website for a consultancy she is associated with.
Matt Yglesias’s critical essay on Tema Okun’s ideas.
A couple of months after I posted this, the Caledonian-Record (I'm a subscriber), carried a page-one article about a St. Johnsbury, Vt. Chamber-of-Commerce-sponsored eight-months-long "racial literacy training" based on Okun's curriculum, led by Sha'an Mouliert.
Whiteness studies became a booming subfield in American history and other disciplines in the 1990s. The ideas of Okun and the Smithsonian poster seem to have been influenced by that scholarship. The best known historical work in the field is David Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class
(1991). Whiteness scholars “proclaim their political commitments loudly and without hesitation” and adopt a tone of soul searching and “rhetorical rectitude,” according to a review article on the genre. They treat whiteness as a pathology—an “empty culture,” a “poisonous system of privilege.” One whiteness scholar wrote: “Exposing, analyzing, and eradicating this pathology is an obligation that we all share.” A pioneers of the field, Noel Ignatiev, author of How the Irish Became White
, established a journal called Race Traitor
, which sought to be “an intellectual center for those seeking to abolish the white race.” It’s motto: “Treason to whiteness is loyalty to humanity” (Eric Arnesen, “Whiteness and the Historians’ Imagination, International Labor and Working-Class History
Fall, 2001, p. 8).
See also, Peter Kolchin, “White Studies: The New History of Race in America,” The Journal of American History,
June, 2002, pp. 154-173.
Whiteness scholars’ abandonment of the stance of academic objectivity anticipated Times
reporter Wesley Lowrey’s more recent call for journalists to elevate moral clarity over objectivity. See Wesley Lowery
, “A Reckoning over Objectivity, Led by Black Journalists,” New York Times,
June 23, 2020. This move away from objectivity and toward advocacy journalism and scholarship is a function of the growing influence of post-modernist theories and Critical Race Theory, which sees methods of objective inquiry traditionally practiced by journalists and scholars as only serving the interests of the oppressive status quo. The logic of the argument is perhaps best captured in the title of a book by Audre Lorde: “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House.”
Henrich’s failure to articulate a position of moral clarity, and his relentless use of statistical evidence and “objective” surveys may be another reason why his book is likely to be ignored or dismissed by antiracist theorists and advocates.
As I poked around the internet, I found this scholarly article, published in the Journal of the American Psychoanalytic Association, in April 2021: “On Having Whiteness,” by Donald Moss. Like others, Moss doesn’t come out and say that whiteness is genetically or biologically determined, but it is, he writes, “foundational,” and, like original sin, has “no permanent cure.” That sounds pretty essentialist to me. Here is the abstract, in full:
Whiteness is a condition one first acquires and then one has—a malignant, parasitic-like condition to which "white" people have a particular susceptibility. The condition is foundational, generating characteristic ways of being in one's body, in one's mind, and in one's world. Parasitic Whiteness renders its hosts' appetites voracious, insatiable, and perverse. These deformed appetites particularly target nonwhite peoples. Once established, these appetites are nearly impossible to eliminate. Effective treatment consists of a combination of psychic and social-historical interventions. Such interventions can reasonably aim only to reshape Whiteness's infiltrated appetites—to reduce their intensity, redistribute their aims, and occasionally turn those aims toward the work of reparation. When remembered and represented, the ravages wreaked by the chronic condition can function either as warning ("never again") or as temptation ("great again"). Memorialization alone, therefore, is no guarantee against regression. There is not yet a permanent cure.
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