The Color of Culture

by W.F. Twyman, Jr. & J.D. Richmond

Essay originally from Counterweight.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, with the help of White Fragility author Robin DiAngelo, recently released a few resources to assist conversations on race. More specifically, the idea was to promote a dialogue on whiteness. According to their resource, Talking About Race:“Whiteness and the normalization of white racial identity throughout America’s history have created a culture where nonwhite persons are seen as inferior or abnormal.”


Of course, there is no provision made for how nonwhite persons see themselves. As part of their effort to explain whiteness, they crafted a handy chart (see picture, sourced from the Talking About Race webpage). This chart has since been curiously removed from the Talking About Race webpage.

If we were to design a similar chart on blackness (not something we suggest as we don’t think these blanket identifications are very meaningful), what would be included? For example, if whites value hard work, are we to assume that other races don’t? Would it be considered racist to create such a chart? If so, why? We understand the argument that whiteness is “normative” and therefore something that needs more scrutiny. However, if the argument goes that (as the Smithsonian intimates) whiteness exists because of blackness, then a more thorough examination would allow for a contrasting chart for context.

Let’s examine just a few of these assertions, starting with Rugged Individualism.

  • The individual is the primary unit
  • Self-reliance
  • Independence & autonomy highly valued + rewarded
  • Individuals assumed to be in control of their environment, “You get what you deserve

The black American experience is replete with examples of individuals who lived by self-reliance:

  • Rev. Lemuel Haynes taught himself to read the Bible by candlelight and displayed such high intelligence that he was urged to attend college in the late 1700s. He became the first black man ordained as a minister in the United States.
  • Macon Bolling Allen, with no forerunner to light his way, left his home in Indiana, traveled to Maine and was admitted to the Maine State Bar on July 3, 1844. Allen was the first black lawyer and judicial officer in this country.
  • John Mercer Langston sought training in the law from an Ohio judge. Langston would later become the top lawyer in his Ohio county during the 1850s, the founder of the law school at Howard University, Acting President of Howard University, and the first black congressman from Virginia.
  • Mordecai Johnson had a strong vision for Howard University when he was appointed president in 1926. Johnson set upon his task to transform Howard and lobbied Congress relentlessly over the next two to three years and was to secure permanent congressional funding. For this achievement, he was awarded the Spingarn Award for outstanding achievement by a black American.

These are just four out of thousands, if not millions, of examples we could give of black rugged individualism, not white rugged individualism but black rugged individualism.

What about the Protestant Work Ethic?

  • Hard work is the key to success
  • Work before play
  • “If you didn’t meet your goals you didn’t work hard enough”

From Booker T. Washington to George Washington Carver and from William T. Coleman, Jr. to Charles Hamilton Houston and many more, a strand of the Protestant work ethic has always run through black American culture. It was perhaps this assertion that led to the chart’s removal. The suggestion that black Americans don’t, or shouldn’t, value hard work is anathema to many black Americans’ life stories. Whiteness doesn’t have a monopoly on hard work.

And this work ethic along with other “white” traits aren’t the sole domain of those in America. As just one example, take the Igbo people of Nigeria. The Igbo culture is distinguished by ambition, achievement and striving. Some notable Igbos that exemplify this spirit include:

Let’s look at one more disputed example from the Smithsonian’s chart, Future Orientation.

  • Plan for future
  • Delayed gratification
  • Progress is always best
  • “Tomorrow will be better”

The Black American experience is flush with examples of individuals who set their eyes on the future. In honor of Black History Month, let’s lift up just a few of those who ushered in a better tomorrow for black Americans.

  • Because of the “future orientation” of Bishop Richard Allen in 1794, millions of worshipers would come to know the warm embrace of the African Methodist Episcopal Church throughout the world today.
  • Due to the steadfast desire of Hampton Institute graduate Booker T. Washington to uplift his people from the aftereffects of slavery in 1881, the lives and careers of thousands of black teachers would be made possible through that graduate’s creation, the Tuskegee Institute.
  • Out of the nadir of the 1910s came a Dunbar high school graduate, Charles Hamilton Houston, who upon completing his education with an S.J.D. at Harvard Law School in 1923, returned home to fight public school segregation throughout the 1930s and 1940s. After his death, his labors bore fruit and the U.S. Supreme Court declared in 1954 that public school desegregation was unconstitutional.

The racial caricatures conveyed in charts and discussions on racism fail to move us towards a better tomorrow. Instead, the emphasis on race has created more division and has lumped humans together into homogeneous masses based solely on the color of their skin. In essence, this serves to not only erase black culture and achievement, but also to undermine the universal connection of our common humanity. It is this recognition of our humanity that is the drumbeat of true racial reconciliation and equality in a liberal society.

To the coming of a better time,

J.D. Richmond & W.F. Twyman, Jr.

J.D. Richmond is the founder of Truth in Between and the host of the Hold my Drink Podcast: navigating the news and politics with a chaser of civility. She is constantly searching for context through correspondence and conversation.

W.F. Twyman, Jr. is a former law professor in search of truth in the public square.

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