Truth In Between
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Truth In Between

Dangerous Speech

And The Color of Culture

This is the original chart that has since been taken off the Smithsonian’s site.

The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, with the help of Robin DiAngelo, author of White Fragility, 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 the effort, they crafted this handy chart (now curiously taken down).

Looking to better understand race relations, last year I participated in the City of Austin’s Diversity Training. As someone who has spent a lifetime exploring culture, I jumped on the opportunity to better understand diversity dynamics. One of my endeavors over the past few years has been to encourage people across ideological, racial and gender differences to break away from the Twitter banter of 280 characters and engage in authentic discussion and debate through letters. I presumed this training was my chance to have these conversations in real-time and face-to-face, in a setting I thought was designed explicitly for such a purpose. I was wrong.

We were relegated to “affinity groups”, i.e. groups of others with similar “white privilege” scores and assigned the exercise to come up with a few of the top “white” characteristics. We were told that these traits were neutral — not good or bad. To the extent that we can argue that certain races have identifiable group traits (highly dubious position), what I saw written, at least to my sensibilities, I would classify almost entirely as negative descriptions — as bad, if not, evil. Let me name a few that stuck out: Violent, Rape Culture, Fragile. I have a hard time arguing with any of these, but of course, all of these could be turned to explain other cultures too. However, that wasn’t part of the exercise.

Here’s my favorite story from the exercise. One white woman in my group was adamant that we include a “white savior complex” as a “defining aspect of white culture”. To her, challenged with a mobility issue, this point was incredibly important. She besmirched white men in particular who frequently asked if she needed any help. In line for lunch, one of the black male caterers asked if she needed any help. I had to, literally, bite my lower lip to stop myself from making the obvious observation. Although one person identified “the need for civility” as a “white” characteristic in this exercise, apparently, sometimes, just sometimes, kindness and civility bridge cultures.

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

As I was going through this chart, I pulled up my handy “culture compass”, a tool the experts on culture — the Hofstede Insights group — created. Geert Hofstede is recognized as one of the preeminent scholars researching cultural influences on a society. His work has identified six dimensions to analyze cultural values, and his research continues today through the Hofstede Insights organization. I used my culture compass to compare the United States with Nigeria on these six dimensions. The Smithsonian’s whiteness chart indicates that I must be naïve in thinking that there may be such a thing as an “American” culture. According to the Smithsonian, to be “American” is to be “white”, which means I’ve clearly been missing something. So, I wanted to see what the differences were in America (i.e. white culture) and what I assumed to be considered a “black” culture in Nigeria, a country situated along the “slave coast” that exported a large number of Africans to America.

Allow me to explain this chart a little. In respect of brevity, we will only look at the two categories where the U.S. and Nigeria differ the most. Power Distance, or PDI, addresses certain cultural norms such as how power is divided, how it should be distributed and how a society handles inequities.

As you can see from these charts, the United States has a PDI of 40 and the Nigeria has a PDI of 80. Clearly the United States (again, a proxy for whiteness) and Nigeria (a proxy for blackness) score differently. This measurement is their second biggest divergence. What are the implications? A low PDI suggests that social hierarchies are not as stringent and there is more equality throughout the society. A high PDI, in contrast, suggest that inequality is acceptable and strict hierarchies are the norm where power-holders have privilege.

In the whiteness chart, Status, Power & Authority (e.g. respect of authority, which defines whiteness) lines up with Power Distance (PDI). Interestingly, PDI in Nigeria, i.e. more hierarchy and inequality, is considerably higher than in the U.S. Yes, I am painting with ridiculously broad strokes here, mirroring the Smithsonian’s chart, but if we take this at face-value, it would seem that respect for authority is not all that white.

The next category is Individualism (IDV). In this model, the U.S. ranks high in individualism at 91, whereas Nigeria ranks lower at 30. This measurement shows the biggest disparity between the two countries. The IDV cultural category ranks questions on how members of the same culture relate and to whom they are loyal. Countries with high individualism are more likely to fulfill obligations to their selves and have an “I” consciousness. Countries with low individualism (or conversely high collectivism) have a “we” consciousness. Relationships take priorities over tasks and people are more likely to fulfill obligations to their families and other in-groups.

At the very top of the whiteness chart is Rugged Individualism. Individualism (IDV) is where the U.S. and Nigeria diverge the greatest. Nigeria is, in general, a more collectivist society. This may have some impact also on the Family Structure, which in America is more nuclear, and may be more extended in a culture that is more collectivist.[1]

So what does this all mean? Measuring cultural traits is always an imprecise exercise. We can only speak in generalities, but given the latest obsession with nailing down whiteness, that is the turf we’re playing on. Of course, there is also the question of whether Nigeria is an acceptable proxy for black culture, however as the most populated country in Africa and the seventh largest population in the world, it seems to be a good point of comparison. Again, it is an approximation but if we accept the Smithsonian’s assertion that American culture is white, how do we define black American culture? Do we have any guidelines? In many of the Black Lives Matter rallies, we see pan-African flags flying, so I am making the leap to assume that there is a supposed affiliation with cultures found in places like Nigeria. Of course, Africa is incredibly diverse and within Nigeria itself there are several distinct tribes, including the Hausa, Yoruba and Igbo to name just a few. Without belaboring these vast differences, let’s review the culture map in reference to the whiteness chart. If we are willing to put our faith in the Smithsonian’s oversimplified generalization of white culture, it is not a stretch to assume there is some relevant insight in the U.S.-Nigeria comparison.

In sum, comparing the racial traits mentioned in the whiteness chart with Hofstede’s six dimensions of culture, we see that outside of individualism, Nigeria ranks either almost the same, or greater than America, in many of the Smithsonian’s whiteness traits, and as a nation, is more committed to traditions and resistant to change.

Is this all bunk? Maybe it is, but if so, one must be willing to consider that, lumping white racial traits into a homogenous mass, is similarly bunk. At the very least, all of this navel-gazing is not getting us any closer to a more unified American identity that values our commonalities while acknowledging our differences — out of many, one — which is the foundation of any successful multicultural society.

In this week’s podcast — Dangerous Speech — W.F. Twyman, Jr., Obaid Omer and I discuss many concerning trends in our hunt for identity. As our focus on identity has become a consuming national pastime, we have witnessed growing divisions. Is this just a hangover from the brutality of American Slavery and the nasty discrimination of Jim Crow? Is it a necessary step towards truth and reconciliation? That is my optimistic assessment. Perhaps the hyper-focus on color will dissipate as we come to realize our common humanity through more engagement. However, the immediate impact of these trends have destructive elements that hinder the construction of a shared identity necessary to rebuild a truly multicultural community.

[1] The other cultural parameters in the Hofstede culture compass match up with several categories in the white culture chart. MAS or Masculinity, weighs the value of work achievement (versus quality of life) and is related to the Protestant Work Ethic and Competition in the Smithsonian chart. UAI or Uncertainty Avoidance looks at societies feel about uncertainty and the future, which leads to attitudes on Time in the Smithsonian chart. LTO or Long-Term Orientation weighs a societies’ links to its past and its adherence to tradition and attitudes towards change, which touches on issues of History, Religion and Justice in the Smithsonian chart. Countries with low LTO are more resistant to change. IVR or Indulgence vs Restraint measures general attitudes towards immediate gratification, and is similar to the Future Orientation in the Smithsonian chart.

In the Hold My Drink Podcast — navigating the news and politics with a chaser of civility — Episode 16, Dangerous Speech — co-host W.F. Twyman, Jr. and I speak with Obaid Omer, host of the podcast Dangerous Speech. Can we have honest and authentic discussions in a time where some speech is considered off-limits? Wink, Obaid and I discuss what topics are off-limits, cultural allegiance and cultural destruction, identity politics, and how and if we can move beyond the current cultural dogma that separates us. All discussed with a chaser of civility, of course, and a peanut butter whiskey coffee.

Hold My Drink welcomes all people with all kinds of beverages to join us as we discuss what it takes to imagine a new American identity, together.

Find us on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or watch the conversation unfold on YouTube, and follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

What Obaid is reading:

Virtuous Cuts: Female Genital Circumcision in an African Ontology, differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies, Rogaia Mustafa Abusharaf

The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, Jonathan Haidt

The New Intolerance of Student Activism, The Atlantic, Conor Friedersdorf

Mass media professor under fire for confronting video journalist at Mizzou, The Washington Post, Justin Wm. Moyer, Michael E. Miller, Peter Holley

Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, Derrick Bell

What W.F. Twyman, Jr. is reading:

Speaking in Tongues, The New York Review, Zadie Smith

Roll, Jordon, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, Eugene Genovese

We must let go of the grudges from slavery, Chicago Tribune, W.F. Twyman, Jr.

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations that Transform the World, David Deutsch

Letter from Clarence Jones to Gavin Newsom, Alliance for Constructive Ethnic Studies

W.F. Twyman Jr is a former law professor and descendant of George Twyman I (1661–1703), W. F. Twyman, Jr. lived on Twyman Road in then-Chesterfield County, Virginia until the age of eight. Everyone living on Twyman Road was a Twyman. Twyman is the author of essays and articles in the South Carolina Law Review, the Virginia Tax Review, the National Black Law Journal, St. Croix Review, the Pennsylvania Lawyer, the Intellectual Conservative and the Civil War in Pennsylvania: The African American Experience. His self-published works are On the Road to Oak Lawn: Truth, Reconciliation and the Twymans (December 1, 2018) and Gotterdammerung (July 3, 2019). A lawyer, writer, husband, and Dad, the author lives in San Diego, California with his wife, Schuyler a descendant of Congressman Joseph Hayne Rainey (1832–1887).

Obaid Omer was born in India, and grew up in Canada. From 2002–2014 he lived overseas. He worked as a contractor for the Canadian military and government, NATO, and UN in war zones and disaster areas. From October of 2014 until October of 2018, he worked in Northern Canada in an Inuit community.

He is a supporter of free speech and Enlightenment values.

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