August 3, 2020

Last month, following a bout of online outrage, the National Museum of African American History and Culture removed an infographic from its website. Carrying the title “Aspects and assumptions of whiteness and white culture in the United States,” the offending chart presented a list of cultural expectations which, apparently, reflect the “traditions, attitudes and ways of life” characteristic of “white people.” Among the items listed were “self-reliance,” “the nuclear family,” “respect authority,” “plan for future” and “objective, rational linear thinking”.

Critics seized on this as evidence that the anti-racism narrative that has taken hold in institutional America is permeated by a bigotry of low expectations. The chart seemed to suggest that African Americans should not be expected to adhere to the basic tenets of modern civil society and intellectual life. Moreover, the notion that prudence, personal responsibility and rationality are inherently white echoes to an uncanny degree the racist claims that have historically been used to justify the oppression of people of African descent.

We could assume, in the interests of fairness, that the problem with the NMAAHC’s chart was a lack of context. Surely the various qualities it ascribes to “white culture” should be read as though followed by a phrase like “as commonly understood in the United States today?” The problem is that the original document which inspired the chart, and which bore the copyright of corporate consultant Judith H. Katz, provides no such caveats.

If we look at Katz’s own career, however, we do find some illuminating context — not just for this particular incident, but also regarding the origins of the current anti-racism movement more broadly. During the 1970s, Katz pioneered a distinctive approach to combatting racism, one that was above all therapeutic and managerial. This approach, as the NMAAHC chart suggests, took little interest in the opinions and experiences of ethnic and racial minorities, but focused on helping white Americans understand their identity.

Katz’s most obvious descendent today is Robin DiAngelo, author of the bestselling White Fragility — a book relating the experiences and methods of DiAngelo’s lucrative career in corporate anti-racism training. Katz too developed a re-education program, “White awareness training,” which, according to her 1978 book White Awareness, “strives to help Whites understand that racism in the United States is a White problem and that being White implies being racist.”

Like DiAngelo, Katz rails against the pretense of individualism and colour blindness, which she regards as strategies for denying complicity in racism. And like DiAngelo, Katz emphasizes the need for exclusively white discussions (the “White-on-White training group”) to avoid turning minorities into teachers, which would be merely another form of exploitation.

Yet the most striking aspect of Katz’s ideas, by contrast to the puritanical DiAngelo, is her insistence that the real purpose of anti-racism training is to enable the psychological liberation and self-fulfillment of white Americans. She consistently discusses the problem of racism in the medicalizing language of sickness and trauma. It is, she says, “a form of schizophrenia,” “a pervasive form of mental illness,” a “disease,” and “a psychological disorder… deeply embedded in White people from a very early age on both a conscious and an unconscious level.” Thus the primary benefit offered by Katz is to save white people from this pathology, by allowing them to establish a coherent identity as whites.

Her program, she repeatedly emphasizes, is not meant to produce guilt. Rather, its premise is that in order to discover “our unique identities,” we must not overlook “[o]ur sexual and racial essences.” Her training allows its subjects to “become more fully human,” to “identify themselves as White and feel good about it.” Or as Katz writes in a journal article: “We must begin to remove the intellectual shackles and psychological chains that keep us in a mental and spiritual bondage. White people have been hurt for too long.”

Reading all of this, it is difficult not to be reminded of the critic Christopher Lasch’s portrayal of 1970s America as a “culture of narcissism”. Lasch was referring to a bundle of tendencies that characterised the hangover from the radicalism of the 1960s: a catastrophising hypochondria that found in everything the signs of impending disaster or decay; a naval-gazing self-awareness which sought expression in various forms of spiritual liberation; and consequently, a therapeutic culture obsessed with self-improvement and personal renewal.

The great prophet of this culture was surely Woody Allen, whose work routinely evoked crippling neuroses, fear of death, and psychiatry as the customary tool for managing the inner tensions of the liberated bourgeois. That Allen treated all of this with layer upon layer of self-deprecating irony points to another key part of Lasch’s analysis. The narcissist of this era retained enough idealism so as to be slightly ashamed of his self-absorption — unless, of course, some way could be found to justify it as a means towards wider social improvement.

And that is what Katz’s white awareness training offered: a way to resolve the tensions between a desire for personal liberation and a social conscience, or more particularly, a new synthesis of ’70s therapeutic culture with the collectivist political currents unleashed in the ’60s.

Moreover, in Katz’s work we catch a glimpse of what the vehicle for this synthesis would be: the managerial structures of the public or private institution, where a paternalistic attitude towards students, employees and the general public could provide the ideal setting for the tenets of “white awareness.” By way of promoting her program, Katz observed in the late ’70s a general trend towards “a more educational role for the psychotherapist… utilizing systemic training as the process by which to meet desired behavior change.” There was, she noted, a “growing demand” for such services.

Which brings us back to the NMAAHC’s controversial chart. It would be wrong to suggest that this single episode allows us to draw a straight line from the culture of narcissism in which Katz’s ideas emerged to the present anti-racism narrative. But the fact that there continues to be so much emphasis placed on the notion of “whiteness” today — the NMAAHC has an entire webpage under this heading, which prominently features Katz’s successor Robin DiAngelo — suggests that progressive politics has not entirely escaped the identity crises of the 1970s.

Today that politics might be more comfortable assigning guilt than Katz was, but it still places a disproportionate emphasis on those it calls “white” to adopt a noble burden of self-transformation, while relegating minorities to the role of a helpless other.

Of course, it is precisely this simplistic dichotomy which allows the anti-racism narrative to jump across borders and even oceans, as we have seen happening recently, into any context where there are people who can be called “white” and an institutional framework for administering reeducation. Already in 1983, Katz was able to promote her “white awareness training” in the British journal Early Child Development and Care, simply swapping her standard American intro for a discussion of English racism.

Then as now, the implication is that from the perspective of “whiteness,” the experience of African-Americans and of ethnic minorities in a host of other places is somehow interchangeable. This, I think, can justifiably be called a kind of narcissism.