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Smithsonian responds to Sen. Hawley about its 'whiteness' chart — and basically walks it back


It was meant to 'raise issues for discussion,' that's all

Photo by Samuel Corum/Getty Images

The Smithsonian Institution finally responded to Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) after the lawmaker demanded answers in a letter last week about the taxpayer-funded museum's publication of a controversial teaching curriculum on the topic of "whiteness."

Within days of its release, the "Talking About Race" curriculum came under fire over a chart in it that broadcast seemingly racist assumptions, including the notion that ideals such as hard work, objectivity, politeness, the nuclear family, and Christianity are normalized characteristics of "white dominant culture."

Soon after, the chart was yanked.

What are the details?

But last week, Hawley, not entirely satisfied, sent a letter to the institution requesting information about the initiative and specifically questioning what he viewed to be its assertion that "these attributes are actually emblems of 'structural racism' in American life [and are] to be rejected rather than embraced."

Nearly a week after Hawley's requested deadline, Smithsonian Secretary Lonnie Bunch got back to the Missouri senator in a letter obtained by the Federalist.

In the letter, Bunch mostly dodges Hawley's pointed questions, giving non-answers, and walks back the chart's assertions.

Hawley asked: "Why did the Smithsonian suggest that self-reliance, the nuclear family, objective and rational thinking, hard work, planning, quantitative emphasis, concern about intent, and politeness are distinctly 'white' qualities?"

Bunch responded: "That content was not meant to suggest that certain qualities listed on the chart exclusively defined one particular race."

Hawley asked: "Does the Smithsonian believe the nuclear family to be a construct of white supremacy that should be deemphasized?"

Bunch responded: "No. That content was not meant to suggest that the nuclear family should be deemphasized."

In yet another place, Hawley asked: "Why did the Smithsonian suggest that white people believe 'wealth is worth' and 'bland is best,' that white people are uniquely capable of 'decision-making,' and that white people are characterized by a drive to 'master and control nature?'

Bunch responded: "That content was meant to begin and prompt discussion to engage participants in exploring various perceptions and experiences."

What else?

In his response, Bunch mostly stuck to the line that the chart didn't intend to make any specific assertions about race, but instead was intended to "foster meaningful dialogues" and "raise issues for discussion."

Bunch did acknowledge, however, that the chart "presented de-contextualized information that did not contribute to productive, informed conversations" and that "we erred in including the chart, and therefore we eliminated it from our portal."

"Additionally, we are conducting a comprehensive review of the site to ensure that it remains a helpful tool in fostering meaningful dialogues and shared understanding about race and its historical and contemporary impacts," he added.

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