Last year, administrators at Mount Sinai’s Icahn School of Medicine published an article describing the school’s long-standing “cultural change initiative.” Appearing in the journal Academic Medicine, the article is unequivocal in its charge. “We have to go out there and seek the truth,” it declared, “part of which is accepting that, if we are White, we are a big part of the problem. We are part of the reason that structural racism imprisons and oppresses people of color every day, everywhere they go, and no matter what they do.”
The Icahn School of Medicine recently announced an “Anti-Racist Transformation in Medical Education” (ART in MedEd) program, designed to guide other medical schools through their own version of the school’s “culture transformation initiative.” If Icahn’s own efforts are any indicator, these schools will receive a crash course in how to insert concepts like “white fragility,” “microaggressions,” and “white supremacy culture” into medical education.
According to the Academic Medicine article, Icahn achieved its own transformation in part through “Chats for Change,” a “series of monthly activities that spark conversations centered on racism and bias.” Chats for Change, the article notes, covered topics like “My Micro-Aggressions: Received and Delivered,” “White Fragility,” and “Roots of Racism.” Recently, the talks have become even more blatantly ideological, having been redesigned to include “braver and safer” content, such as: “What is Critical Race Theory, and what’s the big deal?”; “What are white supremacy culture characteristics intended to achieve?”; “What is the existence and significance of whiteness?”
Many of the chats make dubiously sourced assertions. For example, the “White Fragility” chat asks, “Why are so few white folks prepared to [engage in challenging conversations] and what will it take to make meaningful change?” The description of “The Invention of Whiteness” claims that “Whiteness is a socially significant structure that constricts life chances, opportunities, and privilege in American society.” Another talk asks why Critical Race Theory is “so triggering for so many white people.” Perhaps most telling is the chat on “White Supremacy Culture,” which is, according to a description, “the forbidden fruit. Take a bite and it will give you more knowledge and power than those who are hoarding that power are willing to share.” The ultimate goal of the conversation is to determine “whether there are ways we can help our colleagues and leaders embrace this concept”—of the pervasiveness of white supremacy, presumably—“without feeding too much into their fragility and right to comfort.”
The term “White Supremacy Culture” often shows up in stories about Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) training. The concept was coined by the long-time diversity trainer Tema Okun, who associates white supremacy with an eclectic mix of attributes, such as “perfectionism,” “right to comfort,” “sense of urgency,” “worship of the written word,” “the belief there is one right way to do things,” “individualism,” “power hoarding,” and “objectivity.” Described by left-leaning blogger Matthew Yglesias as “really dumb,” Okun’s list could easily be mistaken as a caricature of the entire DEI-consulting industry.
Yet “White Supremacy Culture” appears to be a staple of the Chats for Change program, and a recurring theme for the two Icahn administrators in charge of ART in MedEd—Leona Hess, director of strategy and equity-education programs, and David Muller, dean of medical education. In March 2021, they organized a professional-development seminar at the University of Washington School of Medicine that discussed white supremacy culture and directly quoted Okun. Beginning in 2022, a series of Chats for Change will focus “on one white supremacy culture characteristic each month.” Hess and Muller will lead the first chat.
Icahn’s “cultural transformation” goes beyond ideologically charged seminars. In July 2020, students sent an open letter to Mount Sinai listing dozens of demands for addressing “Anti-Blackness & Racism.” In response, Mount Sinai promised various reforms, such as “Incorporating required Diversity and Inclusion criteria into Appointments and Promotions.” This reform virtually guarantees that faculty will not complain about DEI measures, since speaking out could put their careers at risk.
Unfortunately, Icahn is well-positioned to set the industry standard for DEI measures. Top programs like Duke University’s School of Medicine and Columbia University’s College of Physicians and Surgeons are among the first cohorts in Icahn’s program. “We are thrilled to engage in ART in Med Ed,” said Duke’s chief diversity officer. Others will share her enthusiasm—if they value their careers.