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(55,445 posts)
Mon Dec 15, 2014, 05:05 AM Dec 2014

White Anxiety and the Futility of Black Hope

This is the third in a series of interviews with philosophers on race that I am conducting for The Stone. This week’s conversation is with Shannon Sullivan, a professor in the department of philosophy at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte. She is the author of “Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism.” — George Yancy

George Yancy: What motivated you to engage “whiteness” in your work as a philosopher?

Shannon Sullivan: It was teaching feminist philosophy for the first time or two and trying to figure out how to reach the handful of men in the class — white men, now that I think of it. They tended to be skeptical at best and openly hostile at worst to the feminist ideas we were discussing. They felt attacked and put up a lot of defenses. I was trying to see things from their perspective, not to endorse it (it was often quite sexist!), but to be more effective as a teacher. And so I thought about my whiteness and how I might feel and respond in a class that critically addressed race in ways that implicated me personally. Not that race and gender are the same or can be captured through analogies, but it was a first step toward grappling with my whiteness and trying to use it.

What really strikes me now, as I think about your question, is how old I was — around 30 — before I ever engaged whiteness philosophically, or personally, for that matter. Three decades where that question never came up and yet the unjust advantages whiteness generally provides white people fully shaped my life, including my philosophical training and work.

G.Y.: How did whiteness shape your philosophical training? When I speak to my white graduate philosophy students about this, they have no sense that they are being shaped by the “whiteness” of philosophy. They are under the impression that they are doing philosophy, pure and simple, which is probably a function of the power of whiteness.

S.S.: I think I’m only just discovering this and probably am only aware of the tip of the iceberg. Here is some of what I’ve learned, thanks to the work of Charles Mills, Linda Martín Alcoff, Kathryn Gines, Tommy Curry and many other philosophers of color: It’s not just that in grad school I didn’t read many philosophers outside a white, Euro-centric canon (or maybe any — wow, I’m thinking hard here, but the answer might be zero). It’s also that as a result of that training, my philosophical habits of thinking, of where to go in the literature and the history of philosophy for help ruminating on a philosophical topic — even that of race — predisposed me toward white philosophers. Rebuilding different philosophical habits can be done, but it’s a slow and frustrating process. It would have been better to develop different philosophical habits from the get-go.

My professional identity and whether I count as a full person in the discipline is bound up with my middle-class whiteness, even as my being a woman jeopardizes that identity somewhat. Whiteness has colonized “doing philosophy, pure and simple,” which has a significant bearing on what it means to be a “real” philosopher. Graduate students tend to be deeply anxious about whether they are or will eventually count as real philosophers, and whiteness functions through that anxiety even as that anxiety can seem to be totally unrelated to race (to white people anyway — I’m not sure it seems that unrelated to graduate students of color).

G.Y.: For many whites the question of their whiteness never comes up or only comes up when they are much older, as it did in your case. And yet, as you say, there is the accrual of unjust white advantages. What are some reasons that white people fail to come to terms with the fact that they benefit from whiteness?

S.S.: That’s a tough one and there probably are lots of reasons, including beliefs in boot-strap individualism, meritocracy and the like. Another answer, I think, has to do with class differences among white people. A lot of poor white people haven’t benefited as much from whiteness as middle- and upper-class white people have. Poor white people’s “failure” to come to terms with the benefits of their whiteness isn’t as obvious, I guess I’d say. I’m not talking about a kind of utilitarian calculus where we can add up and compare quantities of white advantage, but there are differences.

I’m thinking here of an article I just read in the Charlotte Observer that my new home state of North Carolina is the first one to financially compensate victims of an aggressive program of forced sterilization, one that ran from the Great Depression all the way through the Nixon presidency. (A headline on an editorial in the Observer called the state’s payouts “eugenics checks.”) The so-called feeble-minded who were targeted included poor and other vulnerable people of all races, even as sterilization rates apparently increased in areas of North Carolina as those areas’ black populations increased. My point is that eugenics programs in the United States often patrolled the borders of proper whiteness by regulating the bodies and lives of the white “failures” who were allegedly too poor, stupid and uneducated to do whiteness right.

Even though psychological wages of whiteness do exist for poor white people, those wages pay pennies on the dollar compared to those for financially comfortable white people. So coming to terms with whiteness’s benefits can mean really different things, as can failing to do so. I think focusing the target on middle-class white people’s failure is important. Which might just bring me right back to your question!


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White Anxiety and the Futility of Black Hope (Original Post) Blue_Tires Dec 2014 OP
Wow ... 1StrongBlackMan Dec 2014 #1


(31,849 posts)
1. Wow ...
Mon Dec 15, 2014, 01:09 PM
Dec 2014

The interview should be required reading for DU. There is so in it that I don't know where to start.

I'm hoping people will read it and suffer a discussion.

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