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White Anxiety and the Futility of Black Hope

Tuesday 9 December 2014

By George Yancy and Shannon Sullivan

December 5, 2014

The Stone is a forum for contemporary philosophers and other thinkers on issues both timely and timeless.

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.

Many white people never acknowledge the benefits that accrue silently throughout their lives.

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).

The decision in the Eric Garner case is a blow to black hope. But that doesn’t have to mean despair.

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!

G.Y.: And yet for so many poor people of color there is not only the fact that the wages pay less than pennies, as it were, but that black life continues to be valued as less. Is there a history of that racial differential wage between poor whites and poor blacks or people of color?

Poor white people’s lives aren’t valued for much either, but at least in their case it seems that something went wrong, that there was something of potential value that was lost.

S.S.:Yes, definitely. Class and poverty are real factors here, but they don’t erase the effects of race and racism, at least not in the United States and not in a lot of other countries with histories (and presents) of white domination. The challenge philosophically and personally is to keep all the relevant factors in play in thinking about these issues. In that complex tangle, you hit the nail on the head when you said that black life continues to be valued as less. Poor white people’s lives aren’t valued for much either, but at least in their case it seems that something went wrong, that there was something of potential value that was lost.

Let’s put it even more bluntly: America is fundamentally shaped by white domination, and as such it does not care about the lives of black people, period. It never has, it doesn’t now, and it makes me wonder about whether it ever will.

Here is an important question: What would it mean to face up to the fact that the United States doesn’t really care much about black people? I think a lot about Derrick Bell’s racial realism nowadays, especially after reading some recent empirical work about the detrimental effects of hope in the lives of black men — hope, that is, that progress against racial discrimination and injustice is being made. How would strategies for fighting white domination and ensuring the flourishing of people of color change if black people gave up that hope? If strategies for living and thriving were pegged to the hard truth that white-saturated societies don’t and might not ever value black lives? Except perhaps as instruments for white people’s financial, psychological and other advantages — we have a long history of that, of course.

G.Y.: We’re all aware of the recent non-indictments of the Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson, who killed Michael Brown, and the New York City police officer Daniel Pantaleo, who killed Eric Garner in Staten Island. How do we critically engage people who see this as another blow to black humanity, another blow to hope?

S.S.: It is another blow to black humanity. I don’t see any way around that. And also another blow to hope. But that doesn’t mean that despair is the only alternative. I admit it’s hard to see beyond that dichotomy — hope or despair — and I struggle to see beyond it. But maybe it’s a false dichotomy, pegged to hopes that the legal system, including civil rights struggles, can get us out of this mess. What if we operated instead from the hypothesis that the legal system cannot do this, at least not at this moment in history? One thing that both Ferguson and the failure to indict in the Eric Garner case tell us is that “we” must come up with other alternatives or else “we” (I have to underscore the question of who the “we” is here) risk driving people to violence. Even when “they” don’t necessarily wish to resort to violence, I think that also is important to underscore. I don’t think that anyone particularly wants violence in its own right, but what happens when there aren’t other options to ensure that black people are considered full persons?

G.Y.:The critique of hope, as you suggest above, appears to be based on the assumption that the system of white supremacy and the devaluation of black life will not fundamentally change. In this case, black hope is just spinning its wheels. And yet, President Obama speaks of the audacity of hope. In what way do you square his hope with the pervasive feeling of a lack of hope among black people when it comes to the end of racial injustice?

The potential for racial conflagration is very real, I think, even beyond what we recently have seen in Ferguson.

S.S.: When you talk of black hope as spinning its wheels, I can’t help but think of South Africa, which has just celebrated the 20th anniversary of the end of apartheid and mourned the death of its first post-apartheid president, Nelson Mandela. Its government is predominantly black, including its current president, Jacob Zuma. It’s a remarkable transformation, one that seems to provide the world with hope. But living conditions for most black South Africans have not changed, and brutal patterns of racial segregation are still firmly in place. In fact, black poverty and racial inequalities in income have actually increased since the end of legal segregation.

The answer of course is not to return to apartheid. I feel like I have to say that, especially as a white person skeptical of black hope for equality! But liberal hope in racial progress isn’t going to cut it. Again, there have to be other options, and then the question becomes whether violent revolution is the only other option.

The potential for racial conflagration is very real, I think, even beyond what we recently have seen in Ferguson. Would it be effective in changing the institutional, national, global and personal habits that need to be changed to take down white supremacy? I worry that violence is a shortcut that doesn’t help remake habits, racial or otherwise, and so it won’t solve the long-term problem. At the same time, you and I should be suspicious of that worry. It’s very convenient, isn’t it, for a white person to have philosophical reservations about the effectiveness of violent black resistance? I am not endorsing violence. What I’d like to do instead is shift the subject; I think that the issue of violence is something of a red herring. The urgent question in the United States is not whether violence in response to Ferguson or elsewhere is justified. That question distracts us from the more important issue of how to make sure that black men aren’t perceived as inherently criminal.

As for the audacity of hope promoted by Obama, I worry that in the end it has backfired. I, too, felt the buoyancy of hope in 2008. But electing the first black president did not shift the scales of racial justice in the United States very much, if at all. This is not an argument against Obama’s election, but one that many of us were naïve in thinking that black exceptionalism wouldn’t rear its ugly head if the “exception” in question was the president himself.

G.Y.: If it is true that we live in a white-saturated society, how do you conceptualize your role, especially as a white person who grapples with whiteness philosophically and existentially?

S.S.: I think that white people have a small but important role to play in combating white domination. Small, because the idea isn’t that white people are going to lead that work; they need to be following the work and leadership of people of color. But important because, given de facto racial segregation, there still are many pockets of whiteness — in neighborhoods, businesses, classrooms, philosophy departments – where you need white people who are going to challenge racism when it pops up. Which it often does.

But I think I have to add that this role is absurd. I mean absurd in the technical existentialist sense that, for example, Kierkegaard and Camus gave it. I don’t have a lot of hope that our white-saturated society is ever going to change, and at the same time it is crucial that one struggles for that change. Those two things don’t rationally fit together, I realize. It’s absurd to struggle for something that you don’t think can happen, and yet we (people of all races) should.

It’s like Camus’ main character in “The Plague,” the doctor who realizes that the plague will never completely go away. It — death, the atrocities of Nazi Germany — always wins in the end, even if one achieves some minor victories against it. We could add white supremacy to Camus’ list. It’s crucial to fight it even if total victory is impossible, to care for those who suffer because of it. And we all suffer because of it. The plague spares no one even as it hits different groups and individuals in different ways.

G.Y.: You know, many white readers will respond to this interview and argue that you desire white people to feel guilt or shame. I would argue that this is not your aim at all. Yet, is it an easy tactic for denying the legitimacy of what you’ve argued?

S.S.: You’re right that I’m not trying to cultivate white guilt or shame. This will get me in hot water, but I don’t think those are emotions that will help white people effectively struggle for racial justice in the long haul. I’m not saying that white people should never feel guilty or ashamed because of their race, and I don’t think that not feeling guilty or ashamed is a way to let white people off the hook. But guilt and shame are toxic just as hatred and greed are, and we sure don’t need to increase the toxicity of white people. James Baldwin said it best when he argued that white people will have to learn how to love themselves and each other before they can let go of their need for black inferiority.

This interview was conducted by email and edited. Previous interviews in this series can be found here.

George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Duquesne University. He has written, edited and co-edited numerous books, including “Black Bodies, White Gazes,” “Look, a White!” and “Pursuing Trayvon Martin,” co-edited with Janine Jones.

See online: White Anxiety and the Futility of Black Hope