Academic journal article Philosophy Today

I Love Myself When I Am . . . What? A Response to Shotwell and Sundstrom on Good White People

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

I Love Myself When I Am . . . What? A Response to Shotwell and Sundstrom on Good White People

Article excerpt

I Love Myself When I Am . . . What? A Response to Shotwell and Sundstrom on Good White People

I am very fortunate to have Alexis Shotwell and Ronald Sundstrom comment on my book Good White People.1 Their readings are careful and thought-provoking, helping me revisit some of the book's central claims and reexamine why I believe that middle-class white anti-racism is part of the problem rather than a solution to ongoing white privilege and alleged white superiority. Good White People has been controversial, and thus I appreciate Shotwell's and Sundstrom's willingness to entertain the risks the book takes to begin developing a new set of raced habits for good white liberals.

The title of my response is taken from the collection of Zora Neale Hurston's essays and fiction edited by Alice Walker, I Love Myself When I am Laughing... and Then Again When I Am Mean and Impressive.2 Perhaps best known for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston's non-fiction essays and articles offer equally valuable affirmations of African American life, and of black southern life in particular. Hurston's literary work and political positions have been neglected and misunderstood, especially in comparison with great African American "race men" such as W. E. B. Du Bois and Richard Wright, but what stands out clearly in them is Hurston's refusal to apologize for being black and her rejection of the idea of blackness as an affliction. As Hurston explains about herself, "I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal."3 It is no tragedy to be black on Hurston's view, and her work is filled with strong criticism of those (white or black) who think that "great sorrow [must be] dammed up in [a black person's] soul"4

If Hurston's work and life could be boiled down to one thing, it would be selfaffirmation, where "self" is not an isolated individual but a self transactionally constituted by its race, gender, class, and region.5 Hurston loves her complicated, multi-faceted self, period. It doesn't matter whether she is laughing, angry, intimidating, or whatever. This self-love, fueled by joyful affirmation, is incredibly powerful, making Hurston sometimes seem outrageous. What Alice Walker writes about Their Eyes Were Watching God could be said of Hurston's entire body of work: "There is enough self-love in that one book-love of community, culture, traditions-to restore a world. Or create a new one."6 It was-and still is-outrageous in white-dominated America for a black woman to think that she could change the world, but Hurston "refus[ed] to be humbled by second place in a contest [she] did not design"7

What then about those white people for whom the contest is designed? What should their relationship to their raced selves be? I ask this question not because the white liberal is the primary subject around which political movements, critical philosophy of race, or any other critical approach to race should be organized (cf. Shotwell, 1003-04). As I discuss in the book, racial justice movements aren't dependent on white people of any class or type. But here white people are, nonetheless-a big part of the problem and stuck with being white. How are they (we) going to live our whiteness, and might our answers to that question possibly help rather than impede challenges to racism and white domination? In that respect, Good White People is motivated by a simple, existential question, rather than a large-scale political vision for how to organize racial justice movements (although I would argue that existential and political questions are not unrelated): how am I going to live?

Even though it sounds awkward, I said raced selves above when talking about white people's relationships to themselves, since striving for so-called colorblindness generally is a bankrupt and harmful strategy for white people to pursue. Sundstrom elaborates this point eloquently, and I will return to his comments shortly. …

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