The Problem with Loving Whiteness: A Response to S. Sullivan's Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism

By Shotwell, Alexis | Philosophy Today, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

The Problem with Loving Whiteness: A Response to S. Sullivan's Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism


Shotwell, Alexis, Philosophy Today


The Problem with Loving Whiteness: A Response to S. Sullivan's Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism

Shannon Sullivan's work on racialization and habits, and on relationality and transaction, has been important to my philosophical work on race, racism, habits, and much more. Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism has, in quite a short time, been extensively engaged and taken up as a useful and important intervention in thinking about whiteness in the U.S. American context. I attempt here to offer some constructive disagreement on matters of mutual care and concern: in general, the abolition of white supremacy and, in particular, white people's potential contribution for racial justice movements. I focus on the key question of whether it is appropriate to love whiteness. Along the way I express worry about Good White People's orientation toward middle-class liberals, its approach to history, its politics of citation, and its focus on a Black/white binary in the continental United States.

Sullivan begins the book by quoting a critic I hadn't heard of before reading this book, Lerone Bennett, who wrote "The white liberal and the white supremacist share the same root postulates. They are different in degree, not kind" (Sullivan 2014: 1). Sullivan says that she is "addressing the bulk of white people in the post-Jim Crow United States and other similar white-dominated nations who consider themselves to be non- or anti-racist. These are the white liberals of which Lerone Bennett speaks, the'good' white people whose goodness is marked by their difference from the 'bad' white people who are considered responsible for any lingering racism in a progressive, liberal society" (3). I agree absolutely with the view that white liberals are not going to bring about revolutionary transformation in the racial order of this world. But precisely for this reason, I am not sure that the white liberal is the correct subject through which we should to organize our thinking about race. I also do not think that white liberals are the main engine of racial oppression.

Further, I am curious about the category of similar white-dominated nations; although I have only deeply engaged racial politics in two nation-states, Canada and the US, it is clear to me that while there are certain commonalities in the way race is lived and governed, there are also vital differences. Perhaps the most striking is the difference between an assumed Black/white binary grounded in historical chattel slavery as the central logic for thinking about race, common in US race thinking, versus an overt formation in Canada (and other places) that centers far more on indigeneity, borders, migration, and the management of multiple racialized others. Working through these differences has convinced me of the necessity of understanding and thinking about whiteness as operative outside the US American context, beyond a Black/white binary, and in a way that accounts for the founding and ongoing violences of capitalism and colonialism. While chattel slavery has informed many parts of the world, and while anti-Black racism has been necessary to the ways slavery was organized and manifests itself in contemporary racism, I question this book's tight focus on the US and on Black/ white racial dynamics.

Whiteness, in my view, operates in complex and shifting ways anywhere racialization is happening, and so perhaps it's a good place to start in thinking about the question of whether we ought to love whiteness. In this book, Sullivan does not spend a lot of time defining whiteness. When she does, it is in expansive ways that raise the question of what it means to love whiteness so defined. She argues that there is "something to being white that being Irish or Italian alone does not capture, and that something is a pattern of domination, exploitation, and oppression" (Sullivan 2014: 16). This understanding of whiteness as collective-as constituted by domination, exploitation, and oppression-reminds us that whiteness is not something, on Sullivan's view, that we individually control the effects or the meaning of. …

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