Comments on Shannon Sullivan's Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism

By Sundstrom, Ronald R. | Philosophy Today, Fall 2016 | Go to article overview

Comments on Shannon Sullivan's Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism


Sundstrom, Ronald R., Philosophy Today


Comments on Shannon Sullivan's Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism

Shannon Sullivan provides a diagnosis for the problems with the social scripts that middle-class, anti-racist white people think make them good, yet which serve to support white privilege and racial domination over non-whites, African Americans in particular, as well as poor whites. She identifies four strands of "white liberal anti-racism" behind this goodness in this order: (1) the abjection of so-called "white-trash" (2) the other-ing of white people's history and ancestry, (3) the idea and ideal of color-blindness-especially in respect to childrearing-and (4) the cultivation of white guilt, shame, and betrayal.

In my comments I focus on the strands of (3) color-blindness and then (2) history. For Sullivan, liberal middle-class whites put space between themselves and lower-class whites, who are identified as the believers and practitioners of unreformed, ignorant, and reactionary racial ideas. This is an easy move for liberal middle-class whites, or to adopt Sullivan's phrase, "good white people." After throwing the distant relatives under the bus, or into the red state heaths, good white people put further conceptual distance between themselves and America's racial baggage by denying any connection to, or renouncing identification with, ancestral racism especially as connected with Black American slavery. This conceptual distancing separates them from ugly race-consciousness and sets up their embracing of variations of color-blindness.

Sullivan's analysis of color-blindness is interesting because it offers another facet of the idea and ideal, one based on affect rather than narrow legalistic and normative reasoning or ideology, and its criticism adds a further dimension to the objections to color-blindness as an instrument of injustice and as an expression of racist ideology.

Good white people adopt the rhetoric of color-blindness because it semantically captures and conceptually justifies their stated desire not "to see" race. Color-blindness is reproduced, as Sullivan explains, through their parenting. The motivation to adopt this rhetoric is straightforward. According to Sullivan: "color blindness can seem like an attractive parenting strategy to non-supremacist white parents. It allows them to avoid clumsy and difficult conversations about race and white domination in which they fear they will say something inadequate, wrong, or harmful . . . about race or racism" (86).

There are three problems, according to her analysis, with utilizing color-blind rhetoric and using it as parental technique when dealing with race and racism in family discussions. First, an individual can state a belief in color-blindness while holding racist beliefs, experiencing racial antipathy, or engaging in racist behavior. The idea even in the form of the ideal falls short. Second, color-blindness "implicitly seeks a racially pure space, and thus enacts a form of white domination similar to white supremacy" (86). The white supremacist and the color-blind good white person falsely assume their white subjective position is the universal one and seek to negate non-whiteness, and more often than not, blackness. Third, adoption of color-blindness as a parental strategy forms the racial habit of not-seeing the relevant details of the lives of others. Parents don't really teach their children not to see difference, but rather to superficially see difference, and to not see the suffering and injustices that correlate with ethnic, racial, and class differences.

Good white people and good white families, in Sullivan's analysis, take a "strange kind of pride in one's interpersonal cluelessness" (86). This cluelessness is part of the script of being a good white person and is fully consistent with the other principles of racial commonsense-the shifting litany of ideas, stereotypes, practices, and rules about race that guides our interactions-that are evident in the case studies that Sullivan draws upon to illustrate how good white parents politely police racial lines. …

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