White Anxiety and the Futility of Black Hope
The New York Times
George Yancy, Professor of Philosophy
Duquesne University, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
Shannon Sullivan, Professor of Philosophy
University of North Carolina, Charlotte
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.: 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…
…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?
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…
Read the entire article here.