George Yancy and Shannon Sullivan, New York Times, December 5, 2014
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.
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?
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?