The problem with loving whiteness

I recently had the pleasure of talking at SPEP about Shannon Sullivan’s new book. Here are my comments:

The problem with loving whiteness

SPEP, October 2015, 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, was important to my philosophical formation. It has been generative and useful for me to engage and think through this book, particularly as it works through issues and problems that have occupied me for years now. Shannon was also a reader on my first book when it was under evaluation at the press and (to my eternal gratitude) recommended publication. In part, I mention this because it is instructive to remember the hard and unrewarded work that established scholars do for unknown junior writers, and the incredible generosity of that work. In part, it is remarkable because then, as now, Shannon and I differ on some key things about race, racism, and how to dismantle racial oppression; I want to lift up her capacity to promote and value work that she disagrees with.

I attempt here to offer some constructive disagreement in this spirit 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 see the general purpose of Author-Meets-Critics sessions as either to explain to audiences who have not encountered a new book what’s in it so that they might engage or to directly engage the arguments and issues the book raises in the context of a collective conversation. Since Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism has already been widely read and reviewed, in this response I take the second approach. I focus here on the key question of whether it is appropriate to love whiteness. Along the way I worry on some side questions of Good White People‘s orientation toward middle-class liberals, approach to history, the politics of citation, and a focus on a Black/white binary in 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 would like to hear more about why the white liberal is an appropriate organizing figure for thinking about anti-racist struggle.

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 in contemporary racism, I would love to hear more explanation for 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 not something, on Sullivan’s view, that we individually control the effects or the meaning of. For example, she says: “Whiteness is not a club in which a white person can just decide to drop her membership. Whether a white person likes it or not, at this moment in history she is white and she is implicated in the effects of whiteness. How she takes up and lives her complicity in white domination will help determine the quality of her contributions to racial justice movements” (Sullivan 2014, 12). I agree with Sullivan in these characterizations of what defines whiteness.

But she narrows her definition of white supremacy in a way that is curiously out of line with this definition of whiteness. She gives as her reason for this that she is following the 1964 book by Lerone Bennett, writing before much of the rich discussion and argument about how we ought to define white supremacy. As she notes in a parenthetical remark,

(While some contemporary scholars have reappropriated the term white supremacy to refer to systematic racial oppression and privilege, I will continue to use it, as Bennett does, to refer to overt white racism. I accordingly will us white privilege to refer to the seemingly invisible, often unconscious forms of white racism that pervade the United States’ post-Jim Crow era, and white domination and white racism as general terms covering both white supremacy and white privilege) (Sullivan 2014, 4).

Defining racism and white supremacy this way narrows them significantly, making them in effect only overt, conscious, articulated and avowed racist acts and statements. Given Sullivan’s work to argue for the inarticulate, implicit, and habit-based nature of racism, this is surprising. It is not exaggerating to say that the state of the art in whiteness studies, and perhaps indeed in critical race theory, these days understands white supremacy to name the webbing of social relations, institutions, implicit racial understandings, and explicit and implicit personal investments that hold up and stabilize the current organization of racial oppression. Of course, all of these are underlined every time a cop kills a Black person, every time a KKK member burns a cross, every time a teacher says that the white kids are smarter than the kids of color. But white supremacy is much broader, deeper, and more insidious than the Klan, or than overt and obvious expressions of white racism.

The essay (“Tea and Sympathy”) by Bennett that Sullivan cites as what she’s following in thinking of white supremacy as referring to overt white racism, is a hagiographic paean to white abolitionist John Brown, literally comparing him to Jesus. Most people probably know this, but in case: Brown believed himself to embody the wrath of God against the sin of slavery, and advocated for and practiced armed insurrection;[1] he led several raids, killing slave-holders, and was in the end captured in an attempt to take the Federal Armory at Harper’s Ferry. That raid, and Brown’s subsequent execution, escalated tensions and – it is widely agreed – helped precipitate the Civil War. Bennett says he “was of no color, John Brown, of no race or age.  He was pure passion, pure transcendence.  He was an elemental force like the wind, rain and fire.” Bennett continues:

There was in John Brown a complete identification with the oppressed.  It was his child that a slaveowner was selling; his sister who was being whipped in the field; his wife who was being raped in the gin house.  It was not happening to Negroes; it was happening to him.  Thus it was said that he could not bear to hear the word slave spoken.  At the sound of the word, his body vibrated like the strings of a sensitive violin.  John Brown was a Negro, and it was in this aspect that he suffered.

More than Frederick Douglass, more than any other Negro leader, John Brown suffered with the slave.  “His zeal in the cause of freedom,” Frederick Douglass said, “was infinitely superior to mine.  Mine was as the taper light; his was as the burning sun.  Mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the silent shores of eternity.  I could speak for the slave; John Brown could fight for the slave.  I could live for the slave; John Brown could die for the slave.”

John Brown, fierce terrorist in pursuit of abolition, the religious white man who brought down war on individual slavers, who felt himself biblically called because of his position as a beneficiary of whiteness to dismantle chattel slavery, did not identify as Black. But surely this litany is a kind of white liberal dream – to have Frederick Douglass say that your zeal is infinitely superior to his? – to be framed as actually becoming Black. If Brown is Bennett’s model of the white non-liberal, and he is, and Sullivan is taking Bennett’s account as one ground for what it is to reject white liberalism, and she is, I worry about what models are open to us if we try to avoid being the “good white people” Sullivan argues against – white liberals who dump on white trash, preach colorblindness, abjure our white ancestors, and feel bad all the time and in all the wrong ways.

For sure, John Brown was not a good white liberal; he offered more than the tea and sympathy referenced in Bennett’s essay. But Sullivan does not explicate the implications of this citation. More than a critique of the white liberal, Bennett’s essay is an invocation to behave otherwise; to be like John Brown. But I do not think that Sullivan would go along with the presumption that we become no longer white through taking direct action against racist institutions and practices, nor, perhaps, with the injunction to take up arms against racism. And it seems to me that there is significant scope between nervous white liberals, always trying to show that someone else is bad and that we are good, and setting up armed raids on the overt expressions of racism such as chattel slavery. While I do see armed collective uprisings, of the form of John Brown’s, or the Black Panthers’, as transformative of the racial order, they certainly don’t organize themselves around loving whiteness. So let me turn then to the central argument of the book: that white people should love our whiteness.

Sullivan writes:

Love can be thought of as an affect that binds a person to that which she loves, and in that way love can counter the distancing tendencies that many good white people have toward their whiteness. I will argue that rather than try to create distance between themselves and their racial identity, white people need a closer, more intimate relationship with it if they are going to be effective in racial justice movements. Rather than try to flee their whiteness, white people need to embrace it more tightly. Rather than despise their whiteness, white people need to learn to love it (9).

Reading this quote – and this happened for me often in reading this book– gives me some conceptual whiplash; I agree, and agree, and then really really disagree. So: definitely, we white people need to not disavow our whiteness if we want to be of any use at all in fighting racial oppression – Sullivan’s arguments about the wrongs of trashing working-class white people are spot-on, as is her analysis of why we oughtn’t pursue supposed “color-blindness,” entirely aside from its ableist connotations.

But there is a difference that makes a difference between not distancing ourselves from our racialization as white and loving whiteness. There is a difference, that is, between binding ourselves as white people to the work of fighting racial oppression and binding ourselves to whiteness. My friend Clare Bayard is one of the founders of the Catalyst Project, an organization doing political education with white people aimed at building multiracial movements for collective liberation. Bayard commented to me about the above quote: “You don’t have to love whiteness (on what basis would that even make sense?) to love people who are racialized as white.” This is basically my response to Sullivan’s argument, and I could actually stop here. Being an academic, though, I’ll elaborate. Recalling Sullivan’s own definition of whiteness as a pattern of domination, exploitation, and oppression, I do not find it worthy of my love. I remain, though, fiercely committed to white people, both as potential agents of change and as in themselves.

Sullivan’s argument for why we white people should learn to love whiteness has two parts. She gives first a critique of the role of negative affect in theory and practice and then an articulation of the uses of critical love.

Sullivan argues that negative affect, in general, impoverishes and enervates us (134), and robs a person of the “vitality and energy it will take to make a sustained kind of change in herself or the world. The experience of a shrunken self doesn’t motivate beneficial action. It kills it” (135). Understanding affect as transactional and contagious (123), Sullivan sees affects that bring us down as a collective problem. She argues especially against the affects of white guilt, white shame, and white race traitor identification. Sullivan:

As I will argue, white people qua white are ill in that their racial habits largely have been built out of negative affects such as greed, hatred, jealousy, fear, destructive anger, and cruelty. Their psychosomatic health has suffered and continues to suffer because of their toxic racial identities built out of their affects and emotions. Their effect is to exhaust or diminish white people’s spiritual energies, leaving them weak and powerless, like a plant that is too sickly to put out new shoots and effectively begins to die. This sickliness would seem to make white people innocuous, but the result tends to be the exact opposite. As we will see especially in the case of shame, people constituted by negative affects tend to be too psychosomatically depleted to do much that is active and yet extremely dangerous because they resents [sic] others’ liveliness and health and so try to destroy them (121).

A bit later, she argues “Cultivating the negative affect of shame on the part of white people – perhaps especially because they tend to be positioned at the top of racial/social hierarchies – is misguided because it will tend to produce destructively angry white people who have malevolent intentions toward people of color and who will act with hostility toward them (as well as toward themselves)”(136). So: On this account negative affect harms white people, simultaneously weakening and strengthening us; shame is particularly worrying.

This is the one place I want to respond directly to the critique of my work, because Sullivan correctly cites me as a proponent of white shame. She misrecognizes a key piece of my argument, though: I (and others) do not recommend shame as a thing to cultivate – rather, when it arises, I recommend not trying to flee it or tamp it down, but rather to recognize that it’s an appropriate thing to feel bad about how the world, perhaps without our consent but to our benefit, harms others. The only way that a fruitful kind of negative affect arises, I argue, is in circumstances of solidarity work – and, as I say in my book, negative affect doesn’t all by itself motivate action. I believe that others who embrace the potential for shame, in particular, are likewise understanding it politically and in the context of collective action for changed worlds. So, if you follow the kind of account I give some of the key dangers Sullivan identifies in negative affect are transmuted. They move from immobilization to movement, from a desire for purity and clearness into an understanding of the necessity of imperfection and impurity as a ground for action. As I and others have argued, and based our practice around, avoiding negative affect generates more harm than it solves. Psychoanalytically, we could say that the inability to work through the inheritances that have come to us without saying and that go without saying but that we still experience intensifies their disavowed effects on our affects. This is the danger of refusing to meet, with care and compassion, how bad we feel about how bad things really, really are. That we experience shame about the effects of racialization is not necessarily the problem; how we respond to that experience is, in general, a problem. That so many of us white people have no way to hold and work through our experience of benefiting in extraordinary and ordinary ways from the immiseration and harm done to people of color in this world makes that problem harder to work with.

Sullivan’s arguments against shame are grounded in her reading of some key psychologists – ironically for Good White People’s project, many of whom actively recommend cultivating guilt instead of shame, which she also rejects. It is vital to remember that these psychologists are not political, or thinking politically about affect. Their work focuses on helping individuals, as so much clinical psychological practice does; it is not sociological or philosophical, and it definitely does not express sharp critical race theory. And from my reading of them, they do not have rich ways to approach the political and collective content and context of the affects they attempt to investigate. I believe their limitations are in part grounded in methodology – how it’s possible to study things within their discipline – but also it is a theoretical and political inheritance – what it’s possible to study within their discipline. Given Sullivan’s commitments to Laplanche in other parts of the book, I wonder here about her citational reliance on conventional psychology.

Again: the content and context of political affects matter. Take for example Sullivan’s discussion of white treason as exemplified by Mab Segrest’s important Memoir of a Race Traitor. Sullivan writes:

Challenging dominant ideas of whiteness does not have to be interpreted or experienced as an act of treason (which is not to say that Klan members won’t still see it that way). A more satisfactory solution to Segrest’s dilemma about how to love her racist family and fight against racism is for feminists, critical philosophers of race, and other white allies to set aside the notion of betrayal as the primary motivation for work against white domination and as the main component of a white identity grounded in racial justice (144-5).

But I disagree that Segrest sees herself as in a dilemma, nor does she see betrayal as her primary motivation for the work she does; she says “It’s not my people, it’s the idea of race I am betraying. It’s taken me a while to get the distinction” (Segrest 4). And, later: “There is a truth I am desperate to make you understand: race is not the same as family. In fact, ‘race’ betrays family, if family does not betray ‘race’” (102). When she investigates her family’s complicity in and active support for racial oppression, she frames herself as choosing, in her words “justice? community? humanity? the glimpse that we are all one organism…? After all these pages, the language for it escapes me still. But it calls me forward, and I come, with a clearer courage to change the things that we can change” (174, italics in original). Ultimately, Sullivan reframes what Segrest embraces as betrayal as instead a form of critical love. It is not clear to me that this reframing is necessary; on my reading, betraying race is, for Segrest, choosing that ineffable call toward a different world – betrayal of this sort already is a kind of love. In her chapter “On Being White and Other Lies: A History of Racism in the United States,” Segrest quotes James Baldwin, speaking in the film The Price of the Ticket: “As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you.” She says “it is only through acquiring a consciousness of racist consciousness (a necessary corollary to anti-racist practice) that we as white people will ever have any other community than the community of the lie” (226). Again: It matters what and how we betray; context and content matter.

So, finally, let me look more closely at the content and context of how Sullivan argues we ought to love whiteness. She does not shy away from addressing possible reductios, particularly in her arguments that we should “understand and respect” instead of “condemn and resent” white slaveholding ancestors (82). The chapter on white slaveholding ancestors constellates Sullivan’s paradigmatic focus on the founding narrative of Black/white binaries as the central racial question, focusing as well on individual and overt white racism in ways consonant with her narrow definition of white supremacism. She argues:

For people concerned about racial justice to unilaterally exclude white supremacists – and I’m thinking here of middle-class white people in particular – is for them to reenact the dehumanizing and destructive marginalization that white supremacists inflict upon people of color. It is to engage in a repetition compulsion that suggests our society has only scarcely begun to deal with its traumatic history of racism and white domination. That history is not past, and one of its current manifestations is white middle-class abjection of white supremacists and other white people (46).

I agree that history is not past, that it matters very much whether and how we beneficiaries of racial oppression hold and respond to traumatic histories, and that we have scarcely begun that process. And when someone like Dylann Roof aimed to ignite a race war when he killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June, we perhaps do see an example of a racist repetition compulsion that perpetuates trauma and violence. But I would contest the claim that to “unilaterally exclude white supremacists” is “to reenact the dehumanizing and destructive marginalization that white supremacists inflict upon people of color.” White supremacism in its expanded sense – not limited to the Dylann Roofs and George Zimmermans of the world – is far more destructive to people of color than any white anti-racist exclusion of white supremacists.

When Sullivan advocates for loving whiteness and white supremacists, she seems to reach to find something salvageable in their thinking. Relying on the Southern historians Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese, Sullivan argues that white slaveholders are lovable because they expressed care for the white working class in the North.

Operating with mixed motives and often despicable intentions, white slaveholders nonetheless insisted that the needs of the white working classes be taken into consideration by those who governed a society. The propertied class of white people should not dismiss the interests of pooper whites, who were forced to sell the only thing they owned, their labor. The personal subsistence and security of all members of a society, including the non-laboring young, elderly, and ill, should be its first priority, and only then should it aim for material progress and economic profit. (81)

Another side note on citation practice: Fox-Genovese and Genovese are much more controversial within the discipline of history than would be evident through a quick reading of Good White People; they have done extensive work in pre-Civil War history that is frequently understood in the field as quite conservative, religious (and therefore imputed to be somewhat on-side with a Biblical reading, which they cite, that held that socialism was wrong but slavery sanctioned), and unsympathetic to shifts in the field toward a “history from below” approach that focuses on voices other than Great Men.

Sullivan cites as well George Fitzhugh in support of this claim that white supremacists in the antebellum era supported slavery because they saw it as the best way to create a good human society. Indeed, Fitzhugh does assert this. He writes:

At the slaveholding South all is peace, quiet, plenty and contentment. We have no mobs, no trades unions, no strikes for higher wages, no armed resistance to the law, but little jealousy of the rich by the poor. We have but few in our jails, and fewer in our poor houses. We produce enough of the comforts and necessaries of life for a population three or four times as numerous as ours. We are wholly exempt from the torrent of pauperism, crime, agrarianism, and infidelity which Europe is pouring from her jails and alms houses on the already crowded North. Population increases slowly, wealth rapidly.

It is this vision of a flourishing South which Fitzhugh contrasts to the depredations of capitalism in the non-slaveholding North, and it is this that he asserts (as Sullivan discusses) is worth defending against the individualizing and monetizing imperative of wage labor. (Roof says a similar thing. His manifesto quotes the film Hizaki: “Even if my life is worth less than a speck of dirt, I want to use it for the good of society.”)

If we take Fitzhugh seriously in these words, I believe we must take him seriously in his other statements about enslaved Black people. In the same document Sullivan quotes about his care for the wage laborer, Fitzhugh argues about the enslaved:

He is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child, not as a lunatic or criminal. The master occupies towards him the place of parent or guardian…The negro is improvident; will not lay up in summer for the wants of winter; will not accumulate in youth for the exigencies of age. He would become an insufferable burden to society. Society has the right to prevent this, and can only do so by subjecting him to domestic slavery…We presume the maddest abolitionist does not think the negro’s providence of habits and money-making capacity at all to compare to those of the whites. This defect of character would alone justify enslaving him, if he is to remain here. In Africa or the West Indies, he would become idolatrous, savage and cannibal, or be devoured by savages and cannibals. At the North he would freeze or starve.

I believe that slaveowners, white and otherwise, were not simply enthralled by their own rhetoric – or at least that some of the more vomit-worth claims Fitzhugh makes were quite clearly false to people of the time. Consider his claim, that:

The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and, in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care nor labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, not more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon.

Slaveholders were frequently acting as they did and advocating as they did out of a clear-eyed, though perhaps ideologically inflected, commitment to wealth, alongside a particular reading of the Bible. Racists today have some of the same characteristics. So if we’re going to have a class analysis of white supremacy, let’s be thoroughgoing in our materialist analysis of history. Whiteness has in fact been a site for cross-class racist solidarity, explicitly deployed to break the cross-racial radical class solidarity that has repeatedly threatened capitalist and owning-class interests. I cannot love Fitzhugh’s white supremacist views or actions, just as I cannot love Dylann Roof’s white supremacist views or actions. Whiteness, qua pattern of domination, exploitation, and oppression, does not deserve our love. White people, on the other hand, certainly deserve all the critical love Sullivan invokes.

When Sullivan talks about the kind of love she advocates – at least when she is not referencing putatively redemptive views of white slaveholding ancestors – she herself articulates the complexity, mixed-ness, hard-feeling, and hard work associated with critical love. At the start of the book, she says:

Love is an emotion, but not always in the sense of being a pleasant sentiment. It can be and often is discontent, especially with situations, actions, and passions that separate people from one another, for example, through oppression and domination. A white person’s loving herself as a white person means her critically caring enough about the effects whiteness has in the world to make it something different and better than what it is today (10).

And at the end:

Dissenting with whiteness out of love means a white person’s being willing to risk complicity with white privilege and white supremacy – the dominant meanings and effects of whiteness to this point – out of a loving relationship with oneself (161).

I agree with Sullivan that we ought to radically shift our practices around whiteness, and that love is a central, complex, demanding practice for such a shift. But the love that I hold out for encompasses and cares for us white people as a way of working through what it might be for us to resist, refuse, and disrupt whiteness qua social relation of oppression. And at the end, this is perhaps the central tension I see in this work: it remains opaque to me how we might truly love white people and also love whiteness. Whiteness, again qua social relation of oppression (which is what it qua), is precisely the thing that is destroying white people. More importantly, it’s destroying and killing people of color. Even though it is hard and might sometimes feel terrible, hating whiteness and its effects while working for collective liberation, remaining committed to the possibility that white people are worth working with and for, also remains one of the most meaningful and joyful things we can do.

[1] “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.”


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