July 2014

Shan Wang


An Interview with Shannon Sullivan

In his autobiography, Malcolm X writes that once, after a talk he gave, a white college girl asked him, "What can I do?" and he replied, "Nothing." In her new book, provocatively titled Good White People, Penn State philosophy professor Shannon Sullivan poses one of the most uncomfortable questions about one of the most uncomfortable subjects of our time, to one of the most comfortable groups of people in American society: how do middle class white people perpetuate racial injustice now, and what can they, and they alone, do to at least start healing the process? Sullivan spoke to me candidly over the phone and together we talked through tough-to-swallow concepts such as "white trash," the legacy of slavery, class disparity, and the dangerous path a society takes when its largest group assumes that racial injustice is just a thing of the past.

I wanted to start with the title of your book. That's what really drew me in, and I think what's most fascinating about what you say is that white people are raced. That's something we never talk about. I think the "white people" of your book is a smaller group than one would assume. Can you elaborate on who is supposedly in this group?

I think one of the things the book is doing, and certainly what the title is doing, is naming something that is usually not said out loud. You mention that "good white people" might encompass a smaller group of people than most would think, and I find myself thinking, yes and no. I should say first that I am thinking about these things within an American context. In the United States, most people like to think of themselves as middle class; very few people willingly identify themselves as ultra rich or super poor. Middle class counts for everyone. A similar thing happens with the idea of "white people," where no one's really racist, you never think of yourself as white, you're not surrounded by racists, and if anyone is really racist, it's those other people. So when I tell other white people the title of my book, the immediate response is laughter in an embarrassed way, almost as if I did or said something socially inappropriate. It's not an accusatory laughter, but it's a reaction that involves laughter, an "oh my God, I can't believe she just said that" response.

"Good white people" calls out a wide swath of white people in the United States, but not in the sense that this group explicitly thinks of themselves as such. By identifying them as white, but also slipping in "good," this label highlights a binary being set up between the "good ones" and the "bad ones" -- you think, of course I'm not the "bad" one, so I must be one of the "good ones." But what does it mean that you just named me as "good"? That's problematic, and the uncomfortable laughter comes from there.

We set up so many of these dichotomies: good and bad, black and white, rich and poor, yet we seem to be uncomfortable acknowledging that these categories exist.

I think among white people, certainly white middle class people (it would be interesting to look into whether this would apply to other non-white middle class groups in the United States), there's just not a lot of practice -- for lack of a better word -- talking about race. To show that you're not a racist person has somehow also become synonymous with showing your class status: you don't say certain things, and you don't talk about race openly. To start naming, saying some of these things out loud makes white people uncomfortable, and maybe other groups, too. It potentially jeopardizes their class status, as well as the value or the type of whiteness they are.

I regularly, I think, embody one of the problems you highlight in your book, even though I'm Asian. I grew up with a lot of privileges, my parents are very highly educated, and their parents were well educated as well. So I have this sense that within the Chinese American community, there is a subset -- not me -- that is less well educated, less well off, not as welcoming, more racist toward the non-Chinese. Maybe I see myself as very inclusive; my friend groups are diverse. "I don't have a racism problem; it's these 'other' Chinese people who do." This "othering" within my own race, shunting of blame, is one of the major problems your book identifies. Can you talk a little bit about these less obvious ways people perpetuate racism?

I don't talk about other races in the book, but this raises new questions about how class and race intersect, tangled in ways that work in the service of protecting a form of white privilege, a form of white domination. Do class and race tangle themselves in certain ways for other racial groups that ends up also serving a kind of white privilege in the United States? Does it serve also to preserve class privilege? Coming back to your example of being Asian: does that class dynamic you mention, the cultural and educational capital, does that help position our family both in terms of class and also race, towards the "top of the ladder"? And that ladder seems to always be one that positions whiteness at the top.

And then we could consider what's going on with an African American middle class? It's not that if you're a middle class African American, you become "white." But how are class differences managed and thought of in African American communities? Are they also functioning in ways that help protect white privilege? This is a complicated question. I'm not just pointing a finger at white middle class people and saying, "you sold out, you're servicing white supremacy." There's a set of conversations about race and class in the United States that white people really have only begun to have, and maybe don't even know how to have.

I wanted to ask you about the Ta-Nehisi Coates piece in The Atlantic, "The Case for Reparations." In his piece, Coates says: "the essence of American racism is disrespect." He also says: "Liberals today mostly view racism not as an active, distinct evil but as a relative of white poverty and inequality." These are also central points in your book. We seem so content to say that there is nothing else left to be done, just because there isn't slavery now the way we typically recognize it.

There's a danger in what I'm about to say that can make it sound like white people should segregate themselves off from people of color, or somehow only care about themselves. But disrespect from white people toward other white people is a significant part of the problem. My book argues that there's a lot white people can do that does not involve direct interactions with people of color. There's so much disrespect, "dumping," on another groups of lower class white people that isn't just harmful to those groups of white people themselves, but that furthers and feeds into a pattern of white racism. Those other white people. Those white ancestors, those other bad people. Not us.

Coates's essay builds up to, well, a case for reparations. It's a pretty difficult, bleak read. I wouldn't say he's completely pessimistic about opening up better dialogue on racial injustice and America grappling with its troubled racial history. I get the sense that you're cautiously optimistic about how we can begin to deal with racial injustice in this country?

There are personal issues wrapped up in the writing of this book, too. A lot of when I do philosophy, it's me also trying to work out something in my own life that -- and I hope this isn't just navel-gazing -- other people can relate to. "What can white people do?" is a hard question. In some ways, in writing this book, I've become more optimistic. I'm feeling that there could be more of a concrete answer, for me, for other white people, when I stop focusing on people of color, and focus on white people. And again, this sounds heretical, but you often see when white people start focusing on black people and people of color, different modes of charity show up. I'm worried also, for instance, about the way "friendship" is used. There aren't many good scripts that exist for these relationships. There's so much white people can do in and among other groups of white people. Many, though obviously this is not true of all, still live in de facto segregated spaces, whether at work, in their neighborhoods, sitting around and waiting until maybe a person of color shows up to do anything about racism -- that just sounds like a recipe for never doing anything! This, strangely, helps me feel more optimistic.

You really put your whole life under a microscope, in writing this book. You even go back to your high school days, discovering in retrospect how you "othered" your boyfriend at the time, who was of a lower socioeconomic class than your family.

It's important that I use examples from my own life and put myself on the line; otherwise it just goes back to the model of one white person trying to shame other white people. There must be a way to break up that model. The book had to contain rich examples, and there had to be examples where I'm vulnerable, or else the book just undercuts itself.

I was surprised by some of your anecdotes in the chapter that discusses parenting. Some of these situations involve very young children who are clearly already aware of and using race in their day-to-day interactions. It just seems to me a fine line between what adults could say to these children that would just come across as racist and what could actually open up a useful conversations about race.

I think the more conversation there is about these topics, the better. Inevitably, at least right now, though things could change, there's a risk that can't be eliminated. Just putting race conversations on the table isn't enough, as there are still some very problematic ways that can be done. I have family members (who will go unnamed here) who will have conversations with me, and they will name the race of the black people, though the white people are never named as "white." Obviously just naming race doesn't solve the problem; just naming whiteness doesn't solve the problem, either. Although when you name whiteness, it does change the dynamic to some degree, because you do identify white people as raced. But that comes across as racist as well, too.

It's so tricky. Kids will inherit their parents' racial attitudes. How can we talk about race to and with kids?

Kids' conversations teach us a lot actually, though kids very quickly learn and pick up subtle cues from adults, noticing what adults are and aren't talking about, what they're uncomfortable talking about. Sometimes, though, kids will ask a question in a blunt way -- not necessarily a cruel way -- about a feature they notice in the world. In some ways, then, kids can be a good model for adults in terms of how to talk. It reminds me a little of how many parents in the United States are uncomfortable talking about sex to their children. What do you call those various body parts? How are babies made? I read an article recently, not just about the birds-and-the-bees talk, but also that sex can be pleasurable. How do you have a conversation with young children about sex feeling good? Adults aren't comfortable doing this, but clamming up and saying nothing isn't the right approach. So we've farmed out sex education to the schools, and parents don't have to have these conversations. But sometimes, parents just have to answer children's questions, and have to grapple with their own discomfort. Talking about race feels a lot like this. What am I teaching this child if I can't manage to talk to her directly about something that she sees in her world and that she has questions about.

In your book, you highlight as problematic Kashi cereal's "Good Friends" campaign, which features a white woman and black woman hugging under the tag line "Fiber and Taste Buds. Be Friends." Who is the fiber -- the black woman or the white woman? Does the white woman need to realize that while sometimes "distasteful," black fiber is "good for you"? Any contemporary example, in the news, on TV, or in what you've encountered in recent reading, that is actually an effective treatment of race?

I really like the recent Cheerio's commercial. I like that it's just a standard family discussion. The script is not surprising at all, it's about family, it's touching, there's a biracial couple, and the commercial does not make a big deal out of this fact. If I think of the commercial by itself, I really like it, full stop. The only thing that slightly worries me is there's a danger it feeds into an idea that only if we have biracial couples and biracial friendships, can we make any headway in tackling race problems in the United States. We don't yet have any model where it's just groups of white people, and people come away from that commercial thinking, "oh, that was really well done, in challenging white privilege in some kind of way." And doing it in a way that also isn't full of moral superiority and rectitude, with one group of white people ending up looking good and dumping on another group. I don't think we have a lot of ways of thinking about how within groups of whiteness itself, important work can be done challenging white privilege.

Here's an analogy. Jackson Katz has written a great book on masculinity called Macho Paradox. One of the things he is calling for is the need for groups of men, guys, boys, talking about and challenging the kind of aggression and sexual aggression that defines masculinity in American culture. It can't just be women doing that. Not that men are going to take over feminist movements, and not that women aren't important. But there are some contexts in which you've got to have men talking to other men, to change that culture. To find some way to talk, between men. There's something comparable needed for white people. And this doesn't mean white people are central to racial justice movements, it doesn't mean they don't need to be talking to people of color and learning from them. But there are going to be particular moments when white people are just talking to other white people, and white people are perhaps heard in different ways than a person of color would be in such a situation, in terms of being able to change white culture. I wish I had more concrete examples for this.

A lot of the angry discussion surrounding the Cheerio's commercial probably does not match up with the conversations you suggest we should be having.

The Cheerio's commercial is great. It does, however, need to be accompanied by more in the media to challenge the notion that there's nothing white people can do until people of color show up. This is only one piece of the puzzle.

I hear this all the time: that I'm injecting race into situations where it's not there. If it's just a group of white people sitting around at a faculty department meeting, why do we need to talk about race? There's no issue of race in the room. Race only shows up when a person of color comes into the room. This is mindboggling. This has got to be challenged, and this involves naming whiteness.

Let's talk about white self-love, perhaps the hardest to swallow of your recommendations on what white people can do to deal with racial injustice.

Chapters four and five are the most controversial chapters: the idea that white people would work on racial justice issues out of a love for, and a care about, whiteness, the idea that they are doing this out of a kind of self-love. These ideas upset a lot of people. I'm expecting the rotten tomatoes to be thrown at me soon. There was murmuring in the background at conferences when I read this material, about how "next thing you know, she'll be putting on the white hood." The criticisms are: whatever my conscious intentions were, my arguments could only serve white supremacy, and I would be na´ve to think otherwise. So when I argue against white guilt and white shame, I am somehow giving white supremacists license to be supremacists, and not feel guilty at all.

What's the alternative? You've already shown in your book that white people dumping on other white people as part of the problem, is part of the problem.

We're so confident that we know who the "good people" are and who the "bad people" are, but sometimes if you take a look at certain historical examples (see the book: Hillbilly Nationalists, Urban Race Rebels, and Black Power), it was the lower class people (so to speak) working across certain political lines that supposedly could never be worked across. This did fall apart after a while. But it challenges our belief that we know who we can work with and who we can't work with.

Your book does shake things up.

Here's my hope for the book: that it can at least provoke conversations, even if some of the answers I propose turn out not to work, or turn out to crash and burn.