July 2014

Kate Duva

nonfiction

Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism by Shannon Sullivan

Barack Obama's election may have made "post-racial America" a household phrase, but we still live in a land where African-Americans are incarcerated at nearly six times the rate of whites. George Zimmerman went free for killing seventeen-year-old Trayvon Martin in Florida last year, while fifty public schools serving mostly African-American and Hispanic children were shut down in Chicago. Miley Cyrus's twerking fueled long-standing debates on white exploitation and stereotyping of black culture, while this year, LA Clippers owner Donald Sterling was caught on tape telling his girlfriend not to bring black people to his games. Many white mothers still clutch their purses tight in neighborhoods where the passersby don't look like them, then tell their children that they don't "see" color. America is confused about race, and the most confused among us may be the middle and upper class white people who have been conditioned to act as if race doesn't matter.

"There are no saints to be found here. White liberals are just better at pretending that there are," Shannon Sullivan writes in Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism. Building on her previous books about race and culture and her research as a professor of philosophy, women's studies and African-American studies at Penn State University, Sullivan, a white woman, examines the ways that middle- and upper-class white people perpetuate racist hierarchies when they strive to put up a perfect front. "Racial health, not racial goodness" should be the goal, she argues, paraphrasing white antiracist educator Tim Wise. Her heavily researched book synthesizes and responds to a broad spectrum of ideas about race, culture, and history, quoting theorists, philosophers, activists, and researchers, as well as artists and writers who have reckoned with their own racism, shame, and family demons.

"The past is never dead," Sullivan writes, quoting William Faulkner. "It's not even past." She urges white people to try to understand slaveholders, pointing out the "daily racial privileges that white people generally enjoy with regards to the police force, the prison system, and their educational, housing and political rights" which are "different only in degree, not kind, from the daily racial privileges that slaveholders enjoyed nearly two hundred years ago." Given that racial hierarchies still exist, albeit in more subtle forms, Sullivan argues that white people are not doing themselves any favors by distancing themselves from history. "Regarding white slaveholders as racist monsters is intimately connected with the positing of good white liberals as racially innocent angels... both are inhumanly fantastic, in that each figure attempts to place people outside the realm of the human." But "recognizing white slaveholders as regular human beings -- with all their flaws, even atrocious ones -- goes hand in hand with acknowledging good white liberals as regular human beings too -- with all their flaws, and perhaps some of those also are atrocious."

"White people who want to work toward racial justice need to stop overly focusing on people of color and turn to themselves to clean up their own house," Sullivan argues. Part of this work entails digging into the unconscious racism hiding deep inside of us. Sullivan points to Michel Foucalt's concept of "a body totally imprinted by history" and George Yancy's writings in Black Bodies, White Gazes about nonverbal expressions of racial discomfort, underscoring how prejudice is passed down through generations in ways that people can't rationally explain.

Childrearing, Sullivan argues, is an important front in the struggle against "the dis-ease of colorblindness." She points out that children as young as three can perceive differences in race and replicate racial hierarchies in play, yet their parents often try to pass on scripts that "everyone's equal" and "we don't see color." She cites a study in which white parents were asked to discuss race frankly with their children. Only six out of one hundred families managed to engage in open dialogue, but the children in those families demonstrated dramatic improvements in their racial attitudes.

Sullivan uses anecdotes from writers and researchers to illustrate the need for white people to release their fears of looking bad and discuss race honestly amongst themselves, but her book would have been even stronger with more stories, particularly examples of people giving voice to their hidden prejudices. Such stories would encourage those who have been conditioned to keep their mouths shut to explore their own repressed fears and resentments and move on.

"Whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves," James Baldwin wrote in The Fire Next Time. Part of what white people don't know, Sullivan argues, is how much humanity they have in common with so-called white trash, "whiteness's dirty garbage, its refuse, its waste product." Sullivan argues that by scapegoating lower-class people, middle-class whites not only deflect their own guilt and shame, but also perpetuate the very hierarchies that they rail against. Sullivan examines the beliefs of extreme racist groups such as the KKK, not in order to apologize for them but to explore the "political unconscious" that they represent -- the outwardly prejudiced beliefs that are often mirrored in more subtle forms in mainstream culture. It is important to engage in dialogue with avowed racists, Sullivan argues, not to indulge them or convert them, but to understand them as humans and forgive them. Sullivan's arguments for learning from racists may stir up controversy among readers, along with her questioning of the value of diversity and interracial friendship as solutions to prejudice. But her work is so far-reaching and thought-provoking that it is hard to imagine any reader finishing Good White People without having reexamined stale emotions and come to new realizations.

Several solutions to racial tension are touched upon throughout Good White People, such as engaging in more public dialogue, and exploring racially charged topics through the arts. Specific examples of activism that is already happening, however, would have enhanced the message. Readers may also hunger for examples of how white people have transcended the deflating effects of guilt and shame through self-love, although Sullivan's argument that white people must first liberate themselves from "the illness of white domination" before they ally with others is compelling. Her most fully developed solutions come in the form of urging parents to have open conversations with children about race, regardless of how messy, confusing or embarrassing the talks may be. "I don't know," one parent quoted said in regards to how to unpack the legacy of the word nigger when sharing Toni Morrison's Sula with her child. "I don't know either," Sullivan writes in humble response. In a world of mixed messages and tangled histories, not knowing the answers is to be expected. What matters, Good White People reminds its readers, is that we continue to ask the hard questions.

Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism by Shannon Sullivan
SUNY Press
ISBN: 978-1438451688
224 pages