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  • From the Foreign to the Familiar:Confronting Dewey Confronting Racial Prejudice
  • Shannon Sullivan

Can Dewey's pragmatism make a valuable contribution to contemporary critical race theory given that Dewey rarely, if ever, took up questions of race in his work? In my view, the answer to this question is "yes," particularly since his concept of habit can be used to understand the unconscious operations of white privilege. In order to make the best use of Dewey's work in this respect, however, the numerous problems that it presents on race must be critically addressed. I have already mentioned one of them: Dewey's relative neglect of the subject. This neglect is not merely an inhstance of a gap or empty space in his work, although it is that. It is a productive lack, an omission that has significant and powerful effects and that risks perpetuating the conceptual or theoretical whiteness of Western philosophy (Mills 1998, 2). Related to but distinct from the physiological whiteness of most academic philosophers in the United States and the Western and Northern hemispheres more broadly, the conceptual whiteness of philosophy is found in the particular issues and topics that are seen as philosophically important, in what counts as a resolution to a problematic situation, and indeed in what counts as a problematic situation in the first place.

Although based on the bulk of his work, Dewey apparently did not think that topics of race and racism had much philosophical merit, he did write two short essays on them (Dewey 1988a; Dewey 1989). Elsewhere I have criticized those essays for reducing what Dewey calls "racial prejudice" to an epiphenomenona of general political-economic issues that does not do justice to the specific power and influence that concepts of race have and have had (Sullivan 2003a). Here I take up a different concern that I have about one of the essays, "Racial Prejudice and Friction," which is Dewey's definition of racial prejudice as an instinctive and universal reaction to what is new or unusual. I am concerned both with Dewey's implied claim that the nature of habit is such that it must be hostile to anything different from itself and with the inadequacy of [End Page 193] Dewey's solution to the problem of racial prejudice, which, in sum, is to effect a transformation of the foreign into the familiar.

Before I turn to these particular issues, a quick overview of Dewey's main argument in "Racial Prejudice and Friction" is in order. Dewey considers racial prejudice to be an instance of general prejudice, which—contra what he calls "intellectualist psychology"—is not conscious judgments or beliefs but rather the subconscious habits of thought that condition them. For Dewey, prejudice precedes judgment, sometimes cutting it off or allowing it to take short cuts. It is a desire or emotion that gives slant to all our beliefs. Prejudice, in other words, is what one might call "bias" as long as that word is taken in a neutral rather than negative sense. For Dewey, human beings are always biased in that they are embodied, situated beings and not blank slates. Bias as such is not something "bad" to be eliminated; although, of course, particular biases might be judged as harmful and in need of change (Dewey 1988a, 243).

One might expect Dewey to claim that racial prejudice is one of those harmful biases in need of elimination, but the story is more complicated than that. According to Dewey, as an instance of general prejudice, racial prejudice is "the instinctive aversion of mankind to what is new and unusual, to whatever is different from what we are used to, and which thus shocks our customary habits" (243). In a similar fashion, Dewey also characterizes racial prejudice as "the universal antipathy which is aroused by anything to which a tribe or social group is not adjusted in its past habits" (244). He suggests that on its own, there is nothing problematic about "instinctive dislike and dread of what is strange" (251). It is something that all human beings experience and it tends to go away in time as people become accustomed to or familiar with what once seemed strange...


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