- Overcoming Habits of Whiteliness: Reading Shannon Sullivan's Revealing Whiteness
In an essay for the New York Times magazine this past summer, the accomplished short story writer Carolyn Ferrell (2007) reflects back on her student days. Ferrell attended an exclusive college but as a “poor brown-skinned girl from the wrong side of Long Island.” To help with expenses she took a summer job as a cook's assistant at the estate of a wealthy white woman. The day she arrived, the maid quit, and her job expanded to fourteen-hour days but with no pay increase. Ferrell could not bring herself to protest. Nothing terribly egregious occurred during the rest of the summer, no blatant racial taunts or unwanted sexual advances; but the conditions of her employment nonetheless tapped into a partly intangible legacy of race and class tensions with vast consequences. “My Employer was frequently gone from the estate,” Ferrell writes, but “I could feel the polite disdain of her gaze upon me at all times—while ironing her expensive blouses with lavender perfume, for instance.” After two months Ferrell quit her job, and she did not see her employer again until some years later while on the way for a stay at the Barn, Edward Albee's artists’ colony. The former employer warmly embraced her onetime employee and, after hearing of Ferrell's many accomplishments, invited her to come by the house, adding that she “could use some extra help in the kitchen.” Ferrell writes that she “looked into [those] cheery eyes and stood there helpless and humiliated: the old defeat still lay heavy in my bones” (2007, 54).
Old habits of response and bone-weary memories that are both personal and collective are the subject of Shannon Sullivan's important new book, Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege. The book confronts those subtle aspects of white privilege that render whites complicit with a system of racial oppression that many of us might aim to oppose. This exposure of a disavowed complicity is not an easy undertaking. In contrast to the self-professed ideologies of racial superiority that have propped up Jim Crow and slavery, white privilege functions for the most part as an invisible field of force even if it shares many of the same aims. In order to theorize this oppressive force, Sullivan draws on reflections of Dewey, DuBois, Fanon, and Jane Addams, as well as contemporary figures such as Patricia Williams and Jean Laplanche. [End Page 210]
Theorizing such a happily ignored force is not going to be an easy task. Sullivan sets out to capture forms of racism that weave not only our inadvertent responses but even our very identities into systems of oppression that it is in our interest to believe no longer exist. For in our post–civil rights era, we have become vigilant against racial slurs and discrimination in the public realm, not to mention more heinous crimes like rape or lynching. Indeed, the relative ineffectiveness of old-style overt racism is clear in part through the readiness of the public to rage against it whenever it appears to raise its ugly head. The actual emergence of old-style racism in Jena, Louisiana, or its appearance in the case of the Duke lacrosse team serve as examples. In the latter case, the frenzied cycle of hyped-up media attention and ensuing conservative backlash should tell us that the old racism, for example, the open sexual predation of white men on black women or public lynching, leads us off track and that incorrectly targeted moral concern fuels an ever-ready mood of backlash. In other words, correctly targeting our moral concern is deeply important. Thinking along with Sullivan here, this means we should continue to remain vigilant against old-style, racist crimes. But diverting media attention to relatively rare incidents of old-style racism may actually assist new-style covert racism to grow more insidious. In general I agree with Sullivan's analysis as well as her conclusions and for my part could only attempt to develop her arguments a bit further.
Her argument regarding the prevalence of covert racism is a case in point. Sullivan invokes...