- Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege
In Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege, Shannon Sullivan employs what she characterizes as a pragmatist approach to psychoanalysis to explore how white people uphold white privilege in ways that they repress, such that white people typically resist recognizing that they are contributing to and benefiting from white domination. A primary goal of her project is to show how the unconscious racism of "white privilege" does as much if not more damage than the consciously embraced racism of "white supremacy."
Sullivan's book is an important contribution to whiteness studies in general and to the development of the philosophy of whiteness in particular. Revealing Whiteness is well researched and carefully written. Sullivan is clearly, almost painfully, aware of how easy it is as a white person to slip into language traps and other mistakes that emanate from the habits of racism that she explores, and she makes a very conscientious and commendable effort to bring them to light. That being said, my only substantive disagreement with her work in this book is with language: her use of the terms colorblindness and white privilege.
Although Sullivan discusses in detail the ways in which John Dewey failed to analyze racism adequately, Sullivan relies on Dewey's understanding of habit as a foundation for her own pragmatist, psychoanalytic understanding of white privilege. Paraphrasing Dewey, she defines habit as "an organism's subconscious predisposition to transact with its physical, social, political, and natural worlds in particular ways. . . . Habits . . . are that which constitute the self" (23). In chapter 1, she discusses how W. E. B. Du Bois, in his early work, dismissed the role of habit and unconscious in white thinking about race. He depicted anti-black prejudice as the result of ignorance, such that racism was correctable through exposure to accurate information. Later, according to Sullivan, Du Bois realized the limitations of that view and began to read the work of Sigmund Freud. Du Bois also reflected on ways in which his studies with Williams James had prepared him to understand Freud, although he had been initially dismissive of the pertinent aspects of James's views.
According to Sullivan, however, once Du Bois began to incorporate an understanding of the operation of the unconscious into his writings on white [End Page 190] supremacy, he espoused a more useful, pragmatic understanding of the unconscious than Freud's. In chapter 2, Sullivan discusses how Freud's understanding of the unconscious is inadequate for an analysis of white racial habits, because in Freud's theories, the unconscious is influenced only by the relations of the parents and child and is impervious to broader social and environmental influences. In chapter 3, Sullivan suggests a modified version of Jean Laplanche's theory of the unconscious as an alternative. Her adaption of Laplanche's "seduction theory" moves the theory away from its focus on sexuality and from Laplanche's insistence that there is a core to the unconscious that is unknowable and impervious to change. Sullivan stresses throughout her book that the transformation of white habits of racism into genuine and useful antiracism that recognizes and challenges white privilege is a very difficult process that may never be complete for any particular individual. Nonetheless, she refuses to accept any view of the unconscious or of habits that set them up as not subject to transformation. For Sullivan, the belief in the possibility of ending racism altogether is a crucial part of transforming habits of white privilege. To accept the inevitability of racism is to give up in advance and, in effect, to embrace white privilege.
Given Sullivan's project of exploring the unconscious habits of racial privilege, it is regrettable that she retains the language of color blindness throughout her book. Sullivan uses the term to describe the belief, held by many white people who are well intentioned but nonetheless still unconscious of their own white privilege, that the ideal response to the existence of racism is to try to ignore race or act as if it does not...