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  • Whites:Made in America: Advancing American Philosophers' Discourse on Race
  • Thandeka


"Racism" and "white privilege" have outlived their usefulness as concepts and judgments. Neither term explains what's going on in America today. Two factors now necessitate a conceptual shift.

First, the unexpected election of Donald Trump as the forty-fifth President of the United States. Mainstream news reporters, political pundits, and social media commentators now have to discover and explore what they overlooked during their coverage of the 2016 presidential campaign: the needs, issues, interests, and narratives of white middle-class and working-class Americans.1

Second, Hillary Clinton's categorization of Trump supporters as "the basket of deplorables"; "racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamaphobic"; and "irredeemable" and "not America." The backlash that followed forced Clinton to apologize for not empathizing with whites whose concerns for self-preservation, religious beliefs, and financial self-interests led them into Donald Trump's camp.2

The construction of a new set of multicultural and multiracial categories will advance white racial discourse in America. American philosophers have a special role to play here because the requisite fieldwork includes moral values formation, which is in the philosophic domain of ethics. This discipline includes the field of affective philosophic inquiry established by the father of modern hermeneutics: Friedrich Schleiermacher.

In the essay, "The Father of Modern Hermeneutics in a Postmodern Age: A Reinterpretation of Schleiermacher's Hermeneutics," Yong Huang notes that Schleiermacher's unique contribution to hermeneutics "is neither [End Page 26] his psychological nor his grammatical interpretation, but his conception of hermeneutics as an artful movement between the two."3

Insights from Schleiermacher's "artful movement" explained in contemporary neuropsychological and affective neuroscientific terms can help create a new racial discourse on whiteness in America.4 This kind of work is now required because racial problems in America will not go away until the underlying affective neural patterns, organic values, personal histories, and life lessons are revealed, analyzed, and transformed.

Three strategies are used in the present essay to advance this new race work: personal narrative, sociohistorical investigation, and affective neuroethics.5

Part 1: Personal Narrative

Several years ago, a conversation changed the way I think about white racism in America. I was forced to conclude that racism will not go away until whites are recognized as racial victims of white America too. My use of the term "racism" in this personal narrative refers to acts and attitudes that racially demean self and others.

The initial setting for my startling discovery about white racism was Williams College, one of the oldest, most prestigious, and wealthiest colleges in the nation. The year, 1991.

I had been on campus for three months as a new faculty member in the religion department when one of the college librarians invited me to have lunch with her, saying "I have wanted to have lunch with you ever since you arrived on campus." I wondered why this fifth-generation Smith graduate with a New England genealogy older than the state wanted to dine with me, a lowly assistant professor. My book on Kant and Schleiermacher had not yet been published, so what we would talk about?

As we sat down in the faculty dining room, she told me what was up: race. "I've always wanted to know what it feels like to be black," she said.

Political correctness was clearly not on our luncheon menu that day. I was grateful for her breach of social etiquette, since discovery always begins with surprise. Her face was open, friendly, and inviting. She seemed genuinely interested and engaged. But there was a problem. Her question assumed that I was the only one at the table who had been raced. She, too, had been raced, but she didn't seem to know this fact. I wanted her to tell me what it feels like to be white. So I invented a game on the spot and asked her if she would be willing to play the game for a week. [End Page 27]

"If I tried to answer your question now," I said, "my words would not make sense to you. But if you play a game for a week and then have...