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Dr. Shannon Sullivan raises an uncomfortable truth

UNCC author's book on white privilege gains attention as race remains in spotlight



In the six years that UNC Charlotte has hosted its "Personally Speaking" series, in which published authors from the college's faculty discuss topics from their respective books, never have organizers seen a crowd like they did on November 10.

The estimated 400 people who showed up to hear Dr. Shannon Sullivan, chair of UNC Charlotte's Philosophy Department, speak about her book Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism, was a record turnout, forcing some people into separate rooms of the college's Center City building to watch on a video stream.

The book has gained popularity over the last year, as movements like Black Lives Matter and Concerned Student 1950 have dominated headlines and brought the discussion of racial inequality in America to the forefront.

The crowd was the largest Sullivan has spoken to since releasing the book in June 2014. The talk, like the book, covered topics that make both black and white people cringe, such as claiming and embracing her own Southern white heritage and shedding white guilt to confront white privilege.

Creative Loafing visited Sullivan at her campus office a couple days after her appearance at Center City to discuss these issues, among others.

Creative Loafing: Why did you decide to write this book?

Shannon Sullivan: I wrote a book called Revealing Whiteness (in 2006) on the unconscious habits of white privilege. Some of the feedback from that book was that it made it sound really depressing — which it kind of is — but that there's nothing that can be done; that you're damned if you do and damned if you don't as a white person, and if so much of white privilege is unconscious then there's no point in doing anything.

What concretely can white people be doing to take responsibility for their whiteness? That question is what led into the Good White People book. I had to grapple a lot with class and how class intersects with race.

Why is this book important at this point in time?

I'm not sure. I've been surprised but pleased that the book seems to have tapped into some kind of nerve or some kind of concern and is getting attention. It's ironic because I had such a volatile review process. It's a miracle that this book was ever published. I rewrote it completely two or three times because of all the negative feedback I got. Even up to the very end, I got very strong negative feedback that this book is giving intellectual support to white supremacy.

How do you respond to those allegations that you're validating white supremacy?

Those come at the point where I say discussions about how to end racism in the United States need to involve everyone, and that includes people who get written off as white supremacists, white trash or bigots. This idea that folks who supposedly we all know are horrible and could have nothing helpful to say on these issues; who's the 'we' that knows that, first of all? The 'we' that's very confident that we're not racist. That just redraws this line in a way that doesn't seem to be willing to examine the racism on the 'good' side of it. The point is not to say at all that there's not racism in white supremacist groups and from poor white people, there's a lot of racism there, it's just that that's not the only location of it. There's a whole lot in well-to-do or middle class white communities as well, and so it just operates in different ways and that needs to be grappled with as well.

That blurring of the line between "good white people" and obviously bigoted people is a controversial part of the book. What exactly does it mean?

I think that line is just about securing the moral goodness of folks on one side of the line. Blurring that line is not about letting all the white people off the hook, in one sense it's to get everyone on the hook, and to get the 'good' white people to stop deflecting and distancing themselves from a still-quite-strong and harmful system of white advantage that exists in the United States.

It's way too easy to turn Dylan Roof and slaveholders and the Klan into these monsters and say, 'We all know that 95 percent of it; that's where it's at.' In fact, if we 'good' white people didn't have people like Dylan Roof, we'd need to create them. They're such great distractions. I don't say that to belittle the horrible tragedy in Charleston, but those become such spectacular events that capture our attention, that the more mundane and less visible forms of racism that can be just as deadly and destructive, are not noticed and they're let go.

A black man at your recent forum said your statement that you love and embrace your white Southern heritage "raised his eyebrows." How does that play into what you're trying to accomplish?

Some of it has to do with a conflation that I don't necessarily want to support, but I think goes on, where being Southern starts to slip into already being so-called white trash or a lower-class white person and that already slips into racism and we have a slippage where those three things become synonymous. I want to question that and refuse or challenge the idea that being a white Southerner equates to being racist in some unique way that signals that somehow if you're not from the South then you're not as racist as people who are.

I'm not even sure I fully know how to answer the question. It can be in your face, so the racism can be in your face, but there's something down to Earth and on the ground in the South that if I'm going to grapple with what it means to be a white person I want to do it here, in the place where whiteness and racism get identified in very stereotypical ways. It becomes a good place from which to challenge those things.

You also speak about owning your Southern white culture in order to 'transform' it. What do you mean by that?

I'm very suspicious of attempts for people to distance themselves from or disown parts of their identity. One of the forms that takes is pretending like history doesn't inform our identities. I think our history — whether personally, nationally or politically — informs us and structures us, a lot of times in unconscious ways. Pretending like it's not there just means it hums along and operates sometimes in very destructive ways, so I think there's so much in our national, regional and sometimes family histories, that needs to be grappled with because it shaped who and what we are and there's no way that we can figure out how to reshape it if we don't understand how it's currently shaping us. That kind of cluelessness or obliviousness, some of it comes from Americans in general and how we think that we're all blank slates as individuals and we can just bootstrap ourselves into anything we want to be and not give enough weight to how history forms us and who we are.

How do you justify having this large platform to speak about race and white privilege as opposed to a person of color being up at the Personally Speaking podium, for example?

One thing I need to emphasize is that a lot of the things I've been saying black intellectuals and authors have been saying for decades, if not centuries. It needs to be acknowledged that there's something very — the polite word would be strange, the stronger words would be reenacting a kind of white privilege — that I can get up and say things that black men and women have been saying and nobody pays any attention to. It's not worth listening to until a white person stands up and says it, and that just reenacts some of the very same problems we're talking about, so that's real.

So how do white people dive in and not just listen to the pattern of 'Oh, now everyone wants to just listen to the white people and ignore decades of other work?' Then you get back to those responses I get where it's damned if you do and damned if you don't. Sometimes what I want to say is, 'You're right.' There's no purity to be found here. I think that's what white people are looking for, 'How do I engage with this in a way where someone can't say I'm racist. I want to be pure, I want to be good, I don't want there to be any way for someone to say that I'm racist,' and there's no place to go for that. So in some sense that's weirdly liberating, which isn't to say love your racism and don't do anything. It's to say, 'Wow, you now what, there's a white privilege that I'm going to be engaged in no matter what, so I can give up in some sense in trying to be pure, and then just figure out how I can be useful.'

Why do you speak about the ideal of 'colorblindness,' or not seeing race, as harmful to fighting inequality?

It may be that 100 to 200 years from now, race kind of dissolves away and in some sense we all come to be colorblind because race doesn't play a part in how we see each other. That may happen in the future, but it's not the world we live in now, so the question becomes how do we get to a world that doesn't have racial inequality, which may or may not be colorblind.

I don't think it is most white people's intention, but I think trying to enact an ideal of colorblindness is one of the best things white people do to keep white privilege in place and operating strongly. It's really quite a sham to think, descriptively, that white people don't see race. I think it's a misguided ideal because it leads us into cluelessness about how race is structuring so much of our lives. So I am willing to risk erring on the other side of seeing it too often and calling it out in ways that become awkward in order to reverse that sham.

You similarly target "white guilt" as an obstruction to progress.

There's so much empirical work — not necessarily on race — from sociologists and psychologists about the destructive violent actions and behaviors that come out of shaming people. But I also think that the transformation of whiteness that we need, it's going to be more than uncomfortable, it's going to be existentially painful at times. What does it mean to recognize and try to redo a part of one's identity that most of the time we don't even want to see.

I think (white guilt) contributes to a one-off. 'I donate to this cause,' or, 'I demonstrate that I can have a few people of color in my neighborhood or workplace and I alleviate myself of that shame and I can move on.' I think the kind of work we're talking about is going to take decades and generations and if we're really asking for white people to rip themselves up in a sort of existential way it's got to come out of some kind of love and caring for oneself enough to be willing to undergo that process and come through it on the other side.

You ended your talk at Center City by asking what white people's self-interest in ending racism could be. That's a brutally difficult question to confront. Is there an answer?

I admit it's a hard question to figure out how to answer. When you really start talking about the kind of white privilege that I'm talking about, there wouldn't be the same kind of wealth disparities we have today without it, and I don't know that everyone wants that. So if we're going to say it honestly, and I'm talking about asking more middle- and upper-class white people, what's their self interest in not having as much money or wealth? Most people, if they're going to be honest, are going to say, 'I'm not interested in that.'

At least it would be better for us to start having the conversation there; to say, 'You know what, probably a lot of white people aren't interested in giving up this kind of privilege.' They'd like to help raise other folks up, but they don't want to give up what they have.

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