Some Reflections on Sullivan on Dewey’s Solution to Racism


Shannon Sullivan is critical of Dewey’s solution to racism. She writes,

Dewey claims that antipathy toward the strange tends to fade away: “In the main this feeling left to itself tends to disappear under normal conditions. People get used to what what was strange and it is strange no longer.” According to Dewey, people become accustomed over to what they once found strange and cease to feel the anti-strange feeling without really trying to, as it were. Put in more technical terms, Dewey claims effectively is that after sedimented and change-fearing habits have been disrupted by something perceived as unusual, new patterns of impulses will come about that incorporate what was strange, eliminating its disturbing shock (Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of White Privilege, 2003, p. 40-41).

For Sullivan, Dewey has a naive and simplistic view of how unconscious habits work. Unconscious habits are a complex network of possible impulses, imagined possibilities, and irrationality. Accordingly, Dewey neglects the “complex operation of racism and white privilege” (Ibid, p. 41). In fact, we might say that the concept of privilege — let alone racism — would ever occur to Dewey. People’s habits are already underscored by racism and white privilege.

The foreign becomes familiar. Dewey thinks a la Sullivan that as whites become more familiar with that which is, at first, strange and foreign, racial prejudice will diminish. First, the mechanisms of habit are left wanting. Sullivan is trying to compensate for Dewey’s lack of sophistication in this regard (especially in what we might call the social and political ontologies at play), and she should be lauded for her efforts.

To say that habits are unconscious and not mention how psychic drives relate to habits leaves much unsaid about the structure of persons through which the analysis of racism and white privilege is largely being explained. Her exploration seems (and I say “seems” to leave open the possibility of being wrong) to ignore how drives affect habits. Habits are structures of embodiment and psychic forces–some conscious and unconscious. To her credit, she uses both the Deweyan term “qualitative” and the term “impulse,” but she only really focuses on habits as unconscious, but leaves open how impulses relate to and emerge as a force of life.  In the same work, Revealing Whiteness, she will take up the relationship between Du Bois and Freud, but leaves aside questions of philosophical anthropology in which not only habits but also drives, affective intentionality and corresponding values form a central feature of the human person and intersubjective constitution of society in general.

Phenomenologically, we might say that moving the analysis of habits pushes the analysis only to what Scheler called the vital level of human existence. For Sullivan ontology is restricted to socio-historic, embodied, and linguistic world; “ontology is not composed of eternal and unchanging characteristics, nor is it reducible to conscious experience. Ontology is constituted by the historical, contextual, simultaneously malleable and stable, and only occasionally felt features of situated, located beings” (32). Therefore, the ethical is left unexamined just as with the more psychic and affective forces that compose the human person and along Schelerian lines, it’s these affective forces that give rise to the ethical. According to Sullivan, affective forces, the felt reality, only matter “occasionally.”

For Scheler, however, the affective structure of the person is the reason why we value our existence as historically embodied beings. To see this as only mattering occasionally is to miss a huge chunk of those elements that constitute the valuing delusion of racism and white supremacy. This is the second feature missed when we ignore the affectivity behind the value structures of human persons. We lose out on our ability to rightly correct value-delusions, what Scheler will call an ethos, that wrongly invert lower values for higher values. The value-delusions, I would argue, are the very mechanisms that fix habits both consciously and unconsciously.

This is not to say, then, that we should see Scheler as more responsive to the concepts of racism and white privilege. I want to be clear that’s not what I am claiming. Instead, there are elements of his conception of affectivity and drives in his later metaphysics that can help flesh out the picture and mutually reinforcing mechanisms of racism and white supremacy. I am sympathetic to Sullivan’s work. Sullivan is, indeed, onto something. White privilege and ignorance work in certain ways operating a tergo in very implicit and explicit ways to ensure the status quo of white domination, yet it’s not clear to me that there are not *higher* organizing structures in the lifeworld sedimenting habits. Getting clear on how to undermine racism and white supremacy, we must understand how habits function and work. On this, I have no doubt. Moreover, as she shows, both Dewey and James regard habits as providing a stable but somewhat malleable intelligibility for society. However, I think there are some phenomenological concepts that can help tease out the difficulties of simply pressing and relying on Dewey’s concept of habits.


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