28 June 2011

Shannon Sullivan on White Affect—Approaching White Hipness

Now, it’s been a month or so since the conference, but I did take some decent notes. I’m going on these notes, so any and all errors are the fault of my secretarial skills and poor memory.

Shannon completely re-thought her approach to white guilt and shame, and gave an entirely different paper than the one she gave at SPEP in November (and which I discuss here). By “different” I mean David Lee Roth to November’s Sammy Hagar. This metaphor is also evaluative: just as Diamond Dave was a far better frontman for Van Halen than Hagar was, this new version of Shannon’s paper was, IMHO, much improved from the previous draft. I’ll list a few reasons why/some of this paper’s more interesting claims.

· The approach is different: Shannon is still concerned about the centrality of guilt and shame amongst “good” liberal white anti-racists. However, instead of arguing that whites shouldn’t be guilty and shameful (which was how November’s version came across), this version gives an account of how and why guilt and shame, as white approaches to anti-racism, re-center white people, white privilege, and whiteness. Which brings me to my next point:

· “Good white liberal” anti-racism is really all about white people, and thus not very anti-racist: “Guilt and shame,” she argues, “turn anti-racist movements into quests for white moral salvation” (take those quotation marks with a grain of salt—remember my poor secretarial skills!). In other words, (some) whites approach anti-racism primarily as a means of demonstrating their own moral, ethical, or intellectual superioriority over other whites (I’ll return to this itallicized point in the next bullet). Guilty/shameful white liberals look to POC to affirm that, because they demonstrate appropriate levels of guilt and shame, they are “good” people. “Good” white liberal anti-racists “turn to POC for redemption” and thus “use [POC] to generate whites’ sense of goodness.” Obviously not all anti-racist whites who feel guilty and shameful about racism/white hegemony necessarily instrumentalize POC in the way that Shannon describes. However, I do think she is right in identifying a general trend among “good white liberals”. Why do I think she’s correct? Well…

· White hipness strikes again: In this version of her paper, Shannon critiques supposedly “anti-racist” whites’ instrumentalization of POC in order to prove/demonstrate their elite status among or superiority over other whites. This logic (or “style” of instrumentalization) is not unique to “good white liberal” politics—it’s also characteristic of “good white liberal” aesthetics. Or, more directly, I think Shannon has identified another instance or type of white hipness. I’ve written extensively about white hipness here, here, and here. Briefly, white hipness is the attempt by whites to dis-identify with mainstream whiteness and demonstrate one’s elite status among whites. This disidentification often takes the form of racial cross-identification. So, for example, Clapton, Jagger, Cobain, etc., dis-identify with bourgeois white masculinity by appropriating stereotypical black masculinities. In so doing, they assert their superiority over the merely “average” white men who wear suits, work regular jobs, and generally follow the rules. Their liking of or affinity with black culture actually instrumentalizes both it and the black people who otherwise produce and consume it. Similarly, Shannon argues that “‘goodness’ is not about taking responsibility for racism; it’s more a white class marker than a response to racism”. So, the point is not for whites to actually either be or do “good”; rather, it’s to negotiate status among other whites. The problem with “good” white liberal anti-racism is that it’s still all about white people, and not at all anti-racist (either in intent or in effect). The logic of hipness shows us that the underlying motivations for “good” white liberals have nothing to do with improving the situations of actual POC, and everything to do improving their own situation vis-à-vis other whites. I think Shannon is on to something here, if only because she’s affirming my own research (if I may be so immodest).

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