When most people think of racists they conjure up images of men in white pointed hoods burning crosses. But as Shannon Sullivan points out in her thought provoking follow up to Revealing Whiteness, racists can also be business men in suits, doctors, lawyers, accountants, and even librarians. In other words, racism is alive and well among the white middle class, who are often thought to be the ‘good white people’. This suggests that the ‘bad white people’ must be the white working class, the rednecks, the trailer trash.
Lerone Benett Jr. has noted that ‘The white liberal and the white supremacist share the same root postulates. They are different in degree, not in kind.’ Shannon Sullivan examines this hypothesis and identifies a constellation of attitudes common among well-meaning white liberals that she sums up as white middle-class goodness. She critiques this orientation for being more concerned with establishing anti-racist bona fides than with confronting systematic racism and privilege.
Sullivan also untangles the complex relationships between class and race in contemporary white identity and the ways this orientation is expressed, each serving to establish the white middle classes lack of racism. Perhaps the most significant of these is the denigration of lower-class white people as responsible for ongoing white racism. This serves two purposes: it shifts the blame for racism from the middle class to the working class; and it separates the white trash from the nice white people.
The other diversionary tactics employed by the white middle class include colour blindness, especially in the context of white childrearing, and the cultivation of attitudes of white guilt, shame, and betrayal. To move beyond these distancing strategies, Sullivan argues, white people need a new ethos that acknowledges and transforms their whiteness in the pursuit of racial justice rather than seeking a self-righteous distance.
John Pateman- is Chief Librarian at the Thunder Bay Public Library