Summary of:


Revealing Whiteness:
The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege

(Indiana UP, 2006)


Shannon Sullivan

Philosophy Department

240 Sparks

Penn State University

University Park, PA  16802



This book examines how white privilege operates as unseen, invisible, even seemingly non-existent and suggests that, given this hidden mode of operation, something more indirect and much different than conscious argumentation against white privilege is needed to combat it.  This latter claim is somewhat ironic, of course.  Arguing against argumentation to a certain degree, I recognize that the conscious, deliberate reasoning of much philosophical prose, including my own, is not sufficient for combating white domination.  In that sense, this book partially points beyond itself—or, at least, beyond its direct, rational argumentation—to the need for other genres that often significantly impact unconscious habits.  Literature, art, and film, for example, can be particularly useful to critical race theory because their images, tones and textures often perform subtle emotional work that richly engages the non-reflective aspects of white privilege.  But philosophy also has an important role to play, sometimes by performing similar emotional work, but also by clarifying the structures of human experience that contribute to white privilege.  One the most significant of those structures is unconscious habit.  As unconscious habit, white privilege operates as non-existent and actively works to disrupt attempts to reveal its existence.  Given this modus operandi, habits of white privilege are more likely to be changed by indirect, rather than direct assaults upon them. 

To understand white privilege as unconscious habit is to understand it as the product of a transactional relationship between psyche, body, and world that tends to hide itself.  In an ongoing dynamic relationship, the psychosomatic organism and environing world help constitute each other.  The world provides the psychical and physical food taken in by an organism.  Transformed through digestion, that food nourishes (or poisons) both body and psyche and emerges, continuous with but distinct from its initial state, to fertilize (or pollute) the world in turn.  In this transactional relationship, the concept of habit captures the process of digestion:  what are the particular digestive predispositions of a particular organism?  What is the particular style by which a particular organism takes from and contributes back to the world in its psychosomatic engagement with it?

While all habits tend to go unnoticed—at least when they are functioning smoothly—“forbidden” habits, such as those of white privilege, tend to be not just non-conscious, but unconscious.  Increasingly socially and politically unacceptable in countries that have outlawed racial discrimination, habits of white privilege often block attempts to recognize them.   They function as if non-existent and actively thwart conscious attempts to pinpoint their presence.   This unconscious, invisible mode of operation is what enables white privileged habits to be increasingly effective and pervasive.  White privilege functions best when it appears to not be functioning at all, and it likes it that way, so to speak.  The flashy obviousness of white supremacy will be its downfall in a “civilized” world that prides itself on its democratic tolerance and inclusiveness.  White domination has learned that its future lies in the unobtrusiveness of white privilege, and so it perpetuates itself as inconspicuous and innocuous, a timid yet powerful wallflower that is happy to fade into the backdrop.

Revealing Whiteness draws on John Dewey, Sigmund Freud, and contemporary psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, and also builds on race theories articulated in the works of W. E. B. Du Bois, Franz Fanon, and feminists such as Jane Addams and Patricia Williams.  The four chapters of Part One, “Unconscious Habit,” develop the concept of unconscious habit in connection with white privilege.  Beginning with the pragmatist concept of habit, I demonstrate why pragmatist philosophy needs to be supplemented with a psychoanalytic understanding of the unconscious.  But not just any notion of the unconscious will do: a transactional conception of the unconscious is needed in place of the atomistic conception of it that tends to function in classical psychoanalytic theory.  By combining a psychoanalytically modified pragmatism and a pragmatized psychoanalysis, I account for the formation of unconscious habits of white privilege in both their personally individual and globally trans-individual operations.

The three chapters of Part Two, “Possessive Geographies,” focus on the proprietary relationship that unconscious habits of white privilege tend to have with non-white spaces and examine strategies for changing that relationship.  Illuminating the connections between race, ontology, and geography, I show how habits of white privilege can be ontologically expansive and how their ontological expansiveness creates a dilemma for critical race theorists.  Although indirect, environmental methods for changing unconscious habits are needed because direct methods inevitably fail, well-intentioned attempts to change racist environments can be just another expression of the white privileged habit of unconsciously thinking that and behaving as if all spaces were available for “proper” (= white) people to appropriate.  I conclude by showing that although the dangers of reinforcing habits of white privilege through attempts to undercut them can never be entirely eliminated, sometimes those habits can be successfully used against themselves and other times they can be successfully blocked through the separatist efforts of people of color.