Water and Ocean

I was glad to have the chance to review Elspeth Probyn’s 2016 book, Eating the Ocean, alongside Astrida Neimanis’s 2017, Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology. This review just came out in Cultural Studies Review, and I’m pasting the text below, too.

I was born in Arapahoe and Ute territory, in the arid foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Growing up, the only oysters I had any practical knowledge of were the battered and fried bull-calf testicles called ‘prairie oysters.’ At fourteen, my family moved to the peninsula of K’jipuktuk, Mi’kma’ki (Nova Scotia), nearly an island. When my dad told me that we would eat nothing but seafood there, I cried. Teenage me would have had so much to learn from Elspeth Probyn and Astrida Neimanis about the entanglement of water with my body in that high desert, varieties of oysters, the feeling of the ocean, and the colonial politics of immigration and thirst! As I write, I’m living in a small town in Dena’ina Athabascan territory, Alaska, that is organised around fishing. The local bumpersticker reads, Homer, AK: A Quaint Drinking Village With A Fishing Problem. Half the people I know here are getting ready to spend the summer commercial fishing for salmon, and most of the rest are getting ready to host tourists who come to town for recreational fishing. The house I’m in has no running water, so we get drinking water from a spigot in town and use it sparingly. Water and the ocean are on my mind here, and increasingly I am convinced that they ought to be on all of our minds.

These books certainly help us turn our attention water-ward. Eating the Ocean is Probyn’s fifth sole-authored book. Bodies of Water: Posthuman Feminist Phenomenology is Neimanis’s first. Both writers teach at the University of Sydney, both are generous academic interlocutors and editors of other books, both attend to ubiquitous, suffusive, hard-to-grasp subject matter. These books pair beautifully—I can wholeheartedly recommend both, and in particular recommend reading them together. While they complement one another, these texts also stretch their matters of concern and methods in usefully different directions. And both contribute to growing academic interest in the vast parts of our shared world that is smaller or bigger or more complex than a human frame of reference easily perceives—microbiota, plant and forest sensoria, ecosystems, waterways, oceans and other more-than-humanness.

Eating the Ocean begins with a masterful summation of the stakes and openings of taking the ocean as a starting point in understanding the contemporary politics of food. Probyn has been working on iterations of this project for many years. Her 2000 book Carnal Appetites; Foodsexidentities set a direction for cultural studies of food as a useful conceptual technology, as a way ‘in’ to the ethics of eating and being eaten. Eating the Ocean is anchored in the ‘specificity of how, where, and by whom food was produced, and with what effects’. (6) This book takes fish as its lens, asking how a politics of food organised by material entanglements unthinkable from the point of view of terrestrial food production and consumption shifts our understanding of an ethics sufficient to the real complexity of our eating practices.

Probyn situates the question of how to eat the ocean in the broad context of care. She argues for a ‘de-simplified’ ocean—materially, conceptually, affectively—‘if we want to generate care for the ocean and for her inhabitants, we need to work with the deep entanglement that fish, fishers, and ocean have forged over the millennia’. (43) Her first chapter compellingly examines a wide range of ways such care doesn’t happen—imagining that we could go on fishing the ocean as we have been forever, that we can feed the nine billion people soon to be living and dying on the earth using current forms of land-based agriculture, that ‘eating local’ or ‘eating sustainably’ can save us from the complexity of oceanic food politics.

Turning away from simplistic moralism, Probyn turns to ocean critters and their people. Chapter two rhapsodises about oysters—eating them, growing them—as a good site for heightening our felt attention to relatedness with the ocean. Probyn grounds an account of oysters as a keystone species, rooted in their milieu and revelatory of the social relations that constitute their place. One eats an oyster alive, and with it the place it grew, the people who fed it, and the entire context of its production. Probyn’s treatment of this node of relations unfurls the specificity of global capital’s enactment in a small loch in Scotland, where a foreign oyster feeds the livelihoods (and tastes) of people there and abroad. This is a beautiful treatment of a humble but mattering bivalve, attached to its place in the ocean until it is moved into exchange relations and, eventually, cracked open to spill out its particular ‘merrior’; the taste of its being from its place. Probyn shifts from these small filter-feeders to globe-trotting megafauna: southern bluefin tuna. Charismatic, valuable, wild-but-domesticated, bluefin tuna offer a perfect case study in how the fishing industry has transformed in the last forty years. Bluefin tuna have gone from being an abundant pet-food-fish to a super-valuable endangered-species commodity, from the essence of wildness to being sea-farmed in fattening pens. This chapter compellingly argues that we cannot go on organising human–fish relations along the lines of internationally traded quotas for fish at the top of the trophic pyramid held by a select few men.

The fourth chapter tracks back in time to reflect on smaller fish, the herring—notable more for their place in the history of the Atlantic fishery as an abundant schooling fish than for the kind of individual gravitas that bluefin tuna hold—and cod. Looking at the history of women’s place in the fisheries of the past, Probyn deepens her consideration of how gender is entangled in fish–human relations. Alongside interesting ethnographic encounters, this chapter shows how in these fisheries ‘gender is not a thing and certainly not one thing. It is a constant force in bringing into being other worlds, and other ways of being-with.’ (126) I left this part of the book convinced that a gendered approach to fishing, and especially an approach that listened to the insights of women who processed the bounty of the sea, would co-produce an ocean with more possibility for going on. Chapter five returns to a love of the small and the humble, this time oily schooling fish: sardines, anchovies, menhaden. This chapter resists fixed moralising in favour of ‘scalar intricacy and metabolic intimacies’. (130) Prime among its suggestions is the possibility that we could directly eat small fish, instead of rendering them down into fish meal to feed other, larger fish across the globe. Probyn persuasively argues for cultivating new tastes and finer scales of attention.

Probyn is without question complexifying how one might think about eating bivalves or fish, ranging from the tiny to the large, from the ocean. There are several questions that emerge from this fascinating book. The first is, where is the ocean? Probyn repeatedly references integrated marine trophic aquaculture (IMTA) as possibly a better way to eat with the ocean. Cultivated ocean polycultures of this sort are definitely promising, and may have much less harm than fish farming as it has been practiced, which spreads disease and produces what are in effect toxins through over-feeding and medicating farmed fish. But the details matter: some IMTA is in the ocean, some is on land. The ocean is all connected, so IMTA that happens in pens, bays and coves is by necessity not fulfilling its purpose of capturing the waste products of one ocean critter or plant as food for another. Land-based maricultures are more efficient and more fully meet the promise of ITMA, but they carry different problems. Is the ocean in tanks in Chile still the ocean? I would have loved to see Probyn bring similar attention to her suggested solutions that she brings to the complex cases of tuna, oysters and anchovies.

Second, I yearned for Probyn to articulate her ethical stance more. Much of this stance organises itself against the view, which she often characterises as simplistic, that we’ll find an ethical way through the problems the ocean offers us by deciding what we will or won’t eat. As Probyn says in the introduction: ‘I argue strongly against the hubris that passes for a politics of fork waving. The idea that you can resolves such intricate and complicated human-fish relations by voting with your fork is deluded narcissism.’ (10) Part of this point comes down to an unconvincing irritation with veganism. To be clear, I’m convinced by the irritation. I eat vegan and I write about the problems of a politics based on purity at least in part because I have had more arguments than I can count with self-righteous and wrong-headed vegans who think they are not implicated in suffering. I hate PETA’s racist, anti-Indigenous, ableist politics with the heat of a thousand suns. So I share the critique Probyn expresses when she writes: As with the condescending attitude toward those who don’t choose to eat better, increasingly the choice to proclaim oneself vegan often seems to act as an opting out of the structural complexities of food provisioning, production, and consumption. (3) It is of course ridiculous for anyone who eats to think that they are not implicated in complexity—if we refrain from eating megafauna, we are certainly participating in killing bugs; if we think bugs matter because they are alive and avoid death, then shouldn’t we also worry about microbes? If we make an ethical bright line around a nervous system, how should we respond to the good data coming out now that plants know when they are being eaten and try to avoid it? Probyn’s poster-children for wrong-headed, too-simplistic food politics are vegans and it is surely easy to find lots of easy-target cases of activists who think they are solving suffering by putting themselves naked and bloody in a cage and going to a community rib-fest. But what about eaters like me, who look at the complexity and insolvability of the eaten world and draw a line at a place different from ‘small fish good’? Since we can’t opt out of structural complexity, what is the normative advice for where to stand in relation to this?

Confusingly, Probyn both repudiates the politics of what’s on our plate and returns to it. The last sentences of the book seem certainly to say that voting with our fork matters. She writes: The more-than-human, if it is to be meaningful as a perspective, makes us confront again and again the relatedness of all entities. And while some may say that the best way of honoring that relatedness is not to eat fish, as I’ve argued, this is not a solution. I won’t force-feed people sardines or anchovies or oysters – what a waste that would be. But keep in mind the pressures of a growing population; be aware of the state of land-based agriculture; be informed of the advances in sustainable systems such as integrated marine trophic aquaculture; be mindful of the millions who work with the sea. This is why this book focuses on noticing detail, relating stories, histories, environments, and tastes. Try to eat the ocean better. Try to eat with the ocean. (163) This invocation, if it is to have teeth, needs, I think, to move beyond the scope of food politics. This may be an unfair critique of a book about food politics and the question of what humans as the top of earth’s trophic system ought to eat. It may reflect my own obsession with the broader scope of embodiment that makes me think about all the other oceans capitalism is currently ravaging than the eaten oceans, and all the other politics than food politics entangled in those oceans. Many of these concerns pop up in Eating the Ocean without being taken up more sustainedly: microplastics, enslavement and indentured servitude on fishing boats (two ‘smiling Filipinos’ show up in one sentence in chapter 4), ocean acidification, the cesium-134 pouring out of the Fukushima reactor, the islands going underwater as the planet warms, the floating plastic trash gyre in the Pacific, the oil bubbling up from breached undersea drilling platforms, the fence that goes out into the ocean between the United States and Mexico, the desperate migrants drowning in the Mediterranean, the ocean blockade of Palestine, Australia’s off-shore migrant holding facilities, and so on. Thinking about politics with the ocean is so much denser than what we eat from it. How might some of these politics be served by the instruction to try to eat the ocean better? Try to eat with the ocean? It is clear to me that if eating is one of the main things we do with the ocean it is perhaps the least of the things we do to it. I raise these questions here because I can’t think of a thinker I would rather have address them. Every reader of Eating the Ocean will leave it with a felt sense of the impossible complexity that we confront in taking still-necessary actions. Probyn’s invitation to start and start again in meeting that complexity will, I hope, move us all toward unpredictable attentions and actions.

Those who care about what critical theory can offer political work aren’t typically looking for simplification, which is good since Astrida Neimanis’s book doesn’t simplify anything. Where Probyn starts with the oyster-eating human, Neimanis starts with the figuration that we are bodies of water, arguing that the ‘meaningful mattering of our bodies is also an urgent question of worldly survival’. (14) Understanding our bodies as watery implies an understanding of ourselves as part of what Neimanis calls a hydrocommons. Conceiving of our bodies as connected to other bodies of water—lakes, rivers, oceans, other bodies, the beings our bodies host—offers a conception of distributed but intimately significant material connections with political and ethical effects. Neimanis attends throughout the book to how such a figuration can challenge ‘humanist understandings of corporeality: discrete individualism, anthropocentrism, and phallogocentrism’. (16) In quicksilver prose that is technically suited to the task, we are called to reconfigure both our understandings (and perhaps practices) of embodiment as well as our thinking about water—what it is, why it matters, how we should hold it.

Bodies of Water contributes to the phenomenological tradition, aiming to bring phenomenological approaches into conversation with posthuman feminism. This will feel audacious to many readers coming from any of these three directions since phenomenology has so often been understood as happening at the scale of and in reference to the human; posthumanism has quite often been rejected as eliding or ignoring intersectional feminist achievements, and feminisms of various sorts have often been seen as too-committed to thinking about the specificities of gendered experience to participate in phenomenological or posthuman departures from our socially situated embodied being. Neimanis does not shy away from these tensions, instead she weaves them together into a soft toolkit made up of otherwise distinct archives. This aspect of the book will, I believe, productively tempt thinkers attached to their particular oyster bays into tasting the waters and histories of other lineages and trajectories.

The first chapter begins with Adrienne Rich’s work on the politics of location, and especially her provocation for us to think about what it means to be, as she put it, ‘of woman born’. Human milk has for a long time been a significant political symbol in relation to nuclear body-burdens transmitted between parent and child and a way to trace the bio-markers of toxicity that concentrate themselves in milk of all kinds. The transcorporeal embodiments signalled by milk production and consumption reveal how we are ‘caught up in one another’s currents’. (49) In this chapter, I wondered how Neimanis’s account of milky transcorporeality would extend beyond human amphimixic transfer points into thinking about, for example, cow, goat, or sheep milk production. Why is human breast milk the main site for thinking about entangled materialisations and the kind of feminist phenomenology that might help us confront our watery problems? Listening to nursing friends talk about their experience of lactation, I suspect that breast-feeding is one way to access what Neimanis calls ‘experiences that are below or beyond human-scaled perception’; that it offers a kind of phenomenological access to the watery transfer points that are hard to name elsewise. This chapter grapples with the difficulty of offering any sensory apparatus and object of perception as a keystone in descriptions that start from bodies in all their particularity.

The second chapter is in conversation with Luce Irigaray about the possibility of ‘posthuman gestationality’. Attending to Irigaray’s engagement with Nietzsche, Neimanis offers the best attempt I’ve seen to focus on the gestationality without reproducing the sex-fixity that so often comes along with thinking of amniotic fluid. Similarly, she avoids the tradition that reads Irigaray’s work as presupposing heteronormative, binary and essential sexual difference. Neimanis writes that ‘this gestationality need not take the form of a human reprosexaul womb: we may be gestational as love, as neighbor, as accidental stranger’. (79) This is hopeful, and connects with Neimanis’s earlier thinking on the idea of a ‘gestational mileu’. For readers already inclined toward Irigaray and toward thinking about the maternal as a key site for feminist philosophy, this chapter will be a delight. Those not so inclined may find it a stretch to resituate Irigaray and her gestational way of thought. I found myself wishing for more of Neimanis’s own thinking on fluidity, gender and gestation, in order to be convinced about the potential to ‘untie waters from a limited biological/symbolic feminine’. (95) In particular, I wanted to hear more specifics about her conception of ‘transcorporeal interpermeation’ as a kind of gestationality and more practical examples of what she calls an ‘onto-logic of amniotics’ (105) as a way of thinking about membranes, connections, and what we pass on and offer to others.

In the third chapter, Neimanis turns towards the question of significant storytelling about wateriness as a part of our evolutionary unfolding, opening a non-linear, surprisingly exuberant approach to how we come to be connected with water as part of our being. This chapter offers origin stories and ongoingness stories that usefully connect kinship practices with waters. This is a paradigm-shifting accomplishment that helps us think about our being as oceanic wherever we are—and helps us perceive the watery adaptations of many different critters who seem to be landlocked. Aquatic environments, Neimanis shows, on land and off it, infuse and shape beings, and provide a material connection to ‘watery pasts’. (143) The final chapter turns from watery pasts to the watery present and the uneven distribution of watery harms to Indigenous people—toxins, poisons, bad water—in the Canadian context. Here Neimanis attends to renowned Anishnaabekwe Rebecca Belmore’s artistic engagement with water. Neimanis elucidates Belmore’s evocative and politically nuanced work so as to reveal how water can be central to redressing historic and ongoing harms, and how current colonial politics of water materialise the importance of thinking better about water. Neimanis takes up the challenging call for decolonial work in specific contexts, starting from the figuration ‘kwe’. I have lived in unceded Anishinaabe places for years and in that context am familiar with the use of ‘kwe’ as both a modifier that signals ‘Anishinaabe woman’ and as an opening toward broader politics of water, femaleness, femininity and care for the world. In a series of footnotes signalling some trepidation about ‘using “Kwe” to name an orientation to the world that [Belmore’s] work offers’ (211), Neimanis writes that she recognises that her ‘use of this word “Kwe” here is suspect’ but that she wants nonetheless to ‘accept the consequences of taking this risk’. (212) As a white settler woman, immigrant to Canada, reading another white settler woman, immigrant to Australia, Neimanis’s hesitation around this use of ‘kwe’ resonates with me. However, I am less sure about her decision to situate that hesitation in the footnotes to her book, rather than as a central problematic to investigate. Haudenosaunee (Kanienkehaka) scholar Laura Hall has pointed out, for instance, that not all Indigenous women are Anishinaabeg. Métis scholar Zoe Todd, who I am lucky to have as a colleague, has elsewhere argued that the figuration of ‘the Anthropocene’ is itself a flattening concept that evacuates the political responsibility for settlers harming the world, imagining that we’re all in this together. How might the specific histories, ontologies, ways of making sense of the world and ways of being in the world matter to our watery beings? There may be a ‘kwe’ worldview, but there isn’t an Indigenous worldview. Neimanis knows this well. She writes in another footnote that ‘working in the sweaty and impossible space of the cultural interface is necessary despite its inevitable failure’. (212) I agree with her—we settlers inevitably get it wrong but that doesn’t mean that we oughtn’t try to be in relation. Coming to the end of her book, Neimanis writes that the ‘answer will always be a question’ and that the central question might well be ‘What is water?’ (189) I finished this book wondering what it would mean for us settlers to ask that question not taking a ‘kwe’ or other Indigenous worldview, but standing in relation to it carrying all our colonising buckets of history, all the burdens of unjust deaths dealt, all the responsibility for poisoning the waters that we inherit and must meet. What would a settler orientation towards decolonising water politics, ethics and knowing be? I would encourage Neimanis to bring that trepidation out of the footnotes and into the body text of her writing.

Both these books make generative openings for future thinking about watery sites of complicity and implication. I look forward to the continuing conversations they invite.

Whiteness as method in philosophy

Ah, whiteness and philosophy. I spent a lot of time thinking about the racialized boundaries of the discipline a long time ago – this thing I wrote came out seven years ago and I still agree with it:

“Significant occlusions structure philosophy as a discipline. They are not limited to racialized abstractions; partitioned social ontologies have also to do with ability and disability, heteronormativity, and gender formation – among others. But all of these categories are racialized, and in ways that bear the marks of the reproduction of whiteness specifically. Given the operations through which the specificity of white racial formation is made to stand in for general, universal experience, it is no surprise that work on race is rarely considered properly philosophical. Nor is it a surprise that it is so very possible to do work on subjects that are in fact deeply racialized – like individual liberty or citizenship – as though race had nothing to do with the question. This topical racialization extends, I would argue, into more structural characteristics of the whiteness of philosophy: only some questions will be possible to ask and only some methods understood as legitimate ways forward. And all of this will help to determine who ends up practicing philosophy – which subjects subsist in the discipline as philosophers.”

A politics of imperfection, a politics of responsibility.

The kind folks over at the University of Minnesota Press blog posted this short piece, and I’m reproducing it here, too.

Lately it seems like every day brings a new bad thing for anyone not invested in white supremacy and capitalism. As the tweet went: “First they came for the Latinos, Muslims, women, gays, poor people, intellectuals, and scientists and then it was Wednesday.” And every day, I become more convinced that a politics based on purity will let us down. Let me explain.

Saturday, January 28, 2017, was early in the litany of bad. That weekend thousands of people converged on airports around the United States to protest the effects of an executive order imposing a ban on travel from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Libya, Yemen, and Somalia. Trump signed that order on Friday and by Saturday there were refugees as well as people with green cards from these countries arriving at US airports. They were then held in custody and denied access to lawyers. I was at the manifestation at the San Francisco airport. I have been at many protests, encampments, and manifestations over the last twenty years, and this one stands out; it was tremendously moving and powerful.

On the Facebook event page for the protest, someone posted: “So where was this when Obama signed a ban in 2011 against Iraqi’s and again in 2015 when he put a ban on Muslims?? Hypocrisy at its finest!!” Later he clarified that he didn’t actually care about the travel ban (he thought it was a good move for the US to protect its borders and not let anyone in). He was just pointing out the hypocrisy of protesting Trump’s policies without having had an equally explosive and massive resistance to Obama’s policies.

Conservatives, particularly the subspecies whose main political work is trolling people on the Internet, are fond of this line of critique. It can take the form that it did here, calling hypocrisy on people who now are saying something when they did not raise a protest in the past. It also takes the form of pointing out inconsistencies, as when trolls tweeted to a friend that she could not both oppose human-fueled global warming and drive her car. Or it could be arguing that if someone benefits from something they cannot protest it (as when people say that it is impossible to criticize the US military and enjoy the supposed peace that it is supposedly protecting). Conservatives also use this approach in response to people opposing bigots speaking on university campus—if we care about free speech, surely we mean free speech for everyone, and “everyone” definitely includes people who think that (as the T-shirts put it) “Feminism Is Cancer.” Each of these criticisms deploys what we can call “purity politics”: because the person expressing the desire for another world is complicit or compromised, they are supposed to give up. Conservatives use purity politics to try to close down critique and action.

Recognizing our involvement in and complicity with things we think are wrong, fully understanding the weight of wrongdoing in the history we inherit, or understanding the harms that have come from our failure to act can feel quite awful. The right uses purity politics against the left because we’re the ones who respond to being implicated in doing harm. They’re correct that we are involved in the very things that we want to stop, but they’re wrong to think that being compromised means we should stop protesting. If we stop working against them, terrible things simply continue. If we are to be effective, we who want to have a world in which many beings and ecosystems can flourish, we should reject purity for purely tactical reasons—it demobilizes us.

But we should resist purity politics for deeper reasons, too. Purity has long been the domain of the racist, nativist, and eugenicist right. It has been the technology through which laws about miscegenation were formulated, and it’s still the emotional hinge on which today’s alt-right argues that the white race is dying. Purity of the nation has been the rallying cry for tightening borders against the free movement of people; it is the engine that drives vigilante border patrols and murderous refugee policies. Purity of the species has been the scalpel that forcibly sterilizes disabled people, and that continues to support policy based on the idea that disabled lives are not worth living.

We do better to aim for a politics of imperfection. If we do not fit the mold of perfection—if we’re disabled, sick, young, old, not working, not productive—we are definitely beings who offer care, help, solidarity, and presence to the world. If we’ve failed to help in the past, if things we do are implicated in harm, if we benefit from something that harms others, or if we accord only some people access to a podium, we can still be of benefit to this world. Even people who have harmed others or the world, whose ancestors owned slaves, whose current government is actively pursuing genocidal colonial policies, who regularly make mistakes—even we can be useful.

But how to unfurl a politics that holds our imperfections? I suggest taking up a “politics of responsibility,” a concept from social movement scholar Gary Kinsman. He defines this as involving “those of us in oppressing positions recognizing our own implication within and responsibility to actively challenge relations of oppression.” A politics of responsibility recognizes our relative, shifting, and contingent position in social relations of harm and benefit; it enjoins us to look at how we are shaped by our place in history. We can take responsibility for creating futures that radically diverge from that history, seriously engaging that work based on where we are located, listening well to the people, beings, and ecosystems most vulnerable to devastation.

Listening well, taking responsibility, and acting even though we recognize that we can’t be pure is going to be much harder than disengaging would be. Two poems have helped me think about this. Johnetta Elzie co-founded an organization working to end police violence. Her poem “Where were you” addresses itself to people—largely white women—who participated in the enormous protests march the day after Donald Trump’s inauguration. It asks a lot of questions, and on the surface many of those questions sound like our Facebook troll friend—the last line of the poem ends “We’ve been marching for years — where the hell have all of you been?” But Elzie’s questions are the opposite of trolling. She is calling her listeners in to responsibility for not having been there, asking us to reflect on how we are placed in history, and then inviting us to step up now. She asks,“What happens tomorrow? Will you march with us when we need you most?” Danny Bryck’s poem “If You Could Go Back” likewise calls us in to a politics of responsibility. Drawing on the fact that many of us in the present believe, looking back, that we would resist fascism, racism, and oppression with every fiber of our being, it points to things that are happening now:

“That’s King. And this is Selma. And Berlin. And Jerusalem. And now is when they need you to be brave.”

Let us be imperfect, for we are, but let us be brave too.

The problem with loving whiteness

This was later published as part of a section in Philosophy Today on the book

The problem with loving whiteness

SPEP, October 2015, response to S. Sullivan’s Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism

Shannon Sullivan’s work on racialization and habits, and on relationality and transaction, was important to my philosophical formation. It has been generative and useful for me to engage and think through this book, particularly as it works through issues and problems that have occupied me for years now. Shannon was also a reader on my first book when it was under evaluation at the press and (to my eternal gratitude) recommended publication. In part, I mention this because it is instructive to remember the hard and unrewarded work that established scholars do for unknown junior writers, and the incredible generosity of that work. In part, it is remarkable because then, as now, Shannon and I differ on some key things about race, racism, and how to dismantle racial oppression; I want to lift up her capacity to promote and value work that she disagrees with.

I attempt here to offer some constructive disagreement in this spirit on matters of mutual care and concern: in general, the abolition of white supremacy and in particular white people’s potential contribution for racial justice movements. I see the general purpose of Author-Meets-Critics sessions as either to explain to audiences who have not encountered a new book what’s in it so that they might engage or to directly engage the arguments and issues the book raises in the context of a collective conversation. Since Good White People: The Problem with Middle-Class White Anti-Racism has already been widely read and reviewed, in this response I take the second approach. I focus here on the key question of whether it is appropriate to love whiteness. Along the way I worry on some side questions of Good White People‘s orientation toward middle-class liberals, approach to history, the politics of citation, and a focus on a Black/white binary in continental United States.

Sullivan begins the book by quoting a critic I hadn’t heard of before reading this book, Lerone Bennett, who wrote “The white liberal and the white supremacist share the same root postulates. They are different in degree, not kind” (Sullivan 2014, 1). Sullivan says that she is “addressing the bulk of white people in the post-Jim Crow United States and other similar white-dominated nations who consider themselves to be non- or anti-racist. These are the white liberals of which Lerone Bennett speaks, the ‘good’ white people whose goodness is marked by their difference from the ‘bad’ white people who are considered responsible for any lingering racism in a progressive, liberal society” (3). I agree absolutely with the view that white liberals are not going to bring about revolutionary transformation in the racial order of this world. But precisely for this reason, I am not sure that the white liberal is the correct subject through which we should to organize our thinking about race; I would like to hear more about why the white liberal is an appropriate organizing figure for thinking about anti-racist struggle.

Further, I am curious about the category of similar white-dominated nations; although I have only deeply engaged racial politics in two nation states, “Canada” and the “US,” it is clear to me that while there are certain commonalities in the way race is lived and governed there are also vital differences. Perhaps the most striking is the difference between an assumed Black/white binary grounded in historical chattel slavery as the central logic for thinking about race, common in US race thinking, versus an overt formation in Canada (and other places) that centers far more on indigeneity, borders, migration, and the management of multiple racialized others. Working through these differences has convinced me of the necessity of understanding and thinking about whiteness as operative outside the US American context, beyond a black-white binary, and in a way that accounts for the founding and ongoing violences of capitalism and colonialism. While chattel slavery has informed many parts of the world, and while anti-Black racism has been necessary to the ways slavery was organized and manifests in contemporary racism, I would love to hear more explanation for this book’s tight focus on the US and on Black/white racial dynamics.

Whiteness, in my view, operates in complex and shifting ways anywhere racialization is happening, and so perhaps it’s a good place to start in thinking about the question of whether we ought to love whiteness. In this book, Sullivan does not spend a lot of time defining whiteness. When she does, it is in expansive ways that raise the question of what it means to love whiteness so defined. She argues that there is “something to being white that being Irish or Italian alone does not capture, and that something is a pattern of domination, exploitation, and oppression” (Sullivan 2014, 16). This understanding of whiteness as collective –as constituted by domination, exploitation, and oppression – reminds us that whiteness not something, on Sullivan’s view, that we individually control the effects or the meaning of. For example, she says: “Whiteness is not a club in which a white person can just decide to drop her membership. Whether a white person likes it or not, at this moment in history she is white and she is implicated in the effects of whiteness. How she takes up and lives her complicity in white domination will help determine the quality of her contributions to racial justice movements” (Sullivan 2014, 12). I agree with Sullivan in these characterizations of what defines whiteness.

But she narrows her definition of white supremacy in a way that is curiously out of line with this definition of whiteness. She gives as her reason for this that she is following the 1964 book by Lerone Bennett, writing before much of the rich discussion and argument about how we ought to define white supremacy. As she notes in a parenthetical remark,

(While some contemporary scholars have reappropriated the term white supremacy to refer to systematic racial oppression and privilege, I will continue to use it, as Bennett does, to refer to overt white racism. I accordingly will us white privilege to refer to the seemingly invisible, often unconscious forms of white racism that pervade the United States’ post-Jim Crow era, and white domination and white racism as general terms covering both white supremacy and white privilege) (Sullivan 2014, 4).

Defining racism and white supremacy this way narrows them significantly, making them in effect only overt, conscious, articulated and avowed racist acts and statements. Given Sullivan’s work to argue for the inarticulate, implicit, and habit-based nature of racism, this is surprising. It is not exaggerating to say that the state of the art in whiteness studies, and perhaps indeed in critical race theory, these days understands white supremacy to name the webbing of social relations, institutions, implicit racial understandings, and explicit and implicit personal investments that hold up and stabilize the current organization of racial oppression. Of course, all of these are underlined every time a cop kills a Black person, every time a KKK member burns a cross, every time a teacher says that the white kids are smarter than the kids of color. But white supremacy is much broader, deeper, and more insidious than the Klan, or than overt and obvious expressions of white racism.

The essay (“Tea and Sympathy”) by Bennett that Sullivan cites as what she’s following in thinking of white supremacy as referring to overt white racism, is a hagiographic paean to white abolitionist John Brown, literally comparing him to Jesus. Most people probably know this, but in case: Brown believed himself to embody the wrath of God against the sin of slavery, and advocated for and practiced armed insurrection;[1] he led several raids, killing slave-holders, and was in the end captured in an attempt to take the Federal Armory at Harper’s Ferry. That raid, and Brown’s subsequent execution, escalated tensions and – it is widely agreed – helped precipitate the Civil War. Bennett says he “was of no color, John Brown, of no race or age.  He was pure passion, pure transcendence.  He was an elemental force like the wind, rain and fire.” Bennett continues:

There was in John Brown a complete identification with the oppressed.  It was his child that a slaveowner was selling; his sister who was being whipped in the field; his wife who was being raped in the gin house.  It was not happening to Negroes; it was happening to him.  Thus it was said that he could not bear to hear the word slave spoken.  At the sound of the word, his body vibrated like the strings of a sensitive violin.  John Brown was a Negro, and it was in this aspect that he suffered.

More than Frederick Douglass, more than any other Negro leader, John Brown suffered with the slave.  “His zeal in the cause of freedom,” Frederick Douglass said, “was infinitely superior to mine.  Mine was as the taper light; his was as the burning sun.  Mine was bounded by time, his stretched away to the silent shores of eternity.  I could speak for the slave; John Brown could fight for the slave.  I could live for the slave; John Brown could die for the slave.”

John Brown, fierce terrorist in pursuit of abolition, the religious white man who brought down war on individual slavers, who felt himself biblically called because of his position as a beneficiary of whiteness to dismantle chattel slavery, did not identify as Black. But surely this litany is a kind of white liberal dream – to have Frederick Douglass say that your zeal is infinitely superior to his? – to be framed as actually becoming Black. If Brown is Bennett’s model of the white non-liberal, and he is, and Sullivan is taking Bennett’s account as one ground for what it is to reject white liberalism, and she is, I worry about what models are open to us if we try to avoid being the “good white people” Sullivan argues against – white liberals who dump on white trash, preach colorblindness, abjure our white ancestors, and feel bad all the time and in all the wrong ways.

For sure, John Brown was not a good white liberal; he offered more than the tea and sympathy referenced in Bennett’s essay. But Sullivan does not explicate the implications of this citation. More than a critique of the white liberal, Bennett’s essay is an invocation to behave otherwise; to be like John Brown. But I do not think that Sullivan would go along with the presumption that we become no longer white through taking direct action against racist institutions and practices, nor, perhaps, with the injunction to take up arms against racism. And it seems to me that there is significant scope between nervous white liberals, always trying to show that someone else is bad and that we are good, and setting up armed raids on the overt expressions of racism such as chattel slavery. While I do see armed collective uprisings, of the form of John Brown’s, or the Black Panthers’, as transformative of the racial order, they certainly don’t organize themselves around loving whiteness. So let me turn then to the central argument of the book: that white people should love our whiteness.

Sullivan writes:

Love can be thought of as an affect that binds a person to that which she loves, and in that way love can counter the distancing tendencies that many good white people have toward their whiteness. I will argue that rather than try to create distance between themselves and their racial identity, white people need a closer, more intimate relationship with it if they are going to be effective in racial justice movements. Rather than try to flee their whiteness, white people need to embrace it more tightly. Rather than despise their whiteness, white people need to learn to love it (9).

Reading this quote – and this happened for me often in reading this book– gives me some conceptual whiplash; I agree, and agree, and then really really disagree. So: definitely, we white people need to not disavow our whiteness if we want to be of any use at all in fighting racial oppression – Sullivan’s arguments about the wrongs of trashing working-class white people are spot-on, as is her analysis of why we oughtn’t pursue supposed “color-blindness,” entirely aside from its ableist connotations.

But there is a difference that makes a difference between not distancing ourselves from our racialization as white and loving whiteness. There is a difference, that is, between binding ourselves as white people to the work of fighting racial oppression and binding ourselves to whiteness. My friend Clare Bayard is one of the founders of the Catalyst Project, an organization doing political education with white people aimed at building multiracial movements for collective liberation. Bayard commented to me about the above quote: “You don’t have to love whiteness (on what basis would that even make sense?) to love people who are racialized as white.” This is basically my response to Sullivan’s argument, and I could actually stop here. Being an academic, though, I’ll elaborate. Recalling Sullivan’s own definition of whiteness as a pattern of domination, exploitation, and oppression, I do not find it worthy of my love. I remain, though, fiercely committed to white people, both as potential agents of change and as in themselves.

Sullivan’s argument for why we white people should learn to love whiteness has two parts. She gives first a critique of the role of negative affect in theory and practice and then an articulation of the uses of critical love.

Sullivan argues that negative affect, in general, impoverishes and enervates us (134), and robs a person of the “vitality and energy it will take to make a sustained kind of change in herself or the world. The experience of a shrunken self doesn’t motivate beneficial action. It kills it” (135). Understanding affect as transactional and contagious (123), Sullivan sees affects that bring us down as a collective problem. She argues especially against the affects of white guilt, white shame, and white race traitor identification. Sullivan:

As I will argue, white people qua white are ill in that their racial habits largely have been built out of negative affects such as greed, hatred, jealousy, fear, destructive anger, and cruelty. Their psychosomatic health has suffered and continues to suffer because of their toxic racial identities built out of their affects and emotions. Their effect is to exhaust or diminish white people’s spiritual energies, leaving them weak and powerless, like a plant that is too sickly to put out new shoots and effectively begins to die. This sickliness would seem to make white people innocuous, but the result tends to be the exact opposite. As we will see especially in the case of shame, people constituted by negative affects tend to be too psychosomatically depleted to do much that is active and yet extremely dangerous because they resents [sic] others’ liveliness and health and so try to destroy them (121).

A bit later, she argues “Cultivating the negative affect of shame on the part of white people – perhaps especially because they tend to be positioned at the top of racial/social hierarchies – is misguided because it will tend to produce destructively angry white people who have malevolent intentions toward people of color and who will act with hostility toward them (as well as toward themselves)”(136). So: On this account negative affect harms white people, simultaneously weakening and strengthening us; shame is particularly worrying.

This is the one place I want to respond directly to the critique of my work, because Sullivan correctly cites me as a proponent of white shame. She misrecognizes a key piece of my argument, though: I (and others) do not recommend shame as a thing to cultivate – rather, when it arises, I recommend not trying to flee it or tamp it down, but rather to recognize that it’s an appropriate thing to feel bad about how the world, perhaps without our consent but to our benefit, harms others. The only way that a fruitful kind of negative affect arises, I argue, is in circumstances of solidarity work – and, as I say in my book, negative affect doesn’t all by itself motivate action. I believe that others who embrace the potential for shame, in particular, are likewise understanding it politically and in the context of collective action for changed worlds. So, if you follow the kind of account I give some of the key dangers Sullivan identifies in negative affect are transmuted. They move from immobilization to movement, from a desire for purity and clearness into an understanding of the necessity of imperfection and impurity as a ground for action. As I and others have argued, and based our practice around, avoiding negative affect generates more harm than it solves. Psychoanalytically, we could say that the inability to work through the inheritances that have come to us without saying and that go without saying but that we still experience intensifies their disavowed effects on our affects. This is the danger of refusing to meet, with care and compassion, how bad we feel about how bad things really, really are. That we experience shame about the effects of racialization is not necessarily the problem; how we respond to that experience is, in general, a problem. That so many of us white people have no way to hold and work through our experience of benefiting in extraordinary and ordinary ways from the immiseration and harm done to people of color in this world makes that problem harder to work with.

Sullivan’s arguments against shame are grounded in her reading of some key psychologists – ironically for Good White People’s project, many of whom actively recommend cultivating guilt instead of shame, which she also rejects. It is vital to remember that these psychologists are not political, or thinking politically about affect. Their work focuses on helping individuals, as so much clinical psychological practice does; it is not sociological or philosophical, and it definitely does not express sharp critical race theory. And from my reading of them, they do not have rich ways to approach the political and collective content and context of the affects they attempt to investigate. I believe their limitations are in part grounded in methodology – how it’s possible to study things within their discipline – but also it is a theoretical and political inheritance – what it’s possible to study within their discipline. Given Sullivan’s commitments to Laplanche in other parts of the book, I wonder here about her citational reliance on conventional psychology.

Again: the content and context of political affects matter. Take for example Sullivan’s discussion of white treason as exemplified by Mab Segrest’s important Memoir of a Race Traitor. Sullivan writes:

Challenging dominant ideas of whiteness does not have to be interpreted or experienced as an act of treason (which is not to say that Klan members won’t still see it that way). A more satisfactory solution to Segrest’s dilemma about how to love her racist family and fight against racism is for feminists, critical philosophers of race, and other white allies to set aside the notion of betrayal as the primary motivation for work against white domination and as the main component of a white identity grounded in racial justice (144-5).

But I disagree that Segrest sees herself as in a dilemma, nor does she see betrayal as her primary motivation for the work she does; she says “It’s not my people, it’s the idea of race I am betraying. It’s taken me a while to get the distinction” (Segrest 4). And, later: “There is a truth I am desperate to make you understand: race is not the same as family. In fact, ‘race’ betrays family, if family does not betray ‘race’” (102). When she investigates her family’s complicity in and active support for racial oppression, she frames herself as choosing, in her words “justice? community? humanity? the glimpse that we are all one organism…? After all these pages, the language for it escapes me still. But it calls me forward, and I come, with a clearer courage to change the things that we can change” (174, italics in original). Ultimately, Sullivan reframes what Segrest embraces as betrayal as instead a form of critical love. It is not clear to me that this reframing is necessary; on my reading, betraying race is, for Segrest, choosing that ineffable call toward a different world – betrayal of this sort already is a kind of love. In her chapter “On Being White and Other Lies: A History of Racism in the United States,” Segrest quotes James Baldwin, speaking in the film The Price of the Ticket: “As long as you think you’re white, there’s no hope for you.” She says “it is only through acquiring a consciousness of racist consciousness (a necessary corollary to anti-racist practice) that we as white people will ever have any other community than the community of the lie” (226). Again: It matters what and how we betray; context and content matter.

So, finally, let me look more closely at the content and context of how Sullivan argues we ought to love whiteness. She does not shy away from addressing possible reductios, particularly in her arguments that we should “understand and respect” instead of “condemn and resent” white slaveholding ancestors (82). The chapter on white slaveholding ancestors constellates Sullivan’s paradigmatic focus on the founding narrative of Black/white binaries as the central racial question, focusing as well on individual and overt white racism in ways consonant with her narrow definition of white supremacism. She argues:

For people concerned about racial justice to unilaterally exclude white supremacists – and I’m thinking here of middle-class white people in particular – is for them to reenact the dehumanizing and destructive marginalization that white supremacists inflict upon people of color. It is to engage in a repetition compulsion that suggests our society has only scarcely begun to deal with its traumatic history of racism and white domination. That history is not past, and one of its current manifestations is white middle-class abjection of white supremacists and other white people (46).

I agree that history is not past, that it matters very much whether and how we beneficiaries of racial oppression hold and respond to traumatic histories, and that we have scarcely begun that process. And when someone like Dylann Roof aimed to ignite a race war when he killed nine people at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in June, we perhaps do see an example of a racist repetition compulsion that perpetuates trauma and violence. But I would contest the claim that to “unilaterally exclude white supremacists” is “to reenact the dehumanizing and destructive marginalization that white supremacists inflict upon people of color.” White supremacism in its expanded sense – not limited to the Dylann Roofs and George Zimmermans of the world – is far more destructive to people of color than any white anti-racist exclusion of white supremacists.

When Sullivan advocates for loving whiteness and white supremacists, she seems to reach to find something salvageable in their thinking. Relying on the Southern historians Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and Eugene Genovese, Sullivan argues that white slaveholders are lovable because they expressed care for the white working class in the North.

Operating with mixed motives and often despicable intentions, white slaveholders nonetheless insisted that the needs of the white working classes be taken into consideration by those who governed a society. The propertied class of white people should not dismiss the interests of pooper whites, who were forced to sell the only thing they owned, their labor. The personal subsistence and security of all members of a society, including the non-laboring young, elderly, and ill, should be its first priority, and only then should it aim for material progress and economic profit. (81)

Another side note on citation practice: Fox-Genovese and Genovese are much more controversial within the discipline of history than would be evident through a quick reading of Good White People; they have done extensive work in pre-Civil War history that is frequently understood in the field as quite conservative, religious (and therefore imputed to be somewhat on-side with a Biblical reading, which they cite, that held that socialism was wrong but slavery sanctioned), and unsympathetic to shifts in the field toward a “history from below” approach that focuses on voices other than Great Men.

Sullivan cites as well George Fitzhugh in support of this claim that white supremacists in the antebellum era supported slavery because they saw it as the best way to create a good human society. Indeed, Fitzhugh does assert this. He writes:

At the slaveholding South all is peace, quiet, plenty and contentment. We have no mobs, no trades unions, no strikes for higher wages, no armed resistance to the law, but little jealousy of the rich by the poor. We have but few in our jails, and fewer in our poor houses. We produce enough of the comforts and necessaries of life for a population three or four times as numerous as ours. We are wholly exempt from the torrent of pauperism, crime, agrarianism, and infidelity which Europe is pouring from her jails and alms houses on the already crowded North. Population increases slowly, wealth rapidly.

It is this vision of a flourishing South which Fitzhugh contrasts to the depredations of capitalism in the non-slaveholding North, and it is this that he asserts (as Sullivan discusses) is worth defending against the individualizing and monetizing imperative of wage labor. (Roof says a similar thing. His manifesto quotes the film Hizaki: “Even if my life is worth less than a speck of dirt, I want to use it for the good of society.”)

If we take Fitzhugh seriously in these words, I believe we must take him seriously in his other statements about enslaved Black people. In the same document Sullivan quotes about his care for the wage laborer, Fitzhugh argues about the enslaved:

He is but a grown up child, and must be governed as a child, not as a lunatic or criminal. The master occupies towards him the place of parent or guardian…The negro is improvident; will not lay up in summer for the wants of winter; will not accumulate in youth for the exigencies of age. He would become an insufferable burden to society. Society has the right to prevent this, and can only do so by subjecting him to domestic slavery…We presume the maddest abolitionist does not think the negro’s providence of habits and money-making capacity at all to compare to those of the whites. This defect of character would alone justify enslaving him, if he is to remain here. In Africa or the West Indies, he would become idolatrous, savage and cannibal, or be devoured by savages and cannibals. At the North he would freeze or starve.

I believe that slaveowners, white and otherwise, were not simply enthralled by their own rhetoric – or at least that some of the more vomit-worth claims Fitzhugh makes were quite clearly false to people of the time. Consider his claim, that:

The negro slaves of the South are the happiest, and, in some sense, the freest people in the world. The children and the aged and infirm work not at all, and yet have all the comforts and necessaries of life provided for them. They enjoy liberty, because they are oppressed neither by care nor labor. The women do little hard work, and are protected from the despotism of their husbands by their masters. The negro men and stout boys work, on the average, in good weather, not more than nine hours a day. The balance of their time is spent in perfect abandon.

Slaveholders were frequently acting as they did and advocating as they did out of a clear-eyed, though perhaps ideologically inflected, commitment to wealth, alongside a particular reading of the Bible. Racists today have some of the same characteristics. So if we’re going to have a class analysis of white supremacy, let’s be thoroughgoing in our materialist analysis of history. Whiteness has in fact been a site for cross-class racist solidarity, explicitly deployed to break the cross-racial radical class solidarity that has repeatedly threatened capitalist and owning-class interests. I cannot love Fitzhugh’s white supremacist views or actions, just as I cannot love Dylann Roof’s white supremacist views or actions. Whiteness, qua pattern of domination, exploitation, and oppression, does not deserve our love. White people, on the other hand, certainly deserve all the critical love Sullivan invokes.

When Sullivan talks about the kind of love she advocates – at least when she is not referencing putatively redemptive views of white slaveholding ancestors – she herself articulates the complexity, mixed-ness, hard-feeling, and hard work associated with critical love. At the start of the book, she says:

Love is an emotion, but not always in the sense of being a pleasant sentiment. It can be and often is discontent, especially with situations, actions, and passions that separate people from one another, for example, through oppression and domination. A white person’s loving herself as a white person means her critically caring enough about the effects whiteness has in the world to make it something different and better than what it is today (10).

And at the end:

Dissenting with whiteness out of love means a white person’s being willing to risk complicity with white privilege and white supremacy – the dominant meanings and effects of whiteness to this point – out of a loving relationship with oneself (161).

I agree with Sullivan that we ought to radically shift our practices around whiteness, and that love is a central, complex, demanding practice for such a shift. But the love that I hold out for encompasses and cares for us white people as a way of working through what it might be for us to resist, refuse, and disrupt whiteness qua social relation of oppression. And at the end, this is perhaps the central tension I see in this work: it remains opaque to me how we might truly love white people and also love whiteness. Whiteness, again qua social relation of oppression (which is what it qua), is precisely the thing that is destroying white people. More importantly, it’s destroying and killing people of color. Even though it is hard and might sometimes feel terrible, hating whiteness and its effects while working for collective liberation, remaining committed to the possibility that white people are worth working with and for, also remains one of the most meaningful and joyful things we can do.

[1] “I, John Brown, am now quite certain that the crimes of this guilty land can never be purged away but with blood.”