On Changing Raced and Racist Habits


Changing unconscious habits of white privilege requires altering the political, social, physical, economic, psychological, aesthetic, and other environments that ‘feed’ them.  Correspondingly, a white person who wishes to try to change her raced and racist habits would do better to change the environments she inhabits than (to attempt) to use ‘will to power’ to change the way she thinks about and reacts to non-white people.  Whatever will power human beings have with regard to white privilege or any other habit is found in those habits themselves.  A person cannot merely intellectualize a change of habit by telling herself that she will no longer think or behave in particular ways.  The key to transformation is to find a way of disrupting a habit through environmental change and then hope that the changed environment will help produce an improved habit in its place” (Shannon Sullivan, Revealing Whiteness:  The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege, p. 9).

One of the main points that Sullivan stresses about racism is its systemic character.  In other words, racism is not simply some wrongheaded idea (though it is definitely a wrongheaded idea) in my head or your head.  Rather, racial privilege and disadvantage permeates our society in concrete ways-in the ways certain laws are crafted, in the ways that applications are designed and racial categories delineated, in the ways that different groups are portrayed in the media, racial profiling etc.  Institutions of course play an important role in shaping the way we think about race (as well as gender) and various ethnic groups.  As a graduate student and an adjunct at a local college, I have the opportunity both to observe how other professors discuss race and gender, and I have the opportunity to discuss these issues directly and indirectly with my students.  For example, as a female student, I find it extremely helpful and affirming when a professor uses secondary literature by female authors-particularly in my field, which has traditionally been dominated by (white) males.  (Don’t worry, I’m not a white-male-hater; I happen to be married to a wonderful white male).  As a teacher, I purpose to use inclusive language, reference the works of people of color, and in so far as the constraints of what I have to teach (in terms of texts) allow, I try to assign readings or projects that encourage dialogue with different ethnic groups and help expose students to new hermeneutical approaches. What I have found on the whole is that my students appreciate the inclusive language and having to wrestle with different ways of thinking.  In private conversations with female, African American, Latino/a, Asian American and others, students have time and again commented on how much they appreciate the ways I have tried to bring traditional subjects and authors in dialogue with contemporary hermeneutical approaches and  “non-standard” topics (feminist literature, African American studies, liberation theology, jazz discussions etc.)   There are of course always a few students who spend the whole semester sending me emails about why it is simply ridiculous to use inclusive language when anyone who is educated knows that “man” is a generic term.  Thus, by way of principle, the student boldly declares that he is not budging and refuses to use inclusive language in his papers.  Interestingly, I never demand that inclusive language be used.  I simply use it myself in the classroom.

As I am always trying to improve my teaching and ways of relating to my students, I would love to hear ideas from both students and those in the field of teaching regarding your experiences (either positive or negative) in the classroom along these lines.  In particular, what classroom ethos or actions encouraged or discouraged conversation about race in ways that might at least begin help to raise awareness of our racial habits?  Feel free to comment about gender as well.

One thought on “On Changing Raced and Racist Habits”

  1. Sullivan’s statement is powerful, however, the task before us is enormous and perhaps could be achieved. It will not be easy to actualize what she suggests.It will require both individual and collective effort to arriving at the proposed results. It’s like changing the ideology of a culture, as a whole. I appreciate your comment on the subject matter.

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