I had to give up reading this book in public, because I was fairly certain that when strangers read the title, whatever conclusions they were drawing were probably not what this book is, which is quite simply the most challenging book on race I've ever read. Reading this book was a process of continuously having my ass kicked. But in a very good way.
Sullivan divides her book into four chapters. In the first chapter, "Dumping on White Trash: Etiquette, Abjection, and Radical Inclusion," she makes the case that "good white liberals" have far more in common with white supremacists than we'd like to believe. And one of those similarities is distancing ourselves from "white trash," trying to use them as scapegoats and holding them responsible for racism in America. Sullivan's argument that many liberals fail as true democrats by excluding those we deem "irrational" from the public sphere really hit home. Ouch.
The second chapter, "Demonizing White Ancestors: Unconscious Histories and Racial Responsibilities," is all about critical acceptance and forgiveness. It's about forgiving without condoning or excusing, but understanding. This is probably the most challenging chapter in the book for me. Forgiveness is definitely a skill I still need to work on.
As a parent and educator, I found the third chapter, "The Disease of Color Blindness: Racial Absences and Invisibilities in the Reproduction of Whiteness" most relevant. There is so much in this chapter about talking to children about race. Even when there aren't a lot of easy answers, examples of other parents' struggles with this are both inspiring and affirming. Too often we hesitate to say anything at all unless we can say it perfectly, but Sullivan has stories and studies backing up that even just muddling through yields benefits to children in challenging white domination, and silence, in this like in all things, generally serves to side us with the oppressors.
But in these days of shootings and police brutality, the chapter I've put to use the most often is the final one, "The Dangers of White Guilt, Shame, and Betrayal: Toward White Self-Love." As someone who tries to be a white ally, I feel a responsibility to challenge racist speech and behavior. This chapter has challenged me to think about and adjust my language in these conversations, to be more generous and to more carefully avoid shaming. I am trying to make my motto this sentence from the conclusion: "Dissent born of love seeks the ongoing and improved life of that which it criticizes, not its death."
I marked this whole book up with underlines and sidenotes, despite my usual distaste (not a strong enough word) for marking books. I have a feeling I may be turning to this book over and over again. And I certainly don't foresee parting with it anytime soon.