“White privilege is best understood as a constellation of psychical and somatic habits formed through transaction with a racist world. As such, it often functions as unconscious: seemingly invisible, even nonexistent, and actively resisting conscious efforts to know this.” In Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege, Sullivan is trying to get us to think about and understand how white privilege can be unconscious when it is transactional because of the means by which that unconsciousness is formed through seduction by transference of enigmatic (meaning unknown to or hidden from both sender and receiver) messages from parent to child.
Sullivan’s theory is an adaptation of psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche’s theory of seduction with elements derived from understanding the issues in Freud’s defunct seduction theory. This means that her thesis assumes that Laplanche’s theory is sound. She assumes that the adult world forms the unconscious habits of children, and she assumes that these habits go on to be the basis of the perpetuation of racism and white privilege. If we were to believe other theorist, such as Freud, who argue that racism (through the fear and distrust of anything determined different or unlike ourselves) is inherent in our physiological makeup then these assumptions would be unfounded. Sullivan also assumes that many of these messages are unconscious and opaque; however I believe that many are intentional and consciously encoded. Parents may not carefully consider each message that they send, but they are not necessarily as opaque and enigmatic as proposed.
I like that Sullivan reaches beyond what earlier theorists proposed in what is available for the environment or the influence of the “world” to change in the unconscious. Previously it has been asserted that certain habits are beyond this influence and that they are stubbornly impenetrable or beyond hope. If this were the case, as with if Freud’s belief that the best we can do it to control the instinctive aversion, then we would be merely fighting what we cannot overcome. However, believing that, while it may be difficult, we can influence the deepest depths of unconscious habit means that we have the ability to attain a world free from racial prejudice and white privilege.
I find the thought of white privilege being defined through the hygienic care of the child as being a bit suspect. Just as in class we determined that words that have seeming negative connotations, such as abnegation, were established and defined long before the racial and negative subtexts were assigned, so too linking cleanliness to enigmatic messages from parent to child establishing the earliest facets of white privilege is a bit of a stretch. There is also an underlying assumption that to be dirty is to be black and to be clean is to be white, and this simply isn’t true. They are merely false associations contrived by the current society as are the negative connotations of words which have no defined meaning as such.