From the Foreign to the Familiar:

Confronting Dewey Confronting "Racial Prejudice"


Shannon Sullivan

Penn State University



Can Dewey’s pragmatism make a valuable contribution to contemporary critical race theory given that Dewey rarely, if ever, took up questions of race in his work?  In my view, the answer to this question is "yes," particularly since his concept of habit can be fruitfully used to understand the unconscious operations of white privilege.  In order to make the best use of Dewey’s work in this respect, however, the numerous problems that it presents on race must be critically addressed.  I have already mentioned one of them: Dewey’s relative neglect of the subject.  This neglect is not merely an instance of a gap or empty space in his work, although it is that.  It is a productive lack, an omission that has significant and powerful effects and that risks perpetuating the conceptual or theoretical whiteness of Western philosophy.[1]  Related to but distinct from the physiological whiteness of most academic philosophers in the United States and the Western and Northern hemispheres more broadly, the conceptual whiteness of philosophy is found in the particular issues and topics that are seen as philosophically important, in what counts as a resolution to a problematic situation, and indeed in what counts as a problematic situation in the first place. 

Although Dewey apparently did not think that topics of race and racism had much philosophical merit, he did write two short essays on them.[2]  Elsewhere I have criticized those essays for reducing what Dewey calls "racial prejudice" to an epiphenomenona of general  political-economic issues that does not do justice to the specific power and influence that concepts of race have and have had.[3]  Here I take up a different concern that I have about one of the essays, "Racial Prejudice and Friction," which is Dewey’s definition of racial prejudice as an instinctive and universal reaction to what is new or unusual.  I am concerned both with Dewey’s implied claim that the nature of habit is such that it must be hostile to anything different from itself and with the inadequacy of Dewey’s solution to the problem of racial prejudice, which, in sum, is to effect a transformation of the foreign into the familiar. 

Before I turn to these particular issues, a quick overview of Dewey’s main argument in "Racial Prejudice and Friction" is in order.  Dewey considers racial prejudice to be an instance of general prejudice, which—contra what he calls "intellectualist psychology"—is not conscious judgments or beliefs but rather the subconscious habits of thought that condition them.  For Dewey, prejudice precedes judgment, sometimes cutting it off or allowing it to take short cuts.  It is a desire or emotion that gives slant to all our beliefs.  Prejudice, in other words, is what we might call "bias" as long as that word is taken in a neutral rather than negative sense.  For Dewey, human beings are always biased in that we are embodied, situated beings and not blank slates.  Bias as such is not something "bad" to be eliminated although, of course, particular biases might be judged as harmful and in need of change.[4]

One might expect Dewey to claim that racial prejudice is one of those harmful biases in need of elimination, but the story is more complicated than that.  According to Dewey, as an instance of general prejudice, racial prejudice is "the instinctive aversion of mankind to what is new and unusual, to whatever is different from what we are used to, and which thus shocks our customary habits."[5]  In a similar fashion, Dewey also characterizes racial prejudice as "the universal antipathy which is aroused by anything to which a tribe or social group is not adjusted in its past habits."[6]  Dewey suggests that on its own, there is nothing problematic about "instinctive dislike and dread of what is strange."[7]  It is something that all human beings experience and it tends to go away in time as people become accustomed to or familiar with what once seemed strange.  What is problematic, according to Dewey, is when situations of political domination combine with racial prejudice to produce what he calls racial friction.  Racial friction involves the imposed or assumed superiority of one group over another and is more-or-less what we today would call racism or racial discrimination (including race-based violence).  For Dewey, the solution to racial friction is the same as that of racial prejudice: increased familiarization with the foreign.  More interaction and "mutual assimilation" between different cultures is needed to eliminate the racial prejudice that is at the base of racial friction. 

I do not have space here to address all the problematic details of Dewey’s solution to racial friction, which involves increasing standards of living in particular foreign countries so that the lowering of their birth rates will reduce "the menace of [their] numbers."[8]  Nor will I have time to dwell on Dewey’s very intellectualist sounding claim that "mental preparation" must be secured before this increased interaction can be a source of improvement and, until that preparation is secured, immigration into the United States must be restricted.[9]   I will focus instead on Dewey’s claims about aversion to the strange because I am concerned about the broader implications they have for a pragmatist account of habit, especially in the context of contemporary white privilege.  Dewey implies that habit, pragmatically understood, is always and necessarily so resistant to change and difference that it must be hostile to the strange.  Is this necessarily so?

Some of William James’s remarks on habit tend to suggest that it is.  He describes habit as a mechanism that keeps the various social classes in their place, protecting the status quo:

Habit is the enormous fly-wheel of society, its most precious conservative influence. It alone is what keeps us within the bounds of ordinance, and saves the children of fortune from the uprisings of the poor. It alone prevents the hardest and most repulsive walks of life from being deserted by those brought up to

tread therein. It … protects us from invasion by the natives of the desert and the frozen zone. … It keeps different social strata from mixing.[10]


It is unclear from this passage whether James thinks that this is a praiseworthy feature of habit,[11] but it is obvious that he thinks that habit, though a result of the plasticity of organic matter, is first and foremost a conservative structure.

In major works such as Human Nature and Conduct and Experience and Nature, Dewey also presents habit as a structure that provides stability.  Unlike James, however, he stresses that structure also and primarily is a process of change: 

A house has a structure; in comparison with the disintegration and collapse that would occur without its presence, this structure is fixed. Yet it is not something external to which the changes involved in building and using the house have to submit.  It is rather an arrangement of changing events such that properties which change slowly, limit and direct a series of quick changes and give them an order which they do not otherwise possess….Structure … cannot be discovered or defined except in some realized construction, construction being, of course, an evident order of changes. The isolation of structure from the changes whose stable ordering it is, [wrongly] renders it mysterious.[12]


For Dewey and James alike, one cannot live in a world of total flux; structure, such as that provided by habit, is necessary.  For Dewey, however, to claim this is not to oppose habit to flux, as if habit were entirely conservative or necessarily hardened with time and age.  As an "arrangement of changing events," habit is composed of the organization of impulses ("instincts").  Or, better—since habit is not something apart from impulses directing their arrangement—habit just is the patterned flow of impulses, which can be disrupted by conflict with its changing environments.  With this clash comes the need for a reorganization of habit, which—Dewey makes clear—includes the possibility of developing habits that might seek out and welcome future changes in habit.  It is possible "to subject habit-forming in a particular case to the habit of recognizing that new modes of association will exact a new use of it. Thus habit is formed in view of possible future changes and does not harden so readily."[13]  Habit thus has a conservative side for Dewey, but it is not something that necessarily and always is adverse to the new and different.  Ultimately, I find the main body of Dewey’s work on habit closer to that of Charles S. Peirce than James when Peirce claims that "‘[t]he highest quality of mind involves greatest readiness to take habits, and a great readiness to lose them.’"[14] 

Given Dewey’s general account of habit as capable of welcoming difference, it is odd that in his brief essay on racial prejudice he describes the habit of hostility toward the strange as universal to human existence.  But perhaps this oddity is not so bewildering after all.  Luce Irigaray describes her reading of Freud and major figures in Western philosophy as a process of listening carefully to their (sometimes overt, often covert) discussions of women’s sexuality that, on their own logic, are inconsistent and contradictory.  For Irigaray, the irrational leaps, elaborate contortions, and loud silences in their thought demonstrate that their so-called objective analyses of women’s lack are fueled by unconscious anxieties, pleasures, and fears concerning the on-going maintenance of phallocracy and continued support of women’s bodies necessary to it.[15]  In light of Irigaray’s account, I cannot help but wonder if an unconscious anxiety about race is responsible for the strange inconsistencies that develop in Dewey’s text as soon as he takes up questions of racial prejudice.  Dewey’s uncharacteristic description of habit as necessarily and universally hostile to difference, as well as his unusually reductive, non-transactional understanding of (raced) social phenomena, is less an objective account of the operations of racial habits than an unintentional report of what race looks like from the perspective of white privilege.  An anxious unconscious speaks volumes about race in Dewey’s works if only we can unclog our ears enough to hear it.[16] 

Listening carefully to Dewey in "Racial Prejudice and Friction, one discovers that even before he moves to the specific topic of race in the essay, there is something amiss in his account of general prejudice that alerts his readers to the problems to come.  In his explanation of prejudice as a subconscious bias that gives a slant to all believe, Dewey slips from a neutral to a negative sense of the term "bias" in the course of his descriptions of the concept.  This slippage occurs when Dewey tucks in the word "aversion" to sum up his discussion of general prejudice as "a spontaneous aversion which influences and distorts subsequent judgments."[17]  Presented as equivalent to his earlier, neutral accounts of bias, this definition allows Dewey to make an easy—even unavoidable—transition into defining racial prejudice as aversion.  Dewey claims to define racial prejudice in terms of general prejudice, but in fact he appears to do just the opposite, beginning with his notion of racial prejudice as aversion to the strange and allowing that understanding to leak back, so to speak, into his general account of habit. 

Aversion is one kind of bias, but it is only that.  Many complex and varied forms of habit and bias exist, such as wonder.  In Irigaray’s reading of Descartes’s The Passions of the Soul, she praises wonder as the "first passion" felt in the presence of something new and different, a passion that might later give way to other "passions" that seek to categorize and judge but that itself does not do so.  Wonder is a kind of surprise felt in the face of the strange that lets its difference be without trying to assimilate it into something known, same, familiar.  For Irigaray, such wonder is necessary for any genuine ethical relationship to exist between two beings.[18]  When Dewey describes dread, dislike, and antipathy as universal in the face of the strange, one might say that he rushes past the possibility of wonder to a secondary or tertiary passion of "the anti-strange feeling."[19]  If he were to recognize the possibility of wonder, however, different sorts of relationship between racial groups other than ones of aversion might be more likely.  Of course, one must be careful here that the passion of wonder is not camouflaging a romantic exoticization of the other, a danger that Irigaray’s work does not entirely avoid.  Nonetheless, her emphasis on wonder helps reveal that antipathy toward the strange is not the only available option in the face of others different from oneself.[20] 

Before I turn to Dewey’s troubling solution to racial prejudice, I want to examine another problem that occurs with his description of it, which is that it implies that all people of all races see other people of other races as strange and unusual.[21]  With his description of racial prejudice, Dewey universalizes his experience as a white Euro-American and, in doing so, assumes symmetry between white and non-white people that neglects the history and context of encounters between them.  Let me be clear here that I am not claiming that, for example, black Africans did not find the light hair and skin of white Europeans to be unusual, even dreadful, when invading Europeans first showed up in Africa.  Perhaps they did.  My claim, rather, is that given the economic, political, historical, and non-reciprocal necessity for non-white people to work in and understand the world of white people, non-white people often have had to be very familiar with the lives and manners of white people in a ways that white people have not had to be with non-whites.  Both globally and locally, non-white slaves, migrant workers, and domestic help (just to name a few) have had to travel to the world of the white masters, bosses, and homes, and this world-traveling has been and largely still is optional for white people.[22]  This establishes an asymmetry between white and non-white people that includes an inverse relationship of power and knowledge. The necessity of world-traveling for many non-white people is a product of their relative lack of power, but it also is what tends to give them greater knowledge of white people’s worlds.  For black people, white people are not so much unusual or new as they are terrifyingly familiar.  "All black people in the United States…live with the possibility that they will be terrorized by whiteness," as bell hooks explains, and this phenomenon is nothing uncommon or strange.[23] 

W.E.B. Du Bois makes a similar point when he explains the intimate knowledge of white people that black people often have and have had.  White people tend to think of themselves as clean, benevolent, and good while the black people that serve them see their other, more sordid sides.  Speaking of the "Souls of White Folk," Du Bois claims, "I see in and through them….Not as a foreigner do I come, for I am native, not foreign, bone of their thought and flesh of their language….I see these souls undressed and from the back and side. I see the working of their entrails.  I know their thoughts and they know that I know.  This knowledge makes them now embarrassed, now furious….I see them ever stripped,--ugly, human."[24]  Against Dewey, Du Bois’s work suggests that it is intimacy and familiarity, not foreignness that tends to produce anger and hostility toward others.[25]  Setting that issue aside for now, I highlight Du Bois’s challenge of Dewey’s assumption that all races find people of other races foreign and unfamiliar.  This assumption, which is the result of Dewey’s projection of his own situation onto others, masks the particularity of whiteness and thus perpetuates its position of privilege.

Finally and in addition to problems resulting from Dewey’s definition of racial prejudice, I have significant concerns about his "solution" to it.  Dewey claims that antipathy toward the strange tends to fade away:  "In the main this feeling left to itself tends to disappear under normal conditions. People get used to what was strange and it is strange no longer."[26]  According to Dewey, people become accustomed over time to what they once found strange and they thus cease to feel the anti-strange feeling without really trying to, as it were.  Put in more technical terms, Dewey’s claim effectively is that after sedimented and change-fearing habits have been disrupted by something perceived as unusual, new patterns of impulses will come about that incorporate what was strange, eliminating its disturbing shock.

With Du Bois, Irigaray calls into question the idea that increased familiarity is a desirable solution to the "problem" of the disruptive strange, at least in the uncritical way that Dewey puts it forth.  Her call for wonder in encounters with others is meant to prevent their incorporation into the same that familiarity threatens to bring about.  Beyond that issue, however, my primary concern is that Dewey’s solution of familiarity assumes an incredibly simplistic understanding of unconscious habits and naively underestimates the perversely complex operations of racism and white privilege.  Habits and their possible transformations involve imagination, fantasy, pleasure, and desire, all of which frequently operate unconsciously.[27]  This is no truer anywhere than in the case of racism and white privilege.

In my view, Dewey makes the mistake of conflating ideologies of desire with ethnocentrism.  Both are prejudices—in this case, racial prejudices—but ethnocentrism is a is a group-sustaining, ready-made approach in which one values one’s own racial group over that of others, while ideologies of desire are tailor-made to create new racial groups on the basis of satisfying individuals’ desires.[28]  Ethnocentrism "is expressed in xenophobic assertions that have at least a tangential relation to the characteristics of real groups or subgroups, especially to those living separately," while ideologies of desire "are expressed in ‘chimerias’, or fantasies that have irrational reference to [allegedly] real, observable, or verifiable characteristics of a group or marks of difference."[29]  Given the relatively rational basis for ethnocentrism and the relatively irrational basis for ideologies of desire, confusing the two undercuts effective understandings of and responses to racism.  Assuming that all prejudices are ethnocentric leads to the mistaken view, held by Dewey, that all prejudice is borne out of unfamiliarity with different groups.  It thus also leads to the naive idea that integration of segregated groups will eliminate any kind of prejudice since increasing familiarity among groups will eliminate fear of and produce respect for the other.  Although it may be helpful in the case of ethnocentric prejudice, this solution does not speak to "complexes of feelings and images of the ‘Other’ that are unconscious, as resistant to familiarity as the unconscious is to reasoned arguments or progressive social visions."[30]  These complexes are indicative of ideologies of desire, which are born out of intimacy and familiarity and thus demand different tactics and strategies for their elimination than ethnocentrism does.

Cynthia Willett’s analyses of racism demonstrate how habits of white privilege can operate by means of ideologies of desire located in the psychological pleasure that white people have taken in humiliating black people.[31]  For example, one might think that the ultimate insult that a slaveholder could heap upon his or her slaves would be to view them solely as non-human brutes.  From that perspective, for the slaveholder to see his or her slaves as a combination of the human and the sub-human would be relatively respectful (although, of course, still insulting and racist).  Or, if not intended to convey respect, recognizing the human side of the slave would at least appear to have the purpose of alleviating the slaveholder’s guilt, rather than that of inflicting additional injury upon the slave. Drawing from a scene in Toni Morrison’s novel Beloved in which a slavewoman overhears her master’s teachings to white pupils about the differences between masters and slaves, however, Willett explains how racial hubris operates precisely by using the division of the African person into human and subhuman parts to produce maximal pleasure for the white slaveholder.  Seeing the slave as part human enabled the slaveholder to assault the slave even more ferociously than if the slave were wholly animal.  If the slave is part human, then using him or her like a brute is humiliating in a way that it could not be if the slave were fully non-human.  The slaveholder in this case thus recognized a part of the slave that deserved dignity and respect only to ensure that the humiliating insult of slavery was felt that much more strongly.[32] 

Because of the importance of unconscious racial fantasies and desires to the maintenance of many white people’s sense of self, racial prejudice tends to have a flexible tenacity that allows it to adjust to increased exposure to non-white others.  But the point needs to be made even more strongly.  It is not just that the roots of racial prejudice are so deep in the unconscious that mere increased familiarity over the passage of time will not be forceful or strong enough to yank them out.  It is also that habits of white privilege can actively operate precisely so as to multiply and strengthen those roots and to thwart any attempts to eliminate them.  Willett does not comment on whether the racial hubris in her example was conscious or unconscious, but in my opinion, there is no reason to hold that such hubristic machinations operate only on the level of conscious deliberation.  Read as an account of the unconscious operations of white racism, Willett’s example not only shows the pleasure that white people have taken in white privilege, but also the active and devious effort that the white unconscious might engage in to produce and protect that pleasure. 

Dewey sees very little, if any, of this.  Admittedly, if read as a historically sensitive description of the white racist psyche, Dewey’s essay on racial prejudice is illuminating.[33]  Nowhere in it, however, does Dewey challenge, or even indicate awareness of the white privileged perspective that operates within it.  He drastically underestimates the obstacles to transformation that one’s unconscious might erect, obstacles that are all the more effective because they are not the product of conscious deliberation.  Habits can take the self-frustrating forms of, for example, repetition compulsion, projection, parapraxis, and other types of symptoms.[34]  Habits, in other words, can often be defense mechanisms by which one protects oneself from perceived dangers and conflicts, the protection often including avoidance of conscious self-examination.  My claim here is not that such habits are the only kind that exists.  It rather is that we today should recognize, as Dewey apparently did not, not only the existence of these kinds of habits but also their potentially great influence on human behavior.  As Vincent Colapietro has remarked, "[a]ny habit that would arrest or, worse, destroy opportunities for cultivating deliberately formed, self-analyzing habits…would have a very important status within the economy of our psychic lives."[35]  In a racist world, habits of racial prejudice have a very important status in the unconscious life of most white people (including the good liberals that most white academics consider themselves to be) that Dewey’s account has not yet begun to reckon with. 

This is not to say, however, that Dewey’s pragmatism is useless for such a project.  Quite the opposite: I find a pragmatist understanding of habit crucial to understanding white privilege, only I think that it must be developed beyond and in different ways than Dewey did.  In particular, it needs development in connection with a psychoanalytic appreciation of fantasy, desire, and pleasure and a psychoanalytic picture of the unconscious as often actively scheming against one’s best efforts at change.  (This would require pragmatizing much of psychoanalysis, but that is a topic for another time.)  Dewey was quite right when he said that terms such as stranger, foreigner, alien, and outsider are more psychological than they are geographical,[36] but he wrongly and dangerously claims that the prejudice often associated with them is universal and necessary.  In the case of racism, Dewey captures only part of the story when he claims that because habit is closest to us, it is the means within our power for change.[37]  Habits of white privilege are both intimately close because they constitute the self, and elusively distant because of their ability to evade and obstruct conscious attention.  They are, in other words, both the means for change and that which can actively interfere with it. Modified in this way, Dewey’s appeal to habit can help us understand how white privilege operates.  Thought as unconscious (not merely subconscious), habit can be a powerful tool for revealing the operations of racial prejudice. 



[1]  Charles Mills, Blackness Visible (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1998) 2.

[2]  Dewey, "Racial Prejudice and Friction," MW 13: 242-254, and Dewey, "Address to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People," LW 6: 224-230.  

[3]  Shannon Sullivan, "(Re)construction Zone: Beware of Falling Statues," in In Dewey’s Wake: Unfinished Work of Pragmatic Reconstruction, ed. William Gavin (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2003) 109-27.

[4]  Dewey, "Racial Prejudice and Friction," 243.

[5]  Dewey, "Racial Prejudice and Friction," 243.

[6]  Dewey, "Racial Prejudice and Friction," 244.

[7]  Dewey, "Racial Prejudice and Friction," 251.

[8]  Dewey, "Racial Prejudice and Friction," 251.

[9]  Dewey, "Racial Prejudice and Friction," 252.

[10]  James quoted in Dewey, The Public and Its Problems, LW 2: 335.  The quote is from James, Principles of Psychology¸ Volume I (New York: Dover, 1918) 121.

[11]  The comments that follow this quote indicate that he does.  See James, Principles of Psychology, 121-22.

[12]  Dewey, Experience and Nature, LW 1:64-65.

[13]  Dewey, Experience and Nature, LW 1:214.

[14]  Vincent Colapietro, "Further Consequences of a Singular Capacity," in Peirce, Semiotics, and Psychoanalysis, eds. John Muller and Joseph Brent (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins UP, 2000), 139.

[15]  Luce Irigaray, This Sex Which Is Not One, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1985) 75.

[16]  Another meaningful inconsistency in Dewey’s remarks on racial prejudice is his very intellectualist sounding claim that "mental preparation" must be secured before increased interaction between different racial groups can be a source of improvement of racial friction.  Until that preparation is secured, immigration into the United States must be restricted ("Racial Prejudice and Friction," 252).  These comments are odd given the analysis Dewey elsewhere provides of the need for increased friction to produce social change by breaking up sedimented habits (see Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 90).

[17]  Dewey, "Racial Prejudice and Friction," 243.

[18] Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference, trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP) 73-81.

[19]  Dewey, "Racial Prejudice and Friction," 246.

[20] Native traditions of hospitality toward strangers would also seem to reveal other options.  Interestingly, however, Dewey specifically dismisses them, claiming that their rites of hospitality spring from dread of, not regard for the other ("Racial Prejudice and Friction," 244). 

[21]  Gregory Pappas has helped me see the insights into whiteness provided by "Racial Prejudice and Friction" if understood as a descriptive account of racism.  I disagree with Pappas, however, that the essay can be read in this way. 

[22]  María C. Lugones, "Playfulness, ‘World’-Traveling, and Loving Perception," Hypatia 2(2): 3-19.

[23]  bell hooks, "Representations of Whiteness in the Black Imagination," in Black on White: Black Writers on What It Means to Be White, ed. David R. Roediger (New York: Schocken Books, 1998) 50.

[24]  Du Bois, "The Souls of White Folk," in Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, 1999) 17. 

[25]  On this point, Du Bois appears closer to Freud than to Dewey.  For more on Du Bois’s bridging of pragmatism and psychoanalysis, see Shannon Sullivan, "Remembering the Gift: Du Bois on the Unconscious and Economic Operations of Racism," Transactions of the C.S. Peirce Society, Spring 2003, 39(2): 205-25.

[26]  Dewey, "Racial Prejudice and Friction," 246.

[27]  Vincent Colapietro, "Further Consequences of a Singular Capacity," and Teresa de Lauretis, "Gender, Body, and Habit Change," in Peirce, Semiotics, and Psychoanalysis, eds. John Muller and Joseph Brent (Baltimore, MD: John Hopkins UP, 2000).

[28]  Elisabeth Young-Bruehl, The Anatomies of Prejudice, (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1996) 167, 185, 562n17. 

[29]  Young-Bruehl, The Anatomies of Prejudice, 77.

[30]  Young-Bruehl, The Anatomies of Prejudice, 96.

[31]  Cynthia Willett, The Soul of Justice: Social Bonds and Racial Hubris (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2001) 20.

[32]  Willett, The Soul of Justice, 20.

[33]  Gregory Pappas has helped me see the insights into whiteness provided by "Racial Prejudice and Friction" if understood as a descriptive account of racism.  I disagree with Pappas, however, that the essay can be read in this way. 

[34]  Colapietro, "Further Consequences," 144; de Lauretis, "Gender, Body, and Habit Change," 172.

[35]  Colapietro, "Further Consequences," 146.

[36]  Dewey, "Racial Prejudice and Friction," 244.

[37]  Dewey, Human Nature and Conduct, 29.