Unsettling Encounters: On the Ontological Significance of Habitual Racism

Puncta 5 (4):128-143 (2022)
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The richness of the term “unsettling” has made it readily employable for phenomenological accounts of racism in philosophy of race literature; yet, the term has been left largely under-theorized. Here, I argue that unsettling encounters can be said to occur when the unfamiliar other has come into contact with the boundary of one’s existential home. For many white people, interracial interactions produce an (often unwarranted) feeling of physical danger, but as I hope to show, this habitual (mis)perception of such encounters is not merely a conditioned response; it also functions to subvert situations that might unsettle white identifies partially constituted by phenomenological demarcations of space along racial lines. Drawing on empirical literature and recent developments in critical phenomenology, I suggest that by exercising habitual, racist gestures and perceptions, white people (mis)perceive ontological threats to their worldview—e.g., a bookish Black student or a masculine gay man—as ontically threatening so as to avoid the kind of work and existential anguish that altering one’s normative expectations would require.

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Tyler Loveless
George Washington University

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