The philosopher Emmanuel Levinas was at the forefront of the promotion of the idea of vulnerability in philosophy. For Levinas, my primary vulnerability concerns not my pain, but my pain at the other’s pain. Vulnerablity also has an ambiguous character in so far as it is not easily separated from my self-absorption in enjoyment. In this paper I show how Levinas’s account can illuminate the way that the idea of vulnerability sometimes operates within racist societies to maintain existing divisions. In particular I focus on the Carnegie Commission’s 1932 study The Poor White Problem in South Africa where concern for the vulnerability of poor whites concealed a tendency to naturalize the vulnerability of South African Blacks.
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