Levinas in the Hood: Portable Social Justice

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In his philosophy, Levinas demonstrated that it is precisely our obligation to the Other that liberates the subject from his or her own self-belonging, or operative intentionality. As a clinician working with African American adolescents in foster care, I have found that that ethics is not only the first philosophy, but that seeing the face of the Other becomes a daily imperative for survival and not a philosophical abstraction. Race, ethnicity, social class, education, age, and language are just some of the ways that the assessor or therapist often differs from their clients and their families leading to profound cultural mistrust and where Levinas (1961/1969) would say one is reduced into totality. The focus of this article is on what happens when totality breaks into pieces within the cross-cultural context and the glean of exteriority, or of transcendence, happens in the face of the Other. What happens when the world undoes itself in an instant and we are not who we think we are? What happens when the face emerges as a primordial signifier? These questions are explored through the case of a 17-year-old African American girl who was referred for a psychological evaluation. The relationship between the assessor and client is highlighted to demonstrate the movement from totality toward infinity within the cross-cultural context.

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