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‘Backlash’

Philosopher discusses his new book about how Americans respond to frank discussions of racism -- and about harassment he received for an essay in The New York Times.

April 24, 2018
 
Cover of "Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America" by George Yancy

Dear White America” was the headline on a column George Yancy wrote in 2015 for The New York Times. The essay argued that white Americans, even those who are well intentioned, benefit from racism and are racist in ways that they may not understand. (Yancy also wrote that, as a man, he is sexist and benefits from sexism even if that's not his intent.) After the column ran, Yancy, who is African-American, received a barrage of hate mail, full of racist slurs and threats.

That experience is the jumping-off point for Yancy's Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America (Rowman & Littlefield). Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University, responded via email to questions about the book.

Q: How bad were the attacks you received after your piece in the Times was published? How fearful were you for your safety?

A: The attacks were horrible, despicable and vile. It wasn’t enough that many white readers completely distorted the message of “Dear White America,” which was one of love and vulnerability; they also pulled from an ugly history of white racist epithets and white racist imagery. I was called a “hoodrat” and a “pavement ape,” which pulled from the ways in which black people have been denigrated as subhuman animals. I was also called a “nigger” more times than I can recall. So, they pulled from that ugliest of racist terms.

One white reader said that his only regret was that he didn’t call me the N-word to my face and then beat me until I was half dead. Other white readers also fantasized about “beheading me ISIS style,” of putting a meat hook in my body, of knocking my head off my shoulders, of leaving me on a cold slab and shutting my mouth permanently. Others expressed that I should go back to Africa.

I was very fearful. White racism, after all, is a form of fanaticism. Things got so bad that it was necessary for me to be escorted by campus police to my classes to teach. I also had to have police presence during the times that I traveled to give public talks at other universities. Part of my fear now is informed by the fact that white racism has become so unabashedly threatening due to the moral equivocation regarding racism that plays out from the highest office in this nation, which indicates a form of moral forfeiture and moral ineptness.

Q: Were you surprised by the depth of the backlash?

A: Yes, I was. I knew that there would be white people who would disagree with “Dear White America” and those few, or so I thought, who might express anger. What I didn’t expect was the pervasiveness of the negative responses and the fact that the anger took the form of hatred directed at me. It was as if I was guilty of some ethically atrocious deed committed against white people. Then it occurred to me: the reality was that so many white people began to feel hatred toward me and threaten acts of violence against me because they were asked to examine their own white racism. They exclusively reserved that term for, let’s say, the KKK.

So, for many white people, they can’t be said to be racist because they don’t hold outward and explicit racist beliefs against black people or people of color. Yet “Dear White America” was designed to disrupt any clear demarcation between “good whites” and “bad whites,” where that distinction obfuscates the various ways in which white people, pure and simple, have internalized white racist ideas, emotions, images and the ways in which they are embedded within a white systemic racist structure and are thereby complicit in the process of perpetuating racialized injustice. So, the hatred seems to have been projected onto me because I had put my finger on the pulse of their denied racism.

Q: Inside Higher Ed has reported on a number of scholars who have been attacked in similar ways -- many of them black professors who write about white racism/white privilege, etc. Why has writing about white racism become so controversial?

A: Not all writing, of course, about racism is controversial, especially where the view is that racism has become a fringe phenomenon, or something committed by a few “extremist” white people on the margins. For those of us, however, who reject the illusion, really the lie, of a “postracial” America, and who are unafraid to tell the truth about the everyday microracism and macroracism that black people and people of color continue to experience, we are subjected to backlash, threats and reprimand.

Here is the problem: many white people believe that they are “innocent” of racist crimes against black people and people of color. They see themselves as neoliberal subjects, socially detached and isolated. Yet that self-conception is part of how white privilege operates. Whiteness provides a false narrative of meritocracy and individualism, which distorts profound forms of social connectedness. Many white people, I think, believe that after the civil rights movement ended, the problem of systemic racism and its insidious manifestation also ended. But this is so untrue. So, when some of us hold up a disagreeable mirror to the face of white America, there is deep defensiveness, denial and failure to take responsibility for the continued existence of white racism. After all, there is comfort in narratives that lie.

Q: Would you change anything about your original essay in light of the backlash? Are there ways scholars can reach those who seem to ignore your points?

A: I don’t think so, though I wish that I had not undergone so much white racist vitriol. It came daily. In fact, the horrible experiences, in many ways, made it clearer to me just how white racism is alive and apparently ineradicable in terms of being in the social DNA of America.

Regarding your other question, I’m not very optimistic at all. Many white people would rather live with a lie than to admit the ways in which their implicit racist biases impact black people and people of color or the ways in which they continue to benefit from white privilege relative to the disadvantages of black people and people of color. In fact, white privilege is parasitic upon the disadvantages of black people and people of color.

I understand that there are poor white people in America, but they are still white. I want white people to understand how being poor and black expands and complicates forms of racialized suffering. There will be some white people who will prefer to go to their graves than to admit to their racism. And then there are other white people who seem to get it, who are prepared to undergo processes of loss, of learning how to become an ethically different human being. I think that we need to create small risk-taking spaces where scholars like myself can engage with white people who are ready to listen and who are willing to augment their capacities to listen and to tell the truth about their racism and to share it with others, as bell hooks might say. In this way, white people can do the lion’s share of teaching other white people about racism. After all, racism is a white problem.

Q: What should colleges and universities do to protect the academic freedom of scholars who speak out as you did?

A: My university was very supportive of my academic freedom and concerned for my safety. Colleges and universities must become spaces where students risk their dogmatism, risk being touched and transformed by ideas that encourage freedom, mutual respect and profound forms of love, where that love, as James Baldwin says, takes off the masks that we are afraid that we cannot live without and know we can’t live with. Colleges and universities must be encouraged to engage in critical dialogue, mutual passion or shared suffering, and recognition and respect of our differences.

We need a profound form of Bildung, of cultivating generative affective modes of being and practice. It is not about universities and colleges adopting a left political ethos. No. It is about our institutions of higher learning creating spaces where students engage each other through the love of ideas, the love of learning and the love of each other. I know that this sounds impossible, but we must insist upon the impossible in a world that is on the brink of utter moral, ecological and possibly nuclear catastrophe.

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