George Yancy Gives Talk About Race and Racism

by / George Yancy (0) in Features /

George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University and author of many books and articles including “Dear White America,” spoke last Thursday about his work on tackling race in the U.S. Yancy addressed difficult issues head, which he acknowledged at the beginning of his talk.

“I don’t plan to do the trigger warning thing, but I do want to say that, in America … I think we are cowards, as was said by Attorney Eric Holder, when it comes to issues of race, whiteness and racism,” Yancy said. “I engage in what’s called parrhesia, courageous speech or fearless speech. So some of the stuff I’ll say is rather frank and candid. I didn’t come here to bullsh*t you guys.”

Yancy argued that parrhesia is a key element of discussing race. “Parrhesia or fearless or courageous speech is so important when discussing issues regarding race and racism. But along with fearless speech, we need fearless or courageous listening, which I see as an openness to having one’s assumptions shattered, one’s self fissured, to have one’s ethical certainty called into question. To have one’s self touched to the point of vertigo and perhaps even crisis.”

During his planned remarks, Yancy discussed “Dear White America,” the controversial letter he published in the New York Times in 2015, which can still be found online. “For that piece I received tons and tons of hate mail, really vitriolic white supremacist responses in my university inbox, voicemail, even snail mail,” he said. “As some of you might also know, police presence was also necessary at many of my public talks. I was also told that the FBI got involved.”

In dealing with the fallout from that, Yancy talked to his white colleagues at Emory who had incited similar controversy for their work, which he said made him feel less alone. “But what became clear to me is that none of my white colleagues had experienced racialized trauma,” he said. “The objective here is not to judge who suffered more, me or my white colleagues, rather it is important to recognize specifically the white racist hatred that I encountered–how my black body was assaulted. The white bodies of my white colleagues were threatened but not in virtue of their being white.”

At the core of Yancy’s work is the assertion that to be white in America is to be inherently racist, just as he says to be a man is to be inherently sexist. Yancy says this idea gets a lot of pushback from his white students. “[My white students] are certain that they are not racists. They are, in short, at peace with who they are … As the so-called good whites my students believe that they are beyond the muck and mire of contemporary forms of white racism and white privilege and white power and white complicity,” Yancy said. “Yet I would argue they are at peace within the context of actually perpetuating racism.”

Associate Professor of Philosophy John Spackman, who organized Yancy’s talk with the goal of bringing a new voice to the table in our ongoing discussion about race, said that this part of Yancy’s philosophy strikes him most. “This just seems like common sense to me – we all absorb attitudes from our culture without realizing it, and I believe it’s an unending moral obligation to examine these unconscious attitudes in ourselves that harm other people,” Spackman said. “I was also struck by the idea that we just don’t know each other very well – that it’s very hard for white people to understand the lived experience of those of other colors, so it’s very important to try to bridge those gaps.”

Spackman said he planned Yancy’s talk long before it was announced that Charles Murray was invited to speak on campus, but the events that occurred surrounding Murray’s address came up several times during Yancy’s speech. Yancy challenged white students on campus to continue to stand against acts of racism. “On Thursday a lot of you guys turned your backs to my dear friend Murray. But I don’t see anybody turning their backs to the racism that exists on this campus at the moment, given that there are so many white people on campus,” he said. “So I’m saying find a way to turn your back figuratively, if not literally, turn your back and make a difference at this college in terms of its whiteness. In terms of the insidious ways that white racism operates.”

Yancy also challenged white students to constantly consider the implications of their whiteness. “What does whiteness mean within this context at this college when Charles Murray isn’t here?” he asked. “For the most part, white people are not in crisis visa vis their whiteness. They are under constant therapeutic reprieve, assured that there is nothing problematic about whiteness, about their white selves.”

Through the Murray discussion Yancy gave an example that highlighted the often-contradictory nature of white privilege. “If my claim is that to be white is to be racist, then what you have were racist whites calling Charles Murray racist. What do we do with that? How do we make sense of that?” Yancy said. “And there are interesting ways in which white racism operates. It doesn’t have to function in the form of The Bell Curve or calling someone by the n-word. It can just function by walking across campus and feeling at ease. You see what I’m saying? That’s what’s so mundane about racism. It’s easy to say ‘How in the hell is that racism Yancy? I’m walking!’ Well that’s just it. You’re a white body walking.”

Yancy also told white students that their inherent racism does not make them evil, and that white people can be racist and still work to fight their own racism. “At the end of the day I argue that the best that I can give white people is that you can become anti-racist racists. So there’s the anti-racist component and there’s the racism that resides,” he said. “It seems to me that the obligation is on white people to fall apart. It’s on white people to recognize their own racism.”

Yancy also believes the school should facilitate those opportunities for white students and faculty. “I think what the college has to do is to create spaces in which white people fall apart,” he said. “When I say fall apart I really mean that. What does it look like? I don’t always know what it looks like because I haven’t seen it yet.”

Spackman agreed with Yancy. “I think this is a really important idea. If we could create spaces in which it’s okay for white people to examine their own racist attitudes, which will feel like falling apart sometimes that would be a huge step forward,” he said. To that end, Spackman also said that Professor Jonathan Miller-Lane is planning a faculty workshop to address whiteness and pedagogy. He said the goal is to “provide faculty with an opportunity to reflect on the meaning of whiteness, and how it might shape their teaching at Middlebury.”

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