“Dear White America”

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George Yancy

BY HANK REICHMAN

Last year George Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University, conducted a series of 19 interviews with philosophers and public intellectuals on the issue of race, published in the New York Times feature “The Stone,” which seeks to bring the insights of philosophy (as in “the philosopher’s stone”) to bear on issues of public concern. The interviewees — bell hooks, Cornel West, Judith Butler, Peter Singer, David H. Kim, Molefi Kete Asante among them — came from a variety of racial backgrounds, and expressed a variety of concerns and positions. Yancy “came to see these interviews as linked by a common thread: They were messages to white America — because they often directly expressed the experience of those who live and have lived as people of color in a white-run world, and that is something no white person could ever truly know firsthand.”

Therefore, at the conclusion of the process, Yancy offered his own “Dear White America” letter, which said in part:

I have read many of your comments. I have even received some hate mail. In this letter, I ask you to look deep, to look into your souls with silence, to quiet that voice that will speak to you of your white “innocence.” So, as you read this letter, take a deep breath. Make a space for my voice in the deepest part of your psyche. Try to listen, to practice being silent. There are times when you must quiet your own voice to hear from or about those who suffer in ways that you do not. . . .

If you are white, and you are reading this letter, I ask that you don’t run to seek shelter from your own racism. Don’t hide from your responsibility. Rather, begin, right now, to practice being vulnerable. Being neither a “good” white person nor a liberal white person will get you off the proverbial hook. I consider myself to be a decent human being. Yet, I’m sexist. Take another deep breath. I ask that you try to be “un-sutured.” If that term brings to mind a state of pain, open flesh, it is meant to do so. After all, it is painful to let go of your “white innocence,” to use this letter as a mirror, one that refuses to show you what you want to see, one that demands that you look at the lies that you tell yourself so that you don’t feel the weight of responsibility for those who live under the yoke of whiteness, your whiteness. . . .

. . . . This letter is not asking you to feel bad about yourself, to wallow in guilt. That is too easy. I’m asking for you to tarry, to linger, with the ways in which you perpetuate a racist society, the ways in which you are racist. I’m now daring you to face a racist history which, paraphrasing Baldwin, has placed you where you are and that has formed your own racism. . . .

As you reap comfort from being white, we suffer for being black and people of color. But your comfort is linked to our pain and suffering. Just as my comfort in being male is linked to the suffering of women, which makes me sexist, so, too, you are racist. . .

Perhaps the language of this letter will encourage a split — not a split between black and white, but a fissure in your understanding, a space for loving a Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, Sandra Bland, Laquan McDonald and others. I’m suggesting a form of love that enables you to see the role that you play (even despite your anti-racist actions) in a system that continues to value black lives on the cheap. . . .

I first read Yancy’s piece when it appeared last December and, to be honest, was less than impressed.  It’s not so much that I disagreed with him — I certainly believe that institutionalized white racism is real and colors the actions and attitudes of individual white Americans despite their personal intentions — but I was put off by the letter’s tone, which seemed sanctimonious; by its lack of specificity and concrete suggestions; and most importantly by its subtle implication that racism is an individual rather than a societal problem.

That said, however, my attitude changed when today I read a statement by 68 scholars who have contributed to “The Stone” decrying Yancy’s subsequent experience.  For it turns out that, according to the statement,

Yancy’s column resulted in a storm of hate mail and calls directed his way. The emails he received included violent threats, such as “Someone needs to put a boot up your ass and knock your fucking head off your shoulders,” and included threats to his family. These messages were filled with racial invective and meant to frighten and intimidate him into silence.

This is more than shocking; it is disgusting and implicitly a highly dangerous threat to academic freedom and freedom of expression more generally.  Whether or not one found Yancy’s own remarks or even his broader project of bringing the insights of philosophers to bear on “the race question” agreeable or not, one cannot deny not only his right publicly to engage this issue but, equally important, the intrinsic value of his effort.  As the statement by the 68 scholars points out,

In the media, scientific experts are regularly brought to bear on public debate. But scientific experts do not play the role of philosophers; the role of scientific expertise is often to put an end to debate, rather than incite it. Since its inception, “The Stone” has not shied away from fundamental moral and political controversy. Its participants do not pretend to be experts who resolve questions once and for all, but rather to incite debate and challenge. By bringing philosophers into public engagement, “The Stone” attempts to add something novel to American media engagement with events.

They conclude,

We hold that, whatever side one takes on this or other debates, free philosophical discussions on matters of profound social and political importance are a central function of “The Stone.” We authors of “The Stone” believe that discussions of the sort we have in its pages are a vital component of a healthy democracy. We stand together in support of our colleague George Yancy and strongly repudiate these attempts to silence him.

Bravo!  And not only in “The Stone.”  We need more frank discussion by knowledgeable and thoughtful individuals on all sides of any meaningful debate.  So add my name to the distinguished list of signatories to this letter.

 

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