Is white America ready to confront its racism? Philosopher George Yancy says we need a ‘crisis’
George Yancy’s new book, Backlash, grew out of “Dear White America”, a piece on the pervasiveness of white racism that he wrote for the New York Times’ philosophy column, The Stone. After the piece was published on Christmas Eve 2015, Yancy received an extraordinary number of responses from white readers, many of which were aggressively defensive and included racist epithets and threats of physical violence. Backlash extends the argument made in “Dear White America”, and turns personal and philosophic lenses on the vile responses it received.
What was the message of “Dear White America”, and why do you think it proved so provocative?
“Dear White America” was a letter of love. And by letter of love I mean that it was a letter that was an invitation for white people to engage honestly with their racism, to be vulnerable and to let go of their “white innocence”.
After conducting 19 interviews with philosophers and public intellectuals at The Stone, I decided to write a letter that was direct and candid. I tried to create a mutually vulnerable space where white people could reveal the ways in which they harbor racist assumptions, emotions and embodied habits.I also invited white people to explore the ways in which they are complicit with white systemic and institutional power and privilege. It doesn’t follow from this that all white people are members of the KKK or that white people are born racists. That would be ridiculous. Yet, that is what many white people assumed that I meant.
I think that the anger resulted from a defensive posture, one that is linked to a failure of nerve and honesty that is needed for white people to confront courageously the truth about how racism is insidious and constitutes the DNA of white America. Fear can breed anger, but I wanted a courageous white America, one prepared to remove the masks of self-deception, to love in return.
What sorts of response did you get to the piece?
The majority of the white responses were vile, despicable and unconscionable. I was told to commit suicide immediately. I was told to go back to Africa, called a “monkey”, “boy”, “hoodrat”, “pavement ape”, and referred to as excrement. One white person fantasized about using a meat hook on me and another white person said that I ought to be beheaded “ISIS style”. Of course, I was also called by that most horrible, dehumanizing and insulting of words, “nigger”. I couldn’t even keep count of the number of times the N-word was used.
White racism dripped from their lips. The responses pulled from old white racist imagery that depicted black people as bestial and animalistic. What became clear to me are the deep ways in which that discourse, those assumptions and imagery are still quite palpable within the white American psyche.
So much of white America is unprepared and unwilling to have a courageous conversation about racism. They would rather avoid the conversation, blame me, call me a “race baiter”. Some even said that I wrote “Dear White America” to sexually seduce white women. What does that say about the problematic and racist myth and fear of the so-called black male rapist?
Given the racist insults, one might argue that the point that I was trying to make was, in many ways, confirmed. I did receive a few very powerful and beautiful responses from white readers who said to me that they accepted the gift that I offered and that they would critically and honestly engage their racism even as they knew that the challenge was real and requires serious work. But after so many insults, I have come to have profoundly less hope in white America.