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Race Relations And The Philosophy Of Whiteness Are Important Subjects for Doctor George Yancy

Feb 20, 2017

Doctor George Yancy Speaking On The OU Campus In October 2016
Credit OU WOMEN & GENDER STUDIES PROGRAM

Dr. George Yancy is Professor of Philosophy at Emory University. His work focuses primarily in the areas of critical philosophy of race, critical whiteness studies, and philosophy of the black experience.

“It's only recently been because of the work of African-American philosophers and more generally Africana philosophers who've actually introduced the concept of race as a concept to be critically wrestled with versus a concept that's used as a kind of racial science to describe certain bodies as inferior,” Yancy says. “Philosophy as practiced in the west…has not been critical of that concept.”

He's authored, edited, or co-edited over 18 books including, Look A White: Philosophical Essays on Whiteness. The second edition of his book Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race in America was released in 2016. In that work, Dr. Yancy explores what he calls “The Elevator Effect.” 

Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race by Doctor George Yancy

“The elevator functions as a microcosm of a larger macro cosmic structure of white relationships vis-a-vis black bodies,” Yancy says. “So my idea was that, look if I'm black and I'm on that elevator there's a way in which if her body is there first because whiteness is the norm and I refer to that as whiteness is the transcendental norm.”

He's the editor of The Philosophy of Race book series at Lexington Books and is known for his influential interviews and an article on the subject of race in The New York Times column, The Stone.

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Interview Highlights

On Ideas For Overcoming Racism Today

I think that part of the problem is that white people and black people don't know each other. There are some stats that suggest that less than ten percent of whites have black friends. Right. Other stats, just whether you're rich or poor and you happen to be white, you live in communities that are over 80 percent white. Right. So there are ways in which, despite the fact that we've moved beyond legal segregation, we still live in a context of de facto segregation. Just as a matter of fact. So part of the process that has to happen…is that it has to be a more radical civil rights movement whereby we create what I call a radical social ontology. Now that's just a fancy way of saying that we need black people, white people and people of color, to rethink what it means to be together.

On How Whiteness Became “Normal”

So if you think about whiteness as a hierarchy and if we think about race itself, we have to remember that the concept of race itself came out of Europe. Right? So it was Europeans who invented the concept of race for purposes of categorizing, for measuring. But it wasn't just scientifically objective. It was also normative. So it was value laden. So when anthropology develops out of Europe, it's not that the notion of the anthropos, which is the human, that's not unraced. It's whiteness as a sight of the human. So when we refer to white, whiteness we're really referring to the human. So whiteness becomes equivalent to human. Whiteness becomes equivalent to American. So to be non-white is to be un-American, if you will, is to be marked as raced, is to be marked as different and deviant.

On The Future Of Race Relations In The United States

The thing is there is nothing in America that makes me optimistic. If to be optimistic is to extrapolate from past instances that are positive, then I'm not optimistic. And especially in terms of recent events, right? In terms of the killing of unarmed black men, and the brutalization of black bodies, and the dehumanization of black bodies. But for those whites who are willing to engage in fearless listening, I would say that it's important that they involve themselves in critical communities where critical dialogue is happening where they will become more aware, more cognizant of the ways in which they're complicit with the system that they themselves have denied or have failed to recognize. So, I think that what it requires then is building a critical community of individuals across race who are prepared to risk something, in fact to lose something.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

MERLEYN BELL, HOST: I want to start with a question about philosophy in general, as you're a philosopher. I wonder what you think philosophy can do to help facilitate conversations, and in particular, deep conversations about race.

GEORGE YANCY: Sure. That's a good question, one, because partly the field of philosophy has not really taken race to be a central theme. Right? So it's only recently been because of the work of African-American philosophers and more generally Africana philosophers who've actually introduced the concept of race as a concept to be critically wrestled with versus a concept that's used as a kind of racial science to describe certain bodies as inferior. But in terms of thinking about race critically, philosophy as practiced in the west, so we're talking about the history of Western philosophy, has not been critical of that concept. So philosophy is the love of wisdom coming from the Greek "philosophia," the love of wisdom, is an attempt to use reason, criticality, insight, the critical relationship between history and culture and language, and questions of embodiment... Philosophy brings all of that to bear rather, not simply on the question of God's existence or what is the meaning of life, but to bring those tools to bear on the question of what it means to be one, radiated in the world, and also the concept of race.

BELL: So your work focuses on the many different facets of the philosophy of race. And one of those facets that you wrote about in your book Black Bodies, White Gazes, is the black experience and also provides a critique on whiteness. So I want to talk about the chapter that you start out with in the book which sort of encapsulates this in a way that I found really interesting. So that first chapter is called "The Elevator Effect." And in it you present an encounter between a white woman and a black man on an elevator. So I wondered if you can detail the scenario and then explain to us what the elevator effect is.

YANCY: Sure. The actual notion of the elevator effect came after I had given a talk at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford. After I gave the talk about being on an elevator with a white woman, the president of that branch campus was asked by his students, "Have you ever experienced that kind of thing on an elevator with a white woman?" He said, "Yes, I've had the elevator effect," right? So that's kind of where that title comes out, comes out of that particular experience. But what makes it quite rich I think is that we think about elevators as very tight spaces because they are. But we generally think about them as relatively benign. Nothing is going on that is necessarily violent, right? In some way. So my idea was then to take a certain kind of experience being on an elevator with a white woman and to reflect on how that dyadic relationship is a replication of the larger social structure in the United States. So if you will, the elevator functions as a microcosm of a larger macro cosmic structure of white relationships vis-a-vis black bodies. So my idea was that, look if I'm black and I'm on that elevator there's a way in which if her body is there first because whiteness is the norm and I refer to that as whiteness is the transcendental norm. If it's that, then blackness or non whiteness is always defined in relationship to that norm. So to be black is to be marked, is to be raced, is to be nominated in some sense. But to be white is to be ex-nominated, to be the norm. So if you've heard of BET, Black Entertainment Television, but we don't generally hear about WET, which is White Entertainment Television. So there is a way in which whiteness does not define itself as race but sees itself self as absent of racialization. So really my idea was to think through the kind of violence that happens on that elevator in relationship to this white woman who brings a lot of the history of white supremacy to bear on my black body.

BELL: So white is not only the norm, white is the supreme in the racial structure?

YANCY: Yes. So if you think about whiteness as a hierarchy and if we think about race itself, we have to remember that the concept of race itself came out of Europe. Right? So it was Europeans who invented the concept of race for purposes of categorizing, for measuring. But it wasn't just scientifically objective. It was also normative. So it was value laden. So when anthropology develops out of Europe, it's not that the notion of the anthropos, which is the human, that's not unraced. It's whiteness as a sight of the human. So when we refer to white, whiteness we're really referring to the human. So whiteness becomes equivalent to human. Whiteness becomes equivalent to American. So to be non-white is to be un-American, if you will, is to be marked as raced, is to be marked as different and deviant. So I'm arguing that the white woman on the elevator brings that normativity to that space even if she never speaks a word, her whiteness signifies normality, whereas my black body signifies that which is abnormal. That which is criminal. That which is considered ersatz. That which is considered hypersexual. So I argue, I do what's called a phenomenological analysis, which is just a fancy way of saying, how is it that certain kinds of experiences present themselves to our consciousness. So there I do a phenomenological analysis of what it means for me to be black on that elevator and to encounter acts of violence through her white gaze. The way in which she tugs on her purse. So even though I wear a suit and tie, why does she pug tug on her purse, right? And you experience this, well I've experienced it when walking down the street. White people will move on the other side of the street. Why is that? Or when I'm in a store. I walk into the store a white person walks in at the same time. I get followed and that person doesn't get followed. So here's a way in which the white body has a certain kind of privilege. It is already granted a certain kind of innocence, a certain kind of ethicality, a certain site of the moral, whereas I occupy the site of the unethical or as the criminal.

BELL: So you've talked about the response that the white woman in the scenario would have to you, which is that sense of she's having this negative experience... As part of the elevator effect that you talk about, if I'm understanding it correctly, is that there's also a lasting effect on the black man in the scenario. Can we talk about that effect?

YANCY: Sure, we can. I mean, I argue in the piece that she doesn't have to call me by a racial epithet. Right. She doesn't have to call me by the N word. She doesn't even have to scream rape. She doesn't have to articulate anything, quite frankly. But what has to happen is that there has to be some kind of embodied performance. Right. So that even when she tugs on her purse, and I argue that many whites do this unconsciously, when she tugs, it signifies something about my body which I don't accept. So the tugging signifies that I'm about to rob her. I am a thief. So by tugging it creates a position for me that is a false position. And what happens in this kind of case is that the black body undergoes a tremendous amount of trauma. So there are ways in which the black body is wounded in these everyday encounters that seem to be relatively benign. But I want to argue that there are malignant encounters, right? So even though, let's say it wasn't an Eric Garner encounter or Trayvon Martin encounter, there is still a kind of death that happens in that elevator. I call it a certain kind of soul killing. Right. A kind of soul death where the very identity that I have of myself is a person who went to Yale, who's authored, edited, co-edited over eighteen books, educated, et cetera, et cetera. Somehow through her white gaze, which I've written a lot about, it truncates. Fancy way that philosophers might put it that my body is ontologically truncated meaning the being of my body is reduced to something that it isn't. So I wanted to show that to make whites aware of the levels and the depths of white racism and how it exists in their bodies in ways that they don't understand themselves, which of course it's a threat to white people because they want to think that they can understand the very limits of their own racism. Whereas, I want to argue that people of color have what W.B. Dubois called The Gift of Double Consciousness. We're able to see whites in ways that they can't see themselves.

BELL: So what would you say to someone who hears this example about the elevator and thinks, "Well, I would never do that because I'm not racist or I would never do that because I don't see color."

YANCY: Sure. I would say that one: we're not beyond race. We don't live in this illusory world of a post-racial America. That's just an empty rhetoric. I would argue that, and this became very controversial particularly in my letter to the New York Times called "Dear White America," I argue that to be white in America is to be racist. Now that of course sets up a context for a lot of defensiveness. And what I'm not saying about white people, and so a white person who says this to me, I'm not saying that you're a neo nazi. I'm not saying that you're part of the Klan, but what I'm saying is that to be in a white supremacist environment, what I call the racial mannequin divide, which just means that the world is divided up into these two binaries, black and white. It is inescapable that whiteness will impact your psyche. That it's impossible that whiteness will not impact your psyche or will not impact your level, your very being, and your embodiment. Right. So I would say that that individual doesn't understand his or her own whiteness as a side of racism. Right. So those who say that we don't see color, and I've had students do this by the way, who've said things like, "If I saw a black man in a suit and tie as opposed to a white man who's wearing" and they'll say, "really bummy clothes," "I would go in the direction of the black man." But notice what they're saying that the black man has to be dressed in order for them to walk in that direction versus the white body that has to look bummy. Right. So there are ways in which the black body has to be dressed up in order for it to make a difference. But my argument is that the black body through the history of white supremacy has always been defined, has always been calcified as that which it is not, is that which is demonic. One historian referred to the black body as the sort of the child of Satan. Right. So there's a way in which blackness is a trope of evil. Blackness is a trope of the unethical. Black is a trope of doom and death and dying, whereas whiteness is purity. Whiteness is snow. It's wonderful. It's angelic. It's godlike. Right. So I'd argue that all of those things are operating in America in ways that are not necessarily conscious but profoundly unconscious, which is what of course the implicit bias test has shown. That people hold views that are pro-white even when you ask them, "Do you prefer whites over blacks?" They may give you the very opposite but yet when they take the exam it turns out that they have these proclivities toward being pro-white.

BELL: So how do we or is there a way to shift that perception in society? You know, I feel like you're saying that we're very impacted whether we realize it or not by the white gaze. How do we shift our conscious and subconscious view of that? Or is there a way to do that?

YANCY: I think that part of the problem is that white people and black people don't know each other. There are some stats that suggest that less than ten percent of whites have black friends. Right. Other stats, just whether you're rich or poor and you happen to be white, you live in communities that are over 80 percent white. Right. So there are ways in which, despite the fact that we've moved beyond legal segregation, we still live in a context of de facto segregation. Just as a matter of fact. So part of the process that has to happen, I argue without giving the full argument here, is that it has to be a more radical civil rights movement whereby we create what I call a radical social ontology. Now that's just a fancy way of saying that we need black people, white people and people of color, to rethink what it means to be together. If you look at the term neighbor it means to dwell near. So we don't dwell near each other. So I'm arguing that what we have to do first of all is to find ourselves in spaces where we're together. And then to begin to disrupt those spaces so that white people will begin to feel a sense of homelessness. I wish I had more time to talk about that but there's ways in which white people let's say at this university, it's predominantly white. There are ways in which they walk around campus, take courses, where they feel at home. There's ways in which for me, for example working in teaching at a predominately white university, I feel not at home. I feel ill at ease. I don't feel comfortable. So what we need to do then is to make white people more aware of the kinds of responses that they enact in the presence of black people and people of color. And also to say to them, "Grapple with as honestly as you can the ways in which you have," I use the language, "sutured your identity." And by sutured I mean sewed up. So I'm arguing that there has to be an opening by which white people become vulnerable so they will be able to hear the voices of black people and people of color.

BELL: Ok and speaking of that hearing, I was watching a lecture that you gave at Ilan University in April of 2016, I think, where you suggested that along with people being out and in the forefront and exhibiting courageous speech, that we also need to embrace "fearless or courageous listening." How do we listen fearlessly and courageously and what can be gained from that exercise?

YANCY: So parisa of fearless speech is so important, or courageous speech. But on the other hand if you just have fearless speech without fearless listening, nothing's really happening. There's no uptake. Right. And so I'm suggesting because whites often see themselves as neo liberal subjects by which I mean they see themselves as not part of a system. They see themselves as not being complicit with a larger social structure. In fact, white people have the privilege to see themselves as individuals, whereas black people and people of color are often seen as massive, as together, so that any black body represents all black bodies. Right. But white people have this privilege of seeing themselves as individuals. So I'm arguing that white people need to begin to reconstruct and rethink the ways in which they are not autonomous subjects, but always already embedded in structures of power so that it requires them to realize that they're part of these structures while they didn't create, they're still responsible for. And so what I find is that, what I do is I tend to model what I'm talking about when I talk about fearless speech and fearless listening. So I will often talk about my own sexism, which of course is something men typically don't do. Right. Let alone a philosopher. Right. So it's often a bit like, "Oh my goodness is he really going there?" Of course I am because I'm providing a model for how I would like white people to talk honestly about their own racism. Hence, I will talk about my sexism. But to do that I also have to be open to the ways in which, even though I don't intend to oppress women, I have to hear from women how they're being oppressed by me. So part of that process is attaching, I'm not even attaching, but a recognition of the humanity of women. Saying that they have a voice and they have experiences. So I want white people to realize that look, we're human. I mean Cornel West says that being black and being human is a relatively recent discovery in America. Right. I'm suggesting that what is to be gained from fearless listening is a more robust sense of what it means to be human. So I'm asking white people then, if you're going to strive for being more human, you have to strive for recognizing black bodies and that they matter, their lives matter and that their testimonies are important to how you live your life because by hearing them, you get to see yourself in them. We are a mirror, as it were, to white people. Just as in some sense women are a mirror to men. They show us what we do wrong. So it's very important for us to be able to listen as men and is therefore very important for white people to be able to listen. In other words, to engage in fearless listening.

BELL: George, you already let in just before the break in to some questions I wanted to ask you about your essay "Dear White America." And one of the things we were just talking about is how you used sexism as a way to relate to racism, to sort of structure your argument in the essay. What was your goal overall in writing the piece?

YANCY: Sure. Well the origin of the piece came out of a context where I was doing a series of interviews of philosophers on race. So I interviewed people like Bell Hooks, Cornell West, Judith Butler, Peter Singer, Anthony Apia and even Noam Chomsky. It's a series of well-known public intellectuals. And the idea was after I interviewed them, I was to write a piece of my own and I thought that what was lacking in some of the pieces was a certain kind of honesty. I mean honesty was there, but I guess I wanted my voice to come out at a certain level of honesty. After all, I was the interviewer, right? And I wanted to say more. So I thought, "What can I write?" And I thought, "Why not a letter? Why not a missive and let's call it 'Dear White America.'" The idea of "Dear White America" was a way of disarming white people. It was to say look Dear White America right. I was trying to strike a tone, a certain kind of niceness, a certain kind of affect that they could appreciate. The idea was again to model for white people to say look the critique that I'm giving of whiteness is not from someone who doesn't understand his own problems, his own identity crisis as a sexist. So the idea was that if I were to say it, if I were to preface this letter with that, perhaps it would help whites to open up and to be more vulnerable, if I were to model that vulnerability. The controversial claim in that piece was to argue that to be white in America is to be a racist. That was very controversial. But I said it in such a way that I argued that I offer a gift to white America. I call it a gift. And what's interesting is that it came out on Christmas morning. Right. Which made it all the more quite interesting and ironic. But throughout the piece, I argue that I want this letter to function as a form of love. Right. And it sounds counterintuitive to say that but I was using James Baldwins concept of love where he says, "Love is removing masks from our faces that we think we cannot live without. That we're afraid to live without and yet know that we can't live with." So that piece was designed to encourage whites to de-mask themselves, to take off the veneer of a certain kind of deception and come to terms with their own racism, even if it isn't blatant but to at least recognize that to be a part of white America is to have internalized white racism. So the piece was published roughly a day after, two days after it came out, the mail happened. Right. I began to get e-mail messages. I got voice messages. White people even wrote letters. Sealed them. Put stamps on them. The FBI got involved in my classrooms. I had to have police presence. White supremacist websites got a hold of it and from there it just went, it was just off the charts in terms of what I had anticipated. I knew that there would be some push back. I knew that there will be some resistance but I didn't realize... One, there were over 2000 comments on that piece. I don't think I've ever seen 2000 comments to a single piece in The Stone: New York Times. And then there was just the influx of mail and then I was asked to do like Fox News. I was asked for, you know, at other, you know, in terms of other social media outlets to come in and talk about this piece. The APA, the American Philosophical Association, came out in my support which was historic. They wrote a piece naming me as the catalyst for anti-bullying. I got an award for the piece, which I wasn't looking forward to but that's good. It's one of these awards for doing public philosophy. But what I didn't anticipate was the trauma. My wife would tell me, "Don't read the e-mail messages. Don't listen to them." But I had to. What I didn't think although the history is there is what is to be anticipated if one speaks with fearless speech. What's going to happen? And that was sort of what I encountered which was so traumatic.

BELL: But what do you think it was about that piece in particular that led people to that reaction or those types of reactions?

YANCY: I think honestly it was defensiveness. I think it was the lack of what we just talked about: the lack of the ability to fearlessly listen. So I think there was a defensive reaction on the part of whites to see themselves as somehow good and ethical individuals. And I wasn't calling that into question. I argue that it's possible to be ethical and yet to be racist. Right. And it's possibly racist but not in the sense that you spew racist comments. But to the extent that you're part of a system that privileges you. Because you have white privilege, that makes you part of the perpetuation of white supremacy and therefore makes you a racist. And so to for me, if I'm part of a system of male supremacy, at the end of the day that makes me a sexist.

BELL: This is kind of a big question to wrap up on, but I wonder what your advice would be to people who have read the letter or will read the letter or hear you talking with me today and these things really resonate for them... I'm thinking of a white person in particular who feels like they're with you when they're ready to do the work. What is the work to sort of bridge this racial divide and that division between the levels of consciousness between white America and black America?

YANCY: Sure. I think that's an excellent question and a very difficult one. It's partly difficult because I'm pessimistic. I'm pessimistic about the history of race relations in the United States. And the thing is there is nothing in America that makes me optimistic. If to be optimistic is to extrapolate from past instances that are positive, then I'm not optimistic. And especially in terms of recent events, right? In terms of the killing of unarmed black men, and the brutalization of black bodies, and the dehumanization of black bodies. But for those whites who are willing to engage in fearless listening, I would say that it's important that they involve themselves in critical communities where critical dialogue is happening where they will become more aware, more cognizant of the ways in which they're complicit with the system that they themselves have denied or have failed to recognize. Right. So I think that what it requires then is building a critical community of individuals across race who are prepared to risk something, in fact to lose something. And for whites, as Baldwin says, it's so fearful because what we're asking them to lose is their white identities. Right. And this is why of course when men, when I begin to talk about sexism and male machismo, it becomes a big problem for men, right? It's as if somehow that's part of who we are. I mean our masculinity is part of who we are. But of course that's nonsense. Right. How we understand our masculinity is historically constructed. It can be modified if we're willing to do the work. Right. So it's a very ethical project. So I'm looking for whites, blacks, people of color who are prepared to recognize that life is finite and that we have a very short period here. So that, for an example, in the next hundred years you or I will not be here. Right. That's a fact. Right. We just won't. Right. So the question becomes what can we do between birth and the grave that will radicalize and humanize the planet in ways that we have not done? That we failed to do?