“Mood swings. Irritability. Trepidation. Disgust. Anger. Nausea” (44).
Such are the wounds of mind and body which have marked philosopher George Yancy’s life for several years now, the felt toll of waves of racist vitriol crashing in from every side since he published a New York Times op-ed in 2015, inviting white Americans to reckon with how violent systems of racialized advantage have structured their existence. In the book which emerged in its wake, Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America, Yancy sets before the reader’s eyes not only philosophical arguments (incisive, bold), not only histories of violence (brutal, ongoing), but also the body of George Yancy himself—a wounded body, a feeling body, a body theorizing under immense duress. It is remarkably intimate work. A bracing, read-in-one-sitting kind of gem, Backlash jolts, provokes, and moves one to thought, as the six responses of this symposium attest.
A note on context. Our panelists mostly submitted their responses in mid- to late 2019, and shortly thereafter, as perhaps you’ve heard, a global pandemic interrupted the usual rhythms of life and thought. And so here we are years later with this rich, strangely time-warped symposium. After our respondents’ gracious waiting and waiting, they have kindly allowed us to move forward with the publication of a conversation that bears striking witness to its specific moment of composition, rather than one which attempts to revise and update for the present. The texts should be read in that light. It is for this reason, for example, that no mention is made of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis or the global proliferation of movement work, organizing, and rebellion in response, even as the themes and core concerns of this conversation remain salient as ever today.
A word on those themes and core concerns. Several respondents place Yancy’s work in its philosophical context, rigorously exploring both his debts to and departures from various currents of thought—liberalism and pragmatism (Headley), phenomenology and theology (Golden)—while others probe its generative implications for teaching (Nethery) or extend its practice of invitation to radical change to their own institutional context (McHugh and Cleveland). Rawlinson meets Yancy’s autobiographical vulnerability with her own, taking the risky path of self-disclosure as a white woman of the deep south. Munro develops a vividly sensitive comparative view, drawing Yancy’s critique of the US into conversation with her own of Australia as another race-haunted settler colonial project. Yancy’s extended response to the panelists is no mere commentary; in its depth and clarity, it is a first-rate philosophical document in itself.
Shared among all is a clear-eyed insistence not only that whiteness is a problem with deadly serious stakes, but that as such, it is the sort of problem which demands what Yancy has modeled—not only intellectual critique, but the transformation of one’s way of being in the world: what Yancy, in an interview with Nethery, calls “philosophical practice…philosophy as a vocation.” Vocation, with its suggestive echoes of vocatio, of calling out and being called in, invites readers of the symposium to join in a dialogue already underway, one stretching forward into a future still up for grabs. What calls to you in the lines of text which follow, and how will you respond?