Symposium Introduction

“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?

Clevis Headley


George Yancy’s Ethics Without Edges as an Insurrectionist Ethics

Leonard Harris, in his “Insurrectionist Ethics: Advocacy, Moral Psychology, and Pragmatism” chastises pragmatism for being ethically suspect insofar as it seems to lack the necessary conceptual and motivational resources to justify deliberate and direct moral condemnation of slavery. Ultimately, Harris’s broader view, as described by Jacoby Carter, is that “an insurrectionist ethics is a philosophy aimed at radical social transformation and human liberation.”1 Two claims constitute Harris’s position. Harris writes, “a philosophy that offers moral intuitions, reasoning strategies, motivations, and examples of just moral actions but falls short of requiring that we have a moral duty to support or engage in slave insurrections is defective.”2 Ideal moral theory is not enough for Harris; rather, an acceptable moral theory would have to be nonideal insofar as it directly advocates aggressive support for the moral transformation of the world. In short, a plausible moral theory must be committed to liberation. Indeed, advocacy, according to Harris, is the hallmark of a worthwhile moral theory. Moral theory without advocacy closely resembles empty rhetoric. Second, Harris states, “a philosophy that does not make advocacy—that is, representing, defending, or promoting morally just causes— a seminal, meritorious feature of moral agency is defective.” 3 And in another context, he writes that “insurrectionists envision a world overcoming … bounded local identities, categories, and kinds…. In this sense, it is arguable that insurrectionists may very well stand against block universes, absolutes, arid abstractions, and stable categories.” 4 

Although Harris considers pragmatism as failing on both accounts mentioned above, it seems that his demand for an insurrectionist ethics has been answered by George Yancy in his Backlash.5 In this brief essay I interpret Yancy as an insurrectionist ethical thinker. Yancy presents a more radical rethinking of ethics than does Harris. Unlike Harris, Yancy does not focus specifically on pragmatism but more broadly on liberalism/philosophical modernism as the main culprit blocking the possibility of an insurrectionist ethics.

I connect Yancy with insurrectionist ethics through his critique of liberalism and its commitment to abstract individualism. This aspect of Yancy’s thinking is important precisely because of his criticism of the sutured white self. And his critique of liberalism and the sutured white self, a liberal self, is also closely related to his conception of an ethics without edges, a conception of things that emphasizes relationality. Hence, Yancy’s focus on an ethics without edges functions as a teleological suspension of liberalism in order thereby to recapture the importance of the relationality of the self. It is on the basis of the notion of the rationality of the self that Yancy’s relational ethics can best be considered as insurrectionist. In this context, the thrust of an insurrectionist ethics is to unsettle white supremacy/sutured whiteness. A self-contained agent, totally separated from the other, cannot substantively engage with the other in order to provoke response and dialogue.

In order to adequately capture the philosophical crux of Backlash, we must correctly identify some of the theoretical currents that so inform it. My claim is that his notion of an ethics without edges is one such current and that it is this current that connects Yancy’s thinking with insurrectionist ethics.

Yancy and Liberalism

Although liberalism reigns triumphantly, there is also the realization that liberalism is quickly becoming irreversibly ineffective in providing an analytical framework for critically confronting the persistence of structural/institutional racism. Yancy seeks to awaken us from the dogmatic slumber induced by liberalism, particularly its social ontology, which is none other than an uncritical infatuation with atomistic individualism. He remains convinced that the liberal notion of individualism, even as it works to the benefit of whites, entails dangerous consequences for Blacks; the lived reality of Black existence is not amenable to the asocial notion of liberal individualism. Consistent with this line of thinking, liberalism is unable to accommodate the very notion of an insurrectionist ethics. As Yancy states:

Perhaps if we live our lives as ‘presocial’ individuals, atomistic, self-interested and entrepreneurial, we will become legible. Under those terms, though, I would be in a precarious and dangerous position of having denied social reality. I would have denied the deep and enduring reality of white American racism. That charade will collapse once I’m pulled over by a white police officer and I’m asked to show my driver’s license. Then, suddenly, there is the sound of gunshots, bullets rip through my Black body, leaving me dead, and with my last breath, while looking into the white police officer’s eyes, I speak:‘ And I thought that I was like you—just an individual’ (90–91).

The liberal notion of individuals as unencumbered is too thin a conception of sociality, too inadequate a conception of social ontology to sustain a sober notion of insurrectionist ethics on behalf of subordinated groups variously viewed as “ontological entities.” Here I pursue a brief digression in order to consider Yancy’s critical working through of whiteness.

For Yancy, to deconstruct the white self is, from one perspective, a dismantling of the liberal white self. In order to pursue a deconstruction of the white self, Yancy introduces clusters of metaphors. However, these metaphors expose the unsatisfactory conception of the liberal self, and by extension the white liberal self. Yancy chooses the metaphor of suturing to capture the condition of the white self, a condition that restricts the capability of the white self to confront its racism. He writes:

I have come to use the concept of suturing within the context of understanding the structure and being of whiteness. As I see it, suturing is the process whereby white people engage in forms of closure, forms of protection from various challenges to the ways in which whiteness is seen as the norm, its unrememberable everydayness, its value assumptions, and the many ways in which it’s guilty about producing distorted knowledge about itself (105).

The sutured white self is a self that seeks normative purity. As a sutured self, closed off into itself, this white sutured self also desires normative suturing, meaning total separation from any alien affections. The sutured white self opposes the introduction of alien values and norms within its sterile normative purity. Consequently the sutured white self desires, among other things, to feed upon its own normative reserves. Obviously, the white self is not an insurrectionist self. An insurrectionist ethics, an ethics committed to human liberation, would demand an unsuturing of the white self.

Yancy on Ethics without Edges, or Ethics beyond Liberalism

In order to explicate the kind of ethics associated with the conception of the suturing of whiteness, Yancy introduces the metaphor of edges. A sutured white self has sharp edges, precisely because it is a self that is self-contained, autonomous, and transparent. But Yancy again fears that this notion of the white self as possessing edges, whiteness as sharply separated from the nonwhite others, undermines the conditions necessary for connectivity, relationality and insurrectionist activity. To be more specific, there is no possibility for insurrectionist activity, meaning the radical transformation of the world with regard to the elimination of racism. Accordingly, Yancy writes:

whiteness functions as an edge. [W]hite segregation, white redlining, white neighborhood covenants, and white gated communities function as acts of building of edges, limits, boundaries, borders, perimeters (111).

Yancy wants whites to abandon the ethics of edges and embrace an ethics without edges—to become insurrectionists. His project directly confronts the “ethical frigidity” of a sutured white self, a self seemingly unable to ethically embrace Blacks on the basis of love. Dethroning the liberal white self and the transparent white self, Yancy declares that, instead of sharp edges and sharp boundaries, there are vague and porous boundaries. Selves merge into or blend into other selves with no clear separation between them. Sociality is not a whole composed of an arbitrary collection of discrete selves. Rather, sociality is a network of subjects connected through clusters of entangled relationships. Hence, Yancy explains:

To say that white embodiment has no edges introduces what I’m calling an ontology (or being) and an ethics of no edges. In other words, an ethics of no edges and a radical rethinking of a relational ontology, where the white body does not terminate at some fictive corporeal edge, ought to encourage a different response from white people. The connection, the touching, after all, is already there (111).

Yancy contends that an ethics appropriate to releasing the white self from its harmful fables of autonomy and sincere introspection is an ethics without edges or an insurrectionist ethics. Furthermore, an ethics without edges would realistically position the white self to endure the critical process of confronting and dismantling white supremacy. According to Yancy:

An ethics of no edges that I have in mind rethinks or, better, lays bare a dynamic ontology of connectedness, a dynamic racialized somatic network. . . that problematizes a clear-cut outside limit, and thereby calls for a robust sense of ethical responsibility, indeed, white responsibility (111).

Even more importantly, an ethics without edges would undermine efforts to think white existence as somehow parallel to Black existence without any possibility of border crossings or insurrectionist activity. Yancy addresses whites as follows:

My point here is to encourage you, white reader, to engage critically how you are always already constituted relationally and socially and that you are politically preconfigured in the lives of Black people and people of color, especially in ways that perpetuate white racist oppression (111).

If an ethics without edges is to take root among whites, Yancy argues, whites must unsuture themselves. This unsuturing or insurrection against the white self, however, is not going to be easy; it will be a very painful undertaking. In the most general sense, Yancy maintains that unsuturing “brings to mind a state of pain, ‘open flesh,’ ‘exposure.’ Un-suturing suggests processes of troubling a problematic ontology or mode of being. Un-suturing can function, within this case, as a way of undergoing a radical rethinking of the body as a site of profound vulnerability, and a radical way of being-in-the-world” (112).

Unlike the capacity of suturing to facilitate fables of closure, autonomy, and sharp edges, unsuturing cultivates chaos, the unraveling of self, the collapsing of world, and the loss of narrative intelligibility. Ultimately, Yancy hopes that whites, in virtue of becoming unsutured and unstitched, will surrender their white innocence. In short, unsuturing can induce a traumatic epistemological crisis that assaults the grounds of one’s being. For these and other reasons, Yancy endorses unsuturing, confidently claiming that it has the potential to enable the white self to pursue a comprehensive shedding of its old self (113–14).

To briefly conclude, I find great analytical parallel between Yancy’s ethics without edges and Harris’ conception of insurrectionist ethics. The very notion of unsuturing the white self is consistent with an insurrectionist ethics that similarly recommends an unsuturing of an anti-Black world for the sake of white and Black liberation.

  1. Jacoby Carter, “The Insurrectionist Challenge to Pragmatism and Maria W. Stewart’s Feminist Insurrectionist Ethics,” Transactions of the Charles S. Peirce Society, Volume 49, Number 1, 2013: 54.

  2. Leonard Harris, “Insurrectionist Ethics: Advocacy, Moral Psychology, and Pragmatism,” in Ethical Issues for New Millennium, ed. John Howie (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002): 192.

  3. Leonard Harris, “Insurrectionist Ethics: Advocacy, Moral Psychology, and Pragmatism,” in Ethical Issues for New Millennium, ed. John Howie (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002): 192.

  4. Leonard Harris, “Insurrectionist Ethics: Advocacy, Moral Psychology, and Pragmatism,” in Ethical Issues for New Millennium, ed. John Howie (Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2002): 198–99.

  5. George Yancy, Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).

  • George Yancy

    George Yancy


    White “Safety” as a Paradoxical Form of Death: An Extended Conversation

    Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America was published in 2018. It was written after and in response to white racist vitriol that I received from white people after they read “Dear White America,” an article I wrote for for the New York Times’ philosophy column “The Stone” on December 24, 2015. Writing Backlash functioned as a site of catharsis and exposure. I was able to release or externalize some of the conscious and unconscious weight that I carried that resulted from so much white bullying, white hatred, and white allusions to me being killed because I decided to call whiteness out. I was also able to reveal, expose, lay bare, aspects of how the white imaginary is steeped in and structured by anti-Blackness. The white racist discourse was vile, hurtful, and layered with white desires of anti-Black torture, sadistic violence, and sexual fantasies. If there is something that we might call the white id, then it was totally uninhibited in those white responses, and I was its target. In those abhorrent white responses, I was clearly the abject and repulsive Black body, the body to be thrown away, and yet necessary to the structural integrity of whiteness. Backlash can be described within the context of what Christina Sharpe calls theorizing wake work. Sharpe writes, “It requires theorizing the multiple meanings of that abjection through inhabitation, that is, through living them in and as consciousness.”1  

    An important aspect of the structure of whiteness is that it is politically elastic. It can adapt. Envisioning its eschatological moment, as it were, reeks for me of futility. Like the Hydra myth, whiteness is multi-headed; it can survive attempts to vanquish its hegemonic and teratological power. Given the parasitic structure of whiteness vis-à-vis Blackness, anti-Blackness therefore feels eternal, fueled by the arc of an immoral universe that will not bend. Hence, those moments of catharsis and exposure are not fixed, but recursive. There is a profound sense of Black mourning that persists despite those cathartic and revelatory moments. Just when the white racist vitriol “ends,” and one can figuratively spit out the effects of the anti-Black odium, and where the work of exposure appears “complete,” there is the iterative and foul presence of that incomparable racist epithet: “Hey, anti-white, racist nigger: fuck you.” 

    That message was sent to me as recently as May 23, 2022. As you can see, the hatred continues, the backlash persists. Writing about the collective historical mourning of Black people, Saidiya Hartman captures its endurance where she writes, “For the distinction between the past and the present founders on the interminable grief engendered by slavery and its aftermath. How might we understand mourning, when the event has yet to end? When the injuries not only perdure, but are inflicted anew? Can one mourn what has yet ceased happening?”2 While Backlash recounts many vile and nasty instances of the deployment of the N-word used against me, the hatred continues, the injury is inflicted anew. 

    The deep tragedy of anti-Black racism is that one needn’t write an article for the New York Times (an article which I characterized as asking for love in return for a gift) to be the recipient of white violence. It is sufficient to be Black to be the target of white gratuitous violence. It is one’s naked openness to anti-Black violence that is so horrifying. It is the fact that one is always already an extension of the structural violence of whiteness, and the terrifying logics of whiteness, that floods my being with so much pessimism. It is that constant openness to being the object of white violence, as if white people were given the birthright to decide the death of Black people, that leads Frank Wilderson to conclude, “That is where the violence is manifest even when no injury is visible.”3 This raises the issue of the “innocence” of whiteness. In both Backlash and “Dear White America,” my aims were to get white readers to rethink their relational power, privilege, and hegemony. If my Black body is always already structurally the target of hegemonic whiteness, where to be Black and alive is only a temporary reprieve, then to be white is to be (structurally) an ontological beneficiary, where one’s being is not a target of a longstanding historical, systemic process of anti-whiteness in virtue of being white. For me, the normativity of whiteness raises the significant issue of an ontology without edges, and the necessity of troubling whiteness and its ontological and epistemological coordinates. 

    It is with honor that I engage in conversation as part of the Syndicate Symposium with six scholars who have taken the time to draw critically from my work, and also to rethink it and to expand upon it. Engaging in mutually shared parrhesia (or courageous speech) and courageous listening (or deep vulnerability) are requisite for creating and nurturing conceptually generative spaces, spaces where the mere formulation of sophisticated concepts is not the be-all and end-all of critical consciousness. After all, the term sophisticated is linked to sophistry, which carries traces of deception. I argue that there is also the invaluable importance and practice of love, which, within this context, has nothing to do with sentimentality. As Paulo Freire writes, “As an act of bravery, love cannot be sentimental; as an act of freedom, it must not serve as a pretext for manipulation. It must generate other acts of freedom; otherwise, it is not love.”4 This dialogue, in short, has deep implications for a world that is in danger, especially as we witness the spread of anti-democratic forms of populism and neofascism within the US and abroad. Perhaps James Baldwin was right: it will be the fire next time, where the entire planet will be consumed by such a conflagration. So, while we mainly dialogue about the painful reality of systemic racism/whiteness, more is at stake. Bear in mind that we are now, according to the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, at 100 seconds to midnight. So, we dialogue with urgency. 

    The reader should note that the six scholars submitted their responses closer to the year of the publication of Backlash. Despite this, the responses are by no means dated. From the time that I wrote “Dear White America” and then Backlash, whiteness has raised its ugly head in the form of the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor in 2020 by the white state, and we have witnessed the amalgamation of white paranoia, white lies, white Christian nationalism, and white authoritarian violence waged against the fragility of democracy at the US Capitol on January 6, 2021. In short, the menacing reality of whiteness/white supremacy continues unabated and its desperate hold on irreality could mean the collapse of democracy as we know it, and its myth of racialized manifest destiny could lead to blood in the streets of this nation. The political, social, and existential stakes continue to rise as whiteness claims its “rightful” place as the center of the universe. I see Black bodies in the wake.  

    Response to Headley

    In his poignant analysis of Backlash, Clevis Headley critiques the problematic ontology that underwrites abstract liberalism. Like Headley, I see abstract liberalism as a false and mythical ideology that obfuscates the systemic nature of whiteness/white supremacy. Headley also contextualizes my philosophical identity and praxis as indicative of “an insurrectionist ethical thinker.” I am honored to be included within that tradition. Troubling abstract liberalism through the reality of an ontology of no edges, I deeply appreciate Headley’s assessment of my work through the lens of an ethics that not only refuses to leave the world as it is, but refuses the piecemeal work of reform. Indeed, as an insurrectionist ethical thinker, which etymologically suggests a process of rising up or overthrowing at the level of a problematic ontology-cum-ethics, I would argue that the end of whiteness means the end of a social world which is predicated on the insidious, material, and psychic operations of anti-Blackness. Whiteness is structurally binary, hegemonic, hierarchical, and ontologically exclusionary, and yet it is psychically consumptive vis-à-vis Blackness. On this score, whiteness is a species of parasitism. 

    Headley argues that “Sociality is not a whole composed of an arbitrary collection of discrete selves. Rather, sociality is a network of subjects connected through clusters of entangled relationships.” It is precisely the rhizomatic phenomenon of entanglement that implicates whiteness in the perpetuation of racialized injustice. It is the white person who says that they have done nothing “wrong” with respect to Black people who fails or refuses to understand how their whiteness is relationally haptic, how it touches Black people. The problem is that what is deemed “wrong” is limited to atomic conceptions of the self. Demonstrating the limits of what Iris Marion Young calls the liability model of responsibility, Barbara Applebaum argues, that such a model “assumes that what counts as a wrong consists in a deviation from some baseline that is considered normal and acceptable.”5 The problem is not simply what is defined or located within the context of a discrete anti-Black act or actions; rather, what is necessary, and what bespeaks an insurrectionist ethics and an insurrectionist social ontology, is what is revealed through the interrogation of whiteness as haptic, as continuous and contiguous. On this score, for example, it is both the discrete act of a white police officer who had his knee on the neck of George Floyd and the “normal and acceptable” ways of being white that impact the breathlessness of Black bodies. 

    Normative whiteness, quotidian whiteness, is also the problem. It is the normativity of whiteness that is a site of violence. White normativity reinforces white epistemic modes of being-in-the-world and vice versa. White people, within this context, embody modes of fallacious self-certainty and willful ignorance. At the core of whiteness is the guarantee that one is not Black, not the “Nigger,” even as one’s white normativity is complicit in that appellation and the anti-Black conditions that follow. As a site of world-making, whiteness has created a world where white people understand themselves, narrate their identities, secure their identities, through the socio-psychic dynamism of anti-Blackness. As James Baldwin argues, “People invent categories in order to feel safe. White people invented Black people to give white people identity.”6 Baldwin also argues that white people opted “for safety instead of life.”7 Within this context, life is too dangerous, precarious, and requires vulnerability/loss. To trouble the abstract liberalism of whiteness is to forge an ethics of no edges that requires that white people tarry with and carry the weight of the white world and to actively participate in its collapse, to imperil their white identities, which means to refuse safety, to refuse all-consuming control. As Freire writes, “Oppression—overwhelming control—is necrophilic; it is nourished by love of death, not life.”8 Within this context, safety is a site of mummification; life requires the removal of the layers upon layers of lies, denials, mythopoetic assumptions. 

    In his response piece, Headley draws attention to my use of various metaphors. It is here that Headley engages what I have come to call the white self as sutured and the importance for white people to un-suture, which are ways of concealing and un-concealing, respectively. The sutured white self is a self that dreams not just in fictions but lies. As sutured, white people are able to conceal their true responsibility for the ways in which their privilege hierarchically positions them in relationship to Black people. The fact of white privilege is linked to the fact of the hegemonic supremacist structure of whiteness, which means that white privilege isn’t a one-off advantage, but carries with it pervasive differential structures of feeling and being: “I might be poor, but I’m glad I’m not Black,” is the white mantra. To be white is to be human no matter the contingent, conditional circumstances of one’s life. Yet, to be Black is, of necessity, as if a priori, to be the sub-person. That is what white privilege grants; it grants opacity to white people so as not to recognize the morally problematic constitution of their humanity through the machinations of whiteness/anti-Blackness. Thus, white people remain sutured to/by white institutional, ideological forces that hail their whiteness as the core/center of humanity and by extension hail Blackness as the core of the ontologically ersatz/sub-human. 

    Whiteness is purchased at the expense of Black people; the price of whiteness means, inter alia, the paradoxical rejection of Blackness and the “acceptance” of Blackness on white terms only, where such “acceptance” is a farce. What is “accepted” is what whiteness has created from the repression of its own monsters. As Headley writes, “The sutured white self is a self that seeks normative purity.” To un-suture, however, is to begin to tarry with the lie that such an aspiration conceals. The un-sutured white self tarries with the ways in which whiteness is structurally and insidiously unethical. It is where white people opt for life instead of safety, which implies a mythical form of self-transparency and self-mastery. There is only a false sense of safety in lies; there is only a false sense of safety in an asocial ontology that postulates a white subjectivity that is absolute and invulnerable. To un-suture is a form of kenosis (or emptying); it is a process of Aletheia or un-concealing. To un-suture is to be unsafe. The un-sutured white self, which is always a verb, never simply a noun, understands what is at stake, that is, that an ethics of no edges is a commitment to reject white “innocence.” There is also the commitment to resist habitual forms of psychic closure and the commitment to accept modes of relationality that reject edges that are designed to conceal the violence that whiteness sustains. To un-suture is to nurture a form of crisis at the heart of white identity-cum-being-in-the-world. It is, as Headley says, “the loss of narrative intelligibility.” 

    I appreciate Headley’s characterization of my understanding of white un-suturing as embodying an insurrectionist ethics that calls for processes of de-worlding whiteness, of forcing white people with love “to see themselves as they are.”9 Backlash is not simply about exposing the hatred of whiteness; it is a continuation of a gift. An insurrectionist ethics (as a gift) would entail breaking through the historical lies of whiteness and its historically buttressed opacity and insularity. This would require (and there is no need to pretend) what whiteness is hell-bent on rejecting.

    1. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Being Black and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 33.

    2. Saidiya Hartman, “The Time of Slavery,” South Atlantic Quarterly 1 October 2002; 101 (4), 758.

    3. This comes from an unpublished interview with Frank B. Wilderson III.

    4. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000),70-71.

    5. Barbara Applebaum, Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility (Lanham: Lexington Books, 2010, 159.

    6. See A Dialogue James Baldwin and Nikki Giovanni (1973)

    7. James Baldwin, “On Being White and Other Lies,” in Randall Kenan (Ed.), The Cross of Redemption. (New York: Pantheon, 1998), 137.

    8. Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed, 30th Anniversary Edition (New York: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2000), 58.

    9. James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: The Modern Library, 1995), 9.

Harry Nethery


Practicing and Teaching Philosophy in the Wake of Backlash

“America, you need a miracle / Beyond spiritual / I need a realer view / I hold a mirror to it”

–Pusha T, “Sunshine” from King Push – Darkest Before Dawn: The Prelude

I recently had the honor of conducting an interview with George Yancy about his most recent text, Backlash. I took this opportunity to ask him about his Socratic call to think of philosophy as a vocation. To think of philosophy as a vocation requires the recognition of vulnerability, risk, embodiment, and social positioning. The reasoning, I think, is as follows: for Yancy, philosophy as a vocation is a practice, and thus requires a kind of striving. One necessary condition of this striving is understanding that we are not as good as we could be—we want to strive to be better and to make the world a better place. But this striving also requires recognizing that we do not have unfettered access to the truth, that we are always already existing from an embodied and social position. This, in turn, requires a kind of vulnerability to being wrong and a willingness to risk the surety that we have with ourselves. In our interview, he told me the following:

I reject forms of philosophical practice that attempt to detach themselves from history. I understand philosophy as a vocation. For me, it is a calling to speak along with the downtrodden and to speak out for the least of these. I also support meta-philosophical assumptions that reject forms of philosophical practice that embark upon their points of inquiry as if from nowhere.1

That a great deal of Western philosophers “embark upon their points of inquiry as if from nowhere” is a problem, for both philosophy as a discipline and for how we teach philosophy in the classroom.2 If philosophy is merely the pursuit of abstract truth, then we will only teach our students how to be right—what matters is the final attaining of that same truth. We profess to teach critical thinking—but more often than not, this takes the form of a toolbox of skills to assist in “bullshit detection.” That is, we show students how to detect what is wrong with arguments, so that they can be right. And we treat this analysis as a kind of “view from nowhere.” But do we show them that we are always arguing from an embodied and social position? Do we teach them that we do not have unfettered access to the “truth?” In other words, do we teach them how to be wrong? Do we teach them to accept and value critique? To risk the sense of their surety in their positions? To take a long hard look at their lives? To be unhappy with their current state, and to desire to be better?

If we do not, then our students are not prepared to understand (much less accept) their role in the propagation of suffering, and consequently what must be done to end it. In Backlash, Yancy writes that “Had ‘Dear White America’ been read in the spirit of what I’m referring to as a risk, a kind of death, much of what was misunderstood about my letter may have been avoided” (Yancy, 58). What is our role, as teachers of critical thinking, in the inability of white Americans to risk themselves, to accept gifts such as the one Yancy gives us in his work? Do we teach our students that being good and being happy are not the same, and that truth can “hurt, stun, unsettle, and unnerve” (3)? Do we ready them for the moment when they must see themselves in “a most disagreeable mirror?” (55). That is, do we prepare them (and ourselves) to learn the truth about racism, sexism, oppression, and our roles in it? Do we help open them to the possibility for “constructive transformation, something that is often painful?” (55). If we think that philosophy is merely the pursuit of abstract truth, then the answer would seem to be no. But if philosophy is instead a vocation, or a way of being-in-the-world, then the answer must be yes. The former views the goal of philosophy as a kind of accomplishment, while the latter views it as a kind of striving. And if striving requires the chance that we might always be wrong, then it requires vulnerability and risk.  

This vulnerability and risk, that comes with philosophy as a vocation, can be seen in nearly all of Yancy’s work, both implicitly and explicitly. Let us focus, however, on “Dear White America” and Backlash. In the former, Yancy models vulnerability through his analogy between racism and sexism: “What if I told you that I’m sexist?” (20). He tells us further,

As a sexist, I have failed women. I have failed to speak out when I should have. I have failed to engage critically and extensively their pain and suffering in my writing. I have failed to transcend the rigidity of gender roles in my own life. I have failed to challenge those poisonous assumptions that women are “inferior” to men or to speak out loudly in the company of male philosophers who believe that feminist philosophy is just a non-philosophical fad . . . I am not innocent (20).

I would like to dwell with this for a moment, as this instance shows us much about Yancy’s work. First, he shows vulnerability—he is admitting to his audience that, regardless of his best intentions, he is guilty of sexism. In this case, vulnerability seems to mean a kind of opening oneself up to being wrong, and to desiring to be better. This is also a call for a reciprocal vulnerability in his audience, which was denied de facto. Yancy calls his audience to open themselves up to being wrong about racism, by modeling what that looks like himself via an analogy with sexism.

There is also risk here. Many men, myself included, have spent a decent portion of our lives thinking that we were good men, even feminists, only to learn later that we are complicit in forms of sexism, patriarchy, and misogyny that we can neither transcend nor extricate ourselves from. This, to the white male psyche, hurts—I thought I was a good ally, when actually I had failed (by, for example, staying silent in the midst of sexist discussions or paying to see movies whose plots pivot on the abuse or death of a woman). But in order to see this, I must risk my sense of innocence. And this is where we find that the truth hurts and has the power to “hurt, stun, unsettle, and unnerve.” Much like the interlocutor at the moment of aporia in a Socratic dialogue, I can either remain ignorant or strive to be better.

This is made explicit in the third chapter of Backlash in which Yancy asks his white readers to open themselves up, to risk their “innocence.” Yancy writes,

The oppressive machinations of whiteness must die so that white people (you) can truly live. What is meant by this death? It involves an opening, a risk, a fissure. As white, you must be open to a kind of death – a death of our stubbornness, a death of your denials, a death of your ‘innocence,’ a death of your arrogance… a death of all of those tricks that you play to convince yourselves that you are fine, that you are good ones, the sophisticated ones, the nonracist ones, the ones who truly care about justice, and a world without oppression, hatred, and racist violence (55).

Many white Americans think of ourselves as innocent as regards racism—“I have a black friend, I can’t possibly be racist” or “I don’t use the n-word, I can’t possibly be racist.” This is what Yancy often refers to as the “good white,” i.e. the white American who believes they are innocent of participation in the machinations of whiteness. This position, what Martin Luther King Jr. calls the white moderate, ultimately leads to stasis, stagnation, and the perpetuation of systems of oppression. Instead, Yancy argues that in order to actually fight racism, we white people must suffer the death of our innocence.

As I showed at the beginning, Yancy sees philosophy as a vocation in which we strive to be better and to make the world a better place. This requires vulnerability and the willingness to risk; otherwise we cannot improve ourselves or the world around us. Now, what might this look like in the classroom? This is a question that I hold dear to my heart, as I know that I have failed my students in this regard, just as I have failed women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. I have not taught my general body of students to be vulnerable.

In our interview, I asked Yancy what it might look like to include vulnerability in an undergraduate philosophy curriculum, and his reply is fascinating. It begins, he argues, with thinking about death:

I think that we need to exemplify, to perform, and to instantiate, our humility and frail humanity. So, right there before our students, perhaps even on the first day of class, I think that we need to speak to our students about how all of us will, at some point, die. This is not about spectacle or hyperbole. Also, I don’t attempt to communicate this in some sociologically abstract fashion, but to communicate the hard reality that you and I will die. In fact, my aim is to communicate the fact that you and I have been dying from the moment we began to live.[/footnote] From “Philosophy as a Practice of Suffering” (forthcoming).[/footnote]

A bit later, he adds that “I communicate to them that they will need to bear the weight of what it means that they will die, that the fellow student next to them will die, and that all that they deeply love will someday die.” This, for Yancy, is an attempt to encourage his students to be ethical in a different way than they are used to—of opening themselves up to a desire to be better people. Death is his tool, as we will all die. We can (and should) open up to the very real event of our own deaths and what this means. As he says in Backlash, “we are both irreplaceable,” and “as the universe expands and perhaps contracts again… we may never bear witness to being ever again” (xii). That is, you and I are embodied and thus finite beings. If this is the case, then I should feel urgency to be as good as possible, as this is all we have. Furthermore, because of my social positioning, I will always be living a life of privilege at the expense of others.

I am not innocent. Over the last six years, I’ve been trying to model vulnerability to my students in thinking about the crisis of oppression. I begin by telling them that, because of my skin color and genitalia, that I will be forever stuck in systems of oppression. I back this up with examples of my own implicit acts of racism and sexism, and I show them that I do not feel guilty about these incidents, but instead angry—which fuels me to fight these systems. That is, owning up to my own racism, sexism, and homophobia is not a sign that I should stop fighting, but that we can only be free when these systems have been dismantled entirely.

But, and I have only recently begun to understand this, none of that is enough. I cannot simply be modeling vulnerability and risk in regards to problems of oppression, but in relation to critical thinking as such. I have simply failed to include vulnerability and risk when I teach “the tools of critical thinking.” Akin to Yancy framing an introductory class in terms of death, I wonder what would happen if we framed a logic course as learning “how to be wrong gracefully, so that we can be better.” What would be required to inculcate this idea to our students? Are there specific skills that we can teach them, or is it only a matter of framing? I have no answers here – only questions. It is my hope that others will join me in asking these questions. And I wish I did have answers. As Yancy says elsewhere, while we white people get our shit together, bodies of color are being murdered in the street.

There is an urgency to this. We white philosophers can teach oppression in our courses, but what does this accomplish if our students are not actively being prepared to hear it, to be vulnerable, and to risk their own innocence?

This, I think, is one aspect of what it means to practice and teach philosophy in the wake of Backlash.

We have work to do.

  1. From “Philosophy as a Practice of Suffering: An Interview with George Yancy,” Philosophia Africana, Vol. 19, Issue 1, 2020.

  2. This “we” must be qualified—I can only speak from my embodied position, so here I am referring to white cis-gendered male philosophers.

  • George Yancy

    George Yancy


    Response to Nethery

    Harry A. Nethery powerfully engages various concepts within Backlash as they help to frame what the practice of critical pedagogy would entail within the classroom. Nethery also raises important meta-philosophical assumptions that inform how I think about my own philosophical life, which is far from the pursuit of abstract thought simpliciter. Nethery’s delineation of how I think about pedagogy, embodiment, suffering, and historicism, is deeply insightful. I would agree, as Nethery notes, that philosophy, for me, has the force of a call. It is a call to speak courageously, to seek, in an Emersonian way, to have a unique relationship to the universe, and it is a call to allow the suffering of others to speak. By “allow,” I don’t mean to give permission to others to speak of their suffering. Allowing suffering to speak is a site of agreement, of making sure, as best I can, that my own interests and biases are kept out of the way. 

    I have come to think of practicing philosophy as a mode of suffering. I suffer because we find ourselves within a cosmos that is permeated with silence. I suffer because there are no clear and indubitable reasons why we are here at all. I suffer because death will come for each one of us without any of us being the wiser regarding what happens after. I suffer because of the gravity of collective human suffering, where innocent people die from the actions of warmongers, where innocent children are targeted and exploited, where women suffer the violence of sexism, where Black men suffer the violence of anti-Black male misandry, where those who are disabled are rendered “incompetent” or “freakish,” where those who are queer are labeled “unnatural” and thereby vulnerable to forms of physical and epistemic violence. I suffer because the earth suffers; indeed, ecologically we all do and will, perhaps devastatingly so if we continue our current path of avaricious and unethical control of the planet. For me, suffering is not about remaining in a state of inaction, or docility. Rather, to suffer, as I am using that term here, is part of political practice. It means that one screams in lamentation. The act of weeping can function as a powerful political act as much as it can function to obfuscate one’s responsibility. Weeping can reinforce illusions of innocence, where one effectively avoids the necessary outrage against changing the horrible circumstances in terms of which one is complicit in creating. 

    Metaphilosophically, I suffer in medias res. We all do. We find ourselves in the middle of an historical narrative replete with forms of unspeakable violence. There is no “place from nowhere” to begin our resistance. We begin in the middle — fallible and fragile. Nethery is correct to link how I think about suffering and my meta-philosophical assumptions to how I think about my pedagogy. He critiques the idea that philosophy ought to consist simply in the pursuit of abstract truth, or that it is enough that we only teach our students how to be “right,” as if learning to be right was a matter of pure deduction. Nethery is neither critiquing abstraction as such nor what it means to teach our students to aim for being right as such. His point is that we often refuse to acknowledge how ambiguity and uncertainty haunt our epistemological hubris. We also forget to emphasize our embodied locations, and what this means in terms of shaping our moral attitudes. If it is true that philosophy is the pursuit of “abstract truth,” then we will fail our students (especially our BIPOC students) when it comes to non-ideal reality, when what is “right” is simply the function of a particular group’s myopia, arrogance, and demagogic intentions. When one thinks about moral and political theory within the context of the history of Western philosophy, where “what is right/moral” was never meant to apply to those who fell outside the category of the human (read: white), one is confronted with a deep contradiction. The abstract moral and political ideals of Western philosophy, as Charles Mills argues, were “never actually the [ideals] in the first place. A lot of moral philosophy will then seem to be based on pretense, the claim that these were principles that people strove to uphold, when in fact the real principles were the racially exclusivist ones.”1 

    Nethery asks a series of significant questions within the context of teaching our students philosophy: “Do we teach them that we do not have unfettered access to the ‘truth’? In other words, do we teach them how to be wrong? Do we teach them to accept and value critique? To risk the sense of their surety in their positions? To take a long hard look at their lives? To be unhappy with their current state, and to desire to be better?” I find these questions to be very provocative, especially the question regarding teaching our students how to be wrong. Teaching our students how to be wrong implies the process of teaching our students how to challenge the status quo, of teaching our students how to be wrong qua maladjusted, resistant, and oppositional, in the face of injustice. This pedagogical move is not anti-epistemological, but profoundly ethical. After all, we should teach them, especially our white students at predominantly white institutions (PWIs), to be wrong when it comes to their support of unquestioned forms of white nation-building, curricular gatekeeping, white nativist fictions of white “superiority,” and white “innocence.” 

    Learning how to be wrong, as Nethery notes, is about striving, vulnerability, and risk. Nethery points out and adopts ways of reflecting that vulnerability back to his students. He emphasizes how I attempt to model vulnerability (not moral flagellation) when explaining to my students the ways in which I continue to be sexist despite my best intentions. This does indeed involve risk. It requires explaining the ways in which sexism is a system within which we, as cis-men, are embodied and are situated by the unjust forces of patriarchy2 and inculcated to accept, even if unconsciously, the violence of sexism and misogyny. As a white male, of course, Nethery must also critically name the intersectional implications of his privilege and power, and how they are linked to his racial and gender identities.3 He will need to risk his sense of innocence. And he begins to do so by sharing, for example, his failure to speak out within contexts of sexism. I admire his vulnerability and how he recognizes the importance of aporia (which I see as a generative troubling within the soul) as a crucial moment to resist one’s internalized sexism or its public performance by others. The importance of vulnerability is essential to how we live—now. Nethery understands how I think about death and the weight of its reality and impact on the urgency of now. There simply isn’t a lot of time. So, I emphasize kairos time, which suggests that today is the appropriate time for opposing violence and injustice. I ask my students to tarry with their finitude to evoke, among other things, the irreplaceability of this moment, where this moment calls attention to the momentous importance of hesed (or loving kindness), which refuses to wait another day for worldwide transformative liberation from social evil.    

    Nethery raises a challenging point within the context of teaching the tools of critical thinking. He wonders “what would happen if we framed a logic course as learning ‘how to be wrong gracefully, so that we can be better.’” My response to Nethery is that we need to encourage our students to understand that critical thinking is linked to the moral life, a life where the stakes are high in terms of not just thinking with insight and with coherence, but living a morally coherent life, where one’s commitment to justice leaves no stone unturned vis-à-vis the ethical life, a life where your pain touches me, and where I might very well be complicit in the cause of your pain. In a white supremacist world, critical thought, logically coherent thought, and attention to evidential detail, can function as weapons and as threats to systems of oppression, especially within the context of our politically motivated and problematic post-truth moment. However, “rational argumentation” can also function as a form of policing or distorting the conceptual perspectives held by others through a process of framing such perspectives through perks of social privilege.4 Moreover, in a logic course, one teaches one’s students that thinking with clarity is an intrinsic good, but being a brilliant logician doesn’t lead ipso facto to an examined life. I conclude with Nethery that we have work to do. My only fear is that we may be—God forbid—too late.

    1. Charles W. Mills, Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 4.

    2. As a Black man, however, my relationship to patriarchy is complicated.

    3. I would only add that it is not Nethery’s white skin or his genitalia that constitute the problem of white racism or sexism. It is the deep historical meanings, systematic and systemic material and institutional forces, complex embodied habits, and deep psychic investments that install the differential meanings of phenotype and genitalia that create the problem.

    4. Charles W. Mills, Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1998), 8.

Nancy Arden McHugh


Dear Predominantly White Institution

February 28, 2019

Dear Predominantly White Institution,

We write as two members of a predominately white academic institution, Wittenberg University. One of us is a biracial student and one of us is a white faculty member. Following Dr. George Yancy’s letter in the New York Times on December 24, 2015, “Dear White America,” and his book Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Race in America (2018), which is a response to that letter, we write with the intention of addressing the members of our predominantly white institution (PWI) and similarly situated college campuses. Our goal, like Yancy’s, is to open up an institutional dialogue on matters related to race with the hope of furthering the mission and values of our institution. As members of this academic community we want to engage in a dialogue on Black institutional trauma and the opportunities an educational institution can afford its members, Black and white. We hope to educate our white members of the reality of institutionalized racial trauma and to identify areas, social and academic, for growth and healing in a way that furthers the education of all members of our campus community. We don’t think that the experiences we are reflecting upon at our PWI are unique to us, and we hope that this letter, like Yancy’s letter of love, can provide direction for awareness and growth for other institutions. This is our gift to our college whom we address from a space of love and hope for institutional healing and growth. 

To initiate this understanding and growth we must start with an understanding of where some of our problems originate. Racial trauma, also identified by psychologists as race-based trauma, can initiate from two primary actions. The first is the psychological stress that is triggered by microaggressions—questions, comments, or intended compliments that suggest something demeaning (DeLaney et al).1 The second can be caused by the very real threat of violence and aggression that have been experienced by Blacks historically and currently. Both of these are cultivated deep within the lived experience of Black individuals. For example, repeatedly being bombarded with news stories of the murder of Black children and adults by those who are part of institutional structures that are supposed to protect them is one way in which Blacks continually are reminded of the violence that is perpetuated on Black lives. We must strive to understand the lived experience of this trauma in order to educate ourselves on how we perpetuate it, and we must actively engage in practices that seek to end it. 

The concept of life as a Black individual is shaped by “the white racist violation of our humanity,” furthering that basis of trauma (Yancy, 57). Yancy experiences unanticipated impacts of the racialized trauma from the deluge of threatening hate mail that he received after writing “Dear White America.” He not only describes mood swings, anger, and nausea, but also the vulnerability that requires that he looks over his shoulder when in predominately white spaces (55). Yancy’s bodily comportment, as well as his psychological state, changes in response to the threat and reality of white racism. 

Although Yancy describes the psychological stress that can be triggered by people who intend to create fear and threat, the psychological stress that initiates racial trauma also can be activated by structural mechanisms that don’t require actions or intent from individuals. Instead, these allow for the perpetual conditions of the stress. This structuralized racial trauma is caused by institutions that allow for the production and reproduction of inequalities. Racial trauma is perpetuated in a structural and unintended way through microaggressions as Black students are asked what sport they are in college to play, or as black history is all but ignored, except for one month out of the year in order to keep students academically focused on what is considered to be valuable educational content. These occurrences seem minute but the reality of repeated microaggressions forced on to a student for the entirety of their life can be detrimental to their self-concept, their education, and how they function in the daily world. 

This trauma is also catalyzed by institutional practices. The institutional aspect of racism perpetuates racial trauma by the ignoring or the denying of Black experience by institutions or through institutional structures and their actors engaging Black students in ways that mirror broader social injustices. Thus, educational institutions, which are supposed to be focused on students’ intellectual and personal growth, can contribute to racial trauma in ways that are counter to the goals and values of the institution. Frequently these go unnoticed and unaccounted for and are viewed to be the individual experiences of individual Black students, not broader patterns of institutional racial bias. Just as victim blaming occurs for those who have experienced sexual assault, it also occurs for those who choose to speak out against institutionalized racism. Due to the nature of a PWI, it is not necessarily surprising that there are some institutional issues that result from a lack of knowledge of Black experience and lack of representation of Black faculty, staff, and students, as well as a lack of funding for activities that allow space to raise critical questions about race and racism on college campuses. For example, Black student organizations have received less funding on our campus due to the interpretation that their organizational activities are only for Black students. This results in Black students being afforded fewer opportunities to speak out at injustices without being edited. Thus, Black students frequently are silenced. 

This experience of racial trauma as it follows Black individuals from childhood into adulthood operates as a wound that is repeatedly reopened. As Black students attempt to speak out about what they believe is right, they are aware that this could have negative consequences for their education and their future. Head and eyes down becomes a survival skill, but one that doesn’t mitigate the trauma, which is brought about by “a profound sense of fear” that follows Black individuals throughout their lives. The position of a Black student at a PWI keeps this fear real (Yancy, 92). The perpetuation of fear caused by racial trauma must be understood, and it must be dismantled. There is an imperative that PWIs recognize their role in maintaining and furthering Black racial trauma because the trauma is inconsistent with most PWIs’ stated missions and values. Furthermore, there is a broader ethical mandate that PWIs and their members disable mechanisms of harm. The challenge is that whites, as individuals and as members of PWIs, can overtly and unintentionally be resistant to seeing the harm and understanding their role in it. This results in a level of institutional invulnerability that is hard to shake. 

White bodies, white spaces, and white institutions experience a type of perceived and real invulnerability that is enabled by the historical legacy of race in the U.S. To be white is to be more readily imagined as a doctor, judge, lawyer, professor, someone with knowledge and authority. Blacks even are frequently questioned about the veracity of their own knowledge about their experiences of being Black. Whitesplaining, the curious phenomenon of whites viewing themselves to be better interpreters of Black experience than Blacks, leads to whites informing Blacks how they are wrong about the racism they experience in predominately white spaces. 

Furthermore, white spaces frequently are read as neutral spaces that are open to all, even those that were once intentionally segregated spaces, as were most US colleges and universities. Predominately white educational institutions tend to perceive that they are providing an education for all, with the assumption that there is a neutral curriculum that could and should be embraced by all. What is missing is the understanding of how this “neutrality” was constructed such that Black experience and knowledge has been left out of the academic canon for so long that institutions have forgotten the level of intentionality that historically mandated this practice. PWIs have also forgotten how social spaces, such as fraternities and sororities, maintain their predominate whiteness through a combination of fees, recruitment, selection, and activities. This doesn’t mean that there are not Black members of these groups, but that they remain predominantly white because of how they are structured. Predominately white educational institutions function in a similar manner as social spaces. It is not that they don’t have Black students, faculty, or administrators, but that they remain predominantly white because of the opportunities and structures they afford and the opportunities and structures already present in the U.S. For example, at many PWIs including our own, the sciences are free from curricular diversity requirements as if the sciences have never had or currently don’t have an influence on how we understand race, or as if unlike other disciplines, the sciences haven’t had gatekeepers who maintained their whiteness.

What happens at the institutional level is that the predominant members of these institutions are unable to see the lack of neutrality in their curriculum, activities, or structure because these educational spaces are consistent with what they have experienced and what they have benefitted from. As Yancy describes it: “The movement of white bodies within spaces at predominately white institutions involves a dynamic set of institutional and normative forces that allow you to feel at home, for your body to move with ease” (108). Our lack of awareness of this embedded structure is a type of pernicious ignorance which philosopher Kristie Dotson describes as a predictable gap in our knowledge (2012).2 This type of ignorance is harmful for those who don’t benefit or are harmed by those structures, but who also have very little recourse to ask for change. This is precisely because the structures are perceived to be institutionally neutral and because the institutions are made up by those who have benefitted from those structures and thus intentionally or unintentionally will enable their maintenance and replication. Thus, even the simple act of walking across campus at a PWI “is not a racially neutral process, but a process that speaks to a racially saturated white space, historically embedded white racial power relationships, sedimentations of white normative assumptions, and a process where white bodies reap privilege and immunity for being white” (Yancy, 109). This shift in orientation is incredibly challenging because most white faculty and administrators are like Yancy’s white letter writers at the end of Backlash who want to accept and embrace the gift that Yancy has to offer. They want to recognize their own racism and make the personal changes in their lives to dismantle their own racism. Most of them are decidedly anti-racist—they are Yancy’s “anti-racist racists,” people who seek to rid themselves of their racism, yet like all white people in our current US social structure will never fully be free of it. 

However, the challenge is to recognize that it is not just individuals that suffer from racism, but our institutions as well, and reshaping these is a collective project that requires a more substantial reshaping than just changing individuals. Many academic institutions are well over 100 years old, many were built on the backs of Black labor, and these PWIs’ built in habits of racial privilege and structure are hard to see, let alone change. What is needed to dismantle these layers of racialized structures is a willingness for whites to experience what Yancy describes as “white vulnerability,” which involves a risking of one’s “own self-understanding” (107). For a PWI this vulnerability would involve both a substantial willingness to self-assess its own institutional structures that have benefitted from and maintained white privilege, as well as a profound willingness to engage in deep and meaningful institutional change, all the way through to thinking about curriculum, staffing, fees, and support for students. Yancy describes this substantially critical self-assessment as “un-suturing,” a taking apart at the seams through a “process of troubling a problematic ontology or mode of being” (112). This change needs to start from the experiences and ideas of Black members of our institution, including students. 

For our predominantly white institution, Wittenberg University, below are some changes that Black students would like to see, as well as a description of how our institution is working to respond to demands for change. These insights and this call for change are generated from a student activist group, Concerned Black Students (CBS), with a fifty-year history of raising questions on matters of race at our institution. For more information about CBS, see their website:–students-cbs.


Nancy Arden McHugh and Corina Cleveland

Wittenberg University





“You must let suffering speak, if you want to hear the truth.”

 Cornel West
















Our campus administration is working to understand and respond to the concerns raised by CBS. Some of their initial activities include the following:



Mandatory diversity and restorative justice training for campus police, student senate, and senior staff. Growth in this area would include training for all members of campus. The newly formed President’s Council for Diversity and Inclusion is charged with recommending training for all campus populations. 


Demographics of Police Stops and Student Conduct Review:

Campus police are working to modify software so that they can track demographics of all police interactions, not just traffic stops. Furthermore, Student Conduct Board will now include a summary table of students represented by race/ethnicity of the student conduct process for all end of the semester reports. 


Funding for Concerned Black Students (CBS):

Student Senate revised their funding approach to include to include a category for “intercultural” student organizations. Although this increases the percentage of funding that could go to CBS, CBS does not believe it is commensurate with their representation on campus or their contributions to Student Activity Fund. 


Recruitment of a More Diverse Faculty and Staff:

The College has added a “Commitment to Diversity” statement to hiring guidelines and has started to employ “best practices” in advertising to reach a more diverse pool of candidates. 


Campus Programming:

CBS will be responsible for Black History Month Programming. Students of diverse backgrounds will be appointed to the campus programming committee for campus events in order to increase the diversity of speakers and events. 


These initiatives are a start in the right direction, but are ones that were unlikely to happen without the persistence and demand for change from Concerned Black Students, and not without having reached a tipping point on our campus. All PWIs, including our own, have ethical, educational, and practical mandates to develop and support a diverse campus climate. This requires active and intentional work on all parts of our campus. We are proud of and indebted to CBS for requiring us to confront our shortcomings and hope as a campus community we will continue dismantling our whiteness to develop a more inclusive and diverse campus community. 

  1. “Black College Students’ Ethnic Identity and Academic Achievement: Examining Mental Health and Racial Discrimination as Moderators” Journal of Black Psychology, Volume 48, Issue 1, (February 2022), 100–29.

  2. Dotson, “A cautionary tale: On limiting epistemic oppression,” Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 33 (1) 24–47.

  • George Yancy

    George Yancy


    Response to McHugh and Cleveland

    In Nancy Arden McHugh and Corina Cleveland’s courageous response1 to Backlash, they unabashedly demonstrate the anti-racist work that must be done by composing a letter of their own, “Dear Predominantly White Institution,” which carefully identifies the multi-layered dimensions of whiteness that structure predominantly white institutions (PWIs). The authors demonstrate the vulnerability of risk by responding to the problematic whiteness of/at their own academic institution, Wittenberg University. McHugh (a white professor of philosophy and faculty member) and Cleveland (a biracial student) construct a letter that effectively mirrors my letter, “Dear White America.” It is to their university that they personally offer a gift to un-suture the hegemonic white norms and practices that form the foundation of their academic institution. As they write, “This is our gift to our college to whom we address from a space of love and hope for institutional healing and growth.” And while each one is at risk, though relative to the differential power locations that each occupies, both authors reflect the power of parrhesia to speak truth to power, inequity, injustice, and violence within PWIs more generally. My only hope is that Wittenberg University respond with courageous listening, which involves the process of being open to be touched by hearing the truth and being transformed thereby. 

    What I find incredibly important is that McHugh and Cleveland mark institutionalized racial trauma as an essential site to begin academic institutional soul-searching. They insightfully locate racialized trauma within the context of the impact of racialized microaggressions and “the very real threat of violence and aggression that have been experienced by Blacks historically and currently.” The very real threat of anti-Black violence is what I suggested earlier in my introductory remarks. The Black body is open to gratuitous violence in virtue of being Black within a world where whiteness is “the privileged signifier.”2 My sense is that this openness to anti-Black gratuitous violence speaks to the logics of whiteness as the site of the “human.” The ritual of anti-Black violence is linked to a form of disavowal that serves both to distance white people from the necessity of Black death (that is, the necessity of killing the “Black beast”) and to underwrite white “innocence” and white narrative coherence.3 

    Citing the importance that I place upon Black psychological stress that is linked to intentional forms of anti-Blackness, McHugh and Cleveland note that “the psychological stress that initiates racial trauma also can be activated by structural mechanisms that don’t require actions or intent from individuals.” I couldn’t agree more. Of course, it bears pointing out that institutions are not reified entities but are constituted by embodied practices of flesh and blood human beings whose modes of being within those institutional spaces are shaped by all sorts of rigid racist assumptions, racist quotidian institutional practices, and epistemologies of ignorance—racialized, gendered, classed, and ableist. And yet, it is important that white institutional practices are not reduced to forms of voluntarism lest we overlook the habitual and unconscious ways in which white institutional spaces operate, though at no less cost to Black embodied forms of experienced trauma. 

    Just being embodied as Black within predominantly white monochromatic spaces can be (and often is) traumatic. Those spaces are not benign formations. They are fueled by histories of racial exclusivity, which means that they have internalized, even if unconsciously, myths of white “purity” and white “safety.” I would argue that at the center of such white spaces is not just the absence of Black people, but their negation. And yet, their Black absence (or is it “presence”?) functions like a site of obscenity, with all the projections that both excite and repulse. As bell hooks writes, “All black people in the United States, irrespective of their class status or politics, live with the possibility that they will be terrorized by whiteness.”4 There are white students, white teachers, and white administrators, who will claim, “But you exaggerate!” McHugh and Cleveland argue, “Whitesplaining, the curious phenomenon of whites viewing themselves to be better interpreters of Black experience than Blacks, leads to whites informing Blacks how they are wrong about the racism they experience in predominately white spaces.” I would also add just how Black people, within such spaces, are denuded of their own critical subjectivity and the fact that they are part of larger Black epistemic communities that provide the necessary hermeneutic framework for understanding what it means to be Black, what it means to be racially profiled, what it means to be racially insulted, what it means to undergo racial epistemic violence, and what it means to experience racial trauma. After recounting some of the white racist vitriol that I experienced after the publication of “Dear White America,” one white denier wrote, “Yeah. I doubt it. So, I’m betting this is total bullshit. Nobody sent this nigger any ‘hate mail.’ [Others] should challenge him to produce it, and if he can’t, sue him for defamation. Dumb-ass nigger.” And yet another, “I’ll take ‘Stories that never happened’ for $500.” The strange thing is that I didn’t want to believe the content of the letters (physical and electronic) sent to me, meaning that I found the threats and the vile comments hard to believe. Who would sit and write such garbage, and who would do so, presumably, with such a clear conscience? Nevertheless, those letters told me nothing about myself, but they did tell me about whiteness. Whiteness needs me to be the “Nigger.” Wielding that racist epithet signifies the fundamental instability of whiteness. As Baldwin writes, “It is a terrible paradox, but those who believed that they could control and define Black people divested themselves of the power to control and define themselves.”5  

    McHugh and Cleveland importantly argue against the “episodic” or “occasional” white racist anti-Black trauma that white institutions seem happy to acknowledge. By doing so, however, whites in institutional positions of power place under erasure, as the authors importantly note, “a wound that is repeatedly reopened.” It is that reopened wound which understandably discourages Black students from disclosing the truth about their racialized traumatic experiences. McHugh and Cleveland point out how the reality of such experiences belie “most PWIs’ stated missions and values” regarding protections from student harm. The point here is that those white institutions are failing Black students. Part of this failure is due, according to McHugh and Cleveland, to the seductive power of white “neutrality” which both reinforces white epistemic opacity and overlooks the lived positionality of Black students and their curricular needs. Within this context, or so I would argue, it is “neutrality” (a fiction of whiteness) that is part of the crime. 

    As a way of radically addressing the anti-Black trauma within academic institutions, the authors deploy my work on un-suturing. Such un-suturing would entail institutional critical self-awareness that is followed by creating dangerous spaces,6 where white students, teachers, and administrators begin to see themselves as they are, where whiteness is exposed and disarticulated along the white epistemic and institutional embodied sutures that hold whiteness together. The un-concealing of such institutional sutures is painful as it reveals white hypocrisy and anti-Black racism despite (or even because of) its liberal multicultural aims and brochures. At the end of their engaging reflections on Black trauma within the context of PWIs, McHugh and Cleveland flip the script (and counter the white gaze), a move indicative of my own work, by highlighting the demands issued by Black students, by those who experience their lived trauma both within and outside of the academy of “higher” education. McHugh and Cleveland list several initiatives formulated by Concerned Black Students (CBS) at Wittenberg University. Returning to the theme raised above, Black students at Wittenberg University understand that they have work to do; indeed, they are doing the work. Yet, it is my belief, a terrifying belief, that the reality of what I call the silent surplus of whiteness, which signifies the recursive excess of hegemonic whiteness, will remain in place—will remain safe, refusing to opt for life.       

    1. At the time of co-authoring their response, McHugh was a professor of philosophy and Cleveland was her student at Wittenberg University. Since that time, McHugh is now professor of philosophy and the Executive Director of the Fitz Center for Leadership in Community at the University of Dayton, and Cleveland has received an MA in philosophy from Miami University.

    2. bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: MA, South End Press, 1992), 167.

    3. I would like to thank Frank B. Wilderson III for this line of reasoning.

    4. bell hooks, Black Looks: Race and Representation (Boston: MA, South End Press, 1992), 175.

    5. James Baldwin, “On Being White and Other Lies” In Randall Kenan (Ed.), The Cross of Redemption. (New York: Pantheon, 1998), 138.

    6. Dangerous because white un-suturing disrupts the normative functioning of white “neutrality.”

Britt Munro


Tracing the White Imaginary from One Settler-Colony to Another

Reading the so-called “manifesto” of the white Australian man who murdered fifty-one people across two mosques in Christchurch on the 18th of March 2019, I was struck by a sickening sense of familiarity. Something in the writer’s tone of false bravado, his deeply paranoiac worldview, his frequent, capitalized outbursts, his hysterical conviction of encroachment, of threat, recalled the letters, emails and voice messages sent to George Yancy following the publication of his op-ed “Dear White America.” 

This correlation points to why Yancy’s analysis of the white supremacist abuse he received in Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Race in America is instructive, not only within a North American context, but in relation to understanding and confronting white supremacy across the globe. It also points to the deep urgency of that instruction. 

I was first asked to respond to Backlash during the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre in Australia, when I found myself returning again and again to Yancy’s book.  At the time, I remember being struck by the scramble to claim “This is not us,”1 to distance the white, national self from the act of violence it had produced and to reframe this violence as an aberration. Here, the message of Backlash was crucial. In the book, Yancy demands that white people pause before we rush in to proclaim ourselves apart from the problem, performing our outrage in a coded attempt to re-establish a narrative of white innocence. In this pause, Yancy asks that we instead allow for the possibility that we may not know ourselves, that white racist violence may have something to teach us about ourselves that we have been unwilling to see. Rather than deny our relation to the problem of white supremacy, Yancy asks that we instead begin to see our own deep imbrication within this problem; indeed, to see ourselves as the problem (118). Here, Yancy traces the roots of white supremacist violence back to a much broader and more pervasive white imaginary: one in which the denial of relation to the racialized person, and the resulting freezing of the racialized person as object sits at the heart of white subjectivity. In this response I want to explore what Backlash has to teach us about the kind of work performed by this imaginary, and to analyze how Yancy builds his challenge to it. Ultimately, I want to draw on Yancy’s insights to ask how white settler subjects in an Australian context should take up this challenge, given the continuing landscape of settler-colonial white supremacy and the rising tide of overt white fascism. 


The White Racial Imaginary

“As Black people, within the context of the long history of white racist America, we have been perceived, constructed and treated in ways that reduce our complex lives to that which white people have imagined us to be” (Yancy, 2).

In Backlash, George Yancy’s analysis of the hate mail he received after publishing Dear White America shows us a whiteness that is dangerously out of depth with itself; a whiteness that is desperate, reeling, unstable. The painstakingly handwritten letters, the voices trembling with a hatred they cannot hold; the elaborate, hysterical fantasies of victimhood. This is an image of a white self deeply invested in a pathological, historical racial imaginary, a white self deeply oriented within this imaginary and threatened by its loss. Yet where he knows that white readers will be tempted to declare, “This is not us!” to decry, to deny, to distance ourselves from “those bad racists,” Yancy demands we do not. Instead, he entreats us to look closer: “I ask that you NOT treat the vile and racist disclosures in these chapters as aberrations…This is about white America, not exceptions to it, but dimensions of its oppressive rule, its deep historic racist white imaginary, and its normative structures” (24–25). 

In Backlash, Yancy explains that just as any act of white supremacist violence takes its logics from a specific historical racist imaginary, the persistence of such an imaginary is itself enabled by much broader processes of white, (neo)liberal self-making, which in the US and Australian contexts are inseparable from the founding violence of the white settler-colonial state. As a white subject, I can only think of myself as a rational ends-choosing individual insofar as I can disavow the histories of violent dispossession through which whiteness is created and maintained, and my own profound embeddedness in these histories. At the same time, my claim to self-possessed individuality (“I didn’t ask for any of that, it has nothing to do with me!”) actively erases my relationship to the continuing violence of the colonizing state. This was evident in the response of ex-Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison to the Christchurch Massacre, in which he denied any relation between the attack and systemic white supremacy by repeatedly claiming “we are a nation of individuals” and denouncing “mindless tribalism” on all sides. But this repetition is a slippage; it reveals to us the work the statement performs. Here, the entreaty to individualism (as if seeing group identity were itself the problem) sidesteps accountability for the structural white supremacy which gave shape and meaning to the killer’s actions. “It is so easy,” writes Yancy, “for white people to retreat to a form of individualism designed to nullify their group status” (71). 

Yet it is our “group status” that has something very important to tell us about ourselves as white subjects, something we are deeply invested in not knowing. Insofar as a liberal imaginary posits the subject as bounded, intentional, ends-choosing, self-transparent and self-possessed, it allows me to deny the sense in which, as white, I am always-already embedded within, and both materially and psychically reliant on, racial structures of power. Just as statistically my whiteness will contribute to shaping the income of my parents, where I go to school, the education level I receive, my likelihood of experiencing incarceration and/or of dying from curable disease, so Indigeneity in Australia corresponds to the inverse of these outcomes. Similarly, the terms which characterize my white feminine body as innocent (terms which structure my relationship to myself, how I feel in my own body) are directly premised on the imagined criminality of a racialized other. Yancy explains that, like the motion of a seesaw, these two sides are not unrelated but rather constructed through and dependent upon one another. My easy movement through the world is directly premised on my perceived distance from Bla(c)kness,2 and in this way antiblackness is integral to a positive experience of the world that I take to be normal, natural and inevitable. Yancy explains “your existence as white depends upon your distance from us as Black. In fact, where would you be without us” (57)? In this context, my insistence that my action be narrated through personal intention rather than effect (but I didn’t mean to be racist!) erases my responsibility for the complex ways I am embedded and complicit within systems of racialized power that I did not create and—if white supremacy is doing its job—I may neither see nor understand. Yancy cautions “when it comes to white racism, you are not fully autonomous, etymologically a ‘law’ unto yourself” (77); “As white,” he explains, “you are unable to give an account of your racist limits” (79).

 In the sense that learning to recognize myself as white through a Black counter-gaze reveals to me my own embeddedness within racialized structures of power (structures which BIPOC folk cannot easily choose not to see, as these structures are a source of ongoing injury), it threatens not only my claim to the universal but the very structure of my self-understanding.3 It demands that I admit that I was never entirely in possession of myself, that my agency in the world was always-already deeply social and thus racial; that my white self is dependent upon a construction of the racialized other; and that the problem of race is thus never “out there” but instead very much “in here:” a white problem (118). It is in this sense, I think, that Yancy asks for “love” from his white readers in return for the gift of his insight; not love in any sentimental sense of the word, but love in the sense of willingness to enter into relation with him, even when that relation means risking one’s white (racist) self (81).


The Opacity of the White Racist Self

“What I’m doing throughout the book as a whole is offering you, white reader, a way to engage in a deeper self-understanding of what it means to be white from a perspective outside of your self-understanding, a place that is closed off” (13).

In Backlash, Yancy challenges this white liberal construction of the self through doing exactly what this imaginary cannot tolerate and narrating whiteness back to itself, drawing upon his own affective, embodied experience as a source of knowledge in doing so. In refusing to shy away from the impact of racist abuse upon his own body (“again, I want to scream” [5]), Yancy refuses the white settler ontology embedded in academic demands for objectivity, explaining “for we are told that what we know in our very bodies to be true isn’t credible, which is a different kind of violence, the epistemic kind. I have certainly experienced this” (47). Where Bla(c)k knowledge of whiteness challenges the control of the white narrator and has thus long been threatened and suppressed, Yancy embraces this knowledge and demands that his white readership do the same. He explains “I am offering you a gift, white reader, a gift of perspective, a new way of understanding yourself.” Tracing the tropes, fantasies and accusations directed at his body back to long-standing narratives of anti-blackness, Yancy demonstrates that he sees “in and through”4 his white correspondents. Their violent imaginaries laid bare, his correspondents are revealed as deeply invested and irrational, attached to a white imaginary and threatened by the loss of this attachment. Insofar as they draw on racist narratives to project this sense of threat onto Yancy’s own body (performing a “magic rite”5 whereby suddenly it is Yancy himself who is the “racist,” the “race baiter,” the sexual predator, the threat [7]) their logic is embedded within a historical, racist framework which they refuse to avow. In this sense, they remain deeply opaque to themselves, invested in a productive epistemology of ignorance,6 a dangerous mode of not-seeing.  

Yancy is careful to point out, however, that this self-opacity is often as present in the actions of white “progressives” as it is in expressions of overt white supremacy. He recounts how at a conference he is mistaken by white academics for his colleague, the only other Black professor present, no less than seven times. So invested were these white academics in a “fixed” notion of Blackness that they literally failed to see the person standing in front of them. Just as the white officer, again and again, “sees” a criminal, “sees” a gun, so Yancy’s colleagues “saw” him, no less than seven times, as a different man. In asking ourselves how it is that a person can become so invested in a racist imaginary that they are driven to commit acts of physical violence, I think, along with Yancy, that we also need to ask what underpins the fixity of the racialized figure in the white imagination more generally. How might our certainty about ourselves, as white settlers, depend upon it? In his memoir No Friend But the Mountains Kurdish writer and journalist Behrouz Boochani responds to the sense in which he is objectified across both the left and right side of politics, his body a means through which white subjects work to carve out their image of a good white self and nation. “Refugees are not angels and we are not devils,” he entreats, “both ideas come from the same framework, and it is a dehumanizing one…in Western culture there is a deep desire to see refugees devoid of complexity.”7 This sense of being fixed under a white gaze and denied interiority is part and parcel of the process of racialization.8 Like the scene in Jordan Peele’s Get Out where Daniel Kaluuya falls backwards screaming into the abyss, his body frozen before a white interrogator, so racialization fixes the subject “at the epidermal level,” rendering their voice not only unheard, but—for as long as the subject remains invested in a fantasy of their own whiteness—unhearable (7). This kind of fantasy, Yancy explains, is also fatal; to the killer who stalked Trayvon Martin through the streets and ended his young life “Martin’s Black embodiment was always-already known; the killer failed, refused, or just didn’t give a damn to ask ‘who art thou’” (113). White Australian police officer Zachary Rolfe similarly acted out of a violent fantasy of white innocence when he chose to murder 19 year old Warlpiri man Kumanjayi Walker in cold blood; a fantasy that was vigorously defended in the public and legal response to the killing. The deep objectification, the refusal to hear, that framed the violence in each of these cases and many more speaks to our refusal, as white settler subjects, to be in relation with the racialized other, and, consequently, with ourselves. 



Racism is not a miscalculation, or a simple cognitive distortion, but whiteness is a way of being embodied, a white way of being. It is a lie that is so intimate that it is you, the normative you….” (115).

I want to return now to “so-called Australia”,9 where at the time of writing this piece the clamor to distance the political mainstream from the events in Christchurch had reached fever pitch. I want to ask how, as white settler-colonial subjects, we should take up the challenge George Yancy offers in Backlash to respond differently, not only to the attack in Christchurch, but to all acts of white supremacist violence. 

Here it is useful to consider what Yancy calls the “sutured” and “unsutured” self. To be sutured, Yancy explains, is to remain closed off, sealed, off, unaffected. He writes that “To be sutured within the context of white identity is indicative of ‘the narrative authority’ of the white self that seals itself off from ‘otherness’” (105). A white liberal imaginary, in which the subject experiences herself as bounded and autonomous, her agency projected out onto the world rather than formed in relation with it, is in this sense a method of suturing, a denial of one’s relation to and vulnerability before the other. In her claim to self-transparency, the sutured white self refuses to recognize herself in her impact on the other; refuses to stare back into Baldwin’s “disagreeable mirror” and learn from what she may find there. In this sense, the declaration “this is not us” performs an act of re-suturing; of prematurely answering a question, of staunching a wound, of restoring a self that is always-already known. But what is the self that we are attempting to restore? What violence is implicit in, is necessary for the production of, this self? 

In Australia, a nation founded on genocidal settler-colonialism in which Indigenous peoples continue to face a life expectancy nearly ten years lower and incarceration rates fifteen times higher than whites, the kind of phobic white imaginary present in the logics of the Christchurch killer has a long and violent precedent. As Chelsea Watego explains, “Australian history has more than a racial dimension. Race has been foundational to this country10. From Terra Nullius to ongoing dispossession, from the historic White Australia Policy to today’s torturous and criminal system of mandatory indefinite detention, from a media dominated by Islamophobic, anti-Bla(c)k rhetoric, to a federal parliament which applauds a senator after he calls for a “final solution” to Muslim immigration; the atrocities in Christchurch emerge out of a racial imaginary inseparable from the production and maintenance of the modern Australian state. In Backlash, Yancy similarly locates the white supremacist abuse he receives within a dense racial history that continues to structure the contemporary US.    

In this context, the declaration “This is not us” functions as an act of masking, of sealing over, of closing up.11 Where the act of violence unmasks the supposed innocence of the white self,12 this declaration works as a refusal to remain undone; a rejection of the moment in which we might, faced with the pain of the other, surrender our power to narrate. Urging his white readers to remain “unsutured” in the face of Black pain, Yancy invites us into a space of perceptual breakdown, one “linked to the terrifying realization that your ‘innocence’ was not real at all” (114). To remain unsutured in this context is, I think, to recognise that white supremacy is not something happening “out there,” but the condition of possibility of our most intimate world-making as white settler subjects: our subjectivities, our selves. It is thus to open ourselves up to a much deeper level of responsibility in relation to structural white supremacy; to commit to action driven by what Yancy calls an “ethical insomnia.” 

In relation to events such as Christchurch, it demands from white settlers a very different response. Rather than leaping in to assert, “This is not us,” it might instead demand the question, “Who are we?” Answering this question, Yancy suggests, will require that we admit the inadequacy of our existing narratives, the extent of our own opacity to ourselves; it will require that we turn towards the other as a knowing subject. In the context of so-called Australia, Gary Foley, Jacqui Katona, Robbie Thorpe, and Aileen Moreton-Robinson are just some of the voices that have, for a long time now, been answering this question that white Australia remains unwilling to ask of itself. Yancy would tell us that it is far past time to listen to them.  


  1. Echoing Jacinda Ardern’s famous statement following the attack, Australian public and political discourse has been quick to claim that the killer ‘does not represent anything of our country or our values’ (Opposition Leader Bill Shorten), and to disown his actions as ‘pure evil’ and even ‘inhuman‘ (Prime Minister Scott Morrison). This is in contrast to many Indigenous commentators, who have repeatedly sought to place the event in a context of historic and structural white supremacy, reminding us that “The murder of 50 innocent people does not just happen” (Dodson), and that “racism is not aberrational…it is foundational” (Watego).

  2. ‘Blak,’ as reclaimed by artist Erub/Mer and K’ua K’ua artist Destiny Deacon, is a term that has come to differentiate Indigenous from non-Indigenous racialized experience in the Australian settler-colony.

  3. This goes some way towards explaining the violence of white reactions to Yancy’s original op-ed; he writes ‘In the letter I revealed that I know something crucial about their opaque racist thoughts and their systemic racist embeddedness, and these readers appear to know that I know’ (Backlash, 125).

  4. Of them I am singularly clairvoyant. I see in and through them. I view them from unusual points of vantage.” Du Bois, W.E.B. “The Souls of White Folk.” In W.E.B Du Bois: A Reader, edited by David Levering Lewis. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995 (453).

  5. Ellison, R. Shadow and Act. New York: Vintage International, 1995 (28).

  6. Mills, C. The Racial Contract. New York: Cornell University Press, 1997.

  7. Zable, A. Australia’s Barbaric Policy Confronted by Boochani’s Prison Memoir. Interview in The Age:

  8. See Gordon, L. What Fanon Said: A Philosophical Introduction to his Life and Thought. New York: Fordham University Press, 2015 (48–50) for an elaboration of this idea.

  9. Watego, C. Another Day in the Colony. Queensland: University of Queensland Press, 2021.

  10. Watego, C. Speaker on panel. “Has Racism in Australia Entered the Political Mainstream?”

  11. See Ghumkhor, S. The Hypocrisy of New Zealand’s “This is not us” claim. Al Jazeera:

  12. A fantasy of innocence that is certainly not “masked” for everyone, but predominantly for those who are invested in it.

  • George Yancy

    George Yancy


    Response to Munro

    Britt Munro opens her critically reflective piece within the context of the horrific murders that occurred in Christchurch, New Zealand, in 2019, where a white Australian male attacked two Mosques and killed fifty-one people. As I read Munro’s response, it was hard not to tarry with the pain and the sorrow of the event. As Black, I understand what it means to occupy the constitutive outside of whiteness. As a Black person living within the US, tarrying with vicious anti-Black violence is not a requirement, a suggestion, or a demand. One’s body knows the drill, especially as the pain and sorrow seems everlasting. There is a particular sense of heaviness, muscular rigidity, the failure of words, the compulsion to scream. Think here of the public lynching of George Floyd, where a white knee on a Black neck is graphically repulsive and reminiscent of a rope placed around a Black neck with white hands. In either case, one cannot breathe. Or think about the eighteen-year-old white male who murdered ten Black people at a Tops supermarket in Buffalo, New York, on May 14, 2022. In each of these horrible cases, the white men decided to be safe, which means that they refused to face life, to face the Other, and to tarry with alterity. If wonder is “the beginning of a new story,”1 as Luce Irigaray suggests, then it was their whiteness that doomed that new narrative ab initio. Their whiteness didn’t prize itself apart vis-à-vis the Other; indeed, the ontology of whiteness reduces us (BIPOC) to sameness.2 

    Munro opens her reflections on Backlash by bringing attention precisely to the failure or refusal of whiteness to tarry with alterity, to risk the chance of seeing something about itself that fundamentally contradicts the myth of its “innocence.” At the opening of her response piece, Munro delineates what is at stake where she emphasizes what I see as a profound unknowing at the core of whiteness. She writes that rather than bolstering white epistemic hubris “that we [white people] instead allow for the possibility that we may not know ourselves.” The use of the plural pronoun “we” suggests a form of tarrying that belies the illusion of individual self-mastery or myopic epistemic closure. Munro’s deployment of “we” within the context of the hateful white Australian male who chose safety, who wrapped himself in rags of lies, is poignant. Her emphasis on “seeing ourselves [white people] as the problem” and her argument that we “see our own deep imbrication within this problem” brilliantly reflects the failure (or false victory) on the part of those white people who took the time to call me a “Nigger” in writing. What amplifies the importance of what Munro sees as a failure is the fact that she is also a white Australian. Just as she understands the power of white people/whiteness in Australia to disavow their/its complicity in the murder committed by the white Australian man, I know what it means when white people in the US attempt to convince me and other Black people that anti-Blackness is indicative of a marginal few, where anti-Blackness is an aberration expressed only by the “behavioral extremes” of a few white people. 

    My position is that whiteness is structural violence; there is nothing tepid about it, though it is not unusual for white people to espouse the belief in such gradations. When one is the racialized target of structural and habitual iterative white violence (as is true of Black people in the US and Black Indigenous people in Australia), there is no room for granular details. The white gaze that polices is violent; the white woman who tugs on her purse as I walk in her direction calls into question my ethical integrity; I am reduced to my epidermis, which is violent. White people touching Black hair (uninvited) is violent. Asking Black women to be less angry when it comes to racist injustice is violent. Pulling Black men over because they are driving expensive cars is violent. Meeting a Black college student for the first time and asking what sport they play is violent. Referring to the enslavement of Black bodies as “involuntary relocation” when teaching 2nd graders (as was suggested this year by a group of Texas educators) is violent. Treating a young Black child as an adult, through the nefarious process known as “adultification” is violent.3 The hyper-criminalization of Black bodies is violent. The carceral logics of surveillance at predominantly Black schools, along with the school-to-prison-pipeline process, is violent. And if it is true that whiteness is haptic, systemic, ingrained in the embodied habits of white people, in forms of bodily comportment, in feelings of race-free burdens, in “good intentions,” in the rush to be an ally, in the belief that if you only listen to the police that you will be safe, in the haste to cry tears about the past with no sense of your historically embedded present, in the opaque structure of the white psyche, then to be white is indeed to be imbricated in anti-Black violence. And this is as true in the US as it is true in Australia. One’s very being-in-the-world as white is extended through the suturing of one’s whiteness (as if from the beginning of time) to white institutional, historical, metaphysical, and semiotic struts and girders. The point here is that Munro is correct. Whiteness is a structural lie and so it is not surprising that white people would say: “This is not us!” This is where Munro engages with my understanding of the gift, which takes the form of a loving request that white people tarry with being unsafe. 

    Of course, a significant part of Backlash was to document the hate given in return for a gift, where I became the “racist.” Munro notes that such projections are “embedded within a historical, racist framework which they [white people] refuse to avow.” Munro critically traces how white projections work through the logics of the white imaginary, where Black Aboriginal bodies, Muslim immigrants, and refugees, are seen as excludable and disposable in virtue of being ontologically frozen and fungible (perhaps even non-coeval), where they are stripped of any complexity. Having visited Australia on a few occasions, and given a few talks there, Munro’s clarity to name its genocidal colonial history is welcomed. When discussing whiteness with white Australians, especially regarding the complexity of their whiteness as a site of violence, they have failed to articulate any deep understanding of what their whiteness means within the context of settler colonialism. It is as if they have created a temporal chasm between their whiteness and the “singular event” of settler colonialism. The fact of the matter, however, is that “the event” of settler colonialism hasn’t stopped. I have watched white Australians shopping, eating in restaurants, sipping tea and coffee with such cavalier attitudes, students going to school in their nice uniforms, churchgoers, and I want to shout: This is sacred land! This is not your land! How can you be so damn happy, and move in social spaces with such ease, and not be in a deep state of ethical crisis? I want to let them know that this is another aspect of what settler colonialism looks like—it means to settle, to stay, to inhabit, to settle down and to move with effortless grace on stolen land, on brutalized Black Indigenous bodies. I suspect that it is not to un-suture that white Australians want, it is not to look in a disagreeable mirror. Rather, they are perhaps obsessed by the desire to be told, “Hey, you are not a racist, you are one of the good ones.” At one church to which I was invited to give a talk in 2022, I was told in so many words that there was fear that my talk might upset the white Australian attendees, which would lead to their refusal or reluctance to engage in future “progressive discussions.” I’m sure that it had something to do with the title of my talk which explicitly captured the theme of whiteness as anti-theological. While I still gave my talk, I had to change the title. Moreover, there was the suggestion that I keep my talk focused on racism in the US, not racism in Australia. I suspect that many white Australians don’t want to have their “white progressive” sensibilities challenged, which is really a form of mediocrity when it comes to critiquing and naming whiteness. 

    It is my sense that many white Australians don’t want to relinquish their white “innocence.” And they certainly don’t want to know where that relinquishment will lead them. Munro brilliantly suggests that white people should “surrender our power to narrate.” I would agree. For white Australians, the dangerous question is: Whose narrative (whose voice, whose understanding of spirituality, whose understanding of social relationality, and the meaning of the cosmos) has been marginalized, disrupted from its vibrant interconnection with the earth, the land? Don’t get me wrong, I have heard white Australians talk about Black Aboriginal cultural/religious beliefs, but there is a particular sense of ethnographic intrigue, which is another form of violence. Munro concludes her response by emphasizing the importance of a necessary turning that white people must make. It is a turning toward the Other. Not for approval, praise, or absolution, but for kenosis, which is a process of emptying by facing the lie of whiteness. Don’t be surprised, though, if the Other expresses fatigue, frustration, or perhaps even outright refusal. That is for white people to tarry with.

    1. Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), 75.

    2. Luce Irigaray, An Ethics of Sexual Difference (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1993), 74.

    3. See

Timothy Golden


Phenomenology, Theology, and History: An Interpretation of George Yancy’s Backlash

Big things come in small packages. This is the best way for me to begin my description of George Yancy’s important text, Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America. In contrast to the length of Yancy’s other numerous and finely argued scholarly texts, Backlash is short. There is, however, no compromise in depth or breadth. So it would be a mistake to detract from the significance of the book because of its size. Indeed, although it is one of Yancy’s shorter works, it is, perhaps, the most influential.   

The title for the book is derived from the response that Yancy received for the publication of his letter in the New York Times on Christmas Eve, 2015, titled “Dear White America.” This letter, which Yancy has deemed a “gift” to white America, was at once an articulation of Yancy’s own sexist shortcomings, and through that articulation his attempt at encouraging whites to engage in the task of critical self-reflection, all in the interest of more productively grappling with the problem of racism in America. In Backlash, Yancy details the white, racist, vitriolic, response to this letter.1 This response took the form of emails, phone messages, and extensive commentary about Yancy on white supremacist websites. The book consists of a foreword written by Cornel West, an introduction, and four chapters. It is no exaggeration in the foreword when West writes of Yancy that he “is one of the few distinguished public philosophers willing to get his hands dirty in the muck and mire of white supremacy in contemporary America.”  Indeed, he is. Yancy is a philosopher in the classic Socratic tradition; he is one who brings his formidable philosophical acumen to bear on the very public problem of racism—one of the most complex and intractable problems of American life. And like Socrates, he is accused of being a corrupt influence in the culture. As one who grapples openly and honestly with racism, he is accused himself of being racist. This Socratic dynamic of one who offers to help standing accused of being the one who has created the problem is apparent throughout the pages of Backlash. This is the “muck and mire” to which West refers. The first chapter is a reproduction of the original “Dear White America” letter from the New York Times. And the remaining chapters chronicle the vitriolic, hate-filled responses to his letter (chapter two, entitled “Dear Nigger Professor”), Yancy’s plea for whites to “tarry” with the implications of his letter (chapter three, “Risking the White Self”), and Yancy’s articulation of white vulnerability—what he calls elsewhere an “un-suturing”2—as both the condition of receiving the gift and the result of its acceptance (chapter four, “Accepting the Gift”).

Again, though small, Backlash is packed with philosophical insight that has profound social, political, moral, and, as I will argue below, theological implications. In this brief essay, I intend to unpack the phenomenological theology at work in its pages. I also discuss an objection to Yancy’s sexism analogue to white racism based on a tension internal to Yancy’s own texts and some recent groundbreaking work in Black Male Studies. I conclude thatYancy’s analogy in chapter one of Backlash still holds—with some qualification—despite significant differences between race and gender which introduce some nuance that emerges with a careful consideration of history.  


  1. Backlash as Phenomenological Theology

An almost universal exclamation is heard from whites who read Yancy’s work, and who are familiar with his “Dear White America” letter: “But wait! All white people aren’t racist. In fact, I know lots of white people who aren’t racist. I’ve got no problem with Black people. So Yancy is wrong, and he’s the one who is racist because he called me racist!” This sort of response presents the perfect opportunity for a discussion of the philosophical and theological dimensions of Backlash, or what I shall call the “phenomenological theology” of this important text. By using the phrase “phenomenological theology,” I intend to make three points. First, that not only Backlash, but Yancy’s work in general takes place in the context of the phenomenological tradition of Edmund Husserl, and its enduring legacy in Heidegger, Merleau-Ponty, Levinas, and Fanon. Second, that there are aspects of Backlash, specifically Yancy’s vulnerability in writing “Dear White America” that resonate with Christian theology. And third, that the phenomenological aspects of Backlash have a theological dimension; that is, Yancy’s work has opened what Levinas refers to as a phenomenological dimension of “height” in which a Black subjectivity—one that whites have created through their oppression—makes moral demands on the white self, holding it “hostage” and creating a state of restlessness or “insomnia” in which the empty frameworks of abstract white theology receive their fleshly significance. Indeed, theology has no significance apart from human relationships, for according to Levinas, “God rises to his supreme and ultimate presence as correlative to the justice rendered unto men.”3 And in the Christian tradition, one cannot claim to love God without loving the neighbor: “If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? And this commandment have we from him, That he who loveth God love his brother also.”4 The imperatives of moral theology, then, are only as useful as the human relationships that put them into practice. 

Self-interested claims of individual white exoneration in the face of Yancy’s relentless critique and indictment of white supremacy reflect poorly on a philosophical understanding of Yancy’s work. Yancy is not making the untenable claim that every individual white person is a racist. If he was making such a claim, then his work would never be taken seriously, especially in the philosophical community. When Yancy makes the claim in “Dear White America” that whites are racist because they are white, he is asking for white people to put on hold their hyper-theoretical, neoliberal understandings of the self and individuality long enough to listen to the voices of those racialized, oppressed persons that they have created. Yancy is not interested in the theoretical obfuscation of Rawlsian philosophical abstraction that avoids white responsibility for racism by avoiding talk about race. No. Instead, Yancy, like Husserl, is interested in a suspension of such abstractions and theorizations. Husserl’s phenomenological method calls for a suspension or a bracketing of theoretical and abstract understandings of the world—what he terms the “natural attitude”—in favor of demonstrating the connection between subjectivity and the world that humans have created. Husserl is calling for a greater sense of moral responsibility in the face of a mathematized form of nature that has neglected the human contribution to the European sciences, leading Europe to the brink of nuclear annihilation. Similarly, Yancy, in “Dear White America” and Backlash, is calling for a greater sense of moral responsibility in whites. This implies, as it did for Husserl, a suspension or bracketing of abstract notions of the self which only serve to avoid responsibility in favor of achieving what Yancy terms a “tarrying” of whites with an account of racial embodiment which comes from the voices of the very people on the receiving end of racial oppression. So instead of whites concealing themselves behind Rawlsian neo-liberal conceptions of the atomic, hyper-individualized self, Yancy is calling for a much broader sense of responsibility among whites. It is not that each individual white person is incurably racist—again, this claim would be untenable—but rather that whites have inherited a social and political system of racial subjugation from which they benefit in virtue of simply being born white. An analogy is found in Christian theology’s doctrine of original sin. Although each individual human being did not eat of the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, each human being is “born in sin and shaped in iniquity.”5 This is the sort of Manichean condition of the colonized, according to Fanon: people are born into a world that is not of their own choosing.6 This is Yancy’s phenomenological—and, as I will argue below—his theological point.

Backlash also has theological dimensions. The project of “Dear White America” was a “gift.” And it is this notion of a “gift” that beckons forth thoughts of vulnerability and sacrifice. In this regard, Yancy represents a sort of Christ-like figure; of course, not in a Messianic, soteriological sense, but rather in the sense that his gift-giving brings with it a level of vulnerability and risk taking that reaches a level of sacrifice. To be sure, Yancy’s philosophical acumen is top-notch. But Yancy is more than a philosopher. He does not merely want to make arguments in the abstract. Again, to put it in Christian terms, Yancy’s chief interest in his phenomenological analysis in Backlash is to put himself at risk. And he demands no less from white America: if Yancy is going to be vulnerable enough to provide a phenomenological account of racial embodiment that demands self-reflection before it can be told, then the least that white people can do after having heard him is tarry with his words, suspending their own hyper-individualized theorizations long enough to do their own self-reflection. Backlash thus reminds me of the sheer vulnerability of the crucifixion, with its half-naked, arms stretched out wide, thorns-on-the-brow, bloody mess. Socially, Yancy was “crucified,” having sacrificed his physical safety, needing police escorts, and having sacrificed his peace of mind because of a gift that he gave that was rejected by so many. Hence the association of Yancy with the Christ figure. Backlash, I think, makes this case strongly.

Finally, insofar as Yancy describes his letter to “Dear White America” as a “gift,” phenomenology and theology converge in Backlash to create some compelling affinities with Jean-Luc Marion’s work on the phenomenology of the gift in his book, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness. Specifically, Yancy’s gift of “Dear White America” exceeds traditional notions of giving, making both that text and Backlash instances of what Marion calls “saturated phenomena.” I argue that Yancy, like Marion, articulates a phenomenology of giving that exceeds the metaphysical trap of reciprocity, resulting in an overflow of rigid, Kantian-styled epistemic, white, racist categorical formulations in favor of a sort of Levinasian alterity that overwhelms white agency with moral demands. Such moral imperatives provide empty, white theological frameworks with a signification that ensures their moral efficacy.

Marion opens Being Given with the claim that “whatever shows itself first gives itself” is his “one and only theme.”7 With this assertion, Marion attempts to show that a notion of “givenness” or “being given” precedes the phenomenon that is given. Marion wants to move beyond Husserlian notions of the “things themselves” and beyond Heidegger’s notion of Ereignis (the event) to articulate a phenomenology of givenness in which neither the transcendental subject (Husserl) nor Dasein (Heidegger) is able to constitute the gift on their own terms, but rather must allow the gift to appear as it is. There is something theological at work here, for Marion is advocating something beyond the intentionality of the transcendental subject and Dasein that resists both of their attempts at reducing givenness to the gift. And if Dominique Janicaud is correct in his critique of Marion, this givenness “beyond the gift” is God.8 For Marion, traditional notions of gift-giving overlook the metaphysical sense of a gift, in which there is a sort of economic, transactional, and reciprocal paradigm of giver-givee-gift. In Being Given, Marion is trying to avoid the Derridean, deconstructionist critique of reciprocity, where a gift, as soon as it is given, ceases to be a gift because it induces a reciprocity of receiving something in return. To avoid this sort of polarity and reciprocity, Marion phenomenologically suspends the metaphysical, tripartite notion of the gift in favor of a phenomenological notion of “givenness” in which the gift is not necessarily “received” or “accepted” but rather is “receivable” and “acceptable.”

Similarly, Yancy develops a notion of the gift that goes beyond the reciprocity that is the subject of the Derridean critique. Yancy’s notion of “Dear White America” as a gift does not collapse into the reciprocity and polarity where deconstruction is at work. Instead, there is something profoundly non-reciprocal and asymmetrical about Yancy’s notion of the gift, for he recognizes the option of whites to reject the gift. But white rejection of the gift does not destroy the givenness from which Yancy operates. Earlier, I mentioned that Yancy, in terms of his sacrifice, is a sort of Christ-figure. Here I am reminded of Jesus in Pilate’s judgment hall, when Pilate asks Jesus if he is a king, and Jesus responds that he “came into the world” so he could “bear witness to the truth.”  Pilate’s reply is telling. He says to Jesus “What is truth?”9 Again, Backlash must be read within the phenomenological tradition from which it emerges. And phenomenologically, I would argue that there is a difference between “facts” and the truth. The former are what one finds in the “natural attitude,” but the latter is what is discovered in the phenomenological reduction. So when a white person asks Yancy “Are you calling me a racist?” it is analogous to Pilate’s question about Jesus being a king: both are interested in data, information, “facts,” that are associated with theoretical correspondence to some state of affairs in the world. Yancy’s response is, “I came to bear witness to the truth of white supremacy and racism as opposed to some theorized factual account that absolves you of moral responsibility.” And then, characteristic of Pilate’s disregard, the white person, in an exercise of rhetorical dismissal that is all too commonplace in discussions of race in America, like Pilate, sarcastically asks “What is truth?” as if to say “Who cares about the truth?  I want to absolve myself with the facts.”

But despite the rejection of phenomenological truth, the givenness of Yancy’s gift cannot be overcome. It presents whites with what Marion calls a “saturated phenomenon.” In Being Given, Marion, in opposition to Immanuel Kant’s transcendental unity of apperception, develops his concept of the saturated phenomenon that overwhelms the a priori, epistemic categories of quantity, quality, relation, and modality, resisting any such conceptual predication and epistemic categorization. Yancy’s Backlash does something similar: its givenness, as a form of phenomenological rather than epistemic truth, disallows whites to subsume Yancy as an intuition within the concept of “nigger.”  To be sure, as Yancy points out, the white reaction attempts to adapt its conceptual scheme to accommodate this intuition that escapes its grasp (e.g., “Nigger Professor”), but either way, the white racist reactions from which Backlash emanates is saturated with a gift that despite its rejection, gives itself: a “nigger” tells white people of their inherited, Manichean-styled racism, asking for empathy, and it is more than they can handle, for Yancy is a “nigger” with feelings, intellect, and virtue. And this is a mode of visibility that is foreign to the racist, white gaze. One is reminded here of Levinas’ allusion to Descartes’s argument for God’s existence from the Third Meditation, where he points to an “overflowing” of the self by the Other’s presentation of an infinite moral obligation, heteronomously imposed. I am not making the strong claim that Yancy has any explicit theological motivations, but rather the weaker claim that there is, I think, operating in Backlash, a phenomenological theology. And it is this phenomenological theology that avoids the abstractions of white theology, which too often neglect  pressing moral concerns such as racism.10 Rather than make the word flesh (John 1:14), the flesh is made into a word resulting in empty moral commands without a face to which one is morally obligated. Again, theology’s moral imperatives mean little apart from human relationships. Moral obligation must be fused to relational interactions, and Yancy’s phenomenological theology allows for this to happen because it reinfuses white, empty theological abstraction with the flesh of moral obligation.

III. History and the Problem of Disanalogy: An Objection and Reply

Chapter one of Backlash exposes what I think is a tension in Yancy’s work. On one hand, in other works in his corpus, Yancy gives detailed phenomenological descriptions of how Black bodies are subjected to the white gaze. For example, in Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race, Yancy points out that his presence on an elevator with a white woman who is afraid at the sight of him occurs in the broader historical and social context in which her body qua a white woman’s body is valuable, and his body, qua a black male body is criminal. If Yancy’s phenomenological description is accurate here—and I believe that it is—then what are the implications of this history and sociality for a Black man such as himself who seems to uncritically adopt a theoretical position in which he is always already sexist toward women irrespective of his race?  Does not Yancy’s race complicate the first part of the “Dear White America” letter such that his race mitigates his gender bias precisely because he is a Black male? 

These critical questions arise not only from Yancy’s own work, but also from Tommy J. Curry’s recent work: The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood.11 In The Man-Not, Curry argues that gender studies has become synonymous with women’s studies, leaving Black men bereft of any meaningful conceptual resources  that will enable them to articulate their plight as black men. Curry also points out that first-wave feminist suffragettes intended for patriarchy to include white women as a show of solidarity against Black men in particular. Curry’s work raises serious questions about the failure of contemporary feminist iterations of “sexism” to account for the troubling history of white supremacy in the feminist movement. This was especially so in first-wave feminism, which demonstrated  a racial hostility directed at Black men, that used racist tropes to stigmatize and dehumanize black men during and after Reconstruction. And if such questions have not been adequately addressed, it is likely ill-advised to uncritically appropriate feminism’s understanding of sexism to Black men without first accounting for this racial history. Curry believes that such historical problems need to be given much more thought and analysis. His point is well-taken.

This tension in Yancy’s work is real, but is ultimately resolved in that I think that he would concede the historical realities that both he and Curry articulate, while also recognizing that there are situations in which a Black men can still behave immorally toward women, and thus be “sexist” in the sense that Yancy describes both in “Dear White America” and in Backlash. Indeed, neither Yancy nor Curry is playing a zero-sum game, for I think both would agree that the reality of Black women’s oppression, for example, is no less real because of the history of racial oppression against Black men. In sum, recognizing the reality of anti-Black misandry does not negate the reality of women’s oppression. 

  1. Final Thoughts

There is an inevitable dialectic of philosophical scholarly production. It oscillates from the Cartesian-styled isolation of creative—and in Yancy’s case with Backlash, existential—agony and hardship, to the open engagement of one’s work by the broader intellectual community. Compounding Yancy’s private isolation and agony in writing Backlash is a dreadful public reception of his work that would cause those of lesser fortitude and integrity to retreat into a philosophical quietism, never to engage such controversial issues again. But true to form, Yancy shows us once again that he is better than that, for he has given us a gift, and its givenness overflows us with the moral imperative to examine ourselves in dealing with the awful and intractable problem of white supremacy in America. 

Yancy has determined to resist rather than retreat. What will the rest of us do?


  1. Yancy also details some of the more receptive responses to “Dear White America” in chapter four of Backlash. See especially, pp. 119-24.

  2. See George Yancy, “Un-Sutured,” White Self Criticality beyond Anti-Racism: How Does it Feel to be a White Problem? ed. George Yancy (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2015), xi-xxvii.

  3. Emmanuel Levinas, Totality and Infinity, trans. Alphonso Lingis (Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne University Press, 1969), 78.

  4. Holy Bible, King James Version, 1 John 4:20–21.

  5. This is a popular Christian paraphrase of Psalm 51:5.

  6. See Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, trans. Richard Philcox (New York, NY: Grove Press, 2004) 6.

  7. Jean-Luc Marion, Being Given: Toward a Phenomenology of Givenness, trans. Jeffery L. Kosky (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2002), 5.

  8. See Dominique Janicaud, Phenomenology and the “Theological Turn”: The French Debate, trans. Bernard G. Prusak, (New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2000), pp. 16-103.

  9. Holy Bible, John 18: 37-8, King James Version.

  10. For a thorough discussion of this problem, see my monograph, Frederick Douglass and the Philosophy of Religion: An Interpretation of Narrative, Art, and the Political (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2022).

  11. Tommy J. Curry, The Man-Not: Race, Class, Genre, and the Dilemmas of Black Manhood (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2017).

  • George Yancy

    George Yancy


    Response to Golden

    Timothy Golden extrapolates from Backlash that I am situated within the Socratic tradition and that the book even has deep phenomenological theological implications. The fact that Golden maps the conceptual coordinates of my work in this way is something that humbles me, especially given his own public philosophical and theological acuity. Indeed, “Dear White America” was written in the Socratic spirit of being a public gadfly. The objective was to trouble the status quo, which served to encourage white people to experience a sense of uneasiness about what is taken for granted: their white “innocence.” And while I wasn’t forced to drink hemlock, I had my share of threats. And if to “corrupt” means to get white people to see themselves in a disagreeable mirror or to remove masks that conceal forms of white injustice, then I will continue to corrupt. One significant difference, though, is that apparently Socrates never cried. I weep. Golden also mentions the influence of Backlash within the context of my oeuvre. To my knowledge, Backlash is the only philosophical text that reveals the unexpurgated anti-Black racism directed at a professional Black philosopher. The anti-Black racism is not something to be proud of, but it does speak to the importance that I place on stressing the non-ideal lived experiences within philosophical discussions of race and reveals what awaits candid speech vis-à-vis whiteness. 

    I agree with Golden that my work in general is phenomenological, especially within the context of rethinking lived motility within the context of anti-Black racism and its impact on Black embodiment. I also agree with his claim about the Christian theological dimensions of my work, which I locate at the level of the importance of hesed or loving kindness. Golden reads Backlash and “Dear White America” through a Levinasian lens. However, many whites, to use the lexicon within philosophy of language, didn’t find my words “felicitous.” Indeed, my Blackness, which includes my face, wasn’t generative, and it didn’t trigger the preferred sense of “insomnia.” Instead, they were awake in the night writing ugly and nasty hate mail. 

    Let me be clear that Golden’s reading of Backlash through the lens of phenomenological theology is too rich and complex to thoroughly engage here, but I must say that it expands and provides a deep nuance regarding the complexity of how I understand my own work. Consider this moving insight. Golden argues that my work challenges the abstraction within white theology that avoids issues like white racism. Within the context of abstract white theology, he maintains that rather than the word being made flesh, the word is made into something abstract that takes the form of a formal moral directive, which can be easily disarticulated from the messiness of being enfleshed—uncertain, vulnerable, touchable; indeed, where one trembles, struggles, and strives with humility (etymologically, “low” or “from the earth”). The abstraction of a formal moral directive can easily be followed if one isn’t forced to look the broken, dehumanized Black embodied person in the face, where the weight of that face overwhelms the spirit of dispassionate abstraction. Golden has helped me to think deeper about how I define the concept of un-suturing not as a formal, abstract process. On this score, I understand the concept of un-suturing as that which is necessary within the space of a mutually shared reality of what is at stake vis-à-vis embodied human beings, indeed, precarious human persons within shared and interlocking, fragile somatic relationships. In this way, the distinction between “fact” and “truth” (which Golden makes) speaks to the latter as something deeply revelatory and existentially weighty and tied to the process of tarrying, where there is the deep apprehension of lack. The former, however, can easily refuse to tarry with the truth. Wedded to facts, one wants to know with a certain alacrity: “So, am I a racist or not?” In this case, as Golden makes clear, the question is not about the truth. In this case, white people, as he suggests, “want to absolve [themselves] with the facts.” Un-sutured tarrying raises the ethical stakes and the ethical depth vis-à-vis whiteness. Rushing for the facts can preempt the depth/the truth of the shared gift. Rushing for the facts is another way of being safe.     

    Related to his distinction between fact and truth, Golden writes, “Yancy is not making the sophomoric claim that every individual white person is a racist.” Yet, as Golden understands, this is a typical maneuver that whites imply in their responses. I have never used the quantifier “All” when referring to white people and racism. Rather, I place the importance on the quotidian world of embodied complicity, sociohistorical embeddedness, and white psychic opacity as sites where whiteness continues to thrive. And, yes, I am, as Golden observes, asking white people to engage in a form of bracketing (or epoché) of their assumptions of themselves as atomic. The aim is to encourage white people to begin to grasp a sense of how they constitute (non-transcendentally) the world of whiteness. Within this context, the ethical is front and center; it is not eclipsed by the importance of epistemology. The doxastic is only one way of addressing whiteness. Understanding the world that white people have created is about responsibility and coming to understand the importance of a radical understanding of relationality, one that is haptic. Golden says that it is not my position “that each individual white person is incurably racist.” I agree, but there are days when I am compelled to say that the US is incurably racist

    Golden explains the way I think about whiteness and racist white people in terms of the Christian doctrine of original sin. I think that this analogy certainly helps some white people who might be Christian and who understand the ways in which there is a species of inheritance at work when it comes to white racism. The difference, of course, is that original sin covers a multitude of sins/social evils. I’m more concerned with whiteness as a unique psychosocial evil, and one which continues to be perpetuated without an Adam and Eve as progenitors of that evil. 

    Golden states that Backlash is about risk. Writing “Dear White America” was about risk—writing the article, having it published, and being as candid as I could. My sense is that gift-giving has traces of risk-taking. Golden writes, “Yancy’s chief interest in his phenomenological analysis in Backlash is to put himself at risk.” Of course, there was no desire to put myself at risk in any irresponsible way. There are some, perhaps, who would argue that I was being irresponsible for even writing the article. Moreover, there was no desire to have white people fantasize about violence done to me or my death. If putting myself at risk means demonstrating a species of exposure to show what truth-telling demands, what Aletheia demands, and to get white people to un-suture, then, yes, I put myself at risk. Golden frames this risk-taking through a Christocentric lens. I think that anyone who loves enough to speak truth to power, who desires a world within which there is no violence, no poverty, no exploitation, no dehumanization, no oppression, no socio-economic malaise, and no injustice, I think has taken sides with that historical figure known as Jesus. My only caveat is that this process of taking sides is powerful in its singularity, but that none of us are free from the ways in which we are complicit, the ways in which our hands are bloody. This is partly why it was important for me to publicly disclose how I see myself as a sexist. 

    How can I not be? The history of misogyny, the hegemony of normative gender roles, and the sheer pervasiveness of the pornographic imaginary are just too powerful. Moreover, being-in-the-world places one within an interwoven network of relations that do harm to other human beings, those whose faces we may never see and may never want to see. Regarding the issue of sexism, Golden beautifully put my work in conversation with Tommy Curry’s, that is, his work on anti-Black male misandry. I think that Curry rightfully and powerfully critiques how feminist theory has failed (or refused) to give attention to the horror that Black men experience through being the objects of acts of rape and violence—not just through white supremacist logics, but where Black boys and Black men are targets of women’s violence (across race). Curry’s work is unprecedented in this regard. There is no other professional philosopher who has done this work. So, I agree with Golden and deeply respect the work of Curry. In “Dear White America,” I wish that I had troubled my unquestioned assumption about my “access” to patriarchy. Even as anti-Black male misandry exists, and complicates my “unconditional” access to patriarchy as a Black man (or man-not, to use Curry’s apt discourse), this does not free me from my own inherited sexist views of women and the ways in which I have failed them in their quest for a world free of sexist violence against them. Golden brilliantly captures this insight where he writes, “Yancy need not play a zero-sum game in that acknowledging an intersectionality of an oppressed black masculinity in no way negates the possibility of sexist behavior of black men toward women.”  

    Golden concludes his response to Backlash by raising the issue of quietism and situating my philosophical writing, which I see as a form of praxis, within the tradition of refusing silence, a form of refusal that has a long and resilient history within African American cultural, spiritual, and political practices. He leaves us with his own gift, one that is thought-provoking: “What will the rest of us do?”

Mary Rawlinson


The Audacity of Love

Responding to George Yancy’s Gift

It is a greater sense of genuine relationality that I seek. It is that seeking that is behind my gift. It is a very real desire for genuine human connection, not something that is just non-violent, but that which dares to resist white supremacy’s effort to keep us from loving each other, being truthful to each other. This honest conversation about race is one that each of us must enter into from where we are. This is, in fact, what is required. It is a place of genuine human relationality that I seek. 

George Yancy wrote “Dear White America” as a gift to white people. He made himself vulnerable by likening racism to his own sexism. Even though he works hard at not being sexist, he admitted that, as a man, he inevitably benefited from the male privilege that permeates our society. Men make more money than women for equal work. Women are far more likely than men to be victims of domestic violence or to suffer at the hands of intimate partners. Men hold more leadership positions than women, even in fields where a wealth of qualified women is to be found.  Every day in the newspaper there appear pictures of political, economic, cultural, or social leaders in which almost everyone, if not everyone, is male. And, this is presented without comment as if it were normal, which, indeed, it is. But, it is the task of philosophers to make the familiar strange. 

The men in these pictures of the powerful and privileged are almost always white. Racism, like sexism, is not merely an attitude, but a culture of possibilities. Like white women, black men make less money for equal work than white men, and black women make even less.1 Black women are far more likely than white women to be victims of violence: while many studies confirm that one in five women will be raped at least once during her lifetime, some studies indicate that the figure for black women could be as high as 50 percent.2 Black women are more likely to be expelled from school or incarcerated than white women. Black women aged eighteen to nineteen are four times more likely to be incarcerated than their white peers. One third of all girls referred by public schools to law enforcement are black. Forty percent of girls arrested after a school incident are black.3 In 2016, non-Hispanic black men were nearly 10.4 times more likely than non-Hispanic white men to die by homicide in the United States.4 The Pew Research Center reports that the imprisonment rate for blacks is nearly six times that for whites.5 In 2017, whites accounted for 64 percent of the population and 30 percent of the prison population, while blacks made up 12 percent of the population, but 33 percent of the prison population. Just by being born black, one is more likely to be poor, to be the victim of violence, to be judged negatively by the public school system, to be the victim of police violence, or to be incarcerated. Just as a greater vulnerability to workplace discrimination, poverty, sexual harassment, and violence forms the substance of sexism, so too these violent probabilities constitute the reality of racism in America. 

The attempt to treat racism and sexism as attitudes, rather than cultures of possibility serves to maintain the institutionalized structures of white male privilege. If the racism and sexism that permeate American society can be interpreted merely as individual, psychological problems, then there is no need for structural change. The task then, is merely to change minds, not to challenge the way in which institutions function to distribute power and privilege. Just as agribusiness and the global food industry have a vested interest in blaming the global obesity epidemic on individual choice, rather than the culture of possibilities created by industrial agriculture, so too white male privilege preserves itself by denying the way in which it is sustained by current legal, economic, and social structures. If racism and sexism are merely individual attitudes, then injustice is not systemic and requires no institutional change to the current modes of organizing economic, social, and political life. Thus, as Yancy argues, predominantly and historically white universities can treat the discomfort of their black students as “instances of individual problems adjusting to new spaces,” rather than a symptom of white supremacy that would require institutional change.6 In the culture of possibilities created by current American institutions—political, social, economic, educational—“no place in America is safe for black bodies” (Yancy, 46). As bell hooks remarks in Talking Back, “For our efforts to end white supremacy to be truly effective, individual struggle to change consciousness must be fundamentally linked to collective effort to transform those structures that reinforce and perpetuate white supremacy.”7 There can be no justice without structural change, because as, John Hodge argues, “the problem of racism is not prejudice but domination.”8 Just as a person’s situation depends not only on individual choices, but also on the culture of possibilities in which he or she is situated, so too justice will require, not merely individual actions, but collaborations and solidarities across race and gender.

Surely, this exposure of racism and sexism as cultures of possibilities, rather than merely individual attitudes comprises one of the most important themes of Yancy’s book; but, given his gift, his admission of his own sexism and male privilege, my support for his argument hardly constitutes the sort of risk taking that would amount to a loving return. Yancy tried to approach the realities of white racism and white privilege with a call for “the daring of mutual vulnerability” (44). How could I, a white woman who grew up in Alabama and Mississippi in the twilight of Jim Crow, love George Yancy back in way that would respond to his gift and answer to his call for “the risk and daring of mutual vulnerability?”

There can be no hiding behind a “theory” of racism: racism in Maricopa County, Arizona in 2019 is not the racism of the Jim Crow South or the banlieu of Paris. Any engagement with racism must begin from its specificity and its resistance to any attempt at a general theory. Nor can there be any appeal to the universally human or the fiction of a “post-racial” society. At the level of theory, an appeal to the universally human regularly treats women’s experience either as a special case that does not contribute to the universal or as a variation on man that is already anticipated in philosophy’s narrative of human experience. The difference of sexual difference appears to make no difference in the account of human experience and human rights. Similarly, the leap to the universal denies to black experience any distinctive contribution to the story of the human, as if whatever could be said from the narrative of black experience would be either a special case, an exception, or already anticipated in the white man’s narrative of human experience and human rights. The fiction of the universal human experience denies the real differences that determine us and obscures the way in which those very differences need not be sources of division and hate, but may be springs of strength and joy. Multiple stories of human experience make everyone richer.9 A “post-racial” society in which the differences of these narratives would be elided is not only not actual, it is not even desirable.

Practically, at the level of policy rather than theory, the leap to the universal proves to be a convenient strategy for maintaining gender and racial privilege. 

The problem with universal rhetoric followed by universal policy, implemented and evaluated with universal standards, is that it erroneously implies that members of society will benefit equally from these government efforts. A political dialogue on education reform that focuses on the average child has no room for the additional challenges that face failing minority students . . . A universal discussion of unemployment does not reach the causes and consequences of the double-digit unemployment black communities have averaged since the 1970s. A general discussion of incarceration rates is meaningless if it fails to address the disparities of black imprisonment.10


Just over 150 years ago, black men and women were property, to be bought and sold at the will of the white owner, like cattle or cotton. Black families were torn apart, wives sold separately from their husbands, children sold separately from their parents. A white man could beat or rape or lynch his slaves at will. After 1863, when these slaves had supposedly been freed, they were still denied equal participation in the social, economic, and political life of the US. And, more than fifty years after legislation intended to redress these wrongs was passed, black Americans, men and women, are still subject to voter suppression, economic discrimination, and institutional violence. The rhetoric of equality masks this history of dispossession, cruelty, and humiliation: imagine you’ve been running a race in bare feet on an empty stomach carrying a heavy stone, while your competitors are well-fed and clothed in the latest high tech running gear with a pair of the finest Nike racing shoes on their feet. The stone is lifted, you’re given a pair of shoes and a bit of water and bread and told that now you are ‘equal,’ as if you and the other runners had all toed the same starting line with equal advantages. This rhetoric of equality denies the legacy of violence and subjection that determines the lives of black Americans today.

Still, this critique of theory and universalism does not come close to the “risk and mutual vulnerability” that George Yancy’s gift commands. How am I, the white woman of the Deep South, exposed here? bell hooks insists that “to form the beloved community we do not need to surrender ties to precious origins.” She suggests that we can deepen these bonds by “connecting them with an anti-racist struggle.”11 In this one respect, and it feels dangerous to say so, I believe she is wrong. I remember sitting at the kitchen table as a little girl in my great aunt’s house: black women and white women are there at the kitchen counters working together, laughing together. In my memory, it is a scene of great joy and love. But, when the meal is prepared, even though we will all eat out of the same pot, the black folk will go out onto the screened porch, and we white people will go into the dining room to a table bedecked with fine linen and good china. We will be served, and they will serve us. How can I ever remember this scene as one of love and joy? All my childhood memories in which black and white peopled lived in the most intense intimacy seem entirely unreliable now, as they are thoroughly corrupted by the realities of white supremacy. Must I not give up my “ties to this precious origin?”

Still, even this dispossession does not adequately respond to George Yancy’s gift, for, I, the white woman of the Deep South, served as the linchpin of racism. “To the ordinary American or Englishman the race question at bottom is simply a matter of ownership of women; white men want the right to use all women, colored and white, and they resent the intrusion of colored men in this domain.”12 In the Jim Crow South, lynching was justified as an element of white male “chivalry,” necessary to deter the black man’s sexual desire for white women. As Jesse Ames Daniels argued in 1930 in a speech to the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching, “White men hold that White women are their property and so are Negro women . . . Public opinion has accepted too easily the claim of lynchers and mobsters that they were acting solely in defense of womanhood.13 Various medical, psychological, and sociological theories of the Jim Crow period characterized the black man as naturally attracted to white women, and, “the higher the caste, the worse the lust.” Middle class blacks supposedly presented the greatest threat to white women, because they had lost the “awe” for the superior race that constrained them under slavery.14 In fact, lynching as a threat responded directly to the political, economic, and educational gains of blacks after the Civil War. Its purpose, as Ida B. Wells commented, was to “keep the nigger down.”15 The white women of the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching “understood that they were being used as a shield for White men’s race exploitation.”16 He introduced us early on in the evening, and we four sat together talking. As the evening progressed, it became clear to me and my friend that no one was going to ask us to dance. My friend’s brother couldn’t ask me, as that would leave his sister with the African-American boy. And, we all seemed to understand that the African-American boy could not ask either of us to dance. So, we sat, spending the whole evening talking. We had a wonderful time. The African-American boy was not only very good looking, but utterly charming. Smart, funny, polite, well-read, ambitious, interesting, he was everything a girl could want in a beau. At the end of the evening, we said goodnight, but there was no exchange of addresses or telephone numbers. Somehow, we all understood, that despite our liking for one another, there would be no future to this encounter.

When my friend and I got into the car with her parents for the ride back to the hotel, we could sense that something was wrong, but neither of us said a word. On the ride back home the next day, the atmosphere in the car was tense. Finally, her father exploded. He was furious with his son for introducing us to his friend. He focused at first on the fact that neither of us had enjoyed a dance. When we made it clear that we had thoroughly enjoyed ourselves and did not mind about the dancing, he became even angrier. Finally, he got to the point. We were military families and my father outranked him. He was afraid I would tell my father about the evening, and that my father would be, like him, furious. He knew my family was from Alabama, and he assumed that my parents would be angry that he had exposed me to a black boy as a social equal. He made it very clear that he did not want me to tell the truth about the evening to my parents.

I did tell them, as I knew that they would not be angry. Though they were as guilty as any white Southerner of exploiting white privilege, their experience in the Air Force had exposed them to well-educated professional black Americans who expected to be treated as equals. I had more than one black friend in childhood and my family always treated them with the same respect as my white friends. Indeed, my mother’s concern was for the black boy: had he suffered in some way because he had spent the evening talking to two white girls? She cautioned me that, now that I was no longer a child, but a teenager, I could no longer be so careless in my associations with black boys, because I would put them in danger.

The fiction of a post-racial society suggests that this toxic brew of sex and race no longer poisons our community, but George Yancy’s experience after publishing Dear White America proves otherwise. As Franz Fanon remarked in Black Skin, White Masks, “The Negro is the genital.”17 By reducing the black man to a threatening sexuality, white supremacy justifies its violence and privilege. That is why the white man “needed the nigger,” to answer George Yancy’s question. Via the “nigger,” he subjugates both women and black men and justifies his use of the black body for forced labor and as an object of pleasure and cruelty.

So, how can I, a white woman of the Deep South, love George Yancy back? How can I respond to his gift and take up the risk and mutual vulnerability for which it calls, without evoking this venomous legacy of sex and race? One of Yancy’s attackers invokes just this tactic of domination: “The thing is these blacks are not dumb, they know they are manipulating white idiots, especially white women into literally sucking their dicks.”18 As I quote this vile expression of hateful and tenuous white masculinity, I am overwhelmed by moral nausea to the point of feeling physically sick. But, what can George Yancy have felt, after making himself vulnerable and offering his gift, upon finding himself the target of this filthy venom? White people need to tarry with this moment of exposure and risk if we are ever to understand the extreme vulnerability of black bodies in America, for whom the culture has installed probabilities of cruel harm and humiliation.

George Yancy, in his generosity, insists that “there is no obligation” to accept his gift, but however heavy it may be to bear, as Yancy acknowledges, on this one point, I believe him to be deeply wrong. Every white person has an obligation to meet his appeal with the risk and mutual vulnerability that might redress the logic of sex and race in American. Every white American is obliged to own up to the toxic legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and the “nigger,” by admitting how this inheritance still poisons the atmosphere of our communities, impeding any possibility of solidarity and collective action. Only then might we, together, be able to imagine a different future.

  1. The US Census Bureau reports that the ratio of women’s and men’s median annual earnings was 80.5 percent for full-time/year-round workers in 2017, unchanged since 2016. During the same period, the ratio for Hispanic women was 53 percent and for black women, 60.8 percent. <> 

    Cited in Accessed June 19, 1919.

  2. See, e.g., Accessed June 17, 2019.

  3. Accessed June 17, 2019.

  4. Accessed June 17, 2019.

  5. Accessed June 17, 2019.

  6. Yancy, George, Backlash: what happens when we talk honestly about racism in America, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018, 47.

  7. hooks, bell, Talking Back, New York: Routledge, 2014, p. 119.  Hooks insists on the necessity of focusing, not on racism, but on white supremacy. While the former suggests a focus on the individual, the latter can only be addressed through collective action. Ibid, p. 115ff.

  8. Hodge, John, Cultural Bases of Racism and Group Oppression, quoted in hooks, 119.

  9. For example, in the past three decades many countries have remade the built environment to accommodate the disabled: braille on elevator buttons, acoustic walk signs, or wheelchair friendly curbs and buses have promoted the agency of the disabled and increased their productive engagement in public activity. This specific experience yields a general truth: the built environment ought to be constructed to promote human agency and engagement in public life, not to convenience the accumulation and concentration of global capital.

  10. Gillion, Daniel Q., Governing with Words: the political dialogue on race, public policy, and inequality in America, (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 159.

  11. hooks, bell, Killing Rage: Ending Racism, (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1995), 265.

  12. W.E.B. DuBois, quoted in Giddings, Paula, When and Where I Enter: the impact of black women on race and sex in America (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc.),1984, 61.

  13. Quoted in Giddings, When and Where I Enter, 206–7. It must be noted that the Association of Southern Women for the Prevention of Lynching did not admit black women, a terrible failure of feminist solidarity.

  14. Giddings, When and Where I Enter, 27.

  15. Giddings, When and Where I Enter, 28.

  16. Giddings, When and Where I Enter, 207. The ideology of white supremacy, nevertheless, centered on the need for white men to protect white women from black male sexuality, and that need served to justify the violent forces deployed on black men.

    When I was thirteen, my best friend invited me to join her family in visiting her brother, who was attending high school at a prestigious military academy in the Midwest. The occasion for the trip was the school’s spring formal dance. We bought new dresses, our first formal wear, and eagerly anticipated the trip and the dance. All the boys attended in their impressive military dress uniforms, while all the girls sported their best finery, carefully coiffed hair, and meticulous make-up. Utterly inexperienced in this kind of occasion, my friend and I had done our best. My friend’s brother had made friends with the only African-American at the school.[footnote] At least, he was the only African-American in attendance at the formal dance.

  17. Fanon, 180. Quoted in Yancy, 40.

  18. Quoted in Yancy, 41.

  • George Yancy

    George Yancy


    Response to Rawlinson

    Mary C. Rawlinson, in her response piece, that stresses the audacity of love, has addressed Golden’s question by disagreeing with my point that there is no obligation that white people must accept the gift that I offered in “Dear White America.” She writes, “I believe him [Yancy] to be deeply wrong. Every white person has an obligation to meet his appeal with…risk and mutual vulnerability.” Rawlinson believes that white Americans are “obliged to own up to the toxic legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, … by admitting how this inheritance still poisons the atmosphere of our communities, impeding any possibility of solidarity and collective action. Only then might we, together, be able to imagine a different future.” At the time of writing “Dear White America,” I conceptualized gift-giving as a gesture of love, which, it seemed to me, should not be obligatory. It was about freedom of choice. This didn’t mean that I desired to be called a “Nigger,” but it did demonstrate that many white people made the decision to do so. While there was no obligation that white people accept the gift, I did have hope. There is no contradiction in holding both positions constant. 

    I was also skeptical regarding the use of obligatory discourse as it can function as a site of noblesse oblige, which is tainted with assumptions about engaging in acts of generosity toward those less privileged. Think here of forms of charity that leave everything as it is. 

    There are times when I want to agree with Rawlinson that white people ought or must accept the gift. Yet, the recalcitrance of whiteness as a multi-headed system that continues to refuse Black humanity, my humanity, makes me wonder if that sense of “ought” and “must” constitute nominal gestures. My point here is that even to accept the gift doesn’t free white people from the heteronomous forces of structural whiteness. There will still be much more work to do. One will need to choose against whiteness every day of one’s life, even as whiteness insidiously installs one’s whiteness yet again.   

    Nevertheless, within this context, Rawlinson’s disagreement with me bears important fruit. Think here of the distribution of emotional labor that Black people carry within the context of not just being the targets of anti-Black racism, but also being the presumed superhuman, ethical agents or the “all-loving black cyborg[s]”1 who are always ready to forgive and accept. Moreover, as Black people, we are also tasked with the labor of explaining to white people how what they did was/is in fact racist. So, I welcome Rawlinson’s demand that white people accept the gift of “Dear White America.” She poses a very powerful question: “So, how can I, a white woman of the Deep South, love George Yancy back?” Notice that she is not hesitant to mark and name her whiteness, but she is also not afraid to mark her geographical location, which suggests that she is aware of the Deep South and its historically specific configurations of anti-Blackness. 

    Rawlinson grew up “in Alabama and Mississippi in the twilight of Jim Crow.” She has no sentimental respect for the South; indeed, she says that “All my childhood memories in which black and white peopled lived in the most intense intimacy seem entirely unreliable now, as they are thoroughly corrupted by the realities of white supremacy.” It is within this context that Rawlinson disagrees with bell hooks who she quotes as saying that “to form the beloved community we do not surrender ties to precious origins.” The point that hooks advances, however, is not that Rawlinson take pleasure in the ways in which her origins were replete with memories of how Black people would go out to eat “onto the screened porch, and we white people [would go] into the dining room to a table bedecked with fine linen and good china.” For hooks, those memories are important in terms of Rawlinson’s white identity. Like hooks, I would say that those experiences are “precious” to the extent to which they are fundamental in terms of communicating a truth about Rawlinson’s white identity. For the beloved community to form, for hooks, those experiences, those ties, are important to keep as points of remembrance or reference, not as points of investment. This is why hooks goes on to argue that within the beloved community we disrupt our “clinging to cultural legacies that demand investment in notions of racial purity, authenticity, nationalist fundamentalism.”2 

    It is Rawlinson’s audacious call to return the love that I find inspiring, especially given the anti-Black cartography of the US and the white world. Her call to love cuts at the heart of whiteness as a global process of colonial empire building. Her call also speaks both to white cis-male privilege, and to the ways in which white cis-women (call them the “New Jane Crow”) benefit from white privilege, which I see as benefitting from anti-Black racism. Rawlinson argues that racism is not just about attitudes, but “a culture of possibilities.” I agree. Pulling from the work of bell hooks, Rawlinson believes that to address whiteness is to address how institutional structures and cultural symbols and messages underwrite whiteness as “superior.” She agrees with my claim that in the culture of possibilities created by current American institutions—political, social, economic, educational—there is no place that is safe for Black bodies against anti-Black racism. 

    Rawlinson is understandably skeptical of general theory as it does injustice, within this context, to Black voices that have made significant contributions to the human experience, “as if whatever could be said from the narrative of black experience would be either a special case, an exception, or already anticipated in the white man’s narrative of human experience and human rights.” Rawlinson is aware of the perfunctory liberatory discourse and promises that have been made to Black people. She understands that the “rhetoric of equality denies the legacy of violence and subjection that determines the lives of black Americans today.” With the current attack on critical race theory, and what I see as an attack on Black critical consciousness regarding the truth about Black suffering here in the US, the rhetoric of equality functions as another site of obscurantism. Not only is she aware of the history of the brutality of this legacy, but she is also aware, through deploying statistical evidence, of the plight of Black people in our contemporary moment and of how anti-Blackness is structured through the lens of gender. Of course, here, as Golden notes in his response, it is important that we begin to think critically about the ways in which some feminist theory has uncritically located “Black male supremacy” within the same category as white male patriarchy. 

    What I also appreciate about the arc of Rawlinson’s response is the fact that she takes seriously and personally the obligation to return the gift/love and demonstrate the vulnerability that I risked in writing “Dear White America.” She argues that “White people need to tarry with this moment of exposure and risk if we are ever to understand the extreme vulnerability of black bodies in America.” After citing a message sent to me by a white male, one filled with projected anti-Black white sexual fantasies, Rawlinson says that she was “overwhelmed by moral nausea to the point of feeling physically sick.” I think that part of returning the gift is demonstrated in those places where Rawlinson provides a genealogical account, as it were, of the fact that she was raised in the deep South. That sharing is itself a species of un-concealing, of being vulnerable. Of course, white people being honest about their points of origin isn’t sufficient to collapse either the white hegemonic structures of anti-Blackness or the deep white psychic investments in anti-Blackness. 

    Rawlinson wants white people to acknowledge the white racist inheritance that they have been given and have embraced (consciously or unconsciously). She identifies this inheritance as a poison. I agree that this poisonous inheritance must be abolished if we are to imagine a different mode of collective relationality. And while I have no reasons to doubt Rawlinson’s honesty, I do seriously doubt that the vast number of white people in the US have the will to un-suture, to undergo the weight and promise of kenosis. The magnitude of change that Rawlinson may have missed is that it isn’t enough that white people undo their racism structurally or behaviorally; they must undo the very ontology of white being, which means being “overwhelmed by moral nausea” that results from the recognition, the tarrying, with the category of the human that they are through anti-Blackness. It is not enough that white people (read: human) revolt against the inhuman actions that have been perpetrated against Black bodies. Rather, it is their human-being that constitutes the crime. Hence, the goal is to undo the category of the human itself, along with all of its philosophical anthropological assumptions. It is not enough to simply revolt against the horrible actions carried out by white people. The human is always already performative in its constitutive anti-Blackness. What is necessary is the critique of, the undoing of, and the revolt against the human. It seems to me that the audacity of love, therefore, requires the form of a certain species of emptying. I’m talking about a kind of ticket different from what James Baldwin discussed with such brilliance and psychological insight. It is a returned ticket. Think of this as a ticket whose price of return will most certainly cost you, if you’re white, in the form of ontological death, which means the death of a parasitic ontology whose intelligibility and coherence are predicated on anti-Blackness.   

    1. João Costa Vargas and Joy James, “Refusing Blackness-as-Victimization: Trayvon Martin and the Black Cyborgs,” in George Yancy and Janine Jones (Eds.), Pursuing Trayvon Martin: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Manifestations of Racial Dynamics (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013), 200.

    2. bell hooks, Killing Rage: Ending Racism (New York: Henry Holt and Company), 265.

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