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


March 29, 2023, 1:00 am

Mary Rawlinson


April 5, 2023, 1:00 am