JANUARY 27, 2019
ON NOVEMBER 12, 2016, a few days after Donald Trump’s victory in the presidential election, Saturday Night Live ran a skit called “Election Night.” In the segment, a group of friends sit around a living room TV, wine glasses in hand, Hillary posters on the wall, ready to celebrate the country’s historic election of a female president. Dave Chappelle, guest-starring as the only black friend at this mostly white gathering, expresses doubts about his friends’ optimism: “Don’t forget it’s a big country.” With each hour, Trump collects more and more electoral votes. Finally, when the results are clear, Cecily Strong, now in a desperate state, exclaims: “Oh my god, I think America is racist!”
This realization — this white realization — is merely the starting point for George Yancy’s new book, Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America. Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University, asks much more of his white readers than the SNL skit did. Rather than just acknowledging modern-day American racism, Yancy implores white readers to face the truth of their own bigotry, the privilege of their whiteness, and the ways that this whiteness inherently dehumanizes and endangers black people.
Yancy shared these ideas back in December 2015, in a New York Times opinion piece entitled “Dear White America.” In this editorial, crafted as a letter to his white fellow citizens, Yancy asks readers to listen with love to what he has to say — not “the Hollywood type of love, but the scary kind, the kind that risks not being reciprocated.” The type of love James Baldwin spoke of when he said: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” Yancy provided a helpful model by admitting to his own sexism, because he is a man in a patriarchal society. “This doesn’t mean that I intentionally hate women,” he explains. “It means that despite my best intentions, I perpetuate sexism every day of my life.” In this op-ed, Yancy exhibited an unmasked vulnerability, in the hope that white people would do the same, would look inward and discover their racism just as he had his own sexism.
Yet many readers could not. Yancy was flooded with comments, emails, letters, and phone messages from disgruntled white people. They insulted his intelligence, called him racial slurs, and threatened his life. Refusing to listen with love, they rejected the notion that modern-day whites play any role in a systematically racist society. This backlash made clear that “post-racial America” was a fantasy, one constructed by a whiteness that refuses to see itself in relation to blackness, a whiteness that motivates some white people to vote for Donald Trump, while also shocking others who are horrified by Trump’s appeal and ascendance.
In order to gain from the insights in Yancy’s book, white readers must first admit to the continued existence of racism in the contemporary United States. Only then can they move on to the much harder task Yancy is asking of them: to understand white racism not simply as the blatant violence and hate exhibited by neo-Nazis and white supremacists but as the product and function of whiteness itself. Racism, in short, is a way of being — exhibited by all white people, progressive and otherwise — that grants more freedom and benefits to whites at the expense of blacks and other people of color. Yancy writes:
White reader, I want you to understand how racism is not a miscalculation, or simply a cognitive distortion. […] [W]hiteness 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, the you that walks into stores, attends college, and falls in love without ever asking how whiteness constitutes itself as the ground of your individual and collective white intelligibility.
Yancy asks white readers to fundamentally question their sense of self, to accept the ugliness of the whiteness inherent in them. This is a monumental, incredibly difficult intellectual task. Yancy understands this and spends most of his time explaining how whiteness is constructed in relation to blackness. His approach is what you’d expect from a philosopher — existential and discursive. Yancy argues that his intelligence and authority are often questioned by white people not simply because they are racist individuals but because they display a prevailing mindset, created and reinforced throughout US history — that blacks are inherently inferior to whites, as well as inherently suspect, inherently up to no good. Yancy spends the rest of the book attempting to tie the emails and calls he received in the wake of his New York Times op-ed to “something much deeper and systemic that has a multitude of ways of hiding from the white view.” His goal is to propel white readers into a self-reflection that will ultimately lead them to perceive their own white racism.
On an intellectual level, Yancy’s efforts are largely successful. By explaining the social construction of whiteness, he connects the dots between the blatant racism that yells vicious slurs and the more subtle discrimination that raises an eyebrow when a black man walks through a white neighborhood. Throughout the book, however, an obvious question persists: will Yancy’s message resonate with those in more conservative states, those who sent the heinous messages to him in the first place, those who voted for Donald Trump? “Probably not,” he admits in the final chapter.
Backlash is an honest, smart, and thoughtful book, but some white readers will have problems with it, not merely because of the difficult self-analysis it demands of them. Yancy’s arguments are highly conceptual, based on relational understandings of self that derive from his academic training in philosophy. He largely dispenses with the kinds of statistics usually used to illustrate the systemic disadvantages black people face in America — educational disparities, racial bias in prison populations, the lack of representation in certain economic and cultural spheres. I don’t mean to say that Yancy doesn’t provide compelling evidence, but this evidence is so complex and theoretical that the average white reader might not be willing to do the mental work required to fully grasp his premise.
Undaunted, Yancy labors page after page to explain the racial paradigms and constructions that benefit whites at the expense of blacks. He expertly shows the insidious influence of racism in his account of Trayvon Martin’s murder by George Zimmerman, whom Yancy refers to as “the killer,” a man who “did not understand how he was always already intimately entangled with Martin’s Black embodiment in terms of a racially shared social skin where Martin’s Black body is obstructed, stopped, distorted, touched by his white gaze and its violent history.” The killer’s inability to “un-suture” — to unhinge himself from the “stereotypical frame of reference operating within that space” — cost Martin his life.
In his recounting of these events, Yancy provides all the proof necessary that white people must take up his challenging task and question themselves — their power, their racism, their whiteness — in the hope of achieving a more just and equal society.