Purging the Poisons of Racism: On George Yancy’s “Until Our Lungs Give Out”
By Clevis HeadleyNovember 26, 2023
Until Our Lungs Give Out: Conversations on Race, Justice, and the Future by George Yancy
What Until Our Lungs Give Out recognizes above all is that race haunts the foundational assumptions and categories of American discourse, and thus race taints or colors central aspects of American history. In this regard, especially given the recent spate of conservative attacks on Black academics, I must stress that Yancy’s book is not intended to spread indoctrination, foster hatred of whites, legitimize unpatriotic views, encourage anti-white racism, promote revisionist histories, or mobilize critical race theory to undermine the basic institutions of American society. Rather, Yancy’s hope is that readers will neither become incapacitated by the hard truths his book reveals nor, alternatively, grow resentful and defensive. Instead, he wants them to “be moved by a powerful, generative, and encouraging form of address. I invite you to tarry, to remain with and to engage in the critical conversations, the dialogues, and the passionate inquiries that are contained within these pages.” A profound ethical concern propels the book, one premised on the responsibility of respectfully addressing the other, as well as listening, being attentive and responsive to the voice of the other.
Yancy’s book is an effort to establish mutual grounds for racial healing and the experiential transformation of self. He reminds us that these goals require “exposure, vulnerability, and openness,” while underscoring that “[t]hey signify fundamental ways in which none of us are asocial epistemic subjects [answerable] only to ourselves.” He develops the notion of parrhesia, which means courageous speech or truth-telling—the kind often misidentified, in the aforementioned conservative attacks, as anti-American rhetoric. Yancy also invokes the notion of kenosis, a mode of emptying and detoxifying the self that gives rise to the possibility of a different or new self. Yancy maintains that eradicating racism requires a form of kenosis, an existential purging through which we cleanse ourselves of the poisons of racism.
Until Our Lungs Give Out encourages readers to bracket their commonsense ways of interpreting the world, which entails resisting the discourses and frameworks of modern (philosophical) liberalism, a worldview that sees political reality in terms of individualism, rights, property, and state neutrality. Yancy and his interview subjects directly confront the limits of liberalism, explaining how this viewpoint renders us incapable of adequately addressing the persistent structures of racial injustice that inform our institutions. Yancy calls attention to the way liberalism both structures and distorts human relations, observing “just how misleadingly and dangerously we have behaved and treated others under neoliberal assumptions and practices.” Perhaps the most troubling assumption of liberalism is its commitment to a radical individualism. This assumption sustains the idea of society as an aggregate of individuals who pursue their own distinctive conceptions of the good rather than collective goals. This “atomistic, neo-liberal conceptualization of the self” is often conveniently deployed to legally challenge policies tailored to address the collective harm suffered by subordinate groups.
Rebutting misleading claims that critical race theory is a form of indoctrination, Yancy correctly identifies this body of work “as a framework for critiquing liberalism and the founding myths of the U.S.” Furthermore, he believes that whites should jettison liberalism as the grounding for their political identity since it leads them to view themselves as asocial beings, a view that ignores the importance of communal relationships in constituting one’s understanding of self. Mark Lewis Taylor, in his contribution to the volume, supports this argument, alleging that, in its embrace of an abstract individualism, liberalism scants the “concrete worlds of nature and bodies.” Urging blindness to these things is not a positive goal but rather leads to ignorance of the ways in which the sociopolitical world is a human construct that provides us with the collective resources to forge identities and to obtain meaning and purpose in life.
Just as liberalism hobbles our efforts to understand the communal aspects of everyday life, it also distorts our understanding of past events, especially those that are racially tinged. Robin D. G. Kelley, for example, maintains that narratives about the Tulsa Race Massacre are too dependent on the structural logic of liberalism, which sees the event “in terms of property, property rights, property destroyed.” Kelly argues that “we need […] to advance beyond land as property toward a vision of freedom not based on ownership or possession.”
Although most whites claim fidelity to liberal principles, Noam Chomsky calls attention to the fact that some whites are also the victims of liberalism. They simply do not realize or will not acknowledge the ways in which neoliberalism has ravaged their lives. Instead, they prefer to blame their perceived losses on others, particularly people of color. White politicians, especially Republicans, masterfully employ Richard Nixon’s infamous “Southern strategy,” according to which social gains made by Blacks are exploited to fuel white resentment and grievance.
Perhaps one of the most salient failures of liberalism is its inability to recognize the nature of institutional or systemic racism. Indeed, the average American uncritically embraces the language of liberalism as an interpretive frame, and many have expressed anger at those who emphasize the persistence of institutional racism and the restrictive nature of the liberal understanding of racism. Joe Feagin points out that the common liberal tendency to frame racism as an individual phenomenon, using the concepts of prejudice, bias, and bigotry, is inadequate and ineffective since it lacks a “concept of systemic racism, including the important concept of its white racial frame, [which is] necessary to fully understand U.S. racial matters.”
Viewing racism as an individual failure conceals its systemic nature. Defeating what Feagin calls the “white racial frame” is not a matter of declaring fidelity to liberal values and principles in the abstract or, for that matter, of urging that we treat people as individuals rather than as members of racial groups. What is required is a persistent and intense transformation, not simply in our ways of thought but in our patterns of life.
It is no surprise that Until Our Lungs Give Out critically engages the theme of white supremacy. Some of the contributors to the volume offer an alternative framing of the concept. Taylor, for example, describes whiteness not strictly in terms of skin color but as an aspect of one’s way of living: “whiteness and its anti-Blackness are aspects of conditions of political being, an ontology of being white that puts Black life ‘under erasure.’” This view of whiteness as a political ontology is also evident in Yancy’s thinking, which insists that to confront whiteness realistically is not simply a matter of declaring fidelity to an abstract color blindness and acting as though such a declaration automatically transfers one to an ideal world of perfect justice and equality. Combating whiteness, he maintains, does not involve eliminating white people but rather eliminating a particular way of seeing the world.
In another context, David Kyuman Kim refuses to frame whiteness/white supremacy in either biological or sociological terms, instead treating it as a project of being, a style of living, a framework for structuring the world that warrants repudiation. Since white supremacy is a way of existing, it is best defeated through a transformation of one’s way of life. Kim, like Yancy, argues that love—particularly a love that involves risk and suffering—is the tool needed to undermine the toxicity of white supremacy. “Love is an underutilized natural resource for our democracy,” he says. “None of us can afford to give up on that.”
The final structuring theme discussed in Until Our Lungs Give Out is Afropessimism, a mode of thought that exposes the ways in which mainstream political, legal, and moral discourses fail to accommodate the affirmative aspects of Black existence, as well as the ethical and political concerns that emerge from Black existence. Frank B. Wilderson III established Afropessimism as a legitimate research paradigm that represents a radical rethinking of the relation between Blackness and “humanity.” Blackness, Wilderson argues, is excluded from the category of the human and thus from the ethical framework of universality. Rather, Blackness is inscribed within the semantic space of slavery. Blackness is a form of social death since it is a condition of existence without any relationality.
By enfolding Blackness within the space of slavery, Wilderson explains why anti-Blackness is unique and not just another form of regrettable human behavior. Afropessimism underscores how the concepts, categories, and principles used to address human suffering and harm do not always accommodate the unique historical circumstances of the violence perpetrated against Blacks. Rather, Blackness exists in a condition of exile that allows “humans” (i.e., whites) to have meaning. In a sense, the human is not absolute but relational because it requires Blackness to define its own terms of intelligibility. Afropessimism thus argues for the ontological dependence of humanness on the nonhuman (i.e., the Black).
Wilderson does not link Blackness with a crude biological essentialism but rather distinguishes the possession of black or dark skin from ontological Blackness. Black people “became Black through the imposition of social death, but Blackness did not have a prior plentitude of subjectivity and relationality,” he argues. “When the anti-Black world is destroyed, there will still be people like you and me, […] but they will not be Black. There will be a new epistemological order.”
The ontological approach to white supremacy critically deployed in Until Our Lungs Give Out is a corrective to the way the term circulates in the media and the political realm. Treating every aspect of modern society as a manifestation of white supremacy is a form of sociological reductionism. What we need instead—and what Yancy’s volume goes some distance toward providing—is a historicizing of white supremacy that views it not as a stable phenomenon but as contingent and dynamic. In this regard, the hatred and resentment against nonwhites that is resurgent today might very well be the expression of an identity—whiteness—in the midst of a grave epistemological crisis.
I highly recommend Until Our Lungs Give Out for anyone who desires to obtain an informative and insightful understanding of a range of urgent issues. The careful reader will enjoy a truly rewarding intellectual experience. Moreover, open-minded white readers need not be offended or made to feel guilty by the powerful critique of American society the book mounts. Following Yancy, I believe that the courageous reader will experience an initially traumatic but ultimately invaluable kenosis.
Clevis Headley is associate professor of philosophy at Florida Atlantic University. His areas of research interest include Africana philosophy, analytic philosophy, critical philosophy of race, social and political philosophy, and the philosophy of language.
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