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Local morgue? Slammed shut permanently? These threatening words are taken from a letter sent to me by an anonymous white person. It was handwritten in black ink, covering both sides of a yellow sheet of paper torn from a legal pad. It is one of hundreds of letters, emails, postcards and voice messages I received — to say nothing of menacing discussions of me on white supremacist websites — after I wrote and published the essay “Dear White America” in December 2015 here at The Stone. What I had offered as a letter of love had unleashed the very opposite — a wave of white hatred and dehumanization.
Some white respondents wrote about desires of kicking me and leaving me “half dead” or “knocking my head off my shoulders.” Others made an assessment of my academic bona fides: “This coon is a philosopher in the same way Martin King was a PhD and the same way that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are ‘Reverends’: Just another new way to pimp.”
After receiving the letter that spoke of a cold slab and shutting my mouth permanently, I decided to share it with my students in my graduate philosophy seminar. I needed a witness — perhaps I needed my students to help carry some of what I was feeling. So, I read it aloud.
I had not anticipated my emotional response. As I read the letter, I began to feel a different kind of threat. The kind of threat that has implications for those whom I love. You see, a threat to my life will inevitably impact the lives of my loved ones. And that is a threat that impacts me, my body, my spirit, with a different kind of existential and emotional gravitas.
When I finished reading the letter, I looked at my students as I thought about the reverberations of such a threat. My eyes watered, my body became stilted, I felt a rush of unspeakable anger run through my blood. I said to my students: “This involves my loved ones. I can’t take this hatred anymore! I need a few minutes outside of class.” The room fell silent.
Looking back, I wish that I had said: “To hell with it all! It is not worth it. Too many white people will never value my humanity. So many whites in America will never be honest about their hatred of black people. So, let’s close this class session on that. Let’s just say, ‘To hell with it all!’”
Well, that didn’t happen. I came back into the room, where everyone was still silent. My students’ faces, for the most part, were turned down. I know what they had felt, black students, students of color and white alike. They bore witness to my vulnerability, my suffering, the sting of unmitigated hatred. And they saw the impact in an otherwise safe academic space.
A few moments passed. I apologized to them and resumed teaching. But the space between us in the classroom was not the same; we had witnessed something together. That space will never be the same.
I wanted to model for my students what it is like to be a contemporary philosopher who remains steadfast in the face of hatred. I wanted them to internalize something of what it means to practice philosophy, to love wisdom, in the face of danger, threats of violence and intolerance. Yet, there was a part of me that failed that day.
My composure had collapsed. I seemed to have lost my bearing, my confidence was shaken. I was pushed to rethink what I assumed was a mission of love, the kind of love that refuses to hide and requires profound forms of vulnerability. I had wanted to help heal our broken world, to exalt love in an otherwise ethically catastrophic America. Now I could hear the voices of some of my students of color, “Dr. Yancy, why do you continue to write about whiteness and to address white people?” There is affection and alarm in that question, concern for my safety. And it is a reasonable question.
Given such nasty, unconscionable, violent and perhaps liable discourse, why do I continue to speak to white America about its racism? After all, I am not a masochist, nor do I want to be a martyr.
It is true that being on the receiving end of such hate caused me to grow weary, fatigued and profoundly pained. Mixed with all of that was the outrage I felt when “white innocence” was uncovered as white privilege and white complicity with systems of white racism. I had become, as the civil rights heroine Fannie Lou Hamer once said, “sick and tired of being sick and tired.” And in so many ways, and for good reason, I still am.
So, here I am facing a dilemma. Do I give up on white people, on white America, or do I continue to fight for a better white America, despite the fact that my efforts continue to lead to forms of unspeakable white racist backlash?
I am convinced that America suffers from a pervasively malignant and malicious systemic illness — white racism. There is also an appalling lack of courage, weakness of will, spinelessness and indifference in our country that helps to sustain it. That indifference is itself a cruel reality, a reality that often makes me want to scream at the top of my lungs until I fall flat on my face from exhaustion. That indifference makes me sick to my stomach.
When it comes to white racist hatred, America never seems to have short supply. Perhaps you believe that I exaggerate. But I know better. You see, many whites in America have no need of me. They refuse what James Baldwin called a disagreeable mirror, one that shows them what they would rather not see.
White people have told me where to go: “Yancy, flights leave for Africa every day. We can all admit bringing you to this country was a mistake, so let us get rid of you and correct the mistake. You are not happy, we are not happy with your behavior, so do it.” Or “There are two ways you can return to Africa: On a passenger ship, or in a coffin freighter. Choose quickly.” Notice the urgency of that warning, the implied threat to my life.
You see, for many white Americans, I am disposable. For others, I’m more beast than human. “This ignorant monkey has no audience but other ignorant monkeys.” Or, “This monkey isn’t talking to me.” Or, “As I see it, the only people whose racism is a problem is colored monkeys. They don’t want to live without White people. They CAN’T live without White people.”
For other whites, I am both subhuman and vermin. The words don’t lie: “Dear Black America, let go of your black victimhood and bring yourself to the point of admission that you hoodrats and pavement apes are the ones destroying black lives and communities. And in closing, don’t blame Whitey!”
And then there are those unspeakable white projections. “In a sane world, this ugly Nigger would be just beheaded ISIS style. Make America WHITE Again.” Or “This Nigger needs to have a meat hook lovingly, well, you know, time to use your own imagination!” Others are quick to recommend that I act in my own “best interest”: “Kill Yourself. Do it Immediately.”
Beheaded ISIS style? A meat hook? Kill myself? Reader, the sickness of these threats should trouble your very soul.
James Baldwin writes, “People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction, and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster.” White America has long lost its innocence. Given its horrendous treatment of the indigenous peoples of this land, there was never any innocence. There were monsters, though. Land takers. Brutal dispossession. And then body snatchers and the selling and buying of black flesh. To be haunted while asleep has its advantages, because one will awake. But to be haunted while awake by a teratology of whiteness is far more frightening.
Yet just when I began to unmoor, a braver white America began to speak, to risk, to love. Perhaps for the first time, these white readers took off their masks, even if only for a moment, to hear me. Then again, perhaps they had already known about the difficulties involved in removing their masks, knowing how hard it is to avoid falling back on “white innocence.” They entered that space of risk and honesty where they dared to tell the truth about their whiteness. “Thanks Professor Yancy for your thoughts,” one woman wrote. “The system is racist. As a white woman, I am responsible to dismantle that system as well as the attitudes in me that growing up in the system created. I am responsible for speaking out when I hear racist comments.”
And the disagreeable mirror produced painful disclosures. “Beautiful words, thoughtful words, and words that needed to be said. Thank you for holding up a mirror to my inner hate.” A shared understanding of the complexity of white racism was staring back at me. “Thank you. I am a white liberal/ardent backer of civil rights, but as you say, also a racist. Godspeed, and thank you for helping to keep me honest.” Or “I have been living this past year with the growing understanding that my white privilege is toxic.” Or “I would like to offer you a gift in return: A commitment to fully accept the racism (and sexism) that is embedded in me, acknowledge the privilege that comes with having been born a white American, try my best to be educated about the suffering my racism and privilege causes others.”
In response to these positive responses, however, some will still insist, “Their white history speaks louder than their words.” But history, I say, is not fixed. And as human beings we are protean.
Unlike Odysseus, who tied himself to the mast of a ship so that he could not fully respond to the songs of the sirens, I ask that if you are prepared to be wounded, to be haunted by the joy of love, compassion and vulnerability, untie your ropes, leave the contrived masts of your own undoing, step out into the water — join me there. It might feel like Sisyphus rolling that enormous boulder up the hill again, but let my history embolden you. As James Baldwin said, Black history “testifies to nothing less than the perpetual achievement of the impossible.”
Copyright 2018 George Yancy. First published in The Stone, an online imprint of The New York Times, April 16, 2018. Included in Vox Populi with permission.