The Hamilton College Summer Program in Philosophy (HCSPiP) recently welcomed George Yancy to campus for a public lecture and discussion on “A Letter of Love: And the Return of White Backlash.” Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University and a Montgomery Fellow in Residence at Dartmouth College, is one of the most influential thinkers today on critical race theory, critical whiteness studies, and the philosophy of race.
As part of Ann Cahill’s class on identity-based violence, HCSPiP students read Yancy’s book Backlash: What Happens When We Honestly About Racism in America. During the second week of the program, students grappled with the philosophical and personal import of racial oppression using Yancy’s work as a starting point.
In his talk, Yancy read from the vitriolic hate mail he received in response to his “Dear White America” letter published in the New York Times in 2015. He asked that white people receive this letter with love and tarry with the gift of shared embodied vulnerability he offers. Instead, he received a deluge of racist comments, emails, and letters. Yancy asked us to consider that racism is not “individual acts of meanness,” but rather, an entrenched, structural regime, of which these responses are merely symptomatic.
Yancy explained that white people perform the structure of whiteness every day either consciously or unconsciously. White identity is complicit with racist norms and white people propagate subtle, quotidian forms of racism like “white nervous gestures and eyes, he said. He gave an example of when white people hurriedly get into their cars and lock the doors when he walks by. That clicking sound is haunting. With each “click,” there is a resignification of the white body as protected, innocent, and good and the black body as predatory, dangerous, and monstrous. White safety and comfort is predicated upon black pain and suffering.
Combining philosophical analysis and first-person narrative, Yancy demonstrated the affective and embodied nature of philosophy. He concluded his talk with a quote from James Baldwin: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.” In risking the white self, hopefully a process of un-suturing will give rise to new forms of self-understanding and courageous conversation.