Racism is a great flash point in American culture, carrying centuries of weight and denial. I am so tired of the denial, and yet as a white person I am privileged to merely experience anger and sadness over our state of affairs. For my friends of color, the reality is a constant source of stress, danger, and injustice. And an op-ed piece in today’s New York Times gives a hint of the level of frustration and exhaustion no doubt felt by many people of color.
“Should I give up on white people?” That’s the title and main question raised by George Yancy, a philosophy professor at Emory University and an African American. It’s about the despicable, hate-filled comments and threats he received for another New York Times op-ed piece in 2015, called “Dear White America.” He had started that earlier article with these words:
I have a weighty request. As you read this letter, I want you to listen with love, a sort of love that demands that you look at parts of yourself that might cause pain and terror, as James Baldwin would say. Did you hear that? You may have missed it. I repeat: I want you to listen with love. Well, at least try.
We don’t talk much about the urgency of love these days, especially within the public sphere. Much of our discourse these days is about revenge, name calling, hate, and divisiveness. I have yet to hear it from our presidential hopefuls, or our political pundits. I don’t mean the Hollywood type of love, but the scary kind, the kind that risks not being reciprocated, the kind that refuses to flee in the face of danger. To make it a bit easier for you, I’ve decided to model, as best as I can, what I’m asking of you. Let me demonstrate the vulnerability that I wish you to show. As a child of Socrates, James Baldwin and Audre Lorde, let me speak the truth, refuse to err on the side of caution.
He received hundreds of responses that were, shall we say, indications of something less than love. His new article begins with a quote from one of them:
You deserve to be punished with several fists to your face! You’re nothing but a troublemaker! I’ve had enough of your Racist talk! You’d better watch what you say and to whom you say it! You may just end up in the hospital with several injuries or maybe on a cold slab in the local morgue! You’ve got a big mouth that needs to be slammed shut permanently!
The hate spewed out from letters, postcards, emails, and voice messages, and he became aware of horrible conversations about him on white supremacist websites. Yancy recalls:
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.”
My “non-racist” white friends get so defensive about race. Their defensiveness speaks volumes. It’s like Donald Trump insisting he is “the least racist person in America,” while also defending white supremacists as “very good people.” Denial is “the heartbeat of racism,” as Ibram X. Kendi says. And facing it, day after day after day, wears away at the hearts of people of color. Yancy:
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.”
Maybe now you can understand why someone with Yancy’s experiences might wonder if it wouldn’t simply be easier to give up on the hope that white people might ever be open to listening with ears of love and to seeing with eyes of goodwill.
Part of this will require white people to learn the history of this land as told from other-than-white perspectives. Lauret Savoy sums up an aspect of this in her brilliant book, Trace: Memory, History, Race and the American Landscape:
American prosperity and progress have come at great human costs, too. Forced removals of the continent’s Native peoples yielded land to newcomers from Europe and their descendants. The new republic’s economy grew upon a foundation of industrial agriculture built and powered by enslaved workers. Consuming other people’s labor, dispossessing other people of land and life connection to it, devaluing human rights, and diminishing one’s community, autonomy, and health—these are not just events of the past. In a globalizing world, American agribusiness giants have profited from the products of enslaved labor in Brazil at a seemingly safe moral distance. And far too many degraded environments in the United States are also citizens’ homes—in nearly all states with hazardous waste facilities, high percentages of people of color and the economically poor live, and die, next to those sites. Witness, too, farm workers in pesticide-laden fields whose health and lives are rarely recognized as a cost of producing cheap food. A wiser measure of the ecological footprint would include people, or at least their labor. It might factor in the losses of relationships with land or home, losses of self-determination, and losses of health or life. What if the footprint measured, over time, on whom and what the nation’s foot has trod—that is, who has paid for prosperity?
From my earliest days I have been blessed and cursed with a great gift of empathy. Even so, and despite recognizing the structural racism that continues to damage so many fellow citizens, it is only fairly recently that I have even begun to adequately sense the depth of the suffering, stress and anger routinely experienced by people of color in America. Most of my personal friends of color are people I have known because of my career as a university professor, and even when hanging out the conversations have rarely turned to these matters.
I have read books about historical and current racism in America, yes, and often have been brought to tears at the injustice of it all, but even so I didn’t really begin to grasp the depths of emotion until a couple of years ago, when I decided to turn my Facebook into more than just a 90-some-percent white newsfeed of people I personally knew, and radically expand my list of friends, especially people of color. I started with friends of friends, and kept going. Now my newsfeed includes hundreds of voices from people of color who come from all walks of life: financially secure, extremely poor, people who live in urban areas and rural areas and reservations. And day after day I see the struggles, the frustrations, the hurt, and the anger of people who constantly have to put up with things I never have to encounter, simply because they aren’t white and I am.
I have learned so much simply by widening my horizons of daily encounters. I comment only occasionally, when I know I can say something that can really contribute in some way, for I know that a common mistake of well-meaning white people is to give a response that makes sense only from a privileged perspective. But sometimes a simple human word of encouragement is a proper response, and when I see a post requesting prayer I always respond, and follow through.
Savoy, whose heritage is a mixture of African-American, Euro-American, and Native American, writes, “To inhabit this country is to be marked by residues of its still unfolding history, a history weighted by tangled ideas of ‘race’ and of the land itself.” We cannot truly understand this land or ourselves without facing these realities, including how they have shaped our own inner landscapes.
This journey through history and the land is inherently spiritual, and to navigate this difficult terrain is, from a Christian perspective, to carry one’s cross. It is not only worth it, but is the only way to reach the Creator at the heart of all longing. Savoy offers encouragement: “We may find that home lies in re-membering—in piecing together the fragments left—and in reconciling what it means to inhabit terrains of memory, and to be one.”
Yancy also manages to conclude on a hopeful note in today’s op-ed, mentioning positive responses he has received from some white readers and students, saying that history “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 bolder 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.”
It is an achievement open to all, even to privileged white people.
Photo: Creative Commons license; credit Alex Garland, Backbone Campaign