Killing White Innocence : A review by Stephen Brookfield of George Yancy’s Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America
Editor’s Note: Please read this important review and George Yancy’s book Backlash, just now published Rowman and Littlefield, in conjunction with some alternative perspectives presented in Tikkun’s Winter/Spring 2018 edition focused on Identity Politics, particularly the essays by African American social change activists Eric Ward and Thandeka ]
Killing White Innocence
by Stephen Brookfield
A review of Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America by George Yancy (Rowman and Littlefield)
A couple of years ago I was having dinner with a good woman friend who had spent a career of 40 years engaged in literacy work in New York’s Harlem and Washington Heights. She is white and worked almost entirely with people of color who loved her for her humor, spirit and warmth, but mostly for her tireless advocacy on their behalf. She wouldn’t put up with any bullshit and woe betide any Gotham administrator who created a bureaucratic obstacle to block her students trying to realize their potential.
Over dinner she told me she had been to a workshop on racism and that the first thing the workshop facilitators did was to ask every white person in the room to stand up and take turns saying “I am a racist”. As she recounted this event her voice shook with anger. She couldn’t believe that her four decades of anti-racist endeavors had been discounted by these facilitator-strangers who didn’t know anything about her. I’m guessing that the intent of the facilitators was to convey the message that we are all implicated in a racist system and that we have all learned racist instincts and impulses. But my friend was so profoundly insulted that she left the workshop immediately.
I thought about this event, and so many others that have happened to me, as I read George Yancy’s astonishing new book Backlash: What Happened When We Talk Honestly About Race in America. The book recounts the fallout from a December 2015 op-ed piece he wrote for the New York Times’ philosophy column, ‘The Stone’. Titled Dear White America the piece was framed as a gift inviting Whites to consider their often unacknowledged collusion in a white supremacist system. But for George it was the start of a vicious and sustained assault unleashed on him that continues to this day. Death threats became common and being called “a fucking racist… a piece of shit destroying the youth of this country… a fucking smug nigger … a fucking animal” (pp. 36-37) (all from one voicemail) is now his new normal.
In his words, his “physiology registered the wounds. Mood swings. Irritability. Trepidation. Disgust. Anger. Nausea.” (p. 45). Backlash expands on why he wrote the original letter and allows him to explore more fully the nature of contemporary racism. It chronicles the vitriol directed at him via e-mails, letters and voice mails, and on various websites. To anyone proclaiming the arrival of a post-racial world Backlash stands as the starkest possible rebuttal. It illustrates how President Trump’s nativist signals have clearly legitimized white supremacy to emerge full blown into our national discourse.
Most white readers will, I suspect, be struck most powerfully by the cruelty that George endured. For a professional philosopher to communicate such deep rawness and suffering is, quite simply, astounding. Philosophy sometimes privileges language games but Backlash vibrates with visceral feeling and emotion. Pain leaps from its pages along with righteous anger and an agonizing cry for relief. There is simply no contemporary book on race by a professional philosopher written with this level of directness and candor. But what does this book mean for Whites like myself and my woman friend quoted earlier, who can never walk in George’s shoes but who are committed to anti-racist work?
As a White man I always look to George to profoundly, but productively, disturb me. In his own terms I need him to wound me, to un-suture my de-facto view of myself as a good white person on the right side of history. Whenever I start to get too comfortable with thinking I’ve got a handle on white supremacy, I count on him to be my Paul Robeson, Angela Davis, or W.E.B. DuBois. We’ve only communicated via e-mail and phone but I imagine him in the corner of the room raising a skeptical eye and saying “come off it Stephen, are you kidding me? That’s why you think you’ve escaped racism?”
Backlash uncompromisingly calls on Whites to acknowledge being racist as an unvarnished empirical fact. It asks us to recognize how we are caught within a racist system that we benefit from. Whether or not we are righteously committed to working in anti-racist ways is beside the point. There is no contradiction in Whites working as anti-racist leaders, activists, teachers or citizens and their being racist. This is because racism is not the process of individually demeaning or diminishing others, “a site of individual acts of meanness” (p. 74); rather, it’s being “implicated in a complex web of racist power relationships … heteronomous webs of white practices to which you, as a white, are linked both as a beneficiary and as co-contributor to such practices” (p. 75). Since my Whiteness constantly benefits me, and since that benefit accrues to me because I’m defined in relation to the stigma of Blackness, I am a racist. I don’t go about hurling racial epithets but I am “embedded in a pre-existing social matrix of white power” (p. 76) that gives me advantages of which I have only an occasional awareness. To feel safe is my norm, to be “systemically racially marked for death” (p. 102) is George’s.
Because I grew up intellectually as a critical theorist I agree that I am systemically formed. I don’t think I – Stephen Brookfield – constitute a monological, atomistic, discrete identity. I’m in history and culture and I’m fluid. Who I am is in large part a function of ideological manipulation. I’ve grown up surrounded with, and formed by, some very powerful ideologies. These include racism, patriarchy, heterosexism, capitalism and militarism. These belief systems, and the practices and systems in which they’re embedded, construct my normal. I’ve spent a lot of time teaching against racism but, as George argues, that doesn’t mean I’m not a racist. I have internalized racist stereotypes at such a deeply visceral, pre-conscious level that I will never lose them.
Take my instinctive reaction to blackness, especially to black maleness. Blackness screams a complex and contradictory mess of signals to me. In my youth it was ‘coolness’, mostly because of music and cricket (I grew up in England). In my adulthood it’s been ‘danger’, something animalistic, uncontrollable and profoundly threatening. I feel an instinctive tightening of my body when I encounter a group of black men. This is beyond reason, deeply sedimented, learned and transmitted over several decades of media and cultural representations of blackness as violence. My physiology changes as I drive through a mostly Black area and I hear a panicked voice inside my head saying “whatever happens, please don’t let my car stall”. I find myself locking the doors, checking my surroundings and preparing for confrontation.
None of this has any connection to my thinking process. I can tell myself “there’s your white supremacist conditioning kicking in again” and steel my cognitive warriors to fire their arrows of reason into this oncoming tsunami of emotion. But reasoning doesn’t mean much in the face of white supremacist ideological conditioning. Just as with the clinical depression and anxiety that I suffer from, words, thoughts and admonitions to ‘snap out of it’ or ‘stop being so irrational’ are mostly powerless. With my depression and anxiety, the doctor can prescribe medication that makes a big difference and keeps me stable. If only someone could write me a script to combat the white supremacist ideology embedded in my cultural DNA.
So I am fine (well, maybe not fine, I still desperately want to plead for absolution and forgiveness even as I speak it out loud) with saying I am racist. But this is not true for my woman friend. Even though she has a white racial identity in a white supremacist world she resents being called racist, and feels her life in anti-racist work proves that she’s not. I meet many white friends, colleagues and students who feel the same. What do I say to them?
Well, I’ll start off by talking about how I’ve noticed my own learned racism framing my perception of a current event, or how I caught myself in a micro-aggression earlier that day. There is such shame in the word ‘racist’, such power to humiliate, that I’m wary of beginning a conversation by asking that white friends and colleagues declare themselves racist. Instead I need to ‘normalize’ racism, to show that because most Whites are constantly immersed in racist conditioning, it would be strange if they didn’t have learned racist impulses, instincts and perspectives lurking within them. So I need to show first how racism is embedded in my worldview and how I enact racism. I need to earn the right to ask them to consider their own racist identity by first exploring mine
Does this approach pay too much respect to white fragility, to the alarm and subsequent retreat from confrontation that stops so many of us from looking squarely at our own racism? I go back and forth on this question. My teacher voice says, “you have to start where people are. Starting with your own agenda without having built a connection to their world is self-indulgent. Get over making yourself feel righteous and take the time to know them”. My activist voice replies, “here you go again, copping out and backing off from necessary danger. Don’t be so cowardly – tell it like it is”.
Depending on the day, either one of these voices triumphs. But I am helped by the distinction offered by Myles Horton, the social activist who formed the Highlander Folk School in Tennessee that played such a crucial role in the civil rights movement. Myles would say that if your agenda is an educational one and you want to foster learning, you have no option but to start where people are. You need to understand their experiences and world views. However, if your agenda is immediate social change and you’re fighting against a powerful enemy, you often have no choice other than direct confrontation. You don’t have the luxury of time and space to reason and slowly convince people of your view. You need to drop bombs of dissonance and create crises that explode settled perspectives and disrupt power.
The last part of Backlash explores what Whites can do in terms of searching honestly for the learned racism and privilege at the heart of their identity. This is hard given that bearing witness to the kind of racist terrorism chronicled in the book typically prompts Whites to show solidarity. We want to let people of color know that not all Whites are their enemy and that they can count on some of us for support. Speaking for myself, I know that part of me desperately wants the approval of people of color. I want to be told I’m one of the good guys who’s exempted from blanket condemnations of white racism. I want to be told I’m an exception and to feel a flush of self-aggrandizing, self-congratulatory pleasure when saying to myself “you know what, my mother was right, I am a good person.”.
One of the hardest lessons I have learned as a white person, and therefore as a representative (in the eyes of people of color) of white supremacy, is that I must expect to be mistrusted. I must also anticipate white colleagues accusing me of politically correct reverse racism. When this happens, I need to remember that this is not a sign that somehow I’m failing; it happens to every white person in this work. So I tell colleagues getting involved in anti-racist teaching or other activism for the first time that for different reasons they should be prepared to be called a racist both by people of color and by Whites. It comes with the territory.
I remember in the early 1990’s teaching a class in which the only student of color declared “I will never trust a White person”. I responded by saying, “that’s completely understandable, I don’t see why you would”. But the white majority in the group were shocked and demoralized by his comment and spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince him that they were humane, enlightened and worthy of his trust. It has always seemed to be that completely valid suspicion, skepticism and hostility will inevitably accompany any white person’s attempt to work alongside people of color in an anti-racist effort. This is no comment on you personally. It’s a comment on how the history of white supremacy has conditioned people of color to expect whites always to pursue their own self-interest and bolster their own power.
The internal seduction of telling myself I’m the militantly moral white exception who has escaped racism and works on the side of light and good is hard to resist. I’ve failed dismally in this regard. Colleagues of color detect my need for reassuring approval and tell me not to get so hung up on how I’m feeling because, after all, it’s not really about me, is it? I take deeply to heart George’s admonition that “whatever you do, please don’t seek recognition for how sorry you feel” (p. 118). There is no place for white heroes in his book, although white humility is welcomed.
The judgment of whether or not you are an ally to people of color is completely in their hands. You should never expect to be told that you are one, and shouldn’t get hung up on gauging your anti-racist virtue by whether or not you receive that designation. Of course, if you do hear that term applied to you by people of color you should take it as a sincere recognition that you’re doing something important and worthwhile. And, for a moment, it’s fine to be proud of yourself. We all need moments of recognition and affirmation to keep our energy up for the tough stuff.
But repeat after me; never declare yourself an ally. No matter how strongly you are committed to that identity, keep it private. A White person saying “I’m your ally” comes across as condescending and inauthentic. You don’t become an ally by saying that you are. You become one by consistently showing up in support of people of color. You become one by losing something. Instead of worrying about getting approval for being heroically anti-racist, you should be putting yourself on the line. You should be risking institutional condemnation by doing and saying the things that people of color will suffer even more harshly for doing and saying. Your job is to lose friends, colleagues, money, employment, perks and prestige by calling out white supremacy in yourself and other Whites, and then not to have anyone notice or thank you for it.
Stephen Brookfield is the John Ireland Endowed Chair and Distinguished University professor at the university of St. Thomas in Minneapolis-St. Paul. His book Teaching Race will be published this fall by Jossey-Bass/John Wiley.