Note: On Christmas Eve, 2015, the New York Times published an article by Dr. George Yancy of Emory University, in the form of a letter titled "Dear White America." Earlier this year, Dr. Yancy published a book of reflections on the reactions garnered by the letter, Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America, which a group of Xavier faculty and staff discussed for our 2018 Fall Faculty Book Club. In honor of Dr. Yancy's original letter, on this Christmas Eve, we offer one reader's reply.
Dear Professor Yancy,
I feel compelled to write to you, as you have written to me, in your letter, "Dear White America." We read your letter and your book, Backlash, in a book club here at the university where I work in New Orleans. I found your letter moving, and I want to thank you for your gift. I want to thank you for crystallizing issues with which I've been wrestling over the past months and years, complex issues of race and racism in America, of whiteness and white supremacy. Your book, and particularly your letter, distill some of these issues to their essence in a pointed and poignant manner. For this, I am grateful.
Reading your book in this collegiate context, I'm tempted to quibble over precise phraseology. After all, we value critical thinking; we encourage it in our students; surely I might be allowed, perhaps even expected, to split a few hairs. For example, you relate an anecdote from Tim Wise, in which he admits to blatantly racist thoughts. You say that "his racism triumphed." But I wonder: did it? I would rather say that Wise prevailed over his racism, by recognizing it, by admitting it to himself and to us, by committing to anti-racist teaching.
Yes, I could quibble over rhetorical choices, but to what end? Isn't it a form of evasion, suturing myself against the risks presented by your text? To indulge in such peevish criticisms would burnish my ego while dodging the really important points. Perhaps I could avoid asking myself uncomfortable questions, such as whether I am also host to such blatantly racist thoughts as reported by Tim Wise.
For the record, I am. Yes, racist thoughts crop up in my mind frequently, despite years of working alongside Black folks at a historically Black institution, despite my ideological commitments against racism.
I'm not proud of this fact. It's an uncomfortable thing to admit, even privately, much less publicly. What would my co-workers think of me if they knew? The prospect makes me grit my teeth.
This unpleasant truth provides evidence that your overarching message and your core arguments are correct and, moreover, of urgent importance. Our nation, our people, do indeed suffer from a pernicious soul-sickness of white supremacist ideology, all the more insidious for the way in which the sickness itself tends to be invisible for those of us who inhabit the privileged space of whiteness.
You invite your readers to tarry with your text, to sit with the discomfort it brings. As I endeavored to do that, I confronted a growing impatience within myself. Rushing to a fix could be another evasion of difficult issues. Yet I'm also wary of complacency, inaction, endless dithering. I feel we have dithered long enough.
I was born in 1967, just before the "long, hot summer" of race riots. The Kerner Commission was convened by President Johnson that summer and issued their report the following year, famously warning that "our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white — separate and unequal." Recently a number of retrospectives were published, analyzing where we stood fifty years later. The universal conclusion: we have made virtually zero progress on these issues.
And so the burning question remains: What now? What next? What is the cure for this sickness? How can we awaken from this nightmare?
Structures of white supremacy must be dismantled. The artificial construct of whiteness must be abolished. It's easy for me to say that, but much harder for me to envision how it can be done. These inequities are deeply embedded in our social institutions. To undo racism is no trivial project. How to proceed?
As you ably demonstrate in your writing, there are parallels and intersections between white supremacy and patriarchy. It seems clear at a glance that patriarchy is just as deeply embedded in our social structures. The link to class is also easy to see. I might add the ruthless extraction and exploitation of Earth's natural resources, a connection summarized in your pithy quote from Du Bois, that "whiteness is the ownership of the Earth." White supremacy, patriarchy, economic inequity, and ecocide: all these systems of oppression and domination are related genetically. They function in similar ways and tend to reinforce one another.
These systems are killing us. I mean that quite literally. As a straight "white" American male, I enjoy privileges which include slightly less fear of police violence (to pick one example) than people in targeted groups may experience. Yet my enjoyment of such so-called privileges is limited, to say the least, and not simply out of compassion for others. I live in a police state where violence is ubiquitous, where harsh and cruel disparities are the norm. While I may deplore these conditions as a matter of justice (and I do) they also diminish my quality of life in a very direct way. I can't truly be free if my brothers and sisters of every color are not free, because the social mechanisms by which injustice is enforced and maintained diminish us all.
Nothing drives home this message, for me, like the recent reports on climate change. I know people of color will tend to experience the coming upheavals in much harsher and deadlier form than I am likely to, because of the way our society is structured. Nevertheless, we may all go down together, as a species; we may well take the biosphere with us. Worst-case scenarios project a Venus-like future for our planet, an 800ºF furnace, incapable of sustaining life as we know it.
In light of all this, I know that my liberation is bound up with yours, to paraphrase the Aboriginal activists of Queensland in the 1970s. Our very survival is at stake. A sense of dread pervades every fiber of my being, yet I am not paralyzed. I know that if we are to have any sort of future at all, we must dismantle these systems. We need a profound transformation of our society, on an order not typically referenced in our contemporary discourse. And so I return, incessantly, to these questions: What now? What next? How to proceed?
Education is urgently necessary. You are an educator, a teacher, in the traditional classroom sense. Your letter, your gift, published in the prominent New York Times, is also a teaching, a means of education. Your book documents how resistant we "white" Americans are to learning. Perhaps different rhetorical strategies could be more effective, but the reaction to your letter underscores the limits of what education can do.
I'm not denigrating education. I work at a university myself, dedicating much of my life to the support of teaching and teachers. I merely recognize that education, while vitally important, only gets us so far. Surely it's not reasonable to expect that, one by one, people might read a letter or a book and become enlightened, until some critical number is reached and the world is saved. Do we dare to dream that a sufficiently educated public can simply tick the best choices at the ballot and thus vote our way out of this nightmare? I don't think we can afford to nourish such illusions.
We need political mobilization above and beyond the electoral process. We need a program to abolish whiteness, to eliminate social inequities, and to restore ecological wisdom. We need a platform. We need movement. Above all, we need action. We need to be actively organizing in our communities, developing plans that combine education and action. We need to be linking together with others across the nation and across the globe.
As I write this, I realize my thoughts are addressed as much to myself, and to my colleagues and co-workers, as to you. I will share this letter with my fellow book club members, and the general public. If you have any response, I would certainly love to receive it, but don't feel obliged. Please just know that your letter, your gift, has been received by at least one more person, with gratitude.