The Perils of Being a Black Philosopher

Mark Bradford, Dead Hummingbird, 2015, courtesy Mark Bradford and Hauser & Wirth
Mark Bradford, Dead Hummingbird, 2015, courtesy Mark Bradford and Hauser & Wirth

This is the second in a series of dialogues with philosophers on violence for The Stone. This conversation is with George Yancy, a professor of philosophy at Emory University and author, editor, co-editor of many books, including “Look, a White!” — Brad Evans 

Brad Evans: In response to a series of troubling verbal attacks you recently received following your essay in The Stone in December, “Dear White America,” the American Philosophical Association put out a strongly worded statement criticizing the bullying and harassment of academics in the public realm. But beyond this, shouldn’t we address the broader human realities of such hateful speech, and in particular, how this sort of discursive violence directly impacts the body of the person attacked?

George Yancy: Your point about discursive violence is an important one. Immediately after the publication of “Dear White America,” I began to receive vile and vitriolic white racist comments sent to my university email address, and verbal messages sent to my answering machine. I even received snail mail that was filled with hatred. Imagine the time put into actually sitting down and writing a letter filled with so much hate and then sending it snail mail, especially in our world of the Internet.

The alarming reality is that the response to “Dear White America” revealed just how much racism continues to exist in our so-called post-racial America. The comments were not about pointing out fallacies in my position, but were designed to violate, to leave me psychologically broken and physically distraught.

Words do things, especially words like “nigger,” or being called an animal that should go back to Africa or being told that I should be “beheaded ISIS style.” One white supremacist message sent to me ended with “Be Prepared.” Another began with “Dear Nigger Professor.”

The brutality and repetitiveness of this discursive violence has a way of inflicting injury. Given the history of the term “nigger,” it strikes with the long, hate-filled context of violence out of which that term grew. This points to the non-spectacular expression of violence. The lynching of black people was designed to be a spectacle, to draw white mobs. In this case, the black body was publicly violated. It was a public and communal form of bloodlust. There are many other forms of violence that are far more subtle, non-spectacular, but yet painful and dehumanizing. So, when I was called a “nigger,” I was subject to that. I felt violated, injured; a part of me felt broken.

Only now have I really begun to recognize how discourse designed to hurt can actually leave its mark. I recall after reading so many of these messages I began to feel sick, literally. So, words can debilitate, violate, injure; they can hit with the force of a stick or a stone and leave marks on the body. In this case, I began to feel the posture of my body folding inward, as it were, under the attacks. Franz Fanon talks about this as not being able to move lithely in the world.

B.E.: How does this relate to the intellectual history of racial persecution, oppression and subordination, especially the denial of the right of black people, and specifically black intellectuals, to speak with their own voice in a public setting?

G.Y.: I shared some of the malicious discourse used against me with some very prominent white public intellectuals. We began to exchange experiences. The exchange was helpful to me; it helped me to understand what is at stake when engaging in courageous speech. What was immediately clear, though, was the absence of specifically racist vitriol directed at these white public intellectuals, which in no way downplays their pain. Yet we must bring attention to the difference, to the perils of being a black intellectual. Not only was I being attacked for my courageous speech; I was being attacked as a black man. Yet I was also being attacked as a black philosopher.

There were some very nasty remarks that were designed to question my status as a philosopher because I’m black. The implication of those messages was that to be black and a philosopher was a contradiction, because “niggers” can’t be philosophers. So, I agree; the discourse was far more pernicious. But to understand this is to come to terms with the history of white violence in this country used to control and silence black people.

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Source: The New York Times | BRAD EVANS and GEORGE YANCY