George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Emory University and a Black male. In a New York Times essay/letter entitled “Dear White America,” he argues that all White males (whatever they are) are racist and need to get over it.
To make his point, he admits that he is a recovering sexist (and if he can confess his sexism, we should be able to confess our racism):
- This doesn’t mean that I intentionally hate women or that I desire to oppress them. It means that despite my best intentions, I perpetuate sexism every day of my life.
Of what does his sexism consist?
- As a sexist, I have failed women. I have failed to speak out when I should have. I have failed to engage critically and extensively their pain and suffering in my writing. I have failed to transcend the rigidity of gender roles in my own life. I have failed to challenge those poisonous assumptions that women are “inferior” to men or to speak out loudly in the company of male philosophers who believe that feminist philosophy is just a nonphilosophical fad. I have been complicit with, and have allowed myself to be seduced by a country that makes billions of dollars from sexually objectifying women, from pornography, commercials, video games, to Hollywood movies. I am not innocent.
After reading this, it is hard to know which sins are being confessed. Is it sexist to hold doors for women? Is it sexist to think or make any generalizations about them – that they are better with children or that they are less physically strong or even that they are more beautiful than males? However, I would agree that watching porn is a road to sexism – viewing woman as mere sexual objects.
Is Yancy merely confessing that he has sexual thoughts regarding women, and does this make him a sexist? This raises the all-important question – What is sexism and when are we guilty of it? And are women just as guilty of reverse-sexism? Are we therefore all sexists, and if we are, is this category at all useful? Perhaps, instead, we have to be more specific about the destructive forms of sexism in which we partake.
Anyway, how do we apply these questions to the area of racism? Yancy pivots now to his main point:
- If you are white, and you are reading this letter, I ask that you don’t run to seek shelter from your own racism. Don’t hide from your responsibility. Rather, begin, right now, to practice being vulnerable. Being neither a “good” white person nor a liberal white person will get you off the proverbial hook… After all, it is painful to let go of your “white innocence,” to use this letter as a mirror, one that refuses to show you what you want to see, one that demands that you look at the lies that you tell yourself so that you don’t feel the weight of responsibility for those who live under the yoke of whiteness, your whiteness.
I can resonate with a part of what Yancy writes. As a Christian, I believe in the need to confess and to engage in painful self-examination, but it’s something we all need to do. However, for Yancy, it seems that this is only something that Whites need to do. According to him, there is a “yoke of whiteness,” but he doesn’t seem willing to acknowledge a comparable “yoke of blackness”:
- I am asking you to enter into battle with your white self. I’m asking that you open yourself up; to speak to, to admit to, the racist poison that is inside of you.
It seems that only the Whites have “racist poison,” while the Blacks are given a free pass. Is this one-sided critique the way to build a better world? Should we fight racism – something that seems to be growing at an alarming rate – with more racist rhetoric? Besides, is this what our Black brethren need to find healing? I don’t think so. Instead of bringing the races together, this serves to simply separate us further. Besides, White mea-culpa can also serve as a cloak for condescension and paternalism. What then will elevate us? To treat our brethren from different races as moral equals, each accountable before God for our own moral failures! Therefore, James instructed the Church:
- My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts? Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him? But you have dishonored the poor man. (James 2:1-7)
When there are specific crimes that Whites continue to commit, then these need to be addressed. However, Yancy feels that it is enough to call Whites “racists” simply because they are part of a society that has favored Whites and seems to systemically favor them today:
- You are part of a system that allows you to walk into stores where you are not followed, where you get to go for a bank loan and your skin does not count against you, where you don’t need to engage in “the talk” that black people and people of color must tell their children when they are confronted by white police officers.
Yes, I do think that we have to face up to certain realities of racial profiling. Honest Black people continue to endure the degradation of suspicion. However, it does not seem likely that this results from any plot or systemic program to degrade Blacks. Instead, Blacks commit crimes at a much higher rate than other racial groups, and I don’t think that Yancy’s victimization rhetoric is helpful here. Instead, it affirms erroneous Black suspicions that Whites still hate them and want to suppress and exclude them. Instead, this is a proven formula to produce more criminality and to increase the division. Therefore, I would hope that Black leadership would be teaching their community:
- Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them… Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay [also through the criminal justice system – Romans 13:4], says the Lord”… Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21)
And this is also what Whites should be teaching! No double-standards here! However, Yancy is one-sided throughout:
- As you reap comfort from being white, we suffer for being black and people of color.
Although Blacks continue to suffer in terms of employment and poverty, they also have freedoms and benefits that Whites are denied. For example, a White could not dream about publishing a letter in the Times inveighing against Black racism. They could even lose their jobs for doing so. Meanwhile, one Black professor at Union Theological Seminary has received 19 honorary PHDs despite his ubiquitous racist diatribes. And we find this double-standard systemically enforced across “White” America.
Yet Yancy doesn’t show any appreciation of the fact that there are no longer racist laws on the books, apart from those that favor Blacks through “affirmative action.” Instead, in light of all the progress, Yancy refuses to hold his own racial group in any way responsible:
- I assure you that so many black people suffering from poverty and joblessness, which is linked to high levels of crime, are painfully aware of the existential toll that they have had to face because they are black and, as [James] Baldwin adds, “for no other reason.”
While this was true in Baldwin’s day, it is no longer true today. Nevertheless, Yancy and many Black people sincerely believe that they are suffering for “no other reason” but White racism, and this is understandable. Blacks had experienced sustained and appalling racism and degradation in our nation for 200 years, and they are still suffering. But why? Is it because of a sinister, hidden, and systemic racism, or are there other reasons for this?
Shelby Steele, a Black professor, thinks that there are. As a panelist at a conference on racism, he was asked what an ideal America would look like. He writes:
- I said that what I wanted most for America was an end to white guilt... the terror of being seen as racist—terror that has caused whites to act guiltily toward minorities even when they feel no actual guilt. My point was that this terror— and the lust it has inspired in whites to show themselves innocent of racism— has spawned a new white paternalism toward minorities since the 1960s that, among other things, has damaged the black family more profoundly than segregation ever did. I also pleaded especially for an end to the condescension of affirmative action... the benevolent paternalism of white guilt, I said, had injured the self- esteem, if not the souls, of minorities in ways that the malevolent paternalism of white racism never had. Post-1960s welfare policies, the proliferation of “identity politics” and group preferences, and all the grandiose social interventions of the War on Poverty and the Great Society— all this was meant to redeem the nation from its bigoted past, but paradoxically, it also invited minorities to make an identity and a politics out of grievance and inferiority... their entitlement and that protest politics was the best way to cash in on that entitlement. (Shame: How America's Past Sins have Polarized the Country)
Steele believes that White guilt is now more destructive to the Black community than White racism. He argues that the very programs intended to help Blacks were not simply ineffective but actually damaged the Black community:
- White guilt was a smothering and distracting kindness that enmeshed minorities more in the struggle for white redemption than in their own struggle to develop as individuals capable of competing with all others.
White guilt expresses itself in many destructive ways. It places all of the guilt for the present-day Black problems on White racism. Consequently, the Blacks are given a free moral pass. But this freedom from blame and conscience is a bondage that perpetuates a blame mentality, dependency, and the resulting criminality. Instead of bringing the races together, it has further polarized them. It also disdains those Whites who understandably want to treat their Black brethren as equals.
According to Steele, White guilt and the “benevolent paternalism” of “affirmative action… has injured the self- esteem, if not the souls, of minorities.”
However, Yancy has embraced the opposite approach – to promote White guilt:
- What I’m asking is that you first accept the racism within yourself, accept all of the truth about what it means for you to be white in a society that was created for you. I’m asking for you to trace the binds that tie you to forms of domination that you would rather not see.
And there are many Whites who condescendingly embrace this message, while most entirely reject it. In either case, alienation is intensified with negative effects for all of us, and this grieves me so!
Instead, the Christian is required to walk in love and unity, each examining themselves, each a sinner who is totally dependent on his Savior. We are to embrace, not racial distinctions, but our common unity and humanity, as our Lord had prayed:
- "That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one: I in them and you in me. May they be brought to complete unity to let the world know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:20-23)
Let this also be our prayer! The unity we so desire will not be brought about by using race to heal racial problems but by Christian love.