The mistake of a limited conversation

I see what George Yancy is doing. I appreciate that—his ‘gift’[1]—and want to praise him for it. He is inviting us to the conversation about race that I thought and hoped we might have under the Obama presidency, a conversation that the viscerally racist reaction to his presidency[2] guaranteed we could not and still cannot have. But it is, nonetheless, a conversation we very badly need to have.

And it is a conversation which must occur in full view. The “safe spaces” that exclude media and that I have already criticized[3] will not do. This conversation needs to be broadcast widely. This country that calls itself “America,” and in so doing, appropriates the name of two continents containing 36 countries, must face its racism and a few other -isms.

It is interesting that a significant part of Yancy’s essay—his ‘letter’ to “White America” (with a capital ‘W’)—is devoted to Yancy’s own acknowledgment of his own sexism.[4] In that spirit and in the spirit that Yancy frames his essay, I will acknowledge my own racism. A professor—now the department chair—in the Communication Department at California State University, East Bay, Gale Young, argued that we are all, all of us, racist. As I look deep in my own soul, I do not always like what I see.

And as a friend (only a friend) and colleague (both as a student and as a teaching associate) at that university, Mary Fitzgerald, pointed out as I was graduating and therefore unfortunately leaving, I am not always as perfect in my relations with women as I would like to imagine myself to be. It is interesting that I feel a need to clarify that we were not lovers even as I should probably also admit that I was physically and intellectually attracted to her (I believe she was in a relationship at the time and is now married, with at least one child, and it is interesting and wrong that I feel a need to say so here).

The tangle of domination in our society requires self-reflection and education. It requires we admit what we wish to deny. On the one hand, a fear and distrust of Blacks. On the other, a need for sex that itself appears historically connected with problems of inheritance and the preservation of white hegemony.[5] And, at least in the part of the world that can trace any part of its thought to Plato, that need also seems connected to a multiply dubious mind-body distinction that associates men with ‘mind’ and denigrates women with ‘body’ and therefore, horror of horrors, sensuality.[6] On examination, damn, this shit is weird. And it is more than a bit puzzling to me that we just carry on as if it didn’t exist and as if it doesn’t profoundly require some self-examination, not only of ourselves but of our entire culture.

Many would point out that even that is not even remotely enough. Most obviously in that last paragraph, I have treated heterosexuality as normative and not even questioned gender identity. I would go on to point out our war against the poor, the unemployed, and the incarcerated, a war conducted not only with vicious neoliberalism but also with a criminal injustice system we mostly refuse to question, even as its problematic and purported efforts to find ‘fact’ and assess guilt harm entire communities[7] and immunize the rest of us from charges of complicity in a system of oppressive social organization.[8] And try as I might, I cannot list enough of these distinctions amongst the living beings on this planet that we turn into patterns of oppression. There will always surely be more.[9]

It is that last point that I would offer as a ‘gift’ to Yancy in an act of reciprocity, because gifts are never really free, and his gift therefore requires that I offer one in return. Yancy is by no means the only one to focus on race. (Even as he acknowledges his sexism, his essay subordinates it to his point about race.) We have so many ways of ‘othering’ human beings and whether or not such ways are stripped of their legitimacy, we seem determined to find more.[10] And all this occurs even as we also fail to confront our relationships with the environment and with non-human animals all as part of a massive pattern of domination that is foundational to our society.[11]

So yes, let us please, please have that conversation that Yancy invites us to. But also, please, please, let us not make the mistake of limiting it to race.

  1. [1]George Yancy, “Dear White America,” New York Times, December 24, 2015, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/24/dear-white-america/
  2. [2]Julie Hirschfeld Davis, “Obama’s Twitter Debut, @POTUS, Attracts Hate-Filled Posts,” New York Times, May 21, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/22/us/politics/obamas-twitter-debut-potus-attracts-hate-filled-posts.html; Morris Dees, “Attorney General Holder is right: Racial animus plays role in Obama opposition,” Southern Poverty Law Center, July 16, 2014, http://www.splcenter.org/get-informed/news/attorney-general-holder-is-right-racial-animus-plays-role-in-obama-opposition; Ginger Gibson, “Powell: GOP has ‘a dark vein of intolerance’,” Politico, January 13, 2013, http://www.politico.com/blogs/politico-live/2013/01/powell-gop-has-a-dark-vein-of-intolerance-154019.html; Alex Koppelman, “Now Bill Cosby weighs in on Carter’s side of race issue,” Salon, September 16, 2009, http://www.salon.com/2009/09/16/cosby_race/; Ewen MacAskill, “Jimmy Carter: Animosity towards Barack Obama is due to racism,” Guardian, September 16, 2009, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2009/sep/16/jimmy-carter-racism-barack-obama; New York Times, “A New Phase in Anti-Obama Attacks,” April 11, 2015, http://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/12/opinion/sunday/a-new-phase-in-anti-obama-attacks.html; Tony Pugh, “There’s no denying Obama’s race plays a role in protests,” McClatchy, January 12, 2012, http://www.mcclatchydc.com/2009/09/18/75694/theres-no-denying-obamas-race.html; Joan Walsh, “Angry right gets mad when you accuse it of race-baiting!” Salon, October 2, 2013, http://www.salon.com/2013/10/02/angry_right_gets_mad_when_you_accuse_it_of_race_baiting/; Gary Younge, “Obama and the Decline of White America,” Nation 289, no. 13 (October 26, 2009): 10.
  3. [3]David Benfell, “Squatting on the University of Missouri quad,” Not Housebroken, November 11, 2015, https://disunitedstates.org/?p=8296
  4. [4]George Yancy, “Dear White America,” New York Times, December 24, 2015, http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/12/24/dear-white-america/
  5. [5]Linda K. Kerber and Jane Sherron De Hart, eds., Women’s America: Refocusing the Past, 6th ed. (New York: Oxford, 2004).
  6. [6]Jack Holland, Misogyny: The World’s Oldest Prejudice (New York: Carroll and Graf, 2006); George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Philosophy in the Flesh (New York: Basic, 1999); Richard Tarnas, The Passion of the Western Mind: Understanding the Ideas That Have Shaped Our World View (New York: Harmony, 1991).
  7. [7]Ernest Drucker, A Plague of Prisons: The Epidemiology of Mass Incarceration in America (New York: New, 2011); Herbert J. Gans, The War Against The Poor: The Underclass And Antipoverty Policy (New York: Basic, 1995); Jeffrey Reiman, The Rich Get Richer and the Poor Get Prison, 7th ed. (Boston: Allyn and Bacon, 2004); Dan Simon, In Doubt: The Psychology of the Criminal Justice Process (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2012).
  8. [8]Wanda D. McCaslin and Denise C. Breton, “Justice as Healing: Going Outside the Colonizers’ Cage,” in Handbook of Critical and Indigenous Methodologies, eds. Norman K. Denzin, Yvonna S. Lincoln, and Linda Tuhiwai Smith (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 2008), 511-529.
  9. [9]Simone de Beauvoir, “Women as Other,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 345-347.
  10. [10]Simone de Beauvoir, “Women as Other,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 345-347.
  11. [11]Steven Best and Anthony J. Nocella, II, eds. Terrorists or Freedom Fighters? Reflections on the Liberation of Animals (New York: Lantern, 2004); Greta Gaard, “Vegetarian Ecofeminism: A Review Essay,” Frontiers 23, no. 3 (2002): 117-146.

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