Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Reading George Yancy's Backlash: How To Be a White Anti-Racist Racist

Image result for backlash yancy
Dr. Yancy
The book group I belong to read Dr. George Yancy's Backlash: What Happens When we Talk Honestly about Racism in America this past month--an important book about the challenges and needs for white people in America to understand that their whiteness overtly and covertly privileges them as it undermines African-Americans and other people of color. The book, Yancy says is intended as a gift.  I found it to be a tough, yet necessary, gift to receive. 

Yancy articulates clearly, to be white is to be racist.  To accept that definition of self is to accept the gift Yancy offers.  He states:

"Imagine the impact that the acceptance of this gift might have on you, white reader, and the world; imagine Anderson Cooper telling the world that, 'I, too, am racist. And while not part of the KKK, I, too, perpetuate white supremacy because I benefit from a white racist systemic structure to which I’m embedded and in terms of which Black people and people of color suffer.' That is the scary work to be done. That is what Dear White America asked of white readers" (p. 13). 
Yancy gift is to help us be (other)wise.

There are nine women in my book group and the majority of us have been meeting monthly to discuss books for the last 19 months. Last night, all of us were present, save one member. We represent multiple races and religions and we cross several decades in age. The majority of us are white, including me. All of us, save one, would describe ourselves as liberal or progressive.

Yancy asks, "How does one speak truth when what you have to say is in some sense not even hearable"(p.7)?  This question feels pivotal. Juergen Habermas in his communication theory said that hegemony prevails when there is no metalanguage.  How do we begin to understand without a metalanguage that allows us to see and critique our own privilege and the cost of that privilege?  I best learn in relationship to other.  For me, my Korean child, Devon has helped me to better understand the privilege I wield simply because I am perceived and known as white. It is one thing to understand matters of race and racism intellectually and it is quite another matter to grasp how my own racial privilege causes other people, such as my son, both pain and harm. 

Matters of race, since Devon, have been highly personal. At six-years-of age--the first year Devon went to public school he returned home in early September when the weather was still summer-warm and asked for his red winter coat.
"Why do you want that?" I asked.
"I'm going to wear it on the bus and zip it way up so that the big boys stop calling me, Chink."
In the space of a few days on an ordinary school bus in the North East of the United States, my son had learned that he needed to disappear, to literally hide his face in an attempt to quiet those mean white boys.

One of the myths in America is that we are less racist in the New York City area. I learned this was not true each and every year Devon spent at school. I shared the story of the red coat with the other white moms who walked their children to the bus stop as I did each morning. They had no experience to hear what I was saying. Their whiteness dismissed the story of the red coat immediately. Their whiteness said, 'boys will be boys. Teasing is normal.' They offered up stories that were not parallel, yet they thought them to be. Finally, one said in an attempt to unruffle the feathers I had ruffled for we were all white and connected, "but he's so light-skinned. It's like he's almost white."

That's a small glimpse of the America Yancy is writing about. Yancy might describe the reactions of my white neighbors as being sutured. Specifically he defines this as "the process whereby white people engage in forms of closure, forms of protection from various challenges to the ways in which whiteness is seen as the norm, its unremarkable everydayness, its value assumptions, and the many ways in which it’s guilty about producing distorted knowledge about itself...Moreover, to be sutured within the context of white identity is indicative of 'the narrative authority' of the white self that seals itself off from 'otherness'" (p. 105). 

When I confront my own normative behavior my first reaction is often to deny what I am seeing, hearing. I think, "It couldn't be that..." Being sutured--parsing together protective language so that I do not need to confront my own racist ideologies is what keeps whiteness as the norm. 

I work daily, sometimes minute-by-minute, to name and respond to the white privilege that informs my perspectives, beliefs, and actions. For example, I am learning patience. My son and I were in Europe a few years ago and he said to me quite angrily, "I'm so embarrassed by you. You're so impatient with people.You spoke to the waitress as if she wouldn't understand you, as if she was a child."

My whiteness has taught me to expect to go first, to be immediately understood, to expect to not be kept waiting. These beliefs are of course irrational and yet I have been frontlined in so many ways throughout my life that being first and privileged feels normal. Being better than others feels normal and those not speaking English I understood as being inferior (by the way the waitress more than likely spoke several languages as opposed to my one language). Now, when I grow impatient and my sense of self is aggrandized, I halt so that I might better recognize the underlying narrative I have been telling myself and I stop it. I recognize that my going first, my assumed superiority has always meant that someone else would need to wait, be assumed to be known and in doing all of this, be harmed by me. 

No more.

I felt such shame when Devon confronted me. At first I was just surprised. Then I concocted a number of sutured stories to rewrite the narrative so that he would be merely mistaken. None of this sat well.  Lessons I also learned as a child, alongside my whiteness, left me uncomfortable.  And so, then I got quiet and began the process of owning and then changing my behavior. 

I think this work of being a white anti-racist racist requires time to dwell in self awareness and hear the narratives I tell myself so that I might better unearth the inherent racism in those narratives. How do I do this? How do I un-suture the normative sense of a white self I have? Engagement with other helps me to hear these sutured narratives better.  Books like Yancy's allow me to have a secondary discourse to use as I interrogate my own assumptions and false-truths. 

Some un-suturing I have been doing includes: 

  1. My whiteness does not mean I am a soothsayer. I don't know the bigness of you.
  2. My whiteness distorts my understanding of you. The stories about you I have learned are always incomplete, are often wrong, and are told sometimes to falsely protect me from my own incompleteness. 
  3. My whiteness does not give me permission to impose my will on anyone. 
  4. My whiteness leaves me partially blind. What is it that I am not seeing?
  5. My whiteness leaves me without an adequate language to hear the lies I retell myself. What language from you might I borrow?
  6. My whiteness leaves me impatient.
  7. My whiteness affords me privileges I can no longer bear as I know each privilege afforded to me harms, maims, and cuts you.
  8. My whiteness does not allow me to be quiet in the face of overt and subtle racism from other white people. To be quiet is not being polite even though it feels that way. It is being complicit.
  9. My whiteness does not make me exceptional, regardless of what I have learned.
  10. My whiteness comes with assumptions that are often false, especially about other.
  11. My whiteness (in)forms the stories I tell myself as truths. These are stories. Not truths.
  12. My whiteness often keeps me from feeling.
  13. My whiteness often keeps me from wonder.
  14. My whiteness and the narratives that accompany being white need to be troubled, un-sutured, exposed.

To become (other)wise is a way of being in the world. I seek to live in the middle of things and not rely on prescribed beginnings and endings to tidy the messiness of this lived life. Some longings that have emerged as I un-suture my whiteness include:

  1. I long to be honest.
  2. I long to be whole.
  3. I long to know wonder.
  4. I long to love and be loved.
  5. I long to be graced by other, (in)formed by other.
  6. I long to break through the narratives of whiteness and merely be. 
  7. I long to be humble.
  8. I long to not know and unknow.
  9. I long to be vulnerable.
  10. I long to be (other)wise.


  1. This is a wise post and a good struggle. I have been similarly engaged for the last couple of years, but with very little exposure to any but white culture, except online, since I retired. I am trying to learn how to stop my privilege and fragility from moving me forward in situations where I expect to go first, at least until I have offered the opportunity to others who are people of color. Reading your list, it occurred to me that trying NOT to assert ourselves is completely opposed to our "other" struggle--namely that we need to push against the "nice" training that makes us defer, especially to men. In our broader western culture, we are expected to compete much more than to collaborate. But POC are taught to defer. Women are taught to defer. ...Suddenly, I don't think our rates of depression are so hard to understand.

    1. Nancy, it gives me hope that ordinary white people like you and me are undertaking this work. Pushing against the be nice training is important.

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