The implication of those messages was that to be black and a philosopher was a contradiction.
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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.
The implication of those messages was that to be black and a philosopher was a contradiction.
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.
To see my experience as a single episode or an anomaly is to deny the logic of the long history of white racist violence. bell hooks recalls that as a child she thought of whiteness as a site of terror. In a country in which white people would brutalize and kill a black person on a whim, that is far from irrational.
For centuries, black people lived in fear of white terror. That fear partly captures the contradiction of being black and an American. Black people were not the American “we,” but the terrorized other. The symbols of white sheets and cross burnings must be recalled. Think here of black World War II veterans who returned home from the war and were severely beaten and lynched by whites, even as they wore their uniforms. They fought against Hitler only to return home, to the land of “democracy,” to be attacked by what might be called white terrorists.
Or think here of the slave trade, the institution of American slavery, black codes, convict leasing, the lynching of black men and women and the flaying of black flesh, the castration of black men, being burned alive. Violence, within these contexts, is a specific racialized form of inculcating black people with fear and controlling their social mobility. There is nothing episodic about it; this form of white violence is historically grounded and systematic.
The coldhearted use of white violence was very effective. Not only were there actual beatings, there was the fear of possibly being beaten. So, the black imagination, though never defeated, was weakened. The lynching of a black person wasn’t just a form of theater (where the root meaning suggests a kind of “beholding”), but a way of communicating fear and terror through mass displays of violence. For someone white, the spectacle was a sport, a kind of national pastime activity, but for a black person, one could always imagine that one was next, and thereby stand in fear of what could happen at any moment.
Cornel West talks about the “death shudder” as a kind of existential moment of realization that one is finite. I think that we are all open to experience that dreadful sense of our existence coming to an end. However, when black life is forever in a “state of exception,” it is an additional weight. Black people not only experience the death shudder, but a specific kind of shudder that involves an emotional intensity that speaks to the disposability of black life.
For example, the other day, a white police officer walked into a store where I was buying some food and I remember feeling this powerful sense of wanting to flee, of feeling as if the rules and laws that are designed to govern our (white) society didn’t apply to me. I could move “too quickly,” placing my hand into my pocket to pay for my food, and my life would end just like that. The white police officer would explain how he felt “threatened” and had “reasonable” suspicion. And I would be dead.
Read previous contributions to this series.
B.E.: These connections between the continuum of racial violence and the terrors of the everyday are crucial to understanding the normalization of humiliation and the outright denial of the most basic qualities that make people feel part of a society and “human,” as such. This demands a more serious intellectual engagement with the “marking out” of the black body as incapable of philosophical thought and deliberation. Does this make a return to thinkers such as Aimé Césaire and Frantz Fanon all the more relevant in the contemporary period?
G.Y.: Yes. And racial violence takes many forms and raises larger issues. For example, Judith Butler’s concern about questions of grievability is important. Racial violence is linked to forms of racial vulnerability, disposability and our tendency as a nation to grieve the deaths of certain racialized persons and not others. The disproportionate number of poor black people affected by Hurricane Katrina, or the sentencing disparities when it comes to locking up black people for nonviolent offenses, or the shooting in the back of Walter Scott by the white police officer Michael Slager are all examples of forms of racialized disposability. They speak to how black humanity is deemed of little or no human value.
The process of marking the black body as incapable of philosophical thought is longstanding. It is one of those major myths that grew out of Europe, even as Europe championed “humanism.” The poet Aimé Césaire, through immanent critique, knew that European humanism was a farce. Of course, Jean-Paul Sartre knew this as well. And Fanon knew what it was like to embody reason and have it denied to him. In “Black Skin, White Masks,” he argued that when he was present, reason was not, and when reason was present he was no longer. So, one might argue that reason and black embodiment, from this perspective, are mutually exclusive. And yet, at the end of that text, Fanon says, “My final prayer: O my body, make me always a man who questions!”
Fanon appeals to something that is beyond abstract political rights discourse. He appeals to his own body, something concrete and immediate. Fanon asks of his body not to allow him to be seduced by forms of being-in-the-world that normalize violence and dehumanization. Doubt can be linked to critique. In a society that hides beneath the seductions of normalization, critique is undesirable and deemed dangerous. Yet in our contemporary moment, the fulfillment of Fanon’s prayer is desperately needed.
America needs a movement that transcends the civil rights movement.
These examples are manifestations of a racialized, selective misanthropy. This is why I have such a negative visceral reaction to Donald Trump’s promises to build a wall along the Mexican border. That discourse is one of labeling certain bodies as “unwanted,” “deviant,” “sub-persons.” And to say that Mexico is sending “rapists” to the United States is a form of deep insult, of marking certain bodies as violent and pathological. Trump is, sadly, able to play on the racist biases and fears in many white people. It is a divisive tactic that exploits both latent and manifest bigoted assumptions in many white Americans. It is not by accident that David Duke, a former Grand Wizard of the K.K.K., supports him.
B.E.: As you point out, a conceptualization of political rights must also include the right for the marginalized to critique power. Does philosophical inquiry have to do with the ways we might reconceptualize the meaning of rights, especially considering that the denial of persons’ humanity often occurs within normative legal frameworks?
G.Y.: Absolutely. After all, slavery, which was a vicious, death-dealing and violent institution, was legal. I think that rights-based discourse is necessary, but there is this sense in which rights can be given and, by implication, taken away. Within this context, I think that America needs a movement that transcends the civil rights movement. Applicative justice might be necessary, but not sufficient. Imagine a scenario where justice is being applied across the board, and the rights of people are being upheld. In a country like ours, saturated by racism, that scenario might still involve blacks being hated, seen as “inferior,” as sub-“persons.” In such a world, white people can continue to insulate themselves from the “others.”
We are desperately in need of a movement that shakes us at the very core of how we think about ourselves as individuals, masters of our own destiny. While this isn’t philosophically fashionable, I want to know what it means to love with courage. What would it mean to make love an integral feature of moral reasoning, the kind of love that risks profound ways of being mutually vulnerable, of placing no limits on who we call our neighbors? This means radically changing how we currently relate to one another. I recall when we killed Osama bin Laden in 2011 that there were Americans who were cheering. As unpatriotic as some will say I’m being, we must keep in mind that bin Laden was someone’s son, father and husband.
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This speaks to the limits of our moral imagination as a nation. Can you imagine President Obama saying at a press conference that he is sorry that we killed bin Laden, that we loved him as a human being despite his violence? Can you imagine what would happen if Israelis and Palestinians were to cease their “peace” talks and radically deploy a discourse of love? Imagine the many whites who read “Dear White America” saying to me: “We return the love to you that you’ve shared with us!” I think that we are an impoverished nation when it comes to loving our “enemies.” God bless America is an empty politicized gesture if we are not also saying God bless our “enemies.”
B.E.: There is an ethical aspect to “Dear White America” — particularly the honest reflections put forward regarding your own prejudices and fallibilities when it comes to relations of power. While a critique of violence demands attention to historical forces of domination and exploitation, it also asks how each of us shamefully compromise with power, often against our better judgments.
A critique of violence must include an understanding that one doesn’t escape the many ways in which one perpetuates violence
GY: Yes. This raises the issue of complicity. As I discussed in the essay, there are ways in which I have been shaped to believe that looking at women with a dominating gaze or desiring women only for sexual pleasure is “normal.” Yet it is this process of “normalization” that produces a kind of “walking dead” mentality where many of my social practices (sexual desire being one, fixed gender role expectations being another) support the oppression of women. The process of normalization is often so effective that there isn’t much resistance coming from one’s “better judgment,” especially as one’s better judgment has already been defined by the terms of normalization.
In this case, one’s “better judgment” has already been compromised, has already become an extension of the power of normalization. Your use of the term shameful is important. Shame implies a powerful sense of disgrace. It is not limited to the assignment of blame, which is more like guilt. Shame suggests the sense of disrupting one’s ethical “certainty,” or business as usual. After all, one can be guilty without ever feeling shame. So, violence, for me, has to be attended to at those levels where we are going about our business as if we are not doing violence to other individuals.
The fact that we don’t hear cries of pain doesn’t let us off the hook. Ethical discourse and practice must be imbued with an effort to remain honest, especially about one’s own ethical shortcomings and the pain and suffering that we cause others.
A critique of violence must include an understanding that one doesn’t escape the many ways in which one perpetuates violence — violence against those who we may never see face to face, violence against those who are closest to us, violence against the earth, and perhaps even violence against one’s own sense of self-integrity.
Violence is all around us. Yet we prefer to remain asleep — the walking dead. For me, personally, the more I become aware of the magnitude of violence in our world, what many of us would rather deny or not see, the more I enter into that space of the “dark night of the soul,” a place where dread and hopelessness reside. The objective, though, is to continue, to remain awake, to keep fighting for a better world even as one endures the dark night of the soul.
Posted March 19, 2018
Document Raises Questions About Escalating Government Surveillance and Criminalization of Black Activists
March 19, 2018, New York, NY – Today, racial justice organizations filed a lawsuit against the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to release the contents of the agency’s blacked-out memo referred to in government documents as the “Race Paper.” The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and Color of Change, the groups suing today, first uncovered the existence of the “Race Paper” via a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request to DHS, which sent them a fully redacted version with only the name of the attachment visible. Advocates argue that the existence of the “Race Paper,” among other documents they obtained, confirms the targeted surveillance that many Black activists and organizers around the country have reported, and raises alarming questions about the agency’s approach to Black people engaging in protected First Amendment activity.
“The FBI and Department of Homeland Security are at war with Black activists,” said Rashad Robinson, Executive Director of Color of Change. “The documents we’ve forced the federal government to release expose how these agencies are demonizing and intimidating Black activists – people who are rightly demanding that our country be more just – through coordinated and systemic surveillance.”
The redacted “Race Paper” is the newest of a slew of documents the groups have obtained that reveal how DHS and the FBI have both monitored and surveilled the Movement for Black Lives and pushed a state-sanctioned narrative that criminalizes Black protestors. The documents the groups received consist of a number of emails from the DHS sub-agency, the Office of Intelligence and Analysis, each with an attached, fully redacted, version of the “Race Paper.”
Another set of DHS and FBI documents revealed in November 2017 show how federal agencies characterized Black protestors as “Black Supremacist Extremists” and portrayed protected First Amendment protest activity as violence-inciting as a justification to surveil activists. The documents were in stark contrast with the agencies’ communications regarding white supremacist groups, whom they deemed as engaging in “lawful” protest activity. Between May and December of 2017, DHS and the FBI turned over hundreds of pages of emails, reports, policies, and surveillance documents to the Center for Constitutional Rights and Color of Change as a result of the FOIA request, many partially or fully redacted. Briefing guides are available online.
“Black and brown activists and the public in general should not be left to speculate as to why DHS prepared a document called the ‘Race Paper,’ circulated multiple versions of it, and called for in-person meetings to discuss its contents, but now fights to keep every word from seeing the light of day,” said Omar Farah, Senior Staff Attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights. “But given the long-standing and unconstitutional pattern of state surveillance of Black-led political movements, it bears repeating that FOIA is about transparency, not protecting government agencies from embarrassment.”
The Color of Change and the Center for Constitutional Rights first filed the FOIA request to the agencies in October 2016 to uncover how DHS and the FBI were monitoring and surveilling the Movement for Black Lives, and Black protestors and organizers exercising their First Amendment constitutional rights at protests across the country. The request was specifically directed at the monitoring of protest activity whose subject matter or theme involved police violence, criminal justice, racial injustice, or the Movement for Black Lives. The request followed the many instances over the previous two years of military and counterterror resources being used to surveil protests as well as first-hand accounts of surveillance of protests and activists.
Color of Change’s Rashad Robinson continued, “Black communities know all too well how poisonous this kind of surveillance and intimidation is for social justice movements. During the civil rights era, agents with the FBI’s COINTELPRO program vigorously sought to discredit and destroy Black leaders and movements while they did nothing to address the injustices our communities were protesting. We can’t allow the FBI to essentially operationalize COINTELPRO for the twenty-first century without a fight. Up until recently, we’ve known very little about the government’s surveillance of our communities. But, by forcing the disclosure of more information about these surveillance efforts, including our demand today for the full and unredacted ‘Race Paper,’ we can better understand these attacks on Black activism and fight to prevent a new generation of Black activists from demonization, incarceration, intimidation, and punishment.”
“The very purpose of FOIA is to inform the people, check government corruption, and ensure accountability. DHS’s refusal to share any information without adequate explanation about the ‘Race Paper’ undermines the law’s critical principles, so vital to a democracy,” said Avidan Cover, Professor at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law. “Without more, we should be highly skeptical of the government’s invocation of national security as the basis for secrecy when it comes to surveillance, race, and the right to speak, assemble, and protest.”
Color Of Change is the nation’s largest online racial justice organization. We help people respond effectively to injustice in the world around us. As a national online force driven by over one million members, we move decision-makers in corporations and government to create a more human and less hostile world for Black people in America. Visit www.colorofchange.org.
A few years ago, I read slave narratives to explore the lives of black agricultural workers after the end of the Civil War. The narratives came from the Federal Writers Project of the Works Progress Administration, a program that employed researchers from 1936 to 1938 to interview former enslaved people, producing more than 2,300 narratives that, thankfully, reside online and are fully searchable.
Those whom the law defined as property recounted various unique human experiences — their daily horrors and monotonies, how they freed themselves or learned of their emancipation, the surge of exhilaration upon securing freedom, and how they endured life on the edges of a white supremacist society in the decades thereafter.
As I pored over the narratives, I was struck less by their experiences, as heartrending as they were, than by how their experiences sculpted their self-perceptions. The best explanation of what I gleaned, what social scientists called internalized oppression, describes the psychological trauma that ensues when a person from a stigmatized group believes those negative stigmas.
White folk indoctrinated them into accepting their supposed inferiority. These narratives illustrate the success of this campaign of mental terrorism, and no word conveyed the depth of this internalized oppression more than “nigger.” Now, whenever I hear the epithet, a visual and emotional representation of the heinous process by which a people — my people — were induced to think they were less than trespasses into my thoughts. After years of habitual use of “nigger,” I banished it from my speech to honor the humanity that many never saw in themselves.
The internalized oppression revealed itself in various ways. Sometimes the former enslaved people clearly, perhaps subconsciously, considered themselves subhuman, just like how their former owners regarded them. Jim Allen, for example, dubbed himself his master’s “pet nigger boy” and a “stray” and thought himself privileged because he could sleep on the floor beside his master’s bed. That he likened himself to a fortunate mangy mutt or frisky feline crushed me. The word laid bare a worldview that held black folk as a lower order of being, as when Irene Robertson claimed her former master Mr. Sanders was mean, in part, because “he beat his wife like he beat a nigger woman.”
“Nigger” also signaled antipathy toward fellow black folk. After the end of slavery, Mattie Mooreman went north to Wisconsin with a white family for whom she worked. Members of the family wanted her to go to the circus to watch a black boy’s performance. She told her interviewer, “Guess they thought it would be a treat to me to see another niggah. I told ’em, ‘Law, don’t you think I see lots, lots more than I wants, every day when I is at home?’ ” But read how she talks about the family’s baby, whom she constantly watched over, fearing, irrationally, someone would kidnap him: “No matter what time they come home they’d find me there. ‘Why don’t you go in your bedroom and lie down?’ they’d ask me. ‘No,’ I’d tell ’em, ‘somebody might come in, and they would have to get that baby over my dead body.” Her eyes fixated on the white baby, but she saw too many niggers.
A barrage of dispiriting uses of the word bloodied me as I combed through the narratives. “The Ku Klux kept the niggers scared.” “The Ku Klux did a whole lot to keep the niggers away from the polls. …” Slaves owned by “nice” masters are repeatedly called “free niggers.” “Niggers ain’t got no sense. Put ’em in authority and they gits so uppity.” “I’se just a poor old nigger waitin’ for Jesus to come and take me to heaven.” Slave traders are called “nigger traders.” Defiant enslaved people required the service of a “niggerbreaker.” “Nigger dogs” aided the recapture of those who escaped.
Perhaps more depressing, ironically, was that circumstances sometimes led them to opt against calling a black person a nigger. William Porter stated that “some of the Tennessee niggers was called free niggers. There was a colored man in Pulaski, Tennessee, who owned slaves.” A black man who kept others in bondage — he’s a “colored man,” yet those who were owned were “niggers.” I instantly thought of a moment from the O.J.: Made in America documentary when a white woman who saw black people talking to Simpson uttered, “Look at those niggers sitting with O.J.” Simpson delights in hearing this because she “knew I wasn’t black. She saw me as O.J.” Porter’s outlook matched that of both the racist white woman and the unspeakably racially deranged O.J.
Since reading those narratives, I’ve noticed this mindset when perusing the remarks of freed people in other contexts. For example, before the trial of Rufus Martin, a black man who stood accused of the 1903 murder of Charles Swackhammer, a woman whom the Fort Worth Star-Telegram referred to as an “old negress who occupied a front seat in the court room” bellowed:
It’s the white people that is to blame. They know that they got to make niggahs work or they ain’t no good and they know as long as they ‘low niggah men to loaf aroun’ low down saloons they ain’t goin’ to work. This man come from a good niggah fam’ly — one of the best I knows of, but the p’lice ‘lowed him to loaf aroun’ without workin’, and to drink and gamble, till he just got to be no good and thought he didn’t have to work. The p’lice ought to raid them low down niggah saloons every day and every night till they make every blessed one of the niggah toughs go to work or else send ’em all to the county road. Them saloons is what makes bad niggahs and the white folks is to blame for it, ’cause they let ’em run.
That Martin sported a reddish mustache, light hair and skin so bright he could pass for white almost certainly colored her perception that Martin came from a “good niggah fam’ly.”
Black folk rescued the word from the smoldering debris of a virulently racist land, reclaimed it and renovated the slur into a celebration of black comradery — defenders of contemporary usage of “nigger” repeat this. When this tale collides with reality, however, it shatters as a misreading of history — the current use of the word is owed less to white folk calling black folk “nigger” and more to black folk who thought they were niggers and said so. Black people have hurled the infamous word for nearly as long as white folk have. It exists within black speech now because it existed within black speech then. The uncomfortable truth must be confronted: Absent the internalized oppression of those who called white men and women their masters, “nigger” would probably not be a part of black folk’s lexicon. We black folk are reclaiming it not from bigoted white folk but from our ancestors, who, sadly, deemed their blackness a badge of inferiority.
I seek not to usher the word to the gallows. I harbor no aims to kill it. I can still bump a Young Thug track or chortle at a Dave Chappelle routine. “Nigger” does not bar my enjoyment of popular culture. My soul, though, winces whenever I hear it. The decision for black people to include it in their vocabulary, nonetheless, remains personal, and I reject the criticism of black folk who continue to wield it.
I write only to summon the words of former enslaved people from beyond the grave to express that “nigger” is haunted by the ghosts of hate and the more spiritually chilling ghosts of self-hate.
Brando Simeo Starkey is an associate editor at The Undefeated and the author of In Defense of Uncle Tom: Why Blacks Must Police Racial Loyalty. He crawled through a river of books and came out brilliant on the other side.
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