A few weeks ago, George Yancy (Emory) published an essay in The New York Times philosophy column, The Stone, called “Dear White America.” In it, he calls for white Americans to acknowledge their racism and their complicity with racist institutions. Yancy asks his readers to “listen with love” to what he has to say. But he knows that what he is saying is bound to provoke:
I can see your anger. I can see that this letter is being misunderstood. This letter is not asking you to feel bad about yourself, to wallow in guilt. That is too easy. I’m asking for you to tarry, to linger, with the ways in which you perpetuate a racist society, the ways in which you are racist. I’m now daring you to face a racist history which, paraphrasing Baldwin, has placed you where you are and that has formed your own racism. Again, in the spirit of Baldwin, 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.
Yancy’s essay has generated a lot of discussion (over 2000 comments at the NYT), and a lot of hate mail. Professor Yancy wrote to me:
“Dear White America” has received so much hate mail. I mean, lots and lots of it. My inbox continues to be flooded. I have been called a “nigger” so many times (and so much more) since that piece came out. There are also the implied and explicit threats. White supremacist groups have also been “discussing” the piece. Fox News and other media outlets have contacted me, but I’ve declined.
You know, there needs to be a discussion by philosophers on what took place with this piece. Where do we go when we are threatened? Does the APA even concern itself with these issues when “one of its own” is attacked like this?
The American Philosophical Association’s Committee on Public Philosophy held a session at the Eastern Division APA meeting last week. Margaret Crouch (Eastern Michigan) talked about how universities do and could respond to internet abuse, and the difficulties of figuring out which of the policies developed for “in real life” situations best apply to the problems people are facing online. Karen Frost-Arnold (Hobart & William Smith) discussed some of the factors contributing to online abuse, as well as how individuals could best respond to various forms of obnoxious behavior online. And Jason Stanley (Yale) argued that a lot of the abusive online rhetoric from within the philosophy community is rooted in misogynistic ideology.
(“Navigating the Perils of Cyberspace” panel at the 2015 Eastern APA. Photo by Lynne Tirell)
It was a useful and interesting session, but it was just one session with an average-sized audience, and it did not explicitly raise the question of what direct action, if any, the APA should take. And, leaving aside the APA, there is more to be said on the question of what any of us might do when we see a fellow member of the profession attacked, or are the target ourselves.
UPDATE: From a follow-up message from Professor Yancy, which he gave me permission to share:
[Whether my] article was all that good is irrelevant. What is important is that the piece galvanized an entire industry of threats and vitriol. Also, it is not whether that person is good or not good, it is about my safety, our safety as philosophers. [The matter] is being handled here at my university, as it should. Yet, the point is larger. It is about what the APA can do, should, ought to do. Perhaps the APA can speak to how philosophers, since Socrates, will function as gadflies and that while it doesn’t endorse what said philosophers say, it does support the right of philosophers to philosophize, to engage in critical forms unnerving. There needs to be a statement from the APA that it will not tolerate such forms of abuse.
UPDATE 2 (1/18/16): Professor Yancy writes:
My objective is not to censor thought. It is my position that when something of this magnitude happens, the APA ought to have a way of addressing it. Perhaps the APA ought to have a statement formulated as a matter of policy that while it does not agree carte blanche with what philosophers say, it will not tolerate such hatred and racist vitriol directed at one of its own. This need not (and should not) involve censorship; it is about stating a clear and principled position, a show of support for those of us who are philosopher-members (or not) of the APA. I don’t know if such a statement already exists. If not, perhaps there ought to be one.
(top image: detail of “Intersection” by Franz Kline)