Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America
Reviewed by Pamela Haines
On Christmas Eve 2015, a long letter by George Yancy entitled “Dear White America” appeared in the New York Times. In it, he challenged White people to look squarely at how they are unavoidably complicit in the racism that continues to threaten and damage Black lives. In Backlash, he shares some of the vitriol with which he was targeted as a result, and reflects in more depth on the gift he was offering to White America in his letter.
I am a White person, and I found the extremist race-based hatred in those responses painful to take in. The section of journal entries of his college students, describing the everyday racism they experience in all-White spaces, is perhaps even more disturbing in its very ordinariness. Most unsettling of all, however, is the chapter on how all White people are complicit, how our ability to simply go shopping without wondering if we will be followed is the unspoken complement—the other half—of the Black experience.
Yancy is actively disinterested in how “good” we are as White people: the Black friends we have, the derogatory words we never use. He is determined that there be no escape, no wiggling out of the reality that “to be white within the context of white supremacy is to be privileged, which implies a relationship of racial domination in relationship to Black people and people of color.”
As part of me tried to listen respectfully and with an open teachable mind, another part was looking for loopholes. After all, there was the integrated community in which I grew up, the attention I put to building relationships across lines of race and class as a young adult, the leadership I have taken since in helping White people face the reality that racism is in the air we breathe.
On the other hand, what about my facile, feel-good assumption, based on all the friendly Black–White interactions I witness daily, that things were getting better? What about my hope that my good works would give me a pass on looking straight at the tragedy and heartbreak of racism for all of us? I had to acknowledge that he was talking to me as well.
The theme of “innocence” struck a chord, starting with Cornel West’s observation in the foreword: “This [white] innocence is a kind of self-delusion which denies vulnerability, risk, and reciprocity. It parades as an insecure arrogance and willful ignorance that aides and abets crimes against humanity.” Yancy describes White fragility as an individual’s way “of remaining ‘innocent,’ of refusing to be vulnerable, of ignoring Black pain and suffering.” And it has consequences: “The stress that we endure every day of our lives . . . is predicated on your racial comfort.”
Despite the extreme discomfort, I experienced Yancy as a man of passion, perception, and integrity. In trying to help White people understand how they could be both anti-racist and racist, he holds up his own experience of sexism. The fact that he loves his wife doesn’t obviate the power dynamics that grant privileges based on his very identity. Though he doesn’t oppress intentionally, he is not freed from responsibility.
When the book addresses what White people can do, I shouldn’t have been surprised at his advice: “Linger with the problem and complexity of whiteness,” he says. Referring to his intent in writing “Dear White America,” he explains, “I wanted you to tarry with the ways in which you are complicit in supporting and benefitting from [the history of interracial relations in America].” Finally he says, “I wanted you to tell the truth to yourselves and tell it to others.”
This rings true to me. Those of us who are White have a great work of lamentation to do about the evils and heartbreak of racism, and a great work of pulling blinders from our eyes, peeling away the layers of defense that we built up to protect our goodness in the face of this ugly reality. Yet our goodness is secure. And Yancy is with us, seeing the opportunity for greater humanity and wholeness on the other side.
He says that some gifts can be heavy to bear. His book is certainly not a light gift, nor one for everybody. But he is a truth-teller and, ultimately, a formidable ally.