Montgomery Fellow Summer 2019: Dr. George Yancy

Dr. George Yancy, Professor of Philosophy at Emory University and prolific author on race, including recently an op-ed for the New York Times, "Dear White America," spent a week at Dartmouth as part of the Montgomery Fellows program. He kicked off his residency with a lunchtime roundtable discussion with graduate students, faculty, and staff from around campus at the Montgomery House, official Fellows residence. The Program also coordinated a public lecture by Dr. Yancy, which was attended by Dartmouth undergraduates, graduate students, faculty, and staff.

Dr. Yancy envisions philosophy as a commitment to end suffering and horror—for everyone. He pursues this goal as the editor of the Lexington Books series on the Philosophy of Race. He is also a very publicly engaged scholar, contributing frequently to The Stone column in the New York Times. "Dear White America", presents an invitation for critical self-reflection that unites a series interviews with other philosophers of race he had been publishing every month for the previous year. The reaction to "Dear White America" was swift and brutal; he responded by sharing the worst of the hate mail he received, along with expanding his call for white Americans to confront the ways in which they benefit from racism, in his bestselling book, entitled Backlash.

As a child, Dr. Yancy explored philosophy through a fascination with death. He once confronted his mother, asking her why she brought him into this world and made him to love her, only to eventually die. Referring to the inevitability of death, Yancy stated, "I had not signed up for this when I was born. It seemed so incredibly unfair." This visceral relationship with mortal inquiry informs his career in philosophy. He received his Bachelor's (cum laude) from the University of Pittsburgh. During this time, he became interested in epistemology and sense-data theory, wherein philosophers describe mind-dependent properties of objects and seek to discover if physical objects have mind-independent properties.

Continuing his intellectual development, he chose to pursue his Master's at Yale in order to leverage the prestige of a name-brand education while navigating the white space of philosophy as often the only person of color in the room. The transition to Yale was difficult, but beneficial in the long run. Still "haunted," as he would say, by questions of his mortality, he decided to pursue philosophical themes within the area of philosophy of religion, including "Does God exist?," "What is the meaning of religious language?," and "What is the ultimate meaning of human existence and is this meaning underwritten by God?" At Yale he thus became interested in pursuing more existentially concrete questions regarding human purpose and existential meaningfulness. He continued to Duquesne to pursue his PhD; but just before he defended his dissertation, he chose to complete another Master's in Africana studies at NYU. Combining his passion for posing and investigating deep existential questions regarding the existence of God with the realities of structural and embodied suffering, he became interested in issues as they relate to human pain and sorrow through such registers as racist and sexist hegemonic power.  After completing his PhD—which he wrote on the white gaze, race, and the Black body—he was hired onto the Duquesne philosophy faculty and eventually became the first Black philosophy professor to receive tenure at Duquesne, while advancing from assistant professor to full professor in just eight years. 

Dr. Yancy is committed to confronting the racial disparity in the discipline of philosophy, which Charles Mills critiqued as the source of mistaken conceptions of personhood and human existence from only the white perspective. In this sense, philosophy is largely white guys jerking off, rather than taking the historical reality of a partitioned social ontology as a starting point for the study of existence. Over the course of his studies, Dr. Yancy came to focus on questions such as "what does it mean to be White?"  And, by extension, "what does it mean to be Black in relation to Whiteness?" 

Dr. Yancy wields theory as a tool against suffering.  During his lunchtime discussion with graduate students and other members of the Dartmouth community, he pointed out that bell hooks came to theory because she was hurting, and invoked Adrienne Rich's critique of theory that is so high and abstract that one cannot smell the earth. As part of his critical theory-cum-praxis, Dr. Yancy uses parrhesia (courageous, fearless speech; saying it all) to draw participants into meaningful and vulnerable conversation. Demonstrating the power of parrhesia in his public lecture, "Philosophy as a Practice of Suffering and Hope", he read passages from hate mail he has received, and facilitated the audience's experience of the suffering he examines through visceral re-telling of vicious hate crimes. In terms of his own personal experience, Dr. Yancy shared that he was called the N-word so many times that he lost count. He talked about white readers writing to him to threaten his life, to leave him—as one writer threatened—on a "cold slab," or to have his mouth "shut permanently." He was told that he would have his head knocked off his shoulders, "beheaded ISIS Style," and kicked until he was left "half dead." He was called a "piece of shit" and was told to return to Africa on a freighter quickly given that he apparently didn't like it here in the U.S. He was called a "Coon," "Monkey," and "Baboon." During this period, Dr. Yancy received escorts to his classes by Emory police and had to have police presence when he lectured at other universities as a guest.  

The setting of a public lecture illustrated the converse of parrhesia: witnessing through courageous listening. Dr. Yancy echoes James Baldwin's exhortation to relentlessly confront that historical creation, Oneself, and truly witness violence to black and brown bodies. Situating this practice in the present moment, Dr. Yancy invited the audience to consider, is to be White in North America to be racist? And by extension, what is inscribed onto being White in a predominantly white space such as Dartmouth? 

Dr. Yancy also considered different registers of racism, and other forms of violence with attendant suffering, in his public lecture. He admitted that although he invoked both suffering and hope in the title, he primarily invited the audience to tarry in the space of suffering. Beyond vitriolic hate speech or physical violence, he considered mundane racism such as the clicking sounds of white people locking their car doors upon seeing a person they recognize as Black on the sidewalk. He explored the ways in which this flattens the outsider into a "dangerous" Black body, inscribed with the car's occupants' prejudices, turning them into a ghost; every click a racial epithet. He also unpacked a common scenario of someone such as himself—a Black man—entering an elevator to join a white woman. He translated the woman's tighter grip on her purse as the same flattening action that Frantz Fanon captured in a white boy pointing to him and yelling "Look, a Negro!" He proposed that we must cast light on this racist epistemology of certitude, wedging apart the ontology and epistemology which collapse together—what a white person knows determines what they see, with no slippage.

Dr. Yancy's forward-looking message for the Dartmouth community was a vision of a more just future; he feels it is necessary for us to embark on something truly new in the 21st century, formulated as "post-hope"—changing and doing, not passively waiting for change. Dr. Yancy argued that the "post-" modifying hope speaks to a form of hope that is not burdened by a species of temporality that says, "Just wait a bit longer and Black people will be free, will possess justice."  Post-hope, for Dr. Yancy, refuses to wait; it demands radical change now, in the present, not in a future that is hoped for.  An essential part of this project is a critique of white innocence; liberality is not absolution of privilege. This requires daring vulnerability, captured by James Baldwin's assertion that real change means the end of safety; Dr. Yancy asks that we suffer ourselves to be seen. He also asks that we be willing to die, symbolically, inviting death to those things in us to which death is necessary:  racism, sexism, queerphobia, transphobia, self-righteousness, false-innocence. This critique is rooted in asking more of ourselves—and more of white people—in recognizing and challenging suffering and violence in all forms. By truly witnessing each other and ourselves we may pursue what Dr. Yancy has termed an ontology of no edges, becoming aware of how we are touching, how we are not neo-liberal subjects, but embodied and socially ontologically entangled.  

Over lunch, Dr. Yancy stated that one of his main motivations for spending a week at Dartmouth was to learn and be challenged, so we hope he found his time here fruitful. Janina Miscieqicz, a current MALS student, reflected on our group discussion: "I was struck by Professor Yancy's candid rhetoric and lucid approach to race issues in America. During the lunch, and then later when I attended his oral presentation, I felt emotionally moved in a way that I don't normally experience with academic scholars. His ability to create a visceral environment in which to digest his ideas is both inspiring and motivating. I look forward to engaging with more of his work in the future." We were moved by this visit, and we look forward to his next.