Emory University philosopher George Yancy has recently come under attack as a result of “Dear White America,” an open letter he published in the New York Times asking white readers to recognize “the role that [they] play (even despite [their] anti-racist actions) in a system that continues to value black lives on the cheap.” Yancy’s piece was the culmination of a series of interviews with philosophers and public intellectuals on the issue of race, and reader responses included anger, hate mail, and death threats directed at him and his family.
To respond to this and similar attacks on philosophers who discuss often controversial topics, the American Philosophical Association (APA) approved a statement on bullying and harassment at a quarterly meeting held earlier this month.
This story begins on December 24, 2015, when Yancy offers “Dear White America” to his readers as a gift, one that he recognizes is very difficult to accept, and yet one he hopes can be received with love, producing an un-suturing of white selves. Rather than “wallow[ing] in guilt,” he asks his white audience to struggle against themselves, against their whiteness, and against the way the latter continues to thrive at the expense of the violent devaluing of Black lives:
As you reap comfort from being white, we suffer for being black and people of color. But your comfort is linked to our pain and suffering. Just as my comfort in being male is linked to the suffering of women, which makes me sexist, so, too, you are racist. That is the gift that I want you to accept, to embrace. It is a form of knowledge that is taboo. Imagine the impact that the acceptance of this gift might have on you and the world.
Yancy knew that responses to his piece would be written “with boiling anger, sarcasm, disbelief, denial,” but he could not have anticipated the extreme level and intensity of racist white anger, including death threats, that he ultimately received. In email exchanges with Justin W. at dailynous.com, Yancy shared the following:
Look!! It was one thing for me to be called “a dumb ass piece of shit” or “You are pure, 100% Nigger” or “You’re sick, Dude” It was something else to receive, “Someone needs to put a boot up your ass and knock your fucking head off your shoulders.” This, by the way, is just a fraction of a fraction of stuff.And this doesn’t even speak to what is being said on white supremacist web sites or the conservative ones about me.— GeorgeP.S. My article came out on Christmas Eve, this is what I received as of this morning (Jan 17, 2016):“Professor Yancy,All your studies have forced me to examine my self image and my white racist mind. You clearly state that no matter what I think, I’m a racist. OK, cool..thank you for clearing that up. Now I am forced to say, because you tell me I can say nothing else, FUCK YOU NIGGER!as always,the white guy”
But Yancy’s letter did not only receive racist, angry and hating responses; writers, scholars, philosophers, and readers also defended his freedom of speech and condemned this and other similar attacks. One of such responses was an open letter of support for Yancy signed by sixty seven contributors to “The Stone.” The letter, published in the blog Feminist Philosophers, maintains that the reactions to Yancy’s piece serve to illustrate just how important it is to have these conversations:
We can see in the example of the response to Yancy, that the Black Lives Matter too is viewed by some as a disturbance of the fundamental moral order, in much the same way as the Civil Rights Movement was. That the reaction to Yancy’s challenge has taken the form of vicious personal racism is, one may think, good evidence of the need for the message and the movement.
Support for Yancy also came in the form of a petition started by Anne Leighton, which has thus far collected over 1,000 signatures. This petition briefly condemns the attacks on Yancy and asks for the APA’s involvement in the matter “not out of a liberal respect for intellectual freedom,” but rather “out of a rejection of and a disdain for racism.” George Yancy himself, in his exchange with Justin W. at dailynous, also suggested that the APA should develop guidelines for responding to attacks of this magnitude:
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.
On February 10, one month after the exchange above, the APA’s board of officers approved a Statement on Bullying and Harassment in response to this and similar attacks. The statement, drafted by the Committee on Public Philosophy and the Committee on the Status of Black Philosophers, recognizes the importance of philosophy’s engagement with questions of public interest and condemns the vilification of those philosophers who do publicly address such questions. Furthermore, the APA’s statement expresses solidarity with those subjected to these attacks, and asks all of its members to condemn such abuses publicly:
Philosophers are gadflies, at least some of the time, and we must support those who take intellectual, ethical, and social risks in their work, including their public presentations. Bullying and harassment that target a person’s race, gender, class, sexual orientation or other status are especially abhorrent. We unequivocally condemn such behavior and stand in solidarity with our members who are subjected to this deplorable and discriminatory abuse.
Finally, however, the APA acknowledges that attacks on philosophers on the basis of their marker(s) of social difference do not always come necessarily from outside of philosophy. The APA’s statement mentions also the bullying and ad-hominem attacks that happen on the net between philosophers. The statement asks those engaging in such practices to “cease and desist,” reminding its members that “attacks that focus on a philosopher’s race, gender, or other status are unacceptable and in violation of the APA’s Statement on Nondiscrimination.”