The Ugly Truth of Being a Black Professor in America

The article by George Yancy copied below appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education on April 29, 2018. You can read or listen to the original article here.

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By George Yancy APRIL 29, 2018

“Dear Nigger Professor.” That was the beginning of a message that was sent to me. There is nothing to be cherished here, despite the salutation. Years ago, Malcolm X asked, “What does a white man call a black man with a Ph.D.?” He answered: “A nigger with a Ph.D.”

The message came in response to an op-ed I published in The New York Times in December 2015. I’d spent much of that year conducting a series of interviews with philosophers about race. I wanted to hold a disagreeable mirror up to white readers and ask that they take a long, hard look without fleeing. My article, “Dear White America,” took the form of a letter asking readers to accept the truth of what it means to be white in a society created for white people. I asked them to tarry with the ways in which they perpetuate a racist society, the ways in which they are racist. In return, I asked for understanding and even love — love in the sense that James Baldwin used the term: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within.”

Instead, I received hundreds of emails, phone messages, and letters, an overwhelming number of which were filled with racist vitriol. My university did its important and necessary part — top administrators assured me that my academic freedom was protected. Yet my predicament was not easy. Campus police had to monitor my office. Departmental instructions were clear: No one was to provide any strangers with my office hours. I needed police presence at my invited talks at other universities. It all felt surreal — and dangerous. This is what it’s like to be the target of racist hatred:

Another uppity Nigger. Calling a Nigger a professor is like calling White Black and Wet Dry.

Even the most sophisticated nigger will revert back to their jungle bunny behavior when excited.

You can dress a Nigger up in a suit and tie and they’ll still be Niggers.

This belief that niggers even reason is blatant pseudo-intellectualism.

For these writers, “nigger professor” is an oxymoron. A nigger is a nigger, incapable of reason. Kant, Hegel, and Jefferson each made similar claims about black people being bereft of rationality. Perhaps I’m just parroting (as Hume said of black people) what I’ve already heard. I’m just a nigger who dared to reason, only to discover that reason is white.

The concept of there being an intellectual Negro is a joke.

Perhaps this person had spoken to the woman who left the following on my university answering machine:

Dear professor, I am a white American citizen. You are the one who is the racist against white people, evidently. A professor — I bet you got it [your PhD] through a mail order.

On a white racist website, one writer has apparently seen through my game:

This coon is a philosopher in the same way Martin King was a PHD and the same way that Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton are ‘Reverends’: Just another jive assed nigger with a new way to pimp.

Some of my students of color have asked me, “Why talk about race with white people when at the end of the day everything remains the same — that is, their racism continues?” “Why teach courses on race and whiteness?” “Do you really think that such courses will make a difference?” I find these questions haunting; they nag at my conscience.

Indeed, there are times when I ask myself, “Why do I do this?” After all, I don’t write about whiteness because it is a new fad in philosophy. And I’m certainly not a masochist. There is no pleasure to be had in being the object of hatred. I’m sure that a few of my black colleagues and colleagues of color think that I’ve lost my sanity. Perhaps they think that I’ve asked for all of this and that had I remained silent I would have been fine. The reality, of course, is that they too are seen as niggers. Silence will not help.

In 2015, I was invited to be a plenary speaker at a well-established philosophy conference. I was excited. After all, I was there to deliver my talk within the company of kindred philosophical spirits, those who knew something about feminism, disability, aesthetics, and race. There was one other black philosopher in attendance, though he was older, taller, heavier, and very gray. All the other attendees were white.

The day after I gave my talk, the other black philosopher told me that several attendees had, with no apparent hesitation, complimented him on my talk: “That was a very important talk that you gave yesterday.” “Wow, great talk!” “Inspiring.” No less than seven congratulatory gestures were made.

Had there been only one or two, perhaps it could have been brushed off. But seven times? This was the manifestation of an all-too-familiar mode of being white — a habit of perception that sees black people as all the same, through a fixed imago. This was white racism. My colleague, the black philosopher who had not given the talk, somehow “became” me, and I him.

In that sophisticated and philosophically progressive white space, I could hear a strange and profoundly irritating echo of the little white child whom Frantz Fanon encountered on a train: “Look, a Negro!” There was a familiar sense of being fixed, static. The two of us became one black man; any black man; every black man. We were flattened, rendered one-dimensional, indistinct and repeatable.

Hey Georgie boy. You’re the fucking racist, asshole. You wouldn’t have a job if it wasn’t for affirmative action. Somebody needs to put a boot up your ass and knock your fucking head off your shoulders you stupid fucking goddamn racist son of a bitch. You fucking race baiting son of bitches. Man, you’re just asking to get your fucking asses kicked. You need your fucking asses kicked. You stupid motherfucker. Quit fucking race baiting, asshole.

It is probably true that I would not have my job were it not for affirmative action. Many white women wouldn’t have jobs either! And of course, white men have benefited from white supremacy for years. But affirmative action is not white supremacy in reverse; it is not antiwhite, but pro-justice. It was created so that with my Ph.D., which I earned with distinction, I would actually be able to teach at a university. Affirmative action, in the case of black people, is a response to systemic racist disadvantages. It’s important to get that history right — not twisted.

I felt particularly sickened by the letters — there were quite a few — sent to me through regular postal mail, handwritten and signed. These are even more disturbing than emails, given the level of industry expended (writing, printing, stamping, mailing). The opening of one such letter read, “I’m a racist? How dare you call me that! You are a racist and, hey, since blacks call each other ‘nigga’ I’m taking the liberty of doing the same. Either the word is offensive and taboo or it isn’t.”

I’m not buying it. I once had two white male students attempt to argue that they should be allowed to use the word (with the “-er”) whenever they wanted, and that it is discriminatory to say that they can’t. Any response at all felt too generous. I have often heard white people express the feeling of being somehow left out from black spaces, which are necessary for black sanity precisely because of white racism.

It is as if white people are driven by a colonial desire to possess everything. Du Bois asked, “But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?” He answered, “Whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!” These two white students spoke with arrogance and the desire for total white ownership. It was not so much that they were deprived of historical knowledge, as that rather, this knowledge meant nothing when it came to their sense of loss of power.

To read white racist vitriol can be traumatic. To hear white racist vitriol intensifies the impact. One listens to the inflection of the voice, its volume, its nervousness and hatred, its terror. I registered the wounds physiologically. Mood swings. Irritability. Trepidation. Disgust. Anger. Nausea. Words do things. They carry the vestiges of the bloody and brutal contexts which gave them birth. One might think that being called a nigger so many times might decrease its impact. It doesn’t.

“All black people in the United States, irrespective of their class status or politics,” according to bell hooks, “live with the possibility that they will be terrorized by whiteness.” The many responses of white people to “Dear White America” were just that — 21st-century white terror. That terror can come in many forms. Perhaps a black man screams “I can’t breathe!” 11 times, but no one cares (Eric Garner). Or perhaps, after he has been shot by “accident,” he musters enough strength to say aloud that he’s losing his breath (Eric Harris), only to hear a white police officer respond, “Fuck your breath!” Perhaps his spine gets severed (Freddie Gray). Perhaps he is a teenager and is shot 16 times (Laquan McDonald). Pulling out a wallet can lead to getting shot at 41 times and hit with 19 bullets (Amadou Diallo). Perhaps an innocent 7-year-old black child (Aiyana Stanley-Jones) is killed by police during a raid. Just as was true for Emmett Till 63 years ago, there is no place that one can call safe in America for black bodies.

By recounting, in explicit language, the white backlash that I encountered after writing “Dear White America,” those violent and dehumanizing racist modes of address, I risk becoming retraumatized. The retelling is imperative, though. For too long, I have had black students say to me that they feel unsafe at PWIs (predominantly white institutions). I must believe them. And while they may not have been called a nigger to their faces, such white spaces position them as inconsequential, deny their blackness through superficial concerns for “diversity,” and take their complaints as instances of individual problems of institutional adjustment. I insist on bearing witness to black pain and suffering at PWIs because the deniers are out there. We are told that what we know in our very bodies to be true isn’t credible. This is a different kind of violence, the epistemic kind.

On November 11, 2017, I received a letter in my university mailbox. It was handwritten on both sides in black ink on a sheet of paper torn from a yellow legal pad. There was no return address. Every time I’ve touched it, as I must do now for purposes of transcribing it word-for-word, I wash my hands afterward.

Dear Mr. Yancy, I am writing to you to voice my displeasure with what you said about WHITE PEOPLE. You claim that all White people are Racists! Really now? You, sir are one to talk!! You sound just like the following Racists. Here is a list of who I mean. They’re Al Sharpton, Oprah Winfrey, Whoopi Goldberg, Spike Lee, Samuel L. Jackson, Bill Cosby, Danny Glover, Harry Belafonte, Movie Director John Singleton, Shannon Sharpe, Scottie Pippen (former NBA player), Rappers Ice Cube, Chuck D., Flavor Flav, DMX, and Snoop Dogg; former MLB players Carl Everett, Ray Durham and Hall of Famer Hank Aaron! When I read what you said about White people, I was like this guy is a total lowlife Racist piece of shit! It’s so true! You are an asshole! You deserve to be punished with several fists to your face! You’re nothing but a troublemaker! You need to really “Get a life!” I’ve had enough of your Racist talk! You’d better watch what you say and to whom you say it! You may just end up in the hospital with several injuries or maybe on a cold slab in the local morgue! I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve gotten several Death Threats! You’re inviting trouble when you accuse the entire White Race of being Racists! You’ve got a big mouth that needs to be slammed shut permanently! I’m not going to give you the opportunity to find out who I am. Good luck with that! By the way, this letter I’m sending you is certainly not a Death Threat! I could’ve done that, but that’s not me! I’m tired of your Racist kind!

Please tarry with these words. My life has just been threatened. The writer belies their intention by denying that the letter is a death threat.

The writer does communicate something quite revealing, though. They imply that they could be someone I see every day, someone I walk by, greet, or even teach. All the smiles, the eye contact, and the social spaces of interaction — and yet there I am, just a “nigger” to you.

After receiving the letter, I decided to share it with my graduate philosophy seminar. We had been discussing race and embodiment. I think that I wanted my students to help carry some of what I was feeling. I read it aloud. I had not anticipated my emotional response. As I finished, my eyes watered, my body became stilted, I felt a rush of unspeakable anger. “I can’t take this shit anymore,” I said. “I need a few minutes outside of class.” Silence pervaded the classroom. Looking back, I wish that I had said, “Fuck it all! It is not worth it. White people will never value my humanity. So, let’s end this class session on that.”

Instead, I came back into the room, where everyone was still silent. My students’ faces, for the most part, were turned down. I know what they had felt, black students, students of color, and white students alike. They bore witness to my vulnerability, my suffering. And they saw the impact that racism could have within an otherwise safe academic space. A few moments passed, I apologized, and resumed teaching. But the classroom was not the same. We had witnessed something together. That space will never be the same.

George Yancy is a professor of philosophy at Emory University. He is the author of the new book Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America (Rowman & Littlefield), from which this essay is adapted.

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