Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America by George Yancy

Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America by George YancySummary: A linguistic, philosophical and cultural commentary on the backlash to minorities talking about racism. 

Backlash that was written in response to the writing a 2015 editorial on racism at the NYT. The book opens, after a forward by Cornell West and an introduction by Yancy with that original editorial. Backlash is the type of book I needed to read. And while I think it is a book that many here would benefit from, the editorial is much shorter and worth reading on its own. So even if you are not particularly interested in reading book about racism, I encourage reading the editorial.

George Yancy (a philosopher at Emory and not George Yancey, a Sociologist at University of North Texas, notice the difference in spelling of the last name) draws a parallel between his own participation and benefit in sexism because he is a man and the participation and benefit that all Whites receive because of racism in the US. He is making an explicit argument that racism (and sexism) are systemic and cultural. That the very best we can do is become anti-racist racists or anti-sexist sexists. We never stop being racist (or sexist) because at root racism and sexism are not individual positions, but cultural and systemic positions of the world around us. As much as we can work to decenter whiteness and try to be personally anti-racist, we will still do and think racist things (or sexist things) because that is the culture we swim in.

That basic point of the editorial I think is important here. We have not and will not ever ‘make it’ to be a perfectly safe or good white person. We will always have more to correct and work on. But also we will always be at least partially dangerous to the people of color around us. The danger to minorities around us is developed more fully in his fourth chapter of Backlash. I did not fully grasp this point prior to this book. I was able to grasp the historical damage of racism. I was able to grasp the theoretical cultural damage that systems place on minorities in the US. I was not able to see how that damage of racism also was current and personal to my own body. (The development of this needs to be read, I am not going to recreate the argument here.)

Short summary of the book: Chapter 1 is the essay and an introduction to what he is attempting to do. Chapter 2 is a recounting of the racist backlash he received. There is a real and significant trigger warning on this chapter for people of color. I am not sure I would recommend any non-white people read chapter 2, but I think pretty much all White people need to read it, because of how bracing and full of uncomfortable language it is. And there is a lot of language. If you listen to this on audiobook, do not listen to it without headphones if you are in public or around children. Chapter 3 breaks down the racist rhetoric of the second chapter, moves it to a broader context and helps explain it culturally, historically, linguistically, and philosophically. Chapter 4 is the where do we go from here chapter. It is the fourth chapter that he makes the point that we are still always at best anti-racist racists. But also that we cannot give up, because there is benefit in trying to continue to be anti-racist racists. The book is only about 170 pages. I spent four days reading it, but not because it was difficult to read the works, but difficult to process the content.

Yancy is a Christian, but this is not a book that explores faith, this is a book that explores racism. He claims hope and he calls for love, but those are not made as explicitly Christian arguments, although I believe from hearing him talk outside of the book that the hope and love are rooted in his Christian faith. Yancy is a Christian that lives in a world where sin has corrupted the world and where racism is not going to fully end.

I did not read the original essay prior to reading the book. I heard about the book and Yancy first from a podcast interview with Kristin Powers and Jonathan Merritt’s podcast FaithAngle. I put the book on my watch list, but only picked it up after a talk that Yancy gave in 2017 about the book at Wheaton College was contrasted with a pro-life talk by Ryan Scott Bomberger this past November. If you have not heard about the controversy, this article in the student newspaper gives details. The complaints contrasting Bomberger’s talk and Yancy’s talk, especially by Julie Roys really do serve to prove Yancy’s main thesis in the book, that regardless of our intentions, society is still rooted in racism and we cannot fully remove ourselves from it.

Roys focused not on the reasons for the complaints about Bomberger, that Bomberger explicitly denied that racism has any real power today. Nor did she pay attention to the main point of Yancy’s talk, about the racist backlash to his editorial, instead she focused on the use of expletives by Yancy, primarily quoting emails, messages and phone calls that Yancy received in response to his editorial. Roys was not really concerned about the actual racist response, just that Yancy used expletives in a talk at Wheaton and that the theme of the book and talk was that racism is a systematic problem and not an individual one.

That response, focusing on racism as solely an individual problem really does need to be dealt with theologically by Christians, especially White Evangelicals. John Fea detailed some of the response to Jemar Tisby’s new book that I reviewed earlier this week. The response that Fea was detailing, followed very similar lines, objecting to racism as a systemic and cultural reality and not a concept rooted in individual animus against minorities. Bomberger, himself Black, reportedly said in an unrecorded Q&A that racism is not a significant problem any longer because the KKK was disorganized. That idea, that because cross burning are rare racism is no longer important, is hugely significant to how we, especially the corporate we of the Christian church, respond to racism.

Backlash is probably not the first book I was recommend to read about race. I would probably start with a less bracing book like Tisby’s Color of Compromise or So You Want to Talk About Race. But Christians believe in sin, and that sin in scripture is not solely individual. The Old Testament prophets are almost always talking about corporate sin. And the letters to the churches in Revelation are also addressing corporate sin. The conflict of the early church as detailed in the book of Acts is talking about cultural issues of sin as well as ethnic and cultural conflict between groups within the Christian church. If the only voices you are reading about racism are ones that are assuring you that you are doing just fine, or that there isn’t really a problem, you need to be reading a more diverse set of authors.

Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America by George Yancy Purchase Links: Paperback, Kindle Edition, Audible.com Audiobook 

 

2 Comments

I think I read the editorial when it was first published. I may have even responded to it in The New York Times.

I read it again today, and it still moves me to rage and despair and a feeling of helplessness that I can’t seem to do anything about the gross, systemic racism (akin to the gross, systemic male sexism) that permeates our culture and that permeates me. Sure, I can do small things, but they feel like random actions, and not the focused discipline of an obedient believer. His essay moves me to re-commit myself to conciliation and redemption.

Yes, this essay is a gift. I would like to respond with a gift, but I have nothing as valuable to offer.

I also may have read the comments as they were back in 2015, although I don’t remember seeing 2000 or more of them.

I read through a few again today to remind myself (although I need no reminding) of just how much we are frozen inside our beliefs and our behaviors. That for the oddest of reasons we lash out at those who love us enough to tell us hard truths, even with gentle words.

James Baldwin said this about our fears and our equally desperation for healing:

“Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without and know we cannot live within. I use the word “love” here not merely in the personal sense but as a state of being, or a state of grace – not in the infantile American sense of being made happy but in the tough and universal sense of quest and daring and growth.”

I see these men and women around me who speak to me (speak to us all, really). We desperately want to connect, to be loved, to have meaning, to find hope. And at the same time we are paralyzed by the idea taht in doing so we may lose something ineluctable and essential to our being: if I give up my racism, if I give up my sexism, if I give up what I see as my bulwark against the unknown, then what do I become? What is left of me when my demons and shadows are revealed as smoke, and the core of who I am is naked? What then?

Maybe there are only a few who can clamber out of the chain mail that protects them and divides them, and maybe there are only a few who can be released from their tourniquets that we think are saving our lives in order to find healing and restoration.

All I see, however, is desperate fear and fury over these words being spoke, over these thoughts being expressed, over this man asking us to listen, to receive his give, and to connect.

    I think the idea that we may not want to give up our racism/sexism is important, although I think it is easier to see with sexism. The Gillette commercial response included a lot of people that did not see any way to separate what it means to be male and the type of toxicity that the ad was trying to speak against.

    I do get some of this. I do not like it when I am told, ‘you are such a man/boy/male’ when the clear intent is to condemn a characteristic that is perceived badly. But at the same time, even when used against me as a man, there is the imprint of cultural sexism that is imprinted on it. That negative that is classified as ‘male’ is classified that way because of cultural sexism. Just like many churches preach to men about virtues that are not particularly gender related. There is a lot to keep unpacking.

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