- Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly About Racism in America by George Yancy
London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018, 147 pp.
George Yancy's Backlash is a book about American racism. It is one black, male philosopher's recounting of what happened to him when he wrote an article for the New York Times' philosophy blog, "The Stone." The article took the form of an open letter to "white America" informing them that they are all racists. In the letter, Yancy describes the delivery of this information to "white America" as a "gift" and asks for "love" in return. In Backlash, Yancy explains that the response he expected to his letter (in addition to "love") was an increased number of white allies. However, the response he actually did receive was of quite a different nature, consisting, at least in part, of a deluge of racially infused hate mail in which he was repeatedly called the n-word, in which his academic and professional credentials, intelligence, and character were repeatedly questioned, in which he himself was called a racist (i.e., he was accused of being guilty of so-called reverse racism), and in which he was repeatedly threatened with bodily harm and even death. So much for love. Backlash takes the reader on a journey from the letter, to its aftermath, and then to Yancy's attempt to understand and process that aftermath. The book has some structural challenges, but it ultimately succeeds as a powerful phenomenological account of what [End Page 166] racism (still) looks (and feels) like in The Land of the Free. In this review, I will first summarize the contents of the book. Next, I will identify and discuss the key structural challenge I think the book faces. After that, I will describe the book's phenomenological and emotional power, followed by concluding remarks.
The book opens with a foreword by Cornel West, in which West honors Yancy by comparing him to the great James Baldwin in the sense that both use tough love (code for straight talk) to "call for an end to white innocence" (vii). West's critique of the book, however, is that it does not do justice to "white maturity" (viii) or "white courage" (ibid.), nor to "a long yet too thin tradition of white radicals who, like Yancy, risk their lives and careers for truth and justice" (ibid.).
In the introduction, Yancy shares with the reader the personal trauma he experienced from receiving the racist hate mail. It begins with a quote from one of the hate messages calling Yancy the n-word over and over and over, and characterizes the messages as evidencing the "truth" of white supremacy in America (also referred to as "white racist America").
The first formal chapter repeats the New York Times letter in full. Highlights are as follows. The letter is addressed, "Dear White America," asks "white America" to "listen with love" to what Yancy calls a "gift" to "white America," asks "white America" to "try to listen" and to "practice being silent," and then proceeds to model for "white America" how it should react to what he is about to say through describing a sexism he recently found in himself, to which Yancy admits, and that he is actively trying to change.
The second chapter reproduces much of the hate mail Yancy received, as well as the posts on white supremacist websites that were made in response to the letter. In this chapter, Yancy meticulously examines the content of the messages, finding inconsistency, hypocrisy, and irrationality throughout the messages and posts. Yancy concludes that "white America's" insistence that Yancy is an n-word is more reflective of "white America" than of Yancy.
In the third chapter, Yancy grapples more deeply with the hypocrisy he sees in white rejection of the message he sought to deliver in the letter. He calls for "mutual understanding" and "mutual vulnerability," emphasizes his message that black suffering is founded upon white comfort and cowardice, equates his message with "truth," and seasons his...