[On the KPFA program "Against the Grain," C.S. Soong recently interviewed philosopher George Yancy about his new book, Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race. Yancy's book explores the lived reality of black bodies within the context of whiteness. The following is a brief, transcribed excerpt; the full audio version of the interview is available below.]
C.S. Soong: At a recent conference convened by the American Philosophical Association, you had an informal encounter—this is between sessions of the conference—with a well-respected white philosopher. And this philosopher congratulated you on a book you had recently edited, I think it was entitled The Philosophical i: Personal Reflections on Life in Philosophy. And in that book, in your contribution to that book, you had used black vernacular language. So what did the white philosopher tell you in this very informal setting?
George Yancy: Yes, in many ways, I think his intervention, as it were, at the conference that day really sort of belied the logic of that text, because it was designed specifically to bring philosophy down to earth, to look at the relationship between philosophers, and what is it about their identities that got them into philosophy, and how do their identities speak to their philosophical projects.
So, he had read my chapter, and lo and behold, he said, “You know, I learned a lot about you that I hadn’t known previously.” And then he said to me, “Why is it that you use that language?” And of course he underscored “that language.” And the thing is, I mean, I was writing my own sort of philosophical biography when I wrote that chapter, and the assumption was that I worked with what linguist Geneva Smitherman calls “the language of my nurture.” That’s what she calls it when she’s referring to African American language.
So there’s a sense in which, you know, “that language” was the language of my nurture, so in order to articulate my identity, I had to use that language. And his question reminded me that he thought I was using an ersatz language, a child-like language, an inferior language, and that that language was incapable of communicating brilliant and profound philosophical ideas. So I think he brought that to that text a priori, you know. And some might, or one might, argue that it was a question of class only.
Now, while I argue that class was operative in that encounter, it was also about race. And the reason I argue that is because basically, I was being reminded not to speak like some of my black colleagues. Because interestingly enough, he went on to tell me about a black philosopher who he had seen, and heard give a lecture, and he talked about how “horrible” the English was. . . .
So there was something about that language and that black colleague of mine that he was trying to make a very tight connection with. And I was told, he said, “You speak well.” So in some sense, he meant that I speak well as a black person. So again, it was an insult, right? And if one takes the connection between language and identity seriously, which I do, then in some sense, I think he was saying, “Turn white,” basically. Which is problematic, right?
African American philosophers make up about 1.1 percent of the profession of philosophers, so we’re already on the margins, as it were, in terms of numbers. But here I am, in this benign context, a social everyday encounter, where whiteness is operating at this very insidious level. And where, you know, race is being brought in at a very subtle level, in relationship to my language.
But it’s interesting that he happens to be the same colleague who says to me, “You know, George, you could be as good as, or better than,” and then he names a black philosopher. It’s almost as if I can’t be "as good as or better than" someone like Richard Rorty, or Aquinas, or Wittgenstein, or Kant. He always names another black philosopher, which again is an insult. . . .
C.S. Soong: You write about the white philosopher, this guy you encountered at this conference, "He remained silent to me about his identity as white, but his interaction with me served to constitute his whiteness." What did you mean by this?
George Yancy: By that I mean that as he gave me his advice—well, quote-unquote advice—in some sense, his whiteness remained invisible to him, so that he thought, he was under the impression, that he was giving me advice when he said to me, “Why did you use that language?” But in the process of defining the language that I used as “that language,” which clearly entailed again that “that language” was an ersatz, inferior language, he in some sense constituted me in ways that I did not see myself.
So, I saw myself as engaging in a philosophical project of making sense of who I am as a philosopher, and as a black philosopher in particular who has a specific history, and as such is ensconced within a particular linguistic community. And in doing so, that is a very positive spin, right? But he constituted me as this person who was sort of engaging in baby-talk, or engaging in slang or broken English, or something of the sort.
But in doing this--and this is the way power works, I think this is how whiteness works, rather, as a site of power--it remains invisible to itself. So it’s not that he, as it were, realized, “Hey, I’m speaking from this perspective of whiteness that mediates my judgment.” Rather, he saw himself as speaking the truth [laughter]. And the truth was basically to set me free of this distortion of the English language.
At another interesting level, in some sense he was saying that African American vernacular wasn’t really capable of communicating philosophical ideas, you know, there was something about it, unlike French or German or standard American English, that it just couldn’t articulate and express philosophical ideas.
So again, he was not only operating from a level of class, but he was operating from this level of whiteness as the transcendental norm, whiteness as the unnamed, the ex-nominated, as that site of privilege.
"Against the Grain"
George Yancy is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Duquesne University. In addition to being the author of Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race and numerous essays and reviews, he is also the editor of many books, including White on White/Black on Black and What White Looks Like: African-American Philosophers on the Whiteness Question.
[Thanks to SWPD reader redcatbiker for alerting me to this episode of “Against the Grain”]