Emory Philosophy Professor George Yancy has attracted considerable attention this week over his writings and comments on race and his suggestions for teaching white students. Yancy is under fire for telling his students that he believes not only in “safe spaces” for non-white students but “dangerous spaces” for white students. It is part of his view of “white privilege” and his effort to prompt students “to acknowledge their inherent racism and fight actively against it.” Yancy insists that all white people are inherently racist and all men are inherently sexist.
Yancy has railed against the “norm” of “whiteness” in our society. As a result, he insists that most white students “have never had to think of themselves as different or problematic.”
The Emory Wheel reported that Yancy maintains that “although he does not intentionally try to oppress or objectify women, he is a sexist by virtue of being a male.” Thus, he argued that “at the end of the day the best that I can be is an anti-sexist sexist. I fight against sexism everyday of my life, to the best that I can.” He then extends that analysis to his white students and argues “[t]he best that [a white person] can become is an anti-racist racist.”
Yancy notably does little to really explain why all men are inherently sexist any more than explaining why women are not. Indeed, Yancy states in a 2013 op-ed that
“There are others who will say, “Why isn’t Yancy telling black people to be honest about the violence in their own black neighborhoods?” Or, “How can Yancy say that all white people are racists?” If you are saying these things, then you’ve already failed to listen. I come with a gift. You’re already rejecting the gift that I have to offer. This letter is about you. Don’t change the conversation.”
This is not an argument but simply an accusation. The very response is simply dismissed as proof of the point of sexism. It is both convenient and transparent. The “gift” most academics prefer is a reasoned argument, not a series of affirmative statements followed by a rejection of any counter argument as proof of sexism and denial.
The notion of all men as inherently sexist and all whites as inherently racist is deeply troubling for a teacher who is incorporating such views into his classes. That concern is then magnified by the pedagogical effort to create “dangerous spaces” for whites. The treatment of white students differently would not be tolerated in this way for other students.
In his oped, Yancy rejects virtually any beliefs or practices that would show that a white person is not a racist.
Don’t tell me about how many black friends you have. Don’t tell me that you are married to someone of color. Don’t tell me that you voted for Obama. Don’t tell me that I’mthe racist. Don’t tell me that you don’t see color. Don’t tell me that I’m blaming whites for everything. To do so is to hide yet again. You may have never used the N-word in your life, you may hate the K.K.K., but that does not mean that you don’t harbor racism and benefit from racism.
Yancy’s view cuts off any serious retort or response from white students beyond accepting their premise that they are racist.
In the end, I would still defend Yancy’s right to teach his theories with the caveat that his advocacy of putting white students into special spaces goes not further than a pedagogical practice in a relevant course on racism.
When Yancy speaks of creating “dangerous spaces,” I do not take that term (as some) as meaning that he abuses white students but tries to get them to experience what he sees as the discomfort of non-whites in society. However, in his writings to other professors, Yancy encourages faculty who do not teach race related courses to “call out implicit instances of white privilege when they see them.” The problem is how he defines such white privilege and inherent racism. We recently discussed this difficulty in the controversial practice of “progressive stacking.”
Professor Yancy does offer interesting insights but they tend to be more rhetorical than analytical in my view. Indeed, his outcome determinative and conclusory form of argument is itself a worthy subject of classroom discussion. He denounces objectifying groups while doing precisely that with groups like men and whites. These writings fall, in my view, considerably short of meaningful analysis. It is certainly emotive and thought-provoking but in the end it offers little beyond categorical statements and the “gift” of self-defining conclusions.