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George Yancy: To Be Black in the US Is to Have a Knee Against Your Neck Each Day

White existence is secured, protected and rendered “sacred” because Black existence isn’t, says the philosopher.

A woman prays outside Scott Food Mart at a makeshift memorial and a mural for George Floyd in the 3rd Ward on June 9, 2020, in Houston, Texas.

What drives the current rift between white and Black America, and how as individuals can we effectively contribute to the fight against the worldmaking of whiteness?

Philosopher George Yancy, a leading public intellectual in the critical study of race who received backlash for pointing out the U.S.’s yoke of whiteness, argues that white supremacy breathes at the site of Black asphyxiation.

In this exclusive Truthout interview, Yancy discusses the racialized dimensions of COVID-19 vulnerabilities, Donald Trump’s displays of white nationalist aspirations, the un-sutured pain of living as a Black person in the United States, and the much-required insurrection against white ontology itself.

Woojin Lim: A lot has changed since you published your series of interviews on The Stone and penned your provocative letter, “Dear White America,” in 2015. How have these changes impacted your views, and which parts of your column would you revise, if at all?

George Yancy: One might think that I would revise my view within the context of the recent massive protests that are both local to the U.S. and global. One might surmise that given the multiracial composition of the protests that I might change how I addressed white people in that letter. The protests, however, only reveal what I had in mind back in 2015: whiteness is the problem, not Blackness. Moreover, once we reach a “post-George Floyd” moment, those same whites who protested will continue to reap benefits from being white in a country that will continue to be based upon white supremacy. That is the recursive magic of white supremacy. It is able to accommodate or to consume what we throw at it. It is able to make a space for protests and even reform while precisely sustaining itself through the power of its consumptive logics. So, in retrospect, I would not change anything in terms of the argument delineated within “Dear White America.”

How do you understand “the more” that is necessary as the world bears witness to these protests within the U.S. and abroad?

Let me first acknowledge that the protests in the U.S. and abroad have ignited an important anti-racism awakening that has been long overdue but requires far more work. There have been some meaningful outcomes, such as confederate statues toppled, the ban of chokeholds, discussions and commitments regarding the defunding of police, school districts across the U.S. committing to removing police from schools, and millions of dollars have been donated to racial justice groups. However, we need to do more. We are not disrupting whiteness in ways that will fundamentally make a difference in terms of how it continues to operate through various white gazes, white forms of inhabiting space, white forms of maintaining “innocence,” white forms of deep structural power and normativity. What we need is an insurrection, as Judith Butler might say, at the level of white ontology itself.

I often return to James Baldwin’s powerful and passionate letter to his nephew where the former says that it is the innocence which constitutes the crime. Baldwin’s point is that the very process of attempting to secure one’s “white innocence” in the face of so much Black existential pain and suffering caused by white supremacy is a crime. The self-deception is criminal, or perhaps the effort itself is criminal. The history of white supremacy is there for all to see; North America’s 400 years of anti-Black racism reveals its mythical standing as a “beacon of hope”; American exceptionalism is, for Black people, a site of un-exceptionalism when it comes to its ideals of democracy vis-à-vis its reality as a white Herrenvolk or “master race” polity.

Baldwin also reminds us that those who shut their eyes to reality or those who insist upon their innocence long after it is gone only create monsters. Donald J. Trump is a monster. Just consider his neofascist tendencies, his racist comments, his unabashed white nationalist aspirations, his attempts at demonizing the press, his draconian desires to silence dissent. Henry Giroux is right to call out Trump for both his “pedagogies of repression” and his “dis-imagination machine.” Keep in mind that in 2017, Trump stated that there were “very fine people on both sides” in Charlottesville, Virginia. The other side to which he was referring consisted of neo-Nazis, the “alt-right” and white supremacists. This is the same man who degradingly referred to a number of African nations as “shithole countries.”

Or, more recently, think of Trump’s comment regarding Detroit, Baltimore and Oakland, which I take to be majority-minority cities: “These cities, it’s like living in hell.” Being Black in North America is like living in hell, but for reasons Trump either doesn’t know, refuses to know, or knows and doesn’t give a damn. Being Black in America is to be in a living hell. If you don’t believe this, then resurrect those Black bodies lynched, castrated, raped and beaten during slavery and after. That hell of anti-Black racism began much earlier. Resurrect the millions of Black bodies that died during the Middle Passage, bodies that could not breathe in the holds of slave ships where their bodies commingled with blood, vomit, feces, urine, disease and the stench of death. You see, not being able to breathe didn’t begin with Eric Garner or George Floyd. It began in the Middle Passage. As Black people, we are still in the middle of that passage — suffocating, dying, ontologically frozen by the trauma of a white gaze that doesn’t truly give a damn about Black life. It will take much more than whites protesting in the streets to grapple with that problem, especially as our failure at breathing is based upon white people’s success at breathing.

I now clearly understand that Trump is the expression of a larger id of white supremacy. He is the manifestation of an unchecked domain of white racist violence, myths of white superiority, myths of white manifest destiny. But we need to keep in mind that his election wasn’t the inaugural event that created what we are seeing in such blatant forms. He is a product of that. His election is the manifestation of a species of retaliation for any “Black progress.” The assumption at work here is one of white zero-sum logics: Black gain is deemed white loss, which, of course, is based upon white fear and a challenge to white privilege and white ownership of power. So, I would not change anything in “Dear White America.” I would remain true to its primary message, and I would do so with love: whiteness is a systemic structure and thereby to be white belies any sense of white innocence. In fact, I would argue that “Dear White America” functioned as an attempt to sting the conscience and consciousness of white people; it was a clarion call against forms of white perceived innocence.

To play on words with your 2018 book, Backlash: What Happens When We Talk Honestly about Racism in America, what exactly happens when we talk honestly about the lived experience of racism today? What does it mean to be Black in America?

In that title, the lived experience of racism had to do with the lived experience of racism that I encountered after writing “Dear White America.” That experience was one of white terror, threats of physical violence, death threats, perverse projections from a deep-seated white libidinal desire in relationship to the Black body (my Black body), racist epithets, and the deployment of “nigger.” That term continues to carry the weight of a punch in the face, a kick in the back; it remains assaultive. Again, pointing to Baldwin, white people really do need to ask themselves why they needed to create that term (“nigger”) in the first place. By asking such a question, perhaps they will come to realize that what is necessary is that they address ways in which they have split themselves off from aspects of their own hated selves. After all, Black people did not create that term.

Thinking about the full title of that book, I would say that there is much to pay for those who refuse to tip-toe around the question of white racism, white power and white privilege. For me, that honesty and courage is not something that Black people or people of color must carry alone. White people must be prepared to talk honestly about racism in the United States, but to do so requires a certain symbolic death, where one encourages the death of the semiotics of whiteness, its oppressive material reality, where one is prepared to self-empty, to refuse the price of the ticket to “become white” and thereby anti-Black.

Another way of thinking about the lived experience of racism is to talk about the horrors of whiteness as they are experienced within the context of the mundane, the everyday. This point is so incredibly important at this moment in U.S. history. The death of George Floyd is what I would call a spectacular form of white racism on display. The emphasis is on the term “spectacular,” which etymologically suggests that which is clearly seen, indicative of a show. And while we know that the brutal and slow murder of George Floyd had nothing to do with theatrics, my point is that Black people experience forms of quotidian white racism all the time, where these forms of racism are not caught on video. Let’s call this the banality of whiteness.

Think about what it means to be Black at predominantly white universities and college campuses, which are the spaces within which I have taught for nearly 20 years. It means to undergo forms of deep racial alienation. Some Black students and students of color have to cope with white people, believe it or not, who have never interacted with people who are not white. This points to the existence of de facto racial segregation. So, out of these white spaces grow distorted racist desires and assumptions: “Can I touch your hair?” “You are very articulate.” “You don’t sound Black.” “Tell us what it is like to witness a murder?” “What sport do you play?” “Where are you from, really?” “But I don’t hear your accent.” “You speak English so well.” “You are so angry.” “Stop being so sensitive.” “But you’ve made it. Why complain?” These moments are not spectacular, but that does not mean that they are less racist or any less painful for those who feel like targets. Imagine the sense of finding it hard to breathe, hard to move within those spaces with ease or with effortless grace, imagine the impact on trying to study, imagine what it’s like to take a stroll across campus after a week or even a day of such microaggressions. These interactions function as acts of micro-violence. They are nonspectacular moments of deep pain, hurt and sorrow, but still forms of racial cruelty predicated upon larger systemic necropolitical violence where state power shapes who lives or who dies, unevenly, through a racial and racist framework.

So, for you, what does it mean to be Black in America?

It means to be subjected to forms of white systemic violence everyday of one’s life. To be Black in America is to grieve one’s own death that is always already imminent or looming within a country that was founded upon a system of beliefs and practices that said that you are not human. To be Black in America means to be murdered by the white state and white proxies of the state. It means walking through a gated community minding your own business and being shot dead (Travon Martin), shot in the back and killed while fleeing (Walter Scott and Rayshard Brooks), shot and skilled while in the “safety” of one’s own home (Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, Breonna Taylor), shot while out jogging (Ahmaud Arbery), arrested while innocently sitting in a Starbucks (Rashon Nelson and Donte Robinson), threatened through the weaponization of white womanhood as you ask a white woman to leash her dog (Christian Cooper). I have come to embrace a formulation, which I’m sure has its origin in Afro-pessimist theorizing, that says that the opposite of Blackness is not whiteness, but the human. In short, to be Black is to fall within the category of the “sub-person,” the “subhuman” or perhaps even the “unhuman.” To be Black in America is to deal constantly with white macro scenes of Black death and dying, Black disrespect, Black nullification, Black ontological truncation, Black epistemic injustice, Black degradation, Black policing, Black confinement, Black precarity, Black fatigue, Black inequality, Black poverty, Black hunger and systemic Black marginalization. In short, to be Black in America is to have a knee pressed against your neck and to die just a little each day; it is a form of gradual asphyxiation that is your birthright.

As a target of white racist vitriol and death threats, what were your coping mechanisms, the guiding light that you clung to?

That one is easy. I have Black children and I want them to live. The threats will come, they will continue. And while Black people cannot be the “saviors” of white people, I must attempt, with all of my strength, to protect my Black children. This is not some abstract ethical commitment but a daily and concrete loving effort that understands their reality and that recognizes their racial precarity. As a Black parent, I feel it each day when a child of mine walks out into the world, into the toxicity of anti-Black racism. You see, they don’t need to do anything that will result in their not coming home ever again. All that is necessary is that they are Black in a white supremacist United States. What keeps me stable is that love for them. So, I must write that next essay, write that next book and give that next lecture that reveals the truth about a white Untied States. What also grounds me, though my pessimist tendencies seem to be winning out, is the belief in an open future. After all, I don’t believe that whiteness has a metaphysical monopoly on the future. Yet, there is nothing about the past or the present that says, without question, that anti-Black racism will ever completely come to an end. So, the guiding light is to save the lives of my Black children, to have them return home, not to get that call to come down to the morgue to identify the lifeless body of my Black child who has been killed because some white police officer said that they “felt threatened.”

What is “white America” to you?

For me, “white America” is a structural lie. And by this, I mean that it was/is predicated upon abstract ideals that it never intended to apply to Black people or people of color. And even where there is “progress” for those of us whose lives don’t matter, it is important to recognize that such alleged progress occurs within the framework of white interests. The critical race theorist Derrick Bell made this clear with his theory of interest convergence, which shows that racial justice for Black people only happens when white and Black interests converge. So, the implication is that Black progress is tolerated as long as it doesn’t fundamentally challenge white interests. This still prioritizes whiteness.

This further speaks to the ethical vacuity of white America as a structure, as a system that consists of white people who consciously or unconsciously invest in whiteness. Returning to what I’ve said earlier, this means that “white America” attempts to obfuscate its practice of anti-Black violence through forms of distorted white self-narration. The lies are familiar: the majority of whites are innocent of racism; racism is an aberration enacted by a few bad whites; the U.S. doesn’t see color; we are clearly a post-racial country because otherwise how could we have elected the first African American president.

This is why we need to be critically aware at this moment and nurture a critical imagination. Many whites are protesting, shouting that Black lives matter. I get it. But Malcolm X was right. If you stick a knife in my back nine inches and pull it out six inches that is not progress. He goes on to say that even if the knife is pulled out all the way, there is still no progress because progress is healing the wound that was originally made. And like Malcom, I don’t see the U.S. willing to remove the knife or willing to heal the wound. It feels as if salt is being poured on that open wound every day. The protests that we are witnessing will not heal the wound. And while it is important that white people protest the killing of Black bodies and racist policing, it is also important to think about how white protestation can function as a form of virtue signaling — you see, we are good whites. I don’t want white people to build monuments of white virtue on my back as I’m lying in the street dead because some white police officer could not, as Claudia Rankine says, police his or her own imagination.

How would you define the project of “undoing whiteness”? How can white Americans confront the ways in which they benefit from racism?

Undoing whiteness will certainly not happen by simply understanding that whiteness is a site of fragility. That term does some work, but it is very misleading. It often suggests that white people are these delicate creatures who would understand their racism, but only if they realize that they are operating from a defensive place of fragility. That is too consoling. White people must be prepared to accept the lie that is their whiteness. It’s not about fragility. It’s about white people’s desire to maintain their white power, white privilege and white innocence. History has given them the blinkers, the shelters to use to protect them from facing the lie and violence of whiteness, their whiteness.

I am often asked if there is an easier way to explain to white people the meaning of their whiteness without raising the issue of their racism. I think that posing such a question presupposes white fragility. If Black people must face the fact that their existence doesn’t matter within a white racist United States, then white people must face the truth that their existence is secured, protected and rendered “sacred” because Black existence isn’t. That means that white people are complicit with George Floyd’s death. It is not simply about Derek Chauvin. It is the fact that to be white in the United States involves, as Joel Olson would argue, never having to occupy the position of Black people, because that place is always taken.

What is needed is a form of kenosis or self-emptying. This is a process where white people die a symbolic death, a death that has deep affective, epistemological, ethical and metaphysical implications. It means ending the world of whiteness, not white people. What comes after the death of whiteness may very well produce a form of humanity that has been held captive by whiteness. Yet, this will also require removing white masks, unveiling the systemic oppressive forms of whiteness, asking white people to be vulnerable, to tarry with forms of being un-sutured, and having their souls laid bare.

If whiteness is nothing other than oppressive and false, as David Roediger has argued, why cling to it? Back to Baldwin: “Any real change implies the breakup of the world as one has always known it, the loss of all that gave one an identity, the end of safety.” That is what is necessary in order to undo whiteness, the crumbling of white worldmaking, undermining all of the fictions that reinforce white identity, and a daring act of love — not the sentimental kind — that expresses itself through the risk of looking into that disagreeable mirror called Black critique, which is predicated upon deep forms of Black pain and suffering. Unlike Odysseus, white people must be prepared to take the leap, to risk all in the name of freedom from the idolatry of whiteness.

Should Black Americans be required to bear the weight of public witnessing in a world that displays “ethical cowardice and indifference,” and if not, whom else? How should responsibility be apportioned to Black and white people when attempting to overcome racial gridlocks?

I think that within a context of pervasive anti-Black racism, one has an ethical responsibility as a racialized Black person to bear the weight of speaking courageous speech against white racism. We can’t simply assume that white people will do this work through moral suasion. After all, history proves that. And even if they do it, we have to be careful that they are not doing so because of white noblesse oblige, or because of some deeply problematic reason to be a “white hero.” Those acts are perfunctory and re-center whiteness.

So, we need white people to do the work that is necessary to critically work through whiteness such that they are not reinscribing that whiteness. Unfortunately, so many white people are ethically cowardly and indifferent. The idea of losing their safety must be emphasized. In this way, they understand the magnitude of their responsibility. We can help them develop what I refer to as a form of white double consciousness, where they see themselves through the eyes of Black people. Yet, they must do the lion’s share of the work when it comes to what you’ve called racial gridlocks. Think about what is otherwise being asked of Black people. We have to deal with white racism and then teach white people about themselves. I recall being asked by a white woman philosopher once: “What do you want from white people?” Reflecting back on that question, I’m convinced that it functioned to privilege whiteness even as it gave the appearance of something “progressive.”

First, I shouldn’t have to ask white people for anything. They should (even if they don’t) see what is needed. Second, what made that white woman think that she could even provide what I needed? So, there was white arrogance. Third, structurally, her power was instantiated precisely in posing the question to me. Black people want to live, and we want to do so with our freedom and dignity intact. It is not only white people who must do the work, though. It is anti-Black racism that we are fighting against. And while whiteness is the fulcrum around which anti-Blackness moves, all non-Black people in white supremacist United States must also do the necessary work, especially if they are not Black, which, as mentioned, is a place already taken. So, there is a larger racial binary that must be interrogated, one for which whiteness is also responsible: not just Blackness and whiteness, but Blackness and non-Blackness.

I think that it’s important to see how such interracial minority conflicts between — for example, Asian Americans and African Americans — are fueled by whiteness just as intra-racial conflicts are fueled by whiteness. In the former case, think about the unnecessary tension caused by the model minority myth. In the latter case think about the toxicity of colorism within Black spaces. Both are generated within the logics of whiteness.

If there is one thing you would like the public to take away from your work today, what is your message?

I’m not sure if there is one thing. To answer your question, though, I’ll respond within the context of the gravity of our current reality. As I was thinking recently about the social and ethical challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic, I began to feel and to articulate what I was witnessing. What we are witnessing is the collapse of the taken-for-granted, the normative structure of everyday life. And yet, for Black people, we continue to experience more of the same, more of the same disproportionate vulnerabilities, resource depletions, food deserts and massive inequities across various indices. COVID-19 is helping to unveil these realities, but “white America” has a short memory. Black bodies are piling up. This is and has been our history. Notice the connecting themes of death and dying, and not being able to breathe without struggling to do so. Despite COVID-19, Black bodies are still close enough to stop and to harass disproportionately, to murder unarmed and to publicly lynch.

This moment reminds me of 9/11 and the horrible events that took place at Abu Ghraib prison. Regarding the latter, then-President Bush announced, “This is not the America I know.” Yet, this is the America known by Black people. The xenophobic paranoia, sexual violence, sadistic brutality, we know that history. And 9/11 wasn’t the first terror attack on American soil. Black people have known white terror throughout the history of this country. So, what should be taken away from my work is the importance placed on white people to face the differential horrors that Black people face, and not to turn away and claim “innocence.”

For me, philosophy is a site of suffering. I ask questions about our inexplicable presence in this remarkably complex and apparently indifferent and silent universe, I bear witness to what Walter Benjamin calls “human wreckage,” and I am often the target of white racist vitriol. So, for me doing philosophy, wrestling with truth, is inextricably linked to pathos. Like Theodor Adorno and Cornel West, I believe that we must let suffering speak. I also ask that white people learn how to suffer along with, and take responsibility for, the social and historical wreckage that Black people experience because of anti-Black racism that exists here in the U.S. and abroad. And for those white people who say that they do suffer in this way, then I would ask that they show me their scars, allow me to place my hand in the wound that they’ve endured fighting against Black degradation, and fighting against the insidious structure of whiteness — their whiteness. I want white people to know that they are not pre-social, neoliberal subjects, that we are always already entangled in the lives of others and that they are especially entangled in the lives of Black people. Because of this, there is no “white innocence.”

Unlike Athena, who was born fully whole from the head of Zeus, we are born from the messiness and beauty of interlocking, collective human flesh — fragile, precarious. To echo Baldwin, I want white people to know that “everything white Americans think they believe in must now be reexamined.” If not for themselves, then for the love of their white children. Indeed, returning to your question about the guiding light that I clung to, I would also add deep love for the souls of white children. If their own white parents fail them, if white society fails them, what do they have? Who will help them not to flee reality? Who will help them to remove the masks, as Baldwin would say, that they will someday come to fear they cannot live without?

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

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