A professor from Duquesne University discussed harmful misperceptions of different groups of people in the media during a presentation on Wednesday.
Dr. George Yancy discussed white privilege and racism from a philosophical approach at the “Black Male Bodies and the Problem of White Perception” event on behalf of the gender studies program.
The event was co-sponsored by Psi Chi, the Honors Program, the Office of Multicultural Development, the Fredrick Douglas Institute, the Department of Criminology and Criminal Justice, the Philosophy Department and the Political Science Department.
Quoting U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder, Yancy said that, “though this nation has proudly thought of itself as an ethnic melting pot, in things racial we have always been, and continue to be, in too many ways, essentially a nation of cowards.”
As a philosophy professor at Duquesne University, Yancy said that it’s his primary responsibility to be a “trouble maker” or a Socrates-like-gadfly who challenges the status quo and asks tough questions meant to prompt thought and action. His areas of expertise include critical philosophy of race, critical whiteness studies and philosophy of the black experience.
Yancy took on a “parrhesia” style of speaking in which he discussed racism openly and freely even at personal risk of receiving backlash for his opinions, he said.
Yancy used racial slurs and graphic details to illustrate stories and themes to the ATS auditorium of students and faculty members.
He exposed students to the “the stench of life” and told them to confront their opinions, he said.
Audience members were given the task to look around at one another – lock eyes with friends, strangers, professors, colleagues – and realize that one day they will all be dead, Yancy said. He also said that what is between birth and that moment – the words one uses, the actions they take towards others – is important.
Yancy has contributed to a number of scholarly journals and has written 17 books, encouraging his students to record their own experiences with racism in journals. Many of his students thought they would not have much to write about, but then ended up with full, detailed pages.
He said that one student admitted to have never hugged a black person. But when he offered to hug her, thinking it would be a pinnacle moment, she declined.
Through his own experiences, and studies and interactions with students, Yancy allowed for several more topics to work their way into his discussion, merging racial stereotypes, culture, politics and sexuality.
Yancy challenged the audience to ask themselves “who am I?” as others would define them. He asked that audience members consider whether they’re seen as dangerous, safe, irresponsible, caring and more and to consider if these views are reflective of how they look, where they come from and who they are friends with.
Yancy compared this to the manner in which women are subjected to manipulation in pornography and advertisements to fill a certain description whether it was true of them or not. Yancy described it as having one’s body confiscated without their consent.
With stereotypes present in pop culture anything trending and circulated by mass media including attitudes, memes, movies, music, news and food, Yancy has been able to “look for himself” in movies like “White Chicks” and “The Heart Break Kid” as the character who “needs no introduction.” He is understood as “the black man,” he said.
When recent news headlines announced the shut-down of the University of Oklahoma’s chapter of the Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity after members were caught on camera singing racist songs, Yancy said he was reminded of the chanting of prejudiced remarks whether silently implied or clearly audible that he has encountered.
Quoting James Baldwin in his book, “White Self-Critically beyond Anti-racism: How Does It Feel to Be a White Problem?,” Yancy stated “What you say about somebody else, reveals you. What I think of you as being is dictated by my own necessities, my own psychology, my own fears and desires. I’m not describing you when I talk about you, I’m describing me.”
He calls this the “elevator effect.” Yancy walked the audience through his mindset while in an elevator with a white woman. He described his fear of alarming her with sudden movements, yet not wanting her to misinterpret a friendly smile as a sexually charged gesture. Yancy said he kept close note of the space he was taking up in the elevator, his eye contact and questioned whether or not to start a conversation with her to ease her mind, as he recounted many times that people on the streets would grasp their purse closer to their body as he would pass them, he said.
It also illustrates how people use perceptions of others to identify their environment and position in society, Yancy said. For example, seeing someone with similar features may make one feel safe or comfortable. Viewing a person as a dangerous or “bad” person can allow people to distinguish their own actions and classify themselves as a “good” person.
Along with encouraging discussions and presentations on the topic, individuals can work on realizing where their perspectives come from, Yancy said. He likened this to having the gift of second sight in which one can deconstruct their attitudes and actions and find the root of them, whether it is from culture, personal experiences or other sources.