George Yancy talks race, philosophy, upcoming Allegheny visit

When George Yancy was a teenager, he wanted to be a pilot. He took his fascination with the profession and went to an encyclopedia to learn more about piloting and planes. In his search he came
across the word “philosophy” which literally means “love of wisdom.” When he looked deeper, he realized that philosophy was a practice that he had already been engaging with intellectually since young childhood, asking questions in the abstract.

Yancy decided when he went to the University of Pittsburgh that this would be his field of study, and as he learned more and entered further into academia, he realized that the questions he could be asking and the issues he could be facing were not only abstract, but could have real consequences in the world.

Yancy attributes his transition from studying the issues presented by the philosophers of old to studying the philosophical issues of race to the first hand experiences he had growing up Black in “the inner city ghettos of America.”

“I came to realize that there is something more at stake philosophically for me than, let’s say, abstract ideas,” Yancy said.

According to Yancy, the problems presented in the philosophy he was studying were “not as concrete, and they didn’t speak to me of who I was in a deeper sense in terms of my racialized identity as Black. So once that consciousness took a hold of me, then it was at that moment that pretty much my entire philosophical passions were directed toward a more social-justice oriented, anti-hegemonic direction.”

Yancy has spent the summer working on a book that he continues to work on as he visits Allegheny’s campus, where he will be co-teaching Philosophy 290: Whiteness and the Conceptualization of Race with Emeritus Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies Bill Bywater.

Yancy will teach the class on Mondays and Bywater will teach on Wednesdays. Yancy will also sit in on Monday sessions of a Community Justice Group Study, as well as engage in a series of lectures with the campus community, the first being at 7 p.m. on Monday, Sept. 5, in the Tillotson Room. The overall goal of his visit, in Yancy’s words, is to “engage in courageous conversations.”

Courageous conversations, to Yancy, means conversations that challenge all participants, conversations that address the tough questions to be concise.

In 2015, Yancy authored a letter published in the New York Times philosophy column, “The Stone,” titled “Dear White America.” The letter garnered backlash from several individuals and groups on the right, landing him on “Professor Watchlist” — a website run by conservative nonprofit Turning Point USA. This led to a follow up by Yancy titled “I am a Dangerous Professor.”

Yancy thinks of his own work as following in the steps of great philosophers like Socrates, essentially func tioning as a gadfly by asking
the public critical questions.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to Yancy not visiting. Allegheny since 2019 despite having a long history of interaction with the college. Since then, there have been nationwide protests and greater public conversations focused on racism and anti-Blackness in America, and Yancy stated that while he is not optimistic for the future of “the delicate experiment that is American democracy.”

“(My) projection (for) the future is that we have not seen the full terror … of what white supremacy and what forms of xenophobia will do,” Yancy said. “We’re still waiting to see what that’s like and I am not optimistic at all.”

Though Yancy believes that there is not much optimism to be had, he holds onto a different word — hope.

“I prefer to use the term hope, because optimism suggests an extrapolation from past instances of what’s positive,” Yancy said. “Hope stares in the face of the almost impossible or perhaps even the impossible, and says ‘I will continue to fight,’ even if it’s impossible.”

Yancy’s ideas of hope arepartially what bring him to Allegheny, his view being that hope is what allows for the teaching of “anti-racism and critical whiteness.” While Allegheny is a Primarily White Institution, Yancy believes it is hope that will be the door to increasing a critical understanding of race and its place in the world and in the United States that continues to bring him here and elsewhere to teach.

“Since I’ve been coming to Allegheny, I have found that the students at Allegheny are exceptionally bright,” Yancy said. “The times that I’ve been there they have engaged me, challenged me, and it’s just been a wonderful dialogical exchange where all of us grow.”