Volume 13, 2021
George D. Yancy
The Danger of White Innocence
Being a Stranger in One’s Own “Home”
This paper explores how whiteness as the transcendental norm shapes the meaning structure of Black-being-in-the-world. If home is a place, a site, a dwelling of acceptance, where one is allowed to feel safe, to relax, to let one’s guard down, then being Black in white supremacist America is anathema to being at home for Black people. Indeed, to be Black is to be a stranger, something “strange,” “scary,” “dangerous,” an “outsider.” To be Black within white America belies what it means to dwell, to reside, to rest. In other words, one’s sense of racialized Black embodiment remains on guard, unsettled, hyperalert. Phenomenologically, there is a profound sense of alienation, where one’s racialized body is ostracized and shunned. On this score, I examine, within the mundane context of an elevator, how the dynamics of intersubjectivity and sociality are strained (or even placed under erasure) through the dynamics of the white gaze. The white gaze, among other things, functions to police the meaning of the Black body and attempts to de-subjectify Black embodiment. In this way, the only real perspective is white. Black bodies are deemed devoid of a perspective on the world as there is no subjectivity, no sense of agential meaning making. One might say that Black people, on this view, constitute an essence, a typified mode of being. Unlike the existentialist thesis where existence precedes essence, Black people are locked into an objecthood, a fungible and fixed essence. This racial and racist myth is what, for Schutz, would collapse the importance that he places on intersubjectivity and sociality. Indeed, within this paper, I delineate the threatening, necro-political dimensions of whiteness that I experienced after writing the well-known article “Dear White America.” That experience cemented, for me, and for many other readers, what it means to occupy the residence of whiteness, an abode that can take one’s life in the blink of an eye. The experience of the racialized stranger means walking a tightrope, a precarious situation where one flirts with death, where one’s body is deemed hypersexual, inferior, frightening, and monstrous. Based upon this construction, the white body is deemed the site of virtue, safety, deliverer, protector of all things white and pure. Think here of “the white man’s burden” or the idea of “white manifest destiny.” Stain, blemish, taint, and defilement are indelible markers of the stranger. And based upon the logics of racial purity, one must extinguish the “vermin,” the “criminals,” the “rapists.” While I don’t explore this within the paper, Schutz scholars will immediately recognize the genocidal implications of what would have been at stake for Schutz had he not escaped Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitic gaze and his Anschluss of Austria. My sense is that Schutz would have understood not just the horrors of white racism but would appreciate the necessity of theorizing the need to rethink home as existentially capacious and intersubjectively vibrant. I conclude this paper by thinking through the concept of “breakdown”, delineating its spatial, phenomenological, and subjectively embodied implications. Breakdown, as I use the term, upends forms of white racialized habituation, creating possible embodied psychic space for what I term un-suturing, which involves undoing the machinations of white safety in the face of alterity, where the stranger invokes wonder and self-critique.