On blindness

The NYT just posted a wide-ranging conversation between George Yancy and Seyla Benhabib in their The Stone blog

George Yancy.: We far too often fail to understand each other across racial divides. A “post-racial” discourse might even occlude the effort to do so. How do we create spaces for understanding the conditions of others, especially within the context of racial boundaries that divide us?

Seyla Benhabib: Let me begin with a personal memory: I first came to this country from Istanbul, Turkey, as a foreign scholarship student in 1970 to Brandeis University. The program that sponsored me, the Larry Wien International Program, had great outreach success in African countries and there were many African Wien students. Yet, when we sat in the student cafeteria, the African students would sit in the company of African-American students, and effectively we self-segregated in one of the most progressive institutions of its time in the country.

G.Y.: What was your response to this?

S.B.: I was almost offended by this. I came from a country that was divided along all sorts of ethnic and religious lines, but not the color line. Having been active in the student movement of ’68 and beyond, to me it was incomprehensible that at least those of us who shared similar political views could not be friends and colleagues. Brandeis, like much of North America at the time, was in the grips of forms of black separatism. Angela Davis had been a student of Herbert Marcuse at Brandeis, and I had come to study with Marcuse, not realizing that he had already left for University of California at San Diego! It was not until I attended Yale Graduate School and formed friendships with Lorenzo Simpson and Robert Gooding-Williams that I began to fathom something about depth and hurt of the color line in this country.

I share this anecdote with you because, as Iris Marion Young reminded us, to understand one another across racial and many other divides we have to begin by “greeting” and “storytelling.” One of the worst offenses of racism is that it blinds us to who the individual person is — the color of your skin becomes the mask which I see and often, behind which I do not want to see the real person. And as Du Bois, a student of Hegel’s, reminds us, the one who is in the dominated position is aware of the perspective of the master: She is conscious of herself as being seen by the other. It is this double-consciousness that we must learn to understand. We must learn to see each other — to use terms which I introduced in “Situating the Self” both as “the generalized” and “the concrete other.”

As humans, we are like one another, equally entitled to respect and dignity; but we are also different from one another because of our concrete psychological histories, abilities, racial and gender characteristics, etc. Ethics and politics are about negotiating this identity-in-difference across all divides. We live in a “post-racial” society only in the sense that we are all generalized others in the eyes of the law; but as we learn painfully, not in the eyes of those who administer the law; the bank clerk who decides upon a mortgage loan or even — to use Cornel West’s famous example — the New York taxi cab driver who refuses to pick up the black man. The history of discrimination, domination and power struggles among the concrete others trump the standpoint of the generalized other.

Relatedly: listen to Radiolab’s Update: New Normal? episode, including the story about human complexity — “Stu is Stu.