Jan 6, 2023
Gordon's Fear of Black
Consciousness is a
groundbreaking account of Black consciousness by a leading
In this original and penetrating work, Lewis R. Gordon, one of the
leading scholars of Black existentialism and anti-Blackness, takes
the reader on a journey through the historical development of
racialized Blackness, the problems this kind of consciousness
produces, and the many creative responses from Black and non-Black
communities in contemporary struggles for dignity and freedom.
Skillfully navigating a difficult and traumatic terrain, Gordon
cuts through the mist of white narcissism and the versions of
consciousness it perpetuates. He exposes the bad faith at the heart
of many discussions about race and racism not only in America but
across the globe, including those who think of themselves as "color
blind." As Gordon reveals, these lies offer many white people an
inherited sense of being extraordinary, a license to do as they
please. But for many if not most Blacks, to live an ordinary life
in a white-dominated society is an extraordinary achievement.
Informed by Gordon's life growing up in Jamaica and the Bronx, and
taking as a touchstone the pandemic and the uprisings against
police violence, Fear of Black
Consciousness is a groundbreaking work that positions
Black consciousness as a political commitment and creative
practice, richly layered through art, love, and revolutionary
“Lewis Gordon’s expansive philosophical engagement with the
current moment―its histories and globalities, its politics and
protests, its visual and sonic cultures―reminds us that the
ultimate aim of Black freedom quests is, indeed, universal
―Angela Y. Davis, Distinguished Professor Emerita, History of
Consciousness and Feminist Studies at University of California,
“Reading Fear of Black Consciousness had me nodding so
often and so vigorously, I got a mild case of whiplash. With
surgical precision, laser-sharp wit, and the eye of an artist,
Lewis R. Gordon doesn’t just dissect race, racism, and racial
thinking; he also offers a clarion call to embrace Black
consciousness, to take political responsibility for decolonizing
and transforming the world as it is.”
―Robin D. G. Kelley, author of Thelonious Monk: The Life and
Times of an American Original
“Lewis R. Gordon is a thinker whose reflections on race have
produced singular illuminations on our times. In Fear of Black
Consciousness, he refines our conceptual understanding of how
race consciousness is made and lived, and shows how reflection and
survival are intertwined for all those who suffer from antiblack
racism. Drawing on the history of philosophy and on a wide range of
colonial histories, African popular culture, aboriginal histories,
contemporary films, and stories, he shows the critical powers of
creativity in dismantling racism and the making of a world where
breath and love and existence become possible.”
―Judith Butler, author of The Force of Nonviolence
“This striking text offers the first systematic examination that
I’ve seen of the epistemic dimensions of the universal illness that
encompasses neoconservatism and neoliberalism. We learn the
differences between a first-level, naive black consciousness and a
revised and refined ‘Black consciousness,’ which critically
reflects on this world and is capable of radically transforming it.
You will want this book among your primary intellectual road
supplies for the future.”
―Hortense J. Spillers, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor of
English Emerita at Vanderbilt University
"In Fear of Black Consciousness, we are invited to think through
the deep racial contours of philosophical thought and notice how
black ways of being animate new modes of living together. As
atrocity, injury, white supremacy, and racial violence loom, Gordon
holds steady a Fanonian outlook, theorizing black consciousness as
the realization of possibility―that is, a sustained political
commitment that recalculates the stakes of freedom."
―Katherine McKittrick, author of Demonic Grounds and Dear
"Fear of Black Consciousness deserves to be carefully studied .
. . deeply engaging and captivating . . . [Lewis Gordon] is an ally
of the revolutionary struggle for human freedom."
―Joel Wendland-Liu, People's World
Lewis R. Gordon is an Afro-Jewish philosopher, political
thinker, educator, and musician. He is Professor and Head of the
Philosophy Department at UCONN-Storrs. He has received accolades
for his many influential books and articles, many of which have
been reprinted and translated around the world. He is Honorary
President of the Global Center for Advanced Studies and a former
president of the Caribbean Philosophical Association, for which he
now serves as chairperson of awards and global collaborations.
Gordon's previous works include Disciplinary Decadence,
Her Majesty's Other Children, and, with Jane Anna Gordon,
Of Divine Warning.
Welcome to PhilosophyPodcasts.org, where we interview leading
philosophers about their recent books. I'm August Baker. Today, I'm
interviewing Lewis Gordon, and we're speaking about his book, Fear
of Black Consciousness. I think some of the endorsements are
helpful. Hortense Spillers of Vanderbilt University, "This striking
text offers the first systematic examination that I've seen of the
epistemic dimensions of the universal illness that encompasses
neoconservatism and neoliberalism. We learn the differences between
a first-level, naive black consciousness and a revised and refined
'Black consciousness,' capital B, which critically reflects on this
world and is capable of radically transforming it."
Angela Y. Davis, University of California, Santa Cruz,
distinguished Professor Emerita, "Lewis Gordon's expansive
philosophical engagement with the current moment―its histories and
globalities, its politics and protests, its visual and sonic
cultures―reminds us that the ultimate aim of Black freedom quests
is, indeed, universal liberation." Lewis R. Gordon is an Afro-Jew
philosopher, political thinker, educator, and musician. He's the
head of the Philosophy Department at the University of Connecticut.
Welcome, Professor Gordon.
Thank you, August Baker. Thank you. It's a delight to be
Great. I think when we first look at this book or the title,
Fear of Black Consciousness, someone might think, "Well,
consciousness, how does consciousness have a color?" So perhaps you
could start off with the two types of Black consciousness and how
they come into being.
Sure. Well, to begin with, consciousness has no color. In
fact, if one were to articulate the classic, phenomenal, logical
discussion of consciousness, consciousness is not a thing at all.
Consciousness is actually a relationship. That's why consciousness
is directional, intentional. To put it simply all the way back from
Franz Brentano, consciousness is always consciousness of something.
If there's not something of which we're conscious, consciousness
disappears. So, when we say any consciousness, we're really talking
about relationships. So, when we say Black consciousness, brown
consciousness, white, yellow, whatever we want, it's about a
relationship to a reality in which those phenomena
So, if we come down to it, of course, since we have a limited
time to get straight to the point, the Black consciousness we're
talking about is a racialized Black consciousness and the history
of racialization. I don't need to spell out to the listeners the
reality that there were people who, in antiquity, no reason to call
themselves Black or any other color. They were just people living
in their own ethnic groups, their own understanding of themselves,
but historical forces of colonization, enslavement, et cetera, led
to a circumstance in which their people were designated as Black by
another group of people who in doing so designated themselves as
something else. A lot of us presume that it's always about White,
but no, there are other people who designated people as
For instance, in the Arab enslavement of African peoples or if
we think about in South Asia, what happens among the Dalits in the
society. So, we start with that one. So, if we're talking about the
oppressed or dominated or exploited, et cetera, that is a reality
that everybody knows. Everybody knows that there's a group of
people who are enslaved, colonized, dominated, et cetera, who are
called Black. We're all conscious of it. So, on the one hand,
that's a Black consciousness that everybody has. We're conscious of
Good point. Yeah.
Now, we come to the people themselves who go through that,
because as I mentioned before, they had no reason to think of
themselves that way until those historical circumstances emerge.
Not only that, even today when people are born, they're not born
thinking of themselves that way.
All they think about is, "Damn, it's cold out here," and all
kinds of other things. They get socialized into a world in which
one day studies have shown really around the age between three and
Isn't that early, really?
Yeah. Well, in American society. In other societies, it's much
later. In some societies, it doesn't happen at all, because their
framework is different. But when it does happen, there's a point at
which one said, "Oh, they're talking about me. What is this?" They
try to figure it out. So, that's an initial lowercase b, black
consciousness. It's almost invariably negative, but there's a
certain point where one has a child and an adolescent or just
people generally begin to notice that how they live among
themselves is very differently than what people think they are.
This is not just about Blacks. It's about any group, whether you're
Italian or if you're in religious categories.
Whether you're Jewish or Christian, every Christian, every
Jew, every Muslim, every Hindu, we could go down the list, every
Daoist, every Buddhist knows what people think about what they are
and what they know they are among one another. So, that creates a
form of tension, because on the one hand, you're hearing all these
horrible things about what being a Black person is, but on the
other hand, you're looking at your mother, your father, your
brother, your sister, the people you love, your best friends. They
don't match those descriptions. So, at this point now,
unfortunately, some people buy into false beliefs.
So, even though those contradictions are right around them,
some people begin to project the society's negative attitudes onto
themselves and the people who are like them and they begin to live
a lie. I call that bad faith. Bad faith is when we make ourselves
believe things that are not only false, but we make ourselves
believe things we don't really believe because the evidence
contradicts them. So, we move into investments in pleasing
falsehoods versus displeasing truths. One may wonder, "Why and how
in the world could a negative conception of the self be a pleasing
falsehood?" Well, the short answer is the pleasing falsehood could
be you can't do anything about it. It can release you from the
responsibility of action to change the world, to take on the
However, if you now face the falsehood as a falsehood, now you
begin to deal with a different question. This is a question that
many have dealt with all the way back to W. E. B. Du Bois and even
before him, but others such as Anténor Firminas. There are many
others. This has been written about by Richard Wright, Anna Julia
Cooper, Frantz Fanon, many people. It comes down to this. The
negative imposition onto the people attempts to lie to the people
that they in themselves, in their supposed nature are problematic.
They are problems.
There is a point, however, in which like the example I gave of
looking at your relatives, your parents, looking at the beauty of
the music around you, the foods you love, looking at even your
body, right? There's a world that tell Black people were ugly. I
was watching a New Year's Eve entire program on White people
obsessed with trying to in effect have body types that look like
So how can you be ugly and how could this all be true when the
people are telling you you're despicable, where they're trying to
imitate you, your music, your looks and everything? So at that
point, you say, "Wait a minute, maybe this is a lie." Then you
begin to step back and you shift. You say, "Maybe I'm not a
problem. Maybe the problem is a society that makes me into a
problem." This is the point at which you realize, "Oh, wait a
minute. I'm a human being like every other human being who faces
problems. It's just that another group of human beings are lying to
themselves that they don't face those problems."
You take any human being and put them into situations of
poverty, double standards of justice, lack of access to healthcare,
no matter how much they may qualify, being denied employment,
things like that. Of course, you're going to have certain
responses. When we look at other groups, for instance, because you
may notice in the book, I don't only talk about Black people, but I
see this, as Angela Davis observed, as illuminating of certain
When you look at the way people in Ireland were treated on the
British colonialism, when you look at the way different groups of
people, not only in South Asia but in the Pacific, were treated, if
you look at the treatment of the Welch at certain point, you can go
through varieties of issues around Eastern Europeans versus Western
Europeans. You could go through within Asia, the difference between
Han and Manchus and all the way through. I mean, there's so many
examples. If you go through conflicts with Palestinians, and I
don't like to say Palestinian and Jews because there are Jewish
There are people who forget that, but the main point is at a
certain point, you begin to say, "Wait a minute. There are normal
ways people respond under adverse conditions." Perhaps we should
shift. In fact, not perhaps. We should actually shift and ask the
question of, "What does it mean to be a human being trying to live
an ordinary life in a sick society, an unfair and unjust society?"
The short answer is that society imposes extraordinary conditions
on what it means to live an ordinary life for one set of people
instead of the ordinary conditions for all people.
I'm really interested in intellectual history. You mentioned
some names, and you also mentioned bad faith. Just as background, I
could be wrong about this, you're continuing a line from Frantz
Fanon. Do you think of yourself as working following him?
Well, actually, it's interesting. An anniversary edition of
one of my early books is coming out. Mabogo More, a philosopher in
South Africa wrote the foreword. He alludes to another book I wrote
in which I talk about how we talk about intellectuals. This
connects to the previous question, because you see that second
answer I gave about understanding what it is to be a human being in
a society in which we face problems. Now, you can now see your
potential as a human being, and that is the uppercase Black
consciousness to be an agent of history. I call that potentiated
double consciousness. It's not just me. Jane Anna Gordon actually
coined that term. What it means is you can see the potential for
Well, if we come to intellectual history, it's a very
interesting thing. Part of what happens in the history of the study
of Black intellectuals is there's a presupposition that Black
intellectuals are not generative of new ideas. So, often, when we
read Black intellectuals, we want to find which intellectuals are
being applied to Black intellectuals. This is different from the
question you just asked because it's interesting that you asked me
about Frantz Fanon. He was another Black intellectual. The racism
usually comes in when there's a presupposition that it must have
been from a White intellectual.
I see. Yeah.
So there are people who would ask if Fanon is Sartrean or
Hegelian or Marxist. Where it's interesting when Hegel who engages
Kant, develop his ideas, I have not met anybody who called Hegel
Kantian. You see what I'm saying?
So true. That's such a good point. Yes.
The thing is that intellectuals, our ideas are never
willy-nilly. The way I talked about consciousness, we're always
related to other intellectuals.
So in terms of me, I've written a lot on Frantz Fanon
inspiring. I learned a lot from his thought. There are things I
agree with, I disagree with, but like me, Frantz Fanon is located
as part of the African diasporic existential tradition. Those ideas
take concepts such as consciousness that we began with very
seriously, but we also take existence very seriously.
The thing about existence is to exist is to stand out, to
exist is to face possibility. So, you could see why that potential
question is so important. All existential thought thinks about
freedom. Now, in my writing, because I also studied classics and I
studied ancient thought and I studied a variety of other things as
well, yes, I'm inspired by Fanon, by Sark, by Husserl, by Schutz,
by Anténor Firminas, the Haitian philosopher I talked about, but
also so many all the way to Zera Yacob in Ethiopia, all the way
through to people from antiquity such as an Ani, such as Ontef,
which is ancient African philosopher from 4,000 years
I don't have to agree with the people I find inspiring, but I
love the ideas, the critical question that's raised about thought
in Plato's symposium and so many other things. But Sartre and
people like Simone de Beauvoir, the centrality of freedom in their
thought or people like Ali Shariati, the Iranian or Persian
thinker. Again, the centrality of freedom is there. Or Sri
Aurobindo, the East Indian philosopher who again culminates the
thought in freedom, and he's also an anti-colonialist. Or if I
think about Keiji Nishitani, the Japanese philosopher again, who
does something rather remarkable.
He's so committed to the question of freedom that Nishitani's
criticism of what's called Western philosophy is that it covers
reality. You could see how you could see the point about bad faith,
right? He says, "The problem is ontology covers reality. It's so
obsessed with being that it forgets reality." So the answer is yes.
Yes, all those people. For me, they're ancestors. They're human
beings. They don't have to be perfect, but they are illuminating.
Yes, I learn a lot from all of them.
Well, one of the things I really liked about your book reading
it was there's a lot of philosophy. There's also you weave the
abstract and the particular, and some of the particular examples
are from pop culture. Well, they're from your own life, from pop
culture. One of the great things was I was introduced to a couple
of movies that I hadn't watched before that I watched, because you
mentioned them in the book. One of them is this great film called
Get Out, which I had never seen before, which I did. Which is
tremendous. There were several others, but I think it seems like
the same thing is that philosophy can cover over. So, you also need
to be able to think about these actual examples.
Yes. In fact, my position on philosophy is that any philosophy
that ignores reality is not worth its weight at all. I mean, I'm
technically a professional philosopher, but I don't fetishize that.
For me, ideas are ideas. They don't have to come from a person with
a PhD philosophy. In fact, many of the greatest philosophers we
have read did not have PhDs in philosophy. Edmund Husserl was
mathematics. Bertrand Russell was mathematics and economics.
Vichtenstein was in engineering, and he was also a nurse by the
way. William James was a psychiatrist as we know. Jasper is a
psychiatrist, phenomena psychiatrist. David Hume was a lawyer. It's
an interesting pattern here, isn't it?
Fanon was a physician also, correct?
Yeah. He was a psychiatrist and he was a forensic and a
clinical psychiatrist. Nietzsche was a philologist, person who
studied literature. Anna Julia Cooper, she did literature in other
areas, including philosophy. The thing about philosophy to remember
is that philosophy has to be so radically critical that it makes us
face something very scary. You see, the thing is reality is both
beautiful and frightening. The beautiful part about reality is that
if we face it, we realize we are alive. The frightening part about
We realize we're alive.
... is that we realize and that it ultimately doesn't give a
damn about us. That reality preceded us, will succeed us.
There's so many who say, "You know what? We got to not take
ourselves too seriously."
Well, no, there's a playfulness here that's great. I'd like to
actually talk about Get Out, because I think you did a lot with it.
I thought the idea of first of all, the sunken place. I guess why
don't we assume people watched it or they can watch it or they'll
pick up on it, but as racism, as putting people in the sunken
place, that made so much sense to me.
Yeah, it was brilliant, isn't it?
Yeah. I should say that's a Jordan Peele 2017, if I didn't say
that before, right?
Yeah. It created a new genre, because before, things were just
put in neat boxes. Comedy, horror, drama, et cetera. But you notice
the films I talk about defy being contained in a single
Yes, definitely. It's certainly also true for Black Panther,
Yeah. A lot of people oversimplify what these films are about,
but this is connected to something in that's part of the history of
Black thought and Africana thought. If you look at many Africana
philosophers or Black thinkers, many do not start with a
disciplinary identity, because what they have discovered is that
often those identities close off our access to the truth and
reality. In fact, I call it disciplinary decadence when I talk
about disciplines, but what they tend to do is they realize that
there's not one shoe size that fits all. If we're trying to
understand the world around us, we need to communicate with the
many facets and creative ways people attempt to understand the
world we live in.
So, it's a similar ethic, so to speak, at the level of
citation and at the level of exploring the many voices through
which we examine this. Today, for instance, when many of us talk
about classic literature and we study great text, we don't realize
in their times, they were popular. I mean, I remembered when I was
learning ancient Greek and just reading through the writings of
Aeschylus and Sophocles and Euripides, I mean, the community got
together and watched them the way we go to movie theaters and watch
Get Out and Sorry To Bother You. These are all films I talk
They were even more rowdy than we sit in hushed silence, but
my understanding is people who went to see Shakespeare were talking
and eating and throwing thing.
And farting, but in the content, the point is all art, all
theory, all ideas are ultimately connected to that point we talked
about earlier, which is, okay, fine, reality has no reason to give
a damn about us, but we have reasons to give a damn about us. In
what we produce to communicate our humanity with one another, those
projects, whether they're poetry, films, theater, philosophical
works, scientific works all the way through to everyday journalism,
even down to everything from tweets to Facebook posts, all of those
things really matter. So, what I focus on is to look at what
insight they offer and build on them. There's also a very simple
pedagogical reason I do this. The reality is-
They're really fun and interesting, and they grab your
That, and also more people have seen these or listened to
these radio programs. Here's the point. You may notice a pattern
with every film I analyze in this book. If I came in with the
obnoxious, "Okay, I'm a highly trained scholar, I'm going to begin
and just talk about certain classic text and people," then I'm
would be in my action given a message that only certain kinds of
readers will matter versus others. However, if I start with what
the larger number of people engage and talk about it and then offer
what from my learning I can bring to it, they may say, "I didn't
realize that." Maybe I should read that book. Just like for
instance, you hadn't seen that film. In reading this book, you
started from a book and you went to a film.
There are others who may open the book, because they've seen
the film, and they learn about other books. They may not have seen
the connections between important elements of Get Out and The
Wizard of Oz. They may not have seen other elements even more
deeply as I go into Ancient African myths about how one can deal
with Mayette, the Goddess that makes judgment over justice, good
and evil, et cetera. Or when people see the movie Get Out, another
movie I talk about in the film, many of them may not realize its
connection to Pinocchio. Many people don't realize Pinocchio's
connection to Apuleius, The Golden Ass, which is an ancient novel
from ancient Rome.
Many of them may not know its relationship to an ancient Greek
text on onus. The word onus is just ancient Greek for donkey or ass
and the whole connection to Beasts of Burden, the fact that ancient
people of Kemet, which we know today as Egypt, they're the ones who
domesticated the donkey. So, at the level of learning how to read
culture, to know that Beasts of Burden like donkeys have a deep
rooted connection in our history when we deal with concerns of
Yeah. I think you said Get Out was about created adventures at
Pinocchio. Did you mean Sorry to Bother You?
No, no. Sorry to Bother You. Oh, I'm sorry about that. Yeah.
Sometimes as we're going, we lose some sight, but yeah, Sorry to
Bother You is connected to Pinocchio. Pinocchio is connected to
Apuleius' The Golden Ass and it goes all the way back. What they
have in common that is striking is that, Sorry To Bother You is
dealing about Beasts of Burden, about enslavement. Pinocchio is a
story about that, even though many people know it through the
popular Disney film. Apuleius is about that as well. Get Out is on
many layers. Get Out is not only in terms of its classical myths
connected through to certain ancient Egyptian myths, but also, it's
a profound philosophical inquiry on questions of embodiment and
Right. I thought it was also great for thinking about just
illustrating some of the concepts. So, for example, Black
consciousness, well, the way I saw it was there were a couple of
times where Chris approached someone that he thought was Black or
that had Black skin, the groundskeeper, Walter, and also Logan King
in the body of Andre Hayworth. He approaches them like with a
smile. Okay, I'm going to meet this Black guy in the midst of all
these White people. I would be like, "Hey, it's good to see you
here. Hey, man." The person turns around and doesn't respond. I
think that was, to me, what Black consciousness was. I don't know
if you would agree with that, but it was that whatever was missing
Sure. In fact, the film is a great critique of certain
misguided arguments. Earlier, I talked about, for instance, this
lie that's constantly thrown on Black people that were uglier. Many
White people are actually almost bullied to lie to themselves that
they find Black people ugly, but that is actually false. That's
Oh, boy, is it ever. Yeah. You have this great term,
Afro-somataphilia, desire for Black bodies, which was so true. Fear
of Black Consciousness along with Afro-somataphilia.
Yeah. We see it all over the place.
Yes. It's just so beautifully depicted in that film.
Beautifully done. The film also raises some rather
interesting... I mean, it's an amazing film at the level of
metaphor. It's also wonderfully psychoanalytical and all of these
things Jordan Peele consciously did. Even to his choice of colors,
you notice in my analysis, I bring these things out.
A lot of the things you brought out in your analysis, I hadn't
recognized and I would watch over. Yeah. The beginning scenes were
fascinating. I thought, one thing that I could not find was that
when you talk about Black consciousness, one of the ways you talk
about it is that it's a fear of a Black consciousness looking back
at you. As a White person, it's the fear of looking and seeing that
Black consciousness look through you, which I've experienced
But I know exactly what you're talking about. Just racist for
some reason. Then there's not words. It's just a look, and it's
like, "Oh, it goes right through me and it haunts me." It's not
really a problem, but I was trying to think if that was depicted
really anywhere in art, but certainly, it isn't in that film
because all of the White people in that film are just oblivious to
it. That was my sense.
Well, that film was raising a rather interesting question,
which is the desire to have a White consciousness looking back at
you in a Black body. That film brought that out very well. I talk
about how many examples of this emerging popular culture. It was
there in the jazz singer with the idea of Blackface. The thing is
all those performances are caricatured Blackness. They're not the
actual liberty. So, that brings out the desire of a society to live
a lie, to want to have Black people be what Black people actually
are not, but what a racist society would prefer Black people. But
one of the things I also point out in the book and this is
something some critics miss, this is not a book that is claiming at
all that every White person is that way.
The book is claiming that a racist society bullies everybody
to live lies. I think the person who says this rather elegantly was
Franz Fanon. He wrote a book called Black Skin, White Masks, and a
lot of people misunderstood the title. They thought the entire book
is about Black people wearing White masks, but what the book is
about is about two kinds of lies. The first one is what we have
been talking about, which is the lie to make Black people believe
that our skin is our fate, that we're sealed in our skin.
We're closed, we have no possibility. That is a lie. That's
the lie of Black skin, but there is another lie. There's the lie
called the white mask. The question is, who wears the white mask?
What Fanon actually says is the people who wear the white mask are
mostly White people. White people wear a mask of having to lie to
themselves, that they're superior to all other people. Or if you
think about it, the way White people are among White people is
often different than if a Black person walks in the room.
The moment the Black person walks in the room, those same
White people now put on the white mask, because they have to
pretend they're somehow special and superior, when in truth,
they're just people.
So I think even if the Black person doesn't enter the room,
but even if you're looking at a Black person in the distance, if
they're in the whole scenario.
Yeah. It's like, "Okay, time to put on the white mask." So
they're both lies. So, if we come back to this film, this film is
rather great in many ways, but it's also provocative in others
because it does leave open a very strange question, because
basically, how can we put the coagulants as they're called? It's
pointed out in the film that they go back to ancient times that
these are people where, in their case, it is not about racism. In
their case, if some other group of people became in fashion, they
would occupy them.
It says that at one point, Black bodies are in fashion or
In fashion. This is a very important part, because there's
another danger. You may notice, I bring this up in the book. I put
it this way. People think their Blacks are the Blacks. Their Jews
are the Jews. They think their condition constitutes the condition.
That's the point at which we take ourselves so seriously. We fail
to disarm a lie imposed upon us. So, that film does a beautiful job
of trying to point out that if we develop a better understanding of
our responsibility for the world we live in, then we can change
those conditions. But if we anthologized them, then there's nowhere
we can go.
There will just simply be Blackness sealed into itself forever
and ever. Whiteness sealed into itself forever and ever, but that's
not only not true, but it fails to deal with our existential
condition. Our existential condition is about our responsibility
for our actions and possibility. There's so many, but of course,
you may notice not only in that film, but already brought up Sorry
to Bother You, but you notice later on I talk about The City of
God, the Brazilian film, right?
Yeah, I watched that too.
That's an amazing film, isn't it?
Yes, it is. Another one that I saw because I was reading the
Great, but there's this point sometimes where we're so
mannequin and so Black and White, so overly judgmental that we fail
to think about how people make decisions in certain situation. That
film, I won't give it away. I would love for the lot of listeners
to go and look at the films I talk about in this book, but that
connection between the chicken that took flight and Rocket, the
little boy, even their names, it's just so powerful. If you look at
lots of stories, even when I talk about the Cohen Brothers films,
all Cohen Brothers films are philosophical films. They're just so
beautifully done, right? The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, I mean,
that's an anthology, right?
The barking dog and all of these themes, the whole point of a
lot of these is the moment we're in film, in art, we're already in
a realm of creativity and possibility, which means all art
ultimately ask us to take something serious enough to understand
its meaning, but not so seriously that we forget our responsibility
to build new forms of meaning.
I think one of the things we talk about is various ways of
evading responsibility, right?
Yeah. Bad faith.
Well, bad faith. I was thinking of all the different varieties
of them. I wrote a long list, but one of them was human nature.
It's human nature. One, that's my ancestors, not me.
You may notice the way I talk about bad faith too. It defies
the reductive singular definition. I talk about it
phenomenologically as modes of living, that there are ways we
attempt to live in bad faith.
Right. No, I did come away with a much broader understanding
of bad faith after this book. Here's another one of the ways of
evading responsibility. I have a quote for you here. This is from
LeRoi Jones, Amiri Baraka.
Yeah, Amiri Baraka. Yeah.
He says, "From the fair-haired Black boy of Off Broadway, as
Langston Hughes called me with his tongue stuck way up in his
cheek, I got to be a full up racist. So, strange that the victims,
once they began to scream and shout at their oppressors, can now be
termed as the oppressors. We accuse whites of racism. So, presto
change-o, Black racism is the real problem. Hate Whitey dramas were
what I and my colleagues on West 130th were writing." That would be
Oh, you may notice also, there's some critics who ironically,
in their criticism manifests the criticism I'm making, which is
there's a section where I talk about White supremacy as a form of
Absolutely. I wanted to talk about that.
It's very funny because there's a large lecture class I teach
and this has several hundred students. It was interesting, a bunch
of them read this book. It's interesting that all of them, all the
White students said, "That's absolutely accurate."
Yeah, no, absolutely. Right. I said that many times in this
Yeah. I mean, that white mask is that narcissistic
But the narcissistic disorder, I usually give the example is
if you bring a child into the world and tell the child it's
superior to other children and then that tells that child, it's
always to get everything it wants, you know what you're going to
raise. There's a whole history of throwing that onto White people,
people who are designated white to the point where at any moment,
they don't get what they want. They define themselves as
No, I understand.
So this means there isn't even room for the people they
victimize even to be recognized as having been victimized. We see
this today. It's funny we are seeing it in the contemporary
everything from the whole White genocide discourse, which is
bizarrely defined as simply in some cases, White people in
interracial relationships, to all the way through to people who are
upset that when they vote, their votes don't function as the
equivalent of 10 say votes against one Black vote. So, this
narcissistic disorder is something profoundly unhealthy that is
part of that white mask, but there's something else that I want to
bring up that is argued in the book, but I could make really clear
in this conversation. I actually take the position that human
reality is narcissistic.
I make a distinction between good narcissism and bad
narcissism. A lot of people would be shocked by this, but the
reason human reality is narcissistic, and it's not bad, is it
connected to what we were seeing earlier about art and reality. If
you think about what it is to be a human being, it's to spend every
day looking at and interacting with things created by fellow human
beings or actual other human beings. In other words, our mirrors
are our fellow humanity. If you took that away from us, we would go
insane and die. There are people who romanticize isolation, the
hermit being in the wilderness. That's not a human existence. Even
when we look at gardens and trees and what we call beaches, they're
human affected gardens, beaches, and so forth. So, human beings
live in human worlds. That is normal.
What we learn from fellow human beings is an extension of that
world that produces meaning. Narcissistic disorder is when we move
from the outward reach of meaning with fellow human beings and try
to contain it and lock it into our individual self at the expense
of other human beings. In other words, the person with narcissistic
disorder has no room for others. You see? This is what racism does.
Racism blocks others from having the right to live their freedom
and to appear in the world with everyone else. It's the use of
power to disempower other people's capacity to live as human
All right. Yeah. I hadn't really made the connection with
narcissism, but I remember the discussion about... I think you had
this exercise of what if there were no bad faith.
We wouldn't be human beings.
Yeah. The irony of bad faith is that it's a necessary
possibility of our freedom. Really to be free is also to have the
option of trying to avoid being free.
I'm not sure how this fits, but this Kohut, he's a
psychoanalyst. I don't heard of it.
Yeah, I know who he is.
Narcissism is good. In his sense, it's vibrant. You need some,
there's a healthy amount. I also thought that your example of
walking across campus, I'll leave it to the readers, but such a
great example of this sense of, "Oh, my gosh, I see you. You have
Black skin. This is something I wasn't expecting. I need to
complain." During the COVID, I was just not listening to things. I
don't know if other people had made this point, but I thought it
was fascinating to think of the people who are protesting against
the rules. It's like this must be a hoax, because I don't have face
limitations. This thing that's coming in is evil and wrong. Because
I as a person am completely immune to anything like this, so it
must be a hoax that's being perpetuated on me.
Yeah. To treat the self like a God.
Right. I would also say, I think that some of that, the white
"Oh, well, now you're being a Black racist," and getting really
upset. I think of Jonathan Lear. He talks about this anxiety
defense. Part of the reason of showing all this anxiety, it's
conscious or it has at least purpose of it has the effect of
getting people to stop saying that.
Indeed. But one of the things, of course, it's also in a very
mundane and familiar example. You tell your child, "I'm going out.
You eat what you'd like, but don't eat the cookies out of the
cookie jar." You come home. The child's hand is in the cookie jar,
crumbs on the lips. You say, "Didn't I tell you not to eat the
cookie jar?" Now the response is, "You scared me."
That's good. I like that.
Well, in a way, those efforts are structurally similar, right?
Deflect from the reality of wrongdoing by saying to identify the
wrongdoing is a wrongdoing.
Right. The time is flying. Here's where I was confused about
the narcissism. It seems like when you point to narcissism, that's
to say ultimately that if racism is white narcissism or white
narcissism creates White consciousness and Black consciousness,
underneath that is a sense that what is really driving this is an
insecurity on the part of White people. To me, they don't want to
face this, because they have, for some psychological reason, low
self-esteem or something as though they are in fact or we are in
fact the injured people. I understand that the argument would be
that actually by facing truth, you're going to be also more
But I think the alternative would be, say Freud, is to say
it's not underlying Freud. Man is wolf to man. It's not that the
racism is from this underlying low self-esteem or need to maintain
one's grandiosity. It would be simpler to say no, even if the same
person were to face this, they would still want to keep it the way
it is, because it's more of just aggression, not underlying
Well, there's several things. The first thing is one of the
things I argue throughout the book and throughout my work actually,
is that we should avoid models of human science that look for a
single element about a human phenomenon. You may notice the way I
talk about the emergence of anti-Black racism, and I talk about it
as distinct from White supremacy. You can get rid of White
supremacy and still have anti-Black racism. You can get rid of
anti-Black racism and White supremacy and still have other forms of
racism. So, racism is connected to a variety of commitments that
meet in what we call a racist society. So, for instance, I told the
story of how The Odyssey functions in this.
The Odyssey is a commitment to the idea of the purity and
power and absoluteness of for God, which would make all forms of
evil external to that God. Now, although that's a metaphysical
notion, when human beings adopt that, what they try to do is to
imagine they're not in relationships with anything else, because to
be in relationship with anything else would render one impure. So,
that first element is already there in the history of what created
the concept of the reza, which eventually became race, which in the
Iberian Peninsula, in the conflict between Christianity and Islam.
But that by itself is insufficient, because even though that's
there, we have to remember that society did not exist in a
It also had a history of certain attitudes toward women that
not everywhere people think of gender in the same way. But the
societies that inherited a certain way of looking around gender in
which women were undeveloped to men had a certain way of imagining
the self as complete, fully developed if one were a man. So, you
have this gendered element, and then you have this theological
element. The theological element then moves into a theo-naturalism,
which is the notion that there are people who are unnatural to God
and to nature and to reality. For them, within the confines of
Liberia, those people were called Jews and Moores, so you could see
it, right? Moores were African Muslims. So, you have Afro Muslims,
you have Jews, and a lot of them were Afro-Jews as well.
But again, so you have all that. They have the other element
of war. War requires creating enemies. You need to know who's in
and who's outside. People think about Columbus as a scientific
expedition, but it wasn't. No, it was war.
I thought it was moneymaking, but yeah, war, right?
Yeah. It was war. It was basically to find a way to get rid of
Muslim control of the Mediterranean. All wars also have economic
element syndrome, right?
Because the Muslim control of the Mediterranean put the
northern areas into a nearly 800-year economic depression. I mean,
look at what we went through back in 2007 or 2008. Could you
imagine 800 years? I mean, when you go from indoor toilets and
Roman engineering to throwing the pisspot out the window to try to
find a way just to get some grain. So, with all of those factors,
as I'm telling this story, lot of people want to have a single
But then something happens. Other factors are the history of
diseases. So, suddenly, if you have a theology that says you're in
and God is on your side and you end up in Bahamas and suddenly the
indigenous people are dying like crazy and you're fighting them and
you just keep winning, you develop a sense of superiority. At
first, we have to remember those initial people from Europe, well,
we call it Europe now. Europe is just West Asia. I mean, it's a
term that was created from the British Isles to refer to the
mainland, but a lot of people forget those ships were multiracial.
There weren't properly White people. There were Africans, and there
were people who were just different backgrounds.
You pointed out some paintings where that's shown.
Yeah. They were Christians basically. We already know this,
just everyday psychology, but everyday level, some people can be
very cool, but when they start getting really famous and rich, they
change. If people have any idea of the level of wealth that
suddenly was hitting these people to the point where their humanity
became subordinated to commodification, to profit, et cetera,
something then also was added another ingredient. That is
capitalism, but that ingredient of capitalism that people don't
understand and I talk about it in the book, it's capitalism as The
Odyssey. You notice today we don't talk about markets. We talk
about the market like it's a God, which means that anything that
contradicts the market's got to go. It's got to fall.
Yeah. That's the root of all problems, is some imperfection
with the market.
That logic, by the way, also feeds into a certain brand of
socialism, because what it does is that brand is, again, to have a
monopoly over markets. A lot of people don't realize this, that the
opposite of capitalism isn't socialism. There's something more
complex at work, because capitalism, in order to control people,
the logic of it, you have to get rid of the humanity in people.
People have to become commodities, things. We call it individuals,
but no human being is actually an individual. We're actually
individuals. We're actually in relationship to other things and
We're human resources.
So when you put all those elements together, now you have a
whole logic in which you have to convince yourself that their
people who are not really people. They're people who are
instruments for certain needs, for profits, for all kinds of other
things. This also reminds us that many other people under those
conditions, it goes both ways. The argument where I said, if we
make people into the problems, we face to understand how people act
when they face problems. Well, you notice in the book, I'm careful
to point out that the goal here is not to write out the humanity of
the people who became what we call White people. It's to understand
the conditions that lead to them lying to themselves, that they are
foretold, they are ordained to be the rulers of all reality and all
of the people.
That is the lie, but other people could be seduced by that
lie. We're seeing it happening in India right now with Hindus
against Muslims, Dravidian populations, non-Hindus. That logic is
at work. So, the book is to get, at least the reader, to understand
the grammar, the actions, the practices at work and the humanity of
people when they're in those situations. That we can change those,
because as you know, we are short of time. But you may notice that
I get into a detail, but a different understanding of what
political reality is, right? That's not the old coercive way, the
distinction between politics and governing, and why political
action has uncertainty, contingency, and possibility in
Political actions go all the way back to humanity
understanding that the world we create is also a world that infused
with power, but you notice that in this book, power is not a bad
thing. Power is the ability to make things happen. That's why
humanity is still here, and it's through having access to the
conditions of doing so. However, the abuse of power is the use of
power to block other people from having the capacity to flourish
and make things happen.
So, the fight against racism of all kinds is a fight to
transform the options. These are the political conditions that
would enable people to make meaningful choices to live their lives,
right? Oppression is to limit the options by which people can live
meaningful lives. So, liberation goals is to increase the options
by which people could live meaningful lives.
There's also a powerful discussion of commitment, which I
thought was very helpful, which it goes back to this idea of the
world not really caring that we're here.
Right. A lot of people want to have the outcomes before the
performance, but you notice I give nobody guarantees.
No, exactly. Yes. I like that.
We have to have the existential commitment to the political
actions necessary for things greater than ourselves. A lot of
humanity is understood that from antiquity to the present. It's
right there in the view that even if you won't enter the promised
land, the promised land is worth fighting for.
Yes. Some very powerful themes. Lewis R. Gordon, the book is
Fear of Black Consciousness. Thank you so much for talking to me
today. I really appreciate it.
Thank you so much for inviting me, and yes, I enjoy our
conversation very much. I'm so glad that you enjoyed the book.