“Ofey” (Richard Feynman) on “the blacks”

Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988) was a famous theoretical physicist, Nobel Prize winner, and sexist. Feynman thought for himself and rebelled against social convention, tradition, and “The Man”. However, Feynman was also a white male professor, and his position with its associated privileges makes him “The Man” relative to those with fewer privileges.

In his amusing autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, chapter But Is It Art?, Feyman writes:

So I decided to sell my drawings. However, I didn’t want people to buy my drawings because the professor of physics isn’t supposed to be able to draw, isn’t that wonderful, so I made up a false name. My friend Dudley Wright suggested “Au Fait,” which means “It is done” in French. I spelled it O-f-e-y, which turned out to be a name the blacks used for “whitey.” But after all, I was whitey, so it was all right.

While Feynman recognizes that he is “whitey”—which suggests a greater sophistication than that of many white liberals today—his usage of the objectifying and homogenizing term “the blacks” reveals his racial insularity in the context of the United States. He received his Bachelor’s degree, PhD, and professorships before laws against racial segregation were passed in the 1960s. There is no doubt that Feynman was an exceptionally brilliant individual, but he was also a beneficiary of institutional racism and white privilege.

21 Responses to ““Ofey” (Richard Feynman) on “the blacks””

  1. korshi Says:

    weird… i had to do a double take when i saw this. ofey is one of my middle names. it’s ewe (from ghana) and means “first born boy”.

  2. Ralph Leighton Says:

    Feynman wasn’t white enough to benefit from the institutional racism of Columbia University; he was denied entry on account of the Jewish quota.

  3. Restructure! Says:

    Good point, Ralph Leighton.

  4. Mark Says:

    While we today may consider his remarks to be inappropriate today, it is the mistake of historians to view the past from the viewpoint of today. Unlike today, in the years when this book was being put together, it was not considered as inappropriate to use such terms (the book was released in 1985, put together from earlier writings and recordings). It’s like saying the ancient Egyptians were crazy for their reverence of the dead. In their time and society, it was not crazy at all – it was perfectly normal then even though we today may not approve.

  5. Restructure! Says:

    The point is that racial inequality issues are important even outside of the social sciences. The term “the blacks” is a reflection of his time, and highlights that Feynman was extremely privileged (as he was ‘whitey’).

    In any case, slavery was not considered inappropriate for a very long time. However, it was still wrong back then as it is wrong now.

  6. Stan Says:

    Oh. So he can call himself “the whitey”. That’s alright. But if he says “the blacks” all the hell breaks lose.
    Get a life “blacks”. Your double standarts and hypertrophed oversensivity to any reference to racial slur is so pathethic it makes me sick.

  7. Rose Says:

    While I think Stan is being over-the-top and unnecessarily rude, I do agree that “the blacks” isn’t a particularly terrible thing to say and certainly not racist. At worst it is a little bit “them and us” but then we do that for everything, gender, sexuality, and so on. And also, I do agree that it is more reflective of the times.

    The more we make a big deal out of things like this, the more the them and us ideology will persist. I do NOT condone genuinely derogatory terms. But something like this, in my humble opinion, somewhat trivial.

  8. Restructure! Says:

    Rose, yes, we do that for all gender, sexual, and racial minorities. That just means that you consider the othering of minorities “normal” even though it is a sign of inequality.

  9. Elton Says:

    Rose and Stan,

    I agree that some aspects of racism are rather trivial in comparison to others. However, they do contribute to the overall effects of social injustice. Your use of the phrases “oversensitivity” and “big deal” are typical clichés used by deniers of racism and are certainly not helpful to the discussion. I would like to turn the tables and ask you what you think actually IS racist and how you even define racism.

    On the subject of Feynman, I can’t judge him on his contributions to physics, but he does remind me of a certain type of professor who is undoubtedly brilliant, but lacks a certain level of awareness about the world due to their “ivory tower” privilege. They tend to think they’re so zany and interesting and go out of their way to get attention, but they’re just full of themselves. We call these people hipsters.

  10. Robert Wiblin Says:

    Is there some way he could have phrased this which would not annoy you? You seem to be saying it is necessarily harmful to refer to a racial group as doing something at all in general? How then can we describe statistically significant different in the behaviour or traits of different racial groups? Does he really need to hedge and say “it’s a term used to mean whitey, most often by blacks/African American”.

  11. Restructure! Says:

    My point is that Feynman succeeded partially because he had white privilege. He didn’t do it all on his own (whatever that means).

  12. Robert Wiblin Says:

    Oh OK, that’s sure to be true at that time no matter what he did.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    “au fait” means “by the way”, “it’s done” would be “c’est fait”!
    I think I just corrected Feynman :)

  14. Anonymous Says:

    First: Feynman was the son of a uniform salesman. He was not part of the elite “upper crust”.

    Second: He was JEWISH. It is foolish to assume a young, poor, Jewish kid never experienced racism.

    Third: The phrase you are objecting to is a product of language. Even within my short life the politically correct way to refer to people of other races has changed several times. To look back in history and criticize someone for not knowing what you will find unoffensive 70 years later is absurd.

  15. rob riley Says:

    Richard Feynman was a “famous… sexist”? So… he was famous for three things: 1. being a theoretical physicist, 2. being a Nobel Prize winner, and 3. being a “sexist”? What is your basis for that offhand statement? Did he once use the term, “the women”?

  16. Anonymous Says:

    A little late here and maybe I missed this comment above..just thought I’d mention that on page 321 of the same book you can find a reference to “whites”.
    There you go, another “objectifying” term.

  17. Restructure! Says:

    The point of contention is the “the” preceding an adjective-turned-noun.

  18. Anti-Status Quo Voice Says:

    While Feynman recognizes that he is “whitey”—which suggests a greater sophistication than that of many white liberals today—his usage of the objectifying and homogenizing term “the blacks” reveals his racial insularity in the context of the United States.

    ……….

    Feynman’s self-reflexive term “whitey” isn’t liberal or critically conscious at all. It is merely patronizing and condescending.

    1. It only feigns empathy and allegiance to the “the Blacks”, providing a false analogy of “shared” oppression to their particular historical struggles with oppression and disenfranchisement. Black and Jewish histories / social oppressions in AMERICA are similar but not the same; at the same time, Blacks have long history or particular cultural lies to Europe except through imperialism/colonialism.

    2. It masks and deflects Feynman’s White privilege, i.e. the benefits that accrued to him as an individual and his RELIGIOUS / European ETHNIC GROUP over a historical period through his family’s labour and class mobility. His family transcended their humble working class origins.

    3. It deflects the issue that while Jews were/are an oppressed group primarily in Europe up to the mid-20th century, that the were ALLOWED to emigrate to the US; Jews were not IMPORTS brought in as free-labour into North America; they were ALLOWED to work / gain economic and political power; they were ALLOWED over time to transcend their off-White ethnic identity and ALLOWED to assimilate into the Euro-American mainstream.

    4. The term “whitey” also obscures the special ability of Jews possess in crossing / walking in an out of their ethnic and national identity when they choose. JEWS are not VISIBLY MARKED / RACIALIZED by SALIENT SKIN COLOUR and non – Caucasoid features. One does not recognize a Jew at twenty paces…One does not recognize that a White person is also Jewish until they reveal that particular facet of their identity. ie. Are they wearing a piece of clothing/external symbol that identifies them as a group member? Do they possess some stereotypical blunt Semitic feature/swarthy colouring that could potentially distinguish them as something other than Anglo-Saxon? Do they have a stereotypical name like Weinberg, Perlberg, Goldman – Sax, etc? If an individual does not possess these signifiers of identity, then some Jews can easily “pass”, even “masquerade” for Anglo-Saxon and facilitate assimilation into dominant White mainstream. They can claim European / White identity and the benefits when it is convenient to do so. Asian and African peoples, as we have seen in numerous discussions, cannot easily claim Canadian or American cultural identity or cross national boundaries or appropriate European cultural practices.

    They cannot become “invisible” or “raceless” individuals.

    Feynman’s comment is unfortunate but not unsurprising, as it indeed emerges from a privileged perspective / blind spot of perception and denial.

    I’m sure that Feynman and other members of his ethnic religious group would be deeply offended and call for accountability though, if “the blacks” unconsciously appropriated the “K” word in identifying them or lapsed into anti-Semitic ideology like “all Jews are rich” wanting to “take over the world”, etc.

    I say all this, not to open shitty debates about which group is “more oppressed”, “who has suffered most”, blah, blah but in recognizing some of the geographical, political and historical differences/subtle distinctions of those social oppressions.

    Unfortunately, the relationship between Afro-Americans and Jews in North America remains a strained and uneasy one, fraught with mutual distrust and misunderstanding because sometimes they can fall into/assume White supremacist ideology in their social relationships with darker skinned people. At the same time, I recognize “the Blacks” can lapse into Anti- Semitism in moments of anger and rejection at oppression.

  19. Anti-Status Quo Voice Says:

    He received his Bachelor’s degree, PhD, and professorships before laws against racial segregation were passed in the 1960s. There is no doubt that Feynman was an exceptionally brilliant individual, but he was also a beneficiary of institutional racism and white privilege.

    ………………..

    Very significant point that glaring shows how White and class privilege operates and also the ways in which Feynman’s oppressed religious group benefited yet again from the legal, political, residential outcomes and gains of the Civil Rights Movement spearheaded by “the blacks”—- the majority of whom received the water-hoses, the firebombs, police brutality, and other acts of White supremacist violence for simply wanting the human right to dump in the same public toilets as White folks….

    In the Post Civil Rights Era, where it’s now illegal to openly exclude “the blacks” from public institutions/space, it’s also illegal to exclude Jews from the elite class and upper-echelon educational institutions/private spaces that were once closed to them by Anglo-Saxon Gentile peoples.

  20. Anti-Status Quo Voice Says:

    CORRECTION:

    at the same time, Blacks have long history or particular cultural lies to Europe except through imperialism/colonialism.

    ………….

    at the same time, Blacks have NO long history or particular cultural lies to Europe except through imperialism/ colonialism.

  21. fred Says:

    How typical for the usual suspects to ignore the slur “whitey” to focus on the word “the”. Its worth reading this blog for the humour alone! hehe


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