“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.