Referring to Historical Figures

As an Asian-American philosopher I have frequently experienced the following asymmetric attitude about discussing Asian philosophy in either an analytical or phenomenological context, that is, a context in which one brings up ideas from Asian philosophy in a discussion that is on a topic that is being discussed only from the perspective of analytical or phenomenological philosophy.

  • (a) As a person color, I bring up a point from Asian philosophy that is relevant to a debate in some field, such as metaphysics, epistemology, or philosophy of mind. I draw on the historical figure from Asian philosophy. I make the point analytical, in the sense of representing the idea as an argument for a position on the topic. But I also make it clear that the source of the idea comes from some specific school of, say, Buddhist philosophy. I do this in much the same way that one might bring up an idea from Aristotle in a contemporary discussion of perception that is not historical in nature.
  • (b) People seem to think that I am bringing it up because I am a person of color, and not because I think the idea is interesting and deserving of discussion. They appear to be thinking, “that person is making that comment only to draw attention to the issue of where an idea came from and who they are.”

This can be contrasted with the following, which I have observed:

  • (i) A person not-of-color makes a similar point — that is, makes reference to a philosopher from outside the analytical and phenomenological tradition in the context of debating a topic.
  • (ii) People do not think that the person is bringing it up for any reason other than that the point is important. They don’t think that the person is trying to show their inclusive thinking on the issue.

And this can be further contrasted against the following phenomenon:

  • (iii) A person not-of-color makes a historical point about a contemporary debate, such as in the philosophy of mind, by making reference to a historical figure from the Western tradition.
  • (iv) No one thinks that the reference to a historical figure from the Western tradition means anything other than the substantive point that it is.

In sum, I have experienced a certain kind of asymmetry in attitude or attention. It roughly goes like this: It isn’t okay as a person of color to bring up examples from outside the Western tradition when there is a discussion about, say, the nature of consciousness. But it is okay to do it if you are not a person of color, and it is furthermore okay for anyone to make reference to a Western historical character, such as Aristotle, in the context of a contemporary discussion.

I wonder if I am alone in feeling this asymmetry.