In my first year as a graduate student, I was in a seminar that was discussing Heidegger’s “Origin of The Work of Art.” We were trying to make sense of the Earth/World distinction. My take on it was influenced by a model of natural selection that takes seriously the unexpected side-effects of technology, whether artistic or otherwise. As if out of nowhere, my comments were taken to be some kind of reference to Africa and the world-making power of African masks.
I can’t say that I was shocked. I had, after all, encountered this kind of thing before. I simply hadn’t expected it in this context. In a place where you take your interlocutors seriously, it’s harder to laugh off those kinds of silly misinterpretations as a consequence of a kind of honest, but well-meaning, naiveté.
Apparently my skin had contributed crucial content to the meaning of my words that, in a certain sense, was already spoken in advance. This came to be a fairly common experience for me, and I came to understand that my words would be systematically misinterpreted by my professors and often by my peers as well. It had an odd silencing effect that began as a kind of fear and eventually became a kind of contempt.
I guess that’s how being a person of color in philosophy has felt for me so far.
The contempt is working better for me than the fear ever did.