Spanish-looking People in the Back

I began a PhD program in philosophy a few years ago. When I was in the process of applying to graduate school, I was lucky enough to have several offers. A faculty from the program I am now attending called me one day to pitch me a case for the program and tried to highlight some of the benefits that I would get from attending the program.

This man’s “pitch” included two main selling points, neither of which had anything to do either with the quality of the program, the research or funding opportunities available to grad students or my “fit” into the department’s intellectual culture. No reference to teaching opportunities or mentoring programs. No mention of courses, placement record or degree requirements.

First, he very proudly told me that there is indeed one Mexican restaurant (I am Latino) “just down the street from our school where you can eat.” You know, just in case I was worried about starving to death in the absence of burritos and chilles rellenos. He went off, politely of course, about how good the food was and about how he knew it is really “authentic” because he could always see “Spanish-looking people in the back.”

Second, this full professor told me that the region is not as bad and racist as I might imagine. The reason? Because “we even have Telemundo on the TV.” I learned that this man once knew a family from “South America I think, maybe central America” that loved to watch telenovelas, which is how he knew about Telemundo.

I ultimately took the offer for reasons having little to do with burritos or telenovelas. But, still, this first impression put me a little on edge about the program.

How the Property of Being a Football Player Emerges from the Properties of Being Male, Brown, and on a College Campus

I attend a private university on the West coast. I am majoring in philosophy.  I don’t look like a philosopher being that I am not white.  One day, while sitting in the department hallway, a philosophy professor walks past me and begins to stare.  Believing that he was impressed with the four books I was carrying, I quickly went over in my mind what smart thing I would say if questioned.  However to my surprise (or not) he asked if I was a football player.

I would have preferred that he kept it pushing.

Contempt Is Working Better

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.

Qualified to Teach?

At the end of the semester I spoke with a white female student of mine from an upper-middle class suburb. She mentioned that she took a class at Harvard and was trying very hard to go there. She said that she did not believe I was qualified to teach and was not a reliable source of information because of my ethno-racial background and because I had not published any books.

”You All Look Alike”

One day, while I was in grad school, an undergrad who is in the same racial minority group as me, came up to me and said—-oh you must be so and so! I said, how did you know? She said that the department secretaries are constantly calling her by my name. This is despite the nearly 10-year age difference and the fact that we don’t look a thing alike. Worse, for me, this particular undergraduate dressed quite provocatively. (Nothing against her, again, she’s 10 years younger!) This would explain the occasional secretary comment on my “better” clothing choice on any particular day.

The Angry Minority Student

I’m a late year graduate student in a mid-ranked department. By far the most distressing experience as a young philosopher of color is not ever feeling comfortable calling out fellow students or professors on racist or classist comments for fear of being labeled the “angry minority student”. I’ve heard grad students and prominent philosophers say the following to either myself or to other students-

  • “That’s so ghetto.”
  • “What language do your parents speak? Is it one of those ching chang chong languages?” -Amazingly said by a prominent philosopher of language!
  • “How old are you? You must be 15!” Said to a female Asian student.
  • “Have you heard of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy?” -Said by a professor, assuming I’m incompetent.
  • “Do you know what Gmail is?” -Same professor, assuming I’m incompetent.
  • “Don’t move to that area, it’s dangerous.” -Referring to an area with a large minority population.

It’s suffocating to be in an environment where you feel powerless to assert your true feelings, beliefs and experiences out of fear of alienating too many people. I only hope that after tenure I won’t have to care so much about being “nice” “polite” and “respectable” to have the slightest possibility of securing employment in the profession.

Performing Philosophers

I am a Latino philosopher, tenured at a major research university. My family has no academic heritage: I’m the first person in my extended family to graduate from college. I have struggled to develop the temperament to ask “good” questions at talks, because I was raised to listen to others and to treat “important people” with politeness and deference. I have always been embarrassed by the hostility of talks in academic philosophy, and in my first job was called out by a senior white male who said that I was too quiet in talks. I guess it made me look slow or stupid. My preference is to play down the performative aspect of question sessions and to save more probing questions for later when the spotlight is elsewhere. Yet I have learned to overcome myself and speak up, because my ambitions demanded it. Wanting the spotlight, self-promoting: these are clearly good things for ambitious philosophers in our present culture, and it seems to me that those come more easily to white philosophers (and in particular, to white male philosophers). Our current academic philosophical culture gives a considerable advantage to philosophers that have not had to fight against their heritage to perform like mainstream philosophers. I hope that we someday overcome this.

“Going Native”

I was wearing a black dashiki with yellow and red checkered designs down the middle. It was from Oaxaca. Young folks in Acapulco wear them. I have also heard these three quarter length arm shirts called guayabera’s by some folks in Acapulco. These shirts are not the guayabera short sleeve button up shirts with the collar as can be found in Puerto Rico. I was walking down the hall toward my office and a white ethnic male faculty member who was dressed in a suit and tie looked at me and said, “So you have gone native.”