As a result, I have nothing negative to say about philosophy

I don’t know if I am white or “of color.” I was born in South America, am fairly light-skinned, don’t think of race or ethnicity very much at all, and have never felt any sense of discrimination in the field. I am tenured and went smoothly enough through the PhD, I suppose. At least it was as smooth as it seemed to be for most of us going through the program.

The worst it got for me was being called a spic as a kid, but that kind of stuff rolled off my back after a while. It doesn’t hurt me now to think about it and I can’t say that it ever did hurt me much. I suppose I just toughened up pretty quickly. That was a benefit of growing up Hispanic in L.A. In the early 80s, I would say: you’d encounter various anti-Hispanic sentiments here and there, of course. Maybe that inured me.

As a result, or perhaps for other reasons, I have nothing negative to say about how philosophy has treated me. I tend to think of it as nothing but me engaged with a book or an idea, so I don’t really care about social slights to begin with. If they happen I tend to be clueless and fail to notice them, and I’m sure they undoubtedly happen to others who are deeply affected by them. I can’t say that those experiences are wrong, but I don’t want others to try to convince me that my experience has been wrong. I just have a real hard time relating to most of these stories.

Yesterday I was reading something by Kirchheimer, one of the “minor” critical theorists associated with the Frankfurt School. It was fun. What else matters, really? If I socialized much and I cared about social relations then I might grow concerned with issues of race. But I don’t, so I probably won’t. I’ll just hit the books and enjoy the ideas. Isn’t that why one becomes a philosopher, whether brown or white?

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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.

Circling the Wagons

I am a woman of color, full professor, so I don’t know if this had more to do with being a woman or not being white.

I was invited to give a paper at a conference.  The panel was made up of all white males, except for myself.  I gave the paper and it went very, very well.  The paper was very well attended and the audience was excited about my work.  Later on many graduate students, several from Ivy League programs, came to speak with me; they were very exited about my work.  The other men (Professors) on the panel were very uncomfortable with this, somehow drew these graduate students away from me and towards them, and made a circle from which I was completely excluded.  They were letting them know that it was definitely not ok to talk to the brown woman.  Later on I received an e-mail from one of the white men panel participants, which was sent out to everyone.  It noted just how wonderful everyone’s paper was, except mine.  It noted that mine was a disgrace.  

I was mortified, and since then I have not attended another conference.  No one came to my defense.  The person who put the conference together asked me if I had a response, that was all.  As I hate to send out mass e-mails and clutter people’s inboxes, I really did not want to do so, but I reluctantly sent out a defense that was as professional as possible, sticking only to the philosophical issues at hand.  I’d like to say that this was the only time something like this has happened at conferences, but unfortunately I cannot.  Bad things like this have happened before, but I am just getting older and more tired.  What is the point, if this is what to expect?  (The paper, by the way, was accepted for publication at the most prestigious journal in this area.)

What IS it like being a person of color in philosophy?

I have a PhD in philosophy and another terminal degree from an elite university. These credentials have been the foundation of a personally satisfying and objectively good life.  I have an endowed chair and am a tenured full professor. My extremely successful professional career has included teaching philosophy (but mostly other subjects) in major research universities; high level government service; non-profit and professional board leadership positions; editorial board positions and several prestigious awards.  I have written several books and published many, many articles and book chapters. For several years I frequently appeared in television and wrote for newspapers and magazines.  I am quoted in major newspapers at least several times a year. I am invited to give keynote addresses all over the country and world. My parents were uneducated and poor; my children will have trust funds.

Despite my success, it’s been a struggle. Students initially rejected me as a teacher; they literally got in my face and challenged my right to teach my classes and my chosen subject matter. My first employer tried to get rid of me so the school could hire a white male some people in the philosophy department preferred.  I was discouraged from writing about race and gender.

Several of my closest friends are academic philosophers, yet I find the culture of academic philosophy off-putting.  Philosophy is not as imaginative, dynamic, timely, publicly engaged, worldly and inclusive as it could or should be.  Other disciplines have left philosophy in the dust.  I prefer being around historians, lawyers, artists, sociologists, nanoscientists—almost any other group.  Among philosophers I feel especially self-conscious.  I cannot be myself.  For example, I attended an analytic philosophy symposium in a major philosophy department a few weeks ago.  The audience was 90% male.  98% of the audience was white.   Most of the white women seemed extremely smart but guarded and intellectually artificial. (Did they care about what they were talking about?)  Some of the older men used inappropriate examples. (Really? Did he say that?)  I felt out of place and decided to skip the event dinner.

I was challenged by sexism and sexual harassment as a graduate student; it saddens me that these things still go on in philosophy. It’s downright creepy.   Only recently have I felt that the invisibility of blacks, Hispanics and Native Americans in the field is being appropriately addressed.  I have not felt that the men of color in philosophy are especially welcoming of intellectual engagement with the scholarship of the women of color in philosophy.  In my experience, white women and women of color in philosophy have made better colleagues.

Because my experience in philosophy has been one of sex-objectification and marginalization, I feel a little sad when very bright students of color tell me they want to pursue PhDs and teaching careers in Philosophy.  I believe they almost always have better options inside and outside of the academy.  Without exception, I am proud of them and outwardly supportive;  but I experience the ambivalence parents must feel when their sons and daughters tell them they want to join the military: please don’t get killed.