I’ve Never

I have never encountered racial and ethnic insensitivity in my graduate program. . .

. . . except when a professor talked about how Asian students are not fit for philosophy.
. . . except when students have asked me (more than once) to please tell them where I am from, because they “just cannot figure it out.”
. . . except when a student joked in the middle of class about me not having immigration papers.
. . . except when I had faculty member in a private meeting bluntly say that if I want to get a job I needed to specialize in Latin American philosophy. I do nothing of the sort. I work within M&E.

I love philosophy, but sometimes these little things are really, really annoying.


I am of East Asian descent. My department chair has hinted that I should teach the Eastern Philosophy class, even though I have no background in the area either personally or professionally. He mentions to me that he’s looking for someone to teach the course on the heels of stating that it is best for a woman to teach feminist philosophy. The hint is clear. Obviously optics are more important than qualifications!

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.

The Model Minority

I am Asian-American and an immigrant. While I was in graduate school, a few colleagues and I were discussing race and class issues. I made a remark about what it is like to be a minority and one of my colleagues said, “You aren’t really a minority. You are like a white person in yellow skin.” After getting my first academic job, I talked to the chair of my department regarding whether I constituted a minority hire. He said Asians are not a minority. I did a quick survey of my University (a large state school) identifying  4 tenured and tenure-track faculty members in the humanities and mathematics (out of a pool of over a hundred). Still, the fact that there were few Asians among tenured and tenure-track faculty members did not convince him. Indeed, the chair looked at me and said, “But, Asians are so successful.” In a wave of a hand, he dismissed all the racism I experienced and all the social injustices that many Asians endure.

Philosopher or Person of Color?

I was at a talk about experimental philosophy and thought experiments, and how intuitions about certain thought experiments might vary across cultures. The speaker was a well known white male philosopher. He talked about “philosophers’ intuitions” and contrasted them with the intuitions of “students at a good research university, mostly of Asian descent.” I had graduated from such a university relatively recently and am of Asian descent. I asked in the question period which intuition I was supposed to have had, because I wasn’t sure whether I counted as a philosopher or an Asian student and apparently these were different. The response was vague.

What’s It Like to be One Asian-American Philosopher

When I was a graduate student and went to a campus job interview at a major philosophy department in the U.S. I was introduced to international students from China.  One of the first things they said to me was, “Oh, you’re an ABC.”  “American Born Chinese.”  It was not exactly a friendly comment.

Being the recipient of the attitude, “You’re not really one of us” was nothing new.  It came implicitly or explicitly from fellow white students of European descent from elementary school onward. I was subjected to garden-variety acts of racism, and heard from my elders about much worse, including lynching.  The experience of my family in California is why I was not born there but in a Midwestern state where for elder members of my family I imagine it was something of a relief to be treated as an exotic oddity (to this day, I remember the constant stares of passers-by) rather than as an inscrutable threat.

I feel fortunate though.  I’ve had friends and teachers and family who were supportive and encouraging and helped me to produce work that I’m proud of.  I’ve achieved a reasonable status in the profession, a status I hadn’t dreamt of achieving when I first thought about an academic career.

Perhaps the most difficult part of being an Asian American philosopher comes from a feeling of lack of fit with my Chinese cultural heritage and the culture of academic philosophy.  When I began as a philosophy student, it was very difficult to speak up in class.  I felt that I did not know enough to make worthwhile contributions.  My Chinese respect for authority made me want to defer to those who must know more than me.  The sense of myself that my parents instilled in me—that I was nothing special and had to work hard to make something of myself—is something I came to greatly value, but when I was learning to do philosophy it had in me an inhibiting effect.  During the flow of class discussion, I was always second-guessing what I was thinking of saying and often ended up saying nothing.  Yet so many students around me apparently found it easy to comment and criticize or support the arguments we were studying.  I envied their self-assurance.  I see many of my Asian American and Asian students with the same internal struggle: not really getting why others are so eager to talk, and how they do it so easily; not approving of it but also envying their ability to do it.

When I was my students’ age, I wanted to catch up.  I would stoke myself up, and drawing from the American side of my heritage, could get aggressive and critical.  I learned to be pretty good at that, but I didn’t like myself that way: tearing down other people’s work and wondering what the point of it all was. In recent years, I’ve reached a place where I feel more comfortable, able to use my critical and analytic abilities but in a more constructive manner.  I try to make my classes a more inviting and comfortable place for discussion in that spirit.

Though I began as a more or less conventionally trained analytic philosopher in ethical theory who also did some Chinese philosophy on the side, these two fields have increasingly merged for me.  What I am drawn to in Chinese philosophy is its closeness to lived experience.  When I do it, I feel that I can connect much more directly to what laypeople outside philosophy are concerned with.  The very values I find in that philosophy, very much focused on connection and relationship, have helped me to find a way to do philosophy in general that feels right for me.  At the same time, I have not left the analytic perspective behind but applied it to thinking about what Chinese philosophy has to say about central subjects of ethical theory.

I regret that our discipline is one of the most conservative of any of the academic disciplines.  It still shows depressing narrowness and incuriosity about other philosophical traditions or even other philosophical fields within the same tradition.  Going to the APA meetings is like going to islands of interest where there is virtually no traveling between the islands.  By contrast, I now look back at that early feeling of being marginal to every group around me and see it not only as a source of pain but of creative hybridity and the desire to include and to reconcile.  That’s what being an Asian American philosopher has meant to me.

Spitting Image

I am an Asian-American philosopher. While I was in graduate school, I was regularly spat upon – I kid you not – by homeless people and told to go back to my own country. The juxtaposition of having to wipe spit from my face and hair as I entered a graduate seminar to learn about the mind-body problem was unreal. I am glad that my white peers did not have to undergo this experience on their way to becoming philosophers.