The Invisibility of Racial Hostility

This is a follow up to the previous post. White students can definitely be a problem in the classroom. And no department I know of does or will acknowledge this. Granted, acknowledging it’s an issue doesn’t make finding solutions easy. I don’t know how to solve this problem. But although acknowledging it is a start. If colleagues have never experienced this kind of unspoken racial hostility, which we have to deal with every day of our lives, then even otherwise supportive colleagues have a hard time taking such grievances seriously. For an example of this, see some of the post and discussion of “Me Studies” at Daily Nous.

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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.

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.

Intersectionalities

I am Hispanic and gay. At my institution, untenured faculty are required to submit an annual reappointment form, which summarizes one’s experience for the previous year. I filled out this important form. One question asks for a list of the professional associations to which one belongs. I listed the gay and lesbian society in my profession.

During the review process, one of the individuals with review authority called me into his office and locked the door. I was questioned about the nature of this gay and lesbian association. I replied that it was affiliated with the national association of my profession, and that one of its aims is to foster scholarship on gay and lesbian issues. I was told by this individual that “This isn’t an issue on this campus. There is only a student group, but nothing more.” I replied that tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism are the words one hears the most on this campus. I could hardly finish my sentence, as I was interrupted with the individual’s assertion that those words “don’t include the gay issue.” It was suggested that I erase the reference to my membership in the association. I refused. Further efforts to make me change my mind failed and the issue was not pursued.

My membership in the gay and lesbian group has been mentioned in my reappointment forms since the earliest days of my teaching career. Never in the past has this situation occurred. That it happened at ­­­_______, a multicultural institution, is a sad commentary. Tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism are ideas rooted in the dignity and worth of each person, and not dependent my political expediency. And yet I know that if instead of a gay group, I had mentioned a minority organization, I would have been pressured to mention it – in italics.

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.

Almost Blocked from Becoming a Philosopher

I am an African American male, and at my undergraduate university, every student who wished to major in philosophy had to interview with the undergraduate major adviser (a white male) before adding philosophy as a major.

During my interview, I made the mistake of saying that I wanted to study race from a philosophical viewpoint.  The adviser said that philosophy wasn’t for me because that’s not a topic that philosophy tackles.  Next, he recommended that I major in Africana studies, Asian studies, or the like instead.  I said that I had already taken courses in both Africana and Asian studies, and I did not like their methods for studying race.  I expressed that I preferred the method of analytic philosophy and I argued with him for at least 15 minutes about his claim that there was no such thing as philosophy of race.  My primary counterexample was the work of Anthony Appiah.  In response, he revised his earlier claim and instead said that the department just didn’t have any faculty who specialized in philosophy of race, and so philosophy still wasn’t for me.  He rejected my application for majoring in philosophy.

Afterwards, I went to the teacher who recommended that I major in philosophy (a white female).  I took a feminist philosophy course with her and I liked her inclusion of black feminism.  She was surprised by my rejection given my high grade in her course and my high grade in the other philosophy course I took (Ancient Philosophy).  She assured me that she would take care of the situation, and she did.  Together we filed a petition for me to major in philosophy, and the department, thankfully, accepted my petition.  I went on to graduate with honors in philosophy, earn an M.A. in philosophy, earn a Ph.D. in philosophy, and get a tenure-track job in philosophy, which I currently hold.