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.

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.

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.

”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.

Our Family Tree

Before I made my final decision about where to attend graduate school, the philosopher then in charge of recruitment at one university called to inform me that he had just recruited an African American woman, in case that was of interest to me. (I am an African American man.) I did eventually choose that department, but for a different reason.

The next year, at a bar with philosophy graduate students, I was introduced to a white woman from another department. She was delighted to learn that we had the same surname, and she proceeded to tell me a little about “our family history,” which, she said, she herself had learned from a famous American novelist, who also has the name, and whom she had recently met. She told me that before coming to the United States, “we” were Irish gentry, but originally British—and so on. There did not seem much point in explaining how most African Americans, myself included, came into our surnames.

The night before a job interview at the Eastern APA, one of the placement officers from my own department told me that I would be “a great diversity hire, if only we hired our own.”

People, This is Embarrassing

I wanted to note that reading one paragraph from an earlier post was spiritually rejuvenating. It made me feel less suffocated, and less alone. Thank you for publishing it.

 “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 am lucky to have a humane, deeply intelligent, no-bullshit advisor; without her I would have left the profession years ago, feeling like an utter failure. With her, I am more confident in thinking that it is the profession that is failing: it is unimaginative, narrow-minded, and arrogant. Its dominant culture is one that celebrates and rewards the very ways of thinking that I, naively, thought that philosophy is supposed to guard against. Should I choose to leave the profession now, it’ll feel like immigrating to a land of opportunity.

I won’t share particular anecdotes because the problems are systemic. It is comically absurd the level of ignorance that I have encountered about race and gender in the field. I don’t even mean ignorance about philosophy about race and gender (that is a whole separate and important issue), I mean simply the ways in which race and gender exist as salient properties in the lives of people who are not white, and not male. It’s not cute to deny the existence of these things because you hold some obscure metaphysical principle – yes, I realize how much explanatory power your account has. It’s not cute to insist that your favorite political theory can handle issues of race and gender because those properties are just as arbitrary and as morally insignificant as hair-color or the length of one’s toes – yup, I’m aware that your view doesn’t rely on positing any spooky properties!

People, this is embarrassing.

Finally: it’s just plain rotten to then place the epistemic burden on those whose entire lives are shaped by these categories to prove their existence or importance to you, or to react to the anger or disappointment of these people as though it is insane, or irrational. We’re already being erased by your project, and our voices are getting hoarse.

Reflections on Bias

I’m a young white female philosopher, recently graduated and currently enjoying a postdoc.  I dealt with what felt like a lot of gendered BS during grad school.  Often, things were so bad that I thought about quitting philosophy.  I posted some stories to What It’s Like and that helped somewhat.  Publishing, graduating, and getting a job helped even more.

I’m writing now because, despite my frequent experience as a target of bias, I know I’ve inflicted my own biases on others.  For example: one afternoon during grad school I noticed a very well-dressed black man wandering around the halls of my department.  Despite that it was on the day and near the time of our weekly seminar, I wondered who this person could possibly be.  I didn’t go up and introduce myself or ask if he needed help with anything.  I didn’t take the chance to have a one-on-one conversation with him about his work.  I just wondered what he could possibly be doing there.

Of course, he turned out to be our speaker that week—in fact, he was quite a well-known and prestigious philosopher, though not from my own sub-field.  When I walked into our seminar room and realized this, I was so ashamed.  Normally I would have guessed that a well-dressed stranger in our department on that day and at that time was our speaker.  But this time the thought did not even occur to me, because he was black.

I’m not sure I’ve ever had my own unconscious biases appear so starkly within my field of view before.  So I just wanted to say I’m sorry—for this incident, and the many others that I’m sure I’ve committed without even noticing.  I can’t believe I’ve done to others precisely what I’ve resented people for doing to me.  I’m so sorry.  And thanks very much for setting up this blog—I will read these stories and then I’ll think about my own beliefs and behaviors.  I’ll try and do better.

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.

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.