Even when I win, I don’t

I’m a Latino philosopher on the job market for the nth time. I’ve had a few interviews, but no more than would be expected for a candidate of my caliber. Every time I talk about the job market with people, they say, “oh, but you’ll have such an advantage over other people because you’re Mexican.” But I’ve never noticed an advantage. What I *have* noticed is that whenever I get an interview, people say it is because I’m Latino. When I don’t get an interview, it has nothing to do with race. So all of my good outcomes are discounted because of my ethnicity, but none of my bad outcomes are. How can there be such an advantage if three-fifths of Ph.D. and M.A. programs in philosophy have NEITHER a Latino nor a black philosopher?

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How are you going to handle white students?

I was on the job market this past fall. At the end, there was a lengthy exit interview that occurred as the final step of a three-day, on-campus interview. The exit interview consisted of approximately six white males, one white female and myself—a person of color and a female. The following interchange took place:

White Female: “You realize, of course, that virtually everyone here at [the university] is white and you are not, right?
Me: “Uhm, yes, I guess….”
White Female: “So, our question to you is how are you going to handle that in the classroom? What strategies will you use to handle that situation?”

While I provided a list of everyday strategies for being a good teacher (giving everyone a fair hearing on all topics, etc.), I was struck by her complete lack of sensitivity to the fact that the real question should have been how would the DEPARTMENT support ME in my teaching the students at that institution. Obviously, this was not a question that had been contemplated by the department members. And just as obviously, this was not an institution where I (or anyone else of color) would be provided the kinds of support that faculty of color in philosophy currently need to succeed in the discipline.

It is important to understand that this lack of support and consideration persisted despite a sincere desire on the part of the faculty to hire a person of color. They just did not understand the relevant issues. Until this mindset changes, and until top quality diversity training becomes a regular part of, for example, new faculty orientations and/or REQUIRED faculty continuing education in philosophy, nothing will change. Faculty of color will continue to feel uncomfortable and unsupported in the discipline, despite recent efforts to dramatically increase the number of persons of color in philosophy through large-scale recruitment efforts.

Bias in the Hiring Boardroom

Our department was having a meeting to discuss the merits of a job candidate (who is a person of color). Many faculty members were questioning whether the candidate really knew anything about the things he mentioned in passing during his job talk. These things were details of the relevant literature. This job candidate was a tenured philosophy professor at a major university, and the details of the relevant literature are not particularly difficult to grasp. They are covered in advanced undergraduate classes.  I have never seen similar doubts raised for white tenured professors teaching at major universities. Nothing close to this. People just assume they know what they are talking about.  Sadly, this is not just an anecdote. There is plenty of empirical literature to back this up.

How Not to Interview a Philosopher of Color

As a junior faculty member, I was on a hiring committee with an AOS devoted to a major historical figure. This figure happens to have some strong views on race that can be interpreted as racist. There is an increasing number of scholars who wish to take up the role of race and racism in this the context of this historical philosopher’s work, especially since most contemporary philosophers fail to see any “real” problem with this figure’s racism, after all, he was  a product of his time (the fact that racism can be dismissed like this in our field is another entry all together).

We interviewed one applicant whose project focused on the racism implicit to the historical philosopher’s work. The interviewee happened to be a person of color. I was the only minority on the committee. I cannot say that the other members of the committee are outwardly racist or bigots in anyway ( we have those in our department and these individuals are not like that). Nonetheless, I was appalled, saddened and almost dumbfounded by what transpired in this particular interview:

The committee had already devised a script in terms of who asks what question, then a follow-up and so on. When it came to interviewing our minority candidate my colleagues’ demeanor, attitude and rigor (!) changed. The person who asked the “hard” question no longer asked it. The interviewer who was actively interested in everyone’s project was passive and patronizing. There were no follow-ups–none. This was not a serious candidate in their eyes. Worse, the fact that we interviewed a nonwhite candidate made the committee look good. When diversity can be manipulated in this way tough times abound for people of color.

What shocked me the most was the fact that I had to ask the tougher questions to this particular candidate and carry the interview. No one else was going to do and this was fine! In the silence that defined this applicant’s interview I witnessed the vulnerability and callousness of humanity. I would not let this person’s interview sour the way others had already decided that it would. I asked the same “hard” question that my colleague was already asking. Likewise, I asked the followup we rehearsed. It fell upon me to express interest in this project.  Here was this person who has worked for the past 6-10 years on a dissertation, course work and who knows what else to get to this point but was given a perfunctory interview. They never really had a chance.

Am I certain that applicant’s race was the deciding factor? No. However, the fact that I can’t dismiss race as a factor is points to my lack of white privilege. I’m forced to think in terms of race when instances like this continue to take place. While my colleagues may not have intended racism, although maybe they did,  the racism inhabits the space between us. Their actions are all I have to base my analysis of this instance.

My experience as a philosopher of color was one of shame, anger, frustration and disappointment.

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.