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.

Qualified to Teach?

At the end of the semester I spoke with a white female student of mine from an upper-middle class suburb. She mentioned that she took a class at Harvard and was trying very hard to go there. She said that she did not believe I was qualified to teach and was not a reliable source of information because of my ethno-racial background and because I had not published any books.


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!

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.