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.

So by “diversity” you mean pedophiles, right?

I work in a department where white males constitute almost 90% of the faculty. In response to the suggestion that perhaps the department should address this lack of diversity, a senior colleague replied with this:

“Before I am convinced that diversity is a common good, I will need to be informed what diversity is. Are Cubans diverse? Are East Indians? Are Chinese and Japanese Americans? Are Arabs and/or Muslims? What about Evangelical Protestants, Orthodox Jews, or Catholics? What about open pedophiles?”

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.

Performing Philosophers

I am a Latino philosopher, tenured at a major research university. My family has no academic heritage: I’m the first person in my extended family to graduate from college. I have struggled to develop the temperament to ask “good” questions at talks, because I was raised to listen to others and to treat “important people” with politeness and deference. I have always been embarrassed by the hostility of talks in academic philosophy, and in my first job was called out by a senior white male who said that I was too quiet in talks. I guess it made me look slow or stupid. My preference is to play down the performative aspect of question sessions and to save more probing questions for later when the spotlight is elsewhere. Yet I have learned to overcome myself and speak up, because my ambitions demanded it. Wanting the spotlight, self-promoting: these are clearly good things for ambitious philosophers in our present culture, and it seems to me that those come more easily to white philosophers (and in particular, to white male philosophers). Our current academic philosophical culture gives a considerable advantage to philosophers that have not had to fight against their heritage to perform like mainstream philosophers. I hope that we someday overcome this.

“Going Native”

I was wearing a black dashiki with yellow and red checkered designs down the middle. It was from Oaxaca. Young folks in Acapulco wear them. I have also heard these three quarter length arm shirts called guayabera’s by some folks in Acapulco. These shirts are not the guayabera short sleeve button up shirts with the collar as can be found in Puerto Rico. I was walking down the hall toward my office and a white ethnic male faculty member who was dressed in a suit and tie looked at me and said, “So you have gone native.”

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.

Circling the Wagons

I am a woman of color, full professor, so I don’t know if this had more to do with being a woman or not being white.

I was invited to give a paper at a conference.  The panel was made up of all white males, except for myself.  I gave the paper and it went very, very well.  The paper was very well attended and the audience was excited about my work.  Later on many graduate students, several from Ivy League programs, came to speak with me; they were very exited about my work.  The other men (Professors) on the panel were very uncomfortable with this, somehow drew these graduate students away from me and towards them, and made a circle from which I was completely excluded.  They were letting them know that it was definitely not ok to talk to the brown woman.  Later on I received an e-mail from one of the white men panel participants, which was sent out to everyone.  It noted just how wonderful everyone’s paper was, except mine.  It noted that mine was a disgrace.  

I was mortified, and since then I have not attended another conference.  No one came to my defense.  The person who put the conference together asked me if I had a response, that was all.  As I hate to send out mass e-mails and clutter people’s inboxes, I really did not want to do so, but I reluctantly sent out a defense that was as professional as possible, sticking only to the philosophical issues at hand.  I’d like to say that this was the only time something like this has happened at conferences, but unfortunately I cannot.  Bad things like this have happened before, but I am just getting older and more tired.  What is the point, if this is what to expect?  (The paper, by the way, was accepted for publication at the most prestigious journal in this area.)