Open racism in philosophy

Last week, when the profession briefly focused its online attention on racism in philosophy, there were quite a few expressions of scepticism about the negative experiences black philosophers were reporting.  Then some white philosophers started speaking up, off the blogs, saying “hey, nobody should be surprised, given the racist things that some leading white philosophers openly say”.  They hesitated, however, to say this on the blogs.  Well, I’m here to say it on this blog: in addition to the fact, often discussed here, that we probably all harbour unconscious racism, there ARE leading philosophers who don’t hesitate to openly express racist views.*  I have been present when this happened.  (To my great shame, I was a timid and terrified student and had no idea what to do or say.)  We can’t fix a problem if we don’t talk about it.

We also can’t fix it if we don’t talk about what to do.  A good start would be for everyone to think a bit about what to do if they encounter such a situation: it’s hard to know what to do, but it’s important to do *something*.  I urge you, then, to visit this site about bystander training.

*I’m not saying that this is widespread, and I don’t think that it is (though surely unconscious racism is, just because we’re humans living in racist societies).  Most, though definitely not all, of the white philosophers in these discussions, were shocked to hear of open racism in the profession.

30 thoughts on “Open racism in philosophy

  1. What leading philosphers don’t hesitate to openly express racist views and did so with you present? If they don’t hesitate to do this and do so “openly” it’s hard to see how there could be a problem in naming them.

    I did not understand why in the earlier discussions of sexual harassment those who witnessed egregious acts of harassment and knew that others could back up their accounts by virtue of having witnessed the same acts declined to name those who had openly engaged in misconduct. Will this discussion start off in the same way? It seems it will. If professionally powerful and secure leaders in our field won’t openly stand against those who blatantly express racist views who will?

  2. They don’t hesitate to do this when there are no people of colour in the room, no university administrators, and they know it’s only the word of a student against theirs. It seems to me likely that they would sue if it appeared in print on the internet. FP is not at all equipped to deal with a lawsuit.

    It *may* be that naming is the right thing to do. But, given practical exigencies, I’ve yet to be convinced that it is. And there’s a lot we can do without naming, so let’s do that.

  3. OK, don’t say who it was. But could you say what the comment was? Just curious.

  4. So, I somehow missed the profession’s brief spate of online attention to this (do I thank or curse the fates?), but during my time on an admissions committee at a top-tier grad program (as a grad student), a late professor (well-regarded) noted, as I and some others were urging admission of a student of color, that while it was a great idea to admit the *really good ones* (like X, and Y), he didn’t agree with admitting these other ones who were unprepared … regardless of their recommendations, test scores, and undergrad records. There were groans at the table, but nobody called him out on this or asked him to explain what he meant.

    This would have been 1996, I think … and yeah, I don’t put it past his family or even the program to retaliate if they found out I was naming names.

    I don’t hang around with too many mainstream philosophers these days, but I like to think I’d call them on it now … who knows?

  5. Anon, I’m not sure it matters, for the purposes here, what the specifics of the comment were. And Jenny and others may be reluctant to give specifics, because racist comments — even those made by someone else that you’re just reporting — have the potential to be incredibly hurtful. The important point is simply that there are people in our profession who make explicitly racist comments. Step one is admitting you have a problem.

    Personally, I’ve heard explicit racism from several established philosophers. I’ve even attended a talk where the examples were racist. (And for all you skeptics out there, these comments weren’t the kind of thing that you’d only call “racist” if you’re an overly bleeding hearted softie who’s offended by everything. They were just racist. And obviously so.)

  6. Are we only interested in “the racist things that some leading white philosophers openly say” or also the racist things that some non-white philosophers say? Or do non-white philosophers never say racist things?

  7. I’m glad you posted the link to the Bystander Training again. I’ve used the resources at this site when I’ve taught about racism and homophobia. Another useful tool, which works well with the resources at Bystander Training site, is the youtube video “How to Tell People They are Racist.”

  8. Anonymous 1:24,

    This thread has been opened in the context of a profession-wide discussion on the low numbers of nonwhite people in philosophy. Therefore, the overt racism of white people is the topic of discussion, as the original post makes clear.

    A call for a discussion about what X does is not a statement that ~X never does anything related.

  9. Shelley, did you mean this video:

    It’s titled, “How to Tell People They Sound Racist”. I think this is a great video, and very helpful for navigating uncomfortable conversations. I’m not sure if it’s the one you meant though, because the aim of that video is definitely not on how to tell someone that they *are* a racist, and in fact the author of the video argues that telling someone this (even when it’s true) is usually not a good idea….

  10. Yes, it’s the video I meant and you’re right about the distinction between “being” and “doing” that the guy in the video makes. I actually use this video to illustrate the difference in two articles students read, one is an argument about racism which refers to people’s intentions and motivations, and the other is an argument about racism according to which we should attend to their actions and linguistic practices (which is aligned with what the guy in the video is saying).

    I’ve also used another video by this guy entitled “An Old Person’s Guide To No Homo”. I’m not entirely comfortable with the ageism suggested by the title of this video, though the guy in the video includes himself in the group “old people” so he apparently means the term to refer to just about anyone over the age of 25. I also don’t think the message of this video is as compelling as the argument made in the “How to Tell People They Sound Racist” video he made. An anecdote about this vid however: once when I finished showing the video “How to Tell …” the title of the “No Homo” video appeared on the screen and students, convinced that this video used this epithet uncritically and colloquially urged me to let them watch it too. So, I did, and as they listened to its message which is anti-homophobic, they went silent, and many of them seemed to realize that they had been engaging in just the sort of behaviour that the video aims to subvert.

  11. There are interesting questions about the relations between ignorance, false beliefs and racism. We might talk about that, but let me mention beliefs I’ve heard expressed openly that could count as racism, though from another perspective, they might sound like a more simple ignorance. These beliefs say that we shouldn’t try to hire a black into the department because they get these huge salaries now with all these wealthy universities bidding for them.

    There are two versions of this that I’ve heard. One says that there’s no hope, so we aren’t even trying. The other says that it is wrong to get into these bidding wars that separate phlosophical talent from market forces.

    I’ve heard the second forcefullly held by philosophers. On their beliefs, it is wrong to try to diversify.

    One interesting thing has in my experience happened with the first, we don’t stand a chance of hiring version. Both times it happened was with administrators, so this part is not about philosophy. I’d have the following dialogue:

    Them: We don’t stand a chance because the top universities are bidding high.
    Me: quoting Nelson’s statistics:** in fact, that isn’t really true. For example, over the last decade the top fifty departments in chemistry produced 90 black PhDs. Exactly one was hired by a top fifty dept.
    Them: O, so they really aren’t any good.

    **I’ll say a bit about Nelson’s statistics in a separate comment.

    Added: I can testify that I know people who think that diversifying is wrong, but who also think they are neither racist nor sexist. And in fact I’ve heard this opinion enough that it might be fairly widely spread in philosophy. I’m wondering how one can hold all these beliefs in one head. Presumably some false beliefs are in the pack, but they might be beliefs for which one is culpable.

    The current market conditions are so bad that recent beliefs about diversity might be more understandable, but I suspect not by much.


    Donna Nelson at the University of Oklahoma has devoted an enormous amount of effort to get statistics on hiring and race in the sciences and social sciences. I haven’t looked at the recent one except for psychology, but it is really shocking. 3.1% of the faculty of the top 50 psychology departments are black professors. I’d expect the statistics for the other fields to mostly be as bad, but I could be wrong.

    This page seems to be NSF’s opening page to her work:

  13. Hi,

    I’ve been following this discussion with interest, mainly because I want to know what people think can be done. I’ve heard one very eminent philosopher make racist remarks on more than one or two or three occasions about more than one or two or three people. In each of these cases the recipients of these remarks were students who were not present. In each of these cases the remarks were not what some people might call ‘mildly’ racist, whatever that’s supposed to mean. In each of these cases they were obnoxiously racist. In each of these cases, there were other graduate students around and most of them just laughed obsequiously. In each of these cases, there were other very senior professors around too. Not one of them said anything. Why ? I don’t know. Perhaps because one of the professors present was an old friend of the professor in question and the other just doesn’t like conflict. What did I do ? I said nothing. Why ? Partially because I was stunned, partially because I knew my opinion would make no difference, but mainly because I had good reason to think that that if I did say something I would be ridiculed. What a spineless coward I felt.

    I find it odd that a number of people responding to the stories about racism (and sexism) are so skeptical and have the ‘Why don’t you name names?’ reaction. They seem to think that the recipients of racist and sexist behavior have never considered doing this. That’s rather patronizing. A more appropriate question is ‘What has stopped you naming names ?’ And the answer in many cases I suspect is because the people in question feel intimidated and they don’t feel that they can name names in an environment where they have good reason to think that they wouldn’t be supported. That tells you a lot about their environment.

    Coda. Some of this professor’s students are in the habit of apeing his behavior, so the effects of his behavior don’t stop with his own remarks. They’re perpetuated through the remarks of his students who seem to think imitating him is cool or the mark of a good philosopher or an interesting character or something. Someday some of these people will be teaching. I would not like to be one of their students.

  14. I have noticed in several discussions on this site what I think is a confusion involved in calling a person a “philosopher” because that person is a paid professional teacher of philosophy. It goes so far as to assume that a person who quits trying to be a paid philosophy teacher is leaving philosophy and will no longer be a philosopher. I think that being a philosopher is a way of life, characterized by a love of wisdom and a seeking out of wisdom. Historically the term used for paid professional teachers of philosophy is not “philosopher” but “Sophist”.

    I would not expect a philosopher to be a racist, sexist or to demean any sort of human being or other living creature. “Sophists” however tend to reflect the values of the society they are in and need to conform to them as a condition for their employment. I am not surprised to learn that many of them are nasty, arrogant, intolerant amoral rascals. Several of the ones I knew in graduate school fit that description. It makes me feel better to think of them as “philosophy teachers” and not philosophers, and that I can still be a philosopher on my own without their approval.

    “There are nowadays professors of philosophy, but not philosophers. Yet it is admirable to profess because it was once admirable to live. To be a philosopher is not merely to have subtle thoughts, nor even to found a school, but so to love wisdom as to live according to its dictates, a life of simplicity, independence, magnanimity, and trust. It is to solve some of the problems of life, not only theoretically, but practically.” -Thoreau

  15. Oy vey!! There is a breed of folks called “professional philosophers.”

    Can I call myself a political scientist because I understand Obama’s health care policies?
    Can i call myself an economist because i can balance a checkbook?
    Can i call myself a mathematician because i can do long division?
    Can i call myself a chef because i can impress my friends with my culinary skills? (Don’t try this in Paris!)
    Can i call myself a lawyer because I can represent myself in small claims court?
    Can i call myself an historian because i know every detail of WWII?

    For my money, the people who sign your paycheck and/or what you’ve published are strong indicators of who is a “professional philosopher.” However, if you just want to use the language, I suppose you can. Perhaps i should start calling myself an economist to baffle partygoers.

    The acceptance rate of the Journal of the History of Philosophy hovers at around 5%. If you can get a piece into print there, you are a philosopher.

    It’s sad that ad hoc musing about what it means to be a professional philosopher never includes understanding languages, movements, theories, and intense study more generally. However, these things are all but assumed when the discussion turns to economics, anthropology, mathematics, political science, the law, and history.

  16. I think it is important not to let the discussion get too side-tracked by this issue of who is and isn’t ‘a philosopher’. An important issue, but perhaps one that we can discuss elsewhere.

    The focus here is on ‘philosophers’ in the sense of ‘people who are paid to do philosophy (usually, but not always,) in philosophy departments’. This is because the aim is to have clarity on the fact (about which skepticism has recently been expressed) that people who work in those environments sometimes make them toxic and hostile places to be.

  17. First, not to derail, but “the guy in the video” is Jay Smooth, a real hero, I think, who posted a lovely shout-out to Gil Scott Heron when he died in late May.

    Second, I absolutely agree that the focus should be on “the profession” and its domination by a relatively small, relatively homogenous group of white men who learn at a pretty young age that they can be successful and well-respected professional philosophers without accepting *any* accountability for the hostility of the profession toward white women and to people of color.

    What we can do is interrupt it, name it when we see it … but we do have to be aware of our motivations; on the fair few occasions I’ve tried to intervene in a racist discussion amongst my colleagues, my attitude has tended to be “Whoa! You all are so ridiculously racist!”, which tends not to encourage folks to examine what they’ve said and done with an eye to improvement. Not that they *deserve* to be treated “kindly” (except to the extent that we all always do).. but that, as Mr. Smooth suggests, it’s hard to be a force for justice if your efforts make others circle the wagons (so to speak) and shut down out of defensiveness.

    I agree w/JJ that lots of white racist beliefs might include or be caused by “false beliefs”, the holding of which Appiah suggests (in “Racisms”) are not a moral failing; I think Charles Mills (and others) who work on “epistemologies of ignorance” (and the whole virtue epistemology school, probably) offer a more nuanced look at how we can be held accountable for our false beliefs.

    And I think Zorro is right on — there are many reasons for not calling out senior philosophers for racist statements; those discussions are so easily derailed and turned around to ostracize the “complainer” rather than the offender. I’ve heard that the key is to know who your allies are, who will back you up if you choose to interrupt that kind of behavior; individual actions against oppressions are not often effective, even though they are courageous.

  18. Can someone please send a link to the post to which this post is referring? The one that is referenced in the first sentence: “when the profession briefly focused its online attention on racism in philosophy”?

  19. Can someone please send a link to the post to which this post is referring? The one that is referenced in the first sentence: “when the profession briefly focused its online attention on racism in philosophy”?

  20. allthinky,
    thanks for identifying Jay Smooth. Feministing calls him “one of [our] favorite commentators and make allies.” Here’s an article at Feministing about Jay Smooth:

    Zorro: it’s not clear to me from your comment whether you are a student, faculty member, or staff member of the department in question. But I agree with allthinky that knowing who your allies are and from whom you can get support is very important if you want to take action about the situation with this professor and the students and faculty who seem complicit in his actions. I say “seem” because, you never know, some of them may be as uncomfortable with his remarks as you are.

    If you are a staff or faculty member, I would suggest that you consider speaking to someone in your union or faculty association. As Stoat points out, racist [as well as ableist, sexist, homophobic] remarks and actions make working environments hostile and toxic; your union, if you belong to one, has a responsibility to take action to reduce or ideally eliminate the effects of such factors. If you are a student, you should consider investigating what resources are available on-campus, outside of your department, such as an equity office/equity officer, a student group working against racism on campus, or even a women’s centre with an anti-racist analysis.

  21. Zorro above writes:
    “I find it odd that a number of people responding to the stories about racism (and sexism) are so skeptical and have the ‘Why don’t you name names?’ reaction. They seem to think that the recipients of racist and sexist behavior have never considered doing this. That’s rather patronizing. A more appropriate question is ‘What has stopped you naming names ?’ And the answer in many cases I suspect is because the people in question feel intimidated and they don’t feel that they can name names in an environment where they have good reason to think that they wouldn’t be supported.”

    I don’t know if that remark was directed at me, but since I think I’m the only one in the thread who asked for names to be given perhaps it was. But I am not “skeptical” about the stories about racism and sexism. I believe most of them. And I directed my question at Professor Saul who I doubt very much feels “intimidated” at this stage in her career and who surely has good reason to think that she would be supported if she made firm and credible accusations. Why do I ask for names to be given if not to express skepticism about the stories? Because I continue to work with many bright undergraduate philosophers who go off to pursue PhD work. Some of the students I have helped send to good PhD programs are women and some are members of underrepresented minority groups. I’d like to know, in advising such students, what faculty are known to be sexist and/or racist because that will matter in advising students about where to apply and what offer to accept. When philosophers as professionally safe and secure as Jenny Saul and, in the similar discussion at the Newapps blog, Mark Lance, say that there are eminent philosophers they know to be racist or sexist but will not name I am disappointed because this information would be of great use to those of us who advise students about graduate school.

    Professor Saul above reports being worried about a lawsuit if she provides names. She surely has access to basic legal advice about these matters. If those who give her such advice tell her that giving the name of someone who in Saul’s opinion made racist statements would open her or this blog to a lawsuit then I guess she should either trust that advice or get a better legal advisor.

  22. Allthinky, I didn’t mean to suggest that having false beliefs let’s one off. I just mentioned the factor, but didn’t want to take sides on the issue, which wasn’t the central point I was looking at.

    That said, I am pretty judgmental about ignorance and think it often carries some degree of culpability, though I wouldn’t know how to draw up a scale.

    I also think that as teachers we shouldn’t assume all our students are just like ourselves and then make up stories about the ones we discover are actually not quite the same. I suspect that’s going on, and its fueled by philosophy’s tendency to deal with the merely possible.

  23. Hi CrimLaw,

    I’m sure that if you emailed Profs. Saul or Lance they’d be happy to offer advice about which grad programs are, to the best of their knowledge, women and minority friendly (or are at least making a concerted effort to be). But both may have all sorts of reasons, both personal and professional, to not want to name names on a blog.

    Those specific reasons aside, there’s a worry that once people begin to name names, the discussion will descend into a McCarthy-esque “which philosophers are racists?”. Focusing on specific philosophers who have expressed racist views isn’t the point. The point is that philosophy *in general* has a massive race problem: both conscious and unconscious, both personal and structural, both implicit and explicit.

    (Unrelatedly, for information about what *not* to do when someone tells you about an experience of discrimination, there’s a great resource here.)

  24. magicalersatz wrote: ” The point is that philosophy *in general* has a massive race problem: both conscious and unconscious, both personal and structural, both implicit and explicit.”

    I think that in fact this is a much more general response than Jennifer Saul’s post was eliciting. Saul’s post was concerned with “open racism” and suggested that the place to start a discussion about the matter was to consider what one could do in situations where she or he is confronted by this sort of practice.

    I think the Bystander training resources are very good in this regard because they provide one with options regarding how and WHEN one takes action. Effective action need not be immediate and on-the-spot. In a previous comment, I suggested approaching one’s union or a campus student group. These could be useful for strategizing and putting in place a plan for future effective action.

    With respect to naming, I think there is a tried-and-true way for academics to “name” offenses and offenders: do it in your future writing/publications. This sort of “naming” will, I suggest, be much more enduring and effective than calling someone out on a blog. Again, how and when to take action. Magicalersatz has noted that she has heard explicitly racist examples used in the course of a paper presentation. If that paper has been circulated in some fashion, then one can refer to the examples in a future paper of one’s own and show in a careful and condemning way why those examples are grossly unacceptable, complete with a citation to when the paper was presented and where.

    I think we need to be imaginative renegades. I would like to see this thread (re)turn to a discussion of some practical resistance to overt racist acts.

  25. Hi Shelley,

    Sorry, I wasn’t clear in what I said previously. All I meant to suggest was that the issue of which philosophers say/have said racist things could lead us to focus on individual philosophers (debating what they’re like, what they did or didn’t say, what else they might’ve meant. . .all sorts of things). Whereas what seems to be at issue is that: (a) it’s not uncommon for philosophers to say things which are racist; (b) the philosophical community is such that these people don’t seem to suffer professionally for doing so. It’s that latter aspect which makes me think that lots of aspects of philosophy’s race problem (personal and structural, explicit and implicit) are relevant. It’s not just that sometimes philosophers say things that sound racist. It’s that philosophers say things which sound racist and *they can get away with it*.

    And that, I agree, makes the question of practical suggestions for trying to make the profession such that they don’t get away with it all the more salient.

  26. I think the one of the problems philosophers encounter when confronted with questions such as “how do I respond to open racist (ableist, sexist, homophobic, ageist) acts?” is that they assume their reasoning and research skills will provide them with solutions to the questions. I do think there is a continued self-importance to the discipline, whereby philosophers tend to think they are experts on all manner of issues, things, and situations. There is a general unwillingness to go outside of academic philosophy for solutions to ethical and political problems. But I would argue that many, if not most, philosophers are almost entirely unequipped and unsuited to working out a solution to this sort of question. Philosophers must be willing to recognize their own limitations in this regard, they need to be willing to work with people outside of the discipline, people in other disciplines, and, importantly, people outside of the university who have pertinent expertise and experience they lack: campus diversity officers, community and student organizers and anti-racist (anti-ableist, etc.) activists, policy researchers, and so on.

Comments are closed.