Race in Academia

Sophia Wong sent a link to this to the FEAST mailing list.

the vast majority of white people in the academy are absolutely clueless when it comes to race. Not race as some abstract category of analysis “out there,” but race as it is manifested daily in their/our own subject position and actions.

One archaeology colleague remarked to me at a cocktail party, in the midst of the Oscar Lewis debacle, “Too bad for you cultural anthropologists. You should be like us in archaeology. We don’t have any race problems. Because all of our students are white!” I gamely tried to explain to this colleague that the absence of students of color in her program was actually a more profound sign of a “race problem” than any visible conflict could be, but she was unmoveable.

67 thoughts on “Race in Academia

  1. I think it’s disappointing that the Feminist Philosophers blog has posted a link to this article without in any way noting that the article is, very unfortunately, oppressive to disabled people insofar as it author makes abundant use of ableist language. A more politically astute approach to the posting of the article which acknowledged this language would have further advanced the struggles for justice of a larger number of people.

  2. I’m sorry. Unfortunately I read the article and couldn’t find the overtly ableist language. This is an honest request to please quote some of the expressions you were referring to so that I’ll be more sensitive to such language in the future. Thanks.

  3. Shelley Tremain may respond with her explanation of her own observations, but in the meantime, I can at least observe that references to scholars being ‘mute’ and ‘silent’ abound pejoratively in the article. There are some interesting places on and off site to find general discussions of ableist language, including What Sorts of People [http://whatsortsofpeople.wordpress.com/2008/08/11/ableist-language-alternatives/] and Bitch Magazine [http://bitchmagazine.org/post/the-transcontinental-disability-choir-what-is-ableist-language-and-why-should-you-care]

    Discussions here re: muteness and silence as pejorative metaphors include https://feministphilosophers.wordpress.com/2011/06/26/jason-stanley-on-silencing-and-political-speech/

  4. The able-ist language isn’t the worst of it (IMHO).

    “the vast majority of white people in the academy are absolutely clueless when it comes to race. ”


    “Because white people don’t have “a people.””

    What grotesque stereotypes! These are exactly the kind of bland, broad-stroke assertions we should all be embarrassed to make. Karen should be ashamed of herself, and a little more self-aware.

  5. Anonymous, in addition to the examples ProfBigK has provided, the metaphorical use of “blindness” (as in “white blindness” and “race-blindness”) to signify negligence, moral downfall, epistemic and moral ignorance is endemic in the article. On the NewAPPS blog in the last several weeks, there were two posts on the subject of the ableist metaphors, in particular blindness as metaphor. One of the posts drew attention to how blindness is used as a metaphor for lack of knowledge and the impact of this rhetorical device on actual disabled people. The discussion and comments that ensued was very fruitful and lively. In the comments to the post, a couple of people requested that I suggest some readings on the subject of disability and ableist metaphors, so I put together a bibliography of readings which was subsequently posted. The first post is entitled “Ableist Language and Philosophical Associations”; the second post, the bibliography, is entitled “BIbliography on Ableist Metaphors”. To get to the posts, do this:

    Go to the NewAPPS blog
    On the right-hand side of the screen, there is a category named Disability Studies
    Click on the category, which will take you to the several posts in the Disability Studies category on the blog
    There you will find the two posts on ableist language

  6. Yes, I’ve looked at this website before, and the author is prone to occasional statements of amazing certainty about broad generalizations, overstated in a nonphilosophical style. But it is worth reading past her tendency to overstate, to see if she has something more to offer at those times when she couches her insights in personal experience and rich anecdotal evidence. Some of her recommendations and arguments are seriously valuable, worth entertaining. Her attraction to a style of flipping between “hey, this is just my limited observation” and “the vast majority of Ps do Q” statements is annoying, but not so bad that the content of her arguments should be disregarded.

    Funny, I think my students have influenced me, here. They often vociferously complain, “I don’t like Socrates’/Kant’s/Mill’s tone.” I reply, “I hear ya, I understand, but now I need you to attend to the content of the argument.” I know one can make more than a tone argument against “Dr. Karen,” but her occasional pomposity does not render all her points poor. I’m occasionally overconfident myself, especially after a beer!, but I hope philosophers still entertain my ideas.

  7. Yeah, I’m really starting to regret posting it. It’s one of many mistakes I’ve made today. (Others include being certain that 2 is 3.)

  8. No regrets! It’s provocative, and I really admire Sophia Isako Wong (the recommender of the article). If she thought it worth reading, then darn it, read it I shall, and with an eye to appreciating the good.

  9. You know, Kate, that’s why I popped it up there. I confess I didn’t even read all that carefully!

  10. Y’know, you’re a blogger, not an editor (in this capacity, I mean). Every now and then, readers of blogs (including me) want to exclaim, “Why would you EVEN relink that??” But there are many reasons to pass along links that may be of interest to readers. We shouldn’t really expect endorse-ability from every site.

    After all, I sometimes link to YouTube. And the comments there are like a recipe for misanthropy.

  11. What a disturbing article. I’ve never heard such a thing from an archaeology prof. My archaeology profs have always taken great care to undo possible prejudices in their students before and during their lessons on paleoanthropology and evolution. They spent a great deal of time pointing out the fact that we’re all descended from Africans.

    For the first time in my student life, the anthro people were the ones who confirmed that I was not the one who was wrong all this time. I was just being taught by sexist/ableist/classist snotbags.

    It’s always been the philosophy and english lit people who have tried to silence me when I share an anecdote about how life really is for “my people”. The most recent example was last night on this blog.

  12. Maybe the author of the article is not so great at describing the poor treatment she received at the hands of the white authority figures she had to deal with, but who taught her how to construct those stereotypes in such general terms in the first place?

    Too bad her points about racist authority figures will likely be squashed by a bunch of (likely white and wealthy) academics blasting her about a few misplaced metaphors, like “blindness”. Remember Psych and Philosophy of Mind 101: We ALL have a blind spot in our field of perception!!

  13. Oops. Missed the part that identified the author as a tenured prof quoting stories of hardship among students of colour. She is not the one suffering in all of this. But I still don’t have a problem with it. At least she’s a white person going on about white people and their racist attacks. Good for her. She’s also posted her disclaimer, and asked for feedback.

  14. Jender, I think it’s totally appropriate that you posted it … but it disturbed me too. I found myself bothered as a Jew by the line about white folks not having a ‘people’, and the idea that white people don’t have to worry about their people being oppressed and haven’t experienced their people “dying, literally dying, from forms of cultural genocide.” Not that Jews are the only white people with a ‘people’ and these historical concerns, of course, but we’re such an obvious and historically visible example that it takes some problematic lack of sensitivity not to think of it.

  15. Xena, “good for her” for engaging in exactly the awful stereotyping we are all decrying, because she’s white and the object of her prejudice is other white people?

    Not cool.

    Rebecca, I wasn’t going to say it, but just that went through my head when I decided to comment earlier.

  16. Actually, anon, she specified:

    1) a vast majority, (not all)

    2) of people in the academy (I’m assuming that by this she means white people in her academy).

    3) She also tweaked her point in the following 2 paragraphs. “Sure white people can feel a sense of belonging to an ethnic community or a social class…but the stakes are different…” She again carefully points out that she is comparing the experiences of her white colleagues to the Native Hawaiian and Latina/o people at her school. She is making a specific reference to colonialism and genocide against the Hawaiians, and pointing out that the white people at her school are enjoying their privilege at the natives’ expense. She is NOT referring to all white people everywhere. This much should be obvious to you, unless maybe you’re the one with the prejudice?

    I’ve never met the white people at this woman’s school. I don’t even know that any of them are Jewish, Ukranian, Irish, Bosnian, or from any of the other groups of “white people” who may have experiences of genocide within their living family histories. This was the only vague point in the article, and it would be a stretch to say that she means they’re not part of the “vast majority”, if she does work with colleagues and students from these groups. She could have been more precise here.

    Good for her for addressing the suffering of colonized people at the hands of previous generations of white people. And good for her for pointing out that the vast majority of white people at her school are still flaunting their privilege at the expense of marginalized communities.

  17. For some reason, I simply interpreted the writer as claiming that whites–in this day and age, in the U.S.–generally do not think of themselves as “a people,” qua Americans who are white, and generally do not have to worry about suffering racial discrimination or bias in critical ways. This is plainly compatible with recognizing that white Americans in effect do constitute “a people” and that there are sub-groups of whites who do conceive of themselves, in certain modes, as a more specific people.

    I find the strongly negative responses to the article somewhat puzzling. But maybe that’s because I have no idea why anyone who is not “clueless” about race in the (overwhelmingly white) academy would be outraged by the claim that most whites in academia don’t know, think, or care much about race.

  18. I just read that for a third time. She is referring specifically to the experiences of people within the Social Sciences and Humanities departments at U Hawai’i. Hardly a sweeping generalization.

  19. Xena, first of all, I don’t appreciate the sneering condescension in “This much should be obvious to you…” That’s not helpful at all.

    Now to substance: it’s completely irrelevant whether the absurd overgeneralization is restricted to academics. (Same problem if someone made some foolish claim about “the vast majority of black academics”, based exclusively on his own biased experiences of black academics.)

    As to (3), I have no problem with the bits you quote there. You cut out the really offensive bits.

    “She is referring specifically to the experiences of people within the Social Sciences and Humanities departments at U Hawai’i. ”

    She most definitely is not. I quoted specific lines that are plainly not referring specifically to the expperiences of people within those departments.

    You finish with a couple more “good for her”s. Fine. But what bothers me is that you seem to be oblivious to what was so ugly and offensive in the the parts I remarked upon. I think you shouldn’t be so quick to ignore those parts, just because Karen says some other things you liked.

    @17: on that interpretation, it’s much more reasonable, I agree. Only it doesn’t seem to me to be the correct interpretation of what she wrote. I would have no problem at all with something like “most white people don’t think much about race” — that’s obviously true, as you say!

  20. This is just an educated guess, anon. Much of the psych, soc and anthro that I’ve studied, and most of the Social Science people I’ve worked with bend over backwards to be objective and fair to all groups. Actually, ‘race’ is no longer considered a legitimate description of a person’s phenotype where I studied. It is used only as a description of a social construction, and usually placed inside scare quotes when we discuss it. That’s why I was shocked by the statement above: No “race problems in archaeology because all of our students are white…”?!? Never Never would one of my profs say something like that!

    Accidental culture clash is often hard to differentiate from other forms of intentional bigotry. Body language, eye contact, speech patterns are so easy to misread across cultures. Our own Ojibwe are so often accused of being sneaky liars because of their cultural practice of not making direct eye contact. To them, direct eye contact is a challenge, and you only do it when you’re angry or shocked by what they’re saying. I know that our First Nations people have similar stories to tell about their experiences with white academics. I know a Native lawyer, and heard through the grapevine at my college about another, our school’s pride and joy. He died of a heart attack at the age of 30 something. The other man lost everything when he had to kill a racist attacker in self defense. Neither were ever drinkers, but they were constantly being accused of it.

    So are these white academics at U Hawai’i really racist? Possibly. It’s also possible that they’re not sensitive enough to the unique ways that Hawai’ians communicate with each other and relate to the world. They may be experiencing accidental culture clash, in spite of all their training. Don’t most experts get pissed when you dash their life’s work because of little mistakes that they don’t want to admit they made?

  21. wrt #18: I see where the contention is now, anon. Am I correct in guessing that you read clause by clause like law and philosophy people? That’s not a criticism. It’s just about the training, and it happens to everybody.

    The author states specifically in her introductory paragraphs that she is comparing positive changes at Oregon with disturbing situations at Illinois and Hawai’i, referring to white-Latina/o relations at Illinois and white-Native Hawai’ian relations at Hawai’i. When I read the article, I took the entire thing in this context, even after she dropped the specifics of time and place.

    And if a black social scientist authored a study on black academics at his university, I wouldn’t call the findings irrelevant to the climate among black academics, unless the findings were flawed.

    The article is referring to white academics who work in Hawai’i. Given the cost of living, and the cost of a PhD in that setting, I’m inclined to believe that she really is dealing with people who are oblivious to their own privilege.

  22. Do I read “clause by clause”? I think so — I think everyone does! I am a linguist, not a lawyer or philosopher, if that’s what you were asking (but I love philosophy, and I am a feminist, so…).

    Of course I read the sentences in context. The context does not help here. May I first note that there is no such thing as the class of persons the *article* refers to (you seem to think there is). Rather, the article refers to many different classes of persons. The issue is the class referred to by one or another specific term. This is the sentence I found offensive:

    “the vast majority of white people in the academy are absolutely clueless when it comes to race. ”

    Now you, Xena, seem to think that the context somehow gives a special, contracted denotation to the expression ‘the vast majority of white people’. Context often functions as a way of restricting domain of quantification. But that has not happened here. There is simply no way to read ‘the vast majority of white people in the academy’ as referring to the vast majority of white academics at the University of Hawaii. And when she writes, “white people don’t have ‘a people'”, there is no way to read that as meaning that white people at the University of Hawaii don’t have a people (which would still be an incredibly foolish and offensive thing to say).

    The passages that you are claiming somehow restrict the denotation of ‘the vast majority of white people’ seem to be provided as *evidence* for the sweeping stereotypical generalizations. They are very bad evidence, of course (as is obvious if you shift the racial stereotypes to, say, native Americans — a sentence like that would make all of your internal alarm bells go off). This is what I meant about being more self-aware; maybe ‘reflective’ would have been a better diction choice.

    I don’t follow your hypothetical about a black social scientist being dismissed as irrelevant. (I would ask whether you are a lawyer, but I don’t want to insult you!)

    By the way, I would not have noticed the interesting points about the metaphors of blindness, muteness, deafness, had they not been pointed out here. I’m not sure what to make of them, but I wish to withdraw the opinion in #4 to the effect that they are not the worst offense in the article. They may well be. It all reminds me of George Lakoff, which is both a compliment and an admission that I am a bit dazzled by it.

  23. As a person of color born elsewhere and now having lived in the US for a decade and a half, I find that Kelsky’s general points ring true and resonate with me. She may have made some hasty generalizations, she may not use language as carefully as a logician, and she may have used some metaphors which upset disability rights activists, but it’s interesting that (presumably white) commenters have reacted with such distaste.

    If you want to be an ally to people of color, try looking beyond the flaws of the blog post,and acknowledging that things are hard for graduate students of color when most of the faculty in their departments are pretty clueless when it comes to their own white privilege.

    If you feel defensive about white people being called “clueless about race,” why not talk to some friends of color and try to get more of a “clue” about how many unintentionally racist actions or phrases you yourself engage in regularly? You might be surprised what you learn. That might be more productive than attacking Kelsky or other commenters to this thread.

  24. How about some self reflection:

    I am glad you have made this comment. There has been some background discussion among members of this blog about what’s happened to this post and the incredibly important issues explicitly raised.

    You are genuinely welcome to point out racist assumptions and language you see here. It would be valuable also if you could expand on what you’ve said about grad experiences.

    To say this is not to denigate a concern for abelist assumptions, but I am worried that we can end up with an unjust neglect of important content.

  25. Howabout:

    I don’t think it’s so interesting that (presumably white) commenters have reacted to racist and ableist statements with distaste. I expect everyone to react to them with distaste. To my mind, what’s interesting is the readiness to defend them that some commenters have shown. It’s a little disturbing how easily some fall into the role of apologists for bigotry if the circumstances are right.

    And how about this: I won’t speculate about how many racist things you say unintentionally every day, and you don’t speculate how many I say. Good deal? That might be more productive than your deliberate insults of other commenters in this thread.

  26. I’m kind of baffled by how this thread unfolded and some of the claims made in it. I was evidently the person who initially pointed out the problematic use of ableist metaphors, but my criticism was largely directed at the FP blog and the fact that it didn’t make note of this problematic language. On other occasions, the FP blog has noted that a post includes ableist language; so, I was drawing attention to the fact that it hadn’t done so with this post. That is, I was drawing attention to (what I perceive to be) the inconsistent character of the FP blog’s approach and analysis to disability. I would ask anyone who thinks I was trying to derail a discussion about racist white privilege and the experiences of black graduate students and graduate students of colour to read my initial comment again. I wrote my second comment only because someone requested that I be more explicit about the ableist lanaguage to which I was referring.

    Having said that, I do think alot of bandwith has been wasted arguing about the scope of the author’s claim, to whom exactly she is referring, etc., etc. Everyone seems to agree that the article has some stylistic flaws. So, why has the discussion remained attached to the article at all? Why not just start a more fruitful discussion about the subject-matter of the article, namely, the experiences of graduate students of colour vis-a-vis white faculty members, unacknowledged white privilege, and other related matters?

  27. I think there is value to the post, and that this doesn’t mean that one shouldn’t name ableist/anti-Semitic/racist elements of it. I’m not sure why it needs to be an either/or. I also don’t think I see any evidence of lack of self-reflection on anyone’s part in this thread.

    I can note the value of the content, and also note that it’s harder for me to read it for its value when I feel alienated by it as a Jew. (Again, not that I think there’s anything special about a Jewish perspective here … it just happens to be the one I have, and the one that conditioned my emotional response to it most immediately.)

    There’s another thing I find really odd about the article by the way. I lived in Hawai’i for several years. It’s the most startlingly, gloriously diverse place I have ever been – surely one of the most diverse places on earth. Not only are there tons of different ‘races’ and ‘ethnicities’ represented there, but the majority of people are of ‘mixed race’ – it’s a special product of its history and its island isolation. So I don’t know quite what to make of the idea that her department was so entirely white and so clueless about the limitations of that. I just don’t see how you could live in Hawai’i for any length of time and inhabit that subject position. Just to give one limited example of why, ‘white’ people in Hawai’i aren’t identified (and don’t self-identify) as ‘white’ – the term is either ‘haole’ (roughly, if they have no non-white ancestors) or ‘hapa haole’ (roughly, if they have some). These are *very* much used as ethnic/racial designators … being haole or hapa-haole is by no means the neutral or default identity there. So, even taking on face value her claims about the white-dominance of her department, people don’t just live in their department. They have to negotiate extraordinary diversity and complicated racial politics and identification every time they buy their food or pick their kids up from school or whatever, and they would experience themselves as racially marked (as everyone is there) when they did so. I don’t know what to make of this … I just found it really, really strange.

  28. The old move of charging people of color and their allies with being “racist” when they imperfectly discuss typical racism is a telltale sign that one has given little serious thought to race and racism, to say the least.

    Perhaps, given the dedicated purpose and the main constituency of this blog, issues of race would be better left to other venues.

  29. anon17: Wow. I don’t think anyone charged anyone with being racist. Surely we all can and do draw a very needed distinction between a *person* being racist, and a text having racist elements? Surely none of us of any color can claim to have never produced a text with accidental racist elements worth noting?

    Even though blog space has been a really rough, hostile ride, I am kind of blown away that this thread is so hostile. Really, my post was so dumb and offensive that you concluded that I and others on this blog shouldn’t get to talk about issues of race *at all* here? I just don’t even know what to do with that. But I will take your suggestion for the moment and refrain from further comments. I am beyond burned out on blog arguments these days.

  30. Damn, i wrote a long pieces about my experiences fighting racial clueless in a university that is majority minority in its undergrad population and in a city that is close to that. I was faculty senate president in 2003 in a university that was, I said on more than one public occasion, untouched by 40years of civil rights discourse. One history prof, for example, used gone with the Wind to teach about blacks in the civil war.

    I am profoundly disturbed by the battles of the disadvantaged that can take place here and elsewhere. If I can bear to, i’ll try to reat the long spiel, but you can guess much of its content.

  31. Actually, I will say one more thing … sorry if this counts as a thread jack. Blog hosts, please feel free to move or delete this.

    The large majority of posts on this blog are anonymous, in sharp contrast to NewApps and Leiter Reports. I fully understand the reasons for thinking that anonymity might be more necessary on a blog like this one, which is likely to take up sensitive and vulnerable topics (though as we’ve seen, those other blogs get their share of those). But things also get nastier over here, and I wonder if some of that is because of the anonymity. I am sure no one intends to use their anonymity to license hurtfulness but I think it’s just inevitable that our discourse is less measured when we don’t have to take named responsibility for it. Perhaps FP would be willing to consider a slightly different policy. Of course anonymity should be allowed, but maybe you can encourage commenters to include their names unless they feel they have specific reasons not to? I am wondering if that might help prevent some of the more hurtful wording we are tending to see here lately. (And to whatever extent I’ve contributed my share of hurtful wording, I wholeheartedly apologize; as I said above it’s been a rough ride lately and it’s hard to always remember to think in advance about the impact of one’s words in the heat of the moment.)

    None of that was meant to suggest that the blog hosts themselves should out themselves. That’s a different kind of issue.

  32. Shelley, let me note that you do say you were concerned with Fp bloggers principally. You opening words bear that out, and I am not disputing it at all.

    There were however unintended side-effects. You did say, “…the article is, very unfortunately, oppressive to disabled people insofar as it author makes abundant use of ableist language…”. That was very likely, in my judgment, to disrupt the discussion of racism.

    I would love to find some way to recognize your point without our ending up changing the topic. That may be entirely the responsibility of people who go on to comment. And many may not share my concern. But I note the concerns of people who think we’re having trouble providing a forum for discussions of racism, and I think that we can’t surely want to give that impression.

  33. I’m confused by Anne’s comment @31. Did I miss a long spiel somewhere? Sorry if I am being clueless.

  34. Our “be nice” rule is being violated so many times here that I have lost count.


  35. Anne, I don’t think anything else is required “to recognize my point,” though I appreciate your concern. I would like to think that my initial comment about the ableism of the article made readers of the post look at the article more critically in this regard, if they hadn’t already done so. I don’t think the comment warranted the responses it evoked, and that is in large part because I believe that we/allies should demand a lot of each other, we should expect the best of each other, we each should try to be the best we can be for/to each other, and we should appreciate the effort of our allies to make us better. In any event, I hope that readers of my second comment were motivated to take a look at the New APPS posts on ableist language.

    I really do think a more productive discussion of the issues the article raises would be achieved by moving away from the article itself.

  36. I like Shelley Tremain’s thought about the expectations we should have of each other. I wonder if we might add to that some kind of principle of charity, e.g. expect that people *are* doing their best, which (because we’re human beings) might still fall someway short of ideal. That assumption may not always be right, but I think working with it can help with constructive discussion.

  37. Stoat, how do you think we should understand the relation between use of some kind of principle of charity in the contexts relevant to this thread and accountability (for one’s white skin privilege, ableist privilege, and so on)?

  38. Hi Shelley,
    I guess I had in mind the idea that people making mistakes with racist or abeist or sexist language should be attributed to error or ignorance rather than ill will or failure of respect.
    So when we make mistakes, it isn’t because we aren’t trying, but because we’re human, have limited experience and knowledge, etc. (Or I guess, in some cases, because there is reasonable disagreement on what language is appropriate, etc, although I’m not committing to that in the context of this thread).

    I was taking it that this was quite consistent with your claim that we have to rely on others to say when they think we’ve made a mistake, and expecting others to do so.

    I was thinking of two things in relation to this: the blog policy of not assuming bad intentions on the part of others, but also what we know about effective ways of challenging people’s actions or words (refering to the video posted elsewhere on this blog a while back, and which I can’t now find – but I remember you were involved in the discussion, so I’m sure you know the one I mean!).

    My remark was intended as a supportive addition!

  39. Stoat,
    thanks for your response. I recognized that your previous comment was meant to be an extension of my own remarks.

    You seem to be suggesting that ignorance and error should not be regarded as blameworthy and should even be regarded as acceptable in some way. But then what do we do with the notion of privilege? Should we give it up? Aren’t ignorance and error often (and especially in contexts of race, disability, and so on) the very products of privilege?

    I can’t remember the discussion about effective ways of challenging people to which you refer or the video. So, perhaps you would refresh me.e e

  40. Shelley, one can decry the structures that bring about privilege, and think that people have a duty to ensure they are critical of their own biases that result from it, whilst accepting that people don’t always get it right, and that this isn’t something for which they should be blamed. People are fallible. One can’t always think through every aspect of one’s behaviour to account for all the ways in which it might be reflecting an unfair privilege before acting. We’re just not that clever or in possession of enough time. Good people muddle through doing the best they can. Recognising this fact in our criticisms is a good thing. Aggressive challenges are not the most helpful way to work through an issue together.

  41. Monkey, thanks for your response. I don’t think anyone reading this thread thinks people are omniscient. I was trying to generate a discussion about privilege and accountability that seemed, to me at least, to follow from some of the issues raised by the article of the post. So, I was asking stoat how we reconcile allowance for ignorance and accountability. I don’t remember the discussion about effective strategies to which she referred. I assume that is why you have introduced the notion of “aggressive challenges”.

    The claim that “aggressive challenges are not the most helpful way to work through an issue together” worries me. Recall that I introduced the idea that we/allies should appreciate the effort of others to make them better. I think this effort can involve a range of types of practices, emotions, and so on. I think, furthermore, that it can be incumbent on people in positions of privilege to allow for those in positions of disprivilege relative to them to express and direct their anger at their privileged allies. In the past, I have done a significant amount of community organizing and cultural work with very diverse groups of women. In the midst of these political actions, white women were challenged by women of colour and First Nations women for their racist assumptions and unacknowledged white privilege, disabled women challenged nondisabled women on their ableism and condescension, and so on. It was very difficult, often painful work but I felt that ultimately it was personally rewarding and I saw us achieve some of our political goals. But I believe that we were only able to work together because we had built trust with each other and were open to hearing each other’s stories and testimonies about how we were often hurting each other, without understanding that we were doing so. Maybe you have had some of the same experiences.

  42. Hi Shelley, Hi Monkey,
    Apologies for the delayed response – been away from a computer for a bit. Monkey’s remarks put better than I could have my line of thinking on this. I would have put it in terms of separating out blaming from holding accountable – we can challenge constructively what people do/say, ask them to reflect on it, change their behaviour in future, without blaming them (if by that we mean directing resentment, or other negative reactive attitudes towards them, or some other form of moral sanction).

    I appreciate the role that anger can play in the contexts described above. It seems to me that considerable work would be needed to establish relations of trust and willingness to work through issues together. It also seems to me that it would be hard to establish those kinds of relationship here, and difficult to maintain them through online discussion.

    I think I’m particularly worried about ‘aggressive challenges’ because there’s a bunch of empirical psychology which suggests that people tend to react badly to certain kinds of criticism, and experience an ‘undermining effect’ (being less committed to the values that the blamer was trying to get them to live up to) or ‘reactance’ (being committed to opposing values). Elise Springer works extensively on these kinds of moral interaction, and discusses some of the empirical findings on this.
    See http://espringer.web.wesleyan.edu/

    On another note: I can’t for the life of me find the video posted in comments a while back, mentioned above. It is the one with a man who talks about criticising what someone said or did, rather than the person themselves. Perhaps someone else is able to find it? Sorry!

  43. Jay Smooth – ‘How to Tell Somebody They Sound Racist’

    Is that the video you’re looking for?

  44. OK, Stoat, now I know which video you were referring to. The video “How to Tell People They Sound Racist” with JJ Cool.

    We probably all agree that most people have a difficult time with criticism. The problem, as I see it, is that what counts as “aggressive” is in many cases contestable. In the organizing I was involved in (and other stuff I heard through various communities around Toronto at the time), white women had a tendency to identify pretty much any criticism of them in this way and there would follow, almost inevitably, a cascade of tears. So, I don’t think every declaration that some criticism is “aggressive” should go uncritically examined. I think in fact this is a good way to deny one’s privilege, that is, start talking about how the criticism wasn’t advanced in the right way, was too forceful, and so on. Indeed, that seems to have been one of the central sources of contention in this very thread.

    I do think that epistemic ignorance can be blameworthy. I think many people in positions of privilege can go out of their way to ignore and avoid acknowledgement of the way that relations of power have positioned them vis-a-vis others. I would like to think that isn’t the case with this blog, for the most part it isn’t, but sometimes it does in fact seem to be the case. As far as building relationships of trust goes, I wasn’t referring to the internet, but rather explaining some of my experiences of concrete organizing in mixed groups of women. I think the degree to which such trust could be established will vary on the type of blog, why the participants have come to it, and other factors. For me, it would be more difficult to build trust on this blog than on some others, and that is because I think the accountability of the bloggers here is mediated by their pseudonyms and the anonymity of commentors.

  45. OK. I see now the artist’s name is JJ Smooth, not JJ Cool. But he is pretty cool!

  46. Wow. Really, wow.

    Um, first, I’d second (or third, or something) Shelley’s concern about the ableist language in the article; I find that in writing about race and racism (and white folk in particular), this kind of language is constantly on the tip of my (metaphorical) tongue, and I’m not surprised to find it in a piece on this issue. That said, I do think we can call out the language without denying the power of the piece … I don’t want to silence someone’s voice (however rendered) because they’ve said something imperfectly … even if I want to hold her or him accountable for oppressive language (as I expect to be held accountable myself).

    And. I did not read Shelley’s comments as aggressive in the least; it’s always painful to realize how much we all adhere to oppressive systems even as we try to deconstruct them.

    I am … concerned by Anon (at 17 and 29)’s comment that we should leave discussions of race for some other venue. All women have some race or another, so it seems completely relevant in a feminist blog. Whether people of color can bear to read these discussions is of course up to them, but my guess is that white people don’t even always know when they are posting “about race”, so it would be a hard job to limit our discussion to feminism and philosophy without race? I can’t see it.

    Also, it’s just — I’m exhausted by continued claims that people of color are “racist” or “painting with an overly broad brush” when they express their experiences of “the vast majority of white people” anywhere doing anything. Useful definitions of racism really have to exclude this kind of case, I think — but surely it’s the burden of the person calling out “racism” to clarify both the concept of “racism” that they are deploying, and how the behavior they decry fits that concept. I’ve certainly had my own feelings hurt by people of color making claims about “white people”, but a time comes when getting beyond one’s hurt feelings to the substance of the group and systemic claims being made must be prioritized over venting one’s hurt feelings.

    Finally, Rebecca, I’m so confused now that I’m sure I won’t do your concern justice, but I read the claim that “white people don’t have ‘a people'” as making an observation about how white people don’t, as a rule, consciously recognize their commonalities *as white people*. Surely there are white people who identify with subgroups of whites (lord knows, if it’s not scottish, it’s crap), but verily, for the most part, the white folk who identify as white and value that whiteness are a tiny minority of radical white supremacists. Unless I’m wrong?

    Hoping I haven’t further de-railed the post discussion ….

  47. Shelley at 43 – I think what you describe here is a great and important way in which anger is a good strategy. Thanks for reminding us of this. I wasn’t thinking of this sort of thing when I made my claim about aggressive challenges. I was instead thinking of other kinds of discussions, where there isn’t the preceding relationship of trust required for the sort of work you describe to be possible. It’s in that context that I think aggressive challenges are a bad strategy.

  48. Yes, that’s the one Magicalersatz, thanks!

    I just want to add, given the remark by allthinky at 46, that when I was writing about ‘aggressive challenges’ I didn’t have any particular commenter or contribution to this thread in mind – it was just that the discussion had turned to challenges, and what sort were constructive and which might be less so.

  49. Allthinky, great comments about which i will be thinking!

    There are one thing we might get clearer about. It is that internet communication is fraught with danger. Shelley’s first comment was a public chastisement, on one reading. The chances of its derailing the discussion of racism were high, I think.

    Since publicly chastisement looks pretty aggressive, It seems very likely that Shelley didn’t intend it to have that effect. But the thing is, there is almost no way to know how readers are feeling until you are through when you are using the internet.

  50. Anne,

    I agree about the dangers of public chastisement, but. I would like to see “us” — I dunno who I mean, maybe “feminist-friendly blogs on the Internet” — develop a culture in which we are less likely to become defensive when called out on our language, etc., and more likely to respond with “OK, I see what you are saying, and I will try to do better”, or some other validating sentiment.

    NOT that I want people to feel free to attack anyone and everyone abusively; more that I’m thinking about white anti-racist activist Francie Kendall’s advice for allies, that when we mess up, we have to acknowledge it, publicly.

    I do agree that it’s hard to gauge the effect one’s words will have on readers, esp. on the Internet, and that we all need to be responsible for hurt we cause … I often don’t reply to posts when I know that saying just what I mean will take more minutes or spoons than I have, but ultimately I would like those of us on the upside of various privileges to be more open to critique.

    And mostly I hope I can take my own (or Francie’s, I guess I mean) advice. :-)

  51. Monkey,
    I actually meant to convey something more intricate than I did. I should like to have conveyed a sense of the relationships of trust being formed IN THE COURSE OF AND THROUGH the often strained interactions, rather than preceding them and making them possible.

  52. allthinky,

    “I’m exhausted by continued claims that people of color are “racist” or “painting with an overly broad brush” when they express their experiences of “the vast majority of white people” anywhere doing anything. ”

    What is this referring to? I just read over all the comments here. Not a single one claims that any people of color are “racist” (the quotation marks are yours, of course). So, what “continued claims” do you mean?

    Similarly, anon “sr” philosopher says

    “The old move of charging people of color and their allies with being “racist” when they imperfectly discuss typical racism is a telltale sign that one has given little serious thought to race and racism, to say the least.”

    But that is itself a very dubious rhetorical move anon “sr”, since nobody here at Feminist Philosophers has charged anyone with being “racist”.

  53. Anne, since you have seem to be dwelling on the idea that my initial comment may have, or even likely did, derail the discussion of racism in this thread, let me say that I think allthinky’s comment @53 needs to be taken into account. In fact, I think any de-railing was due to the reaction to my comment by the FP bloggers themselves, in particular the remarks at comments 6-9 which suggest that the post (and the article) should not have been made. I made no such claim in my initial comment, in fact, I implied just the contrary.

  54. Still Anonymous#23: I am still dealing with my own hardships at the hands of people who are clueless about their own privilege. I’m finding it difficult to find a sheltered place to sleep right now. Let alone internet access. So excuse the late response. I would not have bothered to respond at all, as hostile as this thread has become, but you’re telling me you don’t get my argument about a study authored by a black social scientist? It’s a direct response to a statement you made in #19.

    Oh, and given the level of violence I witness on a daily basis, it would take a great deal more than a presumptuous comment about my level of training to insult me, Buttercup.

    Enjoy your privilege, all. And thanks to those of you who are NOT abusing it. I still love this blog. But I have to go and scrounge up some dinner and a decent place to sleep for the night. ttfn.

    (Yeah I’m on a stupid French keyboard at a crowded job bank. I don’t have time to mess around with the keyboard to enter my email address properly. Excuse the anonymous login.)

  55. Straw woman – I don’t think those comments were necessarily directed at anyone in the thread – I think they were general observations on the turn often taken in discussions of racism.

  56. Monkey, you’re probably right.
    I hope I have not cranked up the heat. I didn’t mean to, but as a couple of wise commenters have already noted it is so easy in blog comments to come off sounding angry, defensive, etc., against all of one’s intentions.

  57. straw woman, I was referring to Anon @ 4, 15, and 19 (and that’s where I stopped trying to find examples) … true, the word “racist” was not explicitly used, but the comments:

    [“the vast majority of white people in the academy are absolutely clueless when it comes to race. ”
    “Because white people don’t have “a people.””
    What grotesque stereotypes! These are exactly the kind of bland, broad-stroke assertions we should all be embarrassed to make. Karen should be ashamed of herself, and a little more self-aware.]


    [“good for her” for engaging in exactly the awful stereotyping we are all decrying, because she’s white and the object of her prejudice is other white people?
    Not cool.]

    suggest, in this context, that “stereotyping” white people is as bad as, or worse than, ableism, racism, and other forms of “awful stereotyping we are all decrying.”

    So, yes, while I was making a general comment about the derailing of discussions about racism, as Monkey suggested, I did have in mind some specific comments in the thread that wanted to shift the discussion from the experiences reported in the post, to the “grotesque” generalization engaged in by the original writer and Karen.


  58. Well, then, allthinky, I still disagree. I see no implication that all bad stereotyping is equally bad, for example. And I think we should not be afraid to point out unhelpful, crass generalizations where we see them, and I do not agree that doing so ‘derails’ any discussions. I might add that pointing out these overgeneralizations seems to me a far cry from calling anyone a racist (which I would regard as way out of bounds in the case of the blogger Karen, for example).

    Similarly, I don’t believe that Shelly Tremain’s important observations derailed anything, nor Rebecca’s.

    But no doubt enough has been said about this matter… at least by me.

  59. I guess I fail to see a meaningful difference between “being ‘racist’,” as I used the phrase, and producing racist “statements” or “elements.” Maybe if I thought harder about the nature of racism–as compared, say, to racial bias–I might better grasp the difference. Still, I was under the impression that “being” can refer to who one is or to what one is doing.

    Contrary to assertions about what “surely” must be the case, I am confident that I have never willfully or accidentally produced racist statements or elements–which is not to say that I have never expressed racial bias.

    If the ground rules on this blog dictate certain forms of niceness, even when white privilege is too often on display when the topic of race comes up here, it would be helpful to make such a policy explicit. In that case, I would choose to opt out of such discussions. Outside of the blogosphere, I would never enter into race-related discussions in an overwhelmingly white context, given the imposition of such rules and the assumptions underlying them. I see no reason to do so in the blogosphere, either.

  60. Look, people. This is not productive. We have a Be Nice rule at this blog because we think it results in more productive discussion. We try to make sure that every discussion follows this rule, but we don’t always manage. This is because we do this in our spare time, there are several different moderators (who can sometimes differ in what they think is and is not ok), and it can be difficult to decide what’s Nice and what isn’t, sometimes. Our policies are stated explicitly on the About page.

    This does NOT mean that we don’t welcome challenges and critiques. But we ask people to state them nicely. If you don’t like the rules of engagement here, then we respectfully suggest that there are other forums for more heated debate.

    I remind everyone that the group of bloggers at FP is diverse in a number of different ways – we’re drawn from a variety of different genders, class backgrounds, ethnicities, abilities, geographical locations, etc.. We have a variety of perspectives, and it’s often the case that we disagree with each other, although we don’t always get into big discussions with each other on the blog (too little time).

    I will be closing comments later on today if things in this thread do not improve. So please, please, let’s have a constructive discussion about the issues raised in the post.

  61. I think it would have been more productive if Monkey had asked anon sr philosopher how she/he perceived white privilege to be “on display here”.

  62. Let me just add a clarification here about what I meant in saying Shelley’s opening comment derailed the discussion. I was actually thinking of derailing of trains as a model; it can be quite easy to derail one if the train is not well equipped, the engineer not paying enough attention, etc. A bicycle on a track, for example, can do it if the train does not have one of the cow catchers. But the bike is merely a precipitating cause and a lot more has to happen before the train is actually derailed. The precipitating cause is not necessarily responsible for the whole event in a very significant sense.

    I think Shelley’s initial remark introduced two points that needn’t have taken us away from the discussion of race, but one of which seems to me more likely to do so. The two points were about the abelist language in the article and the second was about the culpability of the FB blogger who put it up. The second was especially bound to get a response, and since there were others involved, it was going to get more complicated and less to do about racial minorities in academia.

    What really bothers me about the train derailment and the events involved in that derailment has a couple of aspects. One is that if one is a neophyte and gets that sort of criticism, one may well quit. To use my self as an example, there are several questions I have about disability – for example about when the neurally atypical condition is exceptionally painful – and though I’ve just mentioned this partial topic, the very last thing I’d do on this blog is really try to pursue such questions. I don’t think I’d encounter a friendly supportive conversation as we’d sort through how to think about these very complex issues. Secondly, people can easily come away from some discussions with the sense that this is a bad place to discuss race issues. For me and surely many, many others it would be just horrible to find one’s causal words are apt to be called anti-semitic and they may well stay away from a place where that happens.

    Well, these are my fears. I hope the examples I’ve chosen don’t make people feel picked on. One thing about a group blog is that we have to act together to create an effect.

  63. Since my comments might well continue to run afoul of certain moderators’ sensibilities about what counts as niceness and “constructive” discussion on race-related issues, I will follow Monkey’s respectful suggestion. But I am glad that the contributors to FP are relevantly diverse, which is all the more remarkable for a blog tied to the philosophy profession.

  64. I just wanted to respond to the initial comment regarding ableism. For many individuals with disabilities, referring to them as ‘disabled people’ is equally as offensive as a metaphorical use of ‘blindness.’ People First Language has been around for quite some time in my field, but few people outside of the field are aware of the movement. It’s based on the simple premise that a person with a disability is a person first, therefore you label them as such when you’re speaking. For example, ‘a boy with a disability’ instead of ‘disabled boy,’ ‘student with autism’ instead of ‘an autistic.’ It describes a disability the person has, not the disability the person is…

    If you’re interested take a look: http://www.disabilityisnatural.com/explore/pfl


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