White philosophers and racism

Bharath Vallabha has written another really interesting post – ‘It’s Not Just Implicit Bias’ – about philosophy, inclusiveness, and philosophy’s race problem. In the post, he focuses on the narrowness of the philosophy’s ‘canon’ as it’s traditionally presented in English-speaking contexts:

In most philosophy classes the religious traditions of the Middle East and Asia are in the periphery as the other to philosophy – the impulses to conformism and irrationality which are to overcome by the self-reflection and rationality of philosophy. But regarding philosophy Africa is treated as the other to the other, as being the birthplace of human beings but not of anything intellectually and spiritually amazing such that it is worth our while to keep it alive now and in the same conversation as what the Greeks did. That Africa as a space of philosophy is so far below the Greeks that to even speak of African or African-American philosophy is to speak of how blacks came to identify with and think through their situation of modernity with reference to the philosophy started by the Greeks.

Is this a white washed story of the history of philosophy, analogous to the story told in the seventh grade American history books? You bet it is. Just as the latter is being served to black kids in middle school, the former is being served to blacks in colleges.

But in drawing attention to this (really important!) issue, I worry that Vallabha is overly charitable to academic philosophers, and in doing so may be downplaying part of philosophy’s race problem. Let me be clear: I think he’s completely, absolutely right that the narrowness of philosophy’s ‘canon’ is a big problem. My worry is with this part of his post:

Why are there so few black academic philosophers?
There are three flat-footed options:
1) Academic philosophers are racist.
2) The ideas in academic philosophy are racist.
3) The structures of academic philosophy are racist.
None of these are right. (1) is just false. If anything, most white academic philosophers have enormous white guilt.

If what it takes for someone to be racist is for that person to explicitly endorse (some sufficient number of) racist claims, then it’s probably right that at least most academic philosophers aren’t racist. Although even explicit racism in this sense is probably more common than we like to admit. (I can’t be the only person in philosophy who’s had the experience of almost falling off my chair in a seminar after the visiting speaker says something explicitly, mind-bogglingly racist.)

But I think there’s a middle ground between the kind of racism that involves explicit endorsement of racist ideology and implicit biases. We can have racist thoughts and reactions which we immediately disavow upon reflection, and which we attempt to distance ourselves from and correct for, but which nevertheless aren’t as subtle as implicit biases.

In this latter, weaker sense, I really do think we white philosophers can be pretty racist. For that matter, I think that in this latter sense white people can all, quite easily, be racist. Part of the white guilt Vallabha says is endemic among philosophers is no doubt a consequence of our own not-so-implicit racial biases and our attempts to correct them. We can and do feel bad about this kind of racism, for sure. That doesn’t make it less true that we’re racist. (Or maybe this is just an area in which, as Nathaniel Coleman has urged, there’s not much point in talking about who is and isn’t racist. There’s just white supremacy – and we’re all a part of that, whether we endorse it or not.)

In much the same way, it’s easy to be sexist, classist – all sorts of ‘ists’. That needn’t – and often doesn’t – involve endorsing these attitudes, and and in many cases I’m sure we specifically try to counteract them. But they’re there, and they’re not entirely implicit. Take the example of class. It’s often easier to be impressed by someone who dresses, speaks, and in general presents themselves as though they were sprouted in a cabbage patch somewhere on the grounds of Yale than it is to be impressed by someone who speaks, acts, and in general presents themselves as someone who grew up in rural Alabama. No doubt some of this is implicit, but it isn’t all implicit – this is something we know about ourselves. We also know, at least in many cases, that this is wrong and unjust. And we try hard to correct it. But it’s still something that’s really easy to do. 

Now, maybe what matters here, when we’re considering philosophy’s race problem (and it’s diversity problems more generally), isn’t whether philosophers are racist (classist, sexist, -ist), but whether they’re unusually racist – whether they’re more racist than white academics in history, English, etc. But I’m not sure that’s true. The question might be less whether philosophers are unusually racist, and more whether the norms of philosophy let racism have particularly pernicious effects.

In philosophy, we care a lot about reputation. And we like to see ‘brilliance’ and ‘flare’. We want to hire ‘rising stars’. We assume we’re all very rational and not at all racist. And so on. That’s the kind of environment that can make the effects of implicit bias worse, of course. But it’s also the kind of environment that can make the effects of not-so-implicit bias worse. So while I absolutely agree that the narrowness of the canon is part of philosophy’s race problem, I’m less convinced that racism among philosophers isn’t a big part as well.

Under-representation of non-native English speakers in philosophy

Gabriele Contessa has written a series of thought-provoking posts on this important, yet underdiscussed topic. Most recently, he has proposed a Languaged Philosophers’ Campaign.

Okay, I know—‘Languaged’ is not a word in English, but so what? :-) I think we should start a campaign to highlight the underrepresentation of non-native English speakers in the line-ups of many (supposedly international) conferences and edited volumes. The campaign is, of course, modelled on the (very effective and much needed!) Gendered Conference Campaign promoted by the Feminist Philosophers blog. And, like that campaign, this campaign is not about blame; nor is it about identifying the causes of the underrepresentation of non-native English speakers in analytic philosophy. It only aims at raising awareness of this systematic phenomenon (especially among philosophers who are native English speakers who seem to be mostly oblivious to it). Analytic philosophy aspires to be universal in its scope and yet it is surprisingly provincial and insular when it comes to including people whose native languages are not English. As I have argued elsewhere, I think that this phenomenon hurts not only EFL philosophers, but analytic philosophy in general. I hope that the LCC will start raising awareness about this issue.

Mike Rea on Christianity and norms in philosophy

There’s a really interesting post by Helen de Cruz up at Philosophers’ Cocoon in which she quotes from a forthcoming paper by Mike Rea. In the paper, Rea remarks that:

One of the most important job skills of an analytic philosopher is strongly correlated with whatever skill is involved in successfully rationalizing bad behavior, deceiving oneself, putting a positive spin on bad circumstances, and so on. Also, there are certain modes of behavior—ways of being ambitious, or arrogant, or disrespectful to others, for example—that seem much easier to fall into in professions (like philosophy) where reputation, and having oneʼs own reputation elevated over the reputations of people with whom one works, is often correlated with promotions, job security, pay raises, and the like.

. . .

To this extent, I find that being a philosopher (or being an academic generally) poses certain obstacles, or challenges, to my own moral and spiritual development as a Christian. Accordingly, I see a variety of ways in which being a Christian can, or should, enable one to achieve a degree of critical distance from certain kinds of widespread but dysfunctional norms and values in the profession. This is, of course, not to say that being a Christian is the only way of achieving such distance; but it is, or should be, a way of doing so.

I’d be really interested in whether our readers have similar experiences – whether with religious belief, personal commitments and relationships, or other social identities.