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.

9 thoughts on “White philosophers and racism

  1. Elizabeth Anderson does a really nice job describing this middle ground between explicit racism and implicit bias, by using the concept of racial stigmatization. The book is “The Imperative of Integration,” and it’s a fascinating read.

  2. > 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.

    This annoyed me when I first read it. I realize that there’s an implicit restriction of ‘we’ and ‘philosophers’ to white philosophers here, but my first thought was: we? You mean *you*.

  3. ‘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.’

    surely this is true of every academic subject. i never understand this weird bit that keeps coming up: philosophers are different in that they think of themselves as especially rational. lots of academics think that of themselves. i would think it’s pretty common across the academy to think ‘I’m uniquely qualified to work on the topic i’m working on because i’m very rational and clever.’ i think the fact that we all suffer this collective illusion about what other academics think (or don’t think) of themselves says something about what philosophers think of academics in other fields, but doesn’t say much about how we’re different wrt self-image. i liked vallabha’s hypothesis, because for once it actually does speak to the question of why philosophy is worse than near other fields.

  4. Black Grad, I’m sorry for the offense. The ‘we’ is definitely meant to refer to white philosophers, which I was hoping the context made clear, and I was following Vallabha’s convention of not explicitly saying ‘white philosophers’ since philosophers when referred to as a group are. . .pretty damn white. But that may have been a mistake! (Full confession: when I originally wrote this post it was all in first person singular, but I ended up changing the first person singular to first person plural because saying something like “Hi, I’m actually pretty racist” in a public forum carries weird risks.)

    Would it have been better if I’d repeated the use of ‘white philosophers’ throughout – e.g., “we white philosophers. . .”?

  5. anon, I really don’t think it’s true of other academic subjects to the extent it’s true of philosophy. For example, in philosophy its really common to advertise (or at least wish you could advertise) open-area searches because we want to ‘hire the best candidate’. Other departments think this is completely bizarre. When they hire they’re looking more for a particular need in a particular area – ‘flare’ and ‘brilliance’ matter *less* (even if they do matter some) it seems than the particular content of the work.

    And I’ve talked to plenty of people in other departments who think it’s completely strange that philosophers even *believe* in things like objectivity and rationality. So, yeah, I do think there’s a bit of a difference.

  6. The notion that possessing white guilt would make someone “not racist” seems weird to me. White guilt is a large part of the enthusiasm for the term “Post-racial America”; guilt is a matter of perception, and if the goal is just to alleviate guilt, then there is strong motivation to do just enough to create a believable perception that the issue is resolved and to subsequently deny or make excuses for more complicated, less obvious issues.

  7. I agree with Magicalersatz and others here that the beginning of my post was too extreme and not well thought through. I don’t mean to deny the reality of racism in the profession, either in its explicit or implicit forms. My aim was to say that beyond the racism and the implicit bias, there is something about the content of the philosophical discourse which is uninviting to many people. That is what I meant to say, though not what I ended up saying. I see now I could have made the point about content without minimizing the first two things.

  8. Bharath, thanks for stopping by the comment thread – and thanks especially for writing such an interesting, thought-provoking post.

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