Is diversity just too hard? A hypothesis

Preamble: Below you see a hypothesis presented. I don’t think “hypothesis” carries with it any suggestion of truth or really even plausibility. If a question has been bothering you, sometimes it is a help to form hypotheses as possible answers. It may be that what occurs to one in such a process is something that’s been worked over below consciousness and is on an interesting – or even right – track. But also maybe not. The thought that maybe the missing butter is in the bathroom might be right, or it might be the product of an association based on the first letter of each word.

Nothing below should be read as asserting the hypothesis I describe. This is purely trying something out. What I am most interested in now is what others think.

The question: Why isn’t philosophy making a lot more progress on diversity? Quite often someone announces a fact about the discipline’s failure in diversity. Many of us think, “Something must be done,” but the statistics don’t change much. Why not?

The hypothesis: Diversity is just too hard, or at least harder than most participants in the field realize.

Some evidence:  I started to take thinking about the hypothesis to be more promising when I read some of John Dovidio’s latest work.** (He’s psychology, Yale.)

Suppose we have two groups: Group A, socially the higher status group, and B, the lower status group. It may seem that all we need is to get them together into one group with which each can identify. Then we will have shared knowledge, goals and even friendships. We will even break down some of the regularities that have give rise to implicit biases. As Joe Biden so memorably stated, he came to see Barak Obama as, among other great things, “clean”.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Here I’m going to summarize and probably simplify Dovidio’s work: We cam think of the resulting group as a melting pot or more as an interdisciplinary cluster. If we suppose that in, e.g., hiring, inviting speakers and refereeing, we want a melting pot, then there are going to be big problems. The problems come from the fact that members of the dominant group have a very vested interest in continuing in their dominant ways, and they tend not to be interested in changing and absorbing the others’ ways of doing things. In effect, the subordination and isolation from power of the subordinate group will continue. As it will if we go for the interdisciplinary model unless members of the dominant group are willing to open their ranks to people who are different from them.

Is there any evidence that philosophy has this problem? That is, do we need for the dominant group to accept, to put it very briefly, some changes in their standards, topics, etc. And has that proved unworkable? I can only think of one piece of evidence. I think it is telling, but others may not. Here it is: when people are assigned to a disadvantaged position for reasons irrelevant to their quality as thinkers, they often acquire interests in topics surrounding ideology, justice, discrimination, etc. Such topics may in fact affect their research and teaching interests. But, I hear time and again, these topics are not really philosophical topics, or at least not very important philosophical topics. They are, rather, political, and one definitely doesn’t need them represented in a philosophy department.

Do note the idea that members of the groups are different is said merely to be a difference between occupying dominant and occupying subordinate social positions.

Do also note that this whole post is merely about a hypothesis that has some grounding in empirical research. Is it right or even worth more thought? What do you think?

**Included but Invisible? Subtle Bias, Common Identity, and the Darker Side of “We”
JF Dovidio, SL Gaertner, EG Ufkes, T Saguy, AR Pearson
Social issues and policy review 10 (1), 6-46, 2016

13 thoughts on “Is diversity just too hard? A hypothesis

  1. I’d encourage us to label this hypothesis differently. Not that it’s “just too hard” (How opaque!) but that it *is* hard, partly because it really does require that the discipline shift toward taking socially critical work seriously *as* philosophy. This has happened, to some degree, in some departments. Dotson’s paper, “How Is This Paper Philosophy?” is one source for a more detailed argument about how the socially-divorced ideal of “timeless” philosophy ends up functioning as a gatekeeper.

  2. ES, I do think there are different ways to read ‘just too hard.’ For example, as an excuse or as condescending. But in a way, it isn’t hard at all to broaden the canon. The hypothesis – which interpreted as Dovidio suggests – really gives a view of a hierarchy putting their privilege and status before just about anything else. I think we should consider just how hard it is to broaden one’s view.

    I do admire Dotson’s work a lot. I agree that if the hypothesis is on the right track, then her work reveals one major way the exclusion works. However, I meant the exclusion of the socially relevant as only one way it may work. We might find other really interesting facets to explore. Personality types might be another. According to the myers-briggs (sp?) researchers something like 94-98% of univ. profs are INTJ. Interestingly, J’s are the people who like closure and resolving issues. INTP’s much prefer to look at bigger issues that pull things together in interesting ways. That might be another kind of contrast with P’s being more prevelant in the subordinate group. (This is a possible example, but I don’t know that it’s correct.)

  3. I’m puzzled by the way you’ve posed the hypothesis. For any question of the form “why isn’t there more progress toward X”, it must be correct to say “X is sufficiently difficult that the amount of effort expended so far gets us this far and no further”. But saying that it is “just too hard” carries the extra implication that further effort toward X would be inappropriate. I take it your evidence is directed in a more concrete way; viz., philosophers’ conception of the discipline itself may thwart attempts to promote diversity even if they genuinely want more diversity.

  4. PDM, I don’t really agree with your reading. E.g., a coach might say, ‘O, i guess winning is just too hard.’ To chronic losers. In that context it is a challenge. That’s close to what I meant. As such, it’s meant to juxtapose privilege with justice, to put it more loosely than I should.

  5. A black philosopher addressed this same issue recently in the following manner:

    “I think it is here that the discussion thus far links up quite well with the second conversation I mentioned at the beginning: diversity. We can find the black-as-bodied narrative in operation here as well and in many ways it fuels the US tradition of erasing or rejecting black Life. In short, diversity (or rather “diversity”) is the idea that black (and brown) people should function as vessels for white perspectives and white theory as opposed to contributing their own perspectives and theories. The assumption here is that the perspectives of black people are either inferior or negligible and so the value of black people in any space will be in their ability to reproduce whiteness. In simpler words, “diversity” is the presence of black bodies, as opposed to the presence of black ideas born from black perspectives, in predominantly white spaces.

    Let’s look at two examples that demonstrate ways in which we fall into this way of thinking:

    1) Many times, people- including black people- think they are “being diverse” when they choose to focus on some type of project that concentrates on an issue that affects non-white people or that make non-white people the prime subjects of the project. But more often than not, the framework from which the study or research project is generated is Eurocentric. Just because the project is “about race” or concerns black and brown people does not mean you are valuing diversity. Valuing diversity in such a context means recognizing that theoretical models devised by brown and black people, especially those that directly challenge Eurocentricity, are just as good, if not even more appropriate, to frame your research projects or studies, whether or not they are about black or brown populations.

    2) Now let’s consider an example that touches on “strategies for inclusion” in spaces that find it difficult to recruit black people. As a student in philosophy, I can speak to this example from personal experience: all across US philosophy programs, faculty are scrambling for ways to “get black people interested in philosophy” in order to do something about the abysmal number of non-whites, particularly black people, in the profession. I am depressed to say I know more than a handful of black philosophers who are enthusiastically invested in this “project” as well. Of course, the truth is, black people have been philosophizing all along but “top” programs refuse to acknowledge those works as “real” philosophy. So, the problem isn’t some mysterious malaise affecting black people that prevents them from appreciating the virtues of philosophy and applying to philosophy programs. The problem is that the white gatekeepers of philosophical inquiry maintain a particularly Eurocentric conception of “philosophy”.

    What’s especially poignant with diversity rhetoric is that we are being used to erase our own perspectives. You can see why [we] reject the idea that any of this is actual diversity. We call it “cosmetic diversity”: be black, think white. Others call it “imperial diversity.” Angela Davis describes it as “a corporate strategy.”

    It seems that cosmetic diversity is itself lending to the problem of disappearing black lives given this flawed understanding of diversity seeks to reject genuine contributions from black people for the sake of upholding and glorifying white ones. If physical erasure of black people is made possible by our cultural or symbolic erasure, and “diversity” functions to include our black bodies in white spaces but reject our unique perspectives, then “diversity” is not on our side.”

  6. Helen, My first reaction to your comment is to feel very, very sad. The emerging picture of attempts to diversify involve us being worse, I think, than treating people as objects. I’m not sure quite how to put it: maybe, it’s making people into mirrors and then counting them up on official forms.

    But I wonder if perhaps blacks and some whites can say this loudly and clearly together, maybe we can have some impact. There are some people of such enormous good will.

  7. The hypothesis is worth looking at, but it doesn’t explain why other fields have made more progress toward diversity than we have. What really makes philosophy stand out is our lack of diversity compared to fields like psychology, biology, medicine? If diversity is hard, why is it harder for some fields than others?

  8. Rloftis, one simple answer is that the gatekeepers of our discipline are much stricter/more inflexible. There is some evidence for this. In the Cognitive science society it is much harder to pass philosophy referees than those from others fields. Also, the density of assh*le referee comments is greater.

    (I’m here giving a fairly unnuanced version of some observations by Carole Lee.)

  9. Anne, thanks for replying. Yes, I think you are correct. The sisters who run the blog I linked are both students of philosophy or perhaps former students of philosophy and make some good points in rejecting the inclusion model itself. As for the diversity problem in philosophy, maybe philosophers are wrong to emphasize statistics on numbers of underrepresented philosophers. Perhaps they should focus first on inclusion as it pertains to including a number of other philosophical goals or traditions since that strikes me as the more serious problem. Also, from some of the facts I’ve gleaned on this site and a number of others and thinking back to my time as a philosophy major and MA candidate, I think philosophical ability and success is wrapped up in the way a philosopher presents him or herself and the level of comfort and confidence he or she feels and displays. For members of underrepresented groups, they have a real disadvantage here. Not to mention the degree to which interactions with faculty and other colleagues matter much more in philosophy than in other fields where churning out data you produce in a laboratory setting, for example, can be a saving grace for people from marginalized groups. Marcus Avan raised this very issue and I’m very excited to see how philosophers of color respond to his invitation to comment:

    Though I’m no longer a member of the philosophy community I still “do” philosophy and am invested in the issue of underrepresentation in the discipline. However, an investment in diversity might call for looking at a model other than the current focus on “inclusion.” The sisters responsible for the linked blog make an interesting point when they say that people of color may not care to be “included” or “absorbed” into white-heavy fields since they happily do the same work elsewhere. (They make this argument with respect to “calls for diversity” within mainstream animal rights organizations but I don’t see why it can’t work in this case as well.)

    Ever since reading their views, I have been questioning how we, as white people, might be contributing to these problems by cluelessly adhering to a bad model of inclusivity. Here is an excerpt from the specific interview I have in mind. I’m sorry for the length:

    “I think there’s a foundational issue with inclusivity rhetoric. In fact, many folks argue (myself included) that diversity and inclusivity rhetoric serves to reify and empower white supremacy.

    Your question presupposes that there aren’t people of color in the movement already, so the question discursively excludes us (brown people) which must be noted. What “animal rights movement” are you talking about? Your question naturalizes whiteness as the norm which I think is problematic, LOL. I’m going to assume that you’re referring to animal rights organizations that are predominantly made up of white people considering “whiteness” is commonly implied, but rarely called out. By using the white-centered, ambiguous term “animal rights movement,” you’re ironically erasing brown people and our work, but I will however answer the question I think you’re asking.

    I don’t view the white animal rights movement as “failing” to include brown folks because that would presuppose that they set out to accommodate brown people in the first place, which they haven’t. I don’t view my exclusion as accidental.

    We can look to the ways that black feminists recently called out “white feminism” as a thing, to solve some of these issues in “mainstream” animal rights spaces because I think this is more of a rhetorical issue.

    For too long, “mainstream feminism” seemed to only focus on white women, and completely ignored the ways in which women of color were impacted by patriarchy differently. Mainstream feminism also seemed to ignore the activist efforts of non-white women. Therefore, when black feminist Mikki Kendall came out with hashtag #solidarityisforwhitewomen, she brilliantly pointed to the ways that these “mainstream” movements only recognized white activism, while excluding and ignoring the struggles and labor of people of color. In other words, “mainstream” seemed to have a color attached to it: white.

    Dr. Brittney Cooper wrote a BRILLIANT article titled, “Feminism’s Ugly Internal Clash: Why Its Future Isn’t Up to White Women,” to clearly draw the lines between white and black feminism, and to make a point that black women don’t need white feminism in order to validate their activism. Before this, “white” feminism was felt, but was never actually called out. This was a significant rhetorical move. Dr. Cooper noted how white feminism (or mainstream feminism) centered on equality, and black feminism centered on justice. These are two different projects and they need two different names or else all of the work black feminists are doing will unfairly be erased or eclipsed by white women’s organizing efforts.

    I think we need a similar rhetorical strategy for the current “mainstream” animal rights movement that excludes non-white activists. Part of the activism is labeling the current “mainstream” animal rights movement a white movement so that the rest of us can move on and continue doing our own activism without fighting for a seat at the white table. Fighting for animal rights and then fighting for representation in a white space are two very different projects.

    If minoritized people aren’t joining your movements, it could be that we already have our own movement that you just don’t know about, OR, your space is exclusionary. The activism shouldn’t center on how to reach out to non-white people… you should use that energy to look to the foundation of your movement or project because your answers might be there. We pathologize minoritized people by questioning their motives for not joining movements and organizations that purposefully exclude them. Instead of spotlighting the activist efforts of non-white people (because there’s a lot of us), the attention gets turned to why these folks aren’t joining white organizations.

    If the white folks actually understood the issues they were so passionately fighting for, they would already be inclusive, so their exclusion is quite intentional.

    Just because the white animal rights movement doesn’t recognize us, doesn’t mean that we don’t exist. We’ve been organizing for a while….

    Just remember that there are vegans of color who are doing work, and that’s the animal rights movement that I know and focus on.”

  10. Thanks for the great post, and interesting comments.

    I want to return to RLoftis’s question about why philosophy is different, and AJ’s response… which is that there are more assholes in philosophy and stricter gatekeeping. I think that is largely (or more than largely) a fair assessment, from what I see. But that raises the additional question: why are there more assholes and stricter gatekeepers in philosophy? And I want to offer a very tentative hypothesis (to follow up on AJ’s initial use) to see if this goes anywhere): I suspect that there are more assholes and stricter gatekeepers, in part, because of the need to justify our work in the larger cultural context in which it occurs. The best philosophers might well feel like the “King of the Dipshits,” to borrow a John Hughes-ism, ignored by/not taken seriously enough by those outside of the field. That is, science doesn’t need much more than its seemingly obvious usefulness (I;m looking at you, Elon Musk). But because of philosophy’s often uselessness (though the way it is “useless” is complicated, and needs, I suspect, a discussion of what counts as use in a post-industrial capitalism–see our poor showing compared to welders in the current political debate), there is something greater at stake in seeming hierarchical, seeming rigorous (and, it doesn’t hurt that for our standing that the hierarchy is male heavy).

  11. My personal feeling is that diversity certainly takes an effort, and there are some questions that don’t have an easy answer. So a narrative that it must be easy makes it impossible. That is what makes the hypothesis important, in my opinion.
    Some suggestions for what makes it hard (without reference to assholes):
    One, we are not primed to see hardships that we ourselves do not (expect to) face. It is not part of our culture to ask ourselves in company “Did we leave someone out?” If we don’t use a wheelchair (and none close to us do) we are unlikely to ask ourselves coming into a building “Where is the wheelchair access?”
    Two, rather than not wanting to give up our privileges, I think the psychological resistance is to admitting we have privileges. Sharing our privilege would probably make us feel good (we are being fair, unselfish etc.), but admitting we have privileges in the first place would mean admitting that maybe we didn’t gain all our advantages on merit, which is damaging for the ego.
    Three, if inclusion also means changing what we are doing (rather than just including more people in what we are already doing anyway) also raises the issues of resistance to change.
    Of course this is not specific to philosophy, or activism. Personally, I feel that looking at what kind of general mechanisms may underlie our (re)actions and how we could address these is more constructive than finding someone to blame for excluding others.

  12. There are a number of great comments I haven’t replied to, and won’t be able to do just today. Let me make a few notes, and encourage others to pick up some of the points or add news ones.

    Delft, really interesting comments. I think I have been somewhat artificially distinguishing between making changes and realizing that changes need to be made. I think the latter can be very difficult for the reasons you mention and others. Let me now note that the work of disability activists has meant that more of us somewhat abled body people notice when important venues take place out of the reach of wheelchairs, when automatic door openers do not work and so on. Perhaps similar work on diversity can be effectively done in institutions; in fact, I have tried to point out to administrators off to lunch that they are all white men. That might do some good, I really don’t know. Such actions can be used against one.

    We do know some of the mechanisms that underlie our reactions, though I’m not sure about whether there’s a general conservative resistance to change.

    Schulman, I love your support! there have been times when philosophy was very admired and influential and yet hardly open to much change. I’m thinking particularly of pre-Davidson Oxford; I think the advent of Davidson’s influence may have simply coincided with an economic decline and the advent of Thatcherism, all of which seems to have ended up with some cultural shifting. Before that scientists were very often second class citizens, while those studying philosophy dominated politics and much else. Of course, to some extent that’s still true, but at one time the whole country seemed to be run by philosophers or philosophy-trained people.

    Helen, I hope people check out your links. I think you may well be right that we can find more foundational approaches, and in a way feminists have made some inroads focusing on neglected texts, as opposed to neglected kinds of people.

    Thanks so much, everyone. I’ll check back later!

  13. I would suggest another difference in philosophy is the methodological vacuum that has developed in some of the more high-status areas, as leaders in the field merely examine a few ‘intuitions’ of themselves and their friends and write these up in quick papers which by their very quantity elbow aside more careful, rigorous, or data-driven, or historically informed work, which takes longer. If there is a methodological bottom-line, then there is at least some real pressure to admit the work of minorities who do it well. Where there is nothing but a sense of so-called ‘reputation’, in my opinion this actually provides a breeding ground for implicit bias and also aggressive behaviours to rush in.

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