Hume, Bloom, and White Privilege: Update

Update: Correspondence with Janine Jones made me realize that I hadn’t gotten her view right. Since her view is being expressed in a paper in progress, I’m going to wait until I see the final version before I try again to present it.

In the meantime, I realized that I had really stated what could be read as a very strong thesis, one that might say no white people had any sense of the moral status of people of color. I’m grateful that no one in comments took me on for such a thesis, which is clearly false. Blog posts are not well worked over philosphy papers; if they were, I’d post very little indeed.

I also think that there’s an underlying concern that really isn’t about race or ethnicity. Claims of marginalization in Anglo-American philosophy can be made on behalf of members of many different groups, based on class, nationality, gender/gender-orientation, body-type, school prestige, and more. John Dovidio and his group at Yale in psychology have spent decades looking at the effects of insider-outsider status. Some emphasis has been on health fields, but I stronly recommend philosophers look closely at the work that has emerged.


A really brilliant paper at the 2017 Pacific by Janine Jones (UNC, Greenboro) led me to think I might finally understand why the feminism I am so invested in remains, at least for many people of color, white feminism. Her paper claimed that even well meaning white people fail in extending their empathy to people of color. The central problem, according to Jones as I understood her, is that we cannot share “the others'” perspective. Indeed, we don’t even try.***

I want first to look at another articulation of the white lack of empathy.  That is captured by the quotes below from WHY I’M NO LONGER TALKING TO WHITE PEOPLE ABOUT RACE by Reni Eddo-Lodge.

Next we will consider Hume, and Paul Bloom’s Against Empathy:  the case for rational compassion.   The word ’empathy’ and the 18th century word ‘sympathy’ are much the same in meaning.  As such, Bloom has recently objected to its having a role in morality while Hume is very pro-sympathy.  So nearer the end of this post, I’ll say why they are being brought in.

I suppose one example of the disconnect among white feminists and women of color became evident when women (in North American?  Elsewhere?) stage a ‘night out’ in often scanty clothing and sometimes calling themselves “Ho’s”.  The point being that such behavior was not an excuse for rape.  Then some members of the black commmunity objected that calling themselves “Ho'” would not be ironic or amusing to black women.  Why hadn’t white women seen that?

I can no longer engage with the gulf of an emotional disconnect that white people display when a person of colour articulates their experience. You can see their eyes shut down and harden. It’s like treacle is poured into their ears, blocking up their ear canals. It’s like they can no longer hear us. This emotional disconnect is the conclusion of living a life oblivious to the fact that their skin colour is the norm and all others deviate from it.

Why are white people so oblivious?

It’s like something happens to the words as they leave our mouths and reach their ears.   The words hit a barrier of denial and they don’t get any further. That’s the emotional disconnect. It’s not really surprising, because they’ve never known what it means to embrace a person of colour as a true equal, with thoughts and feelings that are as valid as their own.

What helps to hold their ignorance in place?

I’ve written before about this white denial being the ubiquitous politics of race that operates on its inherent invisibility. So I can’t talk to white people about race any more because of the consequent denials, awkward cartwheels and mental acrobatics that they display when this is brought to their attention. Who really wants to be alerted to a structural system that benefits them at the expense of others?. I just can’t engage with the bewilderment and the defensiveness as they try to grapple with the fact that not everyone experiences the world in the way that they do.

 Though Hume sees empathy as important to the foundation of morality and Bloom opposes that idea, each sees as vitally important our having an inclusive idea of the human moral community as having members very different from ourselves.

The question I want to ask is whether either sees that effective inclusion may require a great deal of work on our parts. And this is not, as each sees, because we need to let go of our specific interests. Rather, we need to get, as far as possible, a grasp of others’ specific interests.

And there is another and even more worrying question: is their confidence in our grasping the morally necessary perspectives in fact encouraging their readers to think they are already equipped for inclusiveness?  Is a deeply entrenched style of theorizing a source of the problem philosophy itself has with diversity?

***The Title of Jones’ paper is: “Disappearing Black People Through White Empathy”. Is (or a near relative of it) will be forthcoming from OUP in a volume on feminist philosophy of mind, edited by McWeeney and Maitra

6 thoughts on “Hume, Bloom, and White Privilege: Update

  1. White feminism like white everything is embodied by a common law heritage. There is no shared meaning outside of that because all of us are marooned from deeper history here in the West. You come from land owning tradition and look to judges; we don’t come from private kingdoms and are always subject to civil law and administrative bodies. There is no such thing as some common cultural meaning of being a woman other than the obvious reproductive role; we’re all strangers in everything. There is only the divide between property owners and their flock

  2. As if on cue:

    “The question I want to ask is whether…effective inclusion may require a great deal of work on our parts…. [W]e need to get, as far as possible, a grasp of others’ specific interests.”

    It’s not clear who comprises this “our.” I, for instance, like many fairly privileged Black Americans, have known White Americans long and well. I grew up in their neighborhoods, went to their schools from K thru terminal degree, have been harassed by their police, have survived in their workplaces, have been inundated by their news and entertainment media and their aesthetic sensibilities, and have endured their manifold varieties of anti-black bias. Most of my close friends have been White.

    Black persons like me are all too aware of the “specific interests” of White others. We haven’t merely done the work of trying to share this “others'” perspective: we’ve lived with it.

    No White person in the U.S. will have close to an equivalent counterpart experience. The country, from founding to present-day maintenance, is dedicated to serving their interests (see, e.g., Richard Rothstein’s recent book The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America). Respectfully, “effective inclusion” would have to start with well-meaning Whites giving up their default commitment to false racial equivalences.

  3. This problem is strange to me, a Southern European. Americans are focused in races to a point that makes no sense to truly multicultural countries. Philosophy has to do with formulating a problem in universal ways, not in particular ways. Therefore, the problem of simpathy – and lack of it- is broader than saying it’s because people are black, white, green or pink with yellow polkadots: humans strugle with differences, with accepting them.

  4. Prime, I think the reference of ‘we’ starts out pretty clearly as white feminists, but after the quotes it is less clear. I should have been more explicit that I was speaking only for white feminists.

  5. MN, most countries are marred by racism, even sadly Southern European ones. The US is increasingly multi-cultural. Its 4th largest city is minority-white, and the country is headed in that diection. Some people think that recent racist crimes have been fueled by white fear at least in part.

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