March 20, 2014 John Drabinski

Philosophy and race, dead white and dead wrong

This post is mostly an opportunity to circulate an excellent short article by Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman in Times Higher Education. Coleman’s article offers a brief reflection on the systematic exclusion – and we have to call it systematic, at this point – of black Atlantic traditions from the discipline of philosophy. It’s a topic that concerns me as well, and I’m really happy to see such a smart, precise reflection in a prominent place.

There are a few excellent quotes to pull from the article, and I want to post them here with a couple of remarks of my own in the spirit of Coleman’s work.

The first quote I will let speak for itself, because Coleman starts the article with the deeply existential milieu of race and philosophy – how the white gaze structures and is structured by the racialized walkabout space of the discipline. He writes:

Phillip Atiba Goff, assistant professor in social psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, has found “evidence of a bidirectional association between Blacks and apes that can operate beneath conscious awareness yet significantly influence perception and judgments”. Thus, that unspoken and unspeakable suspicion, that sits on the tip of your tongue, and that might mean I don’t become a professor of philosophy, is the question: “Is Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman an oran-utang?” The threat of this stereotype, Claude Steele, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, tells us, causes stress to those, who, like me, spend an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources, to ensure that no one has any reason to think we are acting according to type. Yet, when we do dodge the threat of the oran-utang, our academic achievements are frustratingly attributed to luck, to fluke, to outside help. “How long shall they kill our prophets?”, Bob Marley once asked. Stereotype threat and attribution bias are killing our prophets.

That needs no comment. And it needs to be taken very seriously.

Second, and here I want to offer some thoughts along the same lines, Coleman quotes a blog post that speaks to (or as) the core of the problem.

In a 2012 blog posting titled “What could leave philosophy?”, Brian Weatherson, professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, argues that “[f]or a few areas [of philosophy], it is easy to imagine them being in other departments, because they already overlap so substantially with work done in other departments”. Thus, instead of seeing overlap as an opportunity to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries, Weatherson sees overlap as an opportunity to police, enforce and constrict the boundary around philosophy.

Coleman follows up with a citation of Kristie Dotson’s now very (and appropriately) viral article on philosophy’s idea of justification as a cultural expression, not a self-evident set of conditions, which means philosophy’s boundary policing is a cultural problem. The policing of boundaries is of course not just a constriction of what counts as philosophy (though that is enough to raise critical questions) and an expression of a largely groundless cultural habit. It is also a – if not the – way in which philosophy in the U.S., England, and Europe is, at bottom, a racial project. Policing boundaries in this way keeps philosophy circulating around white figures and traditions, thereby rendering questions of diversity a matter of who writes in philosophy, not whom one reads or thinks about, or what histories are worth encountering, interrogating, and extending.

And that’s something I think is worth underscoring. Boldly. We racialize philosophical traditions or approaches when it comes to, say, the African-American tradition. Or black Atlantic traditions generally. I’m thinking here of a thought experiment I use in my course titled “Black Existentialism.” First, I like them to know that theirs is one of the few courses in this country on existentialist thought in the black Atlantic tradition(s). So, feel special. Haha…or maybe that’s not so funny. Second, and this makes things get serious, I ask why the other courses on existentialist thought get titled Existentialism, and not White Existentialism. I mean, they typically deal with exclusively white figures, right? Everybody laughs. Some nervously, some awkwardly, some confidently, and a lot laugh with gallows humor. Because we know that’s an outrageous proposition: white existentialism, white political philosophy, white Marxism, the white Enlightenment, and so on. It’s an outrageous proposition, this qualification of all those courses with “white,” and yet it’s what it would mean to be honest.

Again, philosophy as a discipline is a racialized project. It doesn’t have to be.

Coleman doesn’t spend time on this particular aspect of the boundary-policing of philosophy, and instead focuses on another desperately important issue: cross-disciplinary work. One way we can take Weatherson’s remark is to mean that cross-disciplinary stuff ought to stay in area studies or other disciplines, and that there is something important about staying un- or under-muddied by the world if you’re a real philosophy. To which Coleman replies:

Such derailing demands mean that philosophy misses out on such groundbreaking cross-disciplinary work as that of, for instance, Nicholas Kwesi Tsri and Gabriella Beckles-Raymond, both of whom will speak at Critical Philosophy of Race: Here and Now in London’s Senate House on 5 and 6 June. This conference will be a milestone in British philosophy, when anglophone “analytic” philosophers, who tend to think that philosophy can be done from the armchair, unsullied by any engagement with the public, begin to do philosophy with the armchair at arm’s length, rolling up their sleeves, getting their hands dirty and grappling philosophically with the peculiarities of racial injustice in Britain.

The idea that racial injustice is a question for philosophy – yes, and more yes to that. But therein lies also the deeper threat to the racialized boundary of philosophy that so deeply defines the discipline. One cannot find philosophy in black Atlantic traditions without intertwining cultural and political questions with ideas of knowing, being, judging, and theorizing action. So, to begin, those excluded traditions threaten to scramble habits of compartmentalizing philosophy and its starting points. Tommy Curry and I explored this a bit in a previous post. And further, in that scrambling of habits, the racialized privilege of thinking without cultural and political considerations – the idea that racial injustice is only a concern if one wants to be political – is set out in explicit, undeniable terms. That is, and I’ll be plain here, the disentanglement of political questions of racial injustice from properly philosophical questions is not just an expression of racial privilege, but, precisely because it is that expression, is itself premised upon racial injustice. Let’s start reckoning with that, I say.

And, in that way, one could say that the condition for the possibility of policing the (racial) boundaries of what is and is not philosophy is racial injustice. Returning philosophy to “grappling philosophically with the peculiarities of racial injustice in Britain,” I would propose, is actually returning philosophy to one of its origins. A return to origins that I hope is driven by a deep moral concern for what it means to philosophize responsibly. And so an opening to a different idea of what philosophy means and what the discipline looks like, from the faculty and students to the books and histories we take seriously.

I’ll conclude by giving the post back to Coleman, who concludes his article with a hilarious, harrowing, and smart remark:

Dear dead white man, we thank you for your kind offer to take care of the philosophy on our behalf, but, with all due respect, you are not equipped to take care of the philosophy on your own.

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Comments (2)

  1. LK McPherson

    Much respect to Coleman for his article and to you for your response.

    I’ve thought about the boundaries issue for a while now, finding myself perhaps more ambivalent about it than Coleman and Dotson. Here’s a short take.

    Increasingly, I think of philosophy–i.e., the kind of philosophical tradition I’ve been trained and most interested in–as a certain cultural (Western) and racialized (white) practice. But since what counts as “philosophy” is mainly a matter of convention, there are no independently proper boundaries, anyway.

    Boundary policing is mainly a function of what, within a certain practice, is deemed interesting and worth reflecting on, discussing, teaching, or writing about as a priority. Even within Anglophone philosophy, apparently, this can be just about anything that purports to bear on fundamental-level questions.

    The real objection to boundary policing might be to the disrespect routinely expressed or implied towards marginalized “philosophical” traditions, approaches, or perspectives. This strikes me as an optimistically charitable objection–as if many of one’s peers truly care about the arrogant, overwhelming whiteness of our practice and profession of philosophy.

    Since I’m not as optimistic, I tend to view “our” practice and profession of philosophy more along the lines of the U.S. after the legal end of Jim Crow: dominated by proud whiteness, a place where signs aren’t needed on a door in order to communicate the unsubtle message that some folks and sensibilities aren’t merely absent here.

    These observations are compatible with your excellent pedagogical point of labeling clearly racialized philosophical traditions or approaches as such.

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