Another Explanation for Philosophy’s Whiteness

Another Explanation for Philosophy’s Whiteness


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 otheras 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… Africa as a space of philosophy is [considered] 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.

Is it any wonder then that most blacks don’t feel a natural pull to do philosophy? Given the main narratives which are repeated ad nauseam in lectures and introductory philosophy books, it is not surprising but perfectly understandable why more blacks are not academic philosophers. No need here for the subtle mechanisms of implicit belief. The explicit, conscious stories of philosophy professors regarding the birth of their profession are enough to explain why most blacks don’t pursue the subject.

The above is an excerpt from “It’s Not Just Implicit Bias,” a post by Bharath Vallabha at his blog, The Rough Ground: Philosophy from Outside Academia. He begins with some numbers: “African-Americans make up less than 1.5% of the people (faculty of graduate students) in U.S. philosophy departments” and “there are only 5 black philosophers in faculty positions in England.” From there he goes on to critically assess some more familiar explanations for these figures, including implicit bias. Implicit bias may be part of the explanation, Vallabha says, but it is not the whole of it. It also lets us off too easily: “the implicit bias idea offers a kind of reprieve to our conscious selves.” His analysis has implications for how we understand the history and narrative of philosophy. Read the whole thing.

(art: detail from Untitled by Robert Ryman)

UPDATE: Commentary on this elsewhereI 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.” 

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