Flourishing with Controversy: How Philosophy of Race Does It


One of the popular narratives about higher education is that the discussion of and disagreement over controversial ideas is imperiled, owing to the dominance of political correctness on college campuses. 

Here at Daily Nous, I’ve occasionally argued that this narrative is overblown, and that, especially in philosophy, informed and reasonable discussion of controversial issues is not in serious danger from political correctness. (If anything, the threats to philosophers discussing race have tended to come from other directions, e.g., these two cases.)

For example, if there were an area of philosophy about which ordinary folk would guess political correctness is stifling debate or enforcing a party line, it might be philosophy of race—yet controversial subjects and unpopular views are routinely raised and debated among experts in this area as a matter of course in professional journals, academic conferences, and classrooms, and the field of philosophy of race is not plagued by constant crises.

How is this the case?

Julie Mehretu, “Auguries”

To find out, I asked Quayshawn Spencer, the Robert S. Blank Presidential Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, who works in philosophy of race, philosophy of biology, and philosophy of science.

Professor Spencer agreed with my characterization of philosophy of race in general but noted some counterexamples. These include the defense of “transracialism” by Rebecca Tuvel (Rhodes College), and the ostracization of a couple philosophers who have defended the idea that there are intellectual differences among races that are in part genetically caused (i.e., “the hereditarian hypothesis”), naming Michael Levin (CUNY) and Neven Sesardić (Lingnan) as examples.

Apart from these “few exceptions,” he says, “there is a variety of controversial topics that philosophers of race do research on without any backlash.” He explains:

For example, while it’s taboo to defend a biological essence for race or the biological reality of race in the social sciences and the humanities (except for philosophy), there is no such taboo in the philosophy of race. For instance, Anthony Appiah made his name by defending a biological essence for race, I made mine by defending biological racial realism, and the profession has treated both of us quite well. In general, the conferences, workshops, colloquia, etc., in philosophy of race are quite friendly to the controversial topics that philosophers of race tackle. Well, there is vigorous debate, but you know what I mean.  If anything, the most tension I’ve seen among philosophers of race occurs among Continental and analytic philosophers… But that’s nothing new. That’s happening all across the profession.

I asked Professor Spencer if there are lessons to be learned from philosophy of race’s success in flourishing with controversy. Here’s what he had to say:

(1) The above average diversity among philosophers of race makes a big difference.
Notice that most of the proponents of a biological essence for race (e.g. Lucius Outlaw, Anthony Appiah, Naomi Zack, J. Angelo Corlett, etc.) or biological racial realism (e.g. Outlaw, myself, Michael Hardimon, etc.) have been racial or ethnic minorities in the US. Also, the first philosophical attack on the legitimacy of the idea of institutional racism, as it’s typically understood, came from Jorge Garcia (who argues that  the common thread to all instances of racism worthy of the name is an origin in unvirtuous character that is found in a special vice that opposes justice and benevolence). In one sense, this isn’t surprising since racial/ethnic minorities are overrepresented in the philosophy of race. But even so, it’s telling that the majority of the philosophical work defending controversial views like racial naturalism (the view that race has a biological essence), biological racial realism, or the illegitimacy of institutional racism has been done by racial/ethnic minorities.  I have been told in private that this is no accident. Other philosophers of race are more willing to tolerate this kind of work exactly because we’re racial minorities and there’s less worry that we have racist motivations. So, I definitely think that improving diversity in the relevant way is one way to conduct controversial research and discussions well.

(2) Rapport is key.
If you’re going to debate and discuss controversial topics, it helps to know that the motivations of your interlocutors are virtuous. Fortunately, since philosophy of race is a small subfield, it’s easy to get to know people through other people you trust. Then, you know whether to take their work as a genuine piece of scholarship as opposed to motivated by nefarious ends. Otherwise, there can be and often are trust issues that develop and that block or frustrate the free exchange of ideas. For example, if an unknown White male philosopher gives a talk in which he uses several examples where black men are violent criminals, then he will probably experience a lot of hostility from the audience during Q&A. However, this is less likely to happen if he’s fairly well known and trusted by the audience members. Also, if he were part of the in-group, he probably wouldn’t use those examples anyway. Somebody would have already told him that they would be offensive coming from him. Also, in the classroom, I don’t get to the really controversial stuff in my philosophy of race course until the end of the semester when the class size has dwindled to only those who are serious about the subject matter and when the students are familiar with one another.

(3) Norms are key, especially around language use.
First and foremost, it’s a norm in philosophy of race to call a group of people what most of them are okay with. For example, it’s against the norm to casually call Black people “Negroes” in a philosophy of race talk or a classroom discussion, especially if you are not Black. There are complications… some groups have quickly changing norms around naming. For example, one popular norm now is to write “[email protected]” or “Latinx” for the relevant group. “Hispanic” is fine too, but “Latino” is often viewed as offensive by Latina philosophers of race and Latina students. As you can imagine, it’s pretty easy to follow such norms in academia and the classroom. A much bigger complication, however, is what to do when the subject matter is the semantics and pragmatics of racial slurs or epithets! That is a very popular area of research these days, but some norms have arisen that I think work well, such as writing various slurs or propositions with slurs in them up on a white board, numbering them, and talking about the relevant word or proposition with the numbers. I’ve seen Luvell Anderson do this first at a philosophy workshop and the audience members were quite thankful.

(4) Epistemic standards are key.
When I teach philosophy of race, I clearly explain to my students that you don’t get to just shout your opinion and stomp your feet. In my course, we advance propositions and defend them with arguments, usually deductive arguments. I teach them how to put together a deductively valid argument, how to defend its soundness, how to raise fair and strong objections, and how to convincingly reply to such objections. Then I reinforce those epistemic standards in class discussions and written assignments. Obviously, this tends to happen naturally among professional philosophers. Of course, not always. 

Others who work in philosophy of race are especially encouraged to share their thoughts about the field.

(And heads-up: tomorrow, I’ll be putting up a post in the Crash Course series on the metaphysics and epistemology of race.)


Related: “Which Ideas Are Students Protected From? Which Are Faculty Fearful to Defend?“; “The Ideas Faculty are Too Scared To Defend: A Follow-Up“; “Where the Open Exchange of Ideas is Most Protected and Valued


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