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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ejrd
ejrd
6 years ago

I wish the APA did more to gather data. The APA hasn’t put out a report on minorities in philosophy since 2009. While I don’t deny that the extremely male western-european greek/german/french/english representation of philosophy is at least part of the problem, I would be curious why latin-americans (at least in 2009) were as underrepresented as African-Americans at least in academic philosophy. I’m not expecting there to be a single dominant factor for complicated sociological phenomena but it would be good to identify as many moving parts as possible. Implicit bias? Check. A gendered and racialized representation of the discipline? Check.

Is there any good work on the role of SES and philosophy? Cis-gender privilege? I’d love to have more things to read on this.Report

A. Pinillos
A. Pinillos
6 years ago

Interesting. So I’m not necessarily endorsing this, but maybe if you teach philosophy in a non-historical way (the way math and science are taught, for instance), you will attract more minorities.Report

Michael Brownstein
6 years ago

I agree with much of the post. I agree with the conclusion that creating a global (and inclusive) conception of philosophy “involves overcoming implicit biases. But it is also much more than that. It is the work of consciously creating new conceptions and ideals of philosophy. It is a matter not only of correcting old unconscious habits, but of actively cultivating new, more inspiring beliefs and habits.”

But the post raised my hackles in a few ways.

First, I think it argues against a straw man. I don’t know of anyone who claims that implicit bias is the “main reason” for the lack of diversity in philosophy, or that it’s “just” implicit bias that causes black students to have poorer outcomes in schools compared to white students.

Second, Vallabha argues that the sorts of effects implicit bias might have in the classroom include calling on white students more than black students, speaking in patronizing tones to black students, or only calling on black students when the topic is related to race.* Vallabha’s point is that these effects are, on their own, unable to explain why there are so few black academic philosophers. I agree. But it is important to keep on the table potentially more insidious effects that implicit bias can have in the same setting. Among these are differences in how the papers are graded of students with white and black-sounding names and differences by race in resume and CV evaluations.

Relatedly, the example of black students in primary schools is telling. Vallabha claims that it is “bizarre” to think that implicit bias contributes to pervasive poor outcomes for black students. But research on the “school to prison” pipeline is not at all bizarre and has a lot to do with implicit bias. Starting in preschool, black children are suspended at far higher rates than white children. What students are taught in schools is hugely important, but so too is unintended racial bias.

More broadly, Vallabha makes what is a very common mistake in understanding what implicit biases are. They’re not an expression of the “reptile part” of our brain. Most of the research suggests that we DO have conscious access to our implicit biases; we just don’t recognize how they affect our behavior. The broader point is that implicit biases are personal states. They’re part of us and, as most of us who are writing on the topic seem to think, we’re personally responsible for having them and acting on them. So it’s a mistake, I think, to treat implicit biases as “hidden mechanism” and contrast them with “obvious, surface level” mechanisms. Implicit and explicit attitudes interact in many complex ways and the full story is going to have to include discussion of both.

A final specific point: Vallabha’s suggestion for what puts black students off from philosophy classes—the suggestion having to do with the origin story we tend to tell about philosophy—is a compelling idea. It is also a plainly empirical claim. I don’t know if it has been tested, but I would love to know whether it actually affects students’ decisions about whether to pursue philosophy. I would also love to compare the data to research on the effects of (for example) implicit associations between whiteness and philosophy in undergraduates.

Maybe focusing on implicit bias offers well-intentioned philosophers a reprieve from questioning their values and such. But another interpretation is that focusing on implicit bias is paramount particularly for philosophers, because we have been trained to think of ourselves as sophisticated, objective, rational, and so on. But these traits (if they’re true) simply don’t protect us from being implicit biased. (In fact, some data suggests that cognitive sophistication amplifies blindness to one’s own biases.) We’re all on notice. This interpretation calls for paying more attention to implicit bias, not less.

*I am following Vallabha’s usage here, but I think we should also be talking more inclusively about non-white non-black students who suffer the effects of implicit bias.Report

Bharath Vallabha
6 years ago

Michael, I didn’t mean to downplay the importance of research in implicit bias. The kind of work you, Jennifer Saul and others are doing is great. I also agree there are interesting and complex interconnections between implicit bias and conscious access. What I wanted to highlight is that even a wonderful thing can be used as a reprieve from certain kinds of self-criticism. I have experienced philosophers, sometimes with good intentions and sometimes not, mention implicit bias in a way which shuts down conversation, as if to say, “yes, once we figure out the implicit bias stuff, everything will be fine.” This is what I was reacting to.

There is also here a broader issue. And that is how sometimes experiments and empirical research seem to be put in the place of figuring things out through conversation. For example, you say that since the idea that philosophy’s origin story has an effect on blacks not entering philosophy is an empirical claim, it can be tested. Sure, I would love to see the results of that kind of a test, and I am not opposed to that at all. You might not have meant to imply the following, but it is worth pointing out: at the same time, we don’t have to wait for such an experiment to start evaluating the claim in question. Often times the claim, “we need to do an experiment to figure it out” can be used to stop conversation before it starts. What kind of an evaluation can be this be such that it concerns empirical issues but which doesn’t depend only on empirical testing? Philosophical reasoning in a traditional sense. In order to understand what effect an origin story might have on a person, it can be helpful to have data. But it can also be helpful to exercise empathy and put oneself in their place, and think things through from that perspective. My claim isn’t that talk of implicit bias is always used as a way to avoid practicing such empathy; I definitely don’t believe that. The claim is rather that talk of implicit bais, as with any research, can sometimes be used, and is often used by some people, as a way of buffering themselves against the hard work of practicing such empathy.Report

anon p
anon p
6 years ago

I’m not confident that Vallabha’s original post and the surrounding commentary (“V discussions”) have been particularly helpful. Perhaps the most striking feature on display: black voices seem to have been disappeared. Readily available in print and blogosphere is literature by some of the few black philosophers there are that expresses views on why there are so few of them. No engagement with any black philosophical voices is evident in the V discussions.

Blunt framing of questions in terms of what is or isn’t “racist”? A presumption of the prevalence of “enormous white guilt,” contrary to appearances? Emphasis on “implicit bias” as a significant factor, pending further experiments? Appeal to “the norms of philosophy” made “us” do it? All around, not helpful.

Worthy of appreciation, though, is Vallabha’s recognition that “philosophy’s whiteness” is most deeply tied to its non-blackness (see Hegel) — given the “Western” project of defining the apex of “human consciousness” as essentially European/white, in starkest contrast to whatever “least developed” African/black consciousness. Of course, academic philosophy has declared itself — through attitude, word, and deed — the most steadfast intellectual guardian of this project, more modestly rebranded as a disinterested pursuit of objectivity™, being™, truth™, etc.Report

Olav
Olav
6 years ago

I don’t know if I buy this explanation. After TA’ing for 3 years, I’ve noticed that many of my most talented students tend to be Chinese. Often, these students show a strong interest in philosophy, despite the subject’s “white” cultural heritage. Unfortunately, their interest and talent in the subject typically isn’t enough to make them major in it.

Speaking for myself, I don’t really see philosophy as part of my own “cultural heritage” either, even though I’m European. I guess that kind of thinking is a bit foreign to me; and besides, it’s not like most of Europe was in involved in the philosophical tradition for most of its history. Unless you are from England, Scottland, Germany, France, or Greece, I don’t see how you can really claim philosophy as part of your cultural heritage.Report

p
p
6 years ago

Olav: this is a very common mistake – people lump all Europeans (Eastern, Western, North, South, Catholic, Orthodox, Muslim, Jewish, etc.) together as if were somehow culturally and historically the same. Really annoying. In my country, we have no history of philosophy – qua that country – to speak of, which led, of course, as we emerged as a country, to a very strong political pressure to reconstruct a history of it (along with all other histories, of course). So “officially” we trace it back to Byzantines now (and so to Greeks, presumably), and the books on the local history of philosophy include pretty much any writers that had anything vaguely resembling a philosophical pronouncement somewhere in their works, people who studied philosophy in schools (which pretty much all 18-19th century educated people did, and so on), and anyone who wrote something like non-fiction. It’s a ridiculous project, but it is politically very safe (half of the grants go to it). In any case, the truth is philosophy is not our cultural heritage and even as undergrads we found it painful to pretend that it is (and our professors too). I found it shameful. It is something we read about that the Greeks, Germans, Indians, Chinese, French, Italians, English, Americans, etc. did. But that does not mean that we are not interested in it (though, for economical reasons mostly, it’s not the most popular thing to do) – past is not future. In fact, if anything, philosophy – both analytic and continental – has made significant advances there – but not because of the political pressures. More despite of them and because, after all, philosophy is pretty interesting! Not sure how this bears on BV’s post.Report

Olav
Olav
6 years ago

p, agreed. People who grew up in the US, where everyone with European ancestry is just coarsely classified as “white,” don’t seem to realize that Europeans themselves don’t see the world that way (unless they’ve been heavily influenced by Americans). Few Swedes, for example, would feel “ethnic pride” because of Kant’s achievements.Report

Michael Brownstein
6 years ago

Hey Bharath,

Thanks for your reply. I haven’t encountered people saying things like, “yes, once we figure out the implicit bias stuff, everything will be fine.” I too would certainly be frustrated to hear that! Not only because there are so many other causes of discrimination and prejudice in addition to implicit bias, but also because anyone saying that would be demonstrating a poor understanding of just how little we know right now about implicit bias.

I can see the worry about how calling for data can be a conversation-stopper. In some cases, calling for data can just be a cop-out, as you suggest. Other times, though, the data are just really hard to get. Anyway, the flip side–which is the worry I was trying to illustrate–is that many people, including philosophers, often don’t recognize that their claims rest on empirical assumptions. I think it’s important to point it out when this happens, since obviously bad policies can result from mistaken assumptions. I also think it’s just good philosophical practice to see a claim for what it is. I’m not suggesting that you’re guilty of any of this, of course.

I totally agree that we can and should talk about a claim, even when it’s plainly empirical, before testing it. And I agree that this kind of talking calls for philosophical reasoning. But I’d just point to an important–and maybe obvious–distinction between talking about the claim/idea/proposal and implementing it (when it does have a kind of policy implication). In a broader sense, I guess I think about both philosophical reasoning and the kind of empathy you talk about as crucial inputs into careful experimentation.

About empathy, lastly, I’d point out how easily it can go awry. To me this is illustrative of why both empirical research in general as well as specific research on implicit bias, are so important. They’re checks against the risk that just when we think we’re being empathic/moral/rational/etc., we’re unintentionally expressing prejudice, stereotypes, etc.Report

Aeon J. Skoble
Aeon J. Skoble
6 years ago

Interesting analysis, and I get where you’re going with that “three tiers of human consciousness” discussion, but here’s where I’m inclined to disagree: “If a black student was sitting in an introductory philosophy class, and they heard the two standard stories and unconsciously put together the three tier picture, what effect would it have on them unconsciously? It is not hard to imagine.”
This assumes that an African-American student will necessarily think in terms of being not only African but pre-modern. Why wouldn’t the student think in terms of being American? That’s not an ethnicity, it’s a nationality. Your analysis implies that contemporary African-Americans are more likely to identify with your “third tier” and hence be turned off, but I don’t see any reason to think that that’s what they’d identify with. Remember too, the vast majority of students of all ethnicities in Intro are turned off by what we do. My students of French descent don’t get any more excited about Descartes than anyone else.Report

Bharath Vallabha
6 years ago

Anon p, I agree the beginning of my post was too extreme. I didn’t mean to deny racism in the profession, or make off hand comments on such a big topic. I was trying to get to how some of the content of what philosophers routinely say itself is uninviting. I see now that to make that point I didn’t have to downplay racism or implicit bias.

Michael, yes, I agree that philosophical reasoning, empathy and experimentation can, and should, go together. That is a great ideal to strive for. Re empathy, I see what you mean about how it can go awry. But I do feel that it is just not emphasized enough in day to day practices in the profession. It is tricky, because often philosophy is pitched as if it is supposed to ignore many contingencies, and yet empathy requires a greater awareness of contingencies. I think this is why often philosophical discourse can seem aggressive, for the aim of getting beyond contingencies (which is a good aim) can itself become a way in which the kind of contingencies empathy can highlight are ignored.

Aeon, I was thinking of how an African-American student might feel based on how I as an Indian-American student felt. I often experienced in the profession the sense that ancient Indian texts belong to the second tier. This made me feel alienated from the profession, both out of anger that the kind of ancient texts my family values are being treated as second tier, and out of the sense, that if my teachers are right, and those texts are second tier, and I was shaped by those texts, then I won’t be able to contribute to the class, which aims to be just at the first tier. The point here isn’t that I was identifying with the second-tier; rather that the way the classes are structured imposed that on my consciousness, and I have to struggle against that to do philosophy. I didn’t identity in any sense as being inferior, and in fact I just wanted to do philosophy. But the implication in the profession of the three tier consciousness made it seem as if there were bound to be parts of me which belonged to the lower tiers. Instead of just being able to do philosophy I had to spend a lot of my mental energy fighting in my head against that implication.Report

anon p
anon p
6 years ago

BV, much appreciation for your last paragraph @11:00. You are a model of self-reflection, honesty, and patience.

“I didn’t identify in any sense as being inferior, and in fact I just wanted to do philosophy. But the implication in the profession of the three tier consciousness made it seem as if there were bound to be parts of me which belonged to the lower tiers.”
I’m not sure many people care enough to try to reckon with the phenomenon you’ve described. Discounting, personalizing, or simply ignoring is much easier — at individual and collective levels. But maybe you incline toward optimism.Report

Bharath Vallabha
6 years ago

Thanks, anon p. I am optimistic, but speaking just for myself, being out of academia helps me to be optimistic. I am sure it is possible to be optimistic from within academia, and I admire people who are like that, though I remember vividly my own frustration when in academia that the profession felt like an unmovable mountain. One reason for this, I think, is that when in academia one’s admiration for other philosophers’ work can make it really hard to have perspective in seeing their limitations as professionals.

For example, Christine Korsgaard is a wonderful philosopher and, in my experience, a good person. But when I think of her I also think of something which was painful for me, but which was no doubt a throw away comment for her. Once as a graduate student in office hours I asked her what she thought of religion, and she said something like, “Oh, religion, all that contributed is wars and bigotry; there is nothing there, and it’s best forgotten.” No doubt many Indians, Africans, etc. believe something similar. But I don’t believe that, and I experienced her comment as her using her position to just assert that insofar as I might care about a religious text, like the Bhagavad Gita, then I am I wasting my mind at the second tier level. I wanted to object to her, but I didn’t say anything. What stopped me was precisely my admiration for her work, which made me interpret her comment in the best possible light and made me swallow the pain I experienced in that moment as perhaps due to my own limitations.

I mention Korsgaard only as an example. I had many other experiences like that with other philosophers whose work I also admire. It took leaving academia for me to have enough distance to be able to distinguish three things: i) a philosopher’s work, ii) the niceness of a philosopher, and iii) the extent to which a philosopher might be implicitly reaffirming problematic institutional structures. When I admired a philosopher’s work and they were a nice person, it was incredibly hard for me to see (iii), which then made it hard for me to see where changes in the profession could come from.Report