King Award Recipient: “Neither thrilled nor honored”


The Chronicle of Higher Education reports (may be paywalled) this morning that Naomi Zack, professor of philosophy at the University of Oregon, is the recipient of an award from her university in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. The story made the Chronicle for Zack’s reaction, in which she expresses gratitude for the award but is “neither thrilled nor honored” to receive it. Upon request, she forwarded her acceptance speech to me:

I know that those who receive this award say they are honored and thrilled. My situation at the University of Oregon complicates my reaction. I was hired as a full professor with tenure in 2001. While I have African ancestry, I identify as multi-racial. At present, there are no full professors who identify as African American or Black in the entire UO College of Arts and Sciences. But I am a woman of color. At present there are only two full professors who are women of color throughout the entire University of Oregon. I am one of them. Given this situation, I am neither thrilled nor honored to receive an award in the name of Martin Luther King at this time, here at the UO.

I am embarrassed.

I think the absence of African American senior faculty in what presents itself as a world class research institution is an embarrassment for all members of our community. The black absence is also shameful for those directly responsible insofar as it is caused by selfish cronyism and cults of mediocracy or fear of principled intervention. A world class university requires a broad base of human resources with a variety of practical experience. This is what it means to say that excellence requires diversity. In 21st century America and throughout the world, American blacks have very different human experiences from those of other racial groups.

There have been attempts to achieve inclusive human diversity through unit self-governance. But the democracy of majority vote often eclipses the democracy of individual rights and meritocracy. Needed is central administrative leadership willing to take direct action. I have heard that such action has begun on this campus. I would be honored and thrilled to work toward a racially diverse University of Oregon community that welcomes African Americans on all levels and treats them with respect after they join.

I thank my colleague Colin Koopman for nominating me for this award and the Equity and Inclusion Committee for accepting me. I am grateful to participate in this expression of loyalty to Dr. King’s dream of racial integration.

While philosophy is not the least racially diverse field in the humanities,  in the U.S., blacks make up just 1.32 percent of the total number of people professionally affiliated (as grad students or faculty) with philosophy departments. Sometimes it seems as if these numbers are a problem for “the profession” to deal with, with the responsibility for change so dispersed it vaporizes. Professor Zack’s remarks are an opportunity to think about what our own universities and departments are doing.

guest
12 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Diogenes of Sinope
5 years ago

First the ‘American Society for the Protection of Philosophers’, now this. I hope professor Zack is at least thrilled at her two empty self-promotion drives in two days.Report

John Protevi
John Protevi
Reply to  Diogenes of Sinope
5 years ago

Who wouldn’t be thrilled to win the sneers of a pseudonymous blog commenter specializing in facile cynicism?Report

Chad Kautzer
Chad Kautzer
5 years ago

She’s right. I respect her for using the opportunity to publicize her legitimate critique.Report

Neil Sinhababu
5 years ago

That might have been the maximally effective way to move towards Martin Luther King’s dream of racial integration, in the situation. Nicely done, Professor Zack.Report

Spencer Case
Spencer Case
5 years ago

I fail to see how Prof. Zack’s concerns about the representation of minorities in philosophy should cause her to feel “neither thrilled nor honored” to receive such an award, let alone to lead her to express those sentiments publicly. The people who decided to bestow this award were attempting to bring more attention and repute to her, a self-described woman of color. Her reaction is a slap in the face to those who appear to be her social-political allies. It is as if she wanted to punish them for their good will. No sensible person can think that this is conducive to racial harmony.Report

Kathryn Pogin
Kathryn Pogin
Reply to  Spencer Case
5 years ago

Spencer, perhaps that’s because her concern as expressed in her explanation does not regard the representation of minorities in philosophy? She cites rather the demographics of the institution where she received the award: “At present there are only two full professors who are women of color throughout the entire University of Oregon. I am one of them. Given this situation, I am neither thrilled nor honored to receive an award in the name of Martin Luther King at this time, here at the UO.”Report

Darren
Darren
Reply to  Spencer Case
5 years ago

Hi Spencer, I disagree. I’m sensible, and I see Prof. Zack’s comments a much bigger step towards racial harmony than quietly accepting the award. Her comments have me thinking once more about the uniquely different experience people of color have in this country because of the color of their skin. Had she quietly accepted the award, I’d probably be reading about Donald Trump, playing my guitar or watching Wheel of Fortune tonight instead of considering my thoughts on this subject. Considering my thoughts on this subject, I believe, is more conducive to racial harmony than not considering them. More often than not, rocking the boat is more effective at effecting positive social change (and is quite courageous) than standing with the status quo.Report

Mr. T
Mr. T
5 years ago

I admire her for this stand!Report

Syd Johnson
Syd Johnson
5 years ago

“No sensible person can think that this is conducive to racial harmony.” What makes you think “racial harmony” (whatever that means) is what she’s aiming for here?Report

Kris Rhodes
Kris Rhodes
5 years ago

//Her reaction is a slap in the face to those who appear to be her social-political allies.//

If they are her allies, then they agree with her on the point she is bringing up.Report

ck
ck
Reply to  Kris Rhodes
5 years ago

Kris Rhodes’s statement sounds like a much better description of the situation to me. It may be that the selection committee involved in this award has the wisdom to recognize that bestowing it means offering a (very small) platform for speech where normally there is no platform at all (or worse). It would be deeply ironic (and yet unfortunately all too common) if those offering the award platform looked down upon what was said when the awardee stood upon it. Unless of course the whole point of the award is just to make white folks feel good about themselves (in which case that should have been stated as its purpose). It’s hard for me to not be quite impressed by NZ using that particular platform for these purposes and also finding a way to leverage the whole thing into coverage at CHE.Report

helen Lauer
helen Lauer
5 years ago

Prof Zack, terrific speech. the backlash indicates you touched a nerve, alright. Thank you again.Report