Philosophy and the Racial “Epistemic Horizon”

Looking back, I brought something special to those spaces that are predominantly white at Duquesne. And I don’t think that white philosophers can offer what I offered to those Black students and students of color. There is a certain discourse, certain assumptions, a shared discourse, a shared worldview, a shared style. There is also a certain understanding of where they come from, the specific racialized-cum-economic challenges that they face.

While white philosophers can have good intentions, and they should, they lack that shared space of being, that shared epistemic horizon that reveals layers of reality that so many of them don’t share with their Black students and students of color. So, it wasn’t just what I taught that was important to Duquesne, but my racialized presence in a sea of whiteness. Students of color must be able to see that Black folk are in academic positions of authority such that they can possibly see themselves in those roles in the future.

That’s George Yancy (Emory) in an interview with Clifford Sosis (Coastal Carolina) at What Is It Like To Be A Philosopher? 

The interview covers Yancy’s life, especially the impressive trail he blazed from the projects of Philadelphia to the halls of academia. Matter of race come up throughout the interview and discussed explicitly by Sosis and Yancy, who is black, in an exchange about three-quarters through. In response to the above quote, Sosis says:

I agree that there is an urgent need for diversity, and I agree with a lot of the stuff you said about standpoint epistemology earlier, but I wonder if you underestimate our ability to empathize with each other a bit. We can talk like we are talking right now, and we have imagination and intelligence to help us bridge gaps between us. Like, when you describe going to Yale, I think lots of people can relate to those feelings. We don’t all have the same struggles, but we can understand the struggles of others. I mean, I’m not a bat!

To which Yancy replies:

I’m sure that there is much that you and I can agree on and about which we share similar feelings. In fact, this interview proves that. There is a certain beautiful bonding that has taken place. But you don’t need to be a bat to fail to understand what it is like to be Black or a person of color. Being white in America will do the trick. In fact, there is a study  that shows how white people fail to show empathy, especially when combined with subtle forms of white racism, toward people of color. Of course, that study finds this to be indicative of a kind of ethnocentrism, more generally. Your question is a good one, but I don’t think that I’m underestimating the extent to which white people can’t or don’t empathize with Black people or people of color. Again, this might also be linked to the ways in which so much of our culture (visual or not) requires Black people and people of color to empathize with white people. This is because it is necessary for Black people, for example, to have a kind of dual cognitive skill where we are forced to understand what goes on within the white world and what goes on within our own worlds. White people, can, for the most part, avoid our world, avoid Black children’s literature (the very few books out there dealing with Black children and their lives), avoid serious Black characters playing serious roles in movies.  I don’t think the imagination and intelligence of white people under white supremacy help them to empathize with Black people or people of color.

White history has proven that; it isn’t just my pessimism. I mean, Kant is said to be brilliant. Yet he was a racist. The same holds for Hegel, Hume, Thomas Jefferson, and others. Or think about unarmed Black people, especially Black men and boys, and how they are being killed by the white state and proxies of the state. Those instances are not about empathy. Those white cops holding Eric Garner down showed no ethical imaginative bridge building.  The history of white America has been one that has systematically failed or refused to understand the plight of Black people. White imaginative power and intellectual power seem very feeble when it comes to addressing in a positive and ethically robust sense the pain and suffering of Black people. And, it is far more painful for Black people because white people are not bats. Perhaps if they were bats, we would understand that they aren’t human so that they don’t have a developed ethical disposition that prevents them from treating us like fellow human beings.  Yet, the Black Lives Movement proves that white people, for the most part, don’t understand Black lives and how our lives don’t matter. Perhaps it would be better if white people were bats. Perhaps it would be easier for Black people to digest so much white indifference and at other times so much white violence and vitriol shown toward us.   

Philosophers are people, too (part 782,104). But perhaps we’d be easier to explain if we weren’t.

The whole interview is here.



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