Why A Philosopher of Color Declined To Contribute To A Special Issue On Current Politics

The Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal (KIEJ) recently published a special issue, Trump and the 2016 Election. In an editorial note, KIEJ editor-in-chief Rebecca Kukla (Georgetown) discusses two things the special issue is missing—articles that present a positive view or are in some way supportive of Trump’s policies or politics, and articles by people of color—despite explicit efforts to solicit them.

However, included in the volume is what author Sean A. Valles (Michigan State University), a self-described “millennial Jewish-Chicano-Irish-Alsatian-Purépecha Indian applied philosopher of population health, happily employed as a tenured associate professor,” calls “not a real article.” In it, he explains why he did not submit an article to the volume.

He notes that no specific consideration “was individually sufficient to dissuade me from submitting an article to this special issue. Rather, the net effect of all of them was that they dampened my resolve enough that I just let inertia carry me along on my current path.” The following are a few quotes from the piece, entitled, “Some Comments about Being a Philosopher of Color and the Reasons I Didn’t Write a (Real) Paper for this (Seemingly) Ideal Venue for my Work.”

  • [A]pplying to a narrow special issue like this one is an especially large risk since the more idiosyncratic a special issue is, the more it requires one to tailor an article to it. By contrast, a run-of-the-mill philosophy paper, if rejected, can usually be adapted with minor alterations for submission to any of several alternative journals… Every contributor to this issue took a risk by writing and submitting an of-the-moment article in a field that generally prizes timelessness over timeliness. But, Philosophers of Color must enter into each new risk-reward calculation while already weighed down by a disproportionate burden of career risks. 
  • Academics of color tend to get assigned to more committees and miscellaneous departmental service tasks, particularly being asked to “diversify” committees with our presence… Whether we like it or not, our days get filled with work other than the research output that is valued above all else by Academia. 
  • [W]e disproportionately occupy untenured positions… Academics of color working without the protection of tenure (whether employed on short-term contracts or in pre-tenure positions on the track to tenure) are very much “at risk of risks.” Any new risk, from a vindictive department head to a racist tenure letter-writer can derail the career of a tenure-track Philosopher of Color; a displeased university donor or vocal parent of a student can lead to a contingently-employed Philosopher of Color getting laid off. Philosophers of Color can indeed have thriving careers, but our paths to success are narrow at best, and always beset by known and unknown pitfalls.
  • The plethora of risks facing Philosophers of Color have the additional cumulative effect of making us rather rare… The underrepresentation of Philosophers of Color also has subtle psychological effects. Our small cohort works inside a profession permeated with racist and ethnocentrist inequities… Our profession perpetuates many of the same explicit and implicit racist structures/biases that I and others critique in the Trump era (adulation of White men of dubious merit, dog whistle invocations of Western culture, blindness to structural racism/sexism/heterosexism, etc.). That makes it feel…different…to critique the Trump era from the position of a Philosopher of Color. 
  • [My career] includes a string of macro- and micro-aggressions from my fellow philosophers, including: outrageous defamatory peer reviews of my (non-anonymous) submitted work, condescending White-splaining of basic points during Q&As, flat refusals to believe that I know even a little about topics in which I have well-documented expertise, and many other incidents I can’t even safely mention.
  • I even get (often unfairly) frustrated when I see my White colleagues appear to overestimate the novelty of Trump era inequities, since it reinforces my perception that they still vastly underestimate the breadth and depth of inequities before the rise of Trump. It can grow frustrating, as a Philosopher of Color, to be surrounded by White colleagues getting “woke,” even though their waking up to social inequities is obviously a change for the better. Much is new about the Trump-era rhetoric, policies, and zeitgeist, but much is not.
  • overt racist intimidation has become more normalized. I am a husband and a new father, and since the election I need to be all the more careful… In the Trump era, I need to ask myself much more regularly, and more carefully, whether that day’s article/interview/blog is going to be the one that gets a swastika spray-painted on my door.

The whole piece is here.

Carmen Herrera – “Amarillo Dos”

Horizons Sustainable Financial Services
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Rebecca Kukla
Rebecca Kukla
6 years ago

I am so glad that Sean Valles’s piece is getting well-deserved uptake and amplification. I’m very grateful to him for being willing to write such a brave and insightful and challenging piece for the issue.

beauvoir's baby
beauvoir's baby
6 years ago

“[My career] includes a string of macro- and micro-aggressions from my fellow philosophers, including: outrageous defamatory peer reviews of my (non-anonymous) submitted work, condescending White-splaining of basic points during Q&As, flat refusals to believe that I know even a little about topics in which I have well-documented expertise, and many other incidents I can’t even safely mention.”

As a woman in philosophy, I often find it hard to tell when what seems to me to be negative social experiences are caused by people’s responses to their perception of my sex, or because of a mistake (whether social or scholarly) I made. For example, when, during my undergrad years, a lecturer told me to “shut up” when I expressed confusion and consternation about the topic during a lecture, was it because I failed to live up to a standard and thus engendered a negative response? Was it because I am female – did my status as female play a role at all? Or was it because the lecturer is simply discourteous to everyone, or perhaps because they were having a particularly bad day?

This is not to say, of course, that I have never experienced overt sexism, or that no one experiences overt racism. It’s just that it’s hard to tell cases of negative experience from ones that are tinged with or a result of covert prejudice, and ones that are neutral with respect to prejudice. I don’t want to dismiss useful (albeit painful) social feedback on the mistaken assumption that it is the expression of mere prejudice. I suppose that worrying about these things is a psychological burden inadvertently imposed on minorities. I wonder whether concern about microaggressions only adds to this burden, rather than alleviates it, by making my minority status seem more salient to me than is warranted, and making negative social experiences linger longer in my mind than is useful, due to rumination on their nature. I am not arguing for a conclusive point here: just sharing some rather meandering thoughts on my experience in philosophy as a minority.

Reply to  beauvoir's baby
6 years ago

I’m not sure that psychological burden is an *inadvertent* imposition at all. From the perspective of a higher-status person who is actually expressing prejudice, the fact that a recipient would still have to consider whether there was legitimate feedback buried in their mistreatment and conform to the implicit (probably impossible) standards that feedback would set them sounds like a feature and not a bug.

Mohan Matthen
Reply to  beauvoir's baby
6 years ago

I am an older brown male. You’d be surprised how much young-splaining I have to put up with. I’m not sure how much it has to do with my being brown, so I’ll put that to one side. (I’m bracketing the occasional admiring, but extraordinarily annoying, remark I get about how wonderful it is that I have been able to overcome my underprivileged background.) But when a graduate student kindly explains my own talk to me, it does show that social or professional status isn’t all that’s at work here.