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Are you my people? The surprising places this black woman philosopher did not find community.

No one can accuse philosophy of being diverse. White men dominate the discipline, what counts as mainstream philosophy is often the sort of philosophy that has been traditionally done by white men, and the most well-regarded publications are filled with the works of white men. Feminist philosophy and critical race theory--the kinds of philosophy traditionally done by women and nonwhite philosophers--are marginalized as not being rigorous enough to count as "real" philosophy or not being concerned with matters that are universal in scope. Breaking into the white-boys' club of mainstream philosophy has not been easy. Still, our exclusion has spurred the creation of wonderful organizations, conferences, and workshops, where we can discuss our ideas in a welcoming environment and offer support and community to one another.

In my experience, however, exclusionary behavior in philosophy is not limited to white males. Nonwhite and women philosophers do well at organizing conference panels that address racial, gender, and ideology domination. We publish essays and books devoted to increasing inclusion in the world of philosophy and in the real world beyond it. We have not done so well, however, in recognizing our own privilege and the ways in which it impairs our ability to see how we have excluded one another.

This essay, my personal account of moving about the world of academic philosophy looking for community--my people--and not quite finding it, was a long time coming. Anecdotally, I am not the only one who has felt squeezed out of or not welcomed into communities that should welcome us. If we are not having difficult conversations around this issue already, my hope is that this essay will encourage us to begin a meaningful discourse. If we are, then this essay will hopefully add to the dialogue.

Looking for Community

I was recently invited to participate in a philosophy roundtable on a local radio show that included another minority philosopher and Hamid Dabashi, who is a minority and a professor of Iranian studies and comparative literature. We were to discuss Dabashi's article "Can Non-Europeans Think?" (1) The article takes up the question of why African and Indian philosophy is often characterized as ethnophilosophy rather than just simply as philosophy. Our roundtable discussion began with some history about colonialism and slavery and the exclusion of blacks and other people of color from rationality. Eventually I remarked that for these works to be considered philosophy they must be treated as philosophy. We must assign such works on our syllabi, minority philosophers must be included in the main program of the American Philosophical Association--the mainstream philosophy organization--and minority philosophers must be published in mainstream journals. Dabashi had joined us by phone and at times the poor sound quality made it difficult to hear him, but toward the end of the discussion his frustration was clearly audible. He thought that we had strayed from the topic and that his question had gone unanswered.

I left the discussion feeling unsettled and confused but it wasn't until later that I was able to articulate what had troubled me. First, perhaps my answer did not cover all of the ways in which we can bring philosophy done by Indians and Africans (as well as women, I insisted on adding) into the mainstream, but I had certainly answered his question. And I was not the first one, either. Feminist and minority philosophers have repeatedly asked and answered this very question. (2) Second, all of the white male moderator's questions about the classroom and pedagogy were directed at me: How do I treat marginalized works in the classroom, and what do I teach my students? The other panelists teach courses, too, but it is clear that their role was to speak from their positions as researchers, academicians, and thinkers, while my role was to speak as the educator. (3) So, in a conversation between minorities about marginalization of minorities, I was relegated to the margins and not heard. Can my views and the views of other black women philosophers ever assume the lofty place of the universal if we cannot count on being heard by those who should be sympathetic to our efforts at inclusion?

I was disappointed with them and with myself. I was disappointed with myself for making the old mistake of assuming that the common ground we shared as racial and ethnic minorities would put us on equal footing. Somehow, at that roundtable, this feminist had forgotten about gender.

Referring to Eurocentrism, Dabashi says, "There is thus a direct and unmitigated structural link between an empire, or an imperial frame of reference, and the presumed universality of a thinker thinking in the bosoms of that empire." (4) The same can be said for gender domination. I had forgotten that in the bosom of the gender domination empire, I am at the bottom of the hierarchy, and the imperial male frame of reference--white and nonwhite--seems committed to keeping me there. Or perhaps I had not forgotten about gender completely. Perhaps I had been seduced into thinking that race can be an immediate source of understanding and connection, even as I know the literature and my own experiences say that is not the case. I should have known better; I have been seduced before.

A couple years ago I was a member of a workshop panel for undergraduates in philosophy from underrepresented groups. The workshop was to provide an opportunity for students considering graduate study in philosophy to interact with other minority students and faculty. Faculty presenters were free to structure their presentation in any way they chose. I discussed an article I had previously published, which they had been assigned to read before my arrival, and then move into a discussion on a work in progress that builds on the ideas from the article. The presentation went well, but something troubling happened during the question-and-answer period: the room became divided by gender. The women (white, black, brown) understood, welcomed, and engaged with my work on its own terms while the men (black, brown) were concerned with challenging and poking holes in my argument and presenting me with an endless string of "what ifs" capped off by the exasperating but all too familiar question: "I know this isn't at all what you're talking about, but can you comment on it anyway?" The article we were discussing was about the importance of openness and vulnerability as a requirement to understanding others who come from a different perspective than one's own. Ironically, in the article I propose that minorities will be less resistant to vulnerability than whites since they are not invested in obscuring reality. Afterward, several women (black, brown, and white) approached me to discuss my ideas further and to share with me their concerns about studying philosophy in a field that is often hostile to women. I had no such interaction with any of the male students or the male faculty. These experiences--and others I do not have space to discuss here--have led me to conclude that while minority male philosophers do offer more community to nonwhite women than white male philosophers do, those minority men at the roundtable and at the workshop were a false community; they were not my people.

The earliest experience of false community I had was early in my graduate career at a conference of feminist philosophers. I was excited to be there, having read a lot of feminist philosophy in my courses and riding high on the expectation of a diverse and welcoming group of women with whom to interact. Yet, almost immediately I was disappointed, I'm fairly certain I was the only black woman there, but that was not what disappointed me. (5)

I was disappointed in the snatches of conversation I overheard at a cocktail gathering before the conference began; conversations about who wore heels, and who wore lipstick, who shaved their legs, and who brought husbands along (and called them by the term "husband" rather than "partner"). The women who did not measure up, including me, found it difficult to enter conversations and have the kinds of interactions that drew us to the conference in the first place. At a particularly low point, I actually entertained the idea of working my bisexuality into a conversation to earn a bit of cred. But then I remembered that in some circles bisexuality isn't a "real" sexual orientation, often treated with disdain or outright disbelief. I'm fairly certain that this conference was in one of those circles. Again, I was disappointed with them, but I was also disappointed with myself for even thinking of trying to put some part of myself on display to appease someone else's narrow ideology. There I was, seduced into thinking that I could find community--this time among my gender--but no, these white feminist women were not my people either.

Feeling the Intersectionality of Race and Gender Domination

When I reflect on these experiences I am reminded of Charles Mills's description of the interplay of race and gender domination among white men, white women, nonwhite men, and nonwhite women. (6) It is no surprise that white men, invested in retaining their race and gender privilege over everyone, will have to work the hardest to see racial and gender discrimination. The disregard that so many white women, nonwhite men, and nonwhite women experience as we try to make our way into philosophy, that bastion of white male rationality par excellence, bears this out.

Mills holds that white women, invested in preserving their racial privilege, are often blind to the ways in which they dominate nonwhite women and men. This should come as no surprise either, but my experience at conferences points to ideological domination in addition to racial domination. My experience tells me, along with anecdotes from others, that women--white or nonwhite--who do not ascribe to a particular interpretation of feminism, or who comport themselves in a manner that does not fit the dominant ideology, are not welcomed into the community. I do not see a difference between that kind of ideological domination and the ideological white male domination of philosophy that we are fighting against.

Nonwhite men are not privileged by race but they are privileged by gender. Invested in preserving gender domination, they will be blind to the patriarchy that positions them above nonwhite women. (7) Nonwhite women will look to their brothers for community and find that the sights of those men are not on their sisters but instead on getting to the top of the hierarchy alongside their brothers in gender domination, white men.

And nonwhite women? We get it from all sides--racial domination from white men and women, and gender domination from white, brown, and black men. While white women are invested in getting their full share of privilege by virtue of their race, and nonwhite men are invested in getting their full share of privilege by virtue of their gender, nonwhite women are invested in getting out from under.

The way I see things, white women and nonwhite men have some work to do if they do not want to inadvertently ally themselves with white men and reproduce the gender and racial domination that minority women already experience. Nonwhite feminist philosophers have well emphasized the importance of treating race and gender as intersectional rather than separate and unconnected. (8) Still, there are times in academic environments when race shifts into stark focus while gender assumes the background and vice versa, thus leaving minority women struggling mightily to remain whole in the awkward position of being cleaved into parts. And as much as we may want to believe that only a white male philosopher would victimize us in this way, there are times when the person wielding the blade is one of our own. As we try to carve out a niche for ourselves in philosophy while pushing philosophy to be more inclusive, we slip into reproducing the very domination we are rallying against. I wonder: Will white women and black men have to work as hard at seeing their privilege as white men do because they assume that by virtue of their own gender or racial subordination they do not have to work at all?


Dabashi says, "It is precisely that self-confidence, that self-consciousness, that audacity to think yourself the agent of history that enables a thinker to think his particular thinking is 'Thinking' in universal terms, and his philosophy 'Philosophy' and his city square 'The Public Space.'" (9)

In the quest to become audacious enough to think themselves agents of history, gaining self-confidence, and self-consciousness to be universal, are white women philosophers and nonwhite male philosophers stepping on the backs of nonwhite women?

Seduced by the promise of community from my would-be people, I was disappointed at every turn.

For now, an occasional gathering with a group of black women philosophers and the university where I teach is where I feel most at home in academia. I am one member of a four-member department, three of whom are women, and we have a good working relationship. My students are all women, most of them are of color, and a good many of them are bisexual or lesbian. It is not a tier-one school and the teaching load is heavy, but I do not have to fight for respect when I enter the classroom on the first day of class, no one questions that the work I do is anything less than philosophy, no one looks at me sideways when I wear heels and lipstick (which I do regularly), and it would not occur to them to think that I am an educator only and not also a scholar. And when I came out as a bisexual in a committed relationship with a woman, I was applauded. I find it disheartening, sadly regressive, and yet comforting that my people are the people who are most like me in most ways.


I want to thank Paul Breines for giving me extensive feedback on the earliest draft of this article, and Maeve O'Donovan and Laurie Wilks for their supportive comments on later drafts.

Terra, your love has given me the courage to write from my heart. Thank you.

(1.) Dabashi Hamid, "Can Non-Europeans Think?"

(2.) See Sally Haslanger, "Changing the Ideology and Culture of Philosophy: Not by Reason (Alone)," Hypatia 23, no. 2: 210-233; Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1997); Charles W. Mills and Carole Pateman, Contract and Domination (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2007); and various articles. Anita Superson, "Strategies for Making Feminist Philosophy Mainstream Philosophy," Hypatia 26, no. 2:410-418.

(3.) I embrace my role as an educator. I know I am needed at my university that has a minority student population of 40 percent and where I am one of maybe five black women faculty out of about one hundred total.

(4.) Hamid, "Can Non-Europeans Think?"

(5.) There just are not many of us to go around. At last count, there are only about thirty black women philosophers in the United States and there were even fewer years ago when I attended the conference.

(6.) Mills and Pateman, Contract and Domination.

(7.) Ibid., p. 184. In general, racial domination has historically trumped gender domination positioning nonwhite men beneath white women.

(8.) For just a few, see Angela Davis (1981), Maria Lugones (1994), Kimberle Crenshaw (1989), Gloria Anzuldua (2001).

(9.) Hamid, "Can Non-Europeans Think?"

Desiree H. Melton is an associate professor of philosophy at the Notre Dame of Maryland University. She specializes in critical race theory, social and political philosophy, and existentialism.
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Author:Melton, Desiree H.
Publication:The Black Scholar
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Dec 22, 2013
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