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Linda Alcoff
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Let me heartily concur with others in this discussion who have praised Jeffers’ paper. Its refreshing take on Du Bois, positive assessment of Outlaw, and bold defense of a non-racist raced future is invigorating. Just as important is Jeffers’ sophisticated philosophical methodology: he develops a complex analysis that refuses linear causality or facile distinctions, and for that reason presents a more realistic analysis that can stand up to our best social science. On his account, we must understand the meaning of race as having multiply dynamic dimensions. Jeffers’ articulation of the political grounds of race, the cultural content of race, and the potential non-racist future of race should set the terms of the debate for some time to come. I largely agree with his account, but I do have some questions. Mainly, I want to raise questions about the broadly volitional character of Jeffers’ account, and also whether his account can stand as an account of race simpliciter, implying that it would include whiteness as well as all other races. Following Du Bois, Jeffers presents an account of race in relation to African Americans (or perhaps even more broadly Africana peoples of the diaspora, or possibly all black people whether in the diaspora or not). For this group, the history of colonialism and racist ideologies is obviously critical: without that history, it is reasonable to wonder whether the racial formation we think of as black identity would have emerged. Thus, the political theory of race accords a key causal role to non-black forces wielding both practices and ideas, not to mention weapons. In response to enslavement, forced migration, social terror, and group interpellation as belonging together, people developed cultural practices and traditions that form a broad and diverse family resemblance of content that makes up the cultural identity of blackness. Thus, although the political grounds of the category ‘blackness’ was not instigated by black people themselves, in regard to the category’s cultural content, it is black people’s agency, rather than non-black’s, that plays the primary role, though because it is a response to contextual conditions not of their own choosing there is no simple causal story to tell here. Shelby’s interesting question about whether one should be obliged to value racial identity or not, or assimilate or not, assumes, I think, a volitional capacity to value or to assimilate. But this assumption of our volitional capacity in regard to racial identities stands in tension with Jeffers’ acceptance, even into the non-racist future he optimistically imagines, of the validity of lines of descent as a criterion of inclusion. We might hold that it is up to us to decide whether, and how, to honor and remember our forebears, but I would argue this is not quite right. If we choose not to remember our forebears, we are choosing to forego self-knowledge, or an understanding of how we came to be who we are in a thick sense (perceptual attunements, affective orientations, as well as substantive cultural practices and ways of being in the world). Some may not wish to honor their lineage (here is where white differences may emerge), but remembering it at all seems less open to reasonable debate. Moreover, when one does remember one’s forebears, for example in the practice of Passover in which Jews recount macro historical experiences, there is an automatic effect of a kind of reinforcement. In other words, one cannot remember, especially when remembering is done in some public performance, without it having effects on one’s sense of self and thus one’s future way of being in the world. So, I would argue we choose not to remember at the peril of reducing self-knowledge, and as we remember we further reinforce the sense of self as substantively connected to a past and to certain others as well as to certain practices. Volitional capacity does not disappear—remembering is always an act of interpretation, as the diversity of the Haggadot read at Passover seders will attest---but our relation to the experiences of our forebears is not simply a volitional matter. Thus, I read Jeffers’ account as less volitional than Shelby’s questions would imply. We still have a range of choices to make to be sure, but the choice to escape our lineage entirely is not a realistic choice. I am curious about Jeffers’ response to this point. Now what does this mean for whiteness, or for other group categories of race? If this is truly a theory of ‘race,’ rather than a theory of African American racial identity, it would need to apply across the board. Jeffers notes the difference with whiteness in regard to what might be legitimate, that is, non-racist, attitudes toward the historical formation of one’s white racial identity. Expressions of white pride in a white past have always been in my experience motivated by racism. But Jeffers maintains the parallelism across white and black when he insists that it would be disingenuous of whites to disavow their whiteness. He further suggests that rejecting white privilege does not require rejecting all aspects of whiteness, and remembering the history of whiteness would be useful for motivating a social critique of hierarchy that will no doubt continue to be useful. I realize that Jeffers’ paper is not focused on whiteness, but there is much more to be said here given the different histories. If the political ground of whiteness is a social construction of unearned privilege, what will ground whiteness in a non-racist future? What is the discrete cultural content of whiteness that offers to unite—even under a family resemblance model---all the diverse ethnicities that were subsumed under the category? If super-exploitation and social terror were pretty indiscriminately applied to Africana peoples in the diaspora, making political unity a reasonable project, the privileges of whiteness were pretty meager for many poor whites as well as others within the group, such as the disabled, gays and lesbians, and so on. Thus, whiteness poses different, perhaps unique challenges for a future continuation. Like Jeffers, I believe simple disavowals of whiteness are disingenuous methods to escape responsibility, but (as he acknowledges) this does not resolve the difficult question of the future of whiteness. So if Jeffers’ and Du Bois’s counsel on racial identity for black people doesn’t quite apply in all respects to whites, is it really a theory of race in general? We must go beyond blacks and whites to ask about further racial categories, each of which, I would suspect, holds specific and unique challenges both to backward looking and forward looking practices. The category of “Latino” has been unquestionably racialized in the minds of white racists, signaling an inassimilable, uneducated, inferior grouping undeserving of social inclusion, yet this category is too internally diverse for talk of a shared culture. Asian Americans, an even more diverse grouping, are also racialized but the racism they face takes a markedly different form from the attributions of intellectual inferiority we generally associate with the term. Joshua Glasgow asks Jeffers why he insists on the concept of race when his future projection predicts a move to a cultural or ethnic form of identity. I think Jeffers is right to maintain the importance of the concept of race—it is what explains the past as well as the formation of the present that will no doubt persist into the future for some time—but I wonder why he does not avail himself of the concept of ethnorace. This concept may make it easier to accommodate the differences both among and within the categories, acknowledging the need for a specific analysis of each. I look forward to more debate on the ideas Jeffers has provided for us.
Sorry--I forgot to make one last point about 'bad depts' getting on the 'good' list, though I have addressed this in the past. Yes, I have no doubt that our list is fallible and some recommendations are already out of date. To address this problem we are doing three things: 1) a new report will be conducted this year, and every year hereafter; 2) new factual information about depts that is relevant to our report will be posted on the site as it comes to our attention, as we have done with DePaul.(And thus we welcome your help in this). 3) We will work to expand/improve our advisory boards every year, and as I said, will add a special advisory board on climate issues for women separate from the advisors on feminist philosophy.
I want to thank the many commentators to this discussion for their honest thoughts--this is precisely the sort of constructive open discussion we need more of. One thing this discussion demonstrates is that the nature of "objective and good research methods" has some room for debate in which reasonable people can disagree. No need to attribute underhanded motives, in other words, every time we find ourselves disagreeing on what are truly complex methodological and epistemological issues. I hope we can all agree that attaining a fully adequate picture of the climate in any given department is exceedingly difficult. Yet I imagine we can also all agree that there are better and worse methods. To get to a better assessment, we need more sources of information and more open discussions. Let me address some of the new points that have been made: 1) Current graduate students are an excellent source of information, and I always advise students considering a department to talk to the graduate students. But there are still questions, such as---which particular students do you speak to? Will a majority vote on climate issues among all the female students necessarily yield the truth, especially given the climate of secrecy around problems that exists in many places? Should men be consulted? Shouldn't we consult students who have left the program, since they may have left for reasons that are relevant to our concerns? Despite these problems, I do think current graduate students will be a good source of information. But my point here is that there are methodological difficulties that arise even with a survey of all current graduate students. (And btw, I did not claim that no grad students were consulted in our survey, I claimed that I do not know who all was consulted) 2) Faculty members share their problems across departments. Many white women and people of color have been for a long time 'the only one' in their depts, and we developed strong relationships with others in other departments. In fact, we may be more able to discuss issues that occur inside our depts with people outside of them than people inside of them, at times. It is not always responsible to discuss dept business in this way, of course, but that doesn't mean that it is NEVER responsible to do this. We may need help in figuring out how to address something, or just need the release of sharing, or we may want to share vital information that should be known about our dept. Thus, there is reliable information about departments known to people outside those departments. 3) All of this might get classified by some as 'rumor' and 'hearsay'. What gets put into those latter categories is undoubtedly a contentious issue. Information shared inside a department may also be classified, sometimes rightly, as mere rumor. But sometimes, the information our faculty friends at other institutions share with us gets independent confirmation, for example, when we know the people they are talking about, or perhaps we even see an email or a report, or hear the same information from multiple sources. ALL OF THIS IS FALLIBLE. Yet, over time, the justification can mount that grounds belief in a responsible way. 4) There were also some good points made about the issue of the history of a dept versus the present. I entirely agree with the argument that past history is still relevant if a department has taken no steps to address past problems, if the offending persons are still there, if the problems were actively hushed up, etc. So I was undoubtedly too quick to dismiss the relevance of the past. 5) We have invited some depts to post information about pro-active steps they have taken to address climate issues, including some on the 'needs improvement' category. None are thus far willing to do so, and I do think this bodes ill for the profession. Departments do not want to call attention to themselves in this way, but this contributes to the climate of intimidation about talking about climate issues and about problems that exist. I do find it interesting that mainly women are writing and posting, etc. This is an issue that all should be concerned about and all can contribute to, even while it is true that women are privy to some experiences men do not have (such as being in a pretty extreme minority and being in a group that has a long history of epistemic discrediting). But especially department leaders should take leadership here and offer examples of pro-active steps and their commitments to achieving inclusiveness and parity. 6) Every PhD granting dept in the US was on our survey list but only some of the major ones in Canada and the UK. We hope to achieve greater comprehensiveness in the future. Finally, I believe the situation we all face is this. We need to balance our concerns for maintaining the highest epistemic rigor and protection of the innocent on the one hand with the equally valid goal on the other of finding ways to share more information publicly given a context too often beset by secrecy, intimidation, recrimination, and hostility to those who share negative experiences. How do we go about pursuing both of these aims? The Pluralist's Guide to Philosophy has endeavored to do both in the best way we could find. We will continue to work to improve its procedures and methods, with your constructive help, regards again, Linda Alcoff
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Jul 15, 2011