White Philosophers and Black Conversations

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The Philosophical Gourmet Report, which ranks philosophy programs and gives specific listings of which departments are strongest in which areas of philosophy, will be adding the category of philosophy of race in its upcoming revision, which will take place this fall. Brian Leiter, who organizes the Gourmet Report, posted a quote from philosopher Tommy Curry about this long-overdue change:

Black philosophy continues to be lured toward the approval of whites as if their standards and acceptance can/do accurately describe the merit of our work. We have seen this in the work of whites like Sullivan and Bernansconi [sic], and now have it yet again regarding Leiter. They take Black conversations, market them as "legitimate" and benefit from them by controlling the academic "rigor" of the discourse.

Shannon Sullivan writes about race as it has affected her as a white woman and reflects on the nature of whiteness as she's come to understand it through dialoguing with non-whites and through applying philosophical skills she's learned by practicing philosophy. The idea that this must be seen as an attempt to control blacks is ludicrous. Bernasconi's work, from what I've seen, also seems motivated by wanting to understand a legitimate philosophical topic of inquiry rather than any sense of whipping those black philosophers into conformity.

Philosophers working in the area of race have complained to Brian Leiter that he's ignored an important area of philosophy where much good work has been done, and so he's finally (years later than I would have liked) added it to his surveys of which departments are seen by those in the loop of philosophy of race to be good programs for that area of study. Surely many of the people who will be commenting on this will be non-white, even if there are some people working in the area who are white.

I'm not exactly Brian Leiter's biggest fan. We've each criticized the other both publicly and privately. But I can't fathom the claim that he's motivated by wanting to exert power over black philosophers in particular. Even if you thought he was using the Philosophy Gourmet Report to control the discipline or to promote himself (rather than the more charitable interpretation that he does it to help students find the programs best suited to them, which I think is his actual motivation), his goals wouldn't be to have white people controlling black people. They would be to have an in-group of philosophers controlling which departments get seen as the best. It is true that his advisory board, whose rankings determine the report's rankings, is a pretty white group, but philosophers as a whole are a pretty white group. At worst, you might accuse him of not being concerned enough to include non-white philosophers in his advisory board.

Now there's a claim in the general vicinity of what Curry is saying that I think is not so removed from reality, although I think it's also wrong if applied to undermine the work of whites on race issues or to claim that it's illegitimate for white philosophers to evaluate the work of black philosophers. That claim is that black philosophers can have conversations about issues affecting them that white people won't understand as well. This is true. There's a kind of epistemic privilege that comes from having experienced certain things, and being black in America does bring with it some experiences that white people don't understand as well. So some conversations among black philosophers will be harder for white philosophers to step into and participate in the same way or to evaluate as good or bad philosophy. Sure.

However, there are also experiences white people have in America that involved race that also bring something to the table that black philosophers have less ccess to. I'm not claiming this is symmetrical in terms of an equal number of experiences or similar kinds of experiences, but I am pointing out that any social location can involve experiences that only people in that social location can understand. Some of the experiences whites have blind them to certain racial issues, but some of the experiences blacks have can make them less sensitive to certain race issues as well. There are experiences that someone who is white who is heavily interwoven with black Americans will have that most blacks and whites will not have. (See here for much more argumentation in this direction.)

Despite all this, it simply isn't impossible for white philosophers to do good work contributing to discussions of race, and just about all non-white philosophers have recognized this. It simply isn't impossible for white philosophers to look at these discussions and form reasoned opinions about whose arguments are better than whose. It simply isn't impossible for white philosophers to get a sense from these discussions whose work is having the most influence and therefore whose work is seen by the participants in these discussions as the best work.

So the idea that a white or nearly-white advisory board can't evaluate the work of non-white philosophers or the work of philosophers on issues that have come out of black discussions is not, because of the facts about epistemic privilege, a complete non-starter. There may be additional difficulties in it than what you already have in evaluating the work of philosophy of religion when most of the reviewers pay no attention to that subject (as is certainly the case with the Gourmet Report advisory board in general). But they have ways of dealing with this. A good advisory board member who doesn't know philosophy of religion will presumably ask people they know who do it which philosophers or which departments are strongest in that area. So in the end I don't think even the more reasonable claim in the area of Curry's criticism can justify his resistance to this or to the work of white philosophers on issues related to race.

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