Featured Philosopher: Robin Zheng


Robin Zheng is an Assistant Professor at Yale-NUS College, Singapore. She received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. From 2015 – 2016 she was a Visiting Junior Research Fellow at Newnham College, Cambridge. Her research ranges across ethics, moral psychology, feminist and social philosophy, focusing mainly on issues of moral responsibility and moral criticism (e.g. for implicit bias, structural injustice). She also has interests in philosophy of race and has written on topics such as racialized sexual preferences and race in pornography. She is a member of the APA Task Force on Diversity and Inclusion, as well as the APA Task Force on a Best Practices Scheme.

Working for a Cause: The Political Integrity of Ella Baker

Robin Zheng 

The following is a condensed version of a talk I gave for The Integrity Project: https://integrityproject.org.

Ella Baker, a key leader of several of the most influential organizations of the U.S. Civil Rights movement, remains relatively unknown compared to some of her peers. This may be due in part to the fact that, in her words: “I never worked for an organization but for a cause.”

In numerous ways, Baker was a paragon of what we ordinarily think of as integrity. During her six decades of activism, she was affiliated with more than forty different political organizations (much to the bewilderment of the FBI agents writing her file). Moreover, she underwent considerable personal sacrifice and defied social expectations in order to do this work. As a young middle-class woman with a college degree, it was almost “inevitable” that she should become a teacher (Ransby 2003, p. 62). But according to Baker, “I had seen generations of graduates also go out and teach. And sometimes there had been people who had shown spirit fighting back in school but after they taught they came back and they were nothing. They had no spirit” (Ransby 2003, p. 62). Rather than risk compromising her own fighting spirit, Baker chose to forego a safe and respectable teaching career. Years later, after working a variety of odd and part-time jobs in New York before becoming director of branches of the NAACP, she resigned from the last position with a steady salary, benefits, and long-term security she would ever hold – spending the next forty-one years of her life making ends meet through multiple jobs, borrowed money, and funds from a supportive network (Moye 2013 p. 6, 65).

Her resignation from the NAACP was just one instance of Baker’s lifelong willingness to challenge authority in service of her best judgment. While executive Walter White wanted a strongly centralized organization that issued top-down campaigns directing branch efforts to national directives, Baker continually argued for transferring skills to local branches to facilitate their deciding and acting their own priorities and issues. She also disagreed fiercely with Martin Luther King, Jr. and the SCLC, feeling that a culture of hero-worship around King “was not mere froth but a harmful end in itself” because it obscured and obstructed the self-directed, bottom-up, large-scale collective efforts of the many that were absolutely essential and had to be cultivated in order to bring about change (qtd in Ransby 2003, p. 188).

Finally, Baker was an explicit advocate of a distinctive kind of political integrity which consists in remaining true to the cause: of dismantling rather than merely ascending the ladder. She warned against the “accommodating type of Negro leader who…is quick to limit the Negro’s drive for civil rights to some one phase, such as voter registration, and who pointedly avoids mention of desegregation of schools, buses, housing, public facilities, etc.” (Moye 2013, p. 103), as well as “the American weakness of being recognized and having arrived and taking on the characteristics and the values, even, of the foe” (Ransby 2003, p. 191). This is surely one of the most difficult aspects of maintaining political integrity: staying impervious to systems of injustice whose most seductive dangers emerge only once resistance has been in some measure successful, and being willing to soldier on with the grueling and inglorious work of day-to-day organizing on which that success always depends.

Let me briefly offer some last thoughts, suggested by Baker’s own choices, concerning the possibilities and limits of integrity in politics. Historian Barbara Ransby writes:

Baker certainly had to maintain a variety of public and private identities in order to carry out the work that she did in different venues and disparate political and social climates…

For much of her adult political life, Ella Baker was a socialist without a party or a party line…Her own worldview was constructed from an amalgam of different ideologies and traditions, combining the black Baptist missionary values of charity, humility, and service with the economic theories of Marxists and socialists of various strips who advocated a redistribution of wealth. (371)

The relational skills, flexibility, and overarching pragmatism described here by Ransby strikes me as exactly what is required for movement-building of the sort at which Baker excelled. But negotiating demands between principle and pragmatism poses serious risks to integrity. To take one example: activists in Montgomery passed over the case of Claudette Colvin, an unmarried, pregnant working-class teenager, and Mary Louise Smith, teenage daughter of a known alcoholic, both of whom were arrested for challenging streetcar segregation weeks before Rosa Parks. According to Parks, volunteer branch secretary of the Montgomery NAACP who first met Baker at one of the latter’s Leadership Training Conferences, they were looking for “a plaintiff who was more upstanding before we went ahead and invested any more time, effort, and money” (Moye 2013, p. 83).

One of the few (self-acknowledged) mistakes in Baker’s life was a failure to come out strongly against anti-Communism in her earlier years with the NAACP. While she believed in civil liberties, she was against allowing Communists to be members because it “put the organization at risk of persecution by the government” (Ransby 2003, p. 407); this position, perhaps, allowed her to rationalize her role in the NAACP’s Communist purge in the late 1950s. But such a view ran counter to Baker’s “big tent” approach throughout the rest of her life to embracing allies of all stripes, and her later explanation that “I followed a national office directive to the letter, and I should not have” belies her famous willingness to buck organizational authority in other cases (Ransby 2003, p. 161). As leftist and other social movements continue to struggle in the devastating wake of anti-Communism, Baker “eventually [came] to the conclusion that the corrosive effect of anticommunism had to be fought aggressively if any broad-based progressive movement was going to survive” (Ransby 2003, p. 235). One could say that the willingness to offer up Communist allies in exchange for respectability constituted a lack of integrity that proved a costly drain on the ultimate strength of progressive movements.

I want to suggest that Baker may have missed another opportunity, as a result of a different sort of lack of integrity. Baker’s lifelong policy was to excise, rather than incorporate, her personal life from her political work: she kept her marriage and subsequent divorce almost entirely secret from the public. According to Moye, Baker’s firm refusal to discuss her marriage was a way of “defining herself as something other than a traditional wife and mother…[in a way that] refocused attention on her ideas” (2013, p. 6). This seems right, and is another testament to Baker’s unconventionality and integrity to the cause. But it is surely also true that Baker could alternatively have redefined the role of “wife and mother” itself by making her own choices more public. I find it striking that, in a 1969 speech on “The Black Woman in the Civil Rights Struggle,” Baker opened with the following:

I was a little bit amazed as to why the selection of a discussion on the role of black women in the world. I just said to Bernice Reagon that I have never been one to feel great needs in the direction of setting myself apart as a woman. I’ve always thought first and foremost of people as individuals…(Grant 1998, p. 227)

I cannot help but wonder if Baker’s apparent blindness to the importance of gender – consider how strange it would have been for her to say “I have never been one to feel great needs in the direction of setting myself apart as a Black person. I’ve always thought first and foremost of people as individuals” – might be traced to her policy of strictly dividing her personal life from her political. Had they been more integrated, she may have recognized and acted more directly (rather than indirectly, which she undoubtedly did) on specific forms of gender-based oppression.

Of course, sexism may very well itself have been a reason that Baker, consciously or not, was pragmatically wise in choosing to totally distance herself from her identity as a woman. It is a complicated matter, as we need only look to scandals of disgraced politicians to see, to delineate the proper relationship between private and public life. But in light of the above, I suggest that integrity across personal and political, private and political is a desirable aim. Such integrity across multiple identities, I think, surfaces the cross-cutting and intersectional nature of oppressions, giving them their full due, and it can facilitate the envisioning of ways of living in a world that is yet to be. It can constrain the possibility of bad faith excuses, and it can instill confidence in others that the lives devoted to the cause are worth striving for and investing in with one’s own hopes and dreams. In this I think there are very few figures who can lay claim to have embodied so fully the virtue of political integrity as Ella Baker.

Grant, J. (1999). Ella Baker: Freedom Bound. New York: John Wiley & Sons, Inc.

Moye, J. T. (2013). Ella Baker: Community Organizer of the Civil Rights Movement: Rowman & Littlefield.

Ransby, B. (2003). Ella Baker and the Black Freedom Movement: A Radical Democratic Vision. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.



Featured Philosopher: Meena Krishnamurthy


Meena Krishnamurthy, the editor of Philosopher, is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and in the Program in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the University of Michigan. She works in political philosophy on a variety of issues. The underlying theme that runs through her work is a concern with equality (political, economic, and social). She is currently writing a series of related papers on the work of Martin Luther King Jr. and Gandhi.

Adamson, Greek-Responding Philosophy, and the Indian Subcontinent [1]

Meena Krishnamurthy

Peter Adamson writes:

I have a provocative proposal of my own: intellectually speaking, the more valid distinction is not between ‘European’ and ‘non-European’ philosophy, but between philosophical cultures that respond to Greek thought (however indirectly), and those that do not. Philosophers of the Islamic world—Jews, Muslims, and Christians writing in Arabic or Syriac—belong to the former category, as do Latin American thinkers. Philosophers of pre-modern Asia—India, China Korea, Japan, etc—as well as thinkers of the pre-colonial Americas and Africa, belong to the latter. Of course some believe that there may have been an exchange of ideas between the Greeks and India, but if so the influence was not determinative as it was in the case of the Islamic world, and in any case the influence is more usually thought to have traveled from India to the Mediterranean rather than the other way around.

Adamson writes this in response to a piece by Jay Garfield and Bryan Van Norden. Garfield and Van Norden proposed renaming philosophy departments that fail to cover “non-Western” philosophical work and traditions as “Departments of European and American Philosophy.” As Justin Weinberg says, “this led Adamson to wonder just what ‘European Philosophy’ is.”

I applaud Adamson for his attempt not only to clarify the debate about how to delineate philosophy but also for his attempt to recategorize philosophy in a way that is more inclusive and true to the history of philosophy.[2] That said, it is, in part, the history of philosophy that suggests that Adamson’s own comment leads to some improper characterizations.

Adamson’s general point is that philosophy can be divided into two categories: Greek-responding and non-Greek responding. He then suggests that pre-modern Asian thought was not Greek-responding.

This move is too quick when we consider the Indian subcontinent. It is one thing to say, for example, that there was a school of pre-modern philosophical thought in India that pre-dated the Greeks. This is accurate. It is, however, another thing to say that there wasn’t a tradition of philosophical thought in India that was written in response to the Greeks. This is not accurate.

Adamson wrongly subscribes to a one-way direction of influence. On his view, Indian philosophical thought influenced the Greeks, not the other way around. It would seem, however, that the Greeks did influence Indian thought through their influence on Islamic thought. There was a strong tradition of pre-modern Islamic thought in the Indian subcontinent. For example, as Andrew March pointed out to me on Facebook, Persian scholar, Nasir al-Din al-Tusi wrote a work of ethics called the “Nasirean Ethics” (Akhlaq-i Nasiri). This work can be understood as a culmination of the Islamic reception and transformation of Aristotle. As March noted, the tradition of reproducing manuscripts of the Nasirean Ethics, and commentaries on it, as well as much else from the Persian literary tradition, was very vibrant in Moghul lands in the subcontinent.[3] It would seem then that there was a school of pre-modern Indian philosophical thought that was written in response to the Greeks.

I discuss this matter not only for philosophical reasons, but for political ones too. In the face of Hindu Nationalism, there is a growing tendency to identify Indian philosophical thought solely with Hindu philosophical thought. In ignoring the presence of Greek-responding Islamic philosophical thought in the Indian subcontinent, Adamson inadvertently gives support to the Hindu Nationalist project. It would be a mistake to feed into this project and thereby support Hindu Nationalism with inappropriate characterizations of the history of philosophy on the Indian subcontinent.

In any case, I thank Adamson for proposing a different way of categorizing philosophy. With some small changes – namely, having a more accurate view of the direction of influence – the notion of Greek-responding and non-Greek responding philosophy may prove to be a useful, even if not definitive, addition to the philosophical lexicon.[4]


[1] Many thanks to Eric Schliesser, Andrew March, and Chike Jeffers for the insightful conversations that led to my writing this post.

[2] Adamson is the creator and producer of the wonderful “History of Philosophy with No Gaps” podcast.

[3] For a discussion of further examples of the influence of Islamic thought on philosophical thought in the Indian subcontinent, see S. Frederick Starr’s Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013).

[4] While I do find the distinction useful, I would also prefer to have a notion of philosophy that is less centered around a particular group of people such as the Greeks.


Featured Philosopher: Lionel McPherson


Lionel K. McPherson is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Tufts University. He has published on race (“Deflating ‘Race’,” J-APA), metaethics (“Normativity and the Rejection of Rationalism,” JPhil), war and terrorism (“Is Terrorism Distinctively Wrong?” Ethics), and global justice. He’s working on a book project, The Afterlife of Race, that develops the idea of socioancestry in place of “race,” the case for non-exclusionary Black political solidarity, and proposals for Black progress under officially race-neutral circumstances.

The Banality of White Supremacy (in and beyond Philosophy) 

Lionel K. McPherson

Associate Professor, Tufts University

I’ve recently been thinking about what I call “the paradox of critiques of white supremacy.”

Here’s a critique that targets mainstream Western philosophy, courtesy of Meena Krishnamurthy:

“To the extent that white voices are privileged and challenges to white supremacy are not considered to be real philosophy, philosophy as it is traditionally conceived may itself be understood as an expression of white supremacy. We should decolonize philosophy….”

This way of putting the point shares a tendency to invoke “philosophy” without specifying a cultural provenance—which seems to assume either some unified conception of philosophy or the Western variety’s centrality.

Yet Western philosophy is not akin to an occupied territory: the tradition mainly occurs in (majority or plurality) white territories. Its history is a source of color-conscious cultural pride (recall Hume’s “There never was civilized nation of any other complexion than white, nor even any individual eminent in either action or speculation”). The updated notion of Western philosophy as a distinctive approach to critical reflection—with the use of reason, unbounded by established traditions, religious proclivities, political realities, and social identities, in search for Truth—has disappeared the affirmation of whiteness in its constitution.

Contemporary white supremacy has similarly moved toward declaring racelessness, despite all appearances to the contrary. Of course, critics of “white supremacy” believe that whiteness hasn’t gone anywhere: they use the term to refer to systemic, prevalent, unfair domination, exclusion, or absence of non-white peoples and their projects. What, then, could be the realistic prospects for non-white equality in white territories?

From what I can tell, we are to believe that a critical mass of white people might finally be convinced—500 years and counting in the land that became the United States, for example—by moral suasion or at least feelings of shame…to correct their territory’s practices of white supremacy. The same belief would apply to the practice of Western philosophy, with the added assumption that “we” are a mostly open-minded, enlightened, well-intentioned community.

That assumption seems optimistic. I’ll be less polite than Krishnamurthy: the Anglo-American philosophy profession has continued to be a proud site of white supremacy. To modify the duck test: If it looks like white supremacy, acts like white supremacy, and talks like white supremacy, then it probably is white supremacy. I’m only a self-appointed messenger. The United States, particularly in relation to Black Americans, is my territory of focus.

A perverse feature of American life is that calling a white person racist is allegedly a very wounding insult. Evidently, however, most White Americans still accommodate themselves to a country that looks, acts, and talks like white supremacy. As for the liberal precept “We shouldn’t speculate about what’s in a person’s heart, mind, or motives,” Black Americans cannot reasonably go on, without substantial evidence, suspending skepticism about the racial good faith of individuals.

A 15-minute Internet search will turn up countless studies and reports about glaring racial disparities in income and wealth, health, housing, education, employment, criminal justice, and police violence. Lack of access to information is no longer a plausible excuse for inaction, if it ever was. The shamelessness of mundane white ignorance can be literally frightening.

Most Black Americans have an anti-black bias sense (roughly analogous to “gaydar”). This sixth-sense, while imperfect, develops from inherited experience. The ability to distinguish vicious, indifferent, fake, and loyal white folks has long been crucial to black well-being (h/t Lucius Outlaw). Relatively few White Americans today seem viciously anti-black: they just don’t care enough about the lives of Black Americans to do or give up much, if anything, to correct anti-black injustice and inequality.

Post-Ferguson, hardly a week goes by without additional public evidence that the country is largely disinterested in any imperative of equal citizenship. Police killing of unarmed or non-threatening black persons is routine and willfully underdocumented. White America has been far more outraged about athletes kneeling in protest during the national anthem. Terror lynching is back for the 21st century, now usually state-sanctioned, with videos of anti-black brutality serving as modern-day lynching postcards.

For instance, the Ohio prosecutor who released a report that deemed 12-year-old Tamir Rice’s summary killing by police “objectively reasonable” did not expect to convince any sensible person who saw the video. The report flaunts white domination and anti-black disrespect, under the pretext of a credible investigation. We comprehend, explicitly or implicitly, the familiar message.

Black subjugation has been a pillar of white supremacy in America, not an anomaly that deforms the claim to equal citizenship. This reality is irreconcilable with national myth. Racial discrimination, bias, and disadvantage are acknowledged as problems “we” should address. “We” are supposed to include many White Americans—essentially good persons who would welcome substantive change. Somehow, though, the dream of approaching racial equality is perpetually deferred.

Herein lies the paradox of critiques of white supremacy. If “we” Americans had the power and conviction to bring about racial justice, we wouldn’t be close to where we are (by macro-level measures) almost 50 years after the Civil Rights Movement. Indeed, the idea of contemporary white supremacy evokes practices that are ostensibly “colorblind” and typically operate without self-consciously racist agents. These practices depend on day-to-day inertia and complicity. The conditions under which radical change might happen through dialogue, moral suasion, empathy, etc. do not appear to obtain: otherwise, white supremacy in America would have been well on its way out.

In short, “we” have been stuck in the banality of white supremacy.

Liberal versions of white supremacy always seek diversionary explanations for racial inequality. Attention is directed to “implicit bias,” with the quick addendum that everyone suffers from some forms of it to some extent; or the “pipeline problem,” whereby few, if any, suitable candidates can be found mainly because of unfortunate circumstances beyond the control or responsibility of white agency at whatever site; or the evolutionary-psychological basis of “tribal” race discrimination, never mind that most Black Americans are not monoracially black/African; or a simply “natural” preference to live and work with people who look (color-consciously) similar.

In general, white supremacy sets low baselines for “racial progress.” White America still insists on taking credit for ending slavery and Jim Crow. “We” are supposed to be optimistic since white feelings about black persons have changed for the better. The standard in Western philosophy departments, when Hume’s (or Kant’s or Hegel’s) profound racism does come up, is to immediately explain that he opposed slavery or that his alleged racism is irrelevant to this great mind and the respect due his central ideas, and thus “we” needn’t consider the issue further.

That “racial issues” may have important ramifications for “race-neutral” philosophical arguments is sometimes clear. Some of us balk at the ahistorical approach to property rights in Nozick’s celebrated Anarchy, State, and Utopia, with its virtual silence on slaves, their stolen labor, and the purported impossibility of reparations to their descendants. Nor will we be comforted by Rawls’s agenda-setting view that “we” must first complete “ideal theory” to adequately understand how to reform our non-ideal world. One needn’t be Black American for this to seem utterly implausible and impractical. Yet the lack of urgency to theorize racial justice is normal in the mainstream philosophical territory.

To reiterate, the Anglo-American philosophy profession, like the history of modern Western philosophy, has been a site of white supremacy, no matter its practitioners’ intentions. “White voices” are of course privileged. They have origin stories about how their people’s domination is almost entirely innocent or appropriate—whether due to the objective merits of their intellects, methods, interests, and values or to various factors external to the substance of philosophy and its cultural practice.

An obvious reason few Black American students venture into Western philosophy departments, with the few who do rarely sticking around, is that those places—with the faculty and other students, the questions taken to be worth pursuing, the often passive-aggressive atmosphere of discourse above the fray of distracting social justice movements—loudly pings their anti-black bias sense receptors. “We” philosophers are what we say and do for real, individually and collectively. Random “minority” lists, disingenuous affirmative “outreach” notices, and low-powered “diversity” initiatives do not inspire the suspension of disbelief. The awareness of being tolerated as a marginal outsider gets tiring.

This is what a kinder, gentler site of white supremacy feels like. From a macro perspective, the makeup of the Anglo-American philosophy profession looks nearly indistinguishable from its pre-1965 profile. Black students and professors represent no more than roughly two percent of the total constituency.

There is no solving white supremacy in defiant white territories. Incremental change is likely as good as it will get in America—from a people who, as the late spoken-word singer Gil Scott-Heron wryly observed, managed to put “Whitey on the moon,” within eight years of declaring the ambition a national priority.

Increasingly, the only persons fooled by contemporary white supremacy are those willing to accommodate themselves to it. But they remain an entrenched, critical mass, which is why racial justice or even decency cannot be approximated…until they decide to change.

Featured Philosopher: Vanessa Wills


Vanessa Wills is a political philosopher, ethicist, educator, and activist in Washington, DC.

She is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at The George Washington University. She received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Pittsburgh in 2011. Dr. Wills received her Bachelor’s degree in Philosophy from Princeton University in 2002.

Her areas of specialization are moral, social, and political philosophy, nineteenth century German philosophy, and the philosophy of race. Her research is importantly informed by her study of Karl Marx’s work, and focuses on the ways in which economic and social arrangements can inhibit or promote the realization of values such as freedom, equality, and human development. Her current major project is a monograph on Marx’s ethical thought.

Philosophy as a Virtuous Irritation:

Can There Be Ruthless Criticism in Safe Spaces?

Vanessa Wills

“Now philosophy has become worldly, and the most striking proof of this is that philosophical consciousness itself has been drawn into the torment of the struggle, not only externally but also internally. But, if constructing the future and settling everything for all times are not our affair, it is all the more clear what we have to accomplish at present: I am referring to ruthless criticism of all that exists, ruthless both in the sense of not being afraid of the results it arrives at and in the sense of being just as little afraid of conflict with the powers that be.”

—Karl Marx, 1843 letter to Karl Ruge[i]

“I was attached to this city by the god […] as upon a great and noble horse which was somewhat sluggish because of its size and needed to be stirred up by a kind of gadfly. […] I never cease to rouse each and every one of you, to persuade and reproach you all day long and everywhere I find myself in your company.”

–Socrates, as recorded in Plato’s Apology[ii]

That there exists a millennia-old model of the philosopher as social irritant will surprise perhaps no one who has spent very much time around us. Philosophy, the love of knowing, could as easily be described as a love of poking and prodding, a special delight in overturning even or especially the most dearly-held beliefs. This annoys people.

Of late, there has been much talk about, and pushback against, the call for “safe spaces” on university campuses. Such spaces, whether physical, virtual, or even metaphorical, are meant to provide respite from the aggression that students, particularly those who are already marginalized and oppressed, experience in the world at large or in the university environment in particular. Students agitating for safe spaces have been called “silly” by no less notable a figure than Salman Rushdie[iii]. The Atlantic has devoted significant virtual ink to warnings against the supposedly deleteriously “coddling” effect of such practices[iv]. Most recently, a University of Chicago dean issued a charming welcome letter to Class of 2020 students, informing them that their new school would not “condone the creation of intellectual ’safe spaces’ where individuals can retreat from ideas and perspectives at odds with their own”[v].

If no belief is safe from the philosopher, and if causing intellectual unease and irritation is itself a core task of philosophy, then it might seem to follow that philosophers should lead the way in opposing any modulation of potentially irritating speech or behavior and, therefore, in opposing the creation of “safe spaces.” But that is too quick. After all, students’ demands for safe spaces are, themselves, “irritating.”

It is in large part because these demands irritate—specifically, because they challenge, question, and undermine assumptions about the norms of discourse—that they have received such stern rebuke from so many corners. Yet by and large, the disdainful responses to student demands for safe spaces overlook one very important fact: that in an important sense, safe spaces already exist. Historically, the university, and for that matter, the newsroom, the printing house, the television studio, and the town square have long been perfectly “safe spaces” for certain people, practices, and ideas, but not for others.

When, for example, students dress up as racist caricatures and then are defended by their authority figures, they are being provided with a space that is safe for their racism and disrespectful disregard (a point Brittney Cooper has made in the pages of Salon[vi]). When a perpetrator of sexual assault is given only three months in jail for brutally raping a woman on the campus of his elite university, the legal system is acting in such a way as to help make the college campus a safe space for rapists to attack women. When states pass laws criminalizing gun bans on campuses, they institutionalize campuses as safe spaces for the constant implicit threat of violence, and as ever more unsafe spaces for those who are the likely targets of violence.

What is at stake now is not really whether there will be safe spaces on university campuses, because of course there will be. The question is whether there will be a just renegotiation of what and whom is made safe there. Philosopher Kate Manne wrote of trigger warnings that they can be implemented for the purpose of “enabling everyone’s rational engagement”[vii]. Something similar can be said of the call for “safe spaces”; it is an attempt to allow more members of the academic community to participate in shaping the norms and boundaries of a discourse that grows broader and richer for this expanded involvement.

Given the irritating nature of the philosophical enterprise, it is not too surprising that there are numerous cases of philosophers—particularly philosophers of color—who have found themselves at the center of battles over which people and what ideas will enjoy the safety of the university. Famously, this was the experience of Angela Davis when the University of California’s Board of Regents removed her from her UCLA philosophy post in 1970 because of her membership in the Communist Party and her criticism of the violent police response to campus protestors[viii]. That she went on to have an illustrious career elsewhere in the same UC system was in part the result of years of agitation and social change that occurred on- and off-campus.

More recently, philosopher George Yancy experienced massive racist blowback against an open letter he’d penned in the New York Times, urging white Americans to “listen with love” to the voices of Black people. Yancy reports, “immediately after the publication of ‘Dear White America,’ I began to receive vile and vitriolic white racist comments sent to my university email address, and verbal messages sent to my answering machine. I even received snail mail that was filled with hatred”[ix].

The aim of these harassers was to destroy any felt safety Yancy might have had in expressing his ideas and indeed in simply existing as a Black academic philosopher, whether in the virtual spaces of his newspaper column and his professional e-mail and voicemail accounts, or in the physical space of his mailbox, or in his own body, which was subjected to violent threat.

To irritate—to poke, to prod, to question, to overturn—is one of the most important tasks of philosophy. At a time when people of color in particular are routinely treated to lurid reminders of their vulnerability, social disposability, and lack of protection, it is a mistake to regard students’ demand for safe spaces as anything other than a virtuous irritation of the status quo. It is not a “retreat” from controversy or a demand to be “coddled.” It is an attempt at direct confrontation with those conditions that produce the unsafety of marginalized and oppressed populations.

This is not by itself to say that pressing the “safe spaces” demand is the absolutely correct tactic for campus social justice movements, or that trigger warnings are best pedagogical practice. But philosophy as social gadfly has a special duty to contribute productively to that discussion. It must not hide behind its idealized practice of ruthless criticism as a way of contributing to the silencing of marginalized voices that protest their social vulnerability. In doing so, it abdicates its essentially radical and irritating task.

[i] Marx, Karl. “1843 Letter to Ruge” Letters from the Deutsch-Französische Jahrbücher < https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1843/letters/43_09.htm >

[ii] Cooper, John M., and D. S. Hutchinson. “Plato: complete works.” (1997), p.28.

[iii] Page, Clarence. “Salman Rushdie has a problem with ‘safe spaces’ sheltered from Donald Trump,” Chicago Tribune, April 5, 2016 < http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/page/ct-trump-emory-salman-rushdie-political-correctness-page-perspec-0406-jm-20160405-story.html >

[iv] Haidt, Jonathan and Greg Lukianoff. “The Coddling of the American Mind,” The Atlantic, September 2015. < http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2015/09/the-coddling-of-the-american-mind/399356/ >

[v] Rhodes, Dawn and Leonor Vivanco. “U. of C. tells incoming freshmen it does not support ‘trigger warnings’ or ‘safe spaces’” Chicago Tribune, August 25, 2016 < http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/local/breaking/ct-university-of-chicago-safe-spaces-letter-met-20160825-story.html >

[vi] Cooper, Brittney. “Stop mocking ‘safe spaces’: What the Mizzou & Yale backlash is really about,” Salon.com, November 18, 2015 < http://www.salon.com/2015/11/18/what_the_mizzou_yale_backlash_is_really_about_the_right_of_white_people_to_engage_in_racial_recklessness/ >

[vii] Manne, Kate. “Why I Use Trigger Warnings,” The New York Times, September 19, 2015 < http://www.nytimes.com/2015/09/20/opinion/sunday/why-i-use-trigger-warnings.html>

[viii] Slutsky, Beth. Gendering Radicalism: Women and Communism in Twentieth-Century California. University of Nebraska Press, 2015.

[ix] Evans, Brad and George Yancy. “The Perils of Being a Black Philosopher,” The New York Times, April 18, 2016 < http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2016/04/18/the-perils-of-being-a-black-philosopher/ >


Featured Philosopher: Saba Fatima


Saba Fatima is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville. She has mostly published on issues of social and political significance to Muslims. Her research interests include non-ideal theory; social and political issues within prescriptive Islam; Muslim/Muslim-American issues within a framework of feminist & race theory, virtue ethics, and more recently, medical ethics.

On Being Muslim and American

Saba Fatima,

“the actions of those folks [American soldiers] in Iraq do not represent the values of the United States of America. . . . courage, love of freedom, compassion, and decency.”

–President Bush 2004, right after Abu Ghraib prison torture became public.

“This is a time for reflection, not retribution. …. at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America’s ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence.”

– President Obama 2009, on the United States’ use of torture, emphasis mine.

“Because this right now is the greatest country on earth!”

– First Lady Michelle Obama at the 2016 DNC, in response to Trump’s call to ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan

I have always been interested in identities and how they connect with socio-historical frameworks. I have thought a lot about my own identity and about the sorts of spaces and social contexts that mold both the content and the tone of my voice.

One of sort of space that often shapes my behavior and speech (both in good & not-so-good ways) is within the religious realm. I recently wrote about how diminished religious spaces for women impact the perception of women’s religious standing, not only in the eyes of the others, but also our perception about our moral self as well. When women’s public space to worship is confined, our collective worship becomes not-so-visible to the community at large and the worship itself cannot be fully experienced by individual women (‘Striving for God’s Attention: Gendered Spaces and Piety,’ 2016). However, change can be very hard to bring about. One reason has to do with politics of gatekeeping. In order to have legitimacy within religious circles, others must give some degree of acknowledgement about the goodness of your character. But what may qualify as ‘goodness’ is often at odds with the sort of person needed to challenge the social norms that apply to women (even when those social norms are in contradiction with basic precepts of theology). It is a tricky terrain to retain your conception of faith, navigate the hegemonic conceptions, all the while keeping in mind the wisdom gleaned from the social & historical collective to arrive at a better-informed version of theology. If your conception of faith is so far out from the mainstream, do you even belong to the faith? (I’d answer yes, for various theological reasons).

I have also wondered about political belonging. Recently, after returning from a visit to Pakistan, my 6 year old son inquired as to why we were standing in a different line than some others at the airport immigration. I told him that this line was for the citizens of the United States. He then says, ‘Can I get a Pakistani passport?’ ‘Why,’ I asked, to which he replied in a matter-of-fact fashion, ‘so if Donald Trump kicks me out, I’ll have somewhere to go.’

I wanted to tell him that he can’t be told to go ‘where he belongs,’ because he belongs here. Moreover, I wanted to tell him that Pakistan isn’t his country, not because it’s not good enough for him, rather, quite the contrary. He had a false sense of entitlement to assume automatic citizenship of a country that he had just visited for the first time. I did ask him to consider, ‘Why do you think the Pakistanis would grant you a passport?’ Despite his assumptions, he (or I) cannot speak for Pakistanis, let alone feel entitled to citizenship.

One would think though (OK, I think that) he can speak as an American within the American political context. But what sort of political voice does someone like my son – someone visibly Muslim – have here? In one of my papers, I look at the Muslim-American political disenfranchisement within the current framework of terrorism and heightened security. I argued that how we are often perceived and our awareness of that perception, interplays in a detrimental way with liberalism’s demand for public reason, essentially sustaining the Muslim-American exclusion from the political realm (Liberalism and the Muslim-American Predicament,2014).

The only way we (Muslim-Americans) are sometimes heard is if we conform to the patriotic-American narrative, the sort where we continually perform a script about our undying and undivided loyalty to the United States. Any affective response in politics that does not follow such a script (such as our anger at seeing tortured Muslim bodies at prison sites), is then viewed as disloyal, rather than as something positive that better informs our political process (Muslim-American Scripts, 2013).

I do believe that Muslim-Americans need to be more politically active, but in ways that take our competing values and our existing reality into account. While in some ways, our struggle in this country, mirrors that of other minorities (political exclusion), in other ways, our lived reality is also both structurally and economically different. Muslim American political posture must not only take power structures and one’s social location into consideration, but also the sorts of relationships within civil society that we exist in. Perhaps our political posture needs to shift from what is sometimes traditionally encouraged in liberatory movements – that of urgency – and adapt to become more reflective to best serve our sense of integrity. We must claim our place as Americans on our own terms (‘Presence of Mind,’ 2012).

I do wonder though what it means to be American. This is the current project that I’ve been working on for some time.

I have been told by some that I should be grateful to be in this country (I’m an immigrant, if that’s not clear by now). I think embedded within that sentiment is the idea that I should be grateful to them. ‘They’ (in their imagined sense of community, that can perhaps be best summed up to an outsider as … White?!) have pride in American values and way of life. ‘They’ have an inexpressible knowledge of what this country stands for, and this knowledge gives them the feeling of socio-political situatedness. In their social imagination of what it means to be an American, they belong, I don’t.

But when people have expressed such patriotic pride, it has always made me feel uneasy. From the times of the ‘Manifest Destiny,’ when apparently God Themselves had decreed the American people with special virtues, to today’s belief in American exceptionalism (Hillary Clinton just gave a whole speech on it), being American to a few is heavily tinged in a sense of superiority. For others, there is a disconnect between a conception of self as American and any sense of relationality with the other. While their sense of self as American is not one based in superiority or arrogance, there is a void of any understanding of the harmful power dynamics between us as Americans, and others. .

I recently showed parts of Oliver Stone’s Untold History of the United States that covered the war in Iraq (chapter 10) for my political Islam class. Many of my students were indignant at this ‘biased’ depiction of the history of the United States, and there were a series of student responses that listed out the multiple times that the United States has ‘championed’ the cause of democracy in the Middle East. I have encountered such reaction countless times before, and took their resistance to epistemic friction in stride. They, like many educated Americans, have a certain perception of their identity as Americans, and any news development that challenges that perception is either seen as an aberration, not truly embodying the values that Americans stand for (along the lines of a ‘few rogue agents’ defense used in the Abu Ghuraib prison case), or worse, is seen as justified action in the face of evil (the sorts of explanations used after the 2014 US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence report came out on the torture conducted by the CIA over the course of a decade). It is epistemically unimaginable to equate aspects of oneself with evil behavior, and much easier to remain epistemically arrogant.

If we just look at the ‘war on terror,’ that alone should cause some sort of shift in the righteous indignation that Americans conduct themselves with. The United States reduced a country’s infrastructure to rubble and killed over 100,000 people, a country (Iraq) that had nothing to do with an attack that had killed 3000 Americans. While we got rid of a terrible dictator (who we had previously supported even when we knew of his tortuous ways), we created a power vacuum, built detention centers for ‘insurgents’ with little oversight, we conducted torture of our enemies at Guantanamo Bay for over a decade, we rendition ‘enemy combatants’ to torture sites without due process, and even after our President made a promise to not torture, we simply outsourced it to other countries (Human Rights Watch 2011).

There was negligible attention paid to the discrepancy between who we see ourselves to be (for e.g. a law abiding & democratic people) and what we do (e.g. torture).

Perhaps a nationalistic amnesia is an inevitable production of being part of a functional nation-state. The installation of ignorance is not one that takes place overnight, but is a social imagination of citizenship that is embedded deeply in our sense of self as Americans. And once the myth of America’s greatness as the world’s advocate of democracy and of individual rights and as a giver of international aid and champion of freedom, is established, it needs very little maintenance and justification in the face of counter narrative.

I use the word ‘ignorance’ here in the same sense as Charles Mills defines it: ‘to cover both false belief and the absence of true belief’ (2007, 16). I define American ignorance as the active production of false knowledge about what, if anything, it means to be an American, obscuring certain relationalities with others while producing/sustaining another narrative . American ignorance encompasses, among other things, a sense of superiority of American societal values, its ‘benevolent’ role in the precipitation of democracy amongst ‘backward’ peoples, and often an unshaking belief in the fundamental ‘otherness’ of certain cultures and peoples.

A more pernicious manifestation of American ignorance, than one based in superiority, is when Americans cannot wrap their head around how their privilege is a direct function of their country’s imperialistic relationship with the global south, and that it is precisely the lack of understanding of their identity in such a manner that sustains that oppressive hierarchy. And incomplete/ false ‘knowledge’ about the other is a function of, and particular to, the American hegemonic world order.

I argue for, what I term as, epistemic reconciliation with the past, where the dominant reconcile with heterogeneous narratives of the past, as held by the marginalized, the other. In order for that to happen, especially in the cases of grave harm by a collective such as torture, epistemic reconciliation with the past must necessarily entail the notion of responsibility as liability. That is to say, in order for us to process the ugly (and painful) parts of our collective history, there has to be some enforced form of accountability – such as international criminal prosecution or reparations to victims of torture.

America can indeed ‘right its course.’ But this is not possible until there is imposed culpability, or such that liminal bodies can hold up mirrors to our collective face (and make us look). Only then can we have any possibility of shifting our perception of ourselves. Until then, we keep ‘righting’ some wrong in very targeted and specific ways; but make no dent whatsoever to our social imagination of our citizenship. We continue to conduct ourselves with arrogance and impunity when it comes to liminal bodies within our own borders and in the global south, because we are, after all, the United States of America.


Mills, Charles. 2007. ‘White Ignorance.’ In Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, edited by Shannon Sullivan & Nancy Tuana. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 11-38


Featured Philosopher: Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa


Jonathan Jenkins Ichikawa is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of British Columbia. Most of his work to date has focused on epistemology, philosophy of language, and philosophy of mind. He received his PhD from Rutgers University in 2008.

Photographs and Objective Appearances

Jonathan Ichikawa

Thanks, Meena, for this platform. I’m trying to execute a post-tenure research pivot into some new areas; this is my first attempt to write down an idea I’ve been mulling over a couple years. It’s about one of my larger hobbies: photography.

Like memory, drawings, and prose descriptions written in notebooks, photography is a method to capture a record of how things look. Among such methods, photography is a bit unusual in enjoying a perception of objectivity. One can write down falsehoods in one’s notebook, or draw something incorrectly, but a photograph, by its nature, seems to record how things really are.

There’s something right about this, but I think it’s easy to exaggerate the degree to which photographs are neutral receptors of appearances. Photographers have a lot more control over how their photographs look than people generally realize. Consumers of photographs may give too much unreflective trust to photographs as records of appearances; and many photographers themselves are unaware of their roles in shaping appearances. Since photographers’ experiences are as ideologically-informed as anybody else’s, unreflective photographers risk making photos that are vehicles for bias.

I think a photographer’s capacity to influence appearances runs very deep. By the end of this blog post, I’ll be arguing that philosophers have a lot of control over how subjects are racially categorized. But, by way of warming up, let’s start with some more familiar examples.

Photographs of people represent how those people look. But they do so by measuring the light people reflect during a very short period of time. (Depending on the lighting conditions and other factors, my photographs of people usually come from shutter openings between 1/1000th and 1/30th of a second.) In the colloquial sense, people’s appearances do not dramatically change thousands of times per minute. Depending on exactly when a photograph is taken, one may end up with a dramatically different representation of how someone looks.

Here is a photograph of my dog Mezzo. It’s a fun photo, but a poor guide to how she looks. (It’d be a terrible choice for a ‘lost dog’ flyer.)

2.jpgA thousandth of a second of Mezzo

When I photograph philosophers at workshops, I take lots of shots, knowing that many will capture odd or unattractive moments. I use my knowledge of how people behave to predict the likeliest moments for good shots. Afterward, I use my best discretion to select the best photos, deleting the others. (When in doubt, I ask the subjects for their opinions.)

The phenomenon of selecting flattering photos will be familiar to most readers. We all do it, relatively consciously. Only slightly less deliberate is the use of framing and cropping in setting up the shot. A photographer has tremendous flexibility in representing how a scene looks, by including or excluding various elements, or emphasizing certain parts of the scene.

In 2003, western media coverage of the toppling of the Baghdad statue of Saddam Hussain described a large crowd of enthusiastic Iraqis. Photos like these corroborated that description.


Photo by Alexandra Boulat


Photo by Robert Nickelsberg

But the media and the US military later came under criticism for giving a skewed perspective on this event. Wider-angled photographs made the crowd appear smaller than the tighter shots suggested.


Photo credit unknown. Widely attributed to Reuters

I agree with the critics this far: the published photographs were designed and selected to emphasize the size of the crowd. Had the photographers’ agenda been to trivialize the crowd, they would have designed different photos. But the published photos aren’t fraudulent in the sense that they represent things as different than they were. They’re not false, the way they would be if someone photoshopped in a picture of Zapp Brannigan. They do reflect an ideology and an agenda; but in this respect, they are similar to all deliberately chosen representations.

(This is not to say it can’t be actively dishonest to shoot from a particular perspective. Just as one can be actively and culpably dishonest by being misleading without actually telling a lie, so too might one be actively and culpably dishonest by shooting from a specially tailored perspective, without actually forging a photograph. Just ask this real estate company.)

Let’s move on to less obvious ways a photographer’s decisions will affect how things look. Some have to do with adjustments our eyes and minds tend to make, without our noticing. For example, humans are good at seeing things in a wide variety of lighting conditions. There can easily be hundreds of times as much light outside as there is indoors. Here are two photos of a bear dressed as David Hume.


I think they’re each reasonably well exposed. The first was taken outside in the sun, with a shutter speed of 1/8000 of a second; the other was taken minutes later in my comfortably lit living room, with a shutter speed of 1/6 of a second. All other exposure settings were equal. Similar exposure required over a thousand times as much light sensitivity indoors.

Our eyes adjust, and we can see just as well in either place. Cameras adjust, too. In the fully or partially automatic modes most of us use most of the time, cameras quietly take their best guesses of how well lit you want the scene to appear. But if you shift a DSLR into fully manual mode, you’re forced to think through decisions usually made under the hood. How much should I expose the shot? How bright do I want the scene to appear? This isn’t straightforwardly a question about what the scene looks like. It is an artistic decision about how one wishes to make the scene appear. (It was much darker inside than outside, but my photos don’t represent that fact. Is this an inaccuracy?)

Here are two photographs I took this morning, seconds apart, in identical lighting conditions. I gave one more exposure, resulting in a brighter overall photo. Neither is more accurate; one chooses between them on aesthetic grounds. There’s just no fact of the matter about whether the scene really appeared lighter or darker.


But this means, once again, that a photographer has considerable influence over how someone appears, even setting aside all the decisions about framing, timing, and shot selection. Some of this power is wielded on the computer after the camera has been put away. (Equivalently, some of it used to happen in the darkroom.) A naïve view would have it that any such ‘digital manipulation’ constitutes a deviation from the objective visual truth the camera recorded. There is a way the image appears when I plug the SD card into the computer, before I start post-processing work. But that’s just my software’s best guess as to how I’d want the photo to look. Different algorithms will produce different guesses. The work I do on the computer typically improves on the guesses, making the photos look more like one might think they should. (My camera almost never makes a good guess with white balance indoors, for example.)

To manipulate appearances, then, is part of what it is to be a photographer. Photography is a kind of objectification of a subjective experience. Setting aside fraud, one’s photographic decisions aren’t a matter of getting things accurately or inaccurately.

This isn’t to say one’s decisions in this realm are beyond normative appraisal. Far from it—the way someone looks in a photograph can have a dramatic impact on how they are perceived. Nowhere is this clearer than in the case of lightness and darkness, which is coded perceptually very closely to race.

In 2008, Barack Obama was running to be the first black President of the United States. Some of the attack ads he faced, both from primary opponent Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee John McCain, were accused of presenting him with a darkened skin tone. A 2015 Stanford study confirmed that negative McCain ads, especially ones connecting Obama to crime, consistently portrayed Obama’s skin as darker. (It also confirmed that darker appearances can have dramatic psychological effects on voters without their realizing it.)

A still image from a McCain attack ad, showing Obama’s skin as rather dark.


Visually emphasizing the darkness of your black opponent’s skin to make him less popular is a deplorable and disgusting display of racism. But the problem, I think, is one of emphasis, not of accuracy. (Imagine counterfactually that whenever he spoke of Obama, the GOP nominee had described him as “my black opponent”. Super racist, and super gross, but not inaccurate.) The problem with these images isn’t that Obama is shown as darker than he really appears; it’s that they’re designed to exploit tacit racism to cast Obama in a negative light.

Darker exposure in general is one way to make someone’s skin look darker. But when (as in this case) one is dealing with monochrome photos, there are more options. Black and white photographs depict colors as shades of grey. They use a color mix to convert colors to degrees of lightness or darkness. Are you going to make blue tones particularly dark, or particularly light? What about red? There’s no one best way to do this, which is why black and white conversion, too, is an art.

Here is a photo of a sunflower, along with two black and white versions.


Neither version here is more or less accurate. They differ in emphasis—for example, in whether the difference between the gold and red is highlighted—and in mood.

In Adobe Lightroom, the program in which I do most of my photo editing, black and white color mixes are managed via eight simple sliders, corresponding to how darkly to translate each color. Again, there’s no one best way to do this; it all depends on the particular photo and what you want it to look like. Here are the slider settings for the two sunflower conversions above:


When making a black and white photograph, one can decide how dark to make selective elements in the photograph. The appearance of the outer petals of the flower, for instance, is largely a matter of the yellow slider.

When converting from color to a black and white photograph of a person, a photographer has a slider that controls how dark the subject’s skin appears. Human skin is almost always in the orange tones. So it’s only a slight oversimplification to call the orange slider a racial slider. Especially if one is a bit tan, or, like me, a bit racially ambiguous-looking, a photographer controls how white one looks.

Here are two different black and white self-portraits. These began as the same color photograph. There’s no difference in the lighting or framing, or the treatment of highlights or shadows. The only difference is in how dark orange becomes.


I do not think either of these images is more accurate than the other. One may be more similar to some people’s impressions of me, while the other may seem more accurate to others. (You might be more inclined to see me as lighter if you tend to agree with my political views.)

I was a bit flabbergasted the first time I realized I could change someone’s racial appearance with a Lightroom slider. The thing it really pressed upon me was the realization of the degree to which photography carries a serious moral responsibility. In photographing people and sharing their pictures, I am converting my own subjective experience—colored by God knows what—into an artifact that will shape others’ experiences of them. Taking a photo is a lot more like drawing a portrait or writing a description than we sometimes think. Accordingly, it should be treated carefully and responsibly.

Featured Philosopher: Ken Taylor


Ken Taylor is the Henry Waldgrave Stuart Professor of Philosophy at Stanford, where he also directs the Symbolic Systems Program. He is cohost and co-creator, with John Perry, of the Nationally syndicated public radio program Philosophy Talk. He is currently the President of the Pacific Division of the American Philosophical Association. He is the author of many articles and a number of books. His latest is Meaning Diminished: Toward Metaphysically Modest Semantics, which is forthcoming from Oxford University Press.

Why Philosophy?

Ken Taylor

Philosophy is in quite a state. The public at large has little appreciation for what it is or why it matters. Undergraduates mostly shun it — at least when choosing their majors.   Philosophy graduate students, who spend years sailing into the prevailing winds, too often run aground in the brutal waters of a hyper-competitive job market. Physicists like Stephen Hawking or Neil deGrasse Tyson dismiss it as yesterday’s news, a dead discipline that has long outlived its usefulness. Our fellow humanists often look askance at much that we do and find few philosophers worth reading. Many philosophers themselves have come to have their doubts. It’s no secret that the philosophy professoriate is significantly less diverse than many other humanistic fields of inquiry. And that, we are sometimes told, is because philosophy is peculiarly resistant to the voices of the marginalized and oppressed. Philosophy, we are told, is a discipline full of sexism, misogyny, racism and ableism. Whatever one thinks about this catalog of presumed ills, one could not be blamed for despairing over the future of what may be the oldest academic profession.

Such despair is misplaced. Philosophy remains a vibrant and vital discipline. It is very much worth pursuing. I say this not because I derive a great deal of personal satisfaction from doing philosophy — which I do – but because I fervently believe that our collective lives together would be significantly enhanced in many different ways if philosophy were to play a much larger role in not just in our colleges and universities, but also in both primary and secondary education and even in public discourse more broadly. And in the remainder of this entry, I want to say why I think this.

First, I need to say what I take philosophy to be. I am a nominalist of sorts about philosophy. Philosophy is simply what people who call themselves philosophers do. And philosophers do all manner of things. Philosophy now is, has always been, and probably will always be a highly fragmented discipline. Some of what philosophers do is very much continuous with the sciences. Despite the protestations of Hawking and deGrasse Tyson, there are philosophers of physics whose philosophical work requires them to grapple with with issues at the frontiers of contemporary physics and cosmology. Other philosophers do things that don’t intersect with the sciences very much at all.  There are philosophers who are deeply and properly concerned with the history of philosophy and there are those who see the history of philosophy as of little relevance to their ongoing philosophical projects. Some philosophers take themselves to be addressing largely a priori matters that can be decisively settled from the armchair. Other philosophers want to take philosophy out of the armchair and into the lab. Some are content to analyze and tidy up ordinary concepts at margins. Others seek to stress ordinary concepts to their breaking points.  Some philosophers want to reconnect philosophy with broader humanistic inquiry; others recoil from the broader humanities. Some see philosophy as exhortation. Others see it as explanation.

There may be some deep unity beneath this vast surface diversity. But after all these years, I myself still can’t quite say what that unity comes to. Indeed, I tend to believe that the cordoning off of the peculiar bits of the total intellectual landscape that are currently collected under the rubric of ‘philosophy’ is mostly an accident of academic and cultural history. A hundred years or so ago, you would have found much of what now goes by the name of philosophy and what now goes by the name of psychology housed in the same department of the university. Long before that, people would have looked at you in puzzlement had you tried to draw a hard and fast distinction between science and philosophy.

My nominalism about philosophy leads me to endorse a pretty catholic vision of philosophy. I celebrate and applaud the attempts of a thousand philosophical flowers to bloom. But I am not enough of a Pollyanna to deny that at various stages in the history of philosophy, this or that mode of philosophy has enjoyed a certain hegemonic dominance. This seems to happen whenever the purveyors of this or that form of philosophy manage to seize the commanding heights from which such things as tenure, degrees, and academic prestige are dispensed. Occupying the commanding heights makes it much easier to reproduce yourself into subsequent generations. But I hope am not being naïve when I say that we ought not to overestimate the power of hegemons to reproduce themselves via brute institutional force alone. Over the long sweep of history, philosophers have executed many paradigm shifts and have declared the death of philosophy as practiced by their forebears. Though philosophy is no doubt the oldest academic profession, my colleague John Perry has rightly claimed that it has died a thousand deaths, only to rise, Phoenix like, to live again, in ever new configurations.

If you insist on asking after the true nature and essence of philosophy, it cannot be gleaned from a narrow focus on the present moment, and the local maximum in configuration space that we currently occupy. To see philosophy whole, in its real essence, it takes a longer view. One has to survey the entire dynamic landscape through which philosophy has walked over historical time and cultural space. That landscape has many branching paths, many peaks and valleys. Only the total landscape as a whole, constitutes philosophy as such. So only by limning all possible configurations of that landscape will you even begin to understand what philosophy essentially is.  And once you do take this long view, you will, I predict, be thrown right back into some version of my catholic nominalism. If one could catch a glimpse of the whole, from a perspective outside of this ever unfolding landscape, if you could regard with a certain detached equanimity, it would, I suspect, be a marvelous thing to behold.

Suppose that I am right about the nature of philosophy. Suppose that it has no fixed atemporal essence. Suppose that its true nature is revealed only in unfolding of vast dynamic landscape that spreads out over time and cultural space. Suppose that local configurations in this ever unfolding dynamic landscape exhibit no deep unity and enjoy only local stability. Then why should philosophy deserve, as I think it does, a significantly larger place in the total educational, cultural, and intellectual landscape than it currently occupies?

I answer that it is precisely the fragmented character of philosophy that makes it so deserving. Because of its many sources and diverse ambitions, philosophy is a massive and sprawling enterprise. It is fragmented and disunified precisely because it is deeply engaged with almost the entirety of the remaining elements of the total intellectual landscape. It is perhaps the most interdisciplinary of at least the humanities and probably the most interdisciplinary of all the fields of intellectual inquiry. The range of issues that philosophy has historically sought and still currently seeks to illuminate and the sources on which it draws in its attempt to achieve that illumination is breathtaking. It is philosophy that has struggled hardest and most persistently to spell out the rational foundations of the coercive powers of the state, the duties of human to human, the limits of the scientific method. Philosophy has tried to adjudicate the long struggle between science and religion, to integrate the daunting results of the natural, biological, and cognitive sciences into an uplifting or at least not debilitating picture of the place of humanity, and our deepest aspirations, into the order of things. Philosophy seeks to understand how consciousness and rationality manage to have their places in what looks to be a merely material universe. It seeks to understand what human beings can hope to know and by what methods of inquiry we can hope to know it. It seeks to understand the nature of art, the nature of beauty, the nature of truth, of language, of action, of causation. In its attempts to understand these things, it draws insight from every possible source – from the deliverances and practices of the biological and physical sciences, from the humanities and social science, from a prior philosophical reflection on language and meaning, from the phenomenology of lived experience. Nor does the philosopher seek to merely interpret, explain, or narrate the world. It is a powerful instrument for cultural criticism, one that is willing to subject even the most entrenched and comforting bits of received wisdom to the harsh light of critical self-reflection. Though Philosophy does not always generate the news, it often delivers the news. “Given what we know from this or that source,” the news-delivering philosopher will say, “you cannot have your cherished notions of autonomy or morality or god or … whatever.” But at its best, philosophy does not stop there. When the news is hard to swallow, when it threatens to debilitate us and undermine our projects, the philosopher invites us to begin anew, asking “What, then, can we have? And what can be made of what we have?”

How could such a discipline possibly be dispensed with? How could it possibly be a thing of the past?  It is always and already relevant to everything that the human mind can conceive, know, imagine, or wish for.

Too often, when outsiders look at the work of professional academic philosophy, as practiced in our time, they see very little of this. That is, in part, our own fault. We often do philosophy in very daunting keys. We have become virtuosos at manipulating technical machinery and abstruse concepts and ideas. Of course, these are valuable tools and valuable skills. They enable us to break down large problems into smaller more manageable sub-problems. They enable us to approach old problems with new rigor and clarity. The hegemonic institutional structures referred to earlier dole great rewards for those who wield such tools with aplomb.

But of course this makes it vary hard for those not already adept to find a way in. And those same institutional structures do very little to reward popularizers or explainers who might open up the riches of philosophy to wider audiences.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mean to decry current institutional arrangements, at least not entirely. The maturation of philosophy into a quasi-technical field is, in my view, a good thing. But there are no unmixed blessings. That which enhances the depth of philosophy, may obscure its wide-ranging relevance to human life. In a more morally perfect world, we could have it both ways. We could find a way of rewarding both the technical and conceptual virtuosity that philosophy now requires and the capacity to popularize and explain it to the non-virtuoso and we could do so without, as it were, ghettoizing the explainers.

I have long been convinced that there is a considerable unmet demand — both within the academy and outside of the academy – for what philosophy alone can deliver. We professional academic philosophers have for too long been unresponsive to that unmet demand. Here I am think of the relations between philosophy and many other fields of the humanities and social sciences. For a good while now, our fellow humanists have been feverishly rethinking many of their fundamental categories and concepts, with an eye toward more deeply interrogating and confronting urgent issues related to race, gender, identity, and culture. For better or for worse, analytic philosophers were for a long time mere bystanders on that front. Our main professional pre-occupations lay elsewhere, with matters we took to be more universal and more fundamental. I won’t say more about why.   There is admittedly a complicated historical narrative that could be told about all this, but I won’t try to construct such a narrative here.

Of course, though the demand for a set of philosophical tools for thinking more fruitfully about race, gender, identity and culture was there and unmet by philosophers, it didn’t go entirely unaddressed. It was just addressed by others. That was bound to happen, no doubt, since the intellectual landscape abhors vacuums. I will not say the others who step in in philosophy’s stead, did so altogether badly, but I do not think it was an entirely good development. The worst part of it was that certain, shall we say, “fallen away” members of the high church of philosophy, did have a bit to say. But whatever their intentions, what they accomplished was to increase the alienation between philosophers and other humanists. Indeed, they helped to confirm some of the worst prejudices of many of our fellow humanists about what we philosophers were collectively good for. “Not, much,” was the widely repeated verdict on our discipline. I don’t want to open old wounds, except to say that I regard those as the bad old days between philosophers and humanists — bad for everybody. But one of the things that bodes well for the future of philosophy, is that certain of the “substitutes” for philosophy — as responsive as they were to a genuinely unmet demand — have lost much of their initial luster. And philosophers of the highest caliber have turned their attention to vital questions that we all were once content to ignore.

I wish I could say that the same is true of the unmet demands for philosophy in the public sphere. Part of the problem is that hardly anybody is self-consciously aware that the widely experienced hunger for something more is really a hunger that philosophy is uniquely suited to satisfy. Still, I am not without hope. What we collectively need to do is simply to claim ownership of a certain niche in the cultural landscape as our own. Nobody is stopping us. Nobody is rushing to do it in our stead. So let’s just do it. In fact, it has already begun to happen. That’s what John Perry and I have been trying to do with Philosophy Talk all these years. And there are lots of others making various attempts as well. What there isn’t is lots of institutional support for such efforts.

I’ve gone on too long. I’m going to stop by admitting that I have no idea what the future holds for philosophy. But I predict that, if we don’t destroy the planet, this will be an exciting century for us – despite the many ills from which our discipline is thought by many to suffer. If all goes well, it will be a century in which the full breadth and depth of philosophy is given play both within and outside of the academy. If that happens, the intellectual and cultural landscape will be much enriched.  As Nietzsche might say, “Embark Philosophers!”

Featured Philosopher: Javier Hidalgo


Javier S. Hidalgo specializes in political philosophy and applied ethics. He is an assistant professor of leadership studies at the University of Richmond. He earned his PhD at Princeton University in 2011.

The Individual Ethics of Immigration

Javier S. Hidalgo

I want to first thank Meena for her generous invitation to contribute to this blog! The following discussion draws on a forthcoming paper of mine, which you can find here.

Most states heavily restrict immigration. They erect walls topped with barbed wire, detain migrants at borders, and routinely deport unauthorized migrants and failed asylum-seekers. These policies stop millions of people from immigrating.

Many people think that immigration restrictions are permissible. I disagree. Like Joseph Carens and other authors, I think that immigration restrictions infringe on valuable freedoms, such as freedom of association and occupational choice, and are objectionable for this reason. Immigration restrictions coercively trap millions of people in conditions of poverty and oppression.

I’m not an absolutist. I can grant that immigration restrictions may sometimes be justified, although I’m very skeptical that actual immigration restrictions are permissible. But I don’t want to make the case for open borders here.[i] Instead, I want to focus on what follows if justice requires broadly open borders.

It is easy to feel despair if you favor free immigration. Almost everyone rejects open borders. You only need to observe the rise of nativist movements in Europe and the United States to see that free immigration is a political non-starter. Even advocates of open borders concede that this policy is utopian.

Let’s assume then that (a) justice requires open borders and (b) open borders are politically infeasible. If (a) and (b) are true, then arguing for open borders appears to be an exercise in moralistic futility. Why bother defending open immigration if it’s never going to happen?

But lately I’ve been thinking about the ways in which the ideal of open borders could matter for individual conduct, even if free immigration is infeasible. I now want to discuss one way in which this ideal could inform individual ethics.

When states restrict immigration, they do more than authorize state employees to stop people at the border and deport migrants. States enforce immigration laws by imposing legal obligations on private citizens. Here are some examples:

  1. Governments forbid employers from hiring unauthorized migrants.
  2. In certain jurisdictions, landlords are obligated to refuse to rent to unauthorized migrants and evict them if they discover their immigration status.
  3. Transportation companies must sometimes screen their passengers and decline to transport unauthorized migrants, even within the borders of a state.
  4. In the United Kingdom, banks are required to check the immigration status of their customers and decline to open bank accounts for unauthorized migrants.
  5. States also more often compel government employees to monitor immigrants and report them to immigration agencies. For instance, police officers and civil servants may be required to check the immigration status of people that they interact with and report them if they are unauthorized migrants.

In these ways, states conscript ordinary citizens to assist in abridging the rights of unauthorized migrants, and in deterring unauthorized immigration.

If justice requires open borders, then these laws are clearly unjust. But notice that these laws make citizens complicit in violating the rights of migrants. After all, if citizens refused to obey these laws, then they would be entirely ineffective. And, in fact, some citizens do disobey these laws and thereby render them less effective than they would otherwise be.

My claim is that we are morally required to disobey laws like (1-5). Why? It is pro tanto wrong to contribute to violating the rights of others, and these laws compel us to help violate the rights of unauthorized migrants. Consider an example. Imagine that the owner of a restaurant discovers that some of her employees are unauthorized migrants. Depending on the jurisdiction, the law may require this employer to fire these workers. Compliance with this law would in effect erode migrants’ rights to freedom of occupational choice. So, if the owner of the restaurant complies with this law, she would contribute to violating the rights of these migrants. At first glance, the owner has moral reasons to refrain from facilitating rights-violations. If these reasons defeat countervailing considerations, then she is morally required to disobey the law.

Many citizens are more-or-less in the position of the restaurant owner in this example. They often interact with unauthorized migrants and they face a choice: should they be complicit in violating the rights of unauthorized migrants?

You might say: disobeying the law is too risky. States punish people who break the law and we aren’t required to bear these risks. Two quick responses to this concern. First, it is not always very risky to disobey the law. For example, employers in the United States (notoriously) face little risk of punishment for hiring unauthorized migrants. Most get away with it.

Second, sometimes morality requires us to perform risky or costly actions. Suppose the government conscripted you to fight in an unjust war and, if you obey, there is a significant risk that you will end up killing a morally innocent person. My view is that you are obligated to sit in a jail cell (or emigrate) rather than comply, despite the fact that defiance may be costly.[ii] While the stakes are obviously lower when it comes to compliance with laws like (1-5), it remains the case that citizens can be obligated to refrain from contributing to injustice even though this has significant costs for them.

You might object: we have duties to obey the law. I’m a philosophical anarchist and, so, this concern has little weight for me. But, even if we do have duties to obey the law, almost everyone agrees that these duties can be overridden. It is plausible that, if the law requires you to violate the basic rights of other people, then the reasons to avoid violating rights can outweigh the reasons to obey the law. Advocates of open borders say that immigration laws violate basic rights. If that’s correct, then we lack duties to obey these laws.

In other areas of practical ethics, philosophers focus on individual action. For example, philosophers debate whether it is wrong for individuals to purchase animal products or contribute to climate change. In contrast, philosophers who write about immigration focus almost entirely on public policy. But a similar individualist project is possible in the ethics of immigration. The injustice of immigration restrictions could matter for individual conduct. Even if open borders are infeasible, the ideal of open borders could help guide how we live our lives.

[i] For some excellent defenses of open borders, see: Michael Huemer, ‘Is There a Right to Immigrate?’, Social Theory and Practice, 36.3 (2010), 429–61; Joseph Carens, The Ethics of Immigration (New York: Oxford University Press, 2013); Bryan Caplan and Vipul Naik, ‘A Radical Case for Open Borders’, in The Economics of Immigration, ed. by Benjamin Powell (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), pp. 180–209; Kieran Oberman, ‘Immigration as a Human Right’, in Migration in Political Theory: The Ethics of Movement and Membership, ed. by Sarah Fine and Lea Ypi (New York: Oxford University Press, 2016), pp. 32–56.

[ii] My views on these matters have been heavily influenced by Jeff McMahan’s arguments in Killing in War (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011).


Featured Philosopher: Brandon Hogan


Brandon Hogan (J.D. Harvard Law School, Ph.D. University of Pittsburgh) is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Howard University. His areas of research include the philosophy of law, meta-ethics, Hegel’s political philosophy, and the later Wittgenstein.

My work is unified by my interest in thinking about the scope and aims of criminal law. Particularly, I’m interested in thinking about the point of state-sponsored punishment. Given that the United States imprisons more persons than any other nation and that black Americans are incarcerated at shockingly higher rates than white Americans,[1] the topic of punishment takes on a unique importance for me as a black philosopher.

I believe that we can use Hegelian resources to develop a compelling argument for a restorative conception of criminal justice. What follows is a brief outline of that argument.

A Hegelian Argument for Restorative Criminal Justice

Brandon Hogan

Naturally, we can’t start to think clearly about the point of punishment until we answer some more basic philosophical questions. Perhaps less naturally, I believe that a discussion of punishment must begin with a discussion about the nature of personhood and freedom.

A punishment regime should exist to preserve person’s personhood and freedom. Following G.W.F. Hegel, I take it that personhood and freedom must be understood relationally and recognitively. Hegel believes that free persons are only free to the extent that they are so recognized by other free persons. Freedom, on this view, is relational. Persons are only persons, and only free, in relation to others.[2]

(I ask my students whether “black lives matter” is a factual or aspirational claim. That is, I ask if black lives actually matter or whether we simply want them to matter. My view is that the claim (or, hashtag, really) is incomplete. Mattering, like being a person, or being free, isn’t a natural property. I believe that we only matter to others, that we are only persons to others. And, sadly, far too many Americans believe that black lives don’t matter.)

What does it mean for one person to recognize another? I contend that recognition is a form of treatment. To recognize another is, in part, to treat that other as possessing certain rights and as obligated to act (or refrain from acting) in certain ways. Children aren’t fully recognized because they aren’t treated as having the same rights as adults. In the same way, those deemed legally insane aren’t fully recognized because they aren’t held responsible for their ostensible violations of the criminal law. The recognized person, then, is the subject of both rights and responsibilities.

I understand the connection between recognition, personhood, and freedom in the following way. To be treated as having both rights and responsibilities is to be treated as a (full) person. I think most of us can agree on that. My more controversial claim is that this treatment is constitutive of personhood. I draw no distinction between being a person and being so treated. (Of course, a lot must be said about the forms of treatment—or mistreatment— that would completely undermine an individual’s status as a person. Obviously a single rights violation would not render a person a non-person).

The connection between recognition and freedom is less straightforward. Following Kant and Hegel, I understand freedom as a type of autonomy. The free, autonomous person governs her actions by rules that she has chosen for herself. Following Korsgaard, we can call this set of rules a “practical identity.”[3] Further, the set of rules that constitute one’s practical identity (or, in most cases, practical identities) can be understood in terms of rights and responsibilities.

For example, consider an expansive practical identity— that of a U.S. citizen. The rights and responsibilities of U.S. citizens are spelled out in various legal documents, the most foundational of which being the U.S. Constitution. Citizens are afforded a certain amount of bodily autonomy and are permitted to own and exchange property. Additionally, citizens are obligated to act in accord with the criminal law.

It’s relatively easy to see the connection between the recognition of rights and freedom. Persons cannot act as citizens (or as tennis players, parents, or students) if their efforts to do so are hampered by others—that is, if their rights are not respected.

I contend further that if we are to be free, others must hold us responsible for acting or failing to act in accord with our practical identities. This claim appears counterintuitive because we tend to think that the truly free person does not have to answer to anyone except herself. However, as Hegel points out, an individual cannot unilaterally determine whether she is acting in accord with some practical identity. If that were the case, there would be no distinction between her acting correctly in light of that identity and her merely thinking that she is acting correctly. And, in that case, there would be no identity to speak of. Practical identities must be administered by others.

To use a concreate example, one’s identity as a citizen is partially constituted by one’s compliance with the criminal law. It makes little sense to believe that any individual can unilaterally determine whether he or she is complying with the law. Whether an individual has complied with the law is determined by a complex network state actors.

Of course, one can always renounce one practical identity in favor of another. I can choose to renounce my American citizenship and move to Ghana. But my understanding of myself as an American or Ghanaian citizen turns on my recognizing others as capable of recognizing my rights and as having the authority to hold me responsible for violating the rights of others. In short, acting in accord with a practical identity—and thus being free—requires that one recognize the capacities and the authority of others. I can’t be free in relation to a community of parrots because I don’t recognize parrots as capable of either respecting my rights or as having the authority to hold me responsible. Freedom, I contend, requires a community of persons that recognize one another as capable and authoritative. Hegel’s title for a community structured by relations of reciprocal recognition is Sittlichkeit, or “ethical life.”

I’m intrigued by the concepts of reciprocal recognition and ethical life because I believe they can be used to help us develop better theories of criminalization and punishment. (Indeed, I think that understanding reciprocal recognition is the key to understanding every type of normativity. But I clearly won’t be able to follow up on that claim here.)

What types of actions should be criminalized? I claim that crime should be understood as a failure of recognition. To be clear, not all failures of recognition should be considered criminal, but all crimes should constitute failures of recognition. The criminal, on this view, is one who fails to recognize another as the subject of rights and responsibilities. Or, in other words, the criminal fails to recognize a person as a person. Assault, murder, and robbery are clearly crimes on this view. Prostitution and the sale and use of drugs, on the other hand, should not be criminalized because they do not undermine the personhood of others. (To be sure, nothing I’ve said entails that the state is not permitted to regulate victimless, yet socially undesirable activities without employing the criminal justice system.)

This recognitive theory of criminalization is attractive because it allows us to explain why we care about crime and treat criminal acts as in need of special attention. Criminal acts, as I understand them, undermine the freedom of all. In addition to suffering bodily harm or the loss of property, the victims of crime lose a sense of safety and security. The perpetrators of crime are harmed as well because they attack the community that is necessary for their own freedom. In undermining ethical life through the promotion of criminal activity, the criminal threatens her own freedom.

Finally, I turn to the issue of punishment. If crime damages ethical life, punishment should seek to repair that damage. While retributivists see punishment as a means to give criminals what they deserve, and deterrence theorists punish in order to deter would-be criminals, only restorative justice takes community repair to be the primary aim of a criminal justice system. Restorative justice programs seek to bring victims and perpetrators of crime together to discuss the meaning of the crime in question, offer and accept apologies, and to think through fair penalties. Penalties can range from community service to prison time. These penalties are unified by the aim of restoration.

Clearly, designing a system of restorative justice suitable for the United States will be a difficult task, one that necessarily involves a wide variety of thinkers and policy makers. I take it that my role as a philosopher is to provide the arguments necessary to motivate a shift in our thinking about crime and punishment. In considering system design, we should start by looking to Norway’s prison system (reported here and here) as an example of a punishment regime that embodies Hegel’s conception of Sittlichkeit. 

[1] See “Shadow Report to the United Nations on Racial Disparities in the United States Criminal Justice System.” The Sentencing Project, http://www.sentencingproject.org/publications/shadow-report-to-the-united-nations-human-rights-committee-regarding-racial-disparities-in-the-united-states-criminal-justice-system/. Accessed 7 August 2016.

[2] Derrick Darby argues for a similar view in Rights, Race, and Recognition (Cambridge, 2009).

[3] Christine Korsgaard, Self-Constitution: Agency, Identity, and Integrity (Oxford, 2009).


Featured Philosopher: Alex King


Alex King is an Assistant Professor at SUNY Buffalo. She works on ‘ought implies can’ and related issues in metaethics, aesthetics, and metanormativity. She also runs the Aesthetics for Birds blog.

Toward a More Respectful Discourse

Alex King

I am very grateful to Meena for inviting me to contribute to this series. When I received the invitation, I realized I wanted to take the opportunity to express some thoughts about being a person of color – in particular, what my perspective on the issue is as a multiracial person. What came out is a response to much of the race-related awkwardness I’ve experienced in professional philosophy and interactions with people more generally.

Over the course of my life, I have repeatedly discovered that people play a sort of guessing game behind my back about what my ethnic background is. (I am in many contexts white-passing, likely in part owing to my surname, but in others not.) Sometimes I find it funny, other times I am annoyed.

Why do people do it? I think it’s mostly curiosity, but sometimes it’s practicality. Ethnicity has become increasingly relevant because of efforts to increase diversity. Conference lineups, special volumes, and hiring committees often seek diversity. And most people who play this guessing game don’t mean to be cruel, hurtful, or malicious. In fact, I know that many people who have done this would feel horrible if they thought I were hurt by it.

But I don’t think these guessing games are the best approach. In this post, I’ll explain what’s so frustrating about this situation, and then suggest a concrete alternative.

Two initial caveats: These reflections come from my experience as someone of mixed race in the United States. I can only really speak for myself, but I hope it will be illuminating for others. Part of what I aim to explain as frustrating is the idea that people of color all think the same things and want to be treated the same way. So while I will offer some general information and advice, I cannot and will not presume to be offering The Right Way to interact with people of color. Second, I am not a philosopher of race and I haven’t come close to addressing everything I would want. So, I’m sure there are distinctions and relevant points that I’m overlooking.

I. Understanding

Respectfully interacting with people of color involves at least two things. It requires some degree of understanding, and it requires respectful behavior.

There are two central things to understand.

First, not all people of color are the same. Our experiences vary in incredible ways. Our own families and cultures have different histories, have come to the US in different ways, have experienced different sorts of oppression, and have assimilated into white American culture differently. This varies not only across cultures and families, but across individuals. Thus, to think that there is one solution to racism or one all-purpose, best way to treat people of color is to make a foundational mistake.

Second is one very common and uniting experience. This is one (and maybe the) central source of discomfort faced by ethnic minorities, and in a notable form for mixed race people.

This frustration arises from being approached as a curiosity. In a predominantly white society, people of color are experienced as a curiosity, and as a result experience themselves as a curiosity, too. It is difficult to just be; one is constantly subjecting oneself to third-personal examination. For example, one experiences oneself as a black/Asian/etc. that likes certain things rather than simply as liking certain things. This is a subtle but crucial distinction.

Sartre said it, and others have said it too: when you notice that people treat you as an Other, you can’t help but also experience yourself that way. I find parts of Franz Fanon especially poignant on this score. He writes in Black Skin, White Masks, “I subjected myself to an objective examination, I discovered my blackness, my ethnic characteristics” (112). He later adds, “And so it is not I who make a meaning for myself, but it is the meaning that was already there” (134).

So one is forced to make choices in this third-personal way: given that I am an X, how will I behave? One questions oneself and one’s motivations: “Why do I really listen to this music/eat this food/want to take this trip? Is it just because I want to be more/less authentic?”

As multiracial, and thus not immediately identifiable as one or another race, I have experienced a particular flavor of frustration with this in two ways. First, it’s not clear which category I belong to. Given that I am a … wait, what exactly am I? What does it even mean to be culturally authentic, when you’re multiracial?

Second are the guessing games I mentioned above. The feeling of being a curiosity is all the more palpable when I find out about such a game. It is a conversation in which I, the person under discussion (the object of discussion), am prevented from participating and so, in an important sense, really objectified.

II. Respectful Behavior

Let me underscore here that I only speak for myself, but I would much rather someone simply ask me than speculate with others. In general, I don’t hold any ill-will toward people who ask. For me, it approximates the way that it’s interesting to know what people think your age is: it can be depressing, surprising, or just awkward. I have never found an actual guess offensive or hurtful.

Some people prefer not to be asked, preferring to address it themselves if and when they choose to. This is obviously thorny territory if you don’t already know the person’s preferences. But in my case, this results in guessing games because people simply won’t stop thinking or wondering about it, even if they’re too nervous to ask. And in cases where it is practically important, e.g., for diversity measures, avoiding asking may not be a good solution. Incidentally, this is why databases like the UP Directory can be incredibly useful.

And there are better and worse ways of asking. Some approaches feel objectifying, and others just feel like the person, in completely good faith, wants to know about me and my experiences, background, and life. Unfortunately, there aren’t exact rules because every person and situation is different, but here are some pointers:

Don’t let it be the first (or even second) question out of your mouth when you meet someone. Better to get to know the person a little bit first. Don’t say things like, “So are you Indian or what?” or “You look so exotic/interesting.” These are definitely bad. Better option: “Hey, you don’t have to tell me, but I was wondering, what’s your ethnic background?” Err toward restraint, and try to read the individual’s personality.

I have a second suggestion as well: ask open-ended rather than closed-ended questions. Some people are comfortable saying simply, e.g., “I’m Asian.” Others are more comfortable saying, “I’m Chinese,” or, “I’m Han.” Some people will say, “I’m half Indian,” with the tacit understanding that the other half is white; or “I am half-black, half-Mexican.” (Incidentally: I am half Han Chinese and half white Western European.)

These are all fine answers to open-ended questions like “What is your ethnic background?” But these are not always acceptable answers to closed-ended questions, which are often the questions people face.

What to do when one must tick a box on a form or answer a question like, “Are you a person of color?” Notice that the space of answers is constrained. What if my box isn’t there? Is there an “Other” or “Multiracial” option? Does my ethnicity count as non-white? (Hispanic, e.g., officially counts as white in the US.) Can I tick more than one box? Maybe I have to choose an allegiance, whether to be white or Asian today.

The question whether someone is a person of color (or, in Canada, a “visible minority”) is more difficult and conceptually loaded than it appears. It clearly isn’t about actual skin tone, but about race. But that doesn’t resolve the question.

It forces me to wonder what someone wants in asking such a question. Are they really asking what race I am? (Which races count?) Are they asking whether I’ve faced a certain set of disadvantages? (Which set counts?) Are they asking about pure percentages: how white or non-white I am? (Which percentages count?) Are they asking to trick me into saying yes when they think I should say no, or vice versa? Are they asking to figure out what I take it to be, to be a person of color? (This CollegeHumor short captures the experience pretty well.)

Furthermore, it’s often taken that person of color and white are contradictories. But I am a person of color as well as white. What I am not, is only white.

Asking these form-like, closed-ended questions set the terms of discourse. But thankfully, you are a person, not a form, and so you can ask questions that let the person you’re talking to set those terms in whatever way is most comfortable or appropriate to their situation. This is to treat someone with the respect and sensitivity that any fellow human being deserves.

So, am I a person of color? I tend to say yes, in part because I want to demonstrate that there are many ways to be a person of color, with mine just one among them. And I am very grateful for this invitation and series, especially as an opportunity for us to set the terms of this discussion for ourselves.