Featured Philosopher: Carole Lee


Carole J. Lee works on the production and evaluation of knowledge, with a focus on peer review. She received her PhD in Philosophy from the University of Michigan and is now an Associate Professor of Philosophy and Affiliate Faculty at the Center for Statistics and the Social Sciences at the University of Washington, Seattle.

Another Way to “Leave” Philosophy

Carole J. Lee

Thank you, Meena, for hosting this blog and for inviting me to share what’s on my mind.

The mission of my research is to understand scientific practice with an eye towards improving it. In this vein, I’m studying potential racial disparities in grant funding under a contract with the National Institutes of Health. I’m waist deep in a project studying the gender composition of co-authorships across disciplines and sub-disciplines represented in the JSTOR corpus. And, I’m serving as a Coordinating Committee Member for the Transparency and Openness Promotion (TOP) Guidelines, which aims to improve the reproducibility of research. All of these projects are incredibly stimulating. By collaborating with people from different disciplines (e.g., statistics, information science, sociology, ecology), I’m constantly learning about new concepts and methods. By working with data, I get to draw generalizations about some corner of the actual world. And, by working with organizations, I’m coming to understand the machinations of how policy changes can and cannot take root.

But, in light of recent events, I’ve been asking myself what more I can and should do in my work. One possibility I hadn’t considered took me by surprise a couple of weeks ago.

Last summer, I was invited to join a program – run by the Provost and a handful of Deans – that trains future University leaders and incubates future campus initiatives. I joined because I was glad to have the opportunity to develop leadership skills, meet a broader swath of my local academic community, and give voice to ideas that I had tucked away in my head.

We recently had our first meeting. I hadn’t anticipated the power of being in a room with others who, fresh from the election, were hungry to find ways to protect our public institution’s commitment to education, inclusivity, and the communal good. Worried about what will happen to undocumented students? Worried about students who are being targeted for hateful speech and violent acts because of their race, religion, gender, or sexual identity? Worried about students who may lose their healthcare? Being in conversation together, I recognized the power of strategizing responses to these worries – not just as a teacher or mentor – but as an administrator or campus leader.

I get it now. I understand why some post-tenure faculty pivot to become a career administrator or campus leader. It is a profoundly interesting, important way for an action-oriented, values-driven person to “leave” philosophy – or any home discipline.

I myself am not planning to leave philosophy. And, I’m not suggesting we overlook the ways in which the call to service can burden women and racial and ethnic minorities disproportionately. Research suggests that women – associate professors in particular – spend more hours on service per week than their male colleagues [1]. And, too often faculty of color are subjected to extra, unrewarded service to their institutions – a form of cultural taxation – in which they feel obliged “to show good citizenship toward the institution by serving its needs for ethnic representation on committees, or to demonstrate knowledge and commitment to a cultural group, which may even bring accolades to the institution but which is not usually rewarded by the institution on whose behalf the service was performed” [2]. Indeed, among my colleagues at the leadership training, a disproportionate number of us were women and/or faculty of color.

Don’t get me wrong. I am so grateful and honored to have a long-term academic position, to be a part of a university that pro-actively cultivates a healthy community of leaders, and to be invited to join the conversation at that table.

I’m just startled, after working so hard to make it through the pipeline all the way past tenure, to discover such a compelling way for someone like me to “leave.”

[1] Misra, J., Lundquist, J. H., Holmes, E., & Agiomavritis, S. (2011). The ivory ceiling of service work. Academe, 97(1), 22.

[2] Padilla, A. M. (1994). Ethnic minority scholars, research, and mentoring: Current and future issues. Educational Researcher, 23(4), 24-27.


Featured Philosopher: Jonardon Ganeri


Jonardon Ganeri is a philosopher who draws on a variety of philosophical traditions to construct new positions in the philosophy of mind, metaphysics and epistemology, writing chiefly about the philosophies of South Asia in dialogue with other ancient and contemporary philosophical cultures. He is the author of The Self, The Concealed Art of the Soul, and The Lost Age of Reason, all published by Oxford University Press. He joined the Fellowship of the British Academy in 2015, and won the Infosys Prize in the Humanities the same year, the first philosopher to do so. Open Minds magazine named him of its 50 global “open minds” for 2016.

The Dimidiating Stare

Jonardon Ganeri

In an earlier posting at this blog, Alex King opened a conversation about a topic I have not seen discussed elsewhere: what it means, or is like, to be a philosopher of mixed race. So I thought that I would use Meena’s welcome invitation to pick up the thread and reflect a little about my own experience in this regard. What follows, then, rather than being an account of the content of my philosophical writings or current research, is instead a brief and very subjective reflection in the genre of “philosophical autobiography”.

I’m at my best, philosophically, when I’m not under scrutiny. A crowded street, or indeed any crowd, will do, a crush of people too preoccupied to spare me a second glance. An empty apartment serves the purpose admirably too, no matter whether noisy or silent. Put me in front of another, however, and my mind just goes to pieces.

I used to think that this was the result of some failure in self-belief, a lack of that robust self-confidence only an expensive education can provide. Recently, though, I’ve glimpsed a philosophically more interesting, and therefore necessarily truer, explanation. How wrong was Plato when he had Socrates pronounce that the way to know oneself is to see oneself reflected in the pupil of another; for as Frantz Fanon more insightfully noticed, the other’s gaze creates one in some image of their own. Yet Fanon, enviably, could fall back at least on this: that while he became blackness only under observation, he was, after all, black.

I, though, biracial, become an Indian (or, anyway, something faintly foreign) in the view of my English brethren; and while this encourages me to embrace myself as Indian, my Englishness smarts at the affront. In India, it is the exact inverse: I become an Englishman (or, anyway, vaguely videśi) when looked at by my Indian kith-and-kin, suddenly seeing myself as English and strutting around; but only at the cost of deep insult to my Indian self. The other’s gaze, in short, always cuts me in two, one half a Fanonian construct, the other resentfully disinherited. And one can’t do philosophy when one is breaking apart.

The incoherence in this imposed “dual identity” reaches a head when I travel to the Gulf. My fellows there are foreigners who fall into one of two groups. There are the “expats”, mostly white and wealthy, with prestige jobs and platinum credit cards; and there are “migrant workers”, brown and beaten, indentured and indebted. The gaze of the citizen falls on both groups, seeing in the first a fast track to art and architecture, to import quickly all culture, including, ironically, their own. The expat finds in this reflected image a person of civilisation and liberal values, and they like what they see. The migrant worker, if seen at all, is seen with a gaze that strips away his or her humanity, reducing a human being to a dispensable pair of hands. The migrant has become a machine, without a place in any culture or ritual, eyes perpetually cast down. What was it Simone Weil said, that after a year on the factory-floor she bore forever in her soul the mark of a slave? After two or three years the migrant learns that subjectivity is just another commodity, to be bought at a cost in the mall.

Subject to a mongrel muse, I become both, servitude and civilisation, and at once. Even as I’m being chased around by security guards convinced that I’m an uppity impostor who dares to think of himself as a being with the right to look at art and architecture, my friends greet me with a cheery “Hello!”. I’m forever about to fall through a crack, that fault-line between two incoherent fantasies.

Perhaps I feel most kinship with a third group of “foreigner”, the ones born and bred there to immigrant parents but never granted citizenship. To them the idea of a “homeland” is as elusive and meaningless as it is to me. I finally understand the allure of the forest to those wise ancients, for how much better the grove to the agora if one wishes to think. Or else a city, the bigger the better, a thundering metropolis full of preoccupied humanity. It is in such spaces alone that one can evade the dimidiating stare, dodge the demand to inhabit incoherent identities, and be simply oneself.

So, to conclude this short reflection: if I have gained a philosophical insight from these musings on the experience of being biracial it is—and here I find I need to appropriate a technical distinction made by the Sanskrit philosophers—that social identities are samvṛtti but people are paramārtha. No biracial philosopher would ever invent the doctrine of social constructivism, or think that there is absolutely no self.

I’ll dedicate this post to my friend Joseph Sen, who tried valiantly but never found his way through.

Featured Philosopher: Tina Fernandes Botts

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Tina Fernandes Botts is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at California State University, Fresno. Her primary areas of specialization are philosophy of law and philosophy of race. She has a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Memphis, a law degree from Rutgers University Law School, Camden, and a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Maryland, College Park.  Before moving to Fresno State, she had a postdoctoral fellowship at Oberlin College, and a fellowship in law and philosophy at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. Her scholarship centers on the reexamination of laws and other ethical and socio-political paradigms from the vantage point of the marginalized and oppressed. She is the editor of Philosophy and the Mixed Race Experience, an academic exploration of the impact of mixed race identity on philosophical workproduct, published by Lexington Books in 2016. In addition, she is the author of The Concept of Race, Aristotelian Proportional Equality, and the Equal Protection Clause, forthcoming from Lexington Books, which examines how changing conceptions of race and equality have affected Supreme Court decisions interpreting the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment. She is also the co-author, with Rosemarie Tong, of the upcoming fifth edition of Feminist Thought, published by Westview, as well as a practicing attorney who specializes in employment law.

Intersections:  Philosophy, Philosophy of Law, and Race

Tina Fernandes Botts

My relationship with philosophy is an intimate one. I became a philosopher because I had no choice. I was born with a disposition that questioned everything around me, and with a desire to discover what I called in my youth “the meaning of life.” I tried other avenues for answering these questions, but philosophy kept calling. For me, philosophy was the only discipline where I was encouraged to constantly step outside the box, the only discipline where I felt free to let my mind run free. I am most comfortable around philosophers and the philosophically-minded, and I feel very fortunate to be able to make a living thinking about and writing about philosophy, and, of course, talking philosophy. As a young woman, my dream was to make a living in this way, but I was told on numerous occasions to “keep my day job,” since the jobs in philosophy were so few and far between. This discouraging advice was compounded by the fact that when I started on my journey to become a professional philosopher, one could (figuratively) count professional philosophers of color on one hand; and the situation for women philosophers was almost as dismal. Early philosophers of color and women philosophers have done so much to create a space for me (and others like me) in the discipline, and I am very grateful for all of their good work and tireless defiance of the institutional resistance to their presence that they have routinely encountered during their professional lives. I am proud to be a part of new efforts to build upon the work previously done to diversify the discipline, both demographically and in terms of content. Our discipline faces many challenges, including a large dose of elitism that often operates to alienate curious and capable students who could contribute so much to answering the perennial questions of philosophy. By my presence and persistence in staying in the discipline, despite significant institutional challenges along the way, I hope to contribute to making such students feel welcome, and to do my part to improve the discipline by working with others to proactively stretch philosophy’s disciplinary and demographic boundaries.

My work so far has been focused on philosophy of law, philosophy of race and the intersections between these two. My primary focus has been using legal hermeneutical tools to reinterpret constitutional laws that have proved counterproductive for people of color and other marginalized, oppressed, and subjugated groups.[1] One of my concerns has been the way antidiscrimination law neglects multiracial people. Multiracial people currently have no protection under U.S. laws from racial discrimination, despite a long history of such discrimination in the U.S. legal system and in American society. The surface reason for this lack of protection is that antidiscrimination law requires a prospective plaintiff to first identify as a member of one, and only one, of five legally established racial groups: Asian, black, Latino/a, Native American, or white. The deeper reason, however, is that U.S. Courts no longer acknowledge that the purpose of antidiscrimination law is to provide redress for historically situated, systematized oppression.

My concern regarding the relationship between multiracial people and the law is part of a broader concern I have with the way in which American law processes the concept of race more broadly. In a book I am currently writing, The Concept of Race, Aristotle’s Proportional Equality, and the Equal Protection Protection Clause, I examine the way in which the concept of race has changed since the enactment of the 14th Amendment, and how this changed concept of race has affected interpretations of the Equal Protection Clause. In the book, I am also concerned with how changing concepts of equality have affected these interpretations. One of my key points is that the way the Supreme Court understands race is context-dependent, nonsensical and out of step with academic scholarship. Mistakenly operating as if race is based in biology, the Court now operates as if racial discrimination per se, instead of racial discrimination against historically marginalized racial groups, is unconstitutional. Similarly, the Court’s reasoning in cases of racial discrimination seems to betray a concept of equality that is problematically rooted in Aristotelian political theory, according to which equality is available for equals only and not for unequals. This concept of equality is known as “proportional equality” and is out of step with the American ethos, at least as the Framers articulated it. 

My work in the new book is rooted in work I have done in the past about the nature of racialized identity in the United States.[2] In that work, I argued that the strong belief in biological race in the United States, combined with the belief in an indelible, biologically-based hierarchy of races, has created what Heidegger would call a “world” or what I would call a system of intelligibility in which, for all intents and purposes, race is determined by “blood.” In other words, historically, and into the present day, the belief that race is determined by biology has reinforced the presumption of the reality of human racial categories, and at the same time reinforced the system of indelible racial hierarchy in the United States that defines who belongs to which race. In order to authentically play the race game, then, the racial identity of one’s ancestors has to be consulted. And if at least one of them was black, one has met the minimum criterion of blackness. Conversely, without black ancestors, one has not met the minimum criterion. At the same time, “blood” is not sufficient for black racial identity. There must also be black phenomenological experiences.

To me, the disconnect between what race is (a sociohistorical phenomenon with a specific history that significantly affects access to social goods) and what it is understood to be (biological) by the Supreme Court (and much of American society) has dramatically negative consequences for the ability of the law to protect members of racialized minority groups. If race is biological, then racial discrimination per se is legally problematic, even discrimination against whites. If race is sociohistorical, then racial discrimination against racialized minority groups is legally problematic because it operates to reinforce the vestiges of slavery. The first approach buys into the myth that we currently live in a colorblind society. The second approach, by contrast, soberly addresses the reality that the racial subjugation of racialized minority groups is alive and well in America, and must be grappled with head on if we are to ever achieve the dream of racial equality in the United States.

[1]For more on legal hermeneutics, see Botts, Tina Fernandes, “Legal Hermeneutics,” The Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy, ISSN 2161-0002, http://www.iep.utm.edu/, 10/20/2016.

[2] See Botts, Tina Fernandes, Philosophy and the Mixed Race Experience (Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2016).

Featured Philosopher: Devonya Havis


Devonya N. Havis, is an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Canisius College in Buffalo, NY. She has taught courses in Ethics, Contemporary Continental Philosophy, Critical Philosophy of Race, and Black Women’s thought at Boston College, Harvard University, and Virginia Union University. Her writings include “Blackness Beyond Witness” in Philosophy and Social Criticism and “Discipline” in the Cambridge Foucault Lexicon.She has a longstanding concern with utilizing philosophy to enhance awareness and promote counter-oppressive practices. Her chapter, “‘Seeing Black’ through Michel Foucault’s Eyes: ‘Stand Your Ground’ Laws as an Anchorage Point for State-Sponsored Racism,” is included in, Pursuing Trayvon Martin: Historical Contexts and Contemporary Manifestations of Racial Dynamics.

Discursive Sites of Improvisation – some ruminations

Devonya N. Havis

In this post my aim is to engage a brief consideration of what is at stake if one moves beyond sight to sound. It is part of longer meditations on the ways that Black ancestral discourses are generative sites for transgressions and interventions that promote social justice. These longer meditations take up the Foucauldian challenge to “conceive power without the king” which involves an analytics of power as “positive,” not merely prohibitive. My work has been influenced by this account of power because the account provides a supplemental, complementary theoretical apparatus for exploring the reasons that racialized injustices remain so intransigent – an observation that has long been acknowledged in Black ancestral discourses. An effect of these persistent injustices is the way ocular frames function to mark racialized bodies and spaces as dangerous, ugly, exotic, or undesirable.

Given this normalizing gaze, is it possible to re-configure ocular frames? As bell hooks asks, seeking a counter-oppressive way of seeing, “…what process of looking allows us to counter the seduction of images that threaten to dehumanize and colonize?” Hooks asserts that a counter-oppressive look “…is that way of seeing which makes possible an integrity of being that can subvert the power of the colonizing image.” [1] But is there such a way of looking? Looking, even if one returns the gaze, does not necessarily subvert the gaze. Instead, the gaze – looking — inscribes and re-inscribes systems of privilege and violent hierarchies.

For example, this evening I went to the apartment of a friend for a meeting of a Feminist theory group. It is a fancy condominium complex that requires one to be let in via buzzer. As I stood in the foyer searching the brass name plates for her unit buzzer, an older white man came out of the building. He saw me standing there with my backpack, Dunkin Donuts coffee, and articles. He approached the door to the foyer to exit, averted his eyes, apparently refusing to make direct eye contact. Nonetheless, he watched me carefully – perhaps assessing my proximity to the building’s entrance. He squeezed himself out of the door leaving only enough space to exit. Once out, he paused and deliberately checked the door to make sure it was fully closed. The implication was that he was insuring that I could not gain entry where I, so obviously, did not belong. Over the last two years, I have made frequent visits to the building, been granted entry by the building supervisor, and have been greeted in the foyer by exiting residents. So, what did this man see? He offered no oral address or assistance with finding the buzzer for the person I had come to visit. He was clearly rushing to avoid an encounter with the Black body that he saw. How might an auditory encounter have disrupted the man’s normative gaze?

Contemplating the extent to which his self-described ugliness and strangeness were impediments, James Baldwin writes, “I had discovered that my infirmity might not be my doom: My infirmity or infirmities might be forged into weapons.”[2] One might regard Baldwin’s “weapon” as his writing and speaking. These can be considered a form of parrhesia[3] — a verbal encounter by which someone reproaches the powerful and may compel recognition of the offense committed. [O]ne in a profoundly unequal situation can do one thing: She can ‘speak” – engage in a discursive act that calls attention to the offense, that exposes injustice.”[4] By engaging the auditory, Baldwin opens up possibilities for strategically refiguring seeming limitations.

My assertion is that Black ancestral discourses, such as Baldwin’s, often disrupt the primacy of the ocular. My longer meditations involve using auditory elements — like oral narratives, Jazz, Blues, and Gospel — to perform improvisatory interventions. These auditory moments often render structural critiques. They allow those who are in less powerful positions to strategically exercise “the art of voluntary insubordination, that of reflected intractability.”[5]

So, perhaps, the encounter with the silent old white man might have been altered by a verbal address.

[1] bell hooks, Black Looks, p. 6.

[2] James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work: An Essay (New York: Dial Press, 1976), 7.

[3] Michel Foucault, The Government of Self and Others: Lectures at the College de France, 1982-1983 (Macmillan, 2011), 133–34.

[4] Devonya N. Havis, “The Parrhesiastic Enterprise of Black Philosophy,” Black Scholar 43, no. 4 (Winter 2013): 55.

[5] Michel Foucault, The Politics of Truth (Semiotex, 2nd ed. (Semiotext(e), 2007), 32.

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