By Christina Rawls
“This stuff goes deep… But are we keeping quiet because we’re looking an enemy in the face, and it is us? We’re quiet because it’s true and to do something about it would move our heaven and our earth. That’s how deep anti-Black racism is: we can’t even talk about it, but only nibble away at the edges.”
“These [white] people have deluded themselves for so long. They really don’t think I’m human.”
“It is not a racial problem. It is a problem of weather or not you are willing to look at your life and be responsible for it, and then begin to change it…”
“If Americans were not so terrified of their private self…then they would have never become so dependent on the Negro problem.”
In 1833, Lydia Maria Child (possibly one of the first American female philosophers, but also an abolitionist, novelist, reformer and feminist) argued for the equality of all people, including the freedom of slaves, women’s rights, and seeing those who are of darker skin tones—Native Americans included—as human beings in a work titled An Appeal in Favor of That Class of Americans Called Africans. Almost 200 years later, philosopher George Yancy published On Race: 34 Conversations in a Time of Crisis, a collection of interviews on racism with some of the most important humanitarian thinkers of our time, including Noam Chomsky, bell hooks, Joy James, Linda Martin Alcoff and Judith Butler. The collection contains striking narratives and philosophical insights on race and racism, some of which were published in the New York Times column “The Stone” as a series of interviews conducted by Yancy in 2015.
These interviews need to be read now. Not tomorrow, not next month, not over winter break, but today. There is nothing like this collection of voices in our literature on the philosophy of race (and in philosophy itself) to date, and the interview format allows for a large collection of interdisciplinary voices reasoning together, both in agreement and independently, about the ills of systemic racism still structuring our society and psyches. They give a different and broad set of examples. The interviews address the ontological, psychological, cultural, systematic, institutional, linguistic and personal ideas, acts, beliefs, and madness of racism in the U.S., and in the white psyche especially. One might ask: Why are white people obsessed with death in so many harmful and irrational ways? If they are not directly aware, why does the majority of the white population not want to become directly aware? Why willful ignorance in the face of so much data, so much pain, so many personal narratives and true scholarship?
This past year, and more recently in the last few months, our attention has been drawn once again to non-violent protests against both racism and the racist violence that continues to systematically, structurally, and personally affect us in the United States. Not only has the U.S. elected a sexist, racist, and xenophobic (white male of wealth and privilege) President right after the first President of color, but each week the National Football League players, teammates, and coaches are taking a knee before or during the playing of the U.S. National Anthem. They are doing so to protest the unending police violence against black and brown individuals. That which is unending is an interesting concept in the face of one’s own death, the ultimate end. Of course, non-violent protests against racist violence in the U.S. have never really ended in the past four hundred years. The NFL players’ protest strategy is not something new. Throughout the history of sports (from the U.S. to the Olympics) athletes have used their visibility for acts of non-violent protest, both against racist violence and as a request for all of us to return to our humanity in any time of great need to do so. It would move heaven and earth to accomplish such progress. We’re witnessing a rise in white supremacy across the globe yet again, just as we have seen a regular decrease in collective action in the U.S. for the past four decades, ironically.
How is it that white people in a racist nation won’t or can’t face death, either ontologically, epistemologically, or morally? Does the obsession with the death of others allow one to avoid facing their own immanent mortality? While reading through the interviews in On Race: 34 Conversations in a Time of Crisis, I was struck by many important moments of learning and insight provided by the interview format as philosophical method. I wonder where I could publicly and professionally ‘take a knee?’ Perhaps it is here on the APA Blog.
One interview in particular struck me; the discussion with Hortence Spillers, Gertrude Conaway Vanderbilt Professor and Black feminist scholar, about the psychology and ontology of existential existence. Existential philosophy often deals with everyday encounters about our experience of being alive, on how to live well, but it also deals directly with death. Dr. Spillers notes that we often “overlook conduct” in higher education at the expense of (and in the name of) “a much broader pattern of dominance and timidity and willful surrender that expresses itself as the unhealthy status quo of many of our institutions” (On Race, 41). Spillers states that many human beings today, and many white people in particular, do not love themselves or know how to truly care for the self and, therefore, cannot care for others properly either as a result. This is a dangerous logic of existence. By not understanding how to care for the self one gets lost in the cycle of a slow death. By ignoring love or perpetuating self-harm (violence, drug abuse, need for power, etc.) one enacts a slow death. One commits to a slow suicide. Psychologically speaking, if one is unconsciously or subconsciously committing suicide in any way, how is it at all possible to truly care for or have the motivation to care for others? In the interview with Spillers, George Yancy asks, “What is it that we should be admitting to ourselves, especially when it comes to the issue of race?” and “[H]ow do we get white people to love themselves?” Leading up to this problematic tension, Spillers lucidly notes:
In thinking about an answer to this question, it occurred to me that the crisis of race, as old and time-honored as it is, cannot be ‘answered’ all the time at the place of race… In other words, certain race matters might be cleared up if we were more conscious about our own lives – what goes into our minds and bodies; James Baldwin says everywhere in his work, especially ‘Notes of a Native Son,’ that white America has a problem with Blackness because it evades and avoids dealing with its own denial of death, its own inability to face its vulnerability, its humanness. The determination to confront one’s own demons is what I mean by greater consciousness. Racism seems to come out of a profound self-ignorance… (On Race, 40)
I was struck by Spillers’ ontological and existential philosophy in this interview because it’s not only logical; it’s true. I cannot prove it to you using psychoanalysis or syllogistic logic, but it is rational, it is real, and it is philosophy. In philosophy we ask the big questions, we get into the nuanced variations of responses and methods of going about such questions, but we often address the meaning of life and the daily psychology of existential human existence too. So, why not address the same questions and take them up in the way Spillers asks us to? Isn’t this what W. E. B DuBois and James Baldwin also did? The logic is obvious, valid, and sound. It is about materialism and philosophy, but also ethics, politics, the Other, existentialism, morality, phenomenology, education, reasoning, love, and much more.
If Spillers, Yancy, Nell Painter and many others who write on race (and all its related topics) are correct (and I believe they are), then some versions of philosophy we perpetuate in the Western canon are no longer applicable. Some of the systems and texts in philosophy do not believe people of color or women in general count as having ‘minds.’ All we have to do is examine what Aristotle says about women in the Politics. While we cannot reduce a great thinker’s system to this one critique, such obvious problems cannot be systematically ignored either. I still like learning from these systems as they are inventive and often rationally exhaustive of what that particular author’s reasoning can do or convey. They help us learn how to think. Yet to speak of a category mistake, in what we say “exists” or has “existence,” and then to apply it to “mind” and to “matter,” remains a legitimate question from the perspective of the critical philosophy of race (and gender).
To go further, and discuss what it is to think well (using one’s mind, using one’s body, using one’s culture…thinking with others collectively, etc.), is what systematic philosophy enjoys, and what we continue to emphasize with our students. To extend these important questions even further, to rationally contemplate “existence” from an ontological and existential plane of being as a white person includes (and needs to include) asking such questions as what it is for ‘a white mind’ and ‘a white body’ to ‘exist,’ as compared to what it is for a mind and body to exist of a person of color (if both are co-existing ontologically and existentially in a racist context and culture). There might not be a problem with category mistakes in reasoning if we become more honest about our history, both personally and professionally, and if we, as white people, are not afraid to face death. We state on the surface that all humans have minds (consciousness), but then we teach philosophies that state women and/or people of color do not have the same kind of minds as others. When some white people chant “All Lives Matter” they miss the critical point being made, the need for us to truly hear that “Black Lives Matter.” It is psychologically revealing when white people chant that all lives matter, something that is a given and should be obvious to anyone who is humane in orientation.
We need new ways and new modes of living humanly. Consider one positive action taking place this year at my institution of employment, Roger Williams University. The suggested and highly recommended book this year for all incoming freshman, as well as for current faculty and staff at the university where I teach philosophy, is the 20th anniversary edition of Beverly Tatum’s influential work Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race. Among many other important insights, Dr. Tatum, in a new prologue to the work, notes, “Failure to empathize with the outrage of Ferguson protesters in the streets only a few years ago or the sense of isolation or threat students of color report around the country may be due in large part to the racially insulated lives many White people lead, the result of persistent school and residential segregation” (Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?, 45). Later, she continues, “Donald Trump’s election emboldened White nationalists who celebrated his victory in public gatherings” (Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?, 65). Are we more segregated than before, but just in new ways?
Let’s return to the fear of facing certain death, although even this statement is white washed in its theoretical gesture. Black and brown people are forced to face the possibility of death–physical, mental, emotional, social and financial death—every day of their lives. Ontologically speaking, how does the white mind deal with death in the midst of a racist culture then? The fact that I can now ask such a rational question means it is a philosophical question. We cannot escape the daily culture of which we are a part, experience, and perpetuate. What we experience daily is a part of our minds and bodies and we can change what we think, what we say, and what we do. As another recent APA Blog musing noted, it is a deep illusion to think we won’t change, that our preferences and personalities are set in stone, and that it is possible to ‘know thyself’ in a way that does not take into account the continual altering of that ‘Self.’
If Spillers’ argument works, and I believe it does, then we need to assist white people in learning about their otherwise blind white privilege. As white folks, we need to learn how to love ourselves more truly so that we can love others and our shared humanity. This is not idealistic; it is a matter of life and death. In doing so, we are asking each other, our students, ourselves, our colleagues, our neighbors etc. ‘to become more human,’ to face their humanity and the humanity of others. In truly facing death we are becoming more of who we are. To become more human is to face death, as many existential philosophers have contemplated and written about in our history. It is our duty to face death. As Spillers concludes:
I’m certainly not saying that academic institutional racism is not real, but rather that it scratches the surface sometime of a more encompassing dis-ease. If academic white people, as a portion of a much larger human sample, cannot practice charity and intelligence in mutual human contact, then we really shouldn’t be all that surprised that greater numbers do not either, those who supposedly don’t know any better…in combatting the failures of self-love and regard. In racism, one finds distraction from the one subject that he utterly refuses to confront precisely because it is repulsive to him! (On Race, 41)
Or, as Beverly Tatum writes, “As our nation becomes more diverse, we need to be able to communicate across racial and ethnic lines… We need new tools” (Why are all the black kids sitting together in the cafeteria?, 75-76). Or, as Falguni Sheth notes in another interview, “Vulnerability goes beyond bio-power” (On Race, 195). As I’ve noted previously in a separate APA Blog, we need more vulnerability in this world…
Christina Rawls teaches philosophy at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island and is RWU’s first full time female philosophy professor. Dr. Rawls completed her graduate work at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh in 2015 under the direction of Dan Selcer, George Yancy, and Jennifer Bates. Her areas of research and interest include Spinoza’s dynamic epistemology, the Critical Philosophy of Race, philosophy of education, and philosophy of art and film, but she enjoys teaching the most.