Philosophy is dead white – and dead wrong



1841 For Solomon Northup, it marked the beginning of “12 Years a Slave”, but for Frederick Douglass, it marked the beginning of 50 years a public speaker. Reflecting on that beginning, Douglass tells us – in the second of his three autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) – that “[d]uring the first three or four months, my speeches were almost exclusively made up of narrations of my own personal experience as a slave. ‘Let us have the facts,’ said the people. So also said Friend George Foster, who always wished to pin me down to my simple narrative. ‘Give us the facts,’ said [John A.] Collins [of the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society], ‘we will take care of the philosophy’.”

Let’s reflect critically on this notion of “taking care of the philosophy”, by considering, on the one hand, who gets to do philosophy and, on the other, what gets done in philosophy.

On the one hand, Douglass doesn’t get to do philosophy.

Interestingly, just as, in the US, we remember Northup’s narrative more readily than Douglass’ philosophy, here in the UK, we remember The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano (1789) more readily than Quobna Ottobah Cugoano’s Thoughts and Sentiments on the Evil and Wicked Traffic of the Slavery and Commerce of the Human Species (1787). The Sons of Africa, as Equiano, Cugoano and the dozens of other Afro-British men collectively campaigning in central London in the late 18th century were known, had an explanation for our selective memory. In 1789, in London’s Diary, the Sons of Africa wrote that “the nation at large is awakened to a sense of our sufferings, except the Oran Otang philosophers”. Without doubt, this reference was to philosophers who had bought into the theory of Edward Long, according to whom “the oran-outang and some races of black men are very nearly allied”. Indeed, “[t]hey are, say the most credible writers, a people certainly very stupid and very brutal”.

Fifty years later, even the abolitionist William Wilberforce still described Long as “a writer of the highest authority on all West India subjects” and referred to Long’s “celebrated history of Jamaica”. More recently, Phillip Atiba Goff, assistant professor in social psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles, has found “evidence of a bidirectional association between Blacks and apes that can operate beneath conscious awareness yet significantly influence perception and judgments”. Thus, that unspoken and unspeakable suspicion, that sits on the tip of your tongue, and that might mean I don’t become a professor of philosophy, is the question: “Is Dr Nathaniel Adam Tobias Coleman an oran-utang?” The threat of this stereotype, Claude Steele, professor emeritus of psychology at Stanford University, tells us, causes stress to those, who, like me, spend an inordinate amount of time, energy and resources, to ensure that no one has any reason to think we are acting according to type. Yet, when we do dodge the threat of the oran-utang, our academic achievements are frustratingly attributed to luck, to fluke, to outside help. “How long shall they kill our prophets?”, Bob Marley once asked. Stereotype threat and attribution bias are killing our prophets.

Thus, it is no wonder that I am one of only five philosophers racialised-as-black employed by a British university – only two of whom (the two men) are employed by a department of philosophy, namely James Wilson and I, at University College London. By contrast, the other three philosophers (three women) are employed by other departments: namely Patrice Haynes, in the department of theology, philosophy and religious studies, at Liverpool Hope University; Katherine Harloe, in the department of Classics, at the University of Reading; and Mahlet Getachew Zimeta, in the department of humanities, at the University of Roehampton. We are less than 1 per cent of all employed philosophers. None of us is, yet, a professor.

On the other hand, Douglass doesn’t “get done” in philosophy.

Literature, history and politics have treated Douglass, and other persons enslaved-as-negro, and, more generally, other persons racialised-as-black, as artists, biographers and campaigners. Yet, philosophers have not tended to treat such persons as philosophers.

Reflecting on such neglect, Anita LaFrance Allen-Castellitto, professor of law and professor of philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that “[i]f people of color are to ‘do’ philosophy, philosophers must be willing to ‘do’ people of color. When we give minorities’ issues their due we dignify them as moral agents with morally and intellectually significant lives”. Yet, as Albert Atkin (a senior lecturer in philosophy, who had to leave Britain for Macquarie University in Australia before he could write and publish his monograph on The Philosophy of Race (2012)) puts it, “mainstream philosophy has managed to make itself something of a notable exception in contributing to debates on race”.

Mainstream philosophy has managed to do this by considering itself to be regally above researching blackness. If, in the 19th century, Gauss dubbed mathematics “the Queen of the Sciences”, in the 13th century, for Aquinas, other sciences were already the handmaids of theology, and, in the 6th century, Boethius had already patriarchally personified Philosophy as a toweringly tall woman, with books in her right hand and, in her left hand, a sceptre. Philosophy needs to get off its high horse. For such queenly – or, rather, queeny – academic arrogance has, at least, two consequences: inside the academy, philosophy sits in a silo, and outside the academy, it never dares to venture.

In a 2012 blog posting titled “What could leave philosophy?”, Brian Weatherson, professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan, argues that “[f]or a few areas [of philosophy], it is easy to imagine them being in other departments, because they already overlap so substantially with work done in other departments”. Thus, instead of seeing overlap as an opportunity to collaborate across disciplinary boundaries, Weatherson sees overlap as an opportunity to police, enforce and constrict the boundary around philosophy. This narrow-mindedness is an example of what Kristie Dotson, assistant professor of philosophy at Michigan State University, has called philosophy’s “culture of justification” – not the legitimate demand that one justify the conclusion of one’s arguments, no, but the illegitimate demand that one justify that what one is doing counts as “philosophy”.

Such derailing demands mean that philosophy misses out on such groundbreaking cross-disciplinary work as that of, for instance, Nicholas Kwesi Tsri and Gabriella Beckles-Raymond, both of whom will speak at Critical Philosophy of Race: Here and Now in London’s Senate House on 5 and 6 June. This conference will be a milestone in British philosophy, when anglophone “analytic” philosophers, who tend to think that philosophy can be done from the armchair, unsullied by any engagement with the public, begin to do philosophy with the armchair at arm’s length, rolling up their sleeves, getting their hands dirty and grappling philosophically with the peculiarities of racial injustice in Britain.

I conclude with a reply to Collins:

Dear dead white man, we thank you for your kind offer to take care of the philosophy on our behalf, but, with all due respect, you are not equipped to take care of the philosophy on your own.