by Heather Muraviov and Taylor Tate
The Black Women Philosophers Conference took place last month on March 15th and 16th, 2019 and was hosted by The Center for the Humanities and The Graduate Center, CUNY. The conference was co-organized by Charles Mills and Linda Martín Alcoff as part of an ongoing series (after the Racial Inequality conference last March and the #MeToo and Epistemic Justice conference last October, both in 2018). During the conference, Black women philosophers from around the globe spoke about pertinent and urgent philosophical topics. Some of the topics discussed throughout the weekend ranged from meta-oppression and #blackgirlmagic, to resistance and refusal, to creolization and Caribbean philosophy, to Latinx feminism and Black feminism, and Black pain, Black rage, and white empathy.
Many of the presentations made use of postcolonial and decolonial frameworks in challenging oppression in engagement with rigorous philosophical analysis. Just listening to their talks encouraged the audience to do the same—for example, to cultivate similar spaces more often.
The meeting channeled the Fanonian framework of child as method as Erica Burman theorized in her book Fanon, Education, Action. Burman offers models of the “Idiotic Child,” the “Traumatogenic Child,” the “Therapeutic Child,” and the “Extemic Child.” The first is unknowing, the second has been harmed, the third is undergoing processes of recovery and growth, and the last exemplifies wonder and continued development throughout her or his life. As everyone in some way continues to be a child throughout her or his life, Burman argues that learning requires understanding this as a feature of ongoing education or intellectual development.
We, having been two women of color attending the conference, hope to contribute to the presenters’ tradition on a path of continued growth. The presenters also encouraged us to think about the conference as a case study of recognizing and subverting colonial pedagogical practices at conferences.
It is common for conference speakers to treat their audience members as if they are children. Of course, being a child is not supposed to be a bad thing most of the time, especially when children are allowed to play with ideas and to engage with people, objects, and topics with utmost curiosity. It can be difficult for children, however, when they are treated like the idiotic child, as banks people ought to deposit knowledge into. Much like the idiotic child, audience members are oftentimes treated as if they do not know or do not yet know better. They are treated this way because it is not desired for audience members to resist, critically challenge, or disagree with the speakers’ arguments. Because of this, speakers tend to maintain a dynamic between teacher and student where the student does not think critically about the subject matter.
We were happy to see that the Black Women Philosophers Conference (hereinafter, BWPC) broke away from this tradition in expected and also fortuitous ways.
The conference was set up like most conferences. Speakers stood facing their audience. They gave speeches about their particular subject matter and interacted with the audience during the Question and Answer (Q and A). At many conferences, like the BWPC, audience members are allowed to ask questions about the speakers’ talks in an allotted time. When they do this, it is with the understanding that they are seeking information from the speaker that they do not have. Evidence of this lies in the fact that it is looked down upon for audience members to take on the role of the expert in these Q and A sessions. This ensures that just as many parents raise their children to further ideologies that they believe in, speakers educate their audience in ways that ensure that the audience member can only be conscious of what they want them to be conscious.
While the set up should have ensured that the speakers treated their audience members as banks of knowledge, the speakers broke away from the banking model by constructing a space where attendees could play with ideas (as opposed to constructing a space where attendees are tasked with soaking up information). They were able to construct such a space because the work at the conference reflected a large range of disciplines. The goal was not to focus on the questions that one discipline or a subset of a discipline has been working on. Instead, attendees were tasked with rethinking content in relation and apart from the whole philosophical canon as we may have known it. This gave attendees a space to think creatively about the content, which allowed their audience to develop a critical consciousness of their subject matter.
Because the speakers and hosts called the community to work together to think in radically new and innovative ways about a large range of subject matters, it was difficult to sustain the particular set of attitudes, values, and ways of behaving necessary for an academic space to enforce a banking model of education. For example, the speakers made it clear that they weren’t seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake like philosophers at traditional conferences might. They were seeking knowledge to survive, to resist, and to build anew. Thus, goals at conferences, like mechanical objectivity, ideal purity, being true to nature or having trained judgement took a backseat to deep listening, testimonial justice, and aetiological sensitivity.
Many speakers expressed a desire for the community to come together to rethink who and what should be or should not be in the philosophical canon. They did this in the rhetorical strategies they employed, in their tone, in the questions they asked, and the ways they answered audience members questions. Others explicitly called for change. The very first speaker, for instance, Axelle Karera of Wesleyan University, argued that we should refuse institutionally imposed intellectual trajectories, and refuse to respond to philosophy’s “call to order,” “culture of justification,” and “ongoing historicity.” Karera discussed how Black feminist philosophy and refusal entail accountability, care, and responsibility. She ended her talk with a quote from Hortense Spillers, “I’m here now, what are you going to do?”
When one incites in people an urgent need to truly do as Descartes did and doubt one’s underlying assumptions, to offer critiques of assumptions that one doesn’t even know one is working with, one pushes others away from developing the skills necessary in the banking model. The speaker’s’ task did not entail completely clearing the deck and starting from scratch. Some of the speakers, much like Descartes, relied on the rich tradition before them, to start the process of systematic doubting.
Speakers, for instance, gave talks that made use of traditional theories and concepts in philosophy of language and epistemology while offering new insights. The work of Briana Toole of Baruch College focuses on rhetorical strategies of dominant groups and how the socially powerful undermine the performative force of resistance movements by disrupting the connection between act and target that creates discursive injustice. These tactics are namely: misdirection, appropriation, distortion, and dilution. Toole used her analysis of speech acts to demonstrate that when the #BlackLivesMatter movement is interpreted by others as exclusive or when NFL player, Colin Kapernick kneels during the National Anthem, it is viewed as a violation of patriotic norms. Oppressors use this objection to hold resistance movements hostage.
Loyola University of Chicago’s Jacqueline Scott’s talk on “meta-oppression” (a term she has coined) emphasized that people of color can maintain healthy social lives and human flourishing through active reconstruction and revaluing of their agency if they rid themselves of epistemic vices (inspired by José Medina’s book The Epistemology of Resistance). Scott argues that we can do this by accepting our conditions and finding ways to affirm racialized individual and group identity and agency.
Other talks demonstrated how we might transcend the canon and redefine philosophy, and, in doing so, showed us that we might have to suspend or forsake philosophies in the canon to fulfill our task of systematic doubting. Anika Simpson of Morgan State University, for example, called for reform or abolition of the patriarchal institution of marriage. After explaining that patriarchal ideas have managed to infiltrate traditional philosophy in many ways, Simpson argued that most people tend to assume that the institution of marriage is good or natural. Next, she illustrated how African-American philosophical inquiry may, in turn, help the canon reflect on itself in productive ways.
Yolanda Wilson of Howard University challenged us to redefine and reestablish philosophy by discussing the ways in which the Black community often experiences epistemic injustice in medical settings. Pain, of course, is a topic that has gained some traction in traditional philosophy, but she challenged us to think critically about it in non-traditional ways.
Most of the speakers urged their audience to be critical of their methods and the content put forth by rethinking frameworks in the canon and developing critiques of frameworks handed down to them by philosophers on the margins who resist the canon. Nathifa Greene of Gettysburg College and Mickaella of the University of Massachusetts at Boston, for instance, helped us center the global south in our discussion about justice. This move allowed them to argue for using other frameworks, besides the white–black binary, to understand the world. As such, they not only transcended the canon but also challenged the African-American philosophical tradition.
Camisha Russell of the University of Oregon asked us to think about the conditions for knowledge, how it serves us, and who creates it. She did this by working through an analysis of working-class whites and Black women as an example of the way in which the U.S. maintains a particular social imaginary (through José Medina) to further marginalize both groups. This challenged the audience members to make comparisons in ways they may not have foreseen.
At many of the conferences we have attended, conference speakers will treat their audiences like a traumatogenic child in that the information they convey will often traumatize the audience in negative ways. The information conveyed will often be meant to ensure that audience members take on an understanding of society that enables audience members, particularly audience members that are part of marginalized groups, to understand themselves as subjects. The information disseminated will enable the audience members to recognize themselves as subjects by distorting the relationship with their physical and psychological beings and their collective and individual identifications. We have seen this done when intellectuals rely solely on antiblack or colonial theories to guide their thinking. Some of those intellectuals have built an industry off of finding new and innovating ways to ensure that people mischaracterize and alienate themselves from the social world as what it is.
The philosophers at the conference broke away from that conference model we have experienced by not relying on anti-racist, sexist, or colonial theories to get their messages across. In fact, they did the opposite. Most speakers relied on decolonial and global southern theorists such as Frantz Fanon, Maria Lugones, Gloria Anzaldua, Ralph Ellison, Jane Anna Gordon, Lewis Gordon, Audre Lorde, Nelson Maldonado-Torres, Mariana Ortega, Maria R. Stewart, Audra Simpson, Kristie Dotson, and others.
They also broke away from that model by asking people to rethink the way we use our agency in ways that could be productive and healing, thus ensuring that we could act as an autonomous subject. Myisha Cherry of the University of California at Riverside did this by developing an account of Lourdean rage for which she argues that Black folks who express or feel rage at injustice and in resistance movements, for instance, are praiseworthy. There is value in using one’s agency for rage and anger at injustice: “We can rage, and we can be scared as hell,” she declared.
Emmalon Davis of the New School University redefined traditional notions of agency by arguing that criteria many philosophers use to evaluate agency—such as reasonableness, rationality, and impartiality—are insufficient for evaluating whether Black Women are accountable for the risks that come with procreation.
Columbia University’s Michele Moody-Adams’ work was helpful in encouraging us to see that oppressed people use their agency in a variety of different ways to survive, resist, and build. She did this by arguing that the Black woman in philosophy is often like Neurath’s mariner who must repair her vessel while staying afloat in open water.
Kris Sealey of Fairfield University argued that the intersections of Latina feminism and Caribbean conceptions of creolization promote the possibility of creolizing and reimagining “subjectivity otherwise” as relational, non-essentialist, grounded in “something other than the fear of the power of the other.” When we envision “alternative decolonial futures” and the possibility of coalitional politics, a different conception of agency follows.
Deyvona Harris also invited us to re-evaluate traditional conceptions of agency by arguing that “the work of Black aesthetics can be understood as exercising practices of freedom.” Bringing these philosophies into conversation with one another can help us imagine agency differently.
We’ve also seen speakers at various conferences treat their audience members as the therapeutic child by failing to recognise, let alone indulge, their childhood status. Speakers will fail to see their audience members as beings that are constantly learning and growing. They fail to see them as beings that have a capacity to fall because they assume they should have the knowledge that would enable them not to fall. They are not treated as beings who could think and act in surprising or new ways. They treat them as if they should come with a particular set of knowledge about the world. Such speakers treat audience members as if they should have understanding and judgments about this information that will ensure that.
Because the speaker’s talks reflected different perspectives that represent the diverse world in which we live, in addition to discussing canonical political and feminist philosophical figures such as John Rawls, Claudia Card, and Simone de Beauvoir, they were able to overcome this issue of treating the audience as enclosed therapeutic children. As each talk touched on novel issues, neither the speakers nor the audience members were established experts in every topic that went up for discussion. This created an epistemic environment in which everyone was learning. Everyone was forced to take the role of the student. From this description, it might seem like things were not in epistemic order, yet the epistemic environment was of high quality. Because everyone took the role of the learning child, both speakers and audience members were able to cultivate an environment in which they could all tackle difficult problems together; they created an environment in which traditional obstacles people face at conferences, such as dealing with people’s epistemic arrogance or dogmatism, were minimized.
Last, sometimes speakers at traditional conferences treat audience members like the extemic child yet simultaneously include and exclude them from social practices. We tend to think of individuals as children either outside of social practices or as assimilated into them. This individual and social divide is a binary construct; it pulls the individual and the social apart from each other, which is not realistic. Audience members, like children, are social and political subjects, which means that they engage philosophically in similar ways, as agents in relation to the social and political.
The speakers did not treat their audience in that tension of exclusion and inclusion. They treated audience members as if they were meant to be included in the philosophical, social, and political. They did this in a way that allowed audience members to fail if need be. We could tell we were amongst a community of scholars who hung out together like old friends (which some of them are). The space was welcoming to the general public, the conversations that happened at the conference reached well beyond those topics in an air of meaningful, creative, playful, serious engagement with each other’s ideas. The speakers were incredibly supportive and encouraging to younger scholars in the audience; many of them generously and openly offered career and research advice. It helped that speakers came from different communities who share similar backgrounds, methodologies, and meaning behind the work they do.
Surprisingly, this culture was cultivated without most speakers prioritizing and centering Black Women in their paper. This is to say that although they centered Black intellectuals in their thought, they did not promote exclusivity, but rather inclusivity of various philosophers and philosophical traditions. The intellectuals that did center Black women found new and innovative ways to write about how people might uplift, recognize, and protect Black women.
Janine Jones did this by explaining how white people’s empathy has worked to disarm and then injure Black people’s spirit. For Jones, white empathy relies on a kind of self-perception, memory, and imagination that cannot articulate Black experiences. It is perceived as something that will be helpful to the Black community, but because such empathy does not engender respect and civility, it ends up hurting Black people.
Jameliah Shorter-Bourhanou of Georgia College and the College of Holy Cross discussed how antebellum black thinkers such as Maria W. Stewart could be read to provide a black feminist approach to ethnology. Citing Anna Julia Cooper and Angela Davis, she argued that since those who are members of the oppressed groups are too tired to assert themselves in certain spaces, that transformation happens in the private sphere of the home.
And in a riveting discussion about Claudia Jones and Simone de Beauvoir, Kathryn Belle of Penn State University showed that white feminism centers white women and ignores Black women’s experiences. Belle argues that we need to shift our thinking beyond the categories of perceiving white women as complicit and black women as militant.
The keynote featured renowned philosophy and law professor, Anita Allen of the University of Pennsylvania. Allen argued that we need to think about the philosophical implications of viewing “the private” and “the public” as totally separate categories—this is especially urgent in a rapidly changing digital age where there is a constant “invasion of privacy.” Additionally, Allen shared her experience in academia to further the conversation regarding how we might re-envision what philosophy can do for real-world issues in digital life and technology, who philosophers are, and what it means to be a Black woman in philosophy. Allen noted that philosophy (like math and physics) has been male-dominated, unwelcoming to Black women, and a place that tolerates sexual harassment.
While there have been allies and successful Black women philosophers in the discipline throughout the course of history (the late Joyce Mitchell Cook [1933–2014] , Adrian Piper, and Angela Davis), we are still breaking away from the insidious, problematic norms that have been all too common in the discipline of philosophy. Allen told us that her work on privacy had been cited in Supreme Court cases in multiple countries across the globe, including a case that helped secure privacy rights in India. She also led a talk at the Debating Ethics: Dignity and Respect In Data Driven Life conference with Mark Zuckerberg and others at the United Nation. A philosopher, by her standards, is one that affects the world with their ideas. This is in part why she writes about privacy.
In attempting to unravel complications neglected by the canon, in shining light on the nature of reality, the Women at the BWPC showed us what it means to be a philosopher: one who questions, seeks wisdom, and attempts to see what is disclosed in a colonial world. We are grateful to have witnessed such an event, to listen to and celebrate the contributions of Black women philosophers, and we encourage other parts of the academy to cultivate these spaces more often!
List of Speakers:
Kathryn Belle, Penn State University
Emmalon Davis, The New School for Social Research
Janine Jones, University of North Carolina Greensboro
Axelle Karera, Wesleyan University
Mickaella Perina, University of Massachusetts Boston
Jackie Scott, Loyola University Chicago
Anika Simpson, Morgan State University
Briana Toole, CUNY Baruch College
Yolonda Wilson, Howard University
Heather Muraviov is a doctoral student of philosophy at the University of Connecticut at Storrs. She received her bachelor’s in philosophy and English from California State University at Fullerton and is interested in social and political philosophy, philosophy of education, and epistemology.
Taylor Tate is a philosophy graduate student at the University in Connecticut at Storrs. Taylor is also the founder of Kiss The Sky, an organization working to make academia more accessible. Check Tate’s work out at www.wekissthesky.com
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