Race and Philosophy: Reflections on My Online Class

I (Will) recently completed the eighth and final video for my online class, “Race & Philosophy.”One student has nearly completed all the lessons. Several other students are engaged at various levels of intensity. I am ready now to reflect on the work of the course and the messages contained within it.

“Race & Philosophy” helps students navigate nineteen interviews conducted by the philosopher George Yancy in the New York Timesover the course of a year, and it culminates in a provocative gift offered by Yancy himself to White America in a short essay modelled (rhetorically) on the work of James Baldwin. This gift earned Yancy a slew of death threats and hate speech and, even more troubling, a place on a watchlist of “dangerous professors” created by a student group sympathetic in its aims with white supremacist organizations. What we learn from all of this is that philosophy matters more dearly than we could possibly expect and that its efficacy stretches from the realm of the abstract to the skin wrapped round our flesh, to the blood that courses through our veins.

James Baldwin

James Baldwin

Each of the interviews in the series features the work of a philosopher engaged in conversations about race. Nine of these philosophers are women. Thirteen of these philosophers are people of color. Perhaps it is not surprising that Yancy would design his interviews in such a way as to make the reading public aware of two minority groups within the discipline of philosophy—women and people of color. 

What might surprise students, however, is the amount of time dedicated by these philosophers to the discussion of whiteness. While it can be a bewilderingly complex issue, whiteness has three foundational elements that Yancy’s interviews expose. First, whiteness is a positionconstructed during the rise of capitalist expansion and (Liberal) European nation-building. By defining whiteness as a place or position, whiteness can be “occupied” by white-skinned and non-white-skinned bodies alike. As a position, whiteness also has the ability to shape social and natural environments. Second, once recognized as a position, we begin to see whiteness as a privilegedplace from which people of European descent could maintain domination over Others. Third, this privileged position secures thought structures that allow white people to see the world in ways that aren’t necessarily objectively true or even remotely accurate. We could call these thought structures “ways ofknowing wrongly” that have been constructed to perpetuate domination. With these three definitions in play, Yancy’s interviews work to dispel the myth that white people need not concern themselves with race. To the contrary, white people perpetuate specific understandings of race in order to keep whiteness out of the conversation, but, by recognizing this maneuver, we can see that whiteness is crucial to all conversations about race and racial justice. 

The point of the interviews seems, in fact, to lead to a bold conclusion: more than ever, white people need to think deeply about the performance of racial identity formation and racism in the United States and the world more broadly. To learn how to think deeply, white people, such as myself, must listen to people of color and white people alike. The former group brings with them a diverse array of experiences as an unduly scrutinized and abused (either physically or through neglect) class of people who, nevertheless, have engaged in the pursuit of knowledge, higher learning, personal growth, well-being, and the pursuit of happiness. The latter group brings a repertoire of revelations through which we, as students, can watch the dawning realization that, as white people, certain individuals have benefited from structural practices designed intentionally to exclude Others. 

By watching these revelations and listening to the ideas that arise in these individuals after seeing their lives anew, we witness an embodied dimension to thinking, one that unites thought and mind in a concerted effort to know the world rightly. For white people, this effort is necessary because knowing wrongly has become the default setting for white Americans. Charles Mills has named this phenomenon an “epistemology of ignorance,” and many of the interviews link back to this mind-melting term and its practical a/effects.

Both groups of people united in Yancy’s set of interviews name themselves “philosophers.” Is this surprising? What do philosophy and race have to do with each other? Don’t philosophers think about abstract ideas that concern only an elite few? Isn’t philosophy a mostly (unreflective) white enterprise? Doesn’t philosophy favor the mind over the body or simply ignore the body altogether? Well, yes. The answer to these questions is frequently yes. 

Yancy’s mission, however, is to show that a number of wickedly sharp minds and crushingly compassionate humans have occupied even the stodgiest of philosophy departments and have started to force a change of direction. Moving away from general or ideal theories of law, justice, language, and ethics toward visceral engagements with particular lived experiences, these hijackers are trying in ways both polite and irreverent to steer the ship of philosophy toward the many. More precisely, they are trying to reveal how philosophy has always held within it a concern for the plight of the under- or non-representedThere is, to paraphrase Cornel West, afire within philosophical speech that drags the truth into the street for all to see and refuses the tyrannical rule of the few over the many. There is, to paraphrase both bell hooks and Yancy, a gesture of love behind this truth talking, a gesture that slaps and stings the face of the ignorant but, in doing so, invites an awakening to actual justice. Again, West: Love is what Justice looks like in public.

bell+hooks+illustration.jpg

After creating all the video lessons and scaffolding the ideas in those lessons to grow into a meshwork of overarching themes, I realize that I was first a student of my own class and then, only secondarily, the teacher. As a white man, I am the intended recipient of Yancy’s bold message. The core of that message is, “Hey, open your eyes and stop seeing wrongly. Racism exists and you benefit from its ripple effect every day, even if you think highly of your enlightened sensibility. Wake up, practice your whiteness otherwise, or consider yourself among the class of oppressors.” By choosing not to shirk this abrasive scolding but, rather, to incorporate its sting into my reading and thinking, I am able to read the interviews as instructions for more ethical living. Only then, after learning to read in this way, can I teach these instructions to others. 

I invite you, regardless of your race, class, or station in life, to take this class and join the effort to live rightly! Read the newspaper and you’ll see, we all need to do the work that Yancy has laid out for us.

Related Blog Posts: Written by Joanne: Learning Gardens; Written by Will: “Pedagogy”: What’s in a Word? and Full STEAM Ahead