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What are you doing for black philosophy?

by Keisha Ray, Ph.D.

“What are you doing for black philosophy?” This was the only line in a Facebook message that I received a few days ago from someone I did not know. My immediate reaction was one of anger. I kept thinking how dare someone ask me what I’m doing for black philosophy. That anger grew as I clicked the sender’s name and a profile did not come up. I drew the conclusion that this person is likely just an internet troll who found the profile of a seemingly black person with some relation to philosophy, sent this message to aggravate me, and then deactivated or deleted his or her profile. This is all a guess on my part.

After spending far too long being angry I tried to answer the question. My immediate answer was to question why my very existence in philosophy, and more specifically in bioethics wasn’t enough. Isn’t being doing something? We usually applaud or at least acknowledge the first African American or the first Latino (and other races) to do something that we consider noteworthy. I am by no means the first black philosopher or black bioethicist, but I am one of the few. I am one of the few representations of racial diversity in the field. And very frequently I feel the effects of being one of the few. When I go to conferences or when I attend department or university-wide meetings, it is rare that I see a face the same color as my own. On an almost daily basis I have to sort out what being one of the few means for me personally and professionally. But if simply existing in philosophy were enough for the sender of the Facebook message, then I likely would not have received the message in the first place.

Another way I tried to answer the question “What are you doing for black philosophy?” was to think about the burden placed on racial minorities just by being a member of the race. I refer to it as the “representation problem.” Essentially, your life is never just your own; you are always a representation of the entire race and any misdeed is a point in the negative column for the entire race (although good deeds do not work this way). This burden is magnified in the professional world, well, at least for myself it is magnified. For example, when speaking with colleagues I am always very aware of my speech. I make sure not to use any slang or any language that can be construed as slang in fear of sounding uneducated. A by-product of this is that it takes me longer to form colleague/friend relationships because I appear not to be collegial. But I do this because I am thinking about how my interactions with my colleagues will influence their attitudes towards my race as a whole and towards individual members of my race. Where some may question if they are their brother’s keeper, I question if I am my race’s keeper.

The question “what are you doing for black philosophy” is an extension of the representation problem. It’s not enough to simply exist, now you have to do something for your people. The best example that I can think of that parallels this issue is an issue discussed in certain film and Latino circles. Given that there is a lack of Latino representation in cinema, do Latino filmmakers have a responsibility to hire Latino actors to act in their films? Based on the question posed to me, I assume the sender of my Facebook message would say yes, Latinos have a responsibility to their fellow Latino thespians to do something that uplifts and elevates the community. What I take from my Facebook message is that the sender believes that I am supposed to do something similar to the Latino filmmaker that hires Latinos. I am supposed to do something that contributes to the betterment of blacks in philosophy and existing is not that “something.” What exactly this “something” is, I have no idea.

One of the more troubling questions I asked myself after receiving the message was “Are Latinos asked what they are doing for Latino philosophy or are Asians asked what they are doing for Asian philosophy?” and “Should members of racial minority groups even ask themselves what they are doing for philosophy?” In all of the uncertainty created by this message, one thing I was sure of was that white people are likely not asked what are they doing for white philosophy or at least it’s not phrased this way.

In a past post I questioned whether I could be a bioethicist with so much racial unrest in the world and whether my time would be better spent participating in activism and humanitarian efforts. Although not explicitly stated, what I was really pondering in that post was is there a right way to be black in philosophy, and more specifically, is there a right way to be black in bioethics. In a way, I was asking myself “what am I doing for black philosophy?” so I’m not currently as upset about the Facebook message as I was when I initially received it because I realized that for some time now I’ve been asking myself this question.

I am aware of committees that focus on the plight of specific groups within their organization such as the inclusion committees that are a part of the American Philosophical Association. I am aware of ways to get involved. I am aware of the good that these groups do and how I myself have benefitted from the good that these groups do. I do feel a responsibility to give back to these kinds of groups in some way so that philosophy and bioethics can be a group of diverse academics and practitioners. But what I think the sender of the Facebook message does not appreciate is that sometimes existence can go a long way. My existence matters to my students who look like me and pursue a career in philosophy and/or bioethics because they saw someone in the field who looks like them. My existence matters when I’m the only racial minority in a department meeting and my perspective, shaped in part by my race, offers a new way for my colleagues to view a problem. My existence matters when a colleague of a different race asks for my advice on cultural sensitivity so he can adequately address a problem with a black student. My point is that sometimes existing is doing something.

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