Black Women Philosophers Conference Challenges Preconceptions

The Graduate Center is hosting the Black Women Philosophers Conference this Friday, March 15, through Saturday, March 16, an event organized by Distinguished Professor Charles W. Mills (Philosophy) and Professor Linda Martín Alcoff (GC/Hunter, Philosophy) with a goal of focusing on the work of an underrepresented population within a field that is overwhelmingly male and white in the United States and Europe.
 
The conference is timed to honor Professor Anita L. Allen of the University of Pennsylvania, the first black female president of the American Philosophical Association in its 100-year-plus history. Allen and 16 other black women will discuss their research on a broad spectrum of philosophical issues.
 
Visit the Center for the Humanities’ site to register. The event is free and open to the public.
 
Professors Mills and Alcoff recently spoke to The Graduate Center about their hopes for the conference and for the field of philosophy:
 
Graduate Center: As you note, about 97 percent of philosophers in the U.S. are white. Have you seen any promising signs in recent years that diversity is increasing?
 
Mills:
There are promising signs in the greater degree of self-consciousness in the profession that its lack of diversity is a problem that needs to be addressed. The executive leadership of the American Philosophical Association has been doing what it can to foster debate (through forums, panels, etc.) about different possible strategies to increase the numbers. Unfortunately, the numbers remain very low. In percentage terms, the number of blacks (1 percent) has not changed over the past 30 years. And with the shift to the use of contractually limited appointments and the drying up of tenure-track jobs in the humanities generally, the background conditions are obviously not favorable for encouraging a mass influx of people of color anyway.  
 
Alcoff:
I have definitely seen significant progress in philosophy’s diversity since I became an assistant professor in 1987, but we are still so terribly behind. We are behind the social sciences, the rest of the humanities, and even the natural sciences! The percentage of people of color in the field all combined is something like 3 percent. This conference will give testament to the fact that there are promising signs, but we are so far from where we need to be that I don’t want to give people false hope that things are on their way to parity and we can just sit back. 
 
GC: This conference intends to shift the idea of what a philosopher looks like, represented by “the dominant imagery of the white male marble busts of Greco-Roman antiquity.” How you plan to challenge these preconceptions? 
 
Mills:
To the extent (against this unfavorable background) that the stereotypical image of a “philosopher” can be changed, it would help if white professors across the country made a self-conscious effort to see how their syllabi and curricula could be expanded to take account of the different perspectives often expressed on classical philosophical questions (social and political philosophy, epistemology, ethics, aesthetics, the metaphysics of the self, etc.) by people of color, as well as their raising of new kinds of questions. The aim should be to incorporate such material into “regular” mainstream courses rather than having them “ghettoized” solely in, e.g., African-American Philosophy or race courses. I’m currently teaching a course on the philosophy of W.E.B. Du Bois ¾ one of the most important American thinkers of the past century, who had important and radical insights on many of these matters that need to be far better known in mainstream philosophical circles.  
 
Alcoff:
The need for what we might call “identity diversity” ¾ that is, diversity by race, by gender, etc. ¾ is a means rather than an end in itself. The history of philosophy has focused on a somewhat narrow range of questions, ignoring many crucial ones, such as Charles’ work shows most acutely. Centuries of liberal political philosophy with hardly a word on slavery, colonialism, or the oppression of women? The uniformity of identity had an impact on the richness (or lack thereof) in philosophical questions, frameworks, and theories. So, as in every other scholarly discipline, we can see that increased identity diversity brings new questions, new methods, and new theories. By creating a conference with a critical mass of identity diversity in this way, we hope to shift the discussion of what the significant questions are, and the viable answers. 
 
GC: Who are a few philosophers you wish more people knew about, and why?
 
Alcoff:
I personally wish more philosophers in North America knew more about the rich traditions of philosophical work in Latin America. There was a strong tradition of Mexican existentialists, and a distinct tradition of political philosophy that took the non-ideal conditions of newly liberated countries and peoples as the starting point for considering transitional justice and liberation. I wish more people knew the work of Enrique Dussel, an important Latin American philosopher of liberation, and of Grant Silva, a young philosopher in the United States who argues that we should replace the Enlightenment with the Philosophy of Liberation in order to reframe the crucial questions of modernity, not as the question of freedom from religion, but as the question of freedom from slavery and colonialism in all forms. I also wish more people read the work of Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz, an early Mexican feminist theorist who developed an innovative account of intellectual virtues. There are just too many to name! 
 

Submitted on: MAR 13, 2019

Category: Diversity | Faculty | General GC News | Philosophy