Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Black Women Seek a Role in Philosophy


When the nation's black female philosophers meet for the first time next month, the auditorium at Vanderbilt University will have plenty of empty seats. Not because no one is interested in attending, but because fewer than 30 black women are known to hold full-time jobs in the discipline.

The women — plus about a half-dozen black female graduate students — are getting together for the first meeting of the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers. The gathering will be part pep talk, part networking opportunity, and part research seminar.

"If you're a black woman, you cannot identify with the majority of the people in the profession," says Kathryn T. Gines, a black assistant professor at Vanderbilt who started the group. She is reminded of her minority status every time she attends the annual meeting of the American Philosophical Association: "How few our numbers really are becomes very daunting when you're surrounded by a sea of graying, white males with pipes and tweed coats."

Some women are coming to the meeting in Nashville just so they can meet other philosophers who look like them and who go against the grain by infusing questions of race into their scholarship. "I spend a lot of time being the only woman and the only black person," says Jacqueline R. Scott, an associate professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. "Every once in a while it hits me, and I wonder what I'm doing here."

Philosophy is academe's oldest discipline, yetit wasn't until 1965 that it granted its first Ph.D. to a black woman — Joyce Mitchell Cook, who earned her degree at Yale University. (She will be honored at the Nashville meeting.) In philosophy, as in most fields, the best-known thinkers have been white men. Unlike such disciplines as English, history, and political science, however, contemporary philosophy has not made much room for minority perspectives, black scholars say. "It is still committed to the mainstream, traditional lines of inquiry," says Ronald R. Sundstrom, an associate professor of philosophy at the University of San Francisco, who is black.

That has long cast women and minority scholars as outsiders. George Yancy, an assistant professor of philosophy at Duquesne University, remembers looking up "philosophy" in the Encyclopaedia Britannica when he was young. "All the pictures were of white males," he says. "I literally thought I was the only black person in the world who was interested in philosophy."

When Ms. Cook was at Yale, in the mid-1960s, she knew she was the only black woman in her field. But "I didn't even think in terms of what race meant or what gender meant," says the professor, who is now retired from Howard University. Her advice for young black women contemplating a career in philosophy: "If you don't feel you have to do it, you shouldn't." An advanced degree in a theoretical field, she remembers, set her apart from the rest of the black community.

The American Philosophical Association does not even keep up-to-date figures on how many of North America's approximately 10,000 philosophers are women or minority-group members. Some philosophers see that as part of the problem. "We've been struggling for so many years to get this data," says Sally Haslanger, a philosophy professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She gathered her own figures on women at elite institutions and will publish them next spring in Hypatia, a feminist journal. Her research shows that at the nation's top 20 philosophy departments, only 76 professors, or about 19 percent, are female. Still, she doesn't know exactly how many of those are African-Americans.

"I used to count on one hand the number of tenured black women" in philosophy, says Ms. Haslanger, who is white. Their scarcity means that black women "are always solo in every context. They are a double minority in the field."

Brian R. Leiter, a professor of philosophy and law at the University of Texas at Austin, publishes a well-read online ranking of philosophy departments and tracks the comings and goings of people in the profession. He probably knows of more scholars than anyone else in the field. When The Chronicle asked him to name some black female philosophers, only one immediately came to mind.

The philosophy association says it will embark on a demographic study of its membership next year. Anna Stubblefield, who heads the group's Committee on Blacks and Philosophy, estimates that only about 100, or 1 percent, of the 10,000 academic philosophers in North America are black. Of those, she estimates, about 20 are female. Ms. Stubblefield, who heads the philosophy department on Rutgers University's Newark campus, isn't one of them. She is white. Vanderbilt's Ms. Gines, too, has tried to tally the number of black female philosophers in academe and says she has found a few more by word of mouth, putting the total at 29.

The number has been inching up lately, thanks mostly to the graduate program at the University of Memphis, where Ms. Gines earned her Ph.D. in 2003. The philosophy department there has made recruiting black women a top priority. Faculty members and graduate students regularly visit historically black colleges to try to interest undergraduates early on. Since 2003 the department has turned out five black female Ph.D.'s, and seven more are making their way through the program.

Robert L. Bernasconi, a professor at Memphis, is largely responsible for that. "We have four philosophers working on feminism, and I do race theory, so this is a very natural place," says Mr. Bernasconi, who is white. He adds that Memphis — a city in which the majority of residents are African-American — is a natural place to begin trying to offset the profession's racial imbalance.

Like many of the black women who are earning doctorates in philosophy, Sybol Cook Anderson took awhile to decide that was what she wanted to spend her life studying. When she went to college in the 1980s, she says, smart black women were pointed toward careers in medicine, law, and engineering. "From my interactions with freshman students now, that's still largely the case," she says. "Black students are guided toward more-practical and more-remunerative fields."

Ms. Anderson came to philosophy in a roundabout way. She first planned on being a doctor, but after college she went to work for a defense contractor and then became a continuing-education instructor. Eventually she became interested in the history of ideas. She didn't earn her Ph.D., from the Johns Hopkins University, until she was 42. Now she is an assistant professor of philosophy at St. Mary's College of Maryland.

She teaches a course on the philosophy of love, which looks at philosophical discussions of love, friendship, and sexuality since antiquity. She is also working on a book on Hegel's theory of recognition and the questions he posed about what it means to be a person. Gradually, she says, she has mixed in some questions about her own identity: How do oppression, sexism, racism, and classism influence what it means to be an "authentic human being"?

Many black women entering philosophy use it as a tool to address questions about who they are and how they fit into the world. Samaiyah Jones, a third-year graduate student at Memphis, says most of the philosophy she does is very practical. "If I were not in philosophy, I would be doing social work or nonprofit work," she says. "I'm not interested in philosophy that isn't going to help us think about the issues we face." For her, that means looking at "perfectionism in the black community" and at the ways in which the ideas of W.E.B. Du Bois and Frederick Douglass on "how we should shape the Negro" relate to the progress of African-Americans today.

Ms. Scott, of Loyola Chicago, is a Nietzsche scholar and has just earned tenure. Most people reading her publications, she says, "will not think, Oh, that's a black woman who's done that." But recently she has started seeing applications to race theory in her study of the German philosopher. "Nietzsche was an outsider to his culture but trying to heal the culture," she says. "That's a stance many African-Americans take."

It can be dangerous to ask questions about race or gender when you are a philosopher, says Mr. Yancy, the Duquesne scholar. Doing so, he says, "disturbs the waters" and often isn't regarded as serious work. "The mainstream philosophical journals aren't interested in what we're doing," he says.

That's one reason some people wonder whether the Nashville meeting is a good idea. Carol M. Swain, a professor of political science and law at Vanderbilt, says she understands that "there is a certain type of research done by black scholars that isn't accepted by the larger white academy." But she doesn't believe that "self segregation" is in any scholar's best interest.

"Encouraging black people to marginalize themselves by pursuing a line of philosophy not accepted by the mainstream just reinforces the stereotype that blacks can't do philosophy the way other scholars can," says Ms. Swain, who is black.

Anita L. Allen, a prominent professor of law at the University of Pennsylvania who also holds a Ph.D. in philosophy, agrees that it is dangerous to shun the mainstream. "I've met some women of color in philosophy who want to only cite authors of color," says Ms. Allen, who is black, "even if it means they won't get tenure or be taken seriously."

She says she expects the black women at the Nashville meeting to talk about John Stuart Mill and Kant's Critique of Pure Reason as much as they talk about race. Besides, she says, the meeting is valuable because nothing like it has ever happened before.

"Every year for the last 25 years, I've gone to lots and lots and lots of conferences," she says. "But I have never had the opportunity to sit down with 20 African-American philosophers to figure out our place in the discipline and talk about issues that are on our minds."
Section: Diversity in Academe
Volume 54, Issue 5, Page B4

No comments: