By George Yancy, professor of philosophy at Emory University.
The New York Times, June 18, 2018 —
On July 1, Anita L. Allen will become the first black woman to be the president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. She is the first African-American woman to hold both a Ph.D in philosophy and a law degree. In 2010, Dr. Allen was appointed by President Barack Obama to the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, and in 2017 she was inducted into the National Academy of Medicine. She is the author of several books on privacy, law and ethics and is the vice provost for faculty and a professor of law and philosophy at the University of Pennsylvania. In this interview we discuss the obstacles faced by black women in philosophy, some of the painful experiences she endured in this predominantly white male profession and her vision of the future of philosophy.
— George Yancy
George Yancy: When I interviewed you more than 20 years ago for my 1998 book, “African-American Philosophers, 17 Conversations,” I asked you how African-American women had fared in philosophy. Your response was very clear: “Extraordinarily badly.” Why did you hold that view then, and has it changed?
Anita L. Allen: Behind the remark were the personal stories, as I knew them, of the first half-dozen women who entered the field. The first group of black women to get Ph.Ds in philosophy attended top universities. Angela Davis studied at the Humboldt University of Berlin. Joyce Mitchell Cook (the first black woman to earn a Ph.D in philosophy) attended Yale University. Adrian Piper and Michele Moody-Adams went to Harvard University. I went to the University of Michigan. LaVerne Shelton went to the University of Wisconsin. Georgette Sinkler was a product of Cornell University. Yet many of these brilliant and rigorously trained African-American women often faced rejection.
Angela Davis was unlawfully fired by the University of California, Los Angeles, in 1970 for her radical politics; Joyce Mitchell Cook was denied tenure at Howard University, a historically black institution. LaVerne Shelton, now an inspiring poet, was denied tenure at Rutgers University and left academia in 1996. Adrian Piper, who got her Ph.D the same year I got mine, was denied tenure at the University of Michigan, and after a series of other good jobs in philosophy, continued to an enormously successful international career as an artist. Michele Moody-Adams, Georgette Sinkler and I avoided the trauma of tenure denials. Yet, as survivors, even flourishers, we faced bias related to our race and gender.
My perspective on philosophy and black women has changed because the discipline has changed. I would point to two striking signs.
First, as of July 1, I will be the president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association. I am the first black woman to have this role, but I am sure I will not be the last. Second, there is a lively Collegium of Black Women Philosophers, a group organized by Kathryn Sophia Belle (formerly Kathryn T. Gines) at Penn State, as a place where women of color can gather to present ideas in their own, unguarded voices. The collegium celebrated its 10th anniversary last fall, with a keynote by Angela Davis. It’s terrific.
G.Y.: Congratulations on such a significant and well-deserved position. While I hear your optimism, I continue to hear from black women undergraduate students about how they are discouraged from majoring in philosophy because the field doesn’t speak to their philosophical passions. For example, they want to read more about black feminist philosophy and be able to see themselves mirrored in what is still a predominantly white and male profession. My tendency is to empathize, and yet I want them to pursue philosophy. What should we say to them to keep them from getting discouraged?
A.L.A.: People get discouraged when they fail repeatedly at efforts to achieve a goal. I would like to know if this is happening to women trying to get training and jobs in philosophy. If they are failing, why are they failing? I suspect women are not being discouraged by patterns of personal failure, as much as by a lack of apparent opportunity. People get discouraged from making certain efforts where opportunity is limited by forces of history, traditions, social roles and stereotypes. If my daughter wanted to become a philosopher, she would need to hear words of encouragement similar to what she would need to hear if she wanted to become a plumber, heart surgeon or politician: It is very hard for women, even harder for African-American women, but you are smart and strong enough to do it, and I am here to help you. You are right to emphasize barriers but encourage pursuit.
I would add a message about the exciting, broad array of professions and careers open to women outside of philosophy, many of which would engage their talents and interests as well as or better than philosophy. Let’s recognize our value as black women! Put the burden on philosophy to make the case for us, rather than always assuming it’s our job to prove we are worthy of philosophy.
I share the commitment of the American Philosophical Association to support the Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institutes. Rutgers University will host the 20th annual Summer Institute for Diversity in Philosophy in 2018. The University of Pittsburgh hosts a summer program in philosophy of science for underrepresented groups. Princeton will host Athena in Action 2018: A Networking and Mentoring Workshop for Graduate Student Women in Philosophy; I will be an Athena mentor this summer.
G.Y.: You mentioned Adrian Piper. As you know, she was the first African-American woman tenured philosopher in the United States. I recall asking her about some of the obstacles that black women face in philosophy, and she was rightly critical of what she saw as a racist and sexist perception of black women in philosophy as “maids or prostitutes.” Do black women in philosophy continue to be stereotyped in such denigrating ways?
A.L.A.: Adrian Piper and I were colleagues at Georgetown University in the late 1980s and close friends for longer. I shared with her my stories of denigration, which may have contributed to what she said to you.
My dissertation chairman was Richard Brandt. Once after I had earned the doctorate and was meeting with him, he stood over me, lifted my chin toward him and remarked that I looked like a maid his family once employed. Around the same time, early in the Ronald Reagan administration, an effort was made to rid Washington of the sex trade and shops that flourished along the 14th Street corridor a few blocks from the White House. I worked in nearby McPherson Square at the National Endowment for the Humanities and, as a volunteer at the NAACP Legal Defense Fund. One day I was walking near my office with a white male friend, a philosopher at an Ivy League university. We were stopped by the police, who profiled us as a hooker and john. I had to answer questions and show ID.
Is the denigration of black women philosophers a thing of decades past? Are we beyond being asked to fetch coffee for department chairs and worse? Regrettably, no. In October 2017 a very senior Harvard-educated white male philosopher, whose wife is also an academic, wrote to me seeking feedback on an op-ed he hoped to submit to The New York Times or The Washington Post. He did not like my feedback. He ended an email lamenting his failure to get anything more than “duncical shit” as feedback on his work by letting me know that he had recently imagined seeing my face in the photographs he used in masturbation! Incredible, right? I wrote back to explain why I was offended and to sever ties. I assume that if such a thing could happen to me, some very, very serious harassment and racism must be happening to young women in the field.
G.Y.: Each of those experiences are degrading, Anita. But concerning the third one, though, he could have kept that to himself. Why would he feel the need to tell you this? Was it about control and dehumanization? Was it impunity on his part? I think that we also need to keep in mind that he is white and that he shared it. This does not escape the history of white men and the racist depiction of black women as “Jezebels.”
A.L.A.: This happened right about the time Harvey Weinstein fell from grace. It was the last straw. For years I put up with demeaning comments from this individual. I should have communicated my true feelings and kept a distance. Ironically, although he came to me for help, when I was an assistant professor he had discouraged me from philosophy, doubting to my face that I had “enough candle power (i.e., intellect) for philosophy” but opining that I had “too much juice (i.e., sensuality) for philosophy.”
Unable to achieve intellectual domination, he attempted sexual domination to preserve the upper hand. The lack of respect for me and my marriage was infuriating. The lack of respect for his own marriage disturbed me, too. Cunning and disloyal, he had copied his wife and another senior woman philosopher on the original email asking for my help, but did not copy them on the defeated email in which he referenced his masturbation practice.
G.Y.: Are there obstacles that black women and women of color face within academia, more generally, that white women and black men don’t?
A.L.A.: Are you trying to pick a fight? Just kidding.
White women are better represented and perhaps more easily accepted in philosophy than men or women of color. Pay equity and status gaps between women and men tend to favor men. Only about 1 percent of full-time philosophy professors are black, whereas about 17 percent are women. A higher percentage of black men than black women Ph.D students go on to tenure-track positions.
I believe anyone can face obstacles, though. I have known a white woman philosopher who was blind, and another who used a wheelchair. I have known a black male philosopher who hid his sexual orientation for years. My career obstacles include that I was a first-generation college graduate. Members of my family have special needs and have survived cancer.
G.Y.: Earlier you mentioned recruiting and retaining African-American women within philosophy. To do so, it seems to me, also requires a shift in philosophical themes that reflect many of the social and political realities of black women. I think that this is what my African-American undergraduate female students are getting at regarding the desire for black feminist thought appearing more on the philosophical syllabus, as it were.
A.L.A.: Philosophy departments can become more inclusive if they take time to learn about emerging and emergent trends, advertise positions for fields people of color specialize in, and expand curricula to incorporate what black philosophers do. During the past 60 years, new fields of specialization have emerged — philosophy of race, African-American philosophy, Africana philosophy, black feminist/womanist thought, and so on. These have appeared in tandem with an increase in the number of professionally trained philosophers of black descent. Among the A.P.A.’s estimated 10,000 Ph.D-trained philosophers in the United States today, an estimated 125 are black, 38 are black women. Twenty-five years ago, Adrian Piper and I attempted to invite the Ph.D-trained black women in philosophy to join a professional association. We identified about eight eligible philosophers.
Back when I was a graduate student teaching assistant, a black student approached me and asked why I didn’t teach black philosophy. I gave the then standard answer that philosophy addresses universal themes applicable to everyone. But it has proven really hard for undergrads to see why Plato’s allegory of the cave, or Leibniz’s windowless monads or even Rawls’s theory of liberal justice matter enough to make philosophy their majors or life’s work.
As I discovered when I set out to put together a course for Penn, “African-American Philosophy Since 1960,” African-American philosophers have been critiquing law and government; analyzing power, and institutions and practices of oppression, subordination, slavery, class, caste, colonialism, racism, sexism and homophobia; articulating the bases of African-American identities and the grounds of responsibility, community, solidarity and collective action; expressing African-American existential, spiritual, psychological and moral joys and discontents; celebrating and interpreting African-American art and culture; and assessing the discipline, canon and history of Western philosophies, by reference to gaps, logical and moral inconsistencies, methodological limitations, epistemologies and exclusions.
Most contemporary African-American philosophers write about topics directly related to race or other aspects of the African-American experience. Indeed, at some point in their careers, most African-American philosophers seem to have found themselves deeply engaged in “social analysis” that deals with what M. L. King, as he sat in jail in Birmingham, referred to as “the hard, brutal facts of the case.” Work by black philosophers has addressed the ignorance that Angela Davis identified from her jail cell of those who purport fairly and objectively to judge and legislate concerning blacks while having “absolutely no idea” about the depth of African-American deprivation and vulnerability.
The journal Critical Race Philosophy published its first issue in 2012 to provide a regular forum for scholarship by and about peoples of color. As our numbers grow, we can expect to see more black feminist philosophy. Trails are being blazed by senior black feminist philosopher Joy James, on the faculty of Williams College, and by junior scholar Lindsey Stewart, at the University of Memphis, among others.
G.Y.: As president of the Eastern Division of the American Philosophical Association, what is your vision in terms of tackling such issues as we’ve been discussing?
A.L.A.: I am excited about working more closely with the A.P.A. My vision is for a more inclusive, self-aware and publicly engaged profession whose leaders serve as strong ambassadors for our vital share of the humanities.
I am impressed by the ways in which the philosophers involved in the A.P.A. are working together to recognize the contributions of racial and ethnic minorities, L.G.B.T.Q.+ community members, and of part-time and adjunct faculty.
A standing A.P.A. Committee on the Inclusiveness of the Profession addresses issues of diversity. The A.P.A. continues to host active national committees devoted to the flourishing of black, Asian, Pacific Islander, Hispanic/Latinx, and native/indigenous groups. As for the core intellectual mission of the A.P.A., the program committees work toward annual meetings that reflect the changing demographics, as well as new methods and subfields.
G.Y.: But how might you (we) specifically impact a greater awareness of the forms of male violence either against well-established women in the field of philosophy or female graduate students?
A.L.A.: You are not going to let me end our conversation on an artificially cheerful note.
We must acknowledge that sexual harassment and sexual violence are real. Academic leaders have to be willing to speak openly about our degrading experiences as well as our soaring successes. Mentoring should include facts and “lessons learned” about implicit bias and mistreatment. In our roles as department chairs, deans, provosts and presidents, we must push for policies that make the academic realm safer. The A.P.A. has recently sought to make sexual harassment less likely at its annual meetings by prohibiting job interviews in convention hotel bedrooms. We should continue to bring about long overdue change.
George Yancy’s new book, “Backlash: What Happens When We Honestly Talk About Racism in America,” is an outgrowth of the response to his 2015 essay “Dear White America.”
Now in print: “Modern Ethics in 77 Arguments,” and “The Stone Reader: Modern Philosophy in 133 Arguments,” with essays from the series, edited by Peter Catapano and Simon Critchley, published by Liveright Books.