Examining the anti-Black racism of my chosen spaces

The reality of this American life is that every. single. place has been shaped by anti-black racism. There is no structure, no institution, no system that has not been formed, in part, by white supremacy, by anti-POC bias, by all insidious kinds of racism. It’s imperative that we acknowledge how broadly, deeply pervasive white supremacy goes in all our lives; examine all of our spaces; confront all that is harmful, racist, and biased; commit to transformation over comfort; and go about instituting that big, hard change.

In my “examination” effort, I realized something rather sobering. My anti-black bias is not just evident in my relationships and consumption behavior. It’s all over my life. It’s very evident in two places very important to me. I have placed myself in, and love, two incredibly white-dominated, white-centered spaces.

Philosophy and conservation.

There are very few Black people in academic philosophy. When you throw gender into the mix it’s even worse. In 2017 Mpho Tshivhase became the first black woman in South African to earn a PhD in Philosophy. The first. IN 2017!!!! Here in America, the statistics are still not great. In a survey of members in the American Philosophical Association, of those who responded, in 2018 a little over 75% were White/Caucasian and under 0.03% were Black/African-American. Of responders who indicated they currently hold a tenured university position, 79% were White/Caucasian and just under 0.03% were Black/African-American.

[Side note: Black/African-Americans only comprise 0.004% of Emeritus professors in the survey. ow sad is it that 0.03% reflects an improvement in the trend?! Still, it’s an improvement worth celebrating if only to make sure progress does not lose momentum.]

Demographic estimates of the US in 2019 have the White/Caucasian population at 76.5%. Interesting how that matches the number of White/Caucasians in the APA. However, the Black/African-American population in America was estimated to be 13.4% — over 400x the percentage of Black/African-American people in the APA.

Now, of course the APA is not a perfect representation of the demographics of academic philosophy across the country. And there are many factors that could go into why Black people are not in philosophy — perhaps they choose not to go into that field for cultural reasons (perhaps it’s not a culturally important field to them). Perhaps they choose not to study philosophy for economic reasons, though this leads back to why so many white people feel comfortable making the decidedly risky choice to major in a field with limited and dwindling job prospects, without feeling like they need something more practical to fall back or rely on, if so many Black people are making the choice not to for economic reasons.

Philosophy in general is a very privileged field, in part because it is so useless in the capitalist system. It doesn’t create things you can sell, the expertise it confers doesn’t qualify people for jobs other than the perpetuation of philosophy, and tenure-track jobs in philosophy are notoriously competitive (and increasingly scarce). Of course I believe deeply that philosophy is important for, and has had a huge influence in, shaping, correcting, refining, complicating, and challenging societal movements and assumptions (as well as individual), but it’s very hard to put a monetary value on the work that goes into the work of philosophy. (And really, why should we want to?) Only a privileged few can afford to pursue philosophy: afford the degree itself and afford the opportunity cost of not earning a more practical and career-forwarding degree.

While there may be many reasons other than outright bias that keep philosophy lily white, there is clearly anti-Black and anti-POC bias in academic philosophy, and it is present at each stage of the pathway that leads to philosophy. The lack of diversity and inclusion in philosophy programs is, in many ways, a sign of a whole system, a whole “pipeline”, if you will, that is friendly towards white male voices and unfriendly towards Black and POC voices. The lack of diversity in philosophy is the end result of layers upon layers of anti-black biases pushing out people of color to make room for whiteness.

There is so much we should do and can do and MUST do to make Black voices part of the world of ideas, shaping our cultures, societies, and institutions.

Sadly, conservation is not much better. I am proud — so, so proud — to be part of my organization and the work it does. It is global in scale, guided by science, working to take cultural concerns and knowledge as guiding principles in its conservation approach, and is concerned with protecting life in all its forms, beauty, and nourishment. But the organization is not perfect. There are clear biases lingering in my organization’s structure and hierarchy that show it is not yet fully anti-racist and not yet fully anti-sexist. We have a lot to do before I would call us an inclusive, anti-racist institution. I’m thrilled to say those far above my pay grade are taking it seriously and addressing it head-on. But it’s still deeply true that systemic racism taints everything that operates within or adjacent to that system, regardless of how explicitly those biases are encoded in policy. All of us in the organization need to grapple with that.

Scaling out to nature doesn’t make the problem disappear, either. It’d be nice to think that nature is untainted by racism, but that’s not the case. Outdoor spaces are far from being open, inclusive, and accessible. Usually, the abundance of green tracks affluence of neighborhood — rich people are more likely to live in places with yards, lush parks, open spaces. White people are far more likely to visit National Parks (and with this history, is it any surprise?!). Our public, open, supposedly perfectly inclusive spaces (because nature cannot be racist) are anything but.

Conservation itself, particularly the purchase and preservation of lands deemed to be important (for whatever reasons those in power — cough cough WHITE MEN — defined as reasons), has historically been done in a way that destroyed and displaced native peoples. Conservation as a whole has a very troubled, problematic, colonizing, past.

There are solid plans available to make open spaces truly open. But just like academic philosophy, there are several other systems that need to be transformed before we can be sure to make solid progress. The racism in our economic and policing systems affect everything.

There’s another area that I’m thinking through quite a bit. Philanthropy. I firmly believe that philanthropy is also touched by and has been formed by the biases of white supremacy (how could it not?), and I am thinking deeply about how it manifests (beyond the clear economic disparity on who can even be a philanthropist) and what I / we can do to dismantle its racist foundations, to root it out and rebuild. I’m far less clear on the problems and what needs to be done. If anyone has any thoughts to share, I would love to hear them.

For now, I continue to interrogate why I am where I am, what needs fixing, and where I can effect change. Listening, reading, using the words of Black people as a mirror for my own soul. I see change starting to happen and I just hope I can be part of moving it forward rather than one who impedes it, regardless of my intentions.

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