Philosophy Has Been Whitewashed

Marisol Brito, Metropolitan State University

This essay was adapted from the MELUS 2019 panel presentation Teaching Shannon Gibney’s Dream Country, the Neo-Slave Narrative, and the “Hidden Histories” of Slavery, Racism, and US/Liberian Migrations: An Interdisciplinary Conversation with the Author

Philosophy is a profoundly whitewashed and male-dominated discipline. In terms of gender representation, it is worse than the STEM fields, including Physics. Physics! (Quantifying the Gender Gap). Worse yet, despite its grim gender statistics, it is in fact more of a failure with racial and ethnic diversity, remaining one of the whitest academic fields in the United States (Humanities Indicators). 

It’s my stance that we either need to radically change the discipline, or to let it, in a Foucauldian sense, die. (Maybe we should actively kill it? Sometimes I think we should just kill it …). In favor of the former, many students come through my classroom every semester with a deep interest in asking (and answering) the profound questions they expect to engage with in my discipline. These students, very few of whom are white men, come seeking wisdom. Sadly, if I stuck with the traditional philosophical canon, the message would be clear: Only old white men are wise!

Though I hope and work for change within my philosophy, disciplines are slow to change, so I’ve turned elsewhere to find philosophers who are more like my students – diverse in many ways. I think literature can help and I want to tell you why. Like a good philosopher, I’ll offer you a few general arguments to situate literature within the discipline of philosophy, and then I’ll give you a more specific case study, demonstrating the ways I’ve used Shannon Gibney’s novel, Dream Country, in my philosophy classroom.

I see two major places for literature to influence philosophy: the canon and the classroom. First, in terms of the canon, gatekeeping has played a major role in shaping who we read. We’ve been limited by major epistemological failures in terms of what philosophy has counted as knowledge, and also who we have counted as knowledge producers. If we properly recognize these failures, there are literary voices that can slide into philosophy as philosophers in their own right (if they are willing): Here James Baldwin, Chimamanda Adichie, and Gloria Anzaldua all come immediately to mind. 

Second, in addition to providing philosophy with a wider canon, literature can also support philosophical work in the classroom in at least three ways, which I refer to as: violence, epistemologies, and empathy/care. Classrooms, and perhaps particularly philosophy classrooms can be places of violence. As James Baldwin tells us in his 1963 Talk to Teachers classrooms often define what purportedly counts as important, valuable, and possible in the world, while at the same time (directly or indirectly) telling minority students that they and people like them have, and have had, nothing to do with those important, valuable, and possible things. Baldwin writes, “… any Negro who is born in this country and undergoes the American educational system runs the risk of becoming schizophrenic. On the one hand he is born in the shadow of the stars and the stripes and he is assured it represents a nation which has never lost a war. He pledges allegiance to that flag which guarantees “liberty and justice for all.” He is part of a country in which anyone can become president and so forth. But, on the other hand, he is also assured by his country and his countrymen that he has never contributed anything to civilization.” 

Along these same lines, philosophy classrooms implicitly claim to hold the keys to thinking itself — and then go on to say, with a possible exception of the whitewashed Greeks and maybe a bit of Confucius, that thought on universal truth is equivalent to knowledge itself, which has been exclusively a white and male endeavor. And further, that if *you* want to participate in these elevated and “real” ways of thinking, you must also think as these white men have. This is not just poor academic work — it is interpersonally and culturally violent. But, we can begin to mitigate this violence by including literary voices in the philosophy canon, and presenting them as they deserve to be presented: as knowledge producers in their own right. 

Thus, one prominent role of literature can be to broaden epistemologies: To reexamine who counts as knowledge producers, what knowledge looks like, and whose experiences matter (or in the case of some philosophers, to provide voices that insist and illustrate that experience matters at all). 

Finally, I think the role that empathy and care play in genuine learning and student change is often overlooked. Academia often leans on information itself as a foundation for change, but in my experience this is naive. Information is rarely sufficient as a catalyst for change, and moreover is too vulnerable to being filtered by the deep biases and societal lenses we carry. As Bonilla-Silva, for example, illustrates in his book Racism Without Racists, or as Thandeka writes in Learning to be White, it is too easy to dismiss, justify, or otherwise filter information when it threatens what we already believe, and want to believe. However, when narrative can pull us into a relationship with information that also involves empathy and care, I believe we are more able and willing to be vulnerable and to engage with said information in a productive way. 

An Example: Shannon Gibney’s Dream Country

Though I use a number of works of literature in my classroom, I’d like to talk about Shannon Gibney’s Dream Country as an example of the work literature can do in philosophy. First, through representation, I saw the book lessen the violence illustrated above by Baldwin. My students, many of whom are specifically immigrants and refugees from African countries, and many others who are generationally tied to refugee resettlement (e.g. Hmong, Vietnamese) repeatedly expressed that the experiences of the characters in Dream Country were “so real” and also that they had never seen those experiences in a book or classroom before. In addition to reflecting and validating the importance of my students’ life experiences, Dream Country provided narratives that did two wonderful things. They took pressure off minority students to be expected by their peers to take on the awkward and deeply inappropriate responsibility of monolithically representing their culture or their people. At the same time, by providing a relatable narrative experience that was taken seriously in the classroom, Dream Country invited students to spontaneously share their stories as part of a wider discussion, in which they could be a voice, rather than the voice

In terms of empathy and care: The characters in Dream Country, with all their strengths and flaws and humanness, invite empathy. In this sense, given the lack of writing on many of these experiences, Dream Country claims empathetic space in the world — it demands care for voices and experiences that have been systematically erased from the current and historical record. I found that with that empathy in place, Dream Country had a symbiotic relationship with philosophical texts that are often marginalized, such as work on critical race theory and work in the (beyond second wave) feminist tradition. Work by Charles Mills, Linda Martin Alcoff, and Gloria Anzaldúa, for example, could find handholds in Dream Country to make the work accessible, relatable, and less abstract. 

Here’s a few demonstrations of the ways my students connected Dream Country to works more traditionally considered “philosophical”:

Mills
The relationships and tensions between the characters Eddie, Kollie, and Clark, helped students to understand Mills’ claims about the social ontology of race — we could literally use the characters as examples to help illustrate Mills’ claim that questions of race are really socio-historical questions about where one fits into systems of power. 

Yasmine was another great example, particularly of the way systems of power change by location and time period and shift the social ontologies of race such that the very same embodied person can occupy different places of power depending on where in the world they are living and what period of time they are living through.

Alcoff
Students also frequently used Eddie, Kollie, and Clark, to illustrate and understand Linda Martin Alcoff’s work on the black-white paradigm. 

Anzaldúa
A particularly beloved student wrote a brilliant paper on how the use of pronouns in the book could help us to dig into and better understand the importance of Anzaldúa’s mestiza consciousness and the ways in which dualistic thinking is deeply embedded in our thoughts and speech.

Negative

Dream Country also helped students to see the limitations of some canonical philosophers, raising questions about Descartes’ claims that the foundation of knowledge is reason devoid of experience, and critiques of Kant and Rawls’ failures to address race, or constructions of race, in their philosophical theories. 

In the end, my students leave with a broader idea of what constitutes “philosophy” and also what can be in meaningful dialogue with philosophy. Alongside Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, and Kant at the table of wise questions and answers sit James Baldwin, Chimananda Adichie, Gloria Anzaldua, and Shannon Gibney (amongst more than a few others). All in all, I am optimistic about what literature can do to heal the discipline of philosophy, and grateful especially to authors like Shannon Gibney for beginning to heal the epistemologies of the world, and for offering my too often marginalized students the care and respect they deserve. I’m not sure if literature wants to be part of philosophy, or if writers want to take on the tainted title of “philosopher” — but if you are willing, I would certainly love to have you by my side. If you’re willing, I’d love to hear: What else do you think literature could do to engage my students with the philosophical questions in which they are so interested?.

Marisol Brito is an Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Metropolitan State University. Marisol’s work focuses on race, gender, education and generally rethinking the world – especially education at all ages and in all forms.

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