When I think about white supremacy, I think of Cheryl Harris’s grandma. It’s actually not the story of her grandmother passing as white in order to make a livable wage that comes to mind first, though that’s usually not far behind. No, I think about her grandma when she’s already become Harris’s grandma, long after she quit the job she could not have as a Black woman. I think about her sitting in her chair, bent from advanced arthritis, talking to the child at her knee. I think about that old woman sharing her experience of the Great Migration and the later indignities of “[a]ccepting the risk of self-annihilation [that] was the only way to survive.” I think about this elderly Black woman philosophizing with her grandkid about survival in a world ordered by white supremacy.
Thanks to that intergenerational philosophical work, sometime in college I inherited (from the Harvard Law Review, of all places) a guide to how white supremacy became and continues to be the norm in the US. Harris traces how a property interest in whiteness itself was established and has continued to be protected by the law in the US. I learned about the power of affirmative action to expose and unsettle the settled expectations of white privilege that arise from that property interest. Affirmative action acknowledges the advantages to whiteness constructed by the US history of genocide, colonization, slavery, dispossession, and segregation and offers a systematic approach for dismantling those advantages in all kinds of institutions. And I learned that the power of affirmative action is the reason it has been the focus of so much resistance. Harris and her grandma gave me a powerful gift: a taste for questioning what is with the people you love.
So, I find myself before the latest evidence of philosophy as an academic discipline betraying philosophy as an activity, convinced that the damage being done is profound. Philosophers must certainly be contrarians. Obviously, many people have and will dislike, dismiss, and even harm people who question settled expectations (like whiteness as property) and expose the construction of normalcy (like generations of genocide, colonization, slavery, dispossession, and segregation to produce and then secure whiteness as property). I am devoted to you out there doing that questioning and you can carry my devotion with you through the day.
What is damaging is the alienation academic philosophers produce through patrolling the boundaries of philosophy. Perhaps it’s easy for some of those border guards to recognize Harris as philosophically interesting, even if she did not receive a philosophy PhD. But her grandmother?
Some people have gained fame through disparaging other philosophers and how they choose to approach philosophical work (I don’t mean only Brian Leiter). Let’s have a cheer for academic philosophers finally working together to question that practice. But we need to think bigger. A lot bigger. Philosophy, mostly, isn’t about what we do in our journals and at our conferences. Philosophy, mostly, is what adults say to kids when they are helping those kids wonder why the world is the way it is and vice versa. Philosophy is what friends, of any age say to each other when they question whether the world has to be this way. What would happen to the profession of philosophy if we who have devoted ourselves to formal training came to see ourselves in that much broader tradition?