Diverse Practices, Diverse Practitioners: Philosophy, Identity, and Practices of Resistance

This is a guest post by Natalie Cisneros.

As a part of the 53rd annual conference of the Society for Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy in New Orleans, the SPEP Racial and Ethnic Diversity Committee hosted a panel on “Making Philosophy Uncomfortable: Diverse Theory and Practice.” Along with the other panelists, Dr. Cigdem Yazici, Dr. Chike Jeffers, and Dr. José Medina, I was invited to address critiques of diversity from a perspective generated by my current work on race, gender, and contemporary functions of power. I was honored to join this group of scholars, each of whom offered important and timely insights into the meaning and possibilities of engaging in diverse philosophical praxis.

In preparation for this conversation about diverse theory and practice—and about comfort and discomfort— within the culture of professional academic philosophy, I had the occasion to reread and reflect again on some of the vast and rich work that has been done by people of color inside and outside of the discipline of philosophy on this very topic— work by philosophers including Linda Alcoff, Anita Allen, Donna Dale Marcano, Kristie Dotson, Kathryn Gines, Eduardo Mendieta, Mariana Ortega, and many, many others. This work not only informs and grounds my reflections, but also makes them possible—and makes possible my own existence and work within the discipline of philosophy more generally.

With this in mind, I focused my brief comments and questions on the possibility of diverse philosophical practice, and what the precariousness of particular modes of philosophical praxis means for the survival of diverse practitioners within the spaces of professional philosophy. I am currently working on a project that draws on a variety of traditions, including Women of Color feminisms, to analyze what I am calling “normalizing racism,” a strategy of racism that operates in the contemporary context through the policing of specific norms. These include norms surrounding language, ethnicity, and culture (what language(s) we speak, how we speak them, and what kinds of cultural practices are socially acceptable, for example) as well as norms about what it means to be a good, productive, and virtuous citizen. On my account, as it functions in the contemporary context, normalizing racism is both productive and eliminative. That is, it produces ways of being and knowing at the same time that it silences, marginalizes, and violently eliminates others. I am particularly interested in how and why practices of producing and policing racist norms are in many cases not identified as functions of racism even as they enact violence on racialized bodies– how normalizing racism produces its own erasure. That is, I am concerned with how and why contemporary strategies of normalizing racism don’t appear or aren’t understood in the dominant discourse as racist at the very same time that they are mobilized in the symbolic or literal elimination of people of color.

My current projects focus on how this eliminative function of normalizing racism operates through practices surrounding immigration, criminalization, and mass incarceration in the U.S. Here, though, I want to focus on how the production and policing of norms surrounding philosophical practice are caught up in strategies of normalizing racism in ways that call into question the survival of diverse practices and diverse practitioners in the discipline. This theme of survival—both within spaces of white supremacy in general and within academic spaces specifically— has been taken up critically and productively for decades and in many different ways within Women of Color feminisms in particular. I can’t do justice to this long and rich tradition in my comments here, but I want to call our attention to two moments in this genealogy. By focusing on what I’m calling the eliminative function of normalizing racism, I hope that these two moments will help us to continue a critical conversation about how various kinds of philosophical practice function to threaten or support the survival of diverse practitioners within the discipline.

The first moment is from Gloría Anzaldúa’s 1992 essay “The New Mestiza Nation,” where she describes the painful and perilous experience of the faculty members of color as that of a “Trojan mula”:

It is hard to get through the gate, and many do not make it. But once she passes through that gate, she becomes a sort of Trojan horse, a Trojan mula who has infiltrated in order to subvert the system, bringing new ideas with her. But the academy starts chipping away at her walls as she rams the academy’s walls with her head to make room for others like herself; she ends up on the floor with a bloodied head as she comes up against classrooms where she and her communities are completely invisible.[1]

The second critical reflection on survival that I’d like to highlight comes from Kristie Dotson’s essay “Concrete Flowers: Contemplating the Profession of Philosophy,” published in Hypatia in 2011. In it, Dotson speaks to the issue of survival of Women of Color in the discipline of philosophy in particular, by employing the powerful metaphor of a concrete flower:

 They give the impression of being strong, survivors. After all, they, and often they alone, have managed to grow through concrete. On closer inspection, however, many concrete flowers are fragile and clearly starved for basic nutrients. In fact, a concrete flower grows in spite of its environment. Malnourished and threatened on all sides by the concrete that would indifferently snuff the life from them, concrete flowers exist on grisly ground. If they were to flourish, they would produce a different landscape.[2].

For both Anzaldúa and Dotson, what it means to be a person of color (and Woman of Color in particular) in traditional academic spaces is to exist amidst—and despite—the constant threat of elimination. What these metaphors show is that this threat of normalizing racism isn’t accidental or conditional, but is a foundational feature of the systems they critique; it is embedded in the very walls of the ivory tower that the Trojan mula infiltrates, and it constitutes the concrete ground in spite of which flowers attempt to survive. That is, the very structures and norms that ground and contain our philosophical practice function in silencing and visiting violence upon persons of Color.

I think it is important to emphasize here that, though white supremacy in this context operates in preventing particular bodies from entering these spaces, both Anzaldúa and Dotson powerfully call our attention to how violent elimination happens within the spaces themselves. That is, while as Anzaldúa notes,“it is hard to get through the gate and many do not make it,” the eliminative function of normalizing racism in the context of philosophical practice functions not only in terms of who is let in. Though, as the demographics of professional philosophy forcefully make clear, this is certainly the case, racist violence is also embedded in the norms of academic philosophy itself, even for those who do, in fact, make their way in. The Trojan mula’s head is “chipped away at” and “bloodied” even within the walls of the Ivory tower she has infiltrated. Similarly, after poking its head through the concrete, the flower must attempt to survive while starved of basic nutrients. The norms that animate the institutions to which the mula and flower have gained provisional admittance threaten their very survival. These norms determine what kinds of texts and discourses count as philosophy, what kind work, both in terms of style and content, counts as philosophical, and what among this work is seen as important and significant. And the norms that animate and are maintained by the structures of the discipline itself are can be found in the quotidian practices, politics, and spaces of academic philosophy– in the ways and languages in which we speak, and in our bodily practices. As George Yancy has pointed out, within the structures of the overwhelmingly white discipline of philosophy, “white bodies move with ease, they complement and complete eachother, they bond with eachother,” and many philosophers of color are thus made to feel ill at ease within philosophical spaces; at the same time that the norms of professional philosophy function in making white people–and, more precisely, white cisgendered men–feel safe, at-ease, and at home in professional philosophy, they function in making others feel alienated and unsafe. In this way, Yancy, Anzaldúa, Dotson, and others ask us to reflect critically on what we mean when we talk about and call for “diversity” in the context of academic philosophy. By focusing our attention on the theme of survival, these critiques center our reflection on the precarious positions of bodies of color in the spaces of academic philosophy, and in doing so on how particular conceptions of diversity can perpetuate rather than resist normalizing racism. Indeed, these accounts suggest that calling for and inserting “diverse” bodies into the various spaces of professional philosophy without calling into question—and transforming—the norms that ground and contain these spaces perpetuates a kind of violence that is itself a function of racist elimination.

But what is entailed in such a transformation? This is one of the questions at the center of the conversation about survival inside of the academy and within philosophy in particular. The transformative movements called for in–and enacted by–this conversation have shown how norms that we many not take to have anything to do with race, or in fact recognize as norms at all, function in excluding diverse practitioners from the discipline of philosophy. This means, of course, that policing what counts as philosophy is a function not only of silencing perspectives, but also of eliminating particular bodies from philosophical practice. This elimination also occurs through the politics of citation: who gets cited and who doesn’t get cited reinforces norms of white supremacy, and reproduces particular forms of philosophical praxis at the same time that it marginalizes others and threatens the survival of diverse practitioners. Understanding the functioning of normalizing racism in this context calls us to rethink what kinds of practices should count as philosophical work. Such a critique suggests that practices of survival, including activism, community building, and other modes of resisting racist institutional norms, should not be understood as extrinsic or even merely complementary to academic philosophy. Indeed, the function of normalizing racism within the academy means that practices of survival are themselves modes of transformative philosophical praxis.

[1] Gloria Anzaldua, The Gloria Anzaldúa Reader (Duke University Press, 2009), 207.

[2] Kristie Dotson, “Concrete Flowers: Contemplating the Profession of Philosophy,” Hypatia 26, no. 2 (May 1, 2011), 408.


Next week we will publish Chike Jeffers’s paper from this SPEP session.