I recently wrote an article on the problem of diversity in philosophy, and I can honestly say that I could never have anticipated how polarizing the response would be. I have received a lot of support from academic philosophers all over the world, which I truly appreciate. I have also received a lot of constructive criticisms from other academic philosophers, which I also appreciate; it is always humbling when people read your work, explain your missteps, and show you a different perspective with which you can approach the issue. There are some academic philosophers who have simply gone on the defensive and attack mode, and that will always be most unwelcome, because it does not push the conversation forward in anyway. However, I think that it is imperative that I answer to some of the comments that I have received in order to promote dialogue and move the conversation forward.
Firstly, it is very important to note that the point of my article was not to dismiss Western philosophy and the philosophers that build and strengthen the canon. One cannot have a sufficient philosophical education without studying people like Plato, Aristotle, Kant, Hegel, Hume, amongst other Western philosophers. These philosophers were influential in their own right and it is important to study them, in all their imperfections. The only point I was trying to make was that while studying these philosophers, we should be honest about these imperfections and have an honest dialogue about the philosophical implications of their works given their various personal, social, and political opinions and leanings.
The point of my article was also not aimed at romanticizing philosophers who engage in other canons of philosophy such as African Philosophy, Islamic Philosophy, Chinese Philosophy, amongst other canons. These philosophers, have their flaws like any other philosopher, and we must not deny their imperfections either. The only point I was trying to make, was simply that we ought to study these philosophers as well. We need to expand and diversify the canon of philosophy and include these other philosophers as well, imperfections and all.
A colleague of mine wrote a response to my article on the philosophy blog, Leiter Reports. In his constructive reply to my article, he makes it very clear that he believes that there is a problem of diversity in philosophy as well, which I appreciate. However, his response also makes it seem as though my article was simply a medium for crying wolf in order to get what I want. In the previous article that I wrote, I made it very clear that my committee questioned my project because of its sheer magnitude, and maybe they are right, maybe the project was too much. However, imagine I had decided to undertake this project anyway, there was no expert in African legal philosophy who was going to help me navigate the literature; it was going to feel as though I was doing the project ALONE no matter how supportive my committee is, and that is why I let it go. In his response, he notes that I was offered a fast track into the PHD program wherein I would be able to undertake the project, in all of its grandiose.
There are many reasons that I did not take up that offer. Firstly, it is never advisable to do a PHD where you did your undergraduate degree and your master's degree. Secondly, the question becomes what rational person would accept that offer when they can simply go to another PHD program with a staff member well versed in the area of philosophy that they want to study. The world is very big and diverting, and it can only ever help to meet new people, study with them, diversify your way of looking at the world, and form your own opinions along the way. I made it very clear that I appreciated the offer before I turned it down politely. But, to insist that I was simply crying wolf instead of examining the situation and all of the salient stimuli that would have led me to interpret the situation as I did, is both insulting and presumptive from someone who was not present at these meetings.
There are other people who have simply denied that there is a problem of diversity all together. These are the people who send you into a state of questioning exactly how you have interpreted the problem of diversity in philosophy, as though you made up the problem in its entirety. I went back to examine the syllabus of twelve (not all) of the philosophy classes that I have taken in both my undergraduate and graduate career and I did not find one philosopher of colour. I am not even talking about a philosopher of colour who engages in other canons of philosophy, I am talking about a philosopher of colour who does Western philosophy. I spoke to many of the people that I met at conferences and some of the people who responded to my article, and they admit that philosophers of colour were also absent from their syllabus as well.
I highlight this final part to make it absolutely clear that I write this, not as a way to call out my school McMaster University, but to show the institutional nature of this issue. As students, we can only retroactively examine our experiences and analyze the ways in which we believe that they map onto institutional realities. I went on to look at the Faculty page from my department and some other philosophy departments (not all or even most of them), and there were no philosophers of colour on the staff as well. The situation is even more grim for women philosophers of colour, which is not at all encouraging given that I am a woman of colour. This is a problem, one that we must sufficiently address because different philosophers would bring more diverse views to the table, and we know this.
So, instead of denying the problem of diversity in philosophy or going on the defensive, it is important to take a step back and examine the philosophers that we consciously and subconsciously include and exclude from our syllabus. Instead of denying the problem of diversity in philosophy, we should take a step back and examine our hiring practices when it comes to philosophers of colour and philosophers who study other canons of philosophy, because the statistics speak for themselves. Instead of denying the problem of diversity in philosophy, we should examine the ways in which the lack of diversity in the program leaves graduate students feeling alone, and subsequently causes some graduate students, like myself, to leave the field. Instead of denying the problem of diversity in philosophy, we ought to examine the ways in which we are all a part of the problem when it comes to perpetuating this issue, myself included. I don't and I never have denied that I, and the choices I make, perpetuate the institutional problem of diversity in philosophy. As a matter of fact, the problem with privilege is that it prides itself on its lack of visibility and many times that makes it harder to examine the larger issues and how we all participate in its propagation.
It is a lot more healthy and helpful to examine these issues than to simply deny that there is a problem or worse to admit that there is one, but act as though we are somehow apart from it, that we are somehow not perpetuating the problem, that we have somehow shielded ourselves from it. I do not claim to have all of the answers nor do I claim to be unbiased or purely objective in my examination of the problem, and I welcome different perspectives on the issue. But to go on the attack, to go on the defensive, or to simply deny that the problem exists at all is not the solution, it is in fact the very definition of the problem.