Letter to a Young Black Philosopher

Dear Person I Have Directed To This Post,

Hi! Periodically I get requests - at conferences, in emails, most lately via twitter - to offer advice for aspiring black philosophers. Now, sometimes that request is specific ("I have offers from schools X and Y - which would be better?") but other times its more generic. The hope seems to be that I can give some advice to a person qua aspiring black philosopher. Since this seems to be by design a request for generic advice, and in the spirit of sometimes writing blog posts on questions I often get just for the sakes being able to refer to them, I'm going to write a generic response here.

There is, of course, the general advice one can give a young philosopher. Study hard; don't be afraid to challenge received wisdom, but also make sure you actually know what that received wisdom is and why people receive it. Be willing to take on board criticism without getting too defensive, but avoid being too deferential. To get a PhD it often helps more to be persistent and hard working, don't buy into myths of genius with sudden profound insight. Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting their own battles. All true, and go just as much for us as others.  I presume people are not asking me for this sort of advice so I shan't say much more on it here. Instead, what would I specifically to someone as a black philosopher?

From past experience I am guessing that what makes you wish to ask me this, addressee, is concerns about bigotry. So I'll begin there. I have so far found expressions of overt bigotry to be relatively rare but not absent in contemporary academic philosophy - relative, that is, to my experience of non-philosophy workplaces or social life. Where it's occurred is, first, in readings of past philosophers, second, angry anonymous online people, and, third, "off hand" remarks from white philosophers who let their guard down and then get all awkward about it afterwards. I am sure you will have by this point in your life found some way of dealing with the third of these categories, and if anything I find this occurs slightly less in philosophy than it does in other spheres, so relative to the rest of life academia is somewhat of a reprieve on that front. (Needless to say but saying it anyway: that's quite consistent with it still being rather bad.) The first two though are a bit more academia specific so let's discuss those.

There's a budding scholarly industry on the question of past philosopher's bigotries. I've somewhat kept on top of some of this, so if you are very interested in this shoot me a more specific request and I will try to either send you specific reading recommendations or put you in contact with someone who can. At a high level of abstraction what I would say is as follows: I have found the actual racism or bigotry of past philosophers considerably less frustrating than the defensiveness and irrationality I encounter when it seems pertinent to raise the point. I am hardly shocked that such views exist - I have, shall we say, already priced in to my estimation of 18th century European philosophers that they were often racist, so it's actually the Smiths and the Condorcets who surprise me more than the Humes and the Kants. I am also quite capable of reading views I consider repellent and thinking about what they entail or what they are derived from - if I am to understand and better combat them this is vital to me, in fact. So periodic patronising lectures from the self-appointed defenders of the tradition about how we need to read texts containing horrid views are quite unnecessary and often just irritate. But what I do find is that if, say, I object that taking it as given that Kant's ethical theory ought be interpreted as egalitarian seems unwarranted given his remarks on black people or Tahitians, then I frequently get a lot of quite spurious non-responses and accusations that I am just trying to smear the philosophy or (more bizarrely) the man or etc. (Of course sometimes I also get constructive and perfectly reasonable feedback; all is not doom and gloom, and I wouldn't want to discourage you, addressee!) I  don't doubt that there can be reasonable  things to say in response, but I have found that I often do not get those responses  but instead get spluttering and "How very dare you!" style replies. This kind of defensiveness is always worryingly suggestive to me that many far too closely identity with these great bigots and take critique of them to be a personal attack. I am not sure I have any advice for it beyond: be prepared for it psychologically, and don't let mere assertion convince you that a philosopher's racism is irrelevant to the topic at hand. This is ultimately just an  instantiation of the  general advice above about understanding where people are coming from, but not being deferential.

As to the angry anonymous people, I am sorry to say that philosophy's online culture often leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps you will never encounter this problem - in which case skip to the next paragraph! But if you have or at risk of it here's what I'd say. First, applying the be kind principle, it is apparent to me that much of this derives from people lashing out as they face a difficult and uncaring job market. I try and let that knowledge temper my replies to them. In so far as I have received such attacks personally it's usually been of the form of saying that I am stupid with some implication that I do not deserve what I have achieved. It seems plausible to me that none of us deserve what we achieve so that has never stung too much. In the long term we must work on two fronts, to create a kinder more egalitarian culture where it would simply not occur to people to say such things (and also, it must be said given some of what I have seen online, in which certain people do not see minorities succeeding where they are failing as inversions of some presumed natural order) and also to remove the economic conditions which generate this frustration. In the short run I would say I found it useful to be part of supportive groups of black philosophers or friendship circles wherein you know people will offer solidarity and comradely good humour in the face of such attacks. Within such a group you may be the change you wish to see in the world, and I hope that in the long run cultural change will happen via people being impressed by these examples. However, while such short run social support (and perhaps a Stoical attitude to external attacks on one's character) is indeed very useful and important, I think we ought stress the long run and even broader social factors here. Ultimately the academy is simply reflecting the fact that we live in a world characterised by public cruelty and persistent racism and declining support for higher education as a function of general economic inequality - all of these are things we must work to challenge and reverse.

Those are my two remarks on overt bigotry, now a remark on a subtle but pervasive form of bigotry one will certainly encounter, and which I only really feel able to discuss now I have a permanent position... sure hope they give me tenure! It's quite obvious that a lot of (often but not only) white philosophers will be apparently supportive but on a very patronising basis. Their actions make plain that they simply do not feel it plausible or likely that black philosophers can do as good or interesting work as non black people, and it is also socially good for them to be seen to be supporting young black philosophers. So they'll tolerate mediocre work or not fully developed ideas from you and make sure to be seen celebrating it. This is the much discussed subtle bigotry of low expectations, and I think it is pervasive in our field. Now, for all I know this is idiosyncratic to me, and comes from people recognising my own failures but wishing to be kind in any case. Very possible and obviously my own case is that which I am most familiar with, but I feel I have seen this with other black philosophers too, and in discussion some other black philosophers of roughly my generational cohort have noted a similar thing.  Of course this is an improvement on the bad old days when people were simply hostile. It's also worth stressing that just because flattery is not good that does not mean you should tolerate abuse or constant scathing critique that makes you feel worthless - you may reasonably demand kind, constructive criticism. And I acknowledge that, worst of all, when you are an insecure graduate student it can feel really nice to have people who will wish to publicly be seen saying how great  you are all the time. All the more so given that this coexists with some people who are unreasonably and persistently hostile to you, sometimes even (as with the angry online crowd) explicitly because of who you are. But despite all this, these flatterers are in fact the enemies of your work and intellectual development, they will not help you be the best philosopher you can be. So it is vital to find mentors who will offer you frank and honest feedback, who see you as actually capable of making real progress as a thinker, and who therefore act to assist your intellectual development for your benefit and not for the sakes of being seen near you. I feel very blessed to have found Kevin Zollman as a mentor as I feel he was exactly that latter sort of good mentor, and its a surprisingly rare property. This is a genuinely difficult ask, but its my real advice - resist the siren call of people who will kill you with kindness, find your own Zollman to actually be a mentor to you.

So as not to be all negative, let me end the advice section with a more positive note. I say this to you, presumed black addressee, but I note that really this goes for everyone; it's just that only black philosophers seem to in fact follow this advice. The Africana intellectual tradition is filled with riches that can be shared with all. But folk who are not black philosophers have mostly not been inclined to look within. Whatever you find interesting, I highly recommend looking into the work of our ancestors for insight - I know from experience you will be rewarded. Rewarded, that is, with insight that can be personally beneficial, which can benefit your career as forming the basis of published works, and benefit the field by your bringing to light and greater attention. Black thought has and can and will continue to change the world, be proud to do your part in carrying the torch one generation further.

Finally, some reasons to take all I say with a pinch of salt. There's the obvious one that I am just a single person and who knows how representative my experience has been or whether I am perhaps misinterpreting things. But I presume, dear addressee, that if you had the good sense to reach out to me for advice you've also had the even better sense to reach out to other people too. So more specific reasons to worry about my advice qua black philosopher are: first, I work on an area with very few black people even for philosophy, so if there are pertinent subfield differences my experience may be especially and unusually idiosyncratic. Second, there are a couple of reasons to think I might have had a mitigated experience of many of the worst excesses of racism. For instance, I'm relative-to-black-people pale and a soft spoken Brit who did my PhD in America; I'm sure that these things contribute to me being at little risk of seeming aggressive, and that's something that can go very badly for black folk! Third, I'd be shocked if many of the things I said don't interact with other demographic variables - so I am a cis man and not visibly disabled, for instance, and maybe if those things were different I'd have been prompted to say other things (in fact I am sure gender does interact with the significance of me being quite a soft spoken type). Anyone you ask for advice will have their own version of such qualifications that they should offer, and if they don't then you should (mentally!) supply them yourself. Caveat emptor.

Good luck!



  1. I'm not at all the person this is supposed to be directed to, but it all sounds like good and reasonable advice to me. Thanks for putting it together - no doubt it will be useful

  2. Hi Liam, I just wanted to say that this is both beautifully written and extremely informative. Thank you so much for such an honest and helpful set of reflections; white philosophers like myself certainly need to be aware of these issues.

    1. Thank you! Sorry this took so long to get published I didn't know I had to approve things for reply!

  3. p.s. I'm not just saying that because you're a black philosopher :-)

  4. This is really great, Liam, and relevant far more broadly than in philosophy. Thanks so much for writing it.


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