Philosophy, Racism and Activism

If someone said to me, “Indians are less intelligent than Europeans,” I wouldn’t engage in argument with him to change his mind. I would just think he was a racist, that he had a backward view. If he was open to talking about it, I might talk to him. Not in the sense that maybe there is something right about his view, but in the sense that he is just mistaken. I would ignore him if I can, and if I can’t, then I would act out of moral indignation. If he was in a position of power over me, I would engage in activism to get him out of that position.

True, one can have a philosophical discussion about any topic. Even about whether one group is smarter than another. It’s pretty easy: you just ask, “what is intelligence?”, “who is a European?”, and so on and you are off to the philosophical races.

But I wouldn’t engage in philosophy with a racist who is using the pretext of philosophy to give his racist views false plausibility. For some things, if you accept arguing for it, you will never make progress.

What about Eurocentrism, the view that philosophy departments in America should be mainly European based? Is it up for debate whether Eurocentrism is justified? Would that be like doing philosophy with the racist? Eurocentrism puts white authors put on a pedastal, while non-white authors are treated as second-rate, marginal philosophers. A philosophy student has to know Russell and Wittgenstein to know 20th century philosophy, but not so much DuBois or Radhakrishnan? Is this de facto segregation? If so, can we skip debate and just engage in activism to change the syllabus?

It can feel like there are only two options. If one says Eurocentrism is racism, then it seems clear it is wrong, and there is nothing to debate. But if one says Eurocentrism isn’t racism, then it seems there is nothing wrong with it, and so the status quo is fine as it is.

There is a third way.

A difficulty in just engaging in activism has to do with the role of academic philosophy in society. Academic philosophy is useful to society because it is necessary to have a space where one can step back from any assumptions and question them; where no assumption is treated as so hallowed that it is beyond question. If “Eurocentrism is racism” is treated as an undisputable truth, such that the only response to Eurocentrism is moral indignation and not debate, then in making academic philosophy more equal, its standing in society is being diminished. Ironically, then when the non-white philosophers are taught in academia, they are less heard in society, because academic philosophy itself seems no different than the rest of society.

Let us distinguish standard racism from philosophical racism. A standard racist is the normal bigot: he thinks his race is better than others, that their communities should be segregated from his, and so on. A standard racist might use religion or philosophy to defend his views, but he uses them the way an ordinary person might drive a race car: in the most rudimentary and limited way possible. The standard racist is not ultimately interested in arguing for his view, as much as just implementing it in a hard and fast way.

A philosophical racist is not a normal bigot. He might in fact look down on standard racists, and think that whites, blacks, browns and everyone are equal as people. He might even have marched in the civil rights movements against standard racists. For the philosophical racist, all people are equal, but all philosophical traditions are not equal. He might vote for a black person to be President, but sticks to the same Eurocentric syllabus because he thinks that is how it should be in philosophy.

The trouble with only using activism in philosophy is that one is trying to apply the methods that worked against standard racists to philosophical racists. As if a philosophical racist is just a standard racist in disguise, or is just an implicit standard racist. The idea of the activist is: we used activism to change society, and yet somehow, magically, academic philosophy didn’t change; so academic philosophy is lagging behind society, and so we need to add activism here as well so that academic philosophy can catch up to the normal societal standards. No wonder many academic philosophers resist this picture. It puts academic philosophy in the position of lagging behind society, rather than, as is the narrative academic philosophy has to have in order to teach, that it is leading society to be more reflective.

The fact that a standard racist doesn’t care to use philosophy to defend his views doesn’t mean that philosophical racism isn’t the root of standard racism. Philosophy concerns ideas which are at the center of our conceptual system, and so philosophical racism is at the center of standard racism.

What happened in the last fifty years is that standard racism has started to be resisted, but the root philosophical racism has been left standing as it is. This is not because philosophy is lagging behind society, but because our society is still philosophically racist. Academic philosophy is the cutting edge of philosophy in our society. And if academic philosophy is still Eurocentric, that shows the extent to which society in general is still fundamentally Eurocentric.

Standard racism is the most obvious outer layer of the racist structures in society. Activism was meant to work against standard racism. But philosophical racism is the subtle, inner layer of the racist structures in society. Using activism to solve philosophical racism is like using a hammer to tighten a screw. Each problem contains within the form of its solution. Philosophical racism can only be solved with philosophy.

Activism nonetheless has a role in academic philosophy, because academic philosophy has both standard and philosophical racism. Just as it has standard and philosophical sexism. But activism by itself will not rid academic philosophy of racism. Philosophical racism is so prevalent in academic philosophy, and is treated so much as an ideal, that ordinary racism gets lost under the cover of philosophical racism. Without addressing philosophical racism in its own terms, it is not possible to get to the root of standard racism, in either its explicit or implicit forms.

I wouldn’t do philosophy with a standard racist. But I would do philosophy with a philosophical racist. Because it is the only way to make headway against philosophical racism, and a lot of good philosophy can happen in the process.


One thought on “Philosophy, Racism and Activism

  1. Bim

    “Indians are less intelligent than Europeans”

    That’s an empty proposition. India is ethnically diverse, and if you look at the available data (which is limited) southern indians are probably more intelligent than northern ones.



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