Imagine a society is culturally diverse – has people from all over the world – and yet the magazines show only white people as the paragons of beauty. The magazine racks in the stores are filled only with pictures of whites in different poses of beauty and glamour: at home, at work, at the beach, at the movies, and so on. Would this be wrong? If so, why?
Think of a little brown boy in that society looking at these pictures everywhere he goes. What would be the psychological effect on him? Obviously, it would be to create a perpetual sense of not being good enough, of feeling that full beauty is forever out of his grasp because of the color of his skin, the shape of his nose, the texture of his hair. Unless he sees people standing up and saying that the magazines don’t depict a universal ideal, he will assume, trusting society instinctively as a child would, that the magazines are capturing the ideal of beauty, and that yet he is different. Without a sense for how different can be equally good, he is bound to interpret different as less good. But less good why? What did he do wrong? How can he make up the difference to achieve the ideal himself? Unsure of why he isn’t able to fully make up the difference, a cycle of self-blame and guilt begins. A torrent of doubts grip him: Maybe I am not trying hard enough; maybe there is something broken in me; maybe I am defective.
Putting a person in a cage thwarts the natural growth of the person. In the beauty case, the magazines function as a cage: an invisible, psychological cage, but a cage nonetheless. Just as the physical cage thwarts a person’s physical development, the social cage of the white-washed magazines thwarts his personal development.
What about a white philosophy curriculum? Is that wrong like the white magazines case?
Immediately an obvious difference presents itself. In the beauty case, what is depicted as the ideal is the body: the white body as more dignified, lush, angelic or glamorous than a brown body. Here the skin color is essential to the ideal. But in the case of the philosophy curriculum, what is depicted as the ideal is not the body, but ideas. In fact, ideas of Plato, Descartes and Kant which argue that the body is not essential to a human being; that a human, irrespective of the shape and color of his body, is a creature of ideas.
In the philosophy case the very ideal being depicted seems to free a person from the kind of cage the magazines create. After all, great philosophers can be, by magazine standards, not good-looking: Socrates’s nose, Kierkegaard’s back, Hume’s weight. It is the philosopher’s ideas that really matter. So the whiteness of the curriculum can seem irrelevant, besides the point, trivial. To focus on the whiteness of a philosopher’s skin seems like a category mistake: as if the thinker’s ideas are being reduced to the standards of the magazines in the grocery store check out line.
In response to calls for making the curriculum more diverse, some people say it, but many seem to think it without ever saying it: “Grow up, race agitators! Look beyond the body. Look to the beauty of the ideas, which are meant to free us precisely from concerns of the color of bodies.”
The problem with this idea is straight-forward: by claiming that structures of philosophy are already beyond the magazine ideals, it unwittingly, but nonetheless powerfully, reinforces the magazine ideals.
Imagine the brown boy becomes a young man, and confronts in college the white philosophy curriculum. What might that be like for him? Of course, there is no one way for all brown men: people differ in all sorts of ways, including how they respond to situations. But imagine the young man we are thinking of feels sheepish about his brown body. He is self-conscious about it; he is self-critical of any perceived accent, or whether he is too skinny, or too colored. This is because he is, to some extent, in the grips of the magazine ideals. He has not yet freed himself from the ideals of physical beauty in the society. He is not really conscious of the grip the magazine ideals have on him. He experiences it as just a general sense of not-being-good-enough, as if the self-respect and relaxation of feeling good about his body is always just out of reach.
Self-conscious as he is about his body, one of the first things that jumps out to him about the great philosophers he reads is that they all have that magical something which seems forever out of reach for him – that in pictures he sees of the philosophers, in biographies or back covers of books, they seem to to inhibit their bodies with a kind of ease which is beyond his grasp. That Russell or Dewey, unlike him, could show up in a 1940s Hollywood movie without causing a stir in the movie; the kind of stir that would be caused if a brown person casually walked up next to Katherine Hepburn in A Philadelphia Story.
The young brown man feels there is a striking similarity between the white people on the magazine covers and the white people he is studying: in both cases, the people seem to have an ease concerning their skin color which he doesn’t have.
The young brown man is thus unable to tell that there might be a difference in kind between the white movie stars and the white famous philosophers. That while the movie stars are at ease because their beauty matches the magazine ideals, the famous philosophers are at ease because they have moved beyond skin color and the magazine ideals. All the young brown man sees is that both the white movie stars and the white philosophers seem content with their bodies in a way that he feels unable to.
What is the best way to get the young brown man to see this difference? Given that due to the influence of the magazine ideals on him, he finds himself focusing on the whiteness of the famous philosophers’ bodies, what is the way to help him move beyond the color of bodies and into the realm of ideas?
Simply asserting the difference – saying it with emphasis or with the special intonation with which philosophers make a distinction or looking up at the heavens while making the point – is of no use. The young man might be theoretically aware of the distinction. It is that practically, in the context of the classroom or when reading a philosophy text, he is unable to hold on to the distinction. While reading Kant he can get a sense of the grandeur of an idea; but conditioned as his mind is to associate grandeur with whiteness, even unbeknownest to himself he finds himself assuming the grandeur of Kant’s ideas is inseparable from Kant’s skin color, just as the beauty of Marlon Brando’s smile is inseparable from his skin color.
In fact, to just assert the difference and expect the young brown man to practically see the difference is to set him up for failure. For when he sees the teachers’ disappointment in his ability to consistently grasp the difference, given his predilection to assuming that his potential for failure is tied up with his body, he is bound to see the teachers’ affirmation of his failure as itself rooted in the difference in the skin color of the teachers and himself. Simply asserting the difference thus leads to a downward spiral, where the student blames himself for his inability to grasp a supposedly simple distinction, which once again makes it that much harder for him to see the difference, and so it goes on.
In order for the young brown man to practically grasp the difference between the magazine ideal and the philosophy ideal, a basic question has to be answered: How do white philosophers themselves know that they have moved beyond the magazine ideals? For example, when Davidson read Kant, how might Davidson have known that Kant’s skin color was altogether irrelevant in how he engaged with Kant’s philosophy?
Wittgenstein argued that in order to apply a rule there must be a way to tell the difference between a correct application of the rule from an incorrect application of the rule. In that spirit, what is the way to tell that the claim “For Davidson Kant’s skin color was philosophically irrelevant” is true or false?
Could it be because of something internal to Davidson’s inner mental states or his actions: say, because he never explicitly thought about Kant’s skin color, or because he never had such an intention, or because he actively affirmed that Kant’s skin color is philosophically irrelevant? No. Because the most any of that shows is how Davidson felt or thought about the matter. What it doesn’t show is whether Davidson got it right about himself. We are still left with the question: How can Davidson know whether what he thought about himself was right?
It’s possible that Davidson got it wrong about himself, because it is possible that the young brown man got it wrong about himself. The young brown man might also claim that for him Kant’s skin color is philosophically irrelevant. And yet, if we look not just at how the young brown man engages with philosophy books, but also how he engages with the magazines, and we find that there are systematic connections between his engagement with the magazines and patterns of lack of self-confidence and feeling not handsome enough and so on, then we can tell that the young brown man’s orientation to, and his sense of himself in, the society is affected significantly by the magazines. And if there is no structures in the philosophy classrooms which actively aim to counter-balance the cultural effect of the magazines, then it is natural that he would engage with the philosophy books with the same general orientation as he would with any other cultural objects in that society.
In order to determine whether for the young brown man, or for Davidson, Kant’s skin color is philosophically irrelevant, what one needs to first look at is whether the philosophy classrooms have any structures which are meant to counter-act the influence of the magazines in the culture. If there are no such structures in the philosophy classroom, the most we can find out from a person’s intentions or actions in the classroom is how they consciously hope the classroom would be, but not whether the classroom is actually that way. And not even whether the person himself is able to overcome the general structural influences in the classroom.
What kind of structural features in the classroom can work to counteract the affects of the magazines in the society? Simply saying the magazines are silly, or racist will not do it. For the effect of the magazines on the young brown man is much deeper than what the young brown man consciously believes. The effect of the magazines is to create a hierarchy of beauty in which whites are at the very top, and non-whites are at various levels below the top. To counteract this hierarchy of physical beauty, it is necessary to have structures of equality which are independent of skin color. And since the philosophy classroom concerns ideas, there would have to be structures affirming the equality of philosophical ideas among people of different skin colors. This is philosophical pluralism.
Simply asserting that Kant’s skin color is philosophically irrelevant does nothing much to counter-balance the pervasive influence of the magazines on the students in the classrooms. What can cut against the psychological influence of the magazines are structures in the classroom which show that grandeur and human excellence can be associated with brown or black skin. Having philosophy books in the classroom by authors who are not white can make a much bigger difference to counter-acting the effect of the magazines than just affirming a million times with passion that skin color is philosophically irrelevant.
One might ask: “But if what is causing the psychological damage to the young brown man are the white ideals of beauty in the magazines, why not just change what is depicted in the magazines? Isn’t that the root of the problem? Why does the philosophy classroom have to be changed?”
It’s because the physical ideals of beauty publicly depicted in a society are based on that society’s ultimate depiction of human flourishing. Suppose a society values soccer as the highest form of human excellence, such that the best soccer players in the society are treated as the paragons of general human excellence. And suppose all the best soccer players come from a plurality of cultural and racial backgrounds. In such a society, the magazines would not show only the white soccer players as the exemplars of physical beauty.
If academic philosophers think that philosophers should be seen as the highest form of human excellence in the society (not necessarily the sole form of excellence), and if they are committed to racial plurality and equality in the society, it is a practical contradiction to nonetheless have only white philosophers as examples of such excellence in the classroom. Such Eurocentrism in the classroom does not merely concern the realm of ideas; they structurally underpin the white ideals of beauty in the society. Eurocentrism in the classroom is the intellectual and cultural foundation of Eurocentrism in the magazines and in the broader society more generally.
An academic philosopher who bemoans the depiction of minorities in the broader culture but who nonetheless is content with Eurocentrism in the classroom is like a driver who insists on keeping his foot on the gas pedal but bemoans that the car isn’t slowing down.