by Anastasia Kanjere
A report about the Philosophies of Difference and the Phi Research Group at Deakin University’s one-day symposium.
Organising and presenting the conference was Deakin philosophy lecturer, Helen Ngo: newly back in Australia after completing her doctorate at Stony Brook University (her research is published in the book The Habits of Racism: A Phenomenology of Racism and Racialized Embodiment, which will be launched at the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy conference later this year). Following philosopher Charles Mills, Ngo introduced the area of study each of the scholars engage with as the ‘critical philosophy of race,’ a study that is not only critical of racism but also of the very idea of race, and its imbrication with structures of modernity, culture and power.Interestingly, this symposium attracted the ire of some of Australia’s most prominent angry white men – Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt and Mark Latham all commented upon its threateningly political content. Latham took particular umbrage with the title of Amir Jaima’s session “Don’t’ Talk to White People: On the Epistemological and Rhetorical Limitations of Conversations with White People for Anti-Racist Purposes,” comparing this extremely qualified disinclination to conversational engagement to South Africa’s apartheid. White fragility indeed. The especial targeting of anti-racist and race-critical scholars by Australia’s right-wing commentators (ACRAWSA’s president, Alana Lentin, has recently been the target of her own Murdoch hit-piece) is probably a topic for further discussion in another forum. However, I will return to white fragility briefly in some reflections on the question time that followed the sessions.
First, though, to the papers themselves.
Amir Jaima: Don’t’ Talk to White People: On the Epistemological and Rhetorical Limitations of Conversations with White People for Anti-Racist Purposes
Much anti-racist and race-critical scholarship, Jaima argues, is directed towards a white readership. This orientation toward an “implicitly white reader” not only extends the presumption of whiteness as default, but also forecloses the possibilities of what philosophical questions and ideas can be investigated. Following James Baldwin, he defines whiteness as a social ontology based on a conviction, on “those who think of themselves as white.” His analysis is grounded against an adherence to Derrick Bell’s position on the “permanence of racism”: this leads to the pressing tasks of anti-racism not being “integration” and “equality” but rather self-care, self-affirmation, and what Bell calls “racial realism”.
So, why avoid talking to white people? Jaima identifies three key problems: in the first place, the intractability of white ignorance, in the second, the strain of “racial battle fatigue,” and finally, the philosophical limitations that are imposed by addressing an implicitly white interlocutor.
For his discussion of white ignorance Jaima is mostly indebted to Charles Mills – in particular his chapter “White Ignorance” in the collection Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. This work illuminates how white ignorance may not simply be a passive, ‘innocent’ state, but rather may be actively and strategically cultivated. In this way whiteness might cling to certain fallacies – that “racism doesn’t exist,” that racism is merely “prejudice” and so forth. Recognising how these ignorant standpoints may benefit the believer, may in fact be epistemologically fostered for the benefit of the believer, can relieve the anti-racist interlocutor of the burden of responsibility of educating and thus “relieving” the ignorance.
Jaima’s second point speaks precisely to the way in which anti-racist activity and speech can become a burden, in his use of researcher William A. Smith’s work on “racial battle fatigue” (a list of Smith’s publications can be found here.) He draws on the concept of “mundane extreme environmental stress” to represent the ongoing and psychically draining effects of everyday experiences with and against racism – an experience which can be intensified by taking on the burden of engaging with white racism. Such an experience is remedied in three ways: through racial realism, through theorising race, and through developing a framework with which to understand and deconstruct propaganda (here he nods to Lee Mcbride’s work on “insurrectionist ethics”). Importantly, each of these methods centres the subject which experiences racism, rather than the subject who must be rehabilitated out of it through dialogue.
Finally, Jaima argues for the theoretical limitations imposed by an orientation towards an audience implicitly defined as white. His first plea here is a stylistic one, urging his audience to address, as he does throughout the paper, an explicitly racialized audience – as he puts it, a “would-be black interlocutor.” Such a stylistic choice immediately situates and directs theoretical work in an important way. (As well as a theoretician, Jaima is also a novelist: I found this excellent podcast in which he discusses aesthetics, art and the dialogue between literature and philosophy. The conversation revolves around ideas of voice, audience and form, and what limitations and possibilities each might imply – a highly illuminating contextualisation of some of the arguments framed in this paper.) A disruption of the default whiteness of theory can also allow for certain theoretical insights that are often foreclosed: Frederick Douglass, for example, is often situated as an existentialist thinker, despite his writings preceding many existentialist texts – including Sartre’s – and being written in English. Despite his shared interest in the concept of freedom, therefore, a theoretical approach that has made the conscious choice to turn away from whiteness would allow for a more radical and expansive reading of Douglass’ work, one that could produce insights that are made impossible by a narrow categorisation of his work as always already a part of a white canon.
Helen Ngo: Walking in the Shoes of Others: A Critical Analysis of Simulative Experiments in the Name of Anti-Racist ‘Solidarity’
Ngo presented a paper which was published earlier this year, in the Philosophy of Difference special edition of the Australian Feminist Law Review (the issue is accessible here).
This paper is an analysis of the simulative game “Everyday Racism,” developed by the anti-racist NGO “All Together Now,” in which (presumably white) players take on the role of one of a selection of characters of colour for a week. The game hopes to offer an opportunity to “walk in the shoes of others”: the characters experience various instances of “everyday” racism in a simulation of racism designed to facilitate white apprehension of the pervasiveness and impact of racial microaggressions. Ngo compares the game to the US activist initiative “World Hijab Day,” in which non-Muslim women and non-hijabi Muslim women are invited to wear the hijab for a day and thereby gain an understanding of the racist abuse that the hijab can attract on an everyday basis.
While Ngo has some positive reflections on these simulative experiments – she appreciates the lived experience focus that they facilitate – one which needn’t, she argues, compete with structural understandings of racism –she ultimately arrives at a critical perspective on what they offer. She argues that these experiments in fact work to extend white privilege, to elide the depth and breadth of racialized experiences, and to enable a kind of empathy tourism that privileges white epistemological development over the agency and humanity of the lives that are “tried on” for a day or a week. Who benefits? – and what and by whom are the costs borne? are questions that such an experiment does not ask, nor even render possible. Her analysis is situated against the account of racialized habits that she developed in her doctorate work, and is therefore a useful introduction to some of the theoretical work that will be made available with the release of the monograph.
Like Jaima, Ngo is concerned with questions of epistemology. The “simulative experiment,” she argues, presents an account of racism as a problem of ignorance – that is, specifically, of white ignorance. Racism can be overcome, therefore, through overcoming white ignorance – something which is achieved, in this case, through the opportunity of the white subject to “ascertain for themselves,” to take their rightful mantel as all-knowing agent. This model does nothing to displace whiteness from its leading role, instead subjecting the experiences of racism to white scrutiny in a method somewhat reminiscent of the role of the native informant. Ngo cites legal scholar Irene Watson who observes the way that the knowledge of First Nations people is expropriated and repackaged as “Western,” as a way of critiquing the implied indispensability of the white knower: racism is not real until it is perceived and known by the white subject.
What such a method implies, of course is that the white subject can know racism – that, presented with the “facts” of everyday racism experienced by racialized people (Ngo follows Alia al-Saji in reading Islamophobia as continuous with other forms of racism), white people will reach the same level of knowledge of racism. George Yancy, however, rejects this claim to epistemic equality. We are not all equal knowers. In fact, as Charles Mills writes, perception occurs through eyes and ears conditioned by their social histories. These simulative experiences, therefore, effect a “thin” reading of racism: one that does not take account for the way that each experience of racism resonates with the histories built up in bodily memory – what Ngo describes as race “habits”.
Rather than this “ontological expansiveness” of whiteness then, Ngo suggests that perhaps the white would-be anti-racist might “linger in the not-knowing,” might recognise the epistemologically privileged position of people of colour rather than seeking to move to the position of knower and arbiter. She is taken by Amy Coplan’s suggestion of “other-oriented perspective-taking,” which seeks to listen in ways that do not flatten the radical incommensurability of experience.
Ngo’s book is sold out from most sellers but is available for pre-order. You can hear more of her speaking about race and habit on the 3CR “Radical Philosophy” podcast here.
Bryan Mukandi: Playing Michelle Pfeiffer in Dangerous Minds: Racist Anti-Racism in Academia
Mukandi’s paper starts with a consideration of some film representations of the academy as a site for redeeming black and brown delinquency. In Dangerous Minds, for example, Michelle Pfeiffer’s character condescends to the lowly world of her students in a Christ-like display of self-sacrifice which, through its heroic altruism, allows them access to the healthy white polis. Freedom Writers (2007) and Finding Forrester (2000) trace similar arcs. In The Blind Side (2009), rather than the through education, the racialized protagonist is recuperated into the polis through the white home.
Mukandi connects these filmic narratives to a Derridean reading of the relationship between fable and the nation state. Films, he argues, are fables, which in Derridean terms “make to-know”. Such stories therefore can present a non-explicit justification of subordination in their celebration of submission, acquiescence. In each, Mukandi argues, the racialized protagonist does what Steve Biko would describe as “willingly surrender their soul to the white man.” While the texts may appear to be simply apolitical entertainment, the narrative they present is underwritten by historical and continuing white violence, so that, as he beautifully puts it, as one watches a film “one can see the guns and tanks beneath it.”
Resisting this teleological narrative, then, of the academy as rehabilitating the racialized subject into the white polity, Mukandi raises the possibility of withdrawal. He recounts sitting in the oppressive whiteness of space of a philosophy conference and finding himself writing over and over on his note-pad – not metaphorically – “I can’t breathe”. While fostering white allyship might very well be important, he argues, it is more important for people of colour to breathe. Re-making white spaces to be less hostile to racialized bodies need not always be the ultimate political aim – instead a choice may be made for strategic withdrawal into facilitating safer spaces.
During question time, the paper from Mukandi in particular attracted some hostility from a young white male audience member. Describing Mukandi’s suggestion of withdrawal from hostile spaces as “really problematic,” the questioner’s voice trembled as he reminded Mukandi that “you aren’t the elected representative of people of colour.” Unfortunately this kind of display of aggressive white fragility is not uncommon at race-critical events, but what was noteworthy was the responses it drew. First Mukandi gave a wonderful impromptu exegesis of first person phenomenology as methodology – moving from de Beauvoir to Fanon to Merleau-Ponty to Gordon. He then offered an analysis of the imperative to dialogue: that most urgent obligation, of which the mere proposal of refusal so wounded and angered Mark Latham. Levinas asks us, he explained, how we must respond to the radical infinity of the other. And Hegel, through his master-slave dialectic, argues that our self-consciousness is born of the struggle with, and eventual recognition of, the other. This is a “nice little story” as Mukandi put it, which seems to provide a compelling endorsement of encounter with the other. However, a race-critical reading of the master-slave dialectic – as offered by Fanon – yields quite a different analysis. The coloniser does not want the recognition but rather the labour of the colonized – as there is no apprehension of the consciousness of the colonized, there is no struggle against its freedom, no desire to be achieve the mastery of recognition. Therefore no self-consciousness can emerge from this process. Finally, he reminded his interlocutor that speech has cost: as Derrida might say, we need to mutilate ourselves in order to be understood, and “Where is the justice in you asking that of me?”
Jaima, who was also obviously implicated in the question gave a shorter, but nevertheless powerful, answer. He acknowledged that his stylistic choice of addressing his work towards a “would-be black interlocutor” might make some white listeners or readers feel excluded from the conversation. Not allowing the conversation to rest with this alleged white pain, however, he turned the question back onto the questioner. “What would it take,” he asked, “for you to feel included?”
 Ngo, H., 2017. The Habits of Racism: A Phenomenology of Racism and Racialized Embodiment, Lanham, MD: Lexington Books.
 DiAngelo, R., 2011. White fragility. International Journal of Critical Pedagogy, 3(3), pp.54–70.
 Bell, D.A., Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism, New York: BasicBooks.
 Mills, C.W., 2007. White Ignorance. In S. Sullivan & N. Tuana, eds. Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance. Albany: State University of New York Press, pp. 11–38.
 Watson, I., 2014. Re-Centring First Nations Knowledge and Places in a Terra Nullius Space. AlterNative: An International Journal of Indigenous Peoples, (5), pp.508–520.
 Al-Saji, A., 2010. The racialization of Muslim veils: A philosophical analysis. Philosophy & Social Criticism, 36(8), pp.875–902.
 Yancy, G., 2008. Black Bodies, White Gazes: The Continuing Significance of Race, Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
 Mills (ibid).
 Ngo, H., 2016. Racist habits: A phenomenological analysis of racism and the habitual body. Philosophy and Social Criticism, 42(9), pp.847–872.
 Sullivan, S., 2006. Revealing Whiteness: The Unconscious Habits of Racial Privilege, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
 Coplan, A., 2011. Understanding Empathy. In A. Coplan & P. Goldie, eds. Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 3–18.
 Derrida, J., 2010. The Beast and the Sovereign, Volume I, trans. Geoffrey Bennington. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 Biko, S., 2002. I Write What I Like, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
 Fanon, F., 1952. Black Skin, White Masks, London: Paladin.