The Ivory Tower Comes To Haunt Us Again

Jaded16’s Note: Remember that awesome guest post on using Video Games as a training ground to speak up and call out on inane, insane, incredibly derogatory work? LogosKaiEros is back! See, this is a continuous series of proof for people who think I eat up all the guest posts. Or the guest-posters. But more on that later.


What Is the Role of the Anti-Kyriarchy Scholar?

Jaded16’s post “Voicing the Voiceless Is Only the Concern of the Artist in the Ivory Tower” got me thinking about my own prospects as a White graduate student who wants to focus, at least partly if not completely, on anti-kyriarchy philosophy.  The “ivory tower” is a concept that haunts me; one of my greatest fears for my professional life will be to work my ass off on anti-kyriarchy philosophy only have it end up being some abstract musings bogged down in the back and forth between academicians with no significant traction in people’s everyday experiences.  As a White philosopher, this especially frightens me when I think about any future work I may do on race.  I don’t want my philosophy to be, as Jaded16 put it, a “speaking for the marginalized fetish.”

Whenever I start to freak out about failing at talking about an aspect of kyriarchy where I belong to the privileged class (which is pretty much everything but gender),  I use Lilla Watson’s words as a mantra:

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time.   But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

Sometimes I make fun of myself for clinging to this quote, but I find it helpful to regain the grounding point that, I am not writing about race to help “save” people of colour.  True, my privilege has granted me kinds of power and influence that  people of colour do not have and I consider it my responsibility to use that privilege and power to the best of my ability to undermine the oppression of people of colour.  But I am not helping to save them.  I am using my privilege as a stepping stone for them. I am providing what resources I have to give philosophers of colour and philosophy of race the floor.

I should not give a voice to the voiceless, but use my privilege to project their voices.

Am I Up There Too? Oh Noes!

Am I Up There Too? Oh Noes!

Okay…what the hell does that look like?

Well, let’s look at an example of a privileged scholar talking about kyriarchy.

One of the most well known scholars on race is Tim Wise, who is white.  When I first saw Wise on TV, talking about race and unconscious racism and privilege, I almost did a freaking back flip I was so excited.  But you know what he was talking about?  The Henry Louis Gates gate.  And you know who else is a prominent scholar on race?  Henry Louis Gates Jr. , who is Black.  And from watching a bunch of news programs, I learned a lot about Wise’s scholarship and almost zip about Gates’.

Renee on Womanist Musings explains,

Lets consider how many anti-racist allies study the works of Tim Wise and yet nothing he has said thus far is original.  People are listening because Wise is White, and yet all he is doing is regurgitating the thoughts that people of colour have had about Whiteness for centuries. POC have always been the ones with the experience to comment upon its perception and ability to act, due to the fact that Whiteness has always been detrimental to our lives. There are  people of colour that resent that Wise has made a living in this area; however, it cannot be denied that he is using his power to dismantle oppression. What category should we place Tim Wise in?

The question for me is, what should someone who finds themselves in Wise’s position do?  One answer could be to ensure that they spend their career making sure that the voices of Henry Louis Gates Jr. and other scholars of colour are heard.  However, how can a philosopher do this when the profession demands that one publishes reams of their own, original work?  Philosophers who devote their careers to studying other philosophers are pretty much relegated to history of philosophy, which at the moment acknowledges mostly only dead white men as being worthy of such a concentrated study.  I suppose someone could try to study W.E.B. Du Bois or an equally influential writer, but good freaking luck finding a job with that C.V.

Another answer could be to make sure that one’s bibliography is almost entirely made up of work from scholars of colour.  I once sat in on a talk given by a new professor in the music department who said “Every citation is an exercise of power.”  I was thinking about that sentence for the next two weeks.  As someone who is expecting to eventually find their way into a job as a philosophy professor who will presumably publish, I feel crushed by the weight of that sentence.  If I write about race, every citation I make (and you make a ridiculous number of citations in philosophy, sometimes to the point where footnotes take up more than half of a page) is an opportunity, and an obligation, to project the voice of someone that deserves projecting.

And all these brilliant scholars of colour I should be citing? Their work is going to be hidden under the piles and piles AND PILES of work done by white scholars.

No pressure.

Ok, so this will be hard.  Not like it will be as hard as trying to publish my work were I a scholar of colour.  So there’s some perspective.

But, even if I am able to work up the ranks, publish original pieces that still illuminate the work of scholars of colour, there’s still the core of my main worry: how do I ensure that my scholarship is more than just erudite musings?

When Jaded16 wrote in her post about talking to young women and experienced a reaction from them of apathy, I was reminded of hearing the philosopher Nancy Bauer talk at a workshop last year.  On a few occasions Bauer talked about teaching feminism to college students, and that when the students didn’t find academic feminism (or feminism in general) attractive, Bauer saw it as the responsibility of feminist philosophers to make their work relevant to their audience.  It’s not good enough for the feminist philosopher to talk about women; they need to talk with women. Jaded16 likewise concluded,

Speaking of someone is easy, being their ally is relatively better but talking to them takes the ultimate test of privilege.

OK, what does this look like?

Well, here’s what Bauer has said recently in an interview about her work:

“…for years now I’ve been fretting about how feminist philosophy can make itself pertinent in the real world I’m dead set against philosophers’ making pronouncements about how people should and shouldn’t live their lives. We shouldn’t be in the business of telling people whether the human race ought to condone cloning or eat meat or banish pornography. What we ought to aspire to do, I think, is interest people in the project of continually reflecting on their settled views on such subjects. (Any good philosopher knows from personal experience that reflection often reveals that one’s own views are horribly muddled or arrogant or self-contradictory.)”

I’m still mulling over the implications of this in my head, because this is a pretty radical thing for a philosopher to say.  Normative claims–saying what someone SHOULD do–are rampant in philosophy. Many philosophers consider philosophy to be precisely the discipline of figuring out what people should do in their lives.

If I combine the two projects I’ve discussed here, my answer to “What is the role of the anti-kyriarchy scholar?” is something like: to interest people in thinking about kyriarchy by projecting the voices of the people disadvantaged by kyriarchial customs and systems.

I should use my position in the ivory tower to get people interested in what’s happening far below on the ground.

I feel like a bullhorn may be necessary at some point, though whether a figurative or literal one I haven’t decided.

[See how awesome that was? Quickly hop on over to ESSENTIALIZE THIS to read some more of LogosKaiEros. If you don’t already follow her, you should. And I’m not saying this just because she quoted Moi! For anyone who wants to guest post on this blog, contact me here or on iamjadedsixteen [at] gmail [dot] com].

Leave a comment


  1. Hey, do you mind if I ask where you do your studying/work? I’m also an aspiring academic philosopher, but my background has so far been in a very conservative university where this sort of stuff is pretty much non-existent. It also seems to have a policy of hiring only White professors (more or less), but that’s another story for another day.

    Anyway, good post, although personally I’m of the view that academic philosophy shouldn’t come to resemble sociology too much. Sociology is already influenced by progressive thought, and politically analyzed everything to death; but philosophy is — and should remain, IMO — apolitical and concerned with things that transcend political realities, such as objective and universal moral values, and objective and universal truth.

    Also, I love telling people what the right or wrong thing to do is, but you’re right, philosophy professors should avoid doing that. If I ever become a professor (which is my goal) I will keep your advice in mind and only pass judgment on people in my head ;).

    • Sorry, I meant: ‘politically analyses everything to death’

      • Right now I’m doing the whole anonymous blogging thing until I feel like I really understand how this might affect my professional aspirations. But I can tell you I’m going to school in Boston, and it has some really great stuff going on for feminism and other oppression studies. For instance, there’s WOGAP, Workshop on Gender and Philosophy that meets at MIT.

        In reading about people’s experience with kyriarchy, I’ve come to the idea that we can’t really have our philosophy be apolitical, because you’ll just end up with philosophy that endorses the status quo. We’re embodied beings, and how we experience life as a certain race, gender, sexual orientation, etc. affects how we think, and how we think about others.
        So there are no universal human truths until you’ve accounted for the ‘politics’ of kyriarchy.

        I put politics in scare quotes because I don’t consider feminism or oppression studies political. Feminists aren’t of a certain political orientation, unless anti-evil (which I just stole from is one.

        • Good point about the anonymous blogging thing. In fact, now that you’ve mentioned it, I’m going to either become anonymous or delete my blogs (actually I’ve been thinking about doing that for a while, but this just reminded me).

          “we can’t really have our philosophy be apolitical, because you’ll just end up with philosophy that endorses the status quo”

          I understand this point, although I do think it is possible to be apolitical without supporting the status quo. White male philosophy has the tendency to present itself as neutral and apolitical, but it isn’t really. I think the solution is to call it out on what it is, but to do so from a fundamentally Platonist perspective. So, the solution to the ‘temporalizing’ of philosophy is not more temporalizing, but going to the Platonist roots of philosophy. At least, that’s my preferred solution since I’m a hard-core Platonist :P.

          There is something left over when you remove these worldly identities (race, gender, etc.). There is something like a universal world of ideas that our mind can grasp, if only we have the appropriate vision. This is distorted by the kyriarchy, I agree, but it is still there and we can grasp it. I guess I’m too Platonist to have a view of truth as entirely perspectival, or even to the degree that many feminist philosophers see it.

          • I find myself more and more unable to grasp what these universal Ideas graspable to the human mind should be, but I appreciate hearing from someone who is defending that kind of strong universalism.
            I haven’t completely made up my mind, so thanks for weighing in.

  2. I really enjoyed this piece. Thank you so much first to the writer and then to the host of said writer. I am mulling these thoughts like wine, over and over the flame of thought, so I am afraid my reply is mostly “Oh… hmm…”

    • Thanks for your comment. =) I know exactly what you mean when you swirl ideas over in your head like wine. I get frustrated too, when I read something and then my only response is “yes….interesting, hmmmm….”

      I think of my mind like a crockpot: I let things simmer in their own juices for a long while.

  3. LJBrutus

     /  September 1, 2010

    Great article! More people should read your blog; it’s thoughtful and well-written.


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