This year I was invited to the annual Canadian Philosophical Association (CPA) Conference to comment on Sandra De Vries’ essay “Multiraciality in the Philosophy of Race.” The paper was a stimulating discussion on the role that multi-raciality should play in the philosophy of race. Below is my commentary:
May 29th, 2017
I see De Vries as accomplishing two main things in her paper. First, she challenges the black-white binary that has come to characterize the philosophy of race. By criticizing the trope of black-as-object-white-as-subject, she – along with other philosophers of multi-raciality – provides conceptual room to consider experiences of racialized persons who may not be of Euro- or Afro-descent. Hers is a timely project, especially in the Canadian context where almost 20% of the total population is categorized as a “visible minority,” and only approximately 3% is “black.” Furthermore, as increasing globalization, ease of travel, war and conflict overseas, and the cosmopolitan ethic continue shrink our world, more people will be born “multi-raced” in ways not encompassed by the “one-drop” rule. Traditional conversations in the philosophy of race have centered around this phenomenon, of blacks being able to “pass” as white or whites facing risk of exclusion at being “found out” as black. But what are we to make of someone who is South East Asian and Filipino, or Latina and Chinese? Or a “mixture” of the four different ethnic groups? Such experiences of racialization may differ in significant ways from the black-white realm of experience commonly explored in the philosophy of race.
The second thing that De Vries accomplishes in her paper is provide a way forward. By making social ethnographic research and critical race theory her models, she shows how the focuses in philosophy of race on monoraciality and black-white relations can be decentered, giving us a glimpse into what it would take to develop a more inclusive philosophy of race.
There are three critical comments I would like to make on De Vries’ paper.
First, that echoes of her project are found in the recent past. The primary case that comes to mind is Du Bois’ iconic The Souls of Black Folk, wherein he combines autobiography and storytelling to “lift the veil” on the black experience in the United States. By telling the audience – many of whom he knew would be white – of his experiences, he opened up a dialogue about race relations that had not yet been spoken in the mainstream. The second book that comes to mind is This Bridge Called My Back. In the collection of personal reflections dating back to the 1970s and 1980s, black, Chicano, Asian-American, Indigenous, mixed-race and many other women of colour came together to define themselves in the ways they saw fit. The anthology is part-poetry, essay, and autobiography, and speaks to De Vries’ insistence that we take an ethnographic and critical race approach to understanding what it means to inhabit racialized spaces that may differ from what has come to be considered “the norm.” For example, Barbara Cameron reflects on her experiences at a Third World Gay Conference by stating that “the Asian and Native American people in attendance felt the issues affecting us were not adequately included in the workshops,” and “[w]hat’s worse than being invisible among your own kind?” Other writers in the anthology wrote of blackness being understood as the central oppression, with more sharply defined contours than the experiences of other, non-white groups.
However, what distinguishes The Souls of Black Folk and This Bridge Called My Back from “properly” philosophical works are their standards of “success.” As De Vries herself admits, because philosophers tend to abstract (7) as a means of reaching general principles and laws, subjective accounts of experience only provide the empirical basis for analysis. To make her project philosophically tenable she will have to engage with the works of those who have laid the theoretical foundation for what it means to be racialized in North America.
My second critical comment on De Vries’ paper is that addressing the canon will most likely lead her right back to the very practice of dichotomization that she is trying to avoid, and which I do not find problematic. I will grant De Vries that the black-white dichotomy is a limiting lens through which to view the problem of racism in our society, but the white/other-than-white dichotomy is not. Consider the history. Part of the founding of this nation included the murder, oppression, and slavery of Indigenous peoples as well as the murder, oppression and slavery of people of African descent. On this soil, “race” and “racialization” were crafted through the lens of white supremacy and domination, and the institutions of racism built upon this system were constructed accordingly. If we take Charles Mills argument on the metaphysics of race seriously, the blurred contours of the racialized experience come more clearly into view. What does it mean to live in a context where European colonialism has been so far-reaching that to be racialized is to be racialized on its terms? It means that this reality forms the background of our experience of race, to such an extent that to be racialized is to be fit somewhere on a hierarchy.
Even with the “calibration” of the philosophy of race to the nuances of the racialized experience, history cannot be ignored. Canada has seen waves of immigration, from the African slaves and freemen escaping from the South, to the Japanese and South Asians who moved to BC during the late 1800s to early 1900s, to the culturally diverse groups who moved to Canada after less Eurocentric immigration regulations were introduced in the 1960s. Each group that has not been able to approximate the white, settler norm has its own story of discrimination to tell. It is not, as Lucius Outlaw brings to the fore when explaining the genesis of Africana philosophy, that persons of mixed-race do not have unique musings to offer to the world about their experience. It is that instead of forming the “roots” of racialization, such experiences form the branches. They are continuous with a system of racialization that – while changing to adopt to new circumstances – had its DNA rooted in a particular time in history. Therefore, even if De Vries pushes forward the project of presenting more nuanced accounts of racialized subjects, the dichotomy of “white” and “non-white” will, at least for now, have to stay in place.
My final critical comment on De Vries’ insightful paper is directed at her notes on resistance. She maintains that philosophy of race focuses too much on resistance to whiteness, and I would like to hear more about this. I wonder, perhaps as an offshoot of my skepticism above, what of use could be found in exploring multi-raciality that would not lead to a deconstruction of whiteness.
What comes to mind as I ask this question are two works: Paget Henry’s book on Afro-Caribbean philosophy, Caliban’s Reason, and Chike Jeffers’ forthcoming chapter on the cultural significance of race. These two works may be useful places for De Vries to turn to expand upon the normative value of multi-racial philosophy. Henry highlights some of the difficulties with separating the context from which critical theories arise. For example, he points out that even the most celebrated of Caribbean philosophers have at times demonstrated anti-black sentiment: “Afro-Caribbean philosophy was unique among Afro-Caribbean art forms in the extent to which it overidentified with its European heritage and underidentified with its African inheritance. In short, it inherited many of the anti-African biases that have made African thought the most invisible discourse in the Caribbean intellectual tradition.” To highlight this point is to demonstrate the difficulty in separating ideas from cultural context. If there are parts of the mixed-race experience that deserve praise, they cannot be laced with nuances of anti-blackness or anti-Indigeneity.
Jeffers’ argument on the cultural significance of race is a good example of how to introduce a positive “spin” on the philosophy of mixed-race. According to Jeffers, because of how the racialization process has informed how we experience the world, “you have social categories shaping the identities of those who are included in them in such a way that these members may plausibly view these categories as culturally significant.” Many people find pride in their race – and while this notion of pride does not translate very well when we think of “white pride” – it does when we consider “black pride.” For example, black students in North America may feel empowered knowing that they are descended from a long line of independent nations, or Kings and Queens. This is why reforming the curriculum in schools to include a more robust black history would be useful – to mitigate against Eurocentric curriculums that only praise “white” accomplishment. Another example of “black pride” is demonstrated in many forms of “black culture” such as rap, hip-hop, and jazz. Jeffers demonstrates that the racialization process need not be perceived as solely negative, and such musings could add to De Vries’ overall project.
While my three critical comments – noting the continuity of De Vries project with other writers of colour; affirming the white-other dichotomy; and problematizing her resistance to resisting to whiteness – highlight points of disagreement and places where I think her project could be expanded, the project she puts forth is certainly a worthy one to pursue, and I look forward to reading much more about it in the future.
“Cultural Diversity in Canada.” Department of Justice. Last updated January 1, 2015. http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/csj-sjc/jsp-sjp/rp02_8-dr02_8/p3.html.
Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Group, Inc., 2016.
Henry, Paget. Caliban’s Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 2000.
“Japanese Canadians.” Historica Canada. n.d. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/japanese-canadians/#h3_jump_0.
Jeffers, Chike. “Cultural Constructionism.” Four Views on Race, forthcoming.
Mills, Charles. “‘But What Are You Really?’ The Metaphysics of Race.” In Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race, 41 – 66. United States of America: Cornell University, 1998.
—. “Dark Ontologies: Blacks, Jews, and White Supremacy.” In Autonomy and Community: Readings in Contemporary Kantian Social Philosophy, edited by Jane Kneller and Sidney Axinn, 131 – 166. Albany: SUNY Press, 1998.
Moraga, Cherríe L. and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, editors. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. Saline: Third Woman Press, 2002.
Outlaw, Lucius. “Africana Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last updated October 11, 2010. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/africana/.
“Sikhism in Canada.” Historica Canada. n.d. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sikhism/.
Statistics Canada. “Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity in Canada: National Household Survey, 2011.” (PDF, Minister of Industry, 2013).
 Statistics Canada, “Immigration and Ethnocultural Diversity in Canada: National Household Survey, 2011.” (PDF, Minister of Industry, 2013).
 W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (Minneapolis: Lerner Publishing Group, Inc., 2016).
 Cherríe L. Moraga and Gloria E. Anzaldúa, editors. This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Saline: Third Woman Press, 2002).
 Ibid., 51
 Ibid., 52
 Charles Mills, “‘But What Are You Really?’ The Metaphysics of Race,” in Blackness Visible: Essays on Philosophy and Race (United States of America: Cornell University, 1998), 41 – 66.
 Ibid., 43
 “Japanese Canadians,” Historica Canada. N.d. http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/japanese-canadians/#h3_jump_0; “Sikhism in Canada,” Historica Canada, N.d., http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/sikhism/.
 “Cultural Diversity in Canada,” Department of Justice, Last updated January 1, 2015. http://www.justice.gc.ca/eng/rp-pr/csj-sjc/jsp-sjp/rp02_8-dr02_8/p3.html.
 Lucius Outlaw, “Africana Philosophy.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Last updated October 11, 2010. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/africana/.
 Paget Henry, Caliban’s Reason: Introducing Afro-Caribbean Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2000), 8.
 Jeffers, Chike. “Cultural Constructionism.” Four Views on Race, forthcoming.
 Ibid., 31
 Ibid., 37 – 38
 Ibid., 32