October 20, 2014

It's Not Just Implicit Bias

According to a recent study, African-Americans make up less than 1.5% of the people (faculty or graduate students) in U.S. philosophy departments. According to another report, there are only five black philosophers in faculty positions in England.

Why are there so few black academic philosophers?

There are three flat-footed options:

1) Academic philosophers are racist.

2) The ideas in academic philosophy are racist.

3) The structures of academic philosophy are racist.

None of these are quite right. At least in my experience, (1) is not true , not in an explicit, ordinary sense of racism. In fact, many white academic philosophers have enormous white guilt. [Note: this paragraph has been changed in response to helpful comments here and here.]

(2) suggests that academic philosophy is too rational and so is somehow basically white. That reasoning and logic as activities are themselves too white, kind of like ice hockey. Proponents of this view draw broad distinctions between reason and intuition, or the mind and the body, and claim that the intuition or bodyness of blacks (the complex rhythms of jazz, etc.) is disvalued by philosophy. Stated bluntly like this, (2) is absurd. It pegs non-whites into a permanent state of otherness and fails to recognize rationality as a mode of all human beings.

(3) says the problem is institutional, such as the hiring practices or the syllabi, which create a feedback loop. If blacks students don't see or read black philosophers, then they stay away or struggle to stay in academic philosophy. There is something to (3), but as stated it isn't enough. For it leads to the question: if neither philosophers nor the ideas they value are racist, why aren't they able to change the structures? It is funny to treat the structures as an independent force which are much stronger than the good will and ideals of the philosophers themselves. What makes the structures so resistant to change? More needs to be said than that in time, a few generations from now, it will all get resolved.

A sharper version of the original question is: Given that neither philosophers nor philosophy is racist, why are there so few black academic philosophers?

A popular answer, which has become prevalent recently, rests on the idea of implicit bias.


An implicit bias is a set of habits which are so ingrained in us that we act on them even though the actions are contrary to our conscious beliefs. The classic example is Jesse Jackson walking down the street and being relieved when he discovers that the person walking behind him is a white person. The relief shows a deep inculturation of suspicion of blacks, an inculturation so deep that it is contrary to Jackson's avowed belief that blacks are no more dangerous than whites. Implicit bias suggests that having the right beliefs isn't enough for having right action. If one is habituated deeply in acting in ways contrary to one's beliefs, then one will act that way in spite of one's beliefs.

Of course, implicit bias won't make a person act completely contrary to one's beliefs. If Jackson yelled racial slurs at blacks even though he is not a racist, that would be pathological, not acting from implicit bias. Implicit bias concerns very fine grained actions which are not easy to highlight or rectify, such as walking to the other side of the street or averting one's gaze or changing a topic. Actions which on the surface can be explained without reference to race at all. I crossed the street just because I wanted to; or because there was a draft on this side. Actions which you might not ever think of as having any connection to race (or gender, etc). In order to see that there is an implicit bias, you have to see, or be shown, that there is a pattern to your fine grained behavior and that in that pattern race keeps surfacing as a trigger, even though you are not aware of it as a trigger.

So one possible explanation for why there are so few black academic philosophers is that there is an implicit bias in the profession against black philosophers. Academics - white, black, asian, hispanic, etc. - are conditioned to act in ways that often privilege non-black philosophers over black philosophers.

What form does this privileging take? The professor might not call on black students as much. Or call on them with a patronizing tone. Or call on them mainly when the topic is race related. Same with how the work of black professors is evaluated by other academics. The idea is that thousands of little acts of implicit bias create an experience for most blacks of a wall between them and academic philosophy. And yet this felt wall is invisible to academic philosophers since they are not aware that they are acting based on race at all.

It is an elegant and powerful explanation.

But it's not the whole story. Not even close. In fact, if one is not mindful, it can lead to covering over precisely the depth of the problem in academic philosophy.

The implicit bias idea can be disconcerting because it suggests that in spite of our best beliefs, we often act in ways that we would not endorse. Here and here Jennifer Saul describes implicit bias as showing that we can be horrible even without knowing it, kind of like beating people up when sleep walking even when we are completely conscious. We can be smiling at someone, thinking we are being wonderful to the other person, even while in the overall interaction we are unconsciously undermining the other's persons ability to be in academic philosophy.

At the same time, the implicit bias idea offers a kind of reprieve to our conscious selves. As if to say: Yes, our values are correct. What we believe is fair and just. It is just this darn unconscious, habituated part of us that keeps pulling us down, the part of us that was conditioned without the wonderful values which we consciously uphold.

The need for this kind of reprieve is obvious in a professional community which defines itself primarily in terms of the beauty, grandeur and humanity of its ideas.

Which raises the question: are academic philosophers embracing the idea of implicit bias because they are so ready for changing the profession norms or because it is an unconscious way of cutting one's losses in the face of the blatant race disparity in the profession? A way to say: yes, something is wrong, but ok, it is not our ideas, but just that unconscious part of us. Our conscious part, our beliefs and ideas, they are fine! Look, it is our conscious mind which is figuring out all this implicit bias stuff, so it is working as it should. It is just the reptile part of our brain that is the problem. And we can't easily control that part! It's all so horrible. But we are trying.

Implicit bias is a fact. And it has wide ranging consequences. No denying that. But to say that it is the main reason for a given situation presupposes that the situation cannot be explained in terms of the conscious, deliberate actions of the people involved. The need for an underlying, hidden mechanism is felt only if it seems as if there are no obvious, surface level mechanisms at play.


Why is it that even though their teachers are not racist, many black kids in the inner city don't feel compelled to go to school and stay in school?

Here it is bizarre to say: "Implicit bias! Though the teachers consciously disavow racism, they are acting out of implicit bias when calling on students, grading exams." This is bizarre because there are such obvious surface reasons which explain the same situation. Such as: the schools don't have much money, the kids' home situation is difficult, etc.

And there is even a ready explanation in terms of the content of what is taught in the schools. If I was a black kid and I was force fed the standard story about American history as basically a fight between white colonialists  and Britain, and a few references to the wrong of slavery and how it was overcome, I would pretty much lose interest in school. That is perfectly natural. If one doesn't find one's life and community reflected in a deep, affirming, dynamic, complex way, such that one's own complex web of feelings about one's day to day life are reflected in the history and understanding of one's nation, then any self-respecting individual would feel alienated to some extent. If a black child didn't feel alienated by white washed stories of American history, that would be sad. This is not to say that the black child should leave school out of such feelings of alienation. It is to say that if they stay in school they must have in place some mechanisms which help them deal with that sense of alienation and which help them realize that staying in school is in the long run the best way to deal with and overcome that sense of alienation.

Nothing of these issues of what is taught in schools and their effect on the psyche of the students comes to the surface through the idea of implicit bias. Even though there must be implicit bias happening in the inner city schools, it is not just implicit bias that is at play.

The people teaching American history from the textbooks are not racist. If they were, why would they be teaching in the inner city? But they might be thinking that this version of history is roughly correct or correct enough to serve the purposes of middle school. Or they might prefer in their own time to read Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States or Ellison's The Invisible Man, but feel that at their job at present they have no option but to go along with the run of the mill textbook version of American history. When they do that, it is not because of implicit bias. For in these cases they are consciously avowing to teach from those textbooks. They might not feel great about it or feel that they have a choice, but it has the stamp of their conscious avowal. Even though they as people are not racist.

The options aren't just either (a) one is a racist consciously or (b) one is not a racist but acts out of implicit bias. There is the third option that (c) one is not a racist but mistakenly consciously affirms ideas and policies which end up being detrimental to minorities. The fact that one is not a racist doesn't mean that one knows how best to structure society and schools so that everyone can flourish. That one is not a racist just means that one has a good ideal. It is not by itself any guarantee that one knows how best to make that ideal a reality.

To bring out this possibility, more than talk of the implicit bias at inner city schools is needed. What is further and desperately needed is conscious, explicit public dialogue and discussion - philosophical argument in the normal, traditional sense - about what is the history of America, how the competing, conflicting histories of different groups can be aligned into a more common narrative that can be taught to the children of all groups and so on. What is needed is not just understanding the psychological of human action, but doing the philosophy of how we as human beings should choose to structure our societies.

Ultimately, it is that conscious philosophical discussion which will be empowering to the kids in the schools. Being told that they are the unfortunate victims of implicit bias can make them feel better and help them understand some of the dynamics of what is happening. But it doesn't give them any better grip on what they can consciously avow and act on. To do that, they - and their families - need to be invited into a broad public dialogue about what kind of a uniform narrative of our country we can have. That platform and space can empower them to speak their experiences without lack of confidence. And that empowerment can be the mechanism by which they overcome the alienation they feel when they go to school.


The standard story in philosophy classrooms in North America, Europe and Australia is that philosophy began with the ancient Greeks around 2,500 years ago. You know the story. First there were Homer and the poets. Then with the pre-Socratics rational discourse started to emerge, which come to fruition with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Philosophy was thus born fully formed in a few centuries in a southern corner of Europe. Whereas before all was tradition and mindless conformism, suddenly there was the spark of self-reflection. Through the Greeks humanity reached the rational stage of its growth.

Another standard story is that philosophy is different from religion. Whereas religion functions through faith, which is seen as the blind affirmation of the irrational, philosophy functions through reasoned discourse and argument. So philosophy is fundamentally different from religion. And what is an example of religion? Well, you know the standard ones: Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Confucianism, Taoism and so on.

If you put these two standard stories together, a certain picture of the progress of human beings starts to emerge. On this picture, there are three tiers of human consciousness:

1. The top tier of human consciousness started in Europe and it spread from there.

2. The second tier of human consciousness, which consists of the world historical religions, has its foundations in the Middle East (with the three Abrahamic religions) and in Asia (originally in India and China).

3. The third, least developed tier of human consciousness, had it origins in Africa and the Americas, and they mainly consisted of tribal, superstitious worldviews such as those of the Native Americans, the Mayans and oh yeah, whatever it was that all those people in Africa used to believe for the millions of years since humans evolved from apes.

No philosophy professor explicitly states this three tier picture. But it follows naturally from the two standard stories in the profession, which are consciously avowed by many of its practitioners.

If a black student was sitting in an introductory philosophy class, and they heard the two standard stories and unconsciously put together the three tier picture, what effect would it have on them unconsciously? It is not hard to imagine.

In most philosophy classes the religious traditions of the Middle East and Asia are in the periphery as the other to philosophy - the impulses to conformism and irrationality which are to overcome by the self-reflection and rationality of philosophy. But regarding philosophy Africa is treated as the other to the other, as being the birthplace of human beings but not of anything intellectually and spiritually amazing such that it is worth our while to keep it alive now and in the same conversation as what the Greeks did. That Africa as a space of philosophy is so far below the Greeks that to even speak of African or African-American philosophy is to speak of how blacks came to identify with and think through their situation of modernity with reference to the philosophy started by the Greeks.

Is this a white washed story of the history of philosophy, analogous to the story told in the seventh grade American history books? You bet it is. Just as the latter is being served to black kids in middle school, the former is being served to blacks in colleges.

Is it any wonder then that most blacks don't feel a natural pull to do philosophy. Given the main narratives which are repeated ad nauseam in lectures and introductory philosophy books, it is not surprising but perfectly understandable why more blacks are not academic philosophers. No need here for the subtle mechanisms of implicit belief. The explicit, conscious stories of philosophy professors regarding the birth of their profession are enough to explain why most blacks don't pursue the subject.

Given the utter paucity of representations in the general culture of the intellectual achievements of blacks, for most blacks going to college is a way to understand themselves as no less intellectual than anyone else. To affirm for themselves, against the general current in the culture, that they are as intelligent and rational and conceptually curious and talented as anyone. So while trying to affirm your intellectual worth, why would you torture yourself by taking classes in which conversational implicature after conversational implicature suggest that Africa is the space of the least sophisticated and developed tier of human consciousness?

Of course, philosophy is not about Europe or Asia or Africa. Or even what tier of consciousness one has. It is just about doing philosophy. Thinking. Reasoning. Analyzing. Trying to understand the world. To grow as a person. To become wiser. Just as America isn't about Europeans or Asians or Africans. It is about everyone living and flourishing together.

But affirming and repeating narratives of America in which everyone's voices are not heard is an obstacle for everyone living together. It is insincere and ridiculous to say: "America belongs to all of us. So don't be a sour sport. Accept the white washed story of America's history, and let us live together." This is  crazy, because to affirm living together is to affirm creating a narrative which is itself up for change and transformation.

Similarly, yes, philosophy belongs to everyone. But it is self-serving to say: "Because philosophy belongs to everyone, don't get hung up on the fact that philosophy began in Europe. It began there, but really it belongs to all of us." For to say that philosophy belongs to everyone is to be committed to creating a narrative of philosophy which doesn't involve or in any way imply the three tier story. It requires not treating either the nature of philosophy or its origins as already determined and set in stone. It requires being committed to creating a truly global conception of philosophy with which all people can equally identify.

This work involves overcoming implicit biases. But it is also much more than that. It is the work of consciously creating new conceptions and ideals of philosophy. It is a matter not only of correcting old unconscious habits, but of actively cultivating new, more inspiring beliefs and habits.


  1. Brilliant and Super important

  2. Interesting. I think you make several good points, but I do think the European-ness of philosophy remains central to understanding both philosophy and European history, in much the same way as, say, the Japan-ness of judo colors our understanding of both the sport of judo and the Japanese culture. On some level you must admire Japanese culture in order to appreciate judo; in much the same way you must admire European culture in order to appreciate philosophy. Any discipline is going to have a particular history that privileges whatever cultures gave birth to that discipline.

  3. If African-Americans hear the story of the rise of philosophy and conclude they aren't supposed to participate, then they misunderstand the story. The Greeks invented philosophy and it slowly moved west and north. Those people in Europe did what? They learned about it, and began participating in it. Why should an African-American today hear the story of the rise of philosophy and conclude anything different? They should conclude, "My ancestors didn't know about this, I'm learning it now, and I'm going to participate in it."

    Now I'm not necessarily agreeing with you about the beginning of philosophy of what philosophy professors tell or don't tell their students. But I disagree with what you believe an African-American should conclude by hearing the story of the rise of philosophy.

  4. Wil, I don't think philosophy began with the Greeks. In fact, if we think philosophy, as Wilfred Sellars put it, aims to "understand how things in the broadest possible sense of the term hang together in the broadest possible sense of the term," then philosophy has no beginning within a specific moment in human history, but rathers begins when human beings begin to exist. Now, I don't deny that something begins to exist 2,500 years ago in Greece: what begins is a new iteration of understanding how things hang together in the broadest sense. Maybe this new iteration is better than its predecessors, maybe not; that is open to debate. But what it is not is some totally new kind of thing that never existed before, as if it was the big bang of philosophy (nothingness before, and then suddenly something).

    Anonymous, I agree that an African-American might learn ancient Greek philosophy with the attitude of, as you put it, "My ancestors didn't know about this, I'm learning it now, and I'm going to participate in it." That is how I approached it as an Asian-American, and that was beneficial for me. But it is important to be clear about the "this" that my ancestors didn't know about. The "this" can be Greek philosophy, but it is definitely not philosophy simpliciter, as if African-American ancestors never did philosophy. There is this idea that human beings existed for thousands of years (say, at least 50,000 years ago since the dawn of language), and that nonetheless it was magically 2,500 years that philosophy showed up. Ultimately, it is not a question of who one's ancestors are. No one should believe this kind of magic story, because stories like that have only the form of an explanation without really being explanatory.

  5. A few comments.

    First, Bharath Vallabha, thank you for this post. While I might quibble with some things you have to say about implicit bias, everything you say about the way the canon is normally taught and understood, and its terrible effects, are right on.

    But for Wil M and Anonymous, why does philosophy begin in Greece? It strikes me that there are two good arguments for philosophy not beginning in the Greece.

    (1) The first is that philosophy did not begin in Greece. There are philosophical traditions throughout the world. Confuciusianism begins in China probably a century or so before Socrates. Pāṇini was doing grammar and the philosophy of language in India probably about a century before Socrates was alive (though dates for him are not known for sure). So both China and India have philosophical systems that are not just religious commentary going on before Socrates was alive in Greece (and, of course, it always is hard to distinguish religious commentaries from philosophy. Having just taught Descartes Meditations to my students kinda drives home that point). But, it is even worse than that, because sometime around 2500 BCE, around two thousand years before Socrates, we have Ptah-Hotep, whose book on Instructions and Maxims contains interesting formulations on ethics, justice, and rhetoric, and is certainly a book of philosophy. Oh yeah, and its from Egypt. There are several other volumes of the 'wisdom literature' that has survived from Ancient Egypt. I am not saying there are not cool things going on with Greek philosophy, or that a lot more of it has survived than some other classical philosophy. I am not even saying that we need to teach Ptah-Hotep in our intro classes. But we should probably teach about him. We should, as the original post argues, break out of the narrative of philosophy beginning in Greece.

    (2) The other argument here is that just because a philosophical tradition was not written down, doesn't mean philosophy wasn't going on. Henry Oruka's work on philosophical sagacity in Africa makes this argument strongly.

    Okay, I should go to bed now. My intro class is starting Shankara's Crest-Jewel of Discrimination tomorrow.

  6. I 2nd the last post. One of my first real encounters with philosophy as a teenager was through reading about Buddhist treatments of the self in Religious Studies classes in High School. In no sense is this stuff less philosophical than the ancient Greek stuff it was contemporary with.

  7. Great post. I may have noticed a typo, though - should that be *Jesse* Jackson, rather than "Jessie"?

  8. At most, implicit bias can explain why there are currently few blacks involved with philosophy in Western nations. It does nothing to explain why there has never been a strong philosophical tradition in black cultures and civilizations.


  9. Anonymous at 7:15 - whoah! Maybe it depends what you call 'philosophy'?

    1. Cathy,

      Philosophy is that which tries to understand or explain existence, universally. What has come out of Africa are primarily traditions and cultural practices which concern that culture alone. It is hotly contested as to whether this can even count as philosophy. Those who try and interpret the customs and practices as philosophy run the large risk of inserting their own narrative into what the practices or traditions meant. So this mode of analysis has rightfully received suspicion and criticism.

      This is not to say that there has been no philosophy from Africa. The Egyptians contributed to critical though, as well as a few other flourishes here and there. But by and large, African countries have not produced a large body of philosophy that is accessible and able to be evaluated. Certainly nothing like what is seen from the Greco-romans, Europeans, or those in the middle and far east. I do not think I am being uncharitable when I say that African countries do not have a strong tradition of philosophy, despite having strong cultural practices.