January 20, 2015

Retire the Word "Minority"

Why is there not more progress in academic philosophy on the issues of diversity and plurality? According to one view it is because tenured professors are not doing enough. If only the people with job security did more for the cause, things would be better. I am tempted by this idea myself sometimes. But the trouble with it is: What should the tenured people do? They should do something, and they should do much more of it than they are doing. Yes. But what is that something? That is not so clear.

Another view is that the terms in which diversity is being discussed are confusing the issues, and making it hard to get a perspicuous understanding of the problem itself. I am starting to subscribe more to this view. What is needed in addition to actions for institutional change is reflection to gain philosophical clarity about what exactly the problem is. As the old saying goes, when the problem becomes clear, the answer too will be clear. Right now the problem itself is not so clear.

But isn't the problem clear enough? What about this as a statement of the problem: there are the majorities, the while males, and the minorities, the rest of the people, and academic philosophy is dominated by the while males, both in terms of who is taught and who is doing the teaching, and we need to get more minorities into both groups until things are equal. On this idea, minorities are oppressed by the hegemony of the white males, and if only the minorities all stand together, then the problem can be solved and a new age of diversity and equality can be ushered in.

The trouble with this formulation is that "minority" as used in it is a catch all phrase which obscures much more than it illuminates. Think of this distinction: slave owners and slaves. When one says "the slaves should stand up against the slave owners" it is clear what this means because it is clear enough who is a slave and who is a slave owner - one just had to walk through a plantation to know who is who. That distinction was helpful because whether one was a slave owner or a slave was not itself the kind of identity which was up for debate. It was perspicuous to all.

In contrast, given the number of dimensions along which minorities can be understood, it is not at all clear who counts as a minority. I have brown skin, my family is from India, most curriculum in America doesn't have Indian authors. But, then again, I am also a male from a middle class family who is heterosexual and have no obvious disabilities. Still, because I am Indian-American, it is pretty clear I am a minority. Now consider Shiela, a Indian women who comes from poverty, who is gay and is blind. Obviously Shiela counts as a minority. But given how much is different between me and Shiela, how illuminating can it be to put us in the same category? All slaves can recognize their common experience as slaves, and so have genuine solidarity. What is common to me and Shiela such that instantly we can recognize each other as tied by a shared situation? Perhaps at least this much: that neither of us is a white male.

However, given that being a minority is not categorized only in terms of gender and skin color, one can be a white male and still be a minority. One can be a white male who comes from poverty, or is deaf, or is gay. Or perhaps they are not even white in a clear way: they are Eastern European, or Jewish, or they look white but come from a mixed family, etc. One can be a minority along any of the following dimensions:

sexual orientation,
economic background,
mental condition (depression, etc.),
academic position (at non-prestiguous university, adjunct, etc.), and so on.

Defined so broadly, most everyone can count in some fashion as a minority. No wonder then it seems hard to make progress. If everyone can be on the side of the oppressed, and everyone is rebelling, it is hard to get traction on who or what exactly is being rebelled against.

To paraphrase Wittgenstein, a picture holds us captive. The picture is that of the slave standing up to the slave owner, or a similar picture of the colonized standing up against the colonizers. Given that image of social progress, we are trying to fit our current situation into that picture, and ignoring all the ways in which the current situation is not like those earlier situations. In those earlier situations it was clear who was on which side (not completely, but clear enough), for the division was marked in terms of straight-forward identities: these people on this side, those people on that side. But in our current situation, it is unclear who is on the side of the oppressor. As far as I know, not many people in academic philosophy are saying, yes, I am in the majority and you minorities need to stay in positions of submission.

To confuse matters further, there are different pictures getting run together. One picture is that of the colonized standing up to the colonizers. Another picture is that of the working class standing up to the aristocrats. Yet a third picture is that of the historically marginalized speaking up, such as women, gays and so on. These pictures are often super-imposed onto each other as if it brings everyone together, and all the subjugated can stand up together. However, the superimposition leads not to a harnessing of energies, but to confusion. For if everyone can in some sense feel that they are on the side of the subjugated, then it is unclear who they are all together standing up against. The oppressor no longer seems to be physically, obviously present in front of one, and yet there is all this energy to rebel and stand up for oneself. It's like you are finally in the ring and ready to fight, and suddenly there seems to be no one else in the ring to fight. Even the people you want to fight throw up their hands and say how they are all for the revolution. You can keep going through the motions of fighting, but it is not clear if you are hitting something real or only phantoms.

Identifying as a minority is short-hand for saying, "yes, that is my identity, and this is what I stand for." But "minority" is now used in so many different ways that it is no longer useful as short-hand. What to do then? I think everyone should just start telling their individual stories. Give up the short hand, and present oneself in all of the complexity and confusion which is part of being a person. As the stories multiply and accumulate, awareness of the complexity of narratives and life trajectories will lead to people being more mindful; which will lead to their changing how they act; which will lead to the structures changing.

What should the structures of academic philosophy ideally look like? I have absolutely no idea. It is hard to know the solution when the problem isn't clear. And it is hard to be clear about the problem when the way we identity ourselves isn't making clear just what our experiences are. 


  1. Your post reminds me of the use of the word "diversity". This problem has come up on the level of students. People will say, "We need more diversity on campus." Others will respond, "Yes, but diversity is not just about race. What we really need is intellectual diversity." But if the necessity for diversity is driven by the desire to have students be around those who are "different" and might make them genuinely uncomfortable, then "intellectual diversity" such as catholics/protestants/atheists or even US-born/International students isn't quite what we mean, but rather things like white/African American, straight/gay/bi, men/women/transgender, etc. Being clear and specific (and honest) about what we mean by diversity can advance the conversation further. This might also apply to the use of "minority."

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