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  • Situated Black Women's Voices in/on the Profession of Philosophy
  • George Yancy (bio)

Two very prominent philosophers offered to look at my resume (I was flattered) and then asked to sleep with me (I was disturbed).

—Anita Allen

Doing philosophy is an activity. Like all activities, philosophy is situated. As a situated activity, philosophy is shaped according to various norms, assumptions, intuitions, and ways of thinking and feeling about the world. Fundamentally, philosophy is a form of engagement; it is always already a process in medias res. Despite their pretensions to the contrary, philosophers are unable to brush off the dust of history and begin doing philosophy ex nihilo. Hence, to do philosophy is to be ensconced in history. More specifically, philosophizing is an embodied activity that begins within and grows out of diverse lived contexts; philosophizing takes place within the fray of the everyday. On this score, philosophizing is a plural and diverse form of activity. In their attempt to escape the social, to defy history, and to reject the body, many philosophers have pretensions of being godlike. They attempt to defy the confluent social forces that shape their historicity and particularity. They see themselves as detached from the often inchoate, existential traffic of life and the background assumptions that are constitutive of a particular horizon of understanding. It is then that philosophy becomes a site of bad faith, presuming to reside in the realm of the static and the disembodied. Having "departed" from life, having [End Page 155] rejected the force of "effective history," philosophy is just as well dead, devoid of relevance, devoid of particularity, and escapist.

The above epigraph effectively speaks to and counters the illusory world that many philosophers inhabit. There is nothing escapist about Anita Allen's powerful revelation of being asked by two very prominent philosophers to share her resume, a document that unequivocally demonstrated her professional credentials, and then being asked to have sex with them. Allen's experience speaks to the particularity of her embodiment as a black woman philosopher within the context of a profession that is both racist and sexist. Allen's enthusiasm and self-confidence were shaken by this experience. Her experience is vital and important toward helping other women to realize that American Philosophical Association divisional meetings are replete not only with grandiloquent discourse, abstract and often esoteric ideas, and insufferable pretentiousness but these meetings are also sites where male philosophers hold power and are willing to exercise that power to exploit, humiliate, and oppress women.

Allen's situated voice is consistent with those resounding black women's voices throughout American history that have refused to be silent in the face of hypocrisy and dehumanization. Her experience speaks to the mendacity of those philosophers who deem themselves godlike and beyond the body; it functions as a caution to anyone under the illusion that the professional field of philosophy is one where pure reason reigns, sexism and racism have no place, and where persons of color are treated with utmost respect.

It was not Allen's intellectual acumen and philosophical imagination that stimulated the interest of those two very prominent philosophers; it was her body that was the locus of their libidinal concern. More specifically, they were prisoners of their own fantasies of the black female body as sexually insatiable and promiscuous. Allen's experience speaks to a powerful sense of dissonance. The reality is that black women philosophers may undergo a profound fissuring process as they define themselves as philosophers in a profession and in a world that does not take them seriously, that does not believe them capable of critical and original thought. After all, black women's historicity involves having their bodies physically invaded, disrespected, raped, and marked as lascivious and devoid of intelligence. Black women are and have been stereotyped as Jezebels, maids, mammies, and prostitutes. Black women philosophers must contend with the weight of these racist and sexist images, even as they continue to publish and make significant contributions to the field of philosophy, attend professional conferences, deliver papers, write books, and lead productive lives as mentors, wives, and mothers.

To think of doing philosophy as an activity, one that is situated...


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pp. 155-159
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
Archive Status
Archived 2009
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