Philosophy was the first academic thing I got really into. For most of high school, I was sure I wanted to get a BA in philosophy and then…I guess I’d have to decide between law school and academia. That made my parents anxious, but luckily I came to my senses in the end and went with a BS in psychology. Much more practical…
Religious arguments with my mom were one thing that got me into philosophy. The main thing was joining the debate team in 9th grade. Debate is an activity sponsored by the National Forensics League. In the fall and winter, high schools and colleges across the state hold speech and debate tournaments on the weekends. There are several different “individual events”, like oratory or impromptu speaking. Debate is the main thing, and there are two separate “sports”: Lincoln-Douglas debate (LD) and policy debate. I did LD for the first year and a half, and policy debate for the rest of high school. The result was that I learned about philosophy in chronological order.
LD is also called “values” debate. You’re given a resolution about some ethical issue (e.g., privacy vs. security). Then you build a case for or against the resolution, by picking a “value” that’s paramount, like justice or human dignity. You pick a “value criterion” that you use to assess a situation in terms of the value. For example, things like utilitarianism or the Hobbesian social contract. I might not be remembering this all the way correctly. The important thing is that philosophy is spread unevenly across the two disciplines, and succeeding in LD meant familiarity with the following topics: Kant’s categorial imperative vs. Mill’s utilitarianism, Hobbes’, Locke’s, and Rousseau’s social contract theories, Rawls’ theory of distributive justice, virtue ethics (Aristotle).
Policy debate is a 2 vs. 2 event, and there’s a broad resolution like “The government should change its foreign policy towards Russia” or “The government should promote renewable energy.” The affirmative team then presents a plan for accomplishing the resolution, and the negative team attacks the plan on various levels. There are formally different classes of arguments: the plan doesn’t solve the problem it’s trying to solve, the plan doesn’t fit the resolution, we should do a counter-plan to avoid a disadvantage of the plan. Also, there were “kritiks”, which were critical theory/postmodernism sorts of arguments against the conceptual framework of the other team. I ended up specializing in those, especially arguments based on Foucault, Heidegger, and Derrida. I learned about Lacan, queer theory, and anarchism in the same time period.
In parallel, I was getting into psychedelic literature and Buddhist philosophy. I remember finding a journal article comparing Derrida and Nagarjuna, in particular. Philosophy of mind came later, and that shifted my interests towards neuroscience.
As you might imagine, debate is very white, very elitist. Meaningful participation requires attending 3-4 week summer debate camps hosted at universities. My parents spent the money they’d saved for college sending me to Gonzaga Debate Institute twice. I went to summer camp where I had to go to the law library and research federalism or school vouchers. I learned about critical pedagogy. I didn’t realize until much later just how unusual it was that my school participated in debate at a high level. Consider this anecdote about Karl Rove. I did the same thing in high school, except all 4 of our tubs were full of cards we’d made ourselves, along with the cards from lots of different summer debate camps. We had connections:
Karl Rove was not only the best debater in Olympus High School, but also one of the best debaters in Utah when he was in high school. He went to a lot of competitions with other schools. One of the things he was good at was talking off the cuff and developing enormously skilled responses to the other guys, something we see even these days.
The other thing he understood, though, was you intimidate the person from the beginning. What can you do to scare your opponent before the debate even comes across? Now, in those days, what students did was bring in a shoebox or a small box full of debate cards, and these were cards that basically said what your position was so that you would refer to those during the course of the debate.
He would bring in one [box]; the other side would have a box. So he’d bring in two. The other side might have two. And over time, he’d bring in four. Ultimately he and his colleague would bring in on a dolly, on a hand cart, a giant box of thousands and thousands of debate cards as if to scare and intimidate the other side, thinking, my gosh, this is a debater of enormous reputation, a debater who is obviously well prepared and better prepared than I am. Rove would put these boxes in front of him on the desk and then start out on the debate. Well, [what] nobody knew until years later was that almost all of these cards were blank. It was a show of intimidation, and Rove usually won.
I, middle class son of a sharecropper, was trained in policy debate in the exact same way as Karl Rove. The list of topics above is just the philosophy that was involved in debate. There’d also be stuff specific to that year’s policy area (e.g., education), political theory, general knowledge of current events and the president’s “political capital”. Should we accomplish this goal with legislation or by executive order?
Debate was the ticket to a college scholarship, and an undergrad research experience was the ticket to grad school.
When I started reading philosophy, it made my dad nostalgic for his Introduction to Ethics class from college in the 1970s. I still have the textbook, which included passages from Nietzsche’s Twilight of the Idols and other stuff I’m not going to dig out the book to list. It’s interesting to me that, as a social worker, my dad sort of lit up when he was talking about Nietzsche’s disdain for pity. I grew up in mostly-white environments, with racial awareness pushed firmly out of mind at most times. I remember reading The Genealogy of Morals, which is all about “slave morality” vs. the aristocratic morality of the ubermensch, without connecting it to American slavery. I should re-read that…Anyway, I fell in love with Nietzsche, too. He perfectly expressed the alienation and nerd rage I felt as a 9th-grader. He was such a sickly failure IRL, but he wrote Thus Spake Zarathustra. The chapters of his autobiography called “Why I am so clever”, “Why I am so wise”, and “Why I write such great books”. The angry over-compensation. The Anti-Christ was so validating for me. I think it talks about Buddhism, actually…
I gravitated towards German things: Rammstein, Kafka, Kant, Nietzsche, Heidegger. The short little “Discourse on Thinking” made an impact on me, the one about calculative vs. meditative thinking, and keeping a relationship to technology marked by “releasement from things” and “openness to the mystery”. There was the existentialism phase, with Viktor Frankl.
“Deconstruction” came from Heidegger’s “destruktion”, and deconstruction really, really appealed to me. Hence queer theory. As a mulatto, my being-in-the-world is a performative deconstruction of the black/white binary opposition. Word. I read through a critical race theory file, but didn’t personally use it. I remember thinking I was on the “identity politics bad” side of things, where I wanted to reduce everything to class. How ironic. It taught me about the social construction of race, but it was sort of abstract and ahistorical. It really fit my experience, though, and so did reading about “whiteness studies”. My fragmented sense of self went perfectly with “anatman” in Buddhism. I tried unsuccessfully to date a vegan girl, so I guess that was foreshadowing. The WTO riots were only 2 hour from where I lived, so I think my perspective on the world definitely reflects a sort of militant Pacific Northwest radical mentality.
All these issues then went on the back burner through my 20s. I’d sometimes realize I hadn’t thought about being black for weeks. At the same time, there was an awareness of it because all my funding was “diversity” funding and I attended something called SPINES that was all about mentoring minorities in neuroscience. Stereotype threat. Everything was unspoken, but I got the vibe that people with less funding resented me for not being the best researcher, but having a better funding situation. I knew I sucked at lab work, and I knew it didn’t matter that I was good at other things. Defensiveness that my funding was based on merit as much as anyone else’s. Did YOU graduate high school with an AA? Ok, then. I’m not the one who had to take neuro-anatomy or stats twice…It’s true that I didn’t work as hard as other people, partly because I wanted to kill myself, which made me the lazy black.
There might not have been many black people, but there was lots of diversity in the sense that it was normal to have 3 races in the room and somebody was gay. I felt like the only person in the room who ever thought about the role of NIDA in producing a legitimating discourse for the drug war, or who thought the idea of an “anti-cocaine vaccine” was offensive. I was interested in the politics because I followed what MAPS was doing. When Ricaurte retracted his Science paper, in which he’d given monkeys huge overdoses of methamphetamine mislabeled as MDMA, then claimed ecstasy causes Parkinson’s disease. The paper came out as the RAVE Act was going through Congress, and the retraction came after the fact. Other people didn’t smell a conspiracy.
I felt like the only one who had the fear of God surrounding all the recordkeeping for the pentobarbital. Those white people had no concept of the DEA as terrifying. I was so happy not to have to deal with DEA paperwork after we switched to isoflurane. I was paranoid about the internet way before it was cool to be.
Wow, there are not a lot of black people at the Society for Neuroscience meeting. Race isn’t real don’t think about it don’t think about it.
This blog is the product of thinking about it in therapy in my 30s. I didn’t have the vocabulary about “passing”, but I knew the experience of never thinking about race, i.e., whiteness. I basically had survivor’s guilt over my life being sooooo much easier than my dad’s, so I’d say things like “I’ve never really experienced racism” or “Affirmative action has been an advantage, because I’m middle class and equally qualified”.
In Germany, the word “Neger” was like “Negro”, not derogatory until the 1970s. That was after my mom had moved to the US, so she hadn’t been in Germany while that change took place. The first time I visited Germany after living in America, maybe 1st or 2nd grade, I remember going outside to play with the neighborhood kids. My German was very rusty (I had a German accent upon arrival to the US), and I only partly understood them. I could tell they were asking me if I was a “Neger”, and I didn’t know if that was the same thing as “nigger” or not. I asked my mom, and she reassured me that it just meant “black person”. Now, I don’t know if she was bullshitting me or honestly missed the change in connotation. It was the late 1980s/early 1990s, though, so I’m pretty sure that means they were calling me a nigger.
I knew that my maternal grandmother was against my parents getting married, but I wasn’t consciously aware that my other grandmother wanted us to stay away to avoid trouble, and she was a bit disgusted that my dad ended up with a white woman.
I read somewhere that black people do unusually well in DoDDS schools, for lack of stereotype threat. There’s actually a uniform set of expectations everyone is held to. I was just very, very shielded from overt racism most of the time…I thought.
After doing therapy and learning all about the history of racism, certain childhood events look different. On the first time out on the playground in kindergarten, why did those slightly older kids on the jungle gym know I was a “buttface” before I could even climb up there? Why was so much bullying about my hair, and why was that coming from the black bullies (there were also white bullies)? Being called a fag for being into nerd stuff instead of sports. Inability to identify all the way with anything. They tried to put me in a class with the disciplinarian teacher, even though I was ahead of the class. I got moved around after a week or two, when we got to Italy. Teacher openly expressing disbelief that I was taking algebra I in 8th grade.
I don’t think the colorblind individualism was good for me. I was self-defining on my own post-racial terms and all that, but I was grossly under-estimating how much of an impact my race has on my social interactions. I took the Implicit Associations Test as an undergrad, and sort of pushed the anti-black bias out of my mind. I didn’t have a framework to deal with internalized oppression issues, or recognize them as such.
Part of the reason I liked Lacan was the idea that the individual is embedded in a symbolic order before they’re even born. Thrown into it.
The relationship between personal experience as a mixed-race person and affinity for certain philosophical ideas is the subject of a really interesting book: Philosophy and the Mixed-Race Experience. The thing I appreciate about my childhood is that it gave me the academic research skills to find stuff like that in adulthood, because it really helps. I’ve come to realize that I’m essentially normal for someone with my background. There are patterns. The world is orderly. My need for validation is partly met, but for something it’s really hard to find validation for. The whole subject is surrounded by taboos. That very lack of validation, the active anti-validation, is a recurring theme of the book. Every contributor is a black/white philosopher of race. Marina Oshana writes:
In short, I have traveled from a place where it simply did not occur to me that philosophy was something to which I did not rightly belong, to a schizophrenic [argh!] sense of wondering what I am doing here. I am increasingly conscious of my difference as a minority, a mixed race woman who defies pigeonholing by my colleagues, the administration, my students, other faculty of color, and so on. I am an anomaly on too many levels.
Self-awareness is, in a nutshell, “co-awareness” of ourselves in interaction with others in the world. Adequate self-understanding rests on an appreciation of the role others play in confirming our identities, notably by the positive or negative reinforcement [punishment. Argh!] given to the identity we have presented. For persons of mixed race such as myself, self-conceptions can be perplexing and tenuous, and the social climate that contributes to one’s self-conception can be unwelcoming. There are no readily available norms of behavioral requirements, no habituation “to certain socially instilled general prescriptive principles” that mixed race persons have internalized and that are “constitutive of individuals situated in communal forms of life”. For these reasons, it is harder, where racial identity is concerned, for a person who identifies as mixed race to be aware of oneself in the sense of bearing witness to oneself where matters of race are at issue. I suspect this is due, in part, to the fact that racialized self-awareness, like most forms of identity-awareness, is socially mediated.
Linda Alcoff makes a similar point:
The mixed race person has been denied that social recognition of self which Hegel understood as necessarily constitutive of self-consciousness and full self-development. For us, it is not a question of reorienting perspective from the alien to the familiar, since no ready-made, available, or socially acknowledged perspective captures our contradictory experience. Without a social recognition of mixed identity, the mixed race person is told to choose one or another perspective. This creates not only alienation, but the sensation of having a mode of being which is an incessant, unrecoverable lack [Lacan…], an unsurpassable inferiority, or simply an unintelligible mess. This blocks the possibility of self-knowledge: the epistemic authority and credibility that accrues to nearly everyone at least which respect to their “ownmost” perspective, is denied to the mixed race person. Vis-a-vis each community or social location to which s/he might claim a connection, s/he can never claim authority to speak unproblematically for or from that position. Ramos warns that without a connection to an ongoing history and community, human consciousness devolves to an animal existence that has no ability “to project the imagination toward the future”. Only communities have continuity beyond individual life; cast off from all communities, the individual has no historical identity and thus is unlikely to value the community’s future.
Linda Vest observes that mixed-race people area always already socially disruptive:
Mixed people, both intentionally and unintentionally, interrupt the racial discourse, problematize the racial hierarchy, and raise questions about the possibility or usefulness of race/racial categories by being despite the fact that their beingness is disallowed, by knowing themselves despite being surrounded by people who refuse to know their existence. The Mixed person challenges and interrupts.
She also says “I am neither confused nor tragic but I have always lived in a tragically confused world of non-knowers.” The existence is mixed people is actively disturbing to others, emotionally:
Mixedness is also a problem for political and psychological reasons. The possibility of Mixed existence creates “discomfort”, a “crisis of racial meaning”, or else elicits a fear of annihilation, political betrayal, or capitulation with colonialist and racist projects…
It is also a problem for post-traumatic/symbolic reasons. For many people who have suffered from the savage conquest, colonialism, and slavery imposed upon their countries by Europeans, people who appear as racial hybrids symbolize the rape of their ancestors. In Vietnam, the “dust of the earth” are what soldiers left behind after the war. In places like Korea, Puerto Rico, the Philippines, and throughout North America, Mixed race faces represent the savage genocidal violence that was endured at the hands of Europeans. To recognize the existence of Mixed people is to recognize a shameful history of oppression.
The rejection is strong, notes Alcoff again:
They (we) are turned away from as if from an unpleasant sight, the sight and mark of an unclean copulation, the product of a taboo, the sign of racial impurity, cultural dilution, colonial aggression, or even emasculation. Which particular attribution is chosen will reflect the particular community’s cultural self-understanding and its position as dominant or subordinate. But the result is too often the same: children with impure racial identities are treated as an unwanted reminder of something shameful or painful, and are alienated (to a greater or lesser extent) from every community to which they have some claim of attachment.
Tina Botts explains how this affected her:
I have only recently taken on the identity of being a person of mixed race, although I think I have always felt the way that many mixed race persons describe feeling; that is, like a perpetual stranger, always on the outside looking into the world, rather than being immersed in it; never feeling fully integrated into any particular frame of reference, or into what I like to call a particular system of intelligibility. To some extent, it seems to me that this feeling can be attributed to the philosopher’s natural disposition, but in my case, I believe my mixed race experience has significantly contributed to that feeling. I want to say very clearly that this is an all-encompassing feeling, permeating all aspects of my life and who I am, including how I think, what my priorities are, how I choose to live, and how I interact or do not interact with others; and that this aspect of my mixed race experience is one that many mixed race persons have indicated to me that they share.
Of course I’d be the last one to be aware of the depth of the miscegenation taboo, since my parents were the ones who really went out of their way to violate it.
If you’re not aware of this alienation phenomenon that comes from being mixed-race, a third-culture kid, etc., then you end up misattributing it to your personal qualities, which sucks. All the taboos and denial mean you pick up on it, but there seems to be no rational explanation. You just inherently fail or something.
On a level that’s increasingly less subconscious for white people, I embody the genocide of the white race via mongrelization. It’s the worst thing, which is why they like porn of it. It’s a pain in the ass walking around representing all that.
It’s a pain writing an OkCupid profile. Afro-German Buddhist. Things become TL;DR too easily.
It’s structurally more difficult for me to communicate with most people. It inescapably takes more mental energy to listen to me, because the heuristics aren’t working. This is what a lot of people hear, and it’s soul-draining:
So much hostility.
Mixed race is not the worst thing in the world, and it has benefits, but it’s a chronically painful fact of life that exists for no other reason than white people invented “black people” to get rich and rape them, while intentionally destroying their cultures and family structures. I mean, the guy in the video is simply Portuguese, so the internet should cry for him because he accidentally deleted his own gratuitous rant against minorities and had to start over. Also, he had a stutter and nobody ever hugged him about it, so fuck black people. He could have paused the video at any point to make sex jokes about people’s facial expressions, but it happened with the part-black-seeming woman. Isn’t a pretty mulatta a traditional concubine for a Portuguese colonist?
This guy is maliciously trying to trigger post-traumatic emotional reactions that won’t be experienced by white people. It’s intentionally sadistic.
The video comes up when you do a simple YouTube search for “mixed race”, by the way. Thousands and thousands of racist jabs at you from the media and other people, all your life. Still with the expectation that everyone matches his white-guy confidence, lest they be emasculated. The book also talks about the effects on professional identity (Oshana again):
Academic philosophy and the academy more generally are complicit in lapses of self-awareness. Consider the position of an underrepresented minority in a university. Because we find ourselves in a situation of being the unfamiliar face–the novelty, the sought-after representative–the racially-identifying elements of our experiences and attitudes assert themselves all the more starkly…In other words, at a greater rate than their white colleagues, the black faculty learned to ignore cues from interactions with students that challenged their professorial identity and reported efforts to discount exchanges that marginalized their professional self-conception. In addition, black faculty relied less upon external validation from their students and colleagues, instead developing their professional identity through confirmatory exchanges with friends, family, and other professionals of their race.
The self-assurance we have is harder-won. Society literally revolves around telling you you’re a piece of shit.