By Christian Matheis (June 20, 2019)
One of the things that happens to people from underrepresented backgrounds when they begin to advocate for themselves, including when they challenge patterns of institutional / systematic discrimination: attempts by people in positions of authority to get you to doubt your reality.
We need to call this what it is: an attempt to get people from marginalized groups to further internalize oppression, to engage in horizontal hostilities, and to accept assimilation and tokenism as “the other” (Suzanne Pharr).
Naomi Zack, a philosopher role model and mentor to me many years ago, told a story at a conference a few years ago (2016 APA Central Division Meeting) I want to paraphrase as an example.
Naomi had been invited by a colleague to give a talk at another university as a guest lecturer. As the talk neared, the colleague who invited Naomi wrote to say that faculty in the hosting department — also philosophers — were pressing this question: “how is what Naomi Zack does philosophy?”
Naomi identifies as a biracial/multiracial African-American Jewish woman from the U.S.A.
This is, in brief, how Naomi responded: she itemized her entire CV by illustrating that she earned various degrees in philosophy, including a PhD, has taught philosophy courses for several decades at accredited universities, has held various non-tenure and tenure-track positions in philosophy departments at different universities, is now a tenured full professor of philosophy, and has a long list of peer-reviewed publications in various branches of philosophy in a range of philosophy journals.
At the end of this narrative Naomi added the key response: “Tell them this, my CV. And then tell them that what they are asking is not how what I do counts as philosophy. They are asking, ‘how do we make her stop?’ And the answer is, tell them they can’t. They can’t make me stop.”
The intimidation may take all sorts of different forms, but it owes to the same objective of trying to convince people from marginalized groups that they are not qualified by their experiences, studies, survival mechanisms, community mentoring, etc. to address institutionalized oppression.
The intimidation may percolate up and take shape through a whole range of different phrases and behaviors that seem all-too-reasonable.
But what those with authority are asking is not whether thou art qualified. They are asking, “how can we make you stop?”
And the answer is: they can’t.
But you have to believe it and spend time with other people who live it, care about liberation, and who also believe it.