Racism in Continental Philosophy

Are you okay with a professional organisation that has only ever had two women keynote speakers in 20 years, justified as protecting women from hostility?

Well, a White academic, Dr Simone Bignall, is justifying the exclusion of Indigenous scholars with this logic. Credit to Dr Chelsea Bond who led a wonderful discussion on anti-Indigenous, anti-Black racism in academia.

A recent article on the Black Issues in Philosophy provides reflections by Afro-Jewish-American philosopher, Professor Lewis Gordon, who reflected on his keynote address to the Australasian Society for Continental Philosophy (ASCP) conference. He addressed Black issues in “Australian Continental Philosophy.“ The conference was hosted in Australia in November 2017. Gordon quotes a critical blog post by Dr Bryan Mukandi, who is a Shona (from Zimbabwe) migrant-Australian. Mukandi criticised the ASCP conference for only ever hosting one person of colour keynote speaker in 20 years, Prof Gordon. (This was later corrected – the conference has had TWO people of colour keynotes. In 20 years).

Bignall then responds, systematically dismissing Mukandi’s critique of racial exclusion. Her argument is possibly one of the most apt illustrations of racism in academia. Bignall begins by shielding herself against charges of racism by saying she’s worked “alongside Indigenous academics and activists.” She then argues White Continental Philosophers can’t find work easily, and this makes their field difficult. She praises the White keynotes who have spoken at the ASCP conferences in the past.

Bignall presents a lengthy criticism of Professor Aileen Moreton-Robinson, one of Australia’s most important academics, and an Aboriginal woman who reframed postcolonialism and feminism through a lens of Aboriginal womanhood. Bignall writes that Prof Moreton-Robinson has never been invited to be a keynote because she is not a continental philosopher, and because, in Bignall’s words, Prof Moreton-Robinson, “considers ‘Western thought’ in its entirety as party to colonial enterprise of individualist White possession.”

Bignall argues White academics are “diverse,” while maintaining the idea that White people shouldn’t have to deal with Aboriginal and other Black academics’ critiques of their field. She writes:

As part of a responsible approach to equity and diversity considerations, the ASCP holds that it is not uncomplicatedly appropriate or desirable for conference organizers to request the participation of Black or Indigenous speakers who engage peripherally with Continental thought but whose interests and specific expertise lies with alternative philosophical traditions. This would, of course, fail to meet the requirements of a keynote speaker at a meeting of expert Continental Philosophers. But, equally worrying, it also would put such speakers in the unenviable and unfair position of having to defend themselves against a large audience of such experts; or else require them to engage more fully with Continental European thought than they actually wish to or have use for.

To put it another way: it would go against equity and diversity to invite a renowned Indigenous feminist. And the ASCP would be an inhospitable place for “non-experts.”

Academic theories are porous. Many disciplines will invite keynotes from other fields. The idea that Indigenous academics and other Black theorists can’t be invited to a conference because they’re not a continental philosopher does not hold. Australian continental philosophy is not welcoming of Black theorists, and does not produce enough Black graduates, so there is a cycle of exclusion. It means that this sub-field is basically just White people talking to other White people about colonialism, in a way that maintains Whiteness.

Read Prof Gordon’s article and Dr Bignall’s response, with a counter-response by Dr Mukandi at the end.

Please also see Dr Chelsea Bond’s thread where I first found this debacle. Her insights as an Aboriginal woman academic are incredibly relevant to all discplinary fields. Dr Bond begins here, writing:

“Is Bignall really saying that our leading scholars are just fringe dwellers 2 white knowing? Defending white virtue while speaking 4 the native was so Becky’esque.” 


Image: APA Blog. [Features two columns on either side of the words “Black issues in philosophy.” The columns are in the colours of the South African flag, green, yellow, blue and red.]

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