"Slow it down"

Lacey J. Davidson believes philosophy is a practice that can further honest, productive dialogue on race.

When people genuinely want to work together toward understanding on racism, they always hear these are “tough conversations to have.” How can your field of study frame these discussions to make them more productive?
This is what philosophers have to offer: Slow it down. We do a thing called conceptual analysis where we think carefully about the concepts we use in daily life but never really sit down to think what they mean. Once we get clear about concept — especially the negative concepts such as racism and white supremacy — then we are more likely to develop a path forward.

Philosophy of Race, which I taught last spring, is organized around these conceptual questions: What is race and racism? How do we come to know about race? And how do we remain ignorant about issues of racism and white supremacy?

How did that process go with your students?
Sometimes it was very intense because their worldviews and beliefs are being challenged, but if we don’t slow down, that gets covered over.

I remember a moment in my class after we read a very influential New York Times piece called “Dear White America” by George Yancy, one of the race philosophers who transformed me as an undergraduate. He was my introduction to doing this work philosophically. I knew something was holding back our discussion. Then someone broke the ice with a question: “Is he saying all white people are racist?”

“OK, class, is Yancy saying that?” That’s how we come back to slowing way, way down.

Philosophy requires way more patience than we have developed in our dominant culture.

So, our society’s fondness for instant gratification is an obstacle to dialogue about race?
That is what keeps us having these conversations over and over again, instead of breaking new ground. Whiteness furthers itself through a variety of mechanisms. One is to make conversations difficult in a way they need not be. Why do we have the same conversation over and over again, a philosopher will ask? Part of the answer is whiteness is stubborn because it is functional for white people.

Can you offer a philosophical blueprint for a conversation about race that could get traction?
I teach my students a four-step philosophical method. The first is to step back and ask: What is the question? Who is in this conversation? Why does it matter in their material lives? Second is conceptual analysis and really getting clear on the words we are using. Third is argumentation: What reasons do we give for supporting or disputing their argument?

Finally, take a beat. Now that I have the argument in view, what should I do? If I accept the argument — meaning I think it’s a good argument — what must I do in my life? We hardly ever ask that question, especially in an institutional context. It never goes on people’s to-do lists.

We have this conversation over and over again because people are not taking a hard look at their lives and asking: What is it I need to do differently? It’s a lot usually and doing things you don’t want to do.

How did you come to work with critical race philosopher Leonard Harris at Purdue University?
I read his work on anti-Black racism as an undergraduate, and he doesn’t hold back. He doesn’t do any work to make white people comfortable. It felt honest, and I felt if I engaged with it while pursuing my doctorate maybe I would have a chance at doing this work in a way that was actually beneficial.

What is Dr. Harris’ definition of racism?
It is a polymorphous agent of death that prematurely kills and prevents from being born. It is a system where health as well as the material conditions to secure health are transferred from people of color to white people.

That’s hard to hear.
He wants it to be bleak. He thinks the horrible wrong of racism is unnecessary, unredeemable misery. He wants us to be gut-punched. And the worst of it is that even the horrible truth isn’t enough to motivate some.

What did you learn about living with discomfort that could help those in difficult discussions of race?
My discomfort was nothing in comparison to those living with racism. Think about the difference of being uncomfortable versus having your life on the line, being unsafe. I can walk away from this work. It would be hard, but if I decided tomorrow to work on something else, I could.

You’ve said there are a lot of ways to mess up anti-racist work.
So often white folks’ first reaction to hearing about injustice or oppressive forces is to get it in their heads they are going to offer what people of color need or are missing. They don’t realize people of color are organizing for their lives all the time. I suggest they look for those who are already organizing and see where they are needed. Sometimes it’s making the copies and setting up the chairs. Sometimes you are not the one who is going to articulate the vision for the future. 

How are you settling in at Cal Lutheran?
I came into a university that is struggling against racism with colleagues who have been doing this work for way longer than I have.

Sheridan Wigginton just won the Provost Distinguished Scholar Award for co-authoring “Unmastering the Script: Education, Critical Race Theory, and the Struggle to Reconcile the Haitian Other in Dominican Identity.” There’s Juanita Hall who has been here a long time doing anti-racist work, Cynthia Duarte in the Center for Equality and Justice, Paloma Vargas’ work on being a Hispanic-Serving Institution, Nicole Gonzales in Student Life, to name a few. I am trying to find my place in this fight.