Race & the Politics of Anti-foundational Philosophy: A Rant

It has taken me a while to build up the guts to write this. Alas, the journey of my dissertation presents a bold red sign: Stop.

Stop following those you respect and admire to a T. Stop conforming to their thoughts. Start listening to your gut, your discomfort, your tensions, and your ideas.

My past blog posts touched on this theme. But those were little hills of hurdles — little bumps along the way. Right now I am facing a mountain: challenging the philosophy that has been fundamental to my academic upbringing and academic identity.

When I first stumbled upon postmodernism (one strain of a group of philosophies I call “the posts”) in one of my Master’s in Counseling theories courses back in 2008-2009, it was like meeting a long lost soulmate. “Oh my gosh’es” and “me too’s” and big eyes and heart flutters happened all over my dialogue with this line of thinking. The posts encouraged free-flowing thought, activity, and creativity that seemed appropriately liberating in the face of psychology’s tendencies to force things to be still within pre-ordered categories that were sorted into a dangerous, desirable-to-undesirable hierarchy (e.g. diagnosis of mental illness, overly-confident theories of human development, etc.). The latter I always found questionable, and uncomfortable when it was happening to me. So the posts were my respite and my comrades. They made me feel better at the end of the day. Maybe even hopeful.

It is hard to now say that the posts — my dear friends who have fought a valiant battle against the pitfalls of rigid identity categories — have, in the end game, let me down a little bit.

As I have become more and more acquainted with my otherness*, with other people’s otherness, and the consequences of difference being seen as bad, I have realized it is of the utmost importance for us to, first and at bare-minimum, maintain a critical eye on things that do this othering… to keep them in check, and ideally to take a step further and try to obliterate and replace problematic social elements that seek to strengthen the use of categorical hierarchies to demean difference in the process of othering. Notice I do not say to ignore or overlook this othering. Rather, it is important to always be looking.

The posts take issue with othering and hierarchies. This is why they were born (from what I read about their histories), and they do this beautifully. Yet (***deep breath***) ineffectively.

The posts’ solutions to the problem of hierarchical othering typically attack the foundations of the hierarchies… the formation of the identity categories in the first place. Yes, these identity categories are socially created. Black, white, multiracial, etc. do not pre-exist the linguistic and cultural creations of human existence. Yes, these identity categories are co-opted by some for use in deleterious ways. Yes, we could in theory do away with these categories so that those problematic social elements lose the gas to power their machines. BUT…

No, we will never be able to fully do away with the human tendency to put things in categories. I presume we are built to do this (I vaguely recall reading research about our tendency to categorize and sort quickly as a means to help us survive… to distinguish quickly what is and is not a life-threatening presence). If we found a way to demolish identity categories (unlikely to get consensus on this), I believe we would quickly find something else to use to hierarchize (plenty of other options exist even at present). It is our survival instinct. And the process would continue. Just with new-colored kicks.

FURTHERMORE, regardless of whether or not it is “right” to continue to use identity categories, it is disrespectful and flat out mean to attempt taking away a means through which those who have been hurt by othering can proclaim their hurt, can come together to celebrate the beauty in their difference, and can heal. EVEN FURTHER, I agree with the postcolonial scholars who claim that it is a privilege to entertain a vision of no identity categories. Those who have been othered are still being reminded of their identities and their relative social value every day — sometimes even through death. They do not have a choice to escape those identities. Revised: We do not have a choice to escape those identities. Those identities have powerful effects, and must not be denied.

So instead of dreaming of some utopian world where we could get rid of the foundation of identity-sorting and all would be solved, I propose that a more realistic and respectful solution would be to make sure we are doing everything we can to continuously and pervasively monitor and manage our tendency to categorize & sort, to join in efforts to alleviate the ills of those who have been alienated, and to help ourselves and those around us to always be finding new ways to truly celebrate and love our differences.

To the anti-foundational posts: Appreciating pure difference in its entirety includes appreciating that some will take the “different” route of needing to dive deeply into their identities. This choice of solution is a dimension of difference… just one that you don’t recognize enough for my comfort level.

Perhaps it is time to downgrade my loving relationship with the posts to a respectful friendship. We will never be fully broken up. The posts taught me how to think critically on an acutely deep level. They are in my blood.

But I have outgrown this blood family, and am ready to reconfigure into a new, diverse academic constellation that will become my academic family of choice.


*I use otherness here as a way to describe a state of being deemed something other than the desired “norm.”