Tina Fernandes Botts is an assistant professor of philosophy at California State University, Fresno. In this interview, we discuss how her parents made her believe she could do anything, writing plays, reading Agatha Christie, singing torch songs, To Kill a Mockingbird, majoring in engineering, FORTRAN, switching to philosophy, pocket protectors, law school, the LSAT, helping defend murderers, tenure, real world experience in grad school, adjuncting, racism, teaching in the south, job market horror stories, writing, writing, writing, work life balance, how kids make you rethink your assumptions, whether the west coast is, in fact, the best coast, transracialism, the pros and cons of continental and analytic philosophy, Charlie Kaufman movies, Martin, The Cosby Show, Six Feet Under, Steely Dan, her favorite curse word, and her last meal…
Where did you grow up?
I was born in Youngstown, Ohio, where my father was doing a medical residency. After the residency, my family moved back to Washington, D.C., my mother's hometown. When I was three, we moved to Silver Spring, Maryland, a suburb of D.C., where I spent the rest of my formative years.
What did your parents do?
My mother was a homemaker for most of my childhood. When I was in junior high, she obtained her real estate license and began selling real estate. Before she retired, my mother was also a business broker and a teacher. My father is a physician. He went to Queen's Royal College in Trinidad, a great secondary school there, and then came to the U.S. for college and medical school. For about half of his medical career, he was a general practitioner, but at a certain point, he went back to school and became an ophthalmologist.
What was your family like?
We were a close-knit family. There was my mother, my father, myself, and three siblings. I am the second oldest. My siblings and I had a lot of fun together growing up. We played games with each other, many of which we made up. We also made up songs and dances. We put on shows for each other. We spent a lot of time just hanging out with each other. We had a swimming pool and we had a lot of fun with that. My father is a brilliant guy who is knowledgeable on almost every subject. He loves to read. I always thought of my father as a sort of Renaissance man. He had studied Latin and Greek in school. He often discussed philosophy and history at home. And he had a wonderful sense of humor! My mother was and is a loving, caring person who was dedicated to her kids. She was just as brilliant as my father, and to this day can beat anyone at Scrabble! Both parents instilled in me a love of learning and an independent spirit. They both told me on a regular basis that I could do anything I wanted to do with my life. As a result, it never occurred to me that things like race or gender might become barriers to my aspirations.
As a little kid, what were you into?
I was a tomboy and very outdoorsy. I loved to ride my bike and swim. I enjoyed exploring the creek near my house and built a fort there once with my friends. I stayed outside all summer long. I was outgoing, full of energy, and creative. I was also curious and inquisitive. Everything fascinated me. I enjoyed all subjects in school. I loved music and would often listen to records. I also played the piano and sang songs for friends and family. At one point, I wrote a play. I was the director and my friends acted it out.
What was the play about?
The play was a murder mystery. I had been reading a lot of Agatha Christie at the time (6th grade).
As a teenager what were your into?
I was into music, psychology, languages, literature, and film. I spent a lot of time playing the piano and singing. A family friend knew the music scene in D.C. and he used to take me around to various venues where I sang jazzy, torch songs like "My Old Flame.” I was good at math and science, but I was not into them per se, although I often thought about Base 10 and how so many things and systems around me relied on that arbitrarily chosen number system. I thought about how the world might be different -- not just experienced as different -- if things were understood to be based on some other number system. I often thought about what made people do the things they did, why they behaved as they did. I was fascinated with words and their origins, eventually discovering that there was an entire discipline devoted to this subject: etymology. For a while, I thought I wanted to be an etymologist, although I had no idea if there even was such a thing! I was into short stories, enjoying the plays on words and thought-puzzles contained in many of them. I had a period when I wanted to be a film critic. I read a lot of literature, often studying novels on a kind of meta level as well as reading them for their own sake. I was never into sports or politics, and to this day, neither interests me particularly.
I must admit I'm surprised you're not interested in politics! I was into lots of different stuff as a kid, too.
Right. Well, I am into certain forms of political theory but not politics itself. It all seems so petty and shallow to me, like a reality t.v. show or a soap opera.
Did you start thinking what you wanted to do in college?
As a teenager, I thought I wanted to become a psychologist or an attorney (To Kill a Mockingbird was a favorite novel), although I loved English class and secretly wanted to be a writer. I thought becoming a writer was an unreasonable (impractical) aspiration, however: How would one go about making a living at it? When it came time to apply for college, I was going through a bit of a funk and did not focus at all on college or what I would do there. My dad stepped into the vacuum and decided I would become a civil engineer. So, after I graduated from high school, off I went to the University of Maryland to study engineering.
Did you encounter barriers—institutionalized oppression— before you went to college?
I think the answer is, for the most part, no. Of course, it was America so racism and gender oppression were all around. I was aware of this fact, but at that stage of my life, I did not process this information as posing a barrier to any of my aspirations. I lived in Silver Spring, Maryland, which was pretty progressive in terms of racial integration. I do remember my 8th grade math teacher discouraging me from continuing to pursue higher math, although I had excelled at math for my entire life. I had the sense that the discouragement was related to my being female, but, at the time I did not connect that impression to anything beyond my particular situation.
So, how do you go from studying civil engineering to studying philosophy?
The short answer is I hated engineering and I absolutely loved philosophy. Here is the long answer: Although I was officially an engineering major, I didn't attend class all that often. Not that it's any excuse, but the courses did not interest me intellectually, and they were huge freshman weed-out classes with a high degree of alienation and a low amount of teacher/student interaction. I certainly did take a lot of hard-core engineering classes for about three years, however, including several levels of calculus, a few classes in FORTRAN, three physics classes, classes in engineering design, thermodynamics (I switched to chemical engineering at one point), and heat transfer. One summer I took both quantum mechanics and a course in ethics. I could not decide which class I liked more. On the down low (my dad was paying the bill and I thought he would not approve), I started sneaking in more philosophy classes here and there. By the time I was a senior, I had almost (inadvertently) completed the philosophy major. Instead of completing my (boring) engineering degree that year, I decided to stay at school for another year and get a degree in philosophy.
Awesome. You and Tim Williamson are in the FORTRAN club. Least favorite classes?
Anything in which a bumbling geek with a pocket protector, a crew cut, and synthetic clothing faces the blackboard, talks to himself, and scribbles chicken scratch symbols on a blackboard the entire time, i.e., most (but not all!) of my engineering classes!
My favorite classes were (1) "Heidegger and Sartre," (2) Eastern Philosophy, (3) a course on "evil" in the political science department that focused on trying to understand, and politically account for, genocide, (4) a class on postmodern theory I took in the comparative literature department, (5) a course on ordinary language philosophy.
Dr. James Glass, for sure. He was my hero. I will never forget his classes. They inspired me to become a professor. I learned so much from him. My mind was completely blown. We read Marcuse, Freud, and my all-time favorite, R.D. Laing's The Politics of Experience. Changed my life. He opened class one day by speaking from the back of the lecture hall. He was trying to have us experience what it felt like to be disoriented and feel alienated in what should have been a comfortable, ordinary situation. We were then opened up to all sorts of new ideas. Fantastic teacher.
How’d Laing’s book change your life, exactly?
Reading the book blew my mind. It begins with Laing, who is a psychiatrist in addition to being a political theorist, explaining in regular sentences that insanity/madness is a label invented by oppressors, which is assigned to the unruly in order to control them. As the book goes on, slowly Laing’s language becomes more and more figurative, metaphorical. By the end, he is speaking in a kind of gibberish, but it’s a very poetic gibberish (similar to any postmodern poem). So, the reader is taken on a journey from the writer’s “sanity” to his “madness” but also from his scientific (modern) mind to his creative (postmodern) mind. The book is a critique of the oppressiveness of institutions such as the medical profession, a kind of literary One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It caused me to realize that being a nonconformist was to live a very creative and vital life, a life in which one need not understand oneself in terms that others can understand or accept. In fact, to hear Laing tell it, the more one conformed to societal expectations, the more dead one was. I decided I wanted to live, and to accept my desire to take a nonconformist path.
Did you party?
Let's just say a close friend of mine, who was first in his class in nuclear engineering, was baked from morning to night. Basically, I partied occasionally.
Overall, how did college shape you as a person?
I became my own person. Here's how: I started college just going through the motions and doing what my father told me to do, because he was paying the bills. After I started taking philosophy classes, I began to understand that I was a philosopher. I was never the same again. I politely rejected my father's financial assistance (my first act as an adult), and switched my major to philosophy against my father's wishes. He was very disappointed, but I was free. I had no money, but I was free. I realized I was much happier without money than with it, and that life was about spending your time doing what you loved, not about chasing a dollar. This experience, fueled in part by several classes I took in existentialism, formed the basis for a life credo I still have today: Bravely go forth and do what you love.
Love it. So, why did you decide to go to law school?
Now, there's a question. I went to law school because (1) one of my childhood aspirations was to become an attorney, and because (2) my plans to move on from a master’s degree in philosophy at the University of Maryland to a doctoral program at the New School for Social Research (where I was accepted) were foiled when I broke up with my philosopher boyfriend (with whom I had planned to move to New York to complete our doctoral degrees). These two things combined led me into the arms of the legal profession. So, I guess you could say I was on the rebound!
Where did you go to law school? Was law school what you expected?
I went to Rutgers--Camden. It was totally different from what I expected. I expected a continuation of the kinds of dialogues I was having in the M.A. program in philosophy at the U. of M. But, most of the law professors were not interested in the kinds of questions I would ask like, "How do you parameterize 'special relationship'?" in a torts class, or "When did the concept of property ownership first gain traction?" in property law class! Still, some of the professors were thoughtful and I was grateful for that. Most of the professors were not trying to explore the depths of the conceptual underpinnings of legal concepts (as I had hoped), but were instead there to teach us how to think like lawyers; that is, they were there to teach us to solve (legal) problems for our clients. Legal training is very specialized. Two exceptions were Dennis Patterson (who was eventually on my dissertation committee) and Rand Rosenblatt, both of whom inspired me to pursue either graduate work in the law (an L.L.M.) or a Ph.D. in philosophy after law school. Dennis, who has both a law degree and a Ph.D. in philosophy, taught jurisprudence at Rutgers and has published a lot in philosophy of law. Among other publications, he wrote, Law and Truth, a postmodern take on philosophy of law that draws upon the later Wittgenstein, and edited A Companion to Philosophy of Law and Legal Theory. Rand taught Law and Society and Constitutional Law. It was in Rand’s class that I first became intrigued by the curious way race was handled in equal protection and hate speech jurisprudence.
Did you enjoy it?
Yes and no. I made a lot of good friends there. I think that was the best part, the social aspect. We would study, study, study together and then all hang out together. So, the social part was really enjoyable. At the same time, I did not enjoy the boot camp aspect of law school. The Socratic method was vigorously deployed and the workload was absolutely off the charts horrendous. But, together these two things turned my classmates and myself into a family: We survived hell together! My friends were the law students who were more interested in the intellectual or academic side of the study of law, so I enjoyed talking about the law with them. So, overall, I am going to have to say the experience was more enjoyable than not. I certainly do not regret going. Having two doctorates opens a lot of doors.
Did you find that philosophy was good preparation for law school?
Definitely. I think the analytic method, in particular, is excellent preparation for law school. No question about it. Certainly, logic is the heart of the LSAT so if you've taken logic, you're way ahead of the curve on the LSAT. Add to that several years of training your mind to sift through complex ideas, break them down into parts, and examine them each for their credibility, and you've got most of the skills of a person who "thinks like a lawyer." The key difference is that the study of law is applied. The way one learns the law is not by theorizing or analyzing the law in the abstract, but my analyzing decided cases: case after case after case after case after case, looking for patterns in the reasoning process. The difference between philosophy and the study of law is analogous to the difference between studying higher math and physics versus studying engineering.
Did law school change your thinking about philosophical issues?
Not at all. Those remained untouched. Again, legal training is very specialized. It is directed toward a particular end: the competent practice of law. Philosophical reflection is a completely different muscle.
What were you planning on doing with the degree? What did you end up doing?
I was planning on becoming a civil rights attorney or a criminal defense attorney. I did a lot of civil litigation (it's where the jobs were), I was a law clerk for the D.C. Public Defender (loved that gig). I worked for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press for a while, defending the First Amendment. For a short while, I worked for a firm that represented Native American tribes in land claims against the federal government. I was a mediator. I ran my own general practice for several years and took any case that came along. Right before I decided to go back to school to finish the Ph.D. in philosophy, I was doing estate planning (again, it's where the jobs were), which was easy work and paid well but was not exactly food for the spiritual or intellectual soul, if you know what I mean...
Could you describe being a clerk for the Public Defender a bit?
Sure. I was a research assistant to a public defender who worked on felony I (murder) cases, mostly. The D.C. Public Defender is one of the best public defender's offices in the country so I was around some brilliant, talented, and dedicated lawyers. All of them were energetic, smart, and ethical, probably the best set of attorneys I have ever worked with. There was idealism in the air, the job was all about principles. We did writs of habeus corpus and appeals from convictions, and we planned a few defenses to first degree murder. What was most interesting, I think, was that the guys accused of murder (all of the defendants I worked with were men) seemed like perfectly nice guys. They had been raised around drugs and crime so both were part of their lifestyles. Some had longer rap sheets than others, but it was hard to believe that any one of them committed a murder. The reality was, though, that most, if not all, of them had committed murders. We (the public defenders and everyone on their teams) did not see ourselves as getting murderers off, though. We saw ourselves as defending the constitution, as protecting these guys from a system that often does violate their rights (all of them were people of color). I loved that my job was to help protect the rights of these men. The downside, of course, was knowing that we were complicit in allowing these men to escape responsibility for what they had done. But, the fact that they were such nice people was a constant reminder that anyone could end up in their shoes. They were not removed from the human being category just because they had committed the ultimate immoral act. They were still persons, deserving of a fair trial and of being treated with dignity.
Intense. So, you were looking for something more. At what point did you decide to take the plunge?
Good question. Yes, I was looking for something more than estate planning, which was my area of law practice just before going back to school. The thought of finishing the Ph.D. in philosophy had never left my mind. I was never "all-in" on the lawyer thing. I had been wanting to go back to graduate school and complete a Ph.D. in philosophy ever since I left the University of Maryland in the middle of pursing a master’s degree years before. So, I went back to the graduate program at the U. of M. after law school for a brief stint. This time I was in the doctoral program. Most of the required courses were hyper-analytic, which I found unfulfilling. But, I was given the freedom to take classes in the political science and comparative literature departments so as to craft a kind of quasi-continental course of study. I enjoyed that somewhat. Still, I was at the point in my life where I wanted to just make a living, and the philosophy program at the U. of M. was not entirely what I wanted, so I went back to the practice of law. About three years after that, I decided to take time off from practicing law full-time to have a couple of children. A year after my children were born – as I traveled around with my husband’s employment -- I started to teach as an adjunct. At first, I just taught a couple of law classes at a small liberal arts college in upstate New York -- Elmira College. Then, we moved to Little Rock, Arkansas, and I got a job teaching philosophy classes at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock (a/k/a UALR).
Was it easy to get back into academia? Was this complicated by the fact you were out of the academic loop for a little while? Why University of Memphis?
Well, the more I taught philosophy, the more I thought that adjunct work was not enough for me, that I wanted to go ahead and finish the Ph.D. I discovered that I wanted to be a full-time professor but I could not get a real job (a tenure track gig) doing philosophy without a Ph.D. What exposure I had to continental philosophy at the University of Maryland (which was small but powerful) caused me to believe I would prefer a continental program to an analytic one. Then, my colleagues at UALR told me that the continental program at the University of Memphis was top notch. I looked into it, and not only was the program one of the best in the country, but they also had one of the top people in the philosophy of race there, Robert Bernasconi. I was sold and went ahead and applied there.
At some point in the middle of all of this, I wrote an academic paper on how the reasons offered by the Supreme Court for failing to support same sex marriage were the same as the reasons it had formerly used to fail to support interracial marriage: "It's an abomination!" I argued that this was an irrational reason in both cases, and that denying same sex couples the right to marry was a violation of their fundamental rights. I did not know how to get a paper published at the time, but I presented it at a conference of the Law and Society Association. That's how I got back into the academic loop. I used that paper as my writing sample to apply to the University of Memphis, saying I wanted to work with Robert Bernasconi.
So, I teach a 5/5 load, non-tenure track. I am not calling you out here, but why is a non-tenure track gig not real? I mean, I ask not because I am offended, I'm really glad you said that. I hear tenured and tenure track folks casually say that--TT jobs are real--a lot! Tenure would be gravy, but my job seems just as real, if not 'realer', than a TT job with an ultralow teaching load. Is it the contingency of it?
Sorry, man. I meant and take no offense. Obviously, a 5/5 load is as real as it gets! I did mean the contingency. One of the attractions of switching careers was the stability of a tenured position. (I have a 4/4 load by the way, so I feel your pain.)
Right. Do you think there should be permanent teaching positions in philosophy, maybe? I mean, high school teachers get tenure, right?
Why not? I was not aware that high school teachers get tenure, but, for me, the real issue is that good teachers are as valuable as, or more valuable to, a university than prolific scholars. The good news is that in many places, being a good teacher counts as much or more than being a good scholar.
Got it. So did you know what you wanted to do in or with grad school?
I definitely did. I wanted to study the philosophy of race. I wanted to study legal interpretation. I did both and I was totally into it. Even when I was in law school, I took several classes on jurisprudence, law and society, and constitutional law. I was obsessed with Supreme Court decisions that dealt with equality and race. I always thought these cases were mishandled.
I always thought the conceptions of race and equality the Supreme Court was working with were odd and out of step with constitutional principles and science. The concept of race it uses in recent cases is biological race, which science, social science, and the humanities have all now rejected. The concept of equality the court uses is Aristotelian proportional equality according to which equality is available for equals only. I wrote about the strange concept of race in Supreme Court decisions in a recent book chapter, “The Concept of Race and Equal Protection Law,” in The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy and Race, edited by Naomi Zack.
Were you working while you went to grad school?
Well, at first I tried to work. The result was not the greatest first year in the world. The teachers said they thought I was not paying as close attention as I should have been. So, after that, I applied for and obtained a fellowship and used it to fund the rest of my time in graduate school. Without having to work at the same time, I was in and out of the graduate program in four years.
Wow! With your real world experience, did you find that you were more confident than your fellow grad students? I imagine you saw it all differently than you did before spending some time working in law?
I was definitely more confident than my fellow grad students. I think my teachers might have thought I was more than a little bit over-confident. They were used to fawning young adults instead of a grown woman who was an attorney who knew her own mind. Some of the professors gave me a hard time. But, in retrospect, I am glad they did, because they forced me to have a much deeper graduate school experience than I otherwise might have had. Because they were hard on me, I worked harder, so I actually became a philosophy professor, instead of just obtaining the credentials of one. Because they were hard on me, I learned what it meant to be a professor, i.e., to be a professor is to be a scholar.
Favorite classes in grad school?
Heidegger's Being and Time, Husserl, The Idea of Race, Philosophy of Sex and Gender, Plato's Republic, Liberalism and its Critics, Rawls, and Kant.
Who did you end up working with? What was the dissertation on?
Thomas Nenon, Robert Bernasconi, and Bill Lawson. As I mentioned above, Dennis Patterson was also on my committee. As an outside member of my committee, I worked with Gregory Leyh, who edited Legal Hermeneutics: History, Theory, and Practice. My dissertation used the tools of legal hermeneutics to reinterpret the meaning of the equal protection clause of the fourteenth amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
What was the job market like? Where did you land your first gig? How did it feel? How did you celebrate?
The first time I was on the job market (2011), it seemed okay to me. I had about six initial interviews, then two on-campuses and wound up with two offers. In hindsight, I wish I had taken the second offer, instead of the first. The second was in NYC, the first was in NC. I picked the first because the cost of living was lower there. So, my first gig was in NC. It felt great to get a TT gig, but I can't say I celebrated, really. I was just focused on preparing to do a good job. It’s strange that you ask how it felt because my path to becoming a philosophy professor has been so very much focused in the now. I have always felt like I was just doing what I was meant to do at the time, in a way. At each stage, I was just so into whatever it was I was doing (graduate study, writing the dissertation, teaching philosophy, writing philosophy, etc.), that it didn’t ever occur to me to stop and celebrate. How do you stop and celebrate in the middle of riding a wave? I am still on that wave.
Choosing NC over NYC was a bad decision, looking back. Let's just say southern living was not for me. Basically, the racism in the south is deeply present and deeply institutionalized, but they pride themselves on no longer having (overt) racism. So, it's this crazy world where racism is extremely widespread, compared to northern standards, but no one knows it because it is so prevalent. And certainly no one who is in a position of power is prepared to address racism when the possibility of its presence is raised. Southerners handle racism the way they handle snow. For the most part, they act like it does not exist. But, when its presence becomes unmistakable, confusion ensues, since there are no structures in place to address the matter responsibly.
So, since I am the habit of raising the issue of racism when I see it, and since the institutional structures of the south are not prepared to address allegations of racism responsibly, I left the south mid-tenure track and took a research fellowship at the University of Michigan for a year. After that, I had a postdoc at Oberlin College for a year. Both were fantastic, awesome experiences where I had the privilege of working with some very brilliant, creative and dynamic colleagues and had some extremely wonderful (inquisitive, hard-working, open-minded, talented) students.
I have taught a bit in the deep south. Lots of my students didn't go to great high schools. Though this made what I was doing more important in a way, it also made my job a lot harder. Did you find teaching students from the south presented unique challenges and opportunities?
Yes and no. It is true that trying to teach logic to freshmen at the University of Memphis was extremely challenging. It is also true that in some places in the south, there is resistance to more progressive ideas. At the same time, if there is one thing I have learned in my thirteen years of teaching on the college and university level, it's that students are students. To be fair, the south is not uniform. For example, I had a one-year instructor's position at Hendrix College in Conway, Arkansas just before I went back to school to finish my Ph.D. Hendrix was very similar to Oberlin. In fact, teaching there was one of my most enjoyable teaching experiences. My teaching experience there is the reason I decided to go ahead and finish the doctorate in philosophy and shoot for a career as a philosophy professor.
Fair enough! Job market horror stories?
What horror stories I have occurred in the two years between my two TT jobs, during which I was on the job market the entire time. In one case, as I was about to fly out for the on-campus interview, one of the hiring committee members sent out a global email to all of the other committee members and myself stating that he was sorry he could not participate in any of the events scheduled for my visit owing to his "teaching load." I learned later that this guy hated women and was adamantly against hiring a person of color. In another case, I was at the on-campus and we were in the final stage of the interview process. I was sitting around the table with five white men, one white woman and myself. Suddenly, the following statement was made, "Well, you know, Tina, almost all of the students here at X university are white and you are not white, so how are you going to handle that situation?" My draw dropped to the floor. I said something innocuous and prayed that I found another job somewhere else so this would not be my only option.
Yeesh. Any advice?
Upon the advice of my mentors, also during this period, I was almost single-mindedly focused on scholarship. My mentors told me repeatedly that success in academia was all about publications. So, I put almost all of my energy into publishing things. This largely entailed picking several of my projects that were partially completed and making a commitment to completing them. As I began to publish things, I started getting into the groove of writing every day. This was a difficult transition, but I felt at the time that it was imperative. I also put a lot of energy into obtaining a book contract. If I had to give anyone else advice, this is the advice I would give: publish, publish, publish. Publications are the passkey into permanent, satisfying academic employment. Period. It should be noted that I wrote every day even though I was often commuting 10 or 12 hours each way from wherever I was teaching (Ann Arbor, MI; Oberlin, OH) to my family, who remained in NC during those two years. In other words, I, like many folks who have huge teaching loads, really had no time to write. But, I made time to write, because I knew it was the key to getting back on the tenure track.
I still do this. Although the publication requirements for tenure are comparatively low at my current institution, I nevertheless write every day and am in the process of publishing far more than is officially required on paper, just to ensure that there can be no ambiguity about whether my publication record meets the standard for tenure. So, this is another piece of advice I would give: Because of the precariousness (and built-in arbitrariness) of the RTP process, folks should focus most of their energy on at least doubling what the official standard for tenure is. If you do that, even if there is some glitch where someone in a position of power decides you looked at them the wrong way one day and now they are going to make you pay by finding flaws in your tenure file where there are none, you've got the publication piece covered and can make a good case for appeal.
Final piece of advice: Academia is all about relationships. Relationships are more important than research, teaching, or service.
So how do you find work life balance?
Well, for me, philosophy is not work. It's a magical mystery tour. The fact that I now do philosophy for a living is a dream come true for me. Maybe because it is the second career that for a long time I thought I would never have, I am very grateful for my life as a philosopher. I never feel like I want or need a vacation from philosophy. Nonetheless, there are times when I need a breather from academic politics. So, caring for my kids and spending time with them is a huge grounding force in my life.
How many kids do you have? How old are they? Do they influence your philosophical thinking, and how does your philosophy influence your approach to raising kids?
Two, a boy and girl. I love being a mom. I love cooking for my kids and being with my kids. On how the kids influence my philosophic thinking, I would say that the wonder that kids have keeps me fresh. Kids are natural philosophers. They come into this world ignorant of all of the metaphysical, epistemological, and ethical assumptions contained in the culture into which they are born. So, they ask all kinds of questions that cause one (or, at least, me) to examine philosophical issues afresh. On how my philosophy influences my approach to raising kids, I think I am more careful than I otherwise might be about imposing upon them my own version of anything (such as what is important, how life should go, what is a fact, what is true). At the same time, I think my fundamental concern with the ethical has made me particularly concerned about raising ethically sensitive kids. I want them to be thoughtful about how the way they approach things affects themselves and others. I want them to be kind, and I want them to be truthful. So, a large part of my parenting has been about explaining to them why I think it is important to be kind and honest, both to themselves and others.
How did you end up in Cali? Is the west coast, in fact, the best coast?
I have always wanted to "end up in Cali." California has always been a kind of Holy Grail for me. As a young person, I fantasized about a place so far removed from the restrictions of east coast life (preoccupation with "tradition," preoccupation with social mores, preoccupation with being proper, a focus on social status and class, snobbery, and all sorts of other customs left over from the thirteen colonies' direct roots to European feudalism) that I could be free to do my thing, whatever that may be. My mind has always lived in Cali, and now the rest of my person lives here. It's awesome. So, yes, for me, the west coast is definitely da bomb. I like the way everyone feels free to be who they are here. So liberating. I can breathe.
Exciting upcoming projects?
Right now, I am working on two articles on "transracialism," one focuses on why it is not an intelligible phenomenon, the other focuses on why, in my view, the analytic method is not suited to being helpful in answering philosophical questions related to race (using "transracialism" as an example). I am also in the process of finishing my first monograph, which focuses on equality and race in equal protection law. I have an article on the ontology of group rights in progress, as well as an article on why moral particularism is a better framework than care ethics for addressing contemporary ethical issues in feminist theory, owing to how it can better accommodate intersectional thinking. I am also working on an article and a book proposal on the philosophy of hate speech, and in the back of my mind is a book project on the metaphysics of race.
Interesting! Are there relevant similarities or differences between ‘transracialism’ and transgenderism? What do you make of the controversy surrounding Tuvel’s recent article?
In my view, the transgender experience (or the particular kind of transgender experience in which one experiences oneself as, and also is, a gender other than the one socioculturally assigned at birth) names something real, whereas “transracialism” is a euphemism for passing. This is because race is socioculturally defined in terms of ancestry but the sociocultural definition of gender is not similarly defined (i.e., not defined in terms of anything external to the self and fixed). On the Tuvel article, I think it should have gone through a much more responsible and diversity-sensitive peer review process before it was published. I think this peer review should have included consultation with the literature already in existence in transgender studies, the philosophy of race and critical philosophy of race. The article, in summary, is out of touch with current literature in these areas. While I think Tuvel was well-intentioned, her article should not have been published in the form in which it was published. Once it was published, however, I agree that the article should not have been retracted. To do otherwise would have undermined Hyptia’s reputation as a top journal. Once you publish something, you’ve published it. Nonetheless, I think the letter of apology written by the associate editors of the journal was appropriate and fitting, since it was a mistake on the part of the journal to publish the article as written. The article was insensitive to the transgender experience and was insulting to persons of color, as well as philosophers of color currently writing about race (since their work was not referenced, or was misrepresented, and on critical issues). The Hypatia board of directors’ original statement addressed both issues, i.e., that insult and injury had been done to vulnerable populations by the publication of the article, but that the article should not have been retracted. I was satisfied with that statement. I am less impressed with the recent statement by the board of directors (July 20, 2017) to the effect that it has suspended the authority of the associate editorial board, if only temporarily. I think this reeks of imperialist silencing and is antithetical to what should be a key feature of feminist philosophy: giving a voice to the marginalized. On the Tuvel article itself, a colleague of mine recently remarked that it was “the whitest article ever written in philosophy, and that’s saying something.” I think that statement sums up my view. I am glad the Hypatia board acknowledged this in their public statement. As a result of the controversy, it seems like Hypatia is rethinking its peer review process, and if that’s true, then something good has come of the whole mess. My full account of why I think transracialism is not possible is forthcoming in 2018 in an issue of Res Philosophica as, “In Black and White: A Hermeneutic Argument Against Transracialism.”
Sounds interesting. What makes an article white?
Good question, Cliff. Let me give it a try. Loosely speaking, an article is white if it is written entirely from the perspective of white people, understood as a collective. In other words, an article is white if a sensitive treatment of the black experience (”the experiences of persons of color” can be substituted for “the black experience” in this answer) is necessary to accomplish an adequate treatment of the topic (because the black experience is directly relevant to the topic of the article), but the author either completely ignores the black experience (i.e., fails to acknowledge its relevance to the topic) or speaks of the black experience in a way that reveals his or her complete ignorance of same. The result is an article that is steeped in white privilege since the author apparently believes (and those who published the article apparently believe) that ignoring the scholarship of black persons, or the experiences of black persons, on a topic relevant to black persons, is a perfectly acceptable way of going about writing and publishing an article of relevance to black persons. For more on this topic, see Miranda Fricker, Epistemic Injustice: Power and the Ethics of Knowing, or Charles Mills, “White Ignorance” in Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance.
Importantly, the author of the “white” article does not understand the article as white, and is often well-intentioned, as is the case, I firmly believe, of Rebecca Tuvel. But, in a way, the well-intentioned writer of a white article is the most dangerous, because there is no sheet-wearing monster to blame. Instead, all we have, as in the case of Tuvel, is a perfectly well-meaning, untenured, young, physically attractive, white woman just trying to write an article for tenure. No one wants to call her out. No one wants to call what she did “violence” (as some critics of the article have done). Hence, the dramatic public defense of Tuvel’s article, in some white circles, and the concomitant re-injury to black persons, the original victims. Disclaimer: There is not enough space in this interview for me to fully explain this. I have tried to mention the highlights.
Got it. So, lots of people think that continental and analytic philosophy are in opposition to each other, but you seem to reject that view. What does each school get wrong, you think?
First, let me say that I think philosophy is philosophy and that the divide between analytic and continental philosophy is artificial. As long as the work is operating in service of answering philosophical questions, it is philosophy. I think both traditions are doing that and both are useful. I have always thought this, but my views on this topic were reinforced while doing graduate work at the University of Memphis. Memphis is decidedly and self-consciously “pluralistic,” which just means they see the value of both approaches. They also see the approaches as linked through the history of philosophy, and try to use history as a common language to solve philosophical problems by putting the two traditions in dialogue. That said, if I had to identify the flaws in each “tradition,” I would say something like this: Analytic philosophy gets wrong that philosophical questions can be answered by cutting up the world (or ideas) into pieces, and examining each piece in a vacuum. Continental philosophy gets wrong that all you need is metaphor to describe and understand the world. For me, to "understand" anything, it is necessary to critically examine the context in which the phenomenon is being examined (I am a hermeneuticist and this is a foundational concept in hermeneutics). At the same time, while metaphor is helpful in understanding profound human dilemmas (just as literature and poetry are helpful for same), metaphor without analysis is intellectually unsatisfying.
Philosophy is...homogeneous from a demographic point of view. Are there any inefficient solutions to this problem, in your mind?
Inefficient? My mind cannot work in that direction. But, if you mean efficient, I am going to have to say a profound shift in Weltanschauung. It is exciting that there are so many philosophers actively working to make that shift happen. I am trying to do my part. Progress is slow but seems to be happening.
I guess my question is pragmatic: what are the very best ways to create that shift, you think?
I think we need to increase the number of philosophers of color, and great work is being done in this area by programs like PIKSI and other summer programs designed to strengthen the pipeline. I think we need to continue to work to redraw the boundaries of the philosophical canon, to create courses and curricula that include philosophies from all over the world, not just from Europe and the United States (and maybe Australia and Canada). I think we need to require students to take these courses. I think we need to require diversity training (external, not internal) for all philosophers, because for the most part philosophers are completely ignorant of the relevant issues, but, more importantly, of their complicity in perpetuating the relevant issues. I think every mainstream philosopher needs a wake-up call that their work is not objective, and is, in fact, heavily immersed in European values and value systems, many of which actively marginalize non-European methods, approaches, and even people. I think mentorship is vital to a change in professional culture, as is strong administrative support.
Describe what your election night was like. How do you feel about all of it now?
After living in the American south for over ten years, I was definitely not surprised. When the results came out, I posted on Facebook something like, "This is the result you created, America. Look yourself in the face." Nowadays, I just try not to think about who represents my country. At the same time, I am aware that the world is watching, and in his apparent ignorance of the fact that the values of the world have changed since 1950, our current president may be his worst enemy, p.r.-wise. I have the sense that our current president will not be elected to a second term. I tend to be an optimist (a part of my primary identity as a survivor), so I try to focus on the fact that we had a black president for 8 years rather than on the president we have now.
A Room with a View. The Usual Suspects. Adaptation. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Being John Malkovitch. A Beautiful Mind. Sideways. It's a Wonderful Life. To Kill a Mockingbird. Barfly. Thelma and Louise. Bonnie and Clyde (Warren Beatty and Faye Dunaway). Network. Flashdance. All About Eve. Rebecca (Laurence Olivier). Wuthering Heights (Laurence Oliver). A Streetcar Named Desire. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Sundance: "Just keep thinking, Butch. That's what you're good at."). Anything with Bette Davis. There are a lot more. I am totally into film.
Me too. You have great taste! Love Charlie Kaufman, Network is one of my favorite movies of all time. Best TV shows of all time?
Taxi. Northern Exposure. Six Feet Under. I'll Fly Away. Martin. Living Single. Roseanne. Until recently, I would have added The Cosby Show. It depicted black life the way I lived it growing up. There were no other positive representations of black people on television at the time. It was revolutionary.
Six Feet Under was amaaazing. Don’t feel bad. I also loved the Cosby Show. How could we know? What are you listening to nowadays?
Lately, I listen to the Steely Dan station on Pandora all of the time, which includes all of my favorite music from the seventies, including, of course, Steely Dan, but also Hall & Oates, Al Green, Chicago, Earth, Wind and Fire, the Eagles, etc. They all remind me of my older sister, Donna. We have lost touch in recent years. The music keeps me close to her.
Queen of the world, what is your first move?
Come on. This is an easy one. I eliminate racism. Jeez.
ahaha…favorite curse word?
Fuck, of course.
Perfectly cooked roast beef with gravy (or salmon), homemade mashed potatoes (chunky), caesar salad, and fresh-baked french bread with butter. Yes, I am a carnivore. Apologies to my vegetarian and vegan friends.
Thanks Tina, it’s been fun!
Thank you, Cliff. My pleasure.