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This Black History Month, Let’s Recognize the Vitality of Black Feminist Thought

Black feminist thought is rich with resources in our collective fight against fascism.

“As a Black feminist philosopher, I have come to expect practices, strategies — not answers,” scholar Jeanine Weekes Schroer told me in a recent conversation.

“This kind of ingenuity is something that should be celebrated during Black History Month,” she added. “Those fighting fascism will benefit from the clarifying perspective available from the Black feminist viewpoint.”

The very name of Black History Month already signifies an attempt to counteract a history of violent erasure. We don’t have or need “White History Month” because it would be redundant: The unmarked “history” offered up in every other month already largely consists of implicit or explicit practices of valorizing whiteness. Hence, the process of naming Black History Month functions as a powerful epistemological, locational device, a site of agential voicing: “We are here; we’ve always been here!”

Anti-Black racism, especially through the prism of whiteness, has always been a barrier, a denigrating glance or gaze, an accusation, a microaggression, a fist, a fanatic mob, a noose denying Black humanity. Hence, the material structural toxicity of whiteness, and its embodied performances, continue to denigrate and oppress Black people in the U.S. and in the world. As my dear friend bell hooks argued in her book, killing rage: Ending Racism: “All black people in the United States, irrespective of their class status or politics, live with the possibility that they will be terrorized by whiteness.”

But we must still work to ensure that Black History Month emphasizes the full range and complexity of experiences that Black people have undergone and continue to undergo. There are multiple axes (race, gender, ability, sexuality) in terms of which Black people negotiate the world.

It is with this mind that I turned to Schroer who, in her powerful article, “The Terrifying Tale of the Philosophical Mammy,” declares, “I am a Black Feminist Philosopher.” I would like to tarry with that form of self-declaration, to explore its meaning and the implications for Black feminist thought during Black History Month. Schroer is a philosopher of race and feminist theory and an associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota Duluth and recently coedited Microaggressions and Philosophy (with Lauren Freeman).

George Yancy: Talk about what it means for you to be a Black feminist philosopher and what the central features of Black feminism are that we should all be aware of as we celebrate Black History Month.

Jeanine Weekes Schroer: There is a gritty ingenuity and a contumacious friction that is crucial to Black feminist philosophical thought. My experience of Black feminist philosophy has been the necessity of mapping that territory as you go. Even though it is increasingly the case that there are Black feminist philosophers — Kathryn Sophia Belle, Patricia Hill Collins, Kristie Dotson, Devonya N. Havis, bell hooks, Joy James, Falguni A. Sheth, Jennifer Lisa Vest (to name a few) — who are more explicitly articulating and incorporating Black feminist thought into the pursuit of “philosophical” questions, it is still the case that the “application” of Black feminist thought (the creation of Black feminist philosophy) requires the unbuilding and remaking of typical philosophical questions and practices. Black feminist philosophy resists certain inflexibility in typical philosophical practice. As a Black feminist philosopher, I have come to expect practices, strategies — not answers. This kind of ingenuity is something that should be celebrated during Black History Month. However, the friction — the resistance to philosophy’s typical drive toward determinate answers, toward universals and pseudo-universals; the embrace of what is seemingly incommensurable — is something we seem not yet prepared to fully appreciate.

Philosophy departments continue to be dominated by Anglo-American and European philosophy. Within this context, I am reminded of Audre Lorde where she writes, “For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master’s house as their only source of support.” It is that first line that I frequently hear quoted. Yet, that last line is so incredibly instructive. For Black feminist philosophers, where are those spaces that function as sources of support?

For a very long time, I struggled with how to appreciate Lorde’s advice there. I wouldn’t say I was “threatened,” but I was bewildered by the project of finding my way away from the “master’s tools.” I think that philosophy as a professional practice goes to great lengths to manifest the master’s tools as an inescapable labyrinth. Being trained in analytic philosophy fosters a sense that there is nothing else, there is no other way. (It did for me.) There are of course my compatriot Black feminist philosophers and the spaces they have created for community and connection, the Collegium of Black Women Philosophers, for example, but I primarily find refuge in their work, and the work of other Black feminist thinkers. That attention allowed me to see the “labyrinth” of philosophy’s commitment to the master’s tools more clearly. The analogy that comes to mind is to atoms. For any given atom, it is a very small amount of mass and a significant amount of space. I find the space to be supported in my commitments to Black feminist thought, to make room for Black feminist philosophy, always already present, “hidden” amongst the structures of philosophy.

For example, Black History Month is an excellent time to grapple with philosophy’s problematic history of treating certain groups of people as permanently other. When we try, for example, to explore the complex philosophical questions — metaphysical, ethical, social, political, epistemic — affecting trans folk, neurodivergent folk, other genderqueer folk and Black folk, our default is often a dehumanizing objectification that can be breathtaking. (Even constructing that sentence in a way that was humanizing was challenging, and I’m not sure I succeeded.) The response is often to refrain from engaging with the challenges concerning these marginalized folk, but that isn’t the right answer either.

In a variety of ways, Black feminist thought (and by extension, Black feminist philosophy) insists upon a permanent friction: Our inquiry will live in a socially, politically, ethically uncomfortable space. Our answers will be imperfect and/or incomplete. We will be able to pursue inquiry about the ways that diagnoses of neurodivergence are withheld from women and especially Black women; we will be able to articulate how that withholding harms and hinders Black women, but also how it might free them. Black feminist philosophy will have a greater tolerance for holding these conflicting “truths” at the same time.

This option was there, hidden in the recesses of traditional philosophical thought all along. The space for the friction of Black feminist philosophy was there hidden in the master’s framework all along. Truthfully, at this moment in the history of higher education, this flexibility, this friction will be vital to holding on to something valuable and worthwhile in the aftermath of the tremendous pressure that institutions of higher learning are currently under. It will be critical, however, that these practices continue to live in the hidden spaces within the master’s house. Under pressure, there seems to be a knee-jerk impulse to aggrandize convention; the capacity for Black feminist thought to hide, but still be revelatory within these conventional frames is another feature that should be exalted as we celebrate Black history and thought.

Black psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce coined the term microaggression. Why do you find this term to be of philosophical interest? Also, talk about how the term has application across differences. In your book, Microaggressions and Philosophy, there are important analyses of microaggression vis-à-vis people who have been stigmatized because of their different forms of embodiment. Speak about Black women in academia and the microaggressions that they face.

I find the notion of microaggression to be incredibly generative. Pierce’s original project involved documenting the difference between the way we construct narratives about Black versus white people. Pierce’s research showed how our narratives about Black folk (in commercials on primetime television) subtly conveyed an inferior positioning. It did this by offering narratives flexible enough to convey different messages to white and Black folk. The reinvigoration of this concept by Derald Wing Sue applies the microaggression concept to a slightly different project. Sue’s project originates in showing mental health care practitioners the way that they can hurt and harm their marginalized patients. Some philosophers have particularly criticized Sue’s microaggression concept for not being rigid, not being determinate enough. The indeterminacy, the flexibility of the microaggression concept is, I think one its great strengths.

My interest in microaggression is focused on a project more like Pierce’s. I’m fascinated by the ways that microaggression functions to construct and maintain narratives. Importantly, microaggressions facilitate different discursive messages for different audiences. I think this is vital to the appeals to “innocence” that are so rampant in current white supremacist discourse.

Because the meaning of a microaggression — the story it tells — varies depending on your social location, microaggressions can act as a subtle means of social control. The prominent critical claim against microaggressions is that their reporting reflects a hypersensitivity amongst the typical targets. Though psychological data shows this to be untrue, what matters is that it provides a “reasonable” cover for those who’d like to disregard these reports. It also conveys to those who share the target identities rules and expectations about how those who make these kinds of complaints will be received.

My own experience of microaggressions before and after I became a “Black woman academic” reflects this double duty. I have occupied primarily white spaces since I was 8 years old and learned early on that my loudness (the “loudness” of a Black woman) was particularly objectionable except when it was explicitly called upon. I learned that I had a special obligation to be pliable, that my taking a stand was less tolerable. I learned to be invisible unless called upon to stand out. All of this was achieved largely through microaggressions of varying degrees of subtlety.

In my early educational experiences, I learned that my intellectual interest and curiosity was a problem. My ability to read in the first grade was initially met with punishment (it was assumed that my completing in-class exercises early was “scribbling” and was met with paddling), was next pathologized (I was assessed for ADHD), and then finally indirectly punished (as efforts to accommodate the fact that I was too advanced for my first-grade peers led to my social isolation by being placed with older students who were humiliated by having a much younger student outshine them). Notice that these series of actions at a public school in a working-class Black neighborhood, but staffed almost entirely by white folks, communicated clear rules both to successful Black students and to unsuccessful ones: Be better, but not too much better. When my family moved to a suburb largely to advance my educational opportunities, the cost was fitting into white spaces. Here I learned to speak in a quieter voice, to dampen my somewhat boisterous personality, but also that I would be expected to perform on cue. As part of the 1 percent of nonwhite students at my rather large high school, I was routinely given “special” opportunities that required that I perform against my prior training to be quiet, not to stand out. This fostered a deep sense of insecurity that I carried with me to college and into graduate school, where these lessons — be excellent, but don’t stand out, don’t show anybody up — were reinforced once again.

I think many of my racially and gender marginalized peers in philosophy were given the same messages — by being ignored, by being objectified, by being sexualized, and by seeing our successful peers minimized and controlled in the same ways (a Black woman faculty member I knew was routinely told by her chair to “smile more”) — that you aren’t good enough and you will never be good enough. It provokes a world-tilting hypervigilance. For me, during my early career, I was so inured to microaggressions (and so well trained by them) that I hardly noticed them anymore. However, when I started to occupy positions of leadership, both in and outside of Justice, Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion spaces, I was reminded through more and less subtle microaggressions that I had lost the plot and was aspiring above my station. Having acquired an outside offer to negotiate a better position at my current institution, a tried-and-true academic practice, a higher administrator assured me that despite her connections, she would never use them to undermine my opportunity (which I interpreted as a threat to do just that). Another administrator noted a change in my hair style and said she could never make such a change “because of her job.” I also experienced classic microaggressions (like being ignored at meetings, but then having my suggestions taken up when offered by a white or male peer) for the first time in the context of leadership.

I suspect that Black women academics have similar experiences — success fraught with insecurity — because of our flexibility and tolerance for the friction of wild inconsistency. Because Black women academics can both perceive the messages in microaggressions and interrogate them, they have a capacity for success despite these hidden structures meant to diminish them.

I want to be on the right side of history. I want to be there with those who will fight what bell hooks called “imperialist white supremacist patriarchy.” Given the toxic spread of far right white male masculinism, anti-Blackness and fantasies of neofascist totalization, speak to the Back feminist tools (not the master’s) that will be necessary as this battle for “democratic freedom” is waged.

As I alluded to earlier, Black women and Black feminist thought (Black feminist philosophy) have unique capacities to function in the fractious spaces created by fascist, toxically masculine, anti-Black, anti-woman ambitions. I have been hesitant to mention it earlier — it is an often willfully misunderstood, stereotyped characteristic attributed to Black women — but the capacity for empathy is another Black feminist tool that has a significant part to play in this battle. The master’s framework demands, in my experience, rigid absolutes. The interpretation of empathy, especially a Black woman’s empathy, showcases this: A key element of the mammy trope is an empathy so exculpatory that it allows the Black woman to prioritize the difficulties of those who enslaved her over the trauma and injury even of being deprived of her own children. It is part of the objectification and minimization of Black women that empathy is conceptualized so narrowly, so rigidly.

In truth, empathy, especially in combination with a tolerance for friction and uncertainty, is a much more complex engagement with reality than is often acknowledged. There is often a presumption that being able to “share the feelings” of another would automatically lead to forgiveness, acceptance, justification of their actions. One genius of Black feminist thought is its capacity for a robust understanding of the position of various stakeholders, both intellectually but also affectively. That understanding can be compassionate and critical and unflinchingly so.

Friction. Those fighting fascism will benefit from the clarifying perspective available from the Black feminist viewpoint, capable of understanding the emotional drivers of anti-Black racism, systematic sexism and gender antagonism in our current culture, while not excusing them. There is also a stealth in the Black feminist navigation of spaces imagined to be unyieldingly rigid. Black women thinkers offer a vital perspective and a unique skill set honed by both a variety of violences against both the Black female body and the Black female psyche as well as a fathomless capacity for joy; we also have a tenacity supported by a profound curiosity and an unparalleled capacity to navigate “paradox” producing effective strategies… if not answers.

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