The Associated Students Philosophy Club contributed to the ongoing campus conversation about race by hosting a forum on the meaning of race and racism.
The forum took place from Feb. 23 to 24 and featured two philosophers from within the sub-field of the philosophy of race. Jorge Garcia and Luvell Anderson spoke to an audience of approximately 100 people per day on the nature of racism.
The two philosophers spoke on the nature of racism, examining its origins and evolution throughout American history.
The event was intended to give students the opportunity to examine, think and talk about concepts of race and racism.
“I think understanding the topic is important,” the club’s President Danielle Payton said. “There are a lot of ways or perspectives to come at the topic of racism or understanding what it is.”
The idea behind the event began in the summer after Payton attended a philosophy forum examining issues of race.
Payton and other philosophy club representatives decided the forum was necessary following the racial threats directed at AS President Belina Seare in November 2015, and the subsequent spotlight placed on Western’s campus on issues of racism.
The event was sponsored by the Black Student Union, the Latino Student Union and Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlán. It was funded and sponsored by the President’s Office, the Office of the Provost and the Western Philosophy Department as part of the 2016 Bellingham Lecture in Philosophy and Religion series.
The forum began with a lecture by Garcia, professor of philosophy at Boston College. Garcia opened the first day with remarks on the nature of racism and its historical roots in American culture.
Garcia discussed some of the contrasting beliefs of philosopher Joshua Glasgow, arguing that racism is not simply the lack of malevolence, as Glasgow suggested, but rather that it is number of different negative attitudes toward a group of people.
Garcia outlined his belief that hatred comes from within the hearts of individuals. It is the ill will, or absence of benevolence, of individuals that amount to a racist culture, he said.
He referenced a test on bias at a neural level within the brain. In the study, faces were briefly flashed before participants who were then asked to identify the object the individual in the image was holding. The study found people unconsciously perceive and associate people of color with holding a weapon compared to white people, who were more often associated with holding benign objects.
During the question-and-answer section, Garcia was asked if he could foresee race becoming irrelevant. “In the future, when there are no longer racist people, no longer racist behavior and our institutions are cleaned of racism, it doesn’t mean that the racism of the past has been reversed in its effects,” he said.
Miranda Smith, an environmental science and spanish double major, attended the forum and said she agreed with Garcia’s message that people don’t need power to be racist and that racism is derived from the attitudes of individuals.
“I don’t think racism is necessarily just an action. [It is] also a point of view or a mindset,” Smith said.
Anderson, an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of Memphis, was the speaker for the second day of the forum. Anderson examined the ways language and race interact, how they influence conversation people’s understand of one another across social categories.
In particular, his discussion explored the power and relationships created by establishing and maintaining normative language. He drew from the works of French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, who talked about the process of legitimization of certain languages, and the illegitimization of others, as a way of controlling power.
“Language isn’t an innocent form of communication,” Anderson said. ”There are all sorts of political and social things wrapped up in the ways that we speak.”
Anderson discussed American black English, or Ebonics, its divergence from standard English and its connection and roots in the system of slavery. He discussed Ebonics’ development over time and the language’s ability to mask intentions of the speaker.
“The idea that language is not just a medium for encoding messages and decoding messages, but it is a vital part of our identities and it expresses our expanses with the world,” Anderson said. “Since we all have different experiences with the world, I think it is important not to be too fast in dismissing the experiences of others, ones that you might not experience.”
Cameron Harris, a Western alumnus interested in what was being said race and racism, attended the lecture after hearing about the event on social media.
“I think it’s very important for people, on the topic of race and given this lecture on language, to be able to engage in talking to each other and defining their language in what they mean in what they say across different groups and different levels,” he said.