Hello, I’m Shelley Tremain and I’d like to welcome you to the twentieth installment of Dialogues on Disability, the series of interviews that I am conducting with disabled philosophers and post here on the third Wednesday of each month. The series is designed to provide a public venue for discussion with disabled philosophers about a range of topics, including their philosophical work on disability; the place of philosophy of disability vis-à-vis the discipline and profession; their experiences of institutional discrimination and personal prejudice in philosophy, in particular, and in academia, more generally; resistance to ableism; accessibility; and anti-oppressive pedagogy.
My guest today is Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò. Fẹ́mi is a fourth-year graduate student at UCLA with interests in political philosophy, meta-ethics, and philosophy of language. He is the current Director of MAP (Minorities and Philosophy), an officer in the U.A.W. 2865 UC Graduate Workers Union, and an organizer with The Undercommons. When Fẹ́mi isn’t reading or organizing, he likes to play soccer and share memes.
Welcome to Dialogues on Disability, Fẹ́mi! You are a first-generation American citizen. Your parents immigrated to the United States to study at UC Berkeley. Please describe your background and how it has shaped your identity.
My parents were born colonial subjects of the British empire, as Nigeria wasn’t nominally independent until 1960. Although their childhoods were peppered with ethnic violence and the Nigerian Civil War that took place from 1967 to 1970, they were members of what passes for a middle class in post-colonial Africa and thus they escaped the worst of these, though often narrowly. When they emigrated from Nigeria, they had every intention to return there after they did their graduate work. But while they were here studying in the States, there was yet another military coup back “home” (fun fact: one of the principal conspirators of this very coup, General Buhari, is as we speak the elected President of Nigeria). A few years later, the government implemented a “Structural Adjustment Program,” which was a set of fiscal austerity measures and other policies imposed by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. My parents had no desire to return to the environment that followed these developments, and so, shortly after I was born, they got jobs in the U.S. and moved our family out to the Midwest.
I grew up in a predominantly white suburb of the large, segregated city of Cincinnati. My school and church life was pretty exclusively white and my social life outside of these was pretty exclusively Black. That out-of-school social environment mostly consisted of the Nigerian community in the greater Cincinnati area, though also, to a lesser extent, Black Americans. I felt on the edge of each of these social worlds, but what I appreciated most was how unaware of each other each of these social worlds seemed to be, despite the fact that the connections between them were very material to my own experience of the world.
This disjunction was made clearest to me after the Cincinnati riots of 2001. The conversations between Black Americans and between Nigerians about the riots were markedly different, but white folks didn’t discuss the riots at all it seemed or, more realistically: not in front of me. It was redoubled after September 11 of that year and the subsequent invasion of Afghanistan. President Bush declared us to be at war and I braced for the life-altering implications of this fact. But not much happened. Some folks had family that served in the military, and so it wasn’t a total non-event in the suburbs in the way that the riots had been. Still, it wasn’t at all what I had expected a country at war to look like, based on the description of a country at war that my parents had previously given to me.
War for the United States, I remember realizing, was something that was a life-altering problem for other people, that is, people elsewhere. Nigeria was a place where other people lived, and Mom and Dad stayed here so that we wouldn't be those other people. But Afghans weren't other people to other Afghans. They were just people people. So why was it that we could so easily be persuaded to be at war with them? And what’s more: Dad pointed out to me one day, long after the riots, that there were other people in the United States as well, and that it wasn’t an accident that many of the people who looked like us lived in poverty and were exposed to levels of violence that my parents had left their home to avoid. Why is that the case, I asked, when our suburb is so safe?
I’d put the general questions that I was beginning to consider something like this: how and why is it that people whose lives are connected to each other choose to live as though they aren’t? My questions around this phenomenon have shaped my understanding of race, colonialism, and philosophy.
What motivated you to do graduate work in philosophy?
The short answer, and probably the truest one: my older sister. She and I were constantly arguing. As far as I could tell, she was the smartest person alive, which is not too far from what I think these days. My inability to get her to concede an argument— even on the rare occasion that I was, as far as I could tell, right—motivated me to figure out for myself whether I had won or lost a point. I did have some interest in the gamesmanship of this, and ended up doing debate in high school and college, but I wasn’t too great at it.
The longer story connects back to my parents. Ours was a very security-conscious household, in a way that I expect is true of many immigrant households. There were the familiar hallmarks of personal security in locked doors, social life-killing curfews, and suspicious questions about neighbors. Then, there were the long-term securitizing behaviors: study for your SATs, learn something like chemistry or engineering because you’ll need “objective” metrics of evaluation to survive working with white discrimination, and make enough money so you don’t have to live anywhere dangerous. I had a tough time articulating to myself what it was that my parents were in constant preparation for, or why the other kids around me didn’t seem to be getting ready for anything. But it had something to do with where we were from, I figured, and ways in which where we were from was different from where we lived.
I knew next-to-nothing about Nigeria, but knew a community of people that it had produced, and this in turn produced a set of contradictions and questions that I’ve spent the better part of my life so far trying to untangle. If the explanation for a country’s success is the intelligence of its people, as my classmates were eager to tell me, why is it that the smartest people that I know are from the least successful country that I know of? If Nigeria is free, why did my parents come here to learn, rather than learn there? What mysterious force protects these white folks from, well, everything? Or, to recall the previous question: why are there other people?
I have markedly different views on these things now than I had then, but the topics themselves led me to study economics and political science. Rather than answering the questions that I had, however, economics and political science seemed to operate on the basis of pre-determined conceptions of what the answers to these questions were. I figured that I’d see if philosophy had anything different to say, and half-way through college I switched to studying philosophy. I ended up taking a class with a professor, who, in the comments of his grade on a disappointing essay, made an off-hand remark that implied that he thought I could do graduate-level philosophy. Doing that hadn’t really seemed like an option before, and it was blasphemy to my security-conscious parents, who were still annoyed that I hadn’t gone pre-med or whatever else. But I was hooked, and so here I am.
Please explain the relation between your identity, your work on autobiography, and the anxiety that you experience.
A few features of my background play into my preoccupation with autobiography. One feature of my life that I think and write about is the fact that I grew up on the periphery of overlapping, but very inward-facing, communities. The set of expectations and behaviors that I used to navigate any one of them would cue up different and often contradictory reactions depending on which community was the audience for the behavior. What might be a funny level of animated expression among Nigerians or Black Americans would routinely be read as violent or threatening among whites; what would pass for a mild insult among younger whites may get me jumped among younger Black Americans; informal address between age-groups may be encouraged or even required among Black Americans and whites, but might be received as incredibly offensive among Nigerians.
Which is all just to say that the practical demands of code switching, and the social significance that I read into those practices, have informed my curiosity about autobiography. For example, I could always tell the race of the person my mother was speaking to on the phone based on what form of English she used to talk to them, though she always answered the phone in “the Queen's English” (just in case). I decided early on that the connection between her career success and her skill at code-switching was probably not an accident. I found myself making decisions about how to act, and what I could get away with depending on who was around: a lot of conscious thought.
The thing is, it’s hard to turn this habit of conscious thinking off. In many situations, I find myself thinking through several ways in which I may be making a mistake with respect to the other person with something that I am about to say and practically evaluating each of them, all while trying to make myself understood. Worse, it seems that philosophy, as the very subject matter that it is, just makes you better at doing the sort of relentlessly granular thinking that drives non-philosophers up a wall—whereas before I would have considered three options, now Super Distinction Man comes to the rescue and informs me that I in fact was before clumsily conflating distinct options and that there are in fact five options to consider. Interpersonal relationships, especially with non-academics, who tend not to find this cute, end up being extremely taxing.
As an ethical theorist, I think it would be nice to be able to figure out what I should do, full stop, quite apart from how my actions will be received. But even if I could do that, I might still want to figure out which of those actions should be on the table, given the complication that some of the people who will be on the receiving end of the actions have various forms of power over me—something that, often, one only appreciates after those moments when keeping it real goes wrong, including letters of recommendation, access to resources, reputation among the circles you fuck with, guns. That is the concern that animates my work on autobiography: it’s harder to be yourself than it might initially seem.
The second factor that has led to my preoccupation with autobiography is my older brother and my relationship to him. I would describe my brother as a low-functioning autistic person. The classification of “low functioning” is, of course, relative to a specific set of expectations around how people should function, expectations that help make the world easier to navigate for the neurotypical. My brother’s speech isn’t easy to understand for most people and tends to revolve around a small number of subjects; so, he’s “low functioning,” I’ll concede, when it comes to basic communication and entertaining and dinner parties. On the other hand, he has an eidetic memory and will regularly relate to each of us our distinct favorite foods and flavors, and correctly advise us to call abroad and wish “Happy Birthday” to someone that he met decades ago for less than an hour. High functioning, you might say.
Regardless of what adjective I use to describe my brother, it has had a clear set of implications for his ability to navigate the world as we’ve found it. People, myself included, are impatient with him. It is difficult for him to build the sort of relationships that more neurotypical people rely on to manage the sorts of wants that come up in life: intimacy, sandwiches, release from boredom. Moreover, my brother is a tall, heavy-set Black man who is difficult to communicate with. It has been very difficult to reflect on the fact that so many of the Black people who have been killed by police in recent years are disabled without recalling many of the negative interactions that my brother has had with people in the past, including police officers. I realized at some point that, for him, the stakes of being understood were very high and the effects of not being understood set the basic conditions of his life. It took longer to come to the view that the same was true of the rest of us, though the scale and granularity of understanding involved might be different; but that is the view I have now.
Fẹ́mi, you’ve mentioned the ways in which norms of social interaction operate to marginalize, disadvantage, and even endanger your brother. What about you and other philosophers who experience anxiety? How, in your view, must philosophical discourse, the professional practices of philosophers, and graduate study in philosophy be reconfigured to incorporate philosophers who experience anxiety and enable them to flourish?
I previously spoke about specific instances of the philosophical problem that I work on: trying to be yourself in a world where people understand you imperfectly, if at all. This is a potential one-off problem for any sort of person, but some may expect to be misunderstood in some systematic or patterned sort of way because of an identity type they occupy or are presumed to occupy—the usual suspects: race, gender, caste, etc. Being misunderstood, by itself, isn’t so bad. But some misunderstandings are worse than others. I am particularly interested in how distributions of social power, broadly construed, interact with problems in mutual understanding.
Take, for example, if a police officer misunderstands what I mean to do when I put my hand in my pocket. The danger of this misunderstanding isn’t in the idea in the police officer’s head about what it is that I’m up to, but rather in what the officer is socially sanctioned to do to me on the basis of an interpretation of my action that is itself socially sanctioned. My feeling of anxiety in that situation, similarly, is tied to and exacerbated by the power asymmetry that characterizes the interaction.
So, when I think about restructuring academia in response to those with anxiety “disorders,” I largely come back to the same sorts of things that I think about when I consider restructuring academia for those who routinely experience anxiety as just one feeling among others. I’d guess that the mental-health problems among graduate students in philosophy are due not just to the working conditions themselves—problematic as they are—but to the way that those reframe even otherwise innocuous interactions. I don’t doubt the power of (somewhat unfairly maligned) “safe spaces” or supportive intellectual communities to help create a healthier environment for folks.
You could even go as far as to call this a main goal of MAP—that is, Minorities and Philosophy—which I believe in and work for. But this is at best a harm reduction strategy. Ultimately, what needs to be addressed is the powerlessness, and that requires a far more ambitious set of aims and actions. A good start would be an effort to unionize every academic worker in this country, starting first and foremost with graduate workers and adjuncts. Philosophers have no particular reason to sit out that fight.
Speaking specifically about philosophy, I’d say the cultural shift against the cut-throat debate style of old is a welcome shift. But while we’ve managed to create spaces where people are generally expected not to be assholes and mostly succeed at this, we have yet to attempt to reap all of the possible benefits from a philosophical environment where the default mode of engagement is collaboration, rather than combat or pageantry.
I would like to see more genuine collaborative work. And not just co-authored papers, though that’s cool too. Whole research projects, on some team shit. For graduate students, group-defended papers, maybe even dissertations. Students could work on these across departments even. I think that this shift would move us forward on a lot of goals, but I suspect that defaulting to the sort of accountability that involves working towards a shared end as opposed to the sort of end that involves proving that one deserves to be in the room will be a lot more welcoming to those among us who struggle with anxiety. Many departments whose rhetoric embraces the former end structure themselves around degree requirements that embody the latter, that is, one must prove that they deserve to be present, and so changes to those requirements would go some distance to making a more accommodating atmosphere.
On Facebook recently, you indicated that a number of white students had approached you, asking what they should do in the aftermath of the U.S. presidential election and Trump’s victory. You set out some pointed recommendations. What are your thoughts on this question now?
The same. In that post, I had mentioned that people should ask their activist elders what’s up, and find some if they don’t have any; that people should actively participate in their union if they have one and consider forming one if they don’t have one; and that people should find existing organizations with the capacity to take in new members and actively support those; and, finally, that academics specifically should find creative ways to put the resources around them to the use of public service.
Considering my audience here, I want to say a bit about the last part, and it’s going to start with a digression about inter-disciplinarity and some shade that I have been holding back for years. I apologize in advance.
I’ve lost track of how many times some student or colleague has expressed helplessness and ignorance about some topic less than a hundred feet from a department in which there are people trained to study it, who get paid to explain it to people for a living. This is most incredible to me with respect to some of the new social and political philosophy, and I’ll take this opportunity to throw a bit of shade. Folks express interest in philosophy of race—an example I choose for obvious reasons—who have never and, as far as I can tell, would never, step into a Latinx, Black, Gender Studies, or Asian-American Studies department and ask a single question, despite the fact that the folks in these departments have, for decades, discussed the very topics now being Columbused by departments of philosophy. Somehow, folks manage to convince themselves that they are ready to offer a fresh new take on the subject a couple of psych papers later.
You need to understand how fucking baffling this is. I try to explain it to myself but usually don’t get very far. Perhaps you find the work of these departments and the authors taught there hard to read. Fair enough. Some of the schools within these disciplines use terms that will be unfamiliar to you. But you would have been going there in the first place to ask questions, right? So what’s a few more? Okay, maybe it’s that you’ve internalized the wider analytic discipline’s view on the rigor of their work. I don’t think this criticism is fair, but at the end of the day, who cares? They know something about these things and you don’t so much. Much as I enjoy reading a good systematic Rawlsian account of nothing, I might suggest other learning strategies.
Or: maybe you just find the coloreds frightening, and harbor a secret fear that some disgruntled one of them will eventually call you out in public or blog about something you’ve said and you’ll feel bad about it. Guilty. But maybe you should care less about this than about your commitments to the underlying values at stake here.
A final possibility is that you really are convinced, at the end of the day, that the aforementioned groups of people have nothing to teach you. While philosophers of language and mind can often be convinced to talk to linguists and cognitive scientists, respectively, here the crucial component of basic intellectual respect is absent. Hence, it falls to mostly white analytic philosophers to gentrify the study of oppression and save these disciplines from their ignorance about the Third Realm and Platonic forms. I can’t claim to know how the demographics of these disciplines inform the assumptions about these disciplines that inform the decisions that I’ve just ranted about, but I have some guesses.
The larger point I am trying to make, rant aside, is this: at least some of the irrelevance that academics may feel to social movements is due to an isolationism that is well within our power to end. That isolationism is not inevitable. If I were to hazard a guess, I’d say that the isolationism is a set of calcified social patterns, surviving on inertia alone. Maybe folks think that there is some reason, in the weighty normative sense, that philosophers and political scientists and economists and feminist theorists and labor studies scholars and disability studies scholars and Black studies scholars don’t just routinely get in a room and figure out shit together since they’re already discussing the same shit anyway. But the other possibility is that there is a mere explanation of the social patterns of who associates with whom, of the thin descriptive sociological variety, and that there is neither an independent moral reason to keep this up nor even so much as a powerful incentive structure or threat of policing that militates against us just up and doing things differently one day. My money’s on door #2.
So far, I’ve said a bunch about academics’ isolation from each other, which is silly but, considered by itself, primarily a problem for us. But the implications of that isolationism are weightier when we consider what it is for academics to also be at a remove from the rest of society. Dr. Marc Edwards was one of the scientists who helped break the story about the mass poisoning of Flint residents. In an interview about the story, Edwards noted how the incentive structures faced by young academics led them away from the kind of work that he—in collaboration with community organizers and other Flint residents—did in Flint and towards more lucrative work that had more dubious social value.
I am under no illusions that academic philosophy can or should play the same sort of role that the natural sciences could play in public service. But there is no earthly reason that the sorts of questions that animate philosophers—What sorts of things are we? What should we do? How is it that we share the world with each other?—are only possibly of any interest to the sorts of people of the social positionalities that are currently well represented in philosophy departments. Nor can I think of any reason why the answers to those questions need wrap themselves parochially around the particular interests of the people that happen to get paid to think about them.
Also, if you think that academics who are in a natural sciences department are irrelevant to your decisions about what to do because your department is on a different floor than that department, let me remind you of the rant that I just finished making about decisions with respect to what and who is relevant for bad or nonexistent reasons.
Well put. Are there articles, books, or videos that you want to recommend on the topics that we’ve discussed in this interview?
I’m at a stage of writing where it’s easier for me to identify things I’ve recently read that made an impression on me than it is to try to make a must-read list.
A grab bag of other things to read that connect to something or other that I’ve talked about: “Citizen Scientists and the Lessons of Flint,” Black Marxism by Cedric Robinson, and From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime by Elizabeth Hinton.
If you’re into this sort of thing, I’d give a listen to Janelle Monae’s first two albums “The ArchAndroid” and “The Electric Lady,” “Black on Both Sides” by the artist formerly known as Mos Def, and Kendrick Lamar's album “good kid mAAD city”.
Thanks very much for these terrific suggestions, Fẹ́mi, and thanks also for your fascinating and provocative remarks throughout this interview. I’m sure that you have held everyone’s attention.
Readers/listeners are invited to use the Comments section below to respond to Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s remarks, ask questions, and so on. Comments will be moderated. As always, although signed comments are encouraged and preferred, anonymous comments may be permitted.
Please join me here again on Wednesday, December 21st at 8 a.m. ET for the twenty-first installment of the Dialogues on Disability series and, indeed, on every third Wednesday of the months ahead. I have a fabulous line-up of interviews planned. If you would like to nominate someone to be interviewed (self-nominations are welcomed), please feel free to write me at email@example.com. I prioritize diversity with respect to disability, class, race, gender, institutional status, nationality, culture, age, and sexuality in my selection of interviewees and my scheduling of interviews.