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05/20/2015

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Komarine

Another great interview - thanks to Shelley and Zara for this.

Shelley Tremain

Thanks so much for your remarks of appreciation, Komarine!

Olufemi O. Taiwo

Great interview, thanks to both of you. I had a question for Zara about a point made early in the interview about disclosure. It seems on one hand we rightly blame institutional dysfunction for the fact that people would feel pressured to disclose (in order to get accomodations) and you indicate that it is obnoxious to have to speak "as a disabled person". This might not be answerable in the abstract, but what do you make as people who can "pass" (people who can present themselves in a way legible as neurological, for example), with respect to concerns of solidarity, for example? Are they making any kind of mistake if they do so? Or maybe the mistake is mine, for asking about their behavior rather than the institutional context that would incentivize it.

Shelley Tremain

Olufemi, thanks for your interesting comment. I would like to respond to it, eventually, but will hold off for now to let others have the opportunity to do so. Zara might be slow in responding today because she is at the Race and Aesthetics Conference at Leeds today and for the next couple of days. Hopefully, we will get a comment or two from her before the day is out or tomorrow.

Julie Maybee

Great interview! Thanks Shelley and Zara!

Your project of figuring out how epistemologies of ignorance or "privileged-group ignorance" works (at both the group and individual level?) is really important and exciting. I know you're still early in the project, Zara, but would you be willing to say more about your current thinking about how it operates generally, and/or in relation to disability?

Shelley Tremain

Julie, thanks for joining us and asking a great question! I look forward to Zara's response!

Zara

Thanks everyone for reading our discussion, and for your patience as I've taken a few days to respond to your excellent questions. I've been at a conference, and, well, usual exhaustions with additional disability-specific stuff applies.

I'll answer question by question if that's okay with everyone?

To Olufemi - thank you for this question about "passing" and disclosure because I think this is really important.

My position is roughly that we can't blame anyone for not being willing to "come out" as disabled, if their disability is such that it's "invisible" because they don't conform to standard conceptions of what it means to "be disabled" in terms of whatever "looking disabled" consists in. Increasingly I'm not really happy with any of this language, but I think that it does describe a sort of prevailing public concsciousness with respect to disability.

This is a line I'm quite aware of since I "don't look disabled" except when I'm using my mobility scooter, and I've definitely noticed a difference in how the world responds to me, but also in how I respond to the world.

I think that any unwillingness to disclose has to be contextualised to the structures and institutions that make disclosure not only difficult, but a potential threat to both functioning and flourishing in predominantly nondisabled contexts.

One statistic I'm fond of quoting at those who buy the story that it's really easy to talk about being disabled in higher education is the UK's Higher Education Statistics Agency (HESA) data on disclosed disabled staff. In 2013/14, of approximately 195000 academic staff, only 485 disclosed a "mental health condition" [https://www.hesa.ac.uk/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=1898&Itemid=634]. Mental health campaigners put the estimate of prevalence in the population at around 1 in 4. While I'd need to expand the argument to account for other conditions that need disclosure - like neurodivergence, specific learning disabilities, energy impairments, hearing impairments, the whole host of "you don't look disabled" conditions - I think that data should make us ask why it is that staff in higher education, and the students we invite to learn there, just don't feel comfortable disclosing, especially when disclosure - complicated, evidence-based disclosure involving medical certification, form filling, repetition of information - is a requirement of being able to receive support.

On the student side, many Disability Support Services report about 8-10% of the student population will disclose, i.e. register, as a disabled student. But they'll also tell you that between 40-60% of students in any given year are likely to have specific learning difficulties like dyslexia and dyspraxia that count as "disabilities" under the law, and that around 25% of students are likely to have some mental illness or psychiatric disability. So something is certainly going on that would explain the disparity between occurence in the student population and rates of disclosure. I'd like to see research that seeks to explain this disparity, so if you or anyone knows of any, please let me know.

However, some of us - including those of us who can sometimes "pass" - just don't have a choice. As one of those people, it's become increasingly important to me to be visibly disabled. I didn't know anyone who identified as disabled in philosophy or academia in general for most of the 12 years I've spent studying or teaching it. When I had no choice but to disclose - when I had to get taken to my own classes by my mum in a wheelchair - something changed with my students, and quite a number would come up to me just to talk about being disabled. I have so many disabled PhD friends now through the blog, who surprise me by telling me that they feel they don't, and can't, talk about this slice of experience that sure, is differentiated insofar as we have different conditions, but which is the same insofar as we're all getting bogged down having to decide whether to attend events we don't know are accessible and whether to undertake the inevitable costs of doing so, including disclosing ourselves to often senior people we don't yet know in the discipline.

So in short, for me, disclosure is not only necessary but the right thing to do. I would never ever want to suggest that nondisclosing colleagues are morally remiss for failing to do so and I think you're right, any question that points us there should be redirected towards an interrogation of the structures and institutions that make "disclosure" either necessary or problematic.

Zara

So here's a reply to Julie Maybee's excellent question about privileged group ignorance in general and especially in relation to disability. This is probably the question that goes closest to the heart of the PhD and is perhaps the one I’ve lost sight of most recently in trying to prove progress and negotiate self-advocacy, so thank you for asking it, and please bear with my probably somewhat confused response.

Charles Mills’s work is what I think takes us closest to an answer, though I’ll need an argument that what he identifies as conditions of “white ignorance” are conditions of a more generalised phenomenon of “privileged group ignorance”. In his model, (white) privileged group ignorance is an historicized cognitive phenomena that represents a tendency on the part of the privileged to self-deception, evasion and denial, in service of the maintenance and reproduction of privilege, but not necessarily present in all or only members of privileged groups. Crucially, these false but functional cognitive systems “go all the way down”, so that even those disadvantaged by them are likely to hold them too in the absence of the right sort of cognitive counter-flows. Such ignorances aren’t mere omissions or absences of knowledge, but are more like obfuscations or disavowals arising from active processes of “unknowing” linked in deep and significant ways to how power is distributed and operates within the sociopolitical arena. The idea is that these sorts of ignorance have to come about via the right sort of causal route, inasmuch as the active processes that generate them are related in important ways to the very conditions, and their histories, that confer privilege to begin with.

So in the case of white ignorance, the right sort of causal route is one linked to precisely those histories and analyses of race, racism, racial domination (and white supremacy) and the history of European imperialism and settler-colonialism that a great many argue are central to the construction of contemporary racial realities. But what we see in Europe and America, certainly, is a counter-claim that we live in “post-racial” times since the civil rights movement brought about apparent juridical equality between persons racialized as white and non-white, regardless of the extent to which the social norms and conventions - including cognitive norms about viable, let alone credible, cognizers - that existed before juridical equality have been identified let alone dismantled ; or that countries like the UK and the Netherlands don’t have a problem with racism because they “never had slavery”, in an astonishing refusal of the histories of imperialism and colonialism central to the construction of contemporary society in these countries; where the BBC can still show with some regularity whole seasons of documentaries that discuss the European “discovery” of far-away “wildernesses”; and where merely describing disparities arising from racism is thought itself to be racist, unlike the institutions that reproduce racism, since “we all know that” racism is really merely reducible to interpersonal prejudice any by talking about differences based on race one is legitimating somehow legitimating them.

I think part of of what’s going on here is a deeper phenomenon, also acknowledged by Mills but not as well-developed, is that there is something about being a member of a privileged group that predisposes agents to ignorance specifically about their being privileged or of the possibility of privilege at all. Barbara Applebaum makes an interesting and persuasive case that part of what this systematic denial is doing is allowing privileged agents to maintain an understanding of themselves as morally good, rather than morally tainted in serious ways by being beneficiaries and reproducers of systematic harm in which they are at least complicit, and at most actively involved.

In terms of disability, there’s been some interesting work on this by people like Stacy Clifford Simplician (whose book I mentioned in the interview) and by fellow grad students like Christine Wieseler, who writes on non-disabled ignorance in the context of bioethics. The thought would be this: non-disabled folks are systematically ignorant of the realities of disabled lives, including the grounds for disabled persons’ grievances in both a kind of neutral “situated ignorance” sort of a way and in a the more problematic sense of being actually prone to denial and evasion in response to their claims and the facts that inform them.

First, an example. When you progress through university as a disabled student, all the assessments for support you have focus squarely on what technology and “reasonable adjustments” can be given to you to make you as un-disabled as possible. But why should we think of “accommodations” for disability as these ad-hoc bolt-ons that should be applied to existing structures after the fact? Why not instead think about how those structures are inherently exclusionary and build them so that we don’t need to “accommodate” these outlying disabled folk, but so they can access things at the first pass because we’ve built structures that presume them as members of our academic and intellectual communities?

I don’t think non-disabled folks have a clue just how much hard work goes into surviving in this world with impaired bodies, but a great many of them believe that disabled people get “special treatment” that is unfairly apportioned because again, “everyone is equal”, and disabled people should really just shut up and be grateful for whatever the dominant non-disabled majority has deigned to provide us with up until now. We know these thoughts exist because many disabled people have confronted them, and worse, have internalised them, so we become grateful for what Kristie Dotson has called the “low-hanging fruit of empowerment” in her work on systematic ignorance in relation to black women (who, of course, aren’t at all a separate group to “disabled people” but constitutive of a set among them, since black women can also be disabled). The fact that we’re so entrenched within this way of thinking that not only denies that non-disabled folks are in a position of privilege over disabled folks but has the audacity to suggest that the ones who are “privileged” are disabled people in receipt of supportive measures and that this is a violation of the right to equality of nondisabled folk is just astonishing.

As a final thought, I want to offer this example of privileged group ignorance with respect to disability within professional philosophy. Last Saturday, a group of pre-eminent philosophers gathered at the University of Oxford to discuss “Equality, Diversity and the Ethics of Professional Philosophy”. The programme wasva line-up of feminist superstars, and the attendees represent senior philosophers working on a range of topics, including race and implicit bias, from both the UK, Europe and the US. There was no access information offered on either of the two conference pages (http://philevents.org/event/show/17439 at philpapers, and at a now-login only page at University of Oxford’s department pages) I could find. Nondisabled ignorance is such that with a straight face all these senior people could get together in a room to talk about improving equality and diversity - “inclusion” - in professional philosophy, without publicising to their professional philosopher disabled colleagues whether they’d thought about booking the event into a room they could access, or ostensibly considering whether their disabled colleagues would have to take on extra work, including the work of disclosing their disability, to be able to participate in this event. This too, is pretty astonishing.

Olufemi O. Taiwo

Thanks for the thoughtful answer, Zara. I think the response you received from your colleagues is very encouraging for a variety of reasons, and there's fruitful philosophical work to be done about how visible identification with a marker signals things about the environment to other people. I think I was worried mostly about how the "right thing to do" interacts with the question of whether we should blame someone who chooses to pass, but in the context of your redirection point, I don't think this is something to worry about after all.

Julie Maybee

Thanks for your long response (and peek into your forthcoming project), Zara. This topic is something I have thought about from time to time over the years. But I have never put anything systematic together, so I’m really looking forward to reading your project.

I agree that that the instances of “privileged group ignorance” (Charles Mills’ term) are not “mere omissions or absences of knowledge,” as you put it in your post. I think there is a sense in which white people, for instance, know what their skin is worth. As I have written about elsewhere, in his book, Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal, the political scientist Andrew Hacker describes a parable that has been put to white, college students. Imagine, the parable goes, that at midnight tonight you will become black. You will not only have darker skin, but will also have other physical features associated with African ancestry. You will be the same inside, in terms of your memory, personality and so on, but you will be unrecognizable from the outside. Because this change is the result of an error that is not your fault, you will be compensated, and the compensating agency has a lot of money. Since you are a college student, you are likely to live another 50 years or so. How much money would you request? According to Hacker, most white students thought it would be fair to request about $50 million, or approximately $1 million for every year they can expect to live. The students’ responses to the parable shows, Hacker suggests, that while they may not know exactly what it is like to be black in America, they do know that their white skin has value—that it is a gift to be white in America. The money they requested “would be used, as best it could, to buy protection from the discriminations and dangers white people know they would face once they were perceived to be black” (p. 36—this page reference is to the 1995 edition, there is also an updated edition).

One other idea I have thought about over the years is Kwame Anthony Appiah’s suggestion, in his article “Racisms” (in David Theo Goldberg’s Anatomy of Racism) that, on the individual level, racists may have a certain kind of distorted rationality or cognitive incapacity in the sense that they cannot admit or take seriously any evidence that goes against a belief that they otherwise have an interest in protecting (pp. 8-9). In the case of racism, the interest is cultural or social—whites have an interest in holding on to racist beliefs because they benefit from racism. Rich children have an interest in holding on to the belief that they got into Harvard because they’re really smart, because then they don’t have to feel guilty about those privileges (more on this point in a moment). Appiah seems to think that this phenomenon is a general psychological phenomenon, and not one that only racists exhibit. I like to tell my students that I once had a boyfriend who didn’t treat me very well but who I believed loved me. Even though my mother hated the guy, I could not for the life of me admit any of the evidence she presented for the view that he treated me badly.

Appiah also points out that racist beliefs are hard to shake at the individual level because they are reinforced by the larger culture. Here, I think of an article by Robert Gooding-Williams (“Disney in Arica and the Inner City: The Lion King,” Social Identities, vol. 1, no. 2 [August 1995]) in which he argues that Disney’s 1994 movie The Lion King was racist for two main reasons. First, it reinforced the old, colonial mentality insofar as it presented Africa as a large, natural and history-less expanse of land (that also, we can add, has no people in it [only animals], a condition which makes the colonial invasion of Africa appear more justified). Second, the movie’s bad guys (the hyenas)—the ones who would destroy “our” kingdom—are inner city characters who are voiced by black and Latino actors and live in “a bleak-looking and overcrowded hi-rise” (p. 376), or a tall rock with small holes in it, which recalls an inner city project. We can add also that the evil lion, Scar, is a much darker brown color than the “good” lions, and is, well, scarred, i.e. disabled or abnormal. Since the movie suggests that these characters are forced to live outside of “our” kingdom because they are morally depraved (and dirty), and that, should they come to “our” land, they would destroy everything good (and literally colorful) about “our” land (when Scar and his group briefly manage to take over part of the “kingdom,” the movie switches to a largely black-and-white color palate), it is essentially teaching millions and generations of children (of all races) that black and Latino people who live in inner-city projects are scary, are morally depraved and evil, are cast out because they deserve to be, and would destroy “us” if we let them come to “our” neighborhoods. If Gooding-Williams is right about The Lion King, given its popularity, that is a lot of heavy cultural weight, in Appiah’s sense, that our anti-racist arguments have to overcome.

It will be particularly difficult for our arguments to overcome that cultural weight given the context in which many of these lessons are taught. In “The Ethnic Scarring of American Whiteness” by Patricia Williams (in The House that Race Built [1998], edited by Wahneema Lubiano), Williams points out how many of the classist and racist messages we learn as children in this society are taught in the context of love. She tells the story of overhearing the affectionate, funny, and polite conversation of a well-dressed family that included a little girl. But then the family members started telling redneck jokes (p. 262). On that train, the little girl learned hate in the context of love. The Lion King is a similar context—all those little children who remember going to see the movie with loved ones and having a good time. As Williams concludes, “[h]ate learned in a context of love is a complicated phenomenon. And love learned in a context of hate endangers all of our families” (p. 263).

On the subject of how “color-blindness” or claims to a post-racial society reinforce racism, I think of Chapter 7 in Mary C. Waters book, Ethnic Options: Choosing Identities in America (1990), in which she argues that the somewhat more recent tendency of whites to embrace white-ethnic identities (e.g. as Italian or Irish) reinforces racism because whites typically go on to assume that their own experiences of “ethnicity” are the same as the experiences of “ethnicity” that members of non-white ethnic groups have, and then cannot understand why members of those non-white ethnic groups have difficulty making it in America. Essentially they think that, if I (a member of an “ethnic” group) can make it, why can’t “they” (as members of an “ethnic” group) make it? They deny that there are any differences between their own experiences of “ethnicity” and the experiences of racism that members of non-white ethnic groups have. Like The Lion King, this thinking allows whites to engage in a blame-the-victim strategy that, as you suggest Barbara Applebaum argues, allows whites to accept racism and go on thinking of themselves as morally good people.

I don’t know that any of these scattered ruminations will be helpful to you (and I know some of the sources are old), but your response brought them back to mind. Thanks again for the great interview and your terrific reply to my question, and I look forward to reading your dissertation. You’ve also given me some tips on some new things I need to read . . . And the conference you mention really is a sad (especially as it’s a so recent) example . . .

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