I am a graduate student in a department that recently weathered an accusation of racism against the department and our department chair in specific. In light of this accusation, the department faculty followed the due process as required by our university’s diversity offices, which resulted in finding no wrongdoing.
In response to this, the graduate students sought to come together to draft a letter asking for particular changes to be made to the department. However, the graduate students’ inability to agree on the language of the letter or what it is they wished to accomplish. The end result was frustration with the inability for our community to address any issues and the generation of an atmosphere toxic to addressing issues of diversity within our department. It is worth noting that there is a feeling of alienation among the students of color due to the way in which the majority of the white students have co-opted and directed the conversation surrounding the response that the graduate students should have.
To this end, both the department and the graduate students have quietly allowed the issue of racism to die. My problem is that both the graduate students and the department faculty only appear to be concerned with addressing racism as it happens, the symptoms of racism within the department, rather than the root cause. It is my feeling that until the department addresses the climate within the department and the possibility of the department being complicit in the perpetuation of racism, nothing will happen. Further, it is my feeling that the climate of the department is such that other individuals are not comfortable with coming forwards with any kinds of accusations, which leads to the further invisibility of these issues.
There seem to be at least two problems here: one is racism in the department and on the part of the department chair in particular, and the other is the white skin privilege that has manifested itself in silencing the students of color. Most likely, the white students who co-opted the conversation, did not do so from any ill intent, but because the privilege they enjoy makes them oblivious to the fact that they have the power to silence anybody; this is one of the commonest ways in which racism perpetuates itself. The students are perhaps well-meaning but dangerous.
One possible strategy might be to approach one or two of them and point out that they silenced the conversation because they took it over and directed it, whereas if they had listened and trusted the students of color to take the lead, they might have learned something and been the actual allies they set themselves up to be. Then ask them if they’re willing to try again, but on the terms set by the students of color. Whether you can do that, though, depends on how well you, for your part, can trust any of the white students. Good luck.
Responding to a situation as difficult as the one you’ve described merits a variety of strategies. An indirect one might be to find some way to foster a conversation about issues of race, racism, and philosophy that isn’t (in the first instance) a conversation directly about the recent history of these issues at your institution, but is a conversation which accords students of color the authority they deserve. Even if the conversation fails to come round to addressing your department’s recent history, it could lay the groundwork for the sort of progress you seek.
An even harder question is what tactics to use to execute this indirect strategy. Here’s a suggestion: if your department doesn’t have a chapter of MAP, you might start one. This would not only put you in contact with graduate students across the country who share your concerns, it would also provide a framework for events at your institution prompting more constructive conversations. If you could secure funding — and it could be that your Department Chair would be eager to take the positive step of funding such an initiative — you could bring in a speaker or speakers—say an organizer or alumnus of Rutgers’ Summer Institute for Diversity in Philosophy, who might talk about what the Institute does and why that matters. Even if you can’t secure funding, you might organize a reading group that has papers like Kristie Dotson’s “How is the Paper Philosophy?” on its syllabus. As the examples I’ve tossed off might suggest, experimenting within the framework with different sorts of prompts for discussion might help you find the sort of prompt that succeeds best in getting your community to engage the issues thoughtfully.