A version of this paper, titled "The Search for Truth and
the Contexts of Racial Discourse," was prepared for presentation at the
Fall 2000 Conference of the South Atlantic Philosophy of Education
Society, October 6-7, Virginia State University, Petersburg, Virginia.
Philosophy, Race and
Conflicting Value Priorities
By Edward G. Rozycki, Ed. D.
Honi Soi Qui Mal Y Pense
Evil to Him Who Evil Thinks
Is "Race" A Philosophically Worthy Subject Of Investigation?
Can race be discussed critically and openly? If not, there is little
use in venturing any philosophical exposition on the concept. It is often
difficult, particularly in a public forum, to separate a concept from the
emotional tone which has been conditioned to it. I have severe misgivings
about the term race, especially as it is, in education, commonly
conflated with such terms as ethnicity and culture.
A parallel example illustrates what the basic problem is. Twenty-five years
ago I was asked to lead workshops on Cultural Difference with the teachers
of the junior high school where I worked in a bilingual program. After two
sessions, I announced that at the next meeting that I would discuss insults,
vulgarities and obscenities as they were used by Spanish-speaking students
in the school. I cautioned the teachers that those who would be offended
upon hearing such words discussed ought not to attend.
On the afternoon of the workshop, the room was packed. People I had never
seen before showed up. Again I cautioned: "We're going to review words which
in Spanish can be taken as insults, vulgarities or obscenities. I will give
you their English equivalents. If it is possible you would feel at all
uncomfortable with such a discussion I am asking you during the five minutes
before we begin to leave the room"
I began, "One of the most common epithets you'll hear some of our boys use
is mama'o This is more or less the English equivalent of … "a person
who performs fellatio."
(That is not what I said: I used the obvious word. However, having been in
my last ten years socialized to the norms of Academia -- and also because I
am among strangers -- I have reluctantly sacrificed Truth on the alter of
Let's get back to the tale: I uttered the critical three-syllable English
The room almost reverberated with silence. Then, a small, distressed voice
could be heard at the rear, "Oh my God! He said it! He really said it!"
I hoped I wasn't showing my annoyance. I remarked, "Before we get into
discussing chocha, puta, jodete and like, perhaps
some of you would like to reconsider and leave."
Not a person moved.
I gave for the first time in my life a little lecture, one that I have given
many, many times since; a lecture on distinguishing between the mention
of a word and the use of that word. If I tell you that Scheisse
is a vulgarity in German I am not employing vulgarity. If I say, "I do," I
am not thereby taking someone's hand in marriage. Similarly, I have not
spoken obscenely if I mention that over the last forty years common
references to roosters and cats have moved them from nursery rhymes, into
obscenity. Who dares, even in the elementary school, mention "Cock-a-doodle
doo" or "I love little Pussy, her coat is so warm."
Unhappily this important distinction between mention and use is seldom taken
in. In many discussions of diversity, the use-mention confusion abounds. So
it is with some reservation that I address the issue of race. I do so with
the caveat that should listeners find themselves offended by my language the
offense is not in my intent, nor in the sounds I utter, nor in the words I
refer to, nor in the use I put them to.
Rather, I would suggest, the offense felt in the mention of a word is
generated within and by the offended person, possibly as a consequence of an
unreflected upon emotional conditioning, a not infrequently encountered
enthrallment to the language. This has important implications in education
for discourse about diversity in general, and about race in particular.
(I no doubt importune many of my colleagues who would hasten to point out to
me that I am addressing an audience at a philosophical conference, and I
apologize to those I inadvertently patronize. But I have sat through too
many purportedly "professional" meetings in which intellectually muddled,
awkward and prissy circumlocutions have abounded; as if, we might imagine, a
conference of medical professionals restricted themselves to talk in the
idiom of "Boo-boos" , "Mommy-kiss-its", "attacks of the vapors," and "times
of the month.")
'Race' is unscientific
Here is what I would call a "short shrift"
argument for dismissing "race" as a philosophical topic: there is no scientific
context in which racial metaphors are viable. This is, or should be, in the
year 2000, common knowledge. (The supporting documentation one obtains with
just a cursory search of, say, the Internet -- or any library --is
Common knowledge is this: those constellations of human physical
characteristics which support racial discrimination are not sufficient
genetically stable from generation to generation to meet the criteria for
what geneticists call racial difference. Less than one percent of the human
genome controls those variations commonly understood as racially linked,
e.g. skin color, hair type, etc. There is more genetic variation between any
two Swedes than between any Swede and any, say, Nigerian. Social practice,
rather than any science of heredity, supports the persistence of the idiom
Given philosophy’s long tradition of truth-seeking2,
i.e. giving, at least, lip-service to the priority to Truth over other
values, it is no more surprising that philosophers ignore race than that
they ignore mysticism, extra-sensory perception, UFO's or miracles.
(Especially in the normally emotionally-charged contexts of their
So, goes the short-shrift argument, forget about race; let's move on
to other things. But that would be to move on too fast. In fact, the
short-shrift argument rests on several prejudices that tend to forestall
reasonable philosophical reflection.
Meta-analysis Is Still Philosophy
Should philosophers abandon inquiry into the concept of race merely
because there may be incoherent or false beliefs about it? I think not.
Philosophy is, after all, not substantially an empirical science and its
methods of investigation suit it equally well for the analysis of The
Imaginary, and The Illusory as well as the True. Genetically speaking, race
is an illusion. But is a sufficiently stable illusion to be employable for a
variety of purposes.
Consider the stellar constellations. They are illusions. There is, in fact,
no group of stars arranged in the configuration of the Big Dipper. Only our
position within our solar system makes it appear that way. But to the
navigator on the surface of the Earth, the stellar constellations can be
relied upon to guide one's journey.
Race may be genetic illusion, since its variability
manifests itself only across generations. Nonetheless, the misery and abuse
racial distinctions have been used to rationalize to the present day attests
to the fact that attention to racial distinctions can be consistently made
within the time span of any one generation.3
Ought philosophers engage in discussion on race? I am,
at this point, still somewhat unconvinced by my own arguments. Racial
discourse, whether intended as a tool for subjugation or liberation,
flourishes in those institutional contexts in which priorities of values and
operating assumption undermine the free exercise of philosophical inquiry.
Investigation threatens -- as we have seen above -- to lead us into socially
taboo areas; and, the social dynamics of taboo tend to severely constrain
philosophical inquiry. Let us look into this.
When asked a question, why don’t we always tell the truth, at least as
we see it at that moment? How do I look, dear? Isn’t she the cutest baby?
What do you think of our faculty, now that you’ve gotten to know us? What
did you think of my term paper?
When presented with such questions we lie with clear conscience. Why?
Because the truths we may have to tell are not as important to us or to our
interlocutors in these situations as the social relations we are concerned
to maintain. In many, many contexts we subordinate Truth to Caring and call
it Tact, or Sensitivity. We suppress truths the expression of which would
produce no foreseeable personal advantage and call it Collegiality. As
teachers, we may withhold the accurate evaluation of a student performance
and call it Encouragement
What prioritizations support discourse on race? Are they compatible with
those that support philosophical inquiry? How might we go about establishing
contrasts and comparisons? The answer is clear: by examining the evidence
our traditions of linguistic usage give us. The very
existence of certain concepts indicates prioritizations of value and
premise. (For the sake of brevity and poetry, I employ the word premise4
from the literature of organizational theory, which means, approximately,
"operating assumptions of an organization or institution."). What is the
Priorities of Value
What is it to be tactful? Among other things, it is to be
positively characterized, commended, for one's prioritization of caring over
truth. Imagine for example, a teacher's likely response to a student's
question, "You think I'm stupid, don't you?"
How might that priority be negatively characterized, or disparaged? As,
possibly, patronizing, or overprotective, as when a doctor
chooses to "protect" his patient from finding out the high fatality rate of
a proposed operation.
We can generate a very rough, but useful schema that compares the
prioritization of values, ( on the left) with possible commending and
disparaging characterizations on the right of the person or institution in
which or whom the prioritization exists.
It is of the form A/B <=> +/- ,
or using our examples, Caring / Truth <=> tactful
(or changing the parts of speech Caring / Truth
<=> tactfulness / patronization, although, I don't
think one need really worry about parallel construction here.)
This we can read as,
"Giving caring priority over truth may be commended as tactful
Notice that if we put Truth over Caring, we don't merely switch the position
of the characterizations since patronizing is not commendatory, nor
tactful, disparaging. We have to look for other words, e.g.
and disparaged as patronizing."
Truth / Caring <=> forthright / insensitive,
(or Truth / Caring <=> forthrightness
"Giving truth priority over caring may be commended as
(Note: For persuasive reasons it is unlikely that anyone will publicly own
up to lowering the priority of truth; indeed, leaders of all kinds profess
adherence to and promulgation of the truth.)
and disparaged as insensitive."
Despite the many alternatives and ambiguities, this approach does not yield
purely random results. Consider Elegance / Comfort. No English
speaker would likely pair it with pious / enamoured, Indeed, pious
/ enamoured, is not likely to be understood as a
A useful variation on this analysis is this: one begins on the right with a
positive characterization of an act, jumps to the prioritization, then back
to find a negative characterization: Forthrightness is used to
commend the prioritization of truth over caring; a negative prioritization
of this prioritization is insensitivity.
I offer for consideration the following:
caringA / caringB <=> preference /
The point of this is that the contexts of philosophical discourse and the
context of racial discourse tend toward different value prioritizations. The
pressure in philosophy is traditionally toward ranking as high priorities,
free inquiry, criticism and truth. The contexts in which racial discourse
are typically encountered press toward unity, harmony, and power. It would
appear, consequently that, unless the philosopher accepts the role of
partisan idealogue, he or she may face condemnation as divisive, rejecting,
contentious, and impertinent.
power / caring <=> control / insensitivity
caring / power <=> accepting / vulnerable
unity / truth <=> inclusive / lying
truth / unity <=> honest / schismatic
free inquiry / unity <=> inquisitive / divisive
unity / free inquiry <=> fraternal / restrictive
acceptance / truth <=> forgiving / promiscuous
truth / acceptance <=> honest / rejecting
harmony / truth <=> diplomatic / not discriminating
truth / harmony <=> forthright / contentious
truth A / truth B <=> ?5
criticism / unity <=> receptive / impertinent
unity / criticism <=> steadfast / totalitarian
We take no pleasure in the sophistical,
the disputative, the dialectical.-- Frazier in Walden Two.6
It is made abundantly clear in B. F. Skinner's totalitarian Utopia, Walden
Two, that philosophy is not welcome. Free inquiry and criticism,
though given lip service, are not congenial to the discourses of would-be
What operating assumptions are premised in different contexts of discourse?
Here is a list possible assumptions. These were chosen because they can be
used to differentially profile different common institutions such as
university, family, church and state.
Assumptions that may be prioritized differently in different
A. Authority may be challenged.
B. Individuals matter more than groups
C. Personal feelings matter.
D. The leadership should be protected.
E. One's reasons for acting are important.
F. The costs of action don’t matter
G. General utility is important.
H. Experience enhances authority.
I. Reputation enhances authority
J. Reputation of peers is important.
K. The group must maintain its identity.
Clearly, when one considers the contexts in which racial discourse is
promulgated, as opposed to those contexts in which philosophical inquiry is
undertaken, the premises are quite differently prioritized. Philosophers
would tend to place A high and K and D low. I would expect that this would
be reversed where racial discourse is common.
Diversity and Obscenity
Promoting racial discourse is sometimes seen as a way of promoting
appreciation of diversity. But the awkwardness I had to negotiate early in
this presentation point to a limit on the kinds of diversity that might be
One of my students, a vice principal, told me recently of a fourteen year
old African-American boy who was suspended for saying to his friend, also
African-American, "Hey, Nigger! Look at this!" School policy designates the
word, "nigger", always referred to as "the N-word," to be " a "racial slur."
The boy was suspended for racially slurring his friend. This is along the
lines of suspending third graders for violating antidrug policy because they
carry cough drops. Clearly, what has become institutionalized in that school
is the use-mention fallacy I described above. Is this liberation?
Whose obscenities ought we institutionalize? The institution of obscenity is
widespread, inconsistent, and traditional. It is basically irrational,
verbal "magic." It is a simple device for controlling those who might be
insufficiently respectful of a community's particular values: one either
avoids uttering certain sounds, or one suffers punishment. But the whole
process, in cross-cultural perspective strikes one as absurd!
Why should children be taught to react emotionally aversively to arbitrary
combinations of sound? If schools take the cowardly approach as the one
described above does and forbid any utterance that might in some context,
for some persons, in some culture, constitute a taboo word, then what of the
educational goals of rationality and liberation?
What Should Philosophers Do?
Unless one intends to pursue a career as a partisan idealogue or some
other kind of intellectual ancillary, the practicing philosopher is left to
the archetypal role of gadfly: divisive, rejecting, contentious, and
impertinent. (At least, being so characterized, one knows one is having some
effect -- one of philosophy's meager consolations.)
Actually, there are two important cases here. In the first, let us suppose
that the purpose of racial discourse is subjugation. The moral imperative
here is clear, I would think. In the second case, the purpose of racial
discourse is liberation. One's concern here, then, ought be that political
expedience not completely eclipse concern for establishing a shared "regime
1. A typical example: Article 1
:1. All human beings belong to a single species and are descended from a
common stock. They are born equal in dignity and rights and all form an
integral part of humanity. Adopted and proclaimed by the General Conference
of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization at
its twentieth session, on 27 November 1978 Declaration on Race and
Racial Prejudice, E/CN.4/Sub.2/1982/2/Add.1, annex V (1982). http://www1.umn.edu/humanrts/instree/d2drp.htm
2. Professors of philosophy are,
after all, institutional functionaries and tend to give collegiality higher
priority than truth.
3. Perhaps a point against a theory
that what works is real. Illusions "work".
4. Cf. Charles F. Perrow Complex
Organizations . Oakland, NJ: Scott-Foresman, 1979. p. 152.
5. Note that truth, unlike caring,
seems to admit of no priorities. I tested these prioritizations in several
classes and my students reached much the same results.
6. B. F. Skinner, Walden Two (New
York. MacMillan. 1976) ISBN 0-02-411510-X. p.103
See, also, Rozycki, EG A Critical
Review of B.F. Skinner's Philosophy