Last week was the 4th annual Conference by women in Philosophy at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. Where the goal was to focus on the works of contemporary female philosophers. Sponsored by the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, Society for Women in Philosophy and the University of Amsterdam, one hopes that it marks a new development towards more diversity in the academic philosophical field.
The conference sessions varied from lectures about objectivity in science, religious identities in democratic societies to lectures of an ethical philosophical nature such as the matter of paid surrogacy, showcasing the variety of topics and disciplines that female philosophers do research in. The conference also offered workshops, providing the attendees practical tools on how to get their papers published. A hassle for many philosophers, but especially to female philosophers as they only make up 21% of employed philosophers in the discipline of Philosophy compared to 41% in the Humanities, and they only make up 17% of full-time faculty.
This year the Keynote lecture was given by Xhercis Méndez, assistant professor in philosophy at Michigan State University. She is a philosopher of Puerto Rican descent and a woman of color in the context of the US. She was born in the mainland (the US), a distinction she emphasizes as Puerto Rico has a colonial relationship to the US. Puerto Ricans have US citizenship regardless of where they are born, but due to the anti-immigrant sentiment in the US, which is often specifically aimed at Spanish-speakers, they face the same xenophobic sentiment as Spanish-speakers from other Latin-American countries.
“When I grew up I was aware of the extent to which my homeland, my home-language, my cultural ways of being and knowing, all of the things that were valuable to my community, were not necessarily valued in school. And it wasn’t part of the curriculum, so I did not see myself reflected in that curriculum growing up”.
Méndez is one of the few Puerto Rican women who has a PhD in philosophy. And looking at the conditions this, as she states, is no accident. Hence the reason why she wants us to attend to the way Philosophy, as an academic discipline, is structured. She argues that Philosophy as a discipline is very structured in a Western-European way.
Méndez initially had no intention on ending up in the philosophy department of Michigan State University. She emphasizes the fact that philosophy is bigger than the way it’s organized academically. And the field as it is academically organized was not welcoming to her political concerns as a woman of color, and she did not feel like having to fight for space for that.
“I didn’t want to have to justify my project to philosophers saying “well that’s not philosophy, prove to me that it is”. That is not my project, it is not my job to prove to you that I’m doing something on your terms”.
She calls this a part of her ‘strategery’, her way of navigating through a somewhat hostile environment. “In the US the department was primarily comprised of very condescending white men, and I didn’t feel like having to be in that company for most of my days. And the students that tended to be attracted to philosophy were also hostile to my political concerns to the project. So I thought there is so much work to be done in the world, why do I want to fight so hard here?” When Méndez graduated she ended up getting hired by the Women/Gender studies department, but as the Philosophy department at Michigan State saw that what she was doing was pushing philosophy they ended up recruiting her. One might wonder how she feels about working there now, so did one of the women in the audience, asking her “So how are the men there?” to which Méndez playfully replies “They’ve been trained”, as they are attentive to issues of diversity and are attempting to shift the field.
Méndez made a conscious choice not to sacrifice the project for the discipline, as you don’t need the discipline to justify the project. However doing that does require putting thought into the conditions you’re in. One of the things she thinks that women who want to pursue a career in philosophy need to have is thick skin in order to tensely occupy their space. Noting to having encountered many women looking for the people in their respective Philosophy departments to recognize that what they’re doing is good, wanting to prove that they are doing philosophy. In this regard it is also important not to personalize the criticism one can expect to receive. “It’s not about you, often times it is about people carving out space for themselves worried about the career that they’ve build being destabilized”. Méndez instead suggests that women start to think about how they develop allies both within and outside of the field, to find people who think that what they’re talking about matters and you build from there.
“When I was going to Grad school I found that it was a lot easier for me to build my allies up, than to convince these people (academic philosophers) that what I was doing was philosophy”.
She argues that this is also beneficial if we want to change the terms of how Philosophy is run and if we’re thinking about a global world, as she states that the way philosophy is taught as is, does not prepare us to deal ethically with transnational issues, nor does it prepare us to be global thinkers and actors. She claims that epistemically and ethically this is not justifiable. Diversity at the university should also be more than just the diversity of bodies. In this she considers Michigan State to be very rare as they have seven faculty members of color in the department of Philosophy, which she says doesn’t happen anywhere. Three of them came in last year and one of the changes they all made in the past year was diversifying the program. At Michigan State students were previously required to follow a course on ancient philosophy and modern philosophy to major in philosophy. “They are asking us to recruit students of color, which means they want us to recruit students of color and women into philosophy, we want their diverse bodies, but we don’t want them to do anything different than how philosophy works”. She and the other faculty members of color refused to do that. They were not willing to recruit anyone until the students were given something they might want to learn about.
“So one of the things that we did is that we added three new philosophical traditions; Latino Philosophy, Indigenous Philosophy and Africana Philosophy. From those five traditions a student can come in and they only have to pick two, so a student can come into our program and never having to do Ancient or Modern [Philosophy]. And we’ve woven in Feminist Philosophy at every level, so you have Feminist Epistemology, Metaphysics with a Feminist bend, you have all types of things that gives students a lot of opportunities to fit themselves in. And that speaks to the diversity of students we have”.
After the Keynote lecture Méndez told me more about her work. She started doing her project that was grounded in thinking about women of color, thinking about political concerns of women of color from a trans-disciplinary perspective. In this she was able to look at bodies, power and sexuality from within Afro-Cuban ritual practices, to talk about the methods we use to understand the world around us. This also highlighted the ways in which Western feminist scholars, in their effort to move us to a more egalitarian society, overlook more egalitarian arrangements that people have because they are imposing the categories they brought with them from Western-European arrangements. In one of her articles Méndez argues that “Gender as a category of analysis limits, distorts, and even mistranslates our understandings of social and power relations in ‘non-western’ contexts and ultimately forecloses our ability to recognize alternative logics at work”(Méndez 2015). This is an idea that we also find in the works of Oyeronke Oyewumi. She urges that we need to think about other arrangements people had instead of assuming that the social arrangements between white European males and females is universal. Furthermore the notion of gender that these feminist scholars brought has a colonial history, an idea which we can also find in the works of Maria Lugones. In her article ‘Notes toward a decolonial Feminist Methodology’ she demonstrates that these categories that they brought, the notions of ‘gender’, ‘man’ and ‘woman’, function to obscure the histories and bodies of women of color, who bear the historical mark of slavery and colonization (Méndez 2015). These feminist scholars assumed that Woman as a concept is a cross-culturally identifiable category comprised of an identifiable set of bodies.
“However, the tendency to reduce gender to a referent for body type and or even a particular set of social dynamics makes it practically impossible to take into account the ways in which gender has historically been reconstituted and racialized through, what in the context of the Americas and the Caribbean can be understood as, colonial relations of power” (Méndez 2015).
Ultimately in doing so this view fails to recognize the colonial and neocolonial ways in which gender operates. Méndez argues that the incorporation of the enslaved and colonized into gender categories of ‘Man’ and ‘Woman’ is ahistorical and misconstrues the different experience of ‘manhood’ and ‘womanhood’ of enslaved African males and females. “The enslaved were not understood as different kinds of ‘Women’ or ‘Men’, but rather imagined and treated as altogether different types of beings, a different type of species” (Méndez 2015). Which is why Méndez proposes to move towards a decolonial feminist methodology, where part of the goal is to denounce and transform these colonial relations of power and colonial ways of relating.
This thinking about ways to decolonizing thought and decolonizing feminism led her to study Afro-Cuban Santéria. At SUNY Binghamton University Méndez had been part of a group that was doing decolonial thought and decolonial feminism.
“One of the questions we were asking ourselves was ‘what does constitute a decolonial thought, decolonial feminism? What kinds of moves do we have to make to disrupt this long intergenerational impact of colonialism? And where do we go for these kinds of knowledge bases?’ Because part of the narrative is that colonialism was successful, while it destroyed all our history, our archives. I was looking for practices that people have today, presently, that would be a sight to which to think from, a non-Western sight to think from”.
And she found numerous examples of such practices. “If you look at Afro-Cuban Santéria, Afro-Brazilian Candomblé and Hatian vodou, the Caribbean is full of practices that are new, different, but they are not Western. I started exploring what those practices have to tell us about new kinds of categories from which to think. How is it that these practices position people in the world differently”.
Méndez notes that looking at the history of slavery in the context of the US one often ends up with these narratives of dehumanized subjects. And the practices were designed to dehumanize. But one of the things that one will find is that practitioners are not moving to the world with a dehumanized sense of self. So Méndez wants to shift the lens from what the colonizers see when they see ‘the other’ to how people have come to think of themselves and what tools they have to affirm humanity by turning to their practices.
“Western feminists may look at religious practices, they may say that it doesn’t have anything useful to offer women, because religion ‘constrains’ women. But that makes no sense in communities of color”.
So following Oyewumi and Gloria Wekker, she started looking at how this affirming of humanity plays out in Afro-Cuban practices. As such in her article ‘Transcending Dimorphism’ she typifies her turn to Afro-Cuban Santéria practices as a “political investment in considering those spaces that ‘marginalized’ and or ‘abjected’ communities have turned to in liberatory ways” (Méndez 2014).
Méndez looks at the logics being obscured in gender analyses of Santéria practices. She wants to explore the non-gendered logics at work in these practices as there are spaces in Santéria that are created by practices that make little distinction between body-types, practices that are open to every ‘body’. The Orishas (divine entities) can inhabit the different bodies of their initiates, they can take up various forms and are themselves comprised of various aspects. They can manifest themselves as an old wise man in some instances and as an old woman, reckless youth or disembodied divine thought in other instances (Méndez 2014). They can inhabit and move through different kinds of bodies. It is the non-gendered head that allows the human body to be permeable, for the Orisha to enter, not the sexed human body. The body as such is not stable as a fixed materiality (Méndez 2014). For example the Orisha Olokun is referred to in androgynous terms, and is seen as male in some instances and female in other instances. But Olokun is also understood as being simultaneously male and female, and being neither male nor female. There is a fluidity, multiplicity and plurality at work that is not centered on a fixed dimorphically sexed body.
Méndez suggests more studies should be done on these practices as they offer alternative and decolonial arrangements of bodies. They allow us to look beyond gender by offering non-gendered and non-racialized logics. As she argues that true liberation for women of color does not lie in them being included into categories that require them to translate their experiences by adopting Western terms such as gender that bear a colonial history.
- Méndez, Xhercis (2014): “Transcending Dimporhism: Afro-Cuban Ritual Praxis and the Rematerialization of the Body”
- Méndez, Xhercis (2015): “Notes Toward a Decolonial Feminist Methodology: Revisiting the Race/Gender Matrix