What follows is a guest post by A.W. Eaton (University of Illinois-Chicago).
[Updated:] This is the first of three companion pieces that reflect on the ASA’s 75th anniversary. Click here for the second, by Paul C. Taylor, and the third, by Charles Peterson. See also the ASA Officers’ response letter here.
The 75th anniversary of the American Society of Aesthetics is an opportunity to reflect upon both our progress regarding inclusion and diversity and also upon the remaining work to be done. I discuss them here in turn.
First, consider the many indications that the ASA and the field in general are becoming more inclusive and diverse:
- 2017 witnessed 2 major ASA-sponsored conferences on race and aesthetics: one on Black aesthetics at Hampshire College and one at Oberlin College. These conferences, which were the first of their kind in the US, were well-attended and generated a lot of interest and enthusiasm.
- The annual meeting now regularly offers one lunch meeting for the Feminist Caucus and one for the Diversity Committee. Both are always very well attended.
- The ASA just completed its funding for a 3-year program of Curriculum Diversification Grants, overseen by members of the Diversity Committee, used to develop curricula that would be useful in teaching aesthetics. You can find the winning modules here.
- The ASA’s Feminist Caucus has been going strong for over 25 years. For the annual meeting of the ASA in Savannah, the Feminist Caucus celebrated its 25th anniversary with a full day of programming (the program is available here).
- Of the 10 current Trustees of the ASA, 5 are women and 2 are people of color. Other Board members are: the Past-President, current President, and Vice President, as well as the Secretary Treasurer, all of whom are women.
- The outstanding monograph prize in 2017 went to Paul C. Taylor (Penn State, Philosophy and African American Studies) for his book Black is Beautiful: A Philosophy of Black Aesthetics (Wiley-Blackwell, 2016).
- In 2009 Contemporary Aesthetics devoted an entire issue to race, and the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism has just accepted a proposal for a special issue on race and aesthetics to be published in 2020, co-edited by Charles Peterson (Oberlin, Africana Studies) and me (A.W. Eaton, University of Illinois-Chicago, Philosophy). A call for submissions will come out soon. If you have questions, please contact us at Charles.Peterson@oberlin.edu.
- ASA Trustees have just accepted a proposal from the Diversity Committee for a new award to be called the “Irene H. Chayes New Voices Award.” This award program aims to promote ASA participation and aesthetics scholarship among scholars from under-represented groups and scholarship that pertains to under-represented groups in significant ways. Details on this award coming soon!
- Recent meetings of the ASA, at both the national and regional levels, have featured an unprecedented number of papers and panels on topics pertaining to under-represented groups, as well as an unprecedented number of presentations by members of under-represented groups.
These things suggest that the ASA is on an upward trajectory with respect to inclusion and diversity in terms of both its membership and its intellectual production. I applaud this fact and deeply appreciate all of the work that has gone into making it possible.
This brings us to the ways in which our work toward inclusion and diversity is incomplete. While there is much to do on many fronts – for instance, disability rarely comes up despite its relevance to so many topics in our field – I want to talk about a particular aspect of this work that was made salient at the recent meeting of the ASA in New Orleans a couple of weeks ago.
It is not enough to simply have members of underrepresented groups at our meetings and to feature papers, panels, and plenaries on topics pertaining to members of underrepresented groups. The people who come to our meetings to share their work with us need to see that their ideas – rather than their mere presence or appealing appearance – are valued; they need to be able to share these ideas in an environment that is free from condescension, patronization, and mansplaining and whitesplaining; they need not to be sexually harassed. I am not saying that members of underrepresented groups need to be coddled, or that they cannot engage in rigorous argumentation. On the contrary! I am saying that diversity and inclusion make certain demands on the privileged, and that one of the most important such demands is that we work to ensure that members of underrepresented groups be made to feel respected and esteemed.
Now, you might think that this is all obvious, a matter or common courtesy even. But the fact is that the ASA is failing to create environments that are hospitable to people of color and to women (recognizing that these groups overlap). Here are some examples from the recent meeting in New Orleans:
- One alleged case of sexual harassment by a senior man toward a junior woman. I say “alleged” because the case has not been (nor will it be) officially adjudicated, although it has been reported to ASA governance. I know the details of this case and find it 100% credible. In fact, I have myself in the past had trouble with the senior male philosopher in question.
- During Q&A after Fahamu Pecou’s Danto lecture, the artist was repeatedly called upon to help explain the seemingly inscrutable practices of Black urban youth rather than asked questions about his extremely interesting work. (There were exceptions, as Paul Taylor powerfully describes in his piece here.) One scholar of color I know expressed feeling “totally othered” by this experience. (And this scholar is not Paul Taylor, which is to say that this makes at least two scholars of color who felt negatively impacted by the way Pecou was treated. I expect that there are more.)
- During an all-female panel (where 2 of the 3 presenters as well as the chair were women of color), a white philosopher in the audience member got up while the final presenter (a woman of color) was still speaking and went to the front of the room to tell the chair (a woman of color) that she needed to stop the speaker so as to make time for Q&A. While I find it plausible that the man would have acted that way had the participants all been white men, what he clearly failed to consider before acting is the importance of context. In the context of a panel of women, the majority of whom are women of color, this was glaringly condescending and disrespectful to both the chair, who did not need to be told how to do her job, and to the speaker, who was in the middle of presenter her ideas. The question that the man then asked in the Q&A is related by Paul in his piece.
In addition to these specific cases, I’d like to note that at every single ASA panel that has included people of color in the past few years, I’ve witnessed whitesplaining, exoticizing, and other sorts of racist condescension. I also regularly witness women getting mansplained at our meetings and am sometimes a target of this myself.
We may think that we are doing a lot of good by inviting members of underrepresented groups to participate in our meetings and publish in our journals. But if what they encounter is a deeply inhospitable climate – from micro-aggressions to sexual harassment – then we should expect the sort of response that I got from one senior philosopher of color in New Orleans: the ASA, they told me, is a “deeply racist” organization to which they will not return. That members of underrepresented groups feel this way is tragic. We can and must do better.
[Ed. note: The following is an addendum, added 11/29.]
I would like to note that the ASA leadership took immediate and decisive action in response to the report of sexual harassment. In addition to sending a forceful message to the harasser, ASA leadership immediately set up a committee to develop an official policy on sexual harassment. In addition, in recent years the ASA leadership has been maximally supportive of initiatives that support inclusion and diversity. These are important steps. But much more is needed, as Paul Taylor notes, both at the institutional level and personal and social levels. It is not the job – indeed, it cannot be the job – of ASA officers alone to change the culture of our meetings. The ASA leadership cannot eradicate micro-aggressions, mansplaining, whitesplaining, and other condescension; they cannot keep us from exoticizing, eroticizing when inappropriate, and doing things that make persons from underrepresented groups feel othered; they cannot keep us focused on people’s ideas rather than on their racial or ethnic identities, or on their bodies; ASA officials cannot keep us from interrupting, talking over others, and using Q&A as opportunities to display our own intellectual prowess rather than to ask genuine questions that engage the speaker’s ideas. This is up to us. As Paul Taylor says, we must internalize and model new norms of intellectual engagement.
 There was also one at University of Leeds in the UK, sponsored by the British Society for Aesthetics, in 2015 (you might be especially interested in their resource page for research on race and aesthetics).
This is the first of three companion pieces that reflect on the ASA’s 75th anniversary. Click here for the second, by Paul C. Taylor, and the third, by Charles Peterson. See also the ASA Officers’ response letter here.
Note on Contributor:
A.W. Eaton is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Illinois at Chicago. She received her Ph.D. from The University of Chicago in both philosophy and art history in 2003. She works on topics in feminism, aesthetics and philosophy of art, value theory, and Italian Renaissance painting. Anne was a Laurence Rockefeller Fellow at Princeton’s Center for Human Values in 2005-6. She is currently the editor of the Aesthetics & Philosophy of Art section of Philosophy Compass.