|Photo: Tania Lombrozo |
But three issues this past week made something clear: We need philosophers engaged in public life — and a public willing to engage them.
Issue No. 1: Rachel Dolezal, a woman born to Caucasian parents, was "outed" as white though she identifies as black.
The case raises a variety of questions. What determines a person's race? Is race a biological category or a social construct? If the latter, in what is it grounded? These questions force us to confront issues in philosophy of language about what determines a word's meaning (such as "white" and "black"), issues in philosophy of biology about the status of race as a meaningful biological category (short answer: it's probably not), issues in social constructivism about what race might amount to as a social construct (something grounded in history and ancestry? in social identity?) and much, much more.
The list of philosophically charged questions goes on: Is there a morally or politically significant asymmetry between a black person "passing as white" and a white person "passing as black"? Is Dolezal "transracial" just as some people are "transsexual," or are there important differences between race and sex with implications for how to think about Dolezal's case?
In a thoughtful discussion at the philosophy blog Daily Nous, over half a dozen philosophers weigh in on these issues. The discussion is surprisingly accessible, and a heck of a lot more sophisticated than anything I've seen in mainstream venues.