Philosophy department to host discussion on pro-transracialism controversy

An upcoming symposium and roundtable will confront a controversy at the heart of the humanities, with racism and transphobia in academia, public shaming online, and the future of feminist philosophy taking centre stage.

The two-day event “Social Justice, Feminist Affects, and Philosophical Futures: Responding to the Hypatia Controversy” will feature philosophers and critical race and gender theorists discussing the Hypatia Controversy, a series of events which gripped feminist philosophy over the spring and summer of 2017. Chloe Taylor, a philosopher based in the University of Alberta’s Department of Women and Gender Studies, organized the event. The symposium will be on March 7 from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in Athabasca Hall 277, and the roundtable be on March 8 from 3:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. in Assiniboia Hall 2-02.

The Hypatia Controversy concerned a polarizing article called In Defense of Transracialismby Rebecca Tuvel, an assistant professor at Rhodes College in Memphis, Tennessee. The article was published by Hypatia, the leading journal of feminist philosophy, in May 2017.

In the article, Tuvel argued that if society accepts it when people sincerely self-identify as part of a certain social category (even when it’s different from some biological identifiers, as in the case of transgender persons) then we must accept it when people sincerely self-identify as part of a race different from their biological heritage. Critics claimed that Tuvel falsely equated race and gender, harming both transgender persons and racialized minorities.

Many prominent feminist scholars opposed the article’s publication, with Tuvel coming under charges of racism and transphobia while the philosophical community grappled with its own lack of diversity. Taylor, the professor who is organizing the event at U of A, said the controversy raised important issues about publishing, citational politics, and the compatibility of philosophical methods with social justice scholarship.

“I feel like the way things happened was really unfortunate because they happened at the expense of a junior scholar, and a junior woman scholar in a male-dominated discipline,” Taylor said. “But nevertheless, important issues were raised, so I’m hoping that we can have some events where we talk about those issues.”

An open letter signed by 800 feminist scholars called for Hypatia’s then-editor-in-chief, Sally Scholz, to retract Tuvel’s article, alleging that it failed to consider the scholarship and lived experiences of transgender people and people of colour. On April 30, 2017, a group of the Associate Editors of Hypatia, including U of A’s Cressida Heyes, apologized for the article’s publication on the journal’s Facebook page. The associate editors are not involved in the journal’s substantive editorial process and published their apology without the consent of Scholz, who has since resigned along with the editorial staff. Normally, the associate editors would hire the new editor-in-chief, but Hypatia’s board of directors took away the associate editors’ authority to do so, and they resigned in protest. The Facebook post has since been deleted and the journal has seen a decline in submissions.

“(The Hypatia controversy) was a moment for people to call out these problems that are structural in academia and especially in philosophy,” Taylor said. “The reason (Tuvel) wasn’t citing more people of colour and more trans people was that she was citing philosophers for a philosophy paper in a philosophy journal … and there was nothing philosophical written (on this topic) by trans philosophers and people of colour philosophers.”

Looking towards “philosophical futures” beyond the discipline’s white cis male status quo was a major impetus for the upcoming U of A symposium and roundtable. The symposium features Tuvel herself, followed by presentations by six philosophers and critical theorists, of whom five are persons of colour and one is transgender. The roundtable, which features female philosophers from the U of A’s Department of Philosophy and Department of Women and Gender Studies, will discuss a way forward for philosophical publishing in the wake of the controversy.

Jonah Dunch

Jonah Dunch is in his third year of a BA Honours with a major in philosophy and a minor in drama. Aside from his work at The Gateway, Jonah writes, directs, and acts in plays. He eats your clicks for dinner.

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