Building better disciplines: An Interview with Black Feminist Philosopher Cato Taylor

As promised, I have an interview to share with you. This is a conversation between my friend and colleague Catherine Clune-Taylor, a doctoral candidate in Philosophy at the University of Alberta. Catherine, who also goes by the name Cato, and I have discussed our experiences in the academy with one another over the last few weeks. The following interview is a snapshot of the topics our conversations have covered. Through our ongoing dialogue, we interrogate the experiences of being black (Cato) and/or Indigenous (me) within disciplines that act as ‘white public space’ (Brodkin et al. 2011), and how that has shaped our praxis and writing and thinking. In this interview, Cato situates her work and articulates her vision of what an accountable academy can look like, and how we build that in a concrete way.

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Zoe: Cato. You and I met through mutual friends, and in the last few months you have been incredibly supportive as I finish my PhD. You have shared your thoughts on Philosophy as a discipline. Something you have said a few times is that Philosophy looks to Anthropology as, and I’m paraphrasing here, an example of a truly reflexive discipline. Which I find both funny and tragic, but it speaks to so many different issues within and between both disciplines! So, I guess I want to ask you some questions about your work as a Black feminist in Philosophy. My first question, to help situate you and your work, is “how did you get into Philosophy to begin with?”

Cato: How I got into Philosophy to begin with is a great place to start, since I, like many philosophers I know (and especially the minority ones), kind of stumbled into philosophy. For example, ten years ago, I never would have imagined that I would end up pursuing either a PhD or a career in Philosophy. However, before I tell you the story of my stumbling, it probably makes sense to say a bit about myself, and my research. I am as a queer, black, cis-gendered, feminist PhD Candidate in Philosophy who sometimes presents as visibly disabled (I occasionally walk with a cane). My dissertation research takes up the international adoption of a new treatment model of intersex conditions in 2006 which, among other things, controversially reclassified these conditions as “disorders of sex development” or DSDs. In it, I review the histories of medicine, intersex activism and feminist academic scholarship that constitute the conditions out of and against which the DSD treatment model emerged, provide an argument for why it failed to reduce the number of medically unnecessary genital normalizing surgeries performed on infants and children with intersex conditions (as many of those who endorsed it hoped it would) and go on to provide a Foucauldian analysis of the science, ethics and biopolitics underwriting it. So, my areas of specialization generally speaking of philosophy of gender and sexuality, philosophy of science (particularly philosophy of biology), bioethics and the work of Michel Foucault…but I also have additional competencies in philosophy of race and social-political philosophy.

Like I said, I never really planned on becoming a philosopher. I began my post-secondary education with the intention of going to medical school, and so my first undergraduate degree is an Honours Bachelor of Medical Sciences in Immunology and Microbiology from the University of Western Ontario. I had dreamed of going to medical school for as long as I can remember – ever since I was a very little kid – so I never really considered any alternative career paths, and further, made a lot of strategic decisions specifically to achieve that goal (like getting a part time job at a doctor’s office in high school and choosing UWO because I could do my undergrad through the Faculty of Medicine rather than the Faculty of Science, etc). In the second year of my undergrad I took a Philosophy of Gender and Sexuality course as an elective, which I picked because I needed one more essay credit, it fit pretty well within my lab schedule, and being an out queer student actively involved with the LGBT organization on campus, I figured I might find it personally interesting. The first topic we covered in the class was the medical management of intersex conditions, reading articles by feminist biologist Anne Fausto-Sterling, feminist sociologist Suzanne Kessler, and bioethicist Robert Crouch, along with excerpts from the History of Sexuality, Volume One by Michel Foucault. This was, really, the beginning of the end of my best-laid plans to go to medical school, though I can only see that now in retrospect.

At the time, my reaction was just like that of everyone else in the class: I was horrified by the practice of performing medically unnecessary surgeries to “normalize” the genitals of infants and children unable to consent – surgeries which often compromise genital sensation and leave individuals sterile. Further, I was disturbed by both the toxic heteronormativity that motivated these practices, and its continuation in the face of clinical acknowledgement that there was no research to support it. Beyond this, I was unsettled by the short excerpts of the History of Sexuality, Volume One that we read and the questions it raised for me about the history of medicine (which I realized I knew nothing about), as well as it’s place in society. It’s objectivity and beneficence. I’m sure it was only because of my plans to go into medicine, as well as my considerable experience working in a medical setting, that I was not able to shake the topic once the class moved on to the next item on the syllabus. Intersex stayed with me though the rest undergrad and continued to emerge as a theme throughout my studies (for example, I did my major research project for my Biochemistry of Genetic Disease course on the intersex condition Congenital Adrenal Hyperplasia). I also began to take more philosophy courses – as many as I could really. When I was advised that the conditions of my BMSc program would not allow me to double major, I took a heavy course load, such that by the time I finished my degree in Microbiology and Immunology, I had enough philosophy credits to complete my BA in the area in one more year (which I did – spite is one of my major motivators in life and being told I can’t do something pretty much guarantees that I’m gonna figure out a way to do it).

The more engaged with philosophy I became, the more I researched intersex conditions and their management and, most importantly, the more Foucault I read, the more alienated I became from my dream of going to medical school. Frankly, it all started to creep me the fuck out. I had begun to reframe and ultimately reinterpret some of my past experiences with medicine both as a patient and as support staff in a medical setting. Most importantly, I had begun to reflect on the patients with intersex conditions who had come through the practice and the ways in which they and their families had been managed. Reading these experiences in a new way disturbed much of what I thought I understood about medicine and its role in society, that is, I was no longer sure that I really knew what medicine was about. So a good chunk of my becoming a philosopher has to do with the way in which philosophy rendered my becoming a physician impossible. However, another good chunk of my becoming a philosopher has to do with how lucky I was that when I first stumbled into philosophy, it was in a context where I encountered many philosophers who mentored, supported and encouraged me (most notably, Tracy Isaacs, Samantha Brennan, Helen Fielding and Carolyn McLeod). It was a direct result of their urging and encouragement that I pursued an MA in Philosophy at Western and later, a PhD in Philosophy at the University of Alberta, under the supervision of Dr. Cressida J. Heyes. Without their continued support, as well as that of Cressida’s (which cannot be overstated), I am certain I would not still be here in the academy today, months away from defending my dissertation.

Zoe: So, my next set of questions is about facing/dismantling/negotiating the whiteness and heteropatriarchy of the academy. We’ve talked about my own experiences as an Indigenous woman—a white passing one—working in anthropology, and some of the challenges of dismantling norms which concentrate the voice of authority in particularly bodies (which Sara Ahmed writes so incisively and powerfully about!). The first time I read about you, it was on a blog by our mutual friend Karen Campos Castillo, heart-beats.ca. In your interview with her, you mentioned that there are very few Black philosophers in Canada, and NONE in the UK (as of 2011). This really opened my eyes to the whiteness of the discipline, and also confirmed my own anecdotal/lived experiences of the whiteness of the Euro-Western academy more broadly. What advice do you have for POC and/or Indigenous scholars who are in these white spaces? How do non-white scholars dismantle these constructs while also contending with what Kwakwaka’wakw scholar Sarah Hunt (2013) calls the ‘epistemic violence’ (29) of ‘(neo)colonial’ (30) institutions like the academy ?

So one of the things I love the most about decolonizing/shifting paradigms in the academy is how we can bring ourselves, as scholars, into our writing. To literally bring our bodies and experiences into spaces we haven’t traditionally been welcome in. How do you bring yourself into your writing? How do you embody your thinking in your life?

What advice do you have for other women of colour (WOC) who want to be philosophers? How do you envision creating spaces where there are more WOC in the discipline?

And something you’ve talked about are the physical realities of where it is safe to be a black woman in the academy. Ie: we are taught to be flexible, to go where the jobs are. We’re told that in this economy we have to be grateful for any and every job that comes up—whether it’s an adjunct/sessional position or a post-doc. But you talk about how this is a fallacy for you as a Black woman. You can’t move to any city. You can’t move to Baltimore and take a job in a place where Black bodies are targeted. How can we–as scholars working in neoliberal universities–challenge those narratives of us as a movable, flexible, interchangeable work force? How can we acknowledge that as WOC and/or Indigenous women, we can’t work in any city, that we need to be in places where we know we are physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually safe?

Cato: This is such a beautiful set of questions – Thank you for giving me the opportunity to discuss these issues. I hadn’t realized quite how much I wanted to talk about these things until presented with the opportunity to do so.

Philosophy is indeed a very white and very male discipline, and one that I would argue has not really acknowledged or attempted to wrestle with its own heteronormativity or whiteness as a discipline in quite the way Anthropology has via the Reflexive Turn. So navigating the discipline from the kind of subject position I do can be complicated. I’d rather not lay out specific advice for POC and/or Indigenous scholars who are in these white spaces (and I want to explicitly include those in PhD programs here), because I’m not comfortable with being prescriptive about the right or wrong ways to engage with whiteness and heteropatriarchy in the academy. All I can do is speak from my position and share those things that have been the important for me in terms of making my life as a philosopher sustainable. As I do this, I’ll try to answer all of your questions, but feel free to come back to any point you’d like me to say more about.

I think one of the most important things for me has been recognizing that being an academic, and specifically, being a philosopher in an institutional setting, is actually just a job like any other. And as with any job, I could leave it and do something else – academic training tends to make us believe that we can’t really do anything else or find a place for ourselves outside of the academy where we might feel successful, but that’s simply not true. If you’re a POC and/or an Indigenous person with the determination and the capabilities to do a PhD in any discipline, then you have the determination and capabilities to be successful at a lot of things.  Whether or not I continue to work as a professional philosopher is the result of the type of personal (though contextually mediated) cost-benefit analysis that is familiar to all of us as subjects under capitalism. The culture of academia is such that we tend identify very strongly with our identities as academics, which makes complete sense to me – becoming an academic is time-consuming and necessarily involves a lot of sacrifices such that it can be fairly consuming of the self. Furthermore, as academics (and particularly as philosophers) our output is in a very literal sense the content of minds (plus some data, depending on your discipline). To publish a paper is literally to say, “So, here’s what I think about this thing, world! How about those of you who know about this topic the best publicly let me know what you think, and in as much detail as possible please!” I also think part of it has to do with the fact that the academy is a disciplinary institution and the Academic is a disciplinary subject like any other, but that’s totally my Foucault showing.

This was a really important realization for me because it allowed me to have a little distance from my work and my identity as an academic, and to be clear about what was necessary for me to make my pursuing this line of work in a potentially hostile environment sustainable (in the way I might with any other job). I think the tendency for academics to over identify as such can lead us to put up with forms of oppression or discrimination from “discursive violences” to micro-aggressions, or even just fail to recognize them as such, and thus to internalize rather than externalize them. Realizing professional philosophy is just another job allowed me to make that cost-benefit analysis an explicit part of my engagement with philosophy and forced me to be clear about what I needed to make my life as a philosopher one that was liveable. It also allowed me to distance myself from the institutionally constituted norms that define me as a professional philosopher (or at least, one to be) and to differentiate that from my personal engagement with or beliefs about philosophy. There are many ways to do philosophy and be a philosopher – what is required of me in an institutional context is just one of those ways. However, again, whether that one way is one that I’m willing to take on or stay in depends on other needs that I have had to explicitly define over time being met. And the truth is, many of those needs are constituted by the privilege I do not have as a Black, queer, cis-gendered feminist woman with a sometimes disability within the academy.

For example, I know that my working as a philosopher depends in part on my being in community with other scholars (like yourself) from a variety of disciplines, in ways that are supportive, honest, encouraging and inspiring. Philosophy can be a very solitary practice and I think that in line with my general tendency towards introversion, my initial response to experiences of hostility was to further isolate myself in a very “Keep your head down and power through” type way. However, I eventually realized that approach was simply untenable for me – not only am I happier, but I am far more productive when part of this kind of professional community and I needed to prioritize creating it if it was not readily available to me. I also know that my being in philosophy also depends in part on my doing things to actively change philosophy, or to challenge/resist the heteropatriarchy and whiteness of professional philosophy so that it does become more accessible to others like me – but again, in ways that are sustainable for me. For example, I take part in committees like the CPA’s equity committee and was lucky enough to work as a graduate assistant at wonderful summer school for minority undergrads in philosophy at Penn State a few summers ago, the Philosophy in an Inclusive Key Summer Institute . I think the most important thing for me in dismantling the constructs of these spaces is to talk about them and to draw attention to them, honestly, even if it makes people uncomfortable (through things like this for example). I know that the honesty of other minority philosophers (and academics general), has been really important for me in terms of figuring it how and in what specific ways I was/am willing to engage with the academy. For example, Anita Allen’s  honesty about her choice to leave a primary appointment in Philosophy for one in Law has played a major role in the way I have renegotiated/reframed my relationship with the academy over the course of my PhD (and without which, I don’t think I would have finished).

Of course, the terms according to which working in professional philosophy must constantly be renegotiated such that I hope it remains a life I consider to be liveable (and knowing people like you in the academy make me feel optimistic about this), but I also acknowledge that one day, the balance may tip. As you mentioned, for example, I did a “practice run” on the job market this past season, and in the process, was forced to define certain firm boundaries in terms of what kind of life as a philosopher was liveable for me, and where. There were at least three positions that I did not apply for because I didn’t think I would feel safe as a black woman living in those cities, particularly from police violence. I actually prepared an application package for a position in Cleveland that I never sent in following the shooting of 12 year old Tamir Rice a week prior to the closing date. The assumption that we should apply to every single job ad and be able to just go wherever the job is assumes that as individuals, all academics have a lot of privilege. The point of my practice run way to get feet wet at preparing an application package (though, of course, if I got something, amazing) but I think the most important thing I learned was that I am not willing or able to go anywhere. I undeniably have a lot of privilege in this world as an educated cis-gendered, mostly able-bodied woman, but I don’t have enough to just apply to any job. My fat Black and often visibly queer body means that not all spaces or cities are physically, emotionally or psychologically safe for me in the way they are the average philosopher (statistically speaking). Again, I think talking about these things, drawing attention to them honestly is the first step to undoing them. Once we recognize the concrete barriers facing POC and/or Indigenous scholars, then we can start addressing them and making work as academics sustainable, and thus possible, for others.

As a cis-gendered woman without a diagnosed intersex condition who writes primarily about intersex management, the effects my various identities and my experiences have on my writing are more indirect rather than explicit. Though I rarely discuss or reference these experiences, much of my thinking and writing about intersex is coloured by my own experiences as a subject of medicalization (as a fat Black woman, as a woman with ankles that require(d) surgical reconstruction), of working in health care, and of living with and among those with disabilities. For example, in addition to both of my parents and many other members of my family having a plethora of health and mobility issues, I lived in a co-operative housing complex in Toronto for much of my early life where 50% of the population was people with disabilities. These experiences definitely influence the way in which I think and write about pathology, disability and autonomy.

I have actually written a few things that are a little bit closer to my own experiences and look forward to doing more of that in the future. But I would actually say one of the most important ways in which I bring myself, and my body into the academy is as a teacher. I always try to inject some feminism and intersectionality into my syllabi for Philosophy courses are notorious for having syllabi featuring all white male authors. Further, I think just my being at the front of the room as a fat, black woman in such a white male discipline is important, though it can also be challenging and complicated.

hiy-hiy, Cato, for sharing your thoughts and for continuing to inspire me to voice my own.

Zoe Todd (Red River Métis/Otipemisiwak) is a PhD Candidate in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. In July, she will become a Lecturer at Carleton University, Ottawa, Canada. She is a 2011 Trudeau Foundation Scholar. She researches human-fish relations, colonialism and Indigenous legal orders/governance in Canada.

One thought on “Building better disciplines: An Interview with Black Feminist Philosopher Cato Taylor

  1. A great interview, especially for a reader like me whose undergraduate education was in an all white male philosophy department. Am I correct to assume that Cato is aware of and enjoying the ironies associated with her name? My altogether evil brain immediately pops up associations with Cato the Elder, a Roman warrior-statesman famous for ending his speeches with “Carthago delenda est”, or “Carthage must be destroyed,” and the Cato Institute,

    “an American libertarian think tank headquartered in Washington, D.C. It was founded as the Charles Koch Foundation in 1974 by Ed Crane, Murray Rothbard, and Charles Koch,[6] chairman of the board and chief executive officer of the conglomerate Koch Industries.[nb 1] In July 1976, the name was changed to the Cato Institute.[6][7] Cato was established to have a focus on public advocacy, media exposure and societal influence.[8] According to the 2014 Global Go To Think Tank Index Report (Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, University of Pennsylvania), Cato is number 16 in the “Top Think Tanks Worldwide” and number 8 in the “Top Think Tanks in the United States”.[9]” (Source Wikipedia)

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