Welcome to the new PEA Soup Ethics discussion! This post focuses on Robin Zheng’s and Nils-Hennes Stear’s paper ‘Imagining in Oppressive Contexts, or, What’s Wrong with Blackface?’. The paper is available through open access here. Paul C. Taylor has kindly provided a critical précis to kick off the discussion:
I’m grateful for the chance to introduce this piece. Zheng and Stear undertake a careful and illuminating study of a serious and interesting question, and they do it in edifying and engaging and, ultimately, persuasive ways. Their work leaves me with some questions, but I’ll inquire against a backdrop of broad and enthusiastic agreement.
The authors ask when and why an exercise of the imagination is intrinsically wrong – wrong, that is, not because of its harmful consequences, but wrong in itself. This is a serious question in part, as the authors note, because the prospect of holding people accountable for their imaginings has become, for many of us, a matter of some controversy. (The authors mention controversies over “hipster racism”; I thought of debates about “cancel culture.”)
On one side of this discussion is a worry, as the authors put it, about “oversensitive, sanctimonious” types wrongly condemning off-color jokes (for example) that play with but do not endorse worrisome attitudes. On another side is the worry that simply deploying these worrisome attitudes is an ethical error, active endorsement aside.
The authors think both sides in this debate – the advocates, as they say, for imaginative laxity and imaginative strictness, respectively – have a point. Unfortunately, neither strictness nor laxity leads to the right conclusions, for want of a coherent account of ethically flawed imaginings. The authors use the phenomenon of blacking up – of altering the appearance of people not-racialized-as-black so that they appear to be black – as a testing ground for their escape from this impasse.
The US-based performance tradition of blackface minstrelsy, rooted in slavery-era depictions of backward “darkies,” is perhaps the most famous example of blacking up. But blacking up can involve not just visible alterations using makeup, wigs, and the like, but also vocal performances (say, in voice-over work) and other activities by which someone might imaginatively adopt a black persona. Blackface is a helpful on-ramp to the topic of unethical imaginings because it is widely regarded as deeply problematic even as it remains a weirdly prominent feature of worldwide racial practice.
The authors cite several recent examples of blackface and could have cited many more, from all over the world. The one I find particularly illuminating concerns a white law professor at the University of Oregon who (badly) darkened her face and donned an (absurd) afro wig for a Halloween party. (The parenthetical interruptions are necessary. I’ll explain.) She did this, she said, to present herself as a character in an anti-racist book that she wanted to celebrate. In the furor that predictably followed, no one disputed the professor’s anti-racist intentions. But the furor followed, nevertheless, rooted in worries about things other than the professor’s endorsed racial attitudes.
The Oregon case instructively draws out the relevant intuitions. One can understand the thought, even if one is not strongly drawn to it, that it should count in the professor’s favor, somehow, that she did not endorse racist attitudes. On the other hand, one can also understand the thought that something went wrong at that party, no matter what she intended.
Strictness holds that simply deploying the imagination in ethically problematic ways – in this case, play-acting that is rooted in centuries of anti-black stereotypes – is an ethical error. On this approach, the professor’s imagining was ethically flawed, her intentions notwithstanding. Laxity, by contrast, holds that simple deployment is not enough: that endorsement is a necessary condition for ethical error. On this approach, since the professor did not, as the authors say, “present the imagined attitude as suitable for ‘export’ into the actual world,” she cannot be ethically blameworthy simply for blacking up.
Zheng and Stear find a middle ground between these extremes by borrowing from speech act theory, from some of its recent applications in philosophical race theory and feminist philosophy, and from complementary developments in sociological race theory. They argue that imaginings are sufficiently like speech to make it worth considering their locutionary and illocutionary force, and that this approach is particularly important in societies shaped by histories of oppression. This approach focuses attention on the contexts for our imaginings and on the social realities they constitute, thereby expanding the field of evaluative maneuver beyond strictness and laxity.
Here’s how the authors describe their middle ground:
“We agree with the lax that imaginings may be intrinsically unethical in virtue of the attitudes they endorse. Yet, we disagree that they must endorse an attitude to suffer such a flaw…. We agree with the strict… that fictively deploying unethical attitudes can generate intrinsic ethical flaws. Yet, we disagree that it must…. We argue that imaginings… exhibit a kind of intrinsic ethical flaw in virtue of… fictively deploying attitudes that realize oppression, normalize oppression, or license oppressive behaviour. ” (p.387)
An imagining realizes oppression in the sense that it expresses or instantiates certain meanings that an oppressive social context makes available to it. This is the locutionary dimension of the speech-act approach: the law professor can’t unilaterally decide what her imaginative act means because meaning doesn’t work like that. Blacking up is an act that has had its meanings baked into it by centuries of anti-black practice. One can’t just choose how one stands with respect to all that, any more than one can just decide that “dog” denotes cats.
In addition to realizing oppression, the law professor’s imagining has the illocutionary force of normalizing oppression. The law professor, as Patricia Hill Collins inspires the authors to say, provides some of the “ideological glue” that links ideas about certain kinds of people and what they deserve to the practices that (mis)allocate social goods. As the authors say: “by imagining a ‘ghetto thug’… one contributes to making black men be seen as dangerous and violent” (p.399). To imagine in this way just is to normalize this way of reading black male bodies, even if one’s imagining has no causal impact on other people.
Finally, the illocutionary force of these imaginings also involves licensing oppression. The idea here is that oppressive imaginings set the normative conditions for conversational exchange. The law professor made a move in the game of social exchange that invited, licensed, additional moves in the same spirit, additional moves that would also help constitute (reproduce, reinscribe) the very system of oppression that her putatively anti-racist performance meant to contest.
The punchline, then: laxity rightly declines to assign blame to just any imaginative deployment of problematic ethical attitudes, as strictness demands. But strictness rightly refuses to wait for the agent to endorse problematic attitudes, as laxity demands. The truth is somewhere in the middle, next to the realization that the attempt to examine the imaginative act by itself, in isolation, is what blocks the path to a resolution. Speech act theory reminds us to study social contexts – to see what our imaginings can plausibly claim to be about and to do – while critical social theory reminds us to look closely at specific social contexts to see how their histories motivate ethical criticisms.
I have of course sped past several vital details in attempting to summarize this fascinating argument. There’s no space here to examine those details, or to consider the additional questions to which they might lead. I’ll close instead with some questions less about how this argument is supposed to go than about how it might go further or differently, questions that I could not answer by looking more closely at the details.
- In making the point about locutionary force, the authors rely primarily on the fact of semantic constraint. One can’t, they say, simply decide to use “dog” to denote cats. This is why the law professor can’t simply declare that her performance of blackface is in fact anti-racist. But one can decide to buck semantic convention in this way, and one can live with this decision if one is willing to accept a degree of illegibility to one’s fellows. I wonder if this possibility matters in oppressive contexts, especially in divided pluralistic societies, some members of which will wear their illegibility to others as a badge of honor, while treating the illegibility of others to themselves as evidence of perfidy or viciousness. I wonder, put differently, if the law professor’s willingness, if she were willing, to bite the bullet on her illegibility might signal a relationship to oppressive meanings, or to the prospect of meaning change, especially in divided societies, that the authors might want to account for.
- I wonder, in addition, if semantic constraint is less important for this account than semantic deference. Most attempts at making meaning involve writing checks against a vast store of semantic resources that we don’t personally command. We manipulate symbols whose meanings we can’t fully cash out, and we assume that some Putnam-style semantic expert can cash them out for us. This leaves us to some degree at the mercy of our semantic resources, making meaning on credit, as it were. All of which is to say that the Oregon law professor may have simply meant more than she intended, because she chose a meaning-bearer that carried with it all the content with which it had been funded by centuries of anti-black ideology. I wonder why Zheng and Stear don’t address this aspect of their topic.
- Finally, I’m drawn to the law professor case because it highlights the importance of quintessentially aesthetic considerations like criticism and performance. This was the point of my parenthetical additions earlier: it should matter to the way one reads the case that the law professor imagined herself as black in a very particular way. The photo that accompanies the story (at the link in the authors’ notes) shows the professor’s slapdash makeup job and ridiculous wig, both of which are consistent with the aspect of the blackface tradition that depicts black people as disheveled and messy. This matters because blacking up is a performance tradition, and reading instances of it requires critical acumen. On a generous read of the case, one could say the law professor lost her semantic bearings because she lacked this acumen and couldn’t read the relevant racial meanings. This matters because a core feature of contemporary US racial politics involves a concerted effort to discourage and prevent people from developing the acumen for properly reading racial and racist performances (by, for example, banning responsible pedagogy concerning US racial history). I wonder how this aspect of the situation bears on the argument that Zheng and Stear have developed.