Nora Berenstain on Rebecca Tuvel and Hypatia

Nora Berenstain
April 29 at 10:20am ·
A lot of folks are currently discussing Rebecca Tuvel’s recent article in Hypatia, “In Defense of Transracialism.” The article contains egregious levels of liberal white ignorance and discursive transmisogynistic violence. Unfortunately, many white philosophers have centered their responses to the public discussion of the article around concerns that the anger and criticism directed at Tuvel will have a negative impact on her career, suggesting that this would be bad given that she is a junior woman in philosophy. White feminist philosophers have a tendency to rally around other white women when we enact harm.
Tuvel enacts violence and perpetuates harm in numerous ways throughout her essay. She deadnames a trans woman. She uses the term “transgenderism.” She talks about “biological sex” and uses phrases like “male genitalia.” She focuses enormously on surgery, which promotes the objectification of trans bodies. She refers to “a male-to- female (mtf) trans individual who could return to male privilege,” promoting the harmful transmisogynistic ideology that trans women have (at some point had) male privilege. In her discussion of “transracialism,” Tuvel doesn’t cite a single woman of color philosopher, nor does she substantively engage with any work by Black women, nor does she cite or engage with the work of any Black trans women who have written on this topic. On her website, Tuvel describes her work as “at the intersection of critical race, feminist and animal ethics.” She describes her work on race as critical! Not once does the phrase “white supremacy” appear anywhere in her work. She says it is her “underlying concern to theorize justice for oppressed groups.” Yet she does not engage or even hear the voices of Black women as she “theorizes” about justice for Black women. This is not acceptable. This is violence.
I think we need to situate Tuvel’s harmful, violent, actively ignorant work within the broader social context and acknowledge that it is the default disposition of cis white women to commit epistemic violence against trans people, against people of color, against women of color, against Black women, against trans women of color, against Black trans women. This is the norm for cis white women both within and outside of philosophy. It is not the exception.
Cis white women have a special ability to enact this type of violence because of our presumed innocence and fragility. Indeed, Anna Stubblefield’s “good intentions” provided the crux of Singer & McMahan’s recent defense of her sexual violence against a disabled Black man. Well-intentioned white women are dangerous. Well-respected, and well-intentioned cis white women in philosophy have done and continue to do an extraordinary amount of harm, and we do it unchecked by other cis white folks. Here are just a few examples:
In 1962, Amelie Rorty wrote a paper called “Slaves and Machines.” The central claim was that, “deciding whether machines think is like deciding whether slaves think.” Fifty years later, she gave a racist keynote talk in my department. The one Black undergraduate in the room left the talk and probably left philosophy.
In 1996, Claudia Card wrote an article called “Rape as a Weapon of War” which included a fantasy that the punishment for men who rape should be to castrate them and force them to live as women. After I commented during an open mic at FEAST that the celebration of Card made the conference an unsafe space for trans women, Eva Feder Kittay came up to me and chastised me for my uncharitable misreading of Card, saying that that wasn’t what she had intended and that it shouldn’t be blown out of proportion.
In her 2007 book “Epistemic Injustice,” Miranda Fricker illustrates the concept of hermeneutical injustice by describing the experience of Carmita Wood, who experienced sexual harassment before the concept was widely known. Fricker never once mentions that Wood is Black. She does not analyze or even acknowledge the role that racism played in producing the white male sexual entitlement evident in the case she describes of Wood’s boss sexually harassing and assaulting her. Fricker focuses solely on the way the gap in the shared hermeneutical resources harms women and ignores the fact that the sexism that Black women face is racialized. Fricker offers a white savior narrative for how Wood came to understand her experiences, and she fails to situate Wood’s legal actions within the broader context of U.S. Black women’s resistance to sexual harassment in the workplace. Fricker does not cite a single Black woman in her book.
Carol Hay, the Secretary and Treasurer of the Society for Analytical Feminism, uses Kantian ethics and Liberalism in the service of feminism. In a 2015 interview, Hay describes her work as “the antithesis of Audre Lorde’s admonition that the Master’s tools can never dismantle the Master’s house.” She goes on to say, “I want to see just how much dismantling we can do with those tools.” She misappropriates the words of but does not actually engage the work of Audre Lorde, a Black lesbian woman scholar. She positions Lorde’s radical viewpoint as the received view, when in fact, the received view is mainstream white feminism, just what Hay appropriates Lorde’s words in the service of. Yet many white feminist philosophers expressed surprise when Black women philosophers criticized both the misogynoir at the SAF conference (co-organized by Hay) and the near-total lack of critical response to it by the white feminists in attendance. White women need to stop expressing surprise as a way of distancing ourselves from moral blame. At this point, our surprise itself is blameworthy because by now we should know better. White women enacting violence against women of color is not the exception; it is the rule.
Cis white women need to deeply reflect on the ways we constantly create and maintain unsafe spaces for those who are already marginalized and subject to violence in our discipline. We need to recognize that we are often not competent or qualified to do the work that we arrogantly take ourselves to be capable of. We are quick to recognize and respond to incompetence and violence when it’s exhibited by white men like Singer & McMahan but not when its perpetrated by other white women. It’s time we start holding ourselves and each other to a higher standard.