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Doctor Mariana Ortega Aims To Strengthen Philosophical Intersections Of Race, Gender And Feminism

Feb 6, 2017

As a Professor of Philosophy at John Carroll University, Doctor Mariana Ortega has focused her research on questions of self, identity, and visual representations of race, gender and sexuality. More specifically, she has spent some of her career exploring how these topics intersect, claiming that philosophy sometimes takes a more general view of complicated topics like race.

“You have to be able to look at all the relationships going on between race and class,” Ortega says. “Are we talking about a Latina who is educated? A Latina who is gay? Are we talking about an immigrant who just came? Are we talking about somebody who was born here? And so, all these intersections play a tremendous, important role in our lives.”

In Between: Latina Feminist Phenomenology, Multiplicity, and the Self by Mariana Ortega

Mariana Ortega is also the founder and director of The Roundtable on Latina Feminism, a forum dedicated to discussions of Latina and Latin American feminisms. She addressed the concept of White Feminism in her 2006 essay “Being Loving Knowingly Ignorant: White Feminism and Women of Color.”

“There is still the emphasis on the work produced by white women,” Ortega says. “To me, that is incredibly telling that you can have the erasure of women of color in feminism, while at the same time being aware they produced all this knowledge. And at the same time, claiming or thinking that you are loving towards them.”  

She founded The Roundtable on Latina Feminism in response to what she calls a “blind spot” towards women of color in feminism. Her book In Between: Latina Feminist Phenomenology, Multiplicity, and the Self was published in 2016. 

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Interview Highlights

On Discussion Of Race And Philosophy In A “Post-Racial” Society

When we talk about race, I think sometimes both theoretically and in the public realm, we say a few things about race, primarily things or theories that are well-known and accepted. Or we quote the famous philosopher of race; a black or Latino, or primarily a black philosopher of race, and we say we've done the job. Right? There aren't that many people engaged in deep in-depth discussion, at least in philosophy, of the philosophies that are being produced by people of color in the profession. There are philosophers of color who are engaging in that conversation, but the mainstream is not.

On The Inspiration For the Founding Of The Roundtable on Latina Feminism

I felt that even though feminism is supposed to be attuned to the work of women of color, I would go to conferences and if there was a panel on women of color, or women of color feminism, it would be basically the token panel on women of color feminism. In some cases, it was not even mentioned. And yet, I would go to the conferences and a lot of people would quote the famous quotes or famous sayings by women of color but never engage with their work. So, I decided that I would create a space, a very small intimate space, where all the papers would be on the work of women of color. And it’s open to whoever is working on women of color feminism, primarily Latina feminism, but anybody who is interested in working seriously and in-depth in this work.

On The Future Of Race Relations In The United States

If I'm a Latina, and I have suffered racism in the U.S., to be able to at least have the possibility allowing myself to be open to understanding the experience of the violence that other people from other races have. That this is not a competition of the traumas and the wounds that come from racist brutality. That we are here as people who, all of us have a sense of this brutality one way or another, some more than others. But that we have to be willing to at least understand that we as people of color who have experienced racism and xenophobia, or maybe our ancestors you know, our group has this experience. That we can be open to understanding the experience of wounds that others have had. I think that’s key for our conversations, and not to rather be pit apart in specific groups, such that in the end, Blacks and Latinos and Asians, they’re all going one side or the other.

FULL TRANSCRIPT

MERLEYN BELL, HOST: So, I wanted to start of a discussion of your book In Between. I noticed at the very beginning, in your introduction, that you start out discussing intersections. That there are these intersections between philosophy, your field, between feminism and race, etcetera. But that these conversations about the intersections between these different subjects is sometimes discouraged in academia. What are these discussions and why do you think they are discouraged?

MARIANA ORTEGA: Yes, I think that’s a really important question actually. One of the most interesting things that happened in philosophy is that, as philosophers many times we try to engage with questions in a general way. So, we want to be able to provide general accounts and so for example, if you are working on an account of selfhood, you want to be able to provide an account, a general account, of selfhood rather than specific accounts of specific selves out there in the world. Consequently, we tend to become very abstract in our explanations. We do not pay enough attention to the intersections between social occasions or race, ethnicity, class, sexual orientation, nationality. Those are complex intersections that require an understanding, an attunement to lived experience in between those intersections. Sometimes the kinds of theories philosophers are working on are not capable of capturing that complexity given the desire to provide a more general account. And that’s one of the reasons why many times philosophers shy away from dwelling in those intersections. So that’s one reason. I think there’s another reason, and the second reason is the history of philosophy. The history of philosophy that has prioritized rationality and has relegated embodiment to other spheres. So, if we think about the history of embodiment in philosophy, it was not until Merleau-Ponty who wrote The Phenomenology of Perception who made perception primary, that we start really paying attention to embodiment. Once you pay attention to embodiment then you start looking at all the intersections between race, class, gender and sexual orientation. Lately, philosophers have been much more interested in those questions, but in general because of the history, because of the complexity of the intersections, we haven't done very well at being in tune at the lived experience within those intersections.

BELL: But what makes those intersections so complex?

ORTEGA: Yes. Well, even when you think about studying race, even people who are not philosophers who study race, sometimes try to look at certain issues in life and try to explain those issues in terms of the connection to race, right? But in reality we cannot look at race apart from sexuality, from class, from nationality. Even within the disciplines that pay attention to social location, we try to use a single axis approach because we are able to provide cleaner explanations. But once you have the intersections you have to be able to look at all the relationships going on between race and class. Are we talking about a Latina who is educated? A Latina who is gay? Are we talking about an immigrant who just came? Are we talking about somebody who was born here? And so, all these intersections play a tremendous, important role in our lives, and they’re not... The delineations between the social locations are not always clean. They are intertwined. And so it’s difficult to theorize about them

BELL: That’s interesting that you explained it as a cleanness. You know, so that it is easier to talk about, but it seems like even outside of academia that even focusing on one subject is so hard or can seem so hard to talk about. I wonder how you translate those conversations from academia, that are so difficult for people studying this all the time and focusing on these issues all the time, to everyday conversations. Do everyday conversations need to be addressing these intersections too?

ORTEGA: Yes, I think its key for everyday conversations to address them. In fact, I think that if anything, theoretical analysis needs to listen to the everyday conversations. Because the everyday conversations are probably more likely to be attuned to the complexity of the intersections. Not always. For example, right now in the political realm sometimes we talk about race and we don’t pay attention to intersections, right? So, even in public discourse we miss the intersections. But I think that for the most part, it would likely be the case that public discussions on the social locations, these social identities, will be more attuned to the complexity of the intersection than theoretical discussion.

BELL: Is that because we tend to infuse the personal in those everyday discussions in a way, like you were saying, that in philosophy there is a tendency not to want to bring in the lived experience?

ORTEGA: Yes, that is one of the main reasons. We live our lives, we are informed by our lived experiences, so when we are out there talking about this social location, social identities, we bring in to our discussion our experience. Our lived experience. And we know that it’s complex. We live it. Even when we are not intentional about it, I think when we discuss our lives we are talking about how I go about in the world as a racialized being who also has a certain class, a certain sexual orientation, nationality, religion. I go about in that world already knowing how all these factors affect my life. I may not be completely attuned to it explicitly when I discuss the issues, but I have been already informed by these complexities.

BELL: Because you have lived it?

ORTEGA:  Yes. And I experience the treatment of others towards me. People treat me in specific ways given these intersections. So, not only do I live it in terms of my personal experience, but I live it in so far as I see how others are attuned to me and how others treat me, whether others think that I am somebody who is worthy of being here or disposable.

BELL: I want to shift gears for a minute and talk to you about another piece that you wrote back in 2006. The title of this piece was “Being Loving Knowingly Ignorant: White Feminism and Women of Color." So, this brought up a new-ish concept for me and my study: white feminism. What is white feminism?

ORTEGA: First, I should say that that piece is connected to a project on the epistemology of ignorance. The epistemology of ignorance is a very interesting subject right now. It is one that studies all the different practices that we engage in in order to become ignorant or continue to be ignorant about specific people or subjects. So that piece needs to be framed within that context. Now, in terms of the question of white feminism, that’s a difficult question. Feminism has a long history, and we know that the earlier so-called “waves of feminism” prioritized the lived experience of a certain class of women and a certain race of women, primarily white, middle class women. And a lot of the writing of early feminist emphasized that lived experience. So, we can say that their primary interest was to think about equality in terms of an access that middle class, white women had. Then we had different waves of feminism that introduced the work of women of color to feminism. Basically informed the early feminism about all this different kinds of lives that are out there. All these women whose lives and knowledge needs to be taken into account in feminism, and so we get the second and third wave feminism. In my view in that paper, I talk about white feminism as meaning the kind of feminism that even though is aware of the work of women of color, of feminism of women of color, refuses to integrate it in a meaningful way into their theories, and so consequently, remains emphasizing, highlighting, prioritizing the lives of white women.

BELL: How is feminism as an idea different for women of color than it is for white women?

ORTEGA: That is a very difficult question and an important question. If we think back of our discussion if we think about the complexity of our intersections of social identities, for white women there might be some issues that they do not have to be concerned about when they go around in the world. For example, given their whiteness, and so given their social location as racialized beings who enjoy the privilege of being white, they go about in the world without having to experience the racism that comes because you have a different racialized embodiment. That already is a huge distinction between the lives of white women and women of color. I think that really informs how you theorize and also it might also point to the kind of blind spots that might be present in white feminism.

BELL: So, what is it that you mean when you say, “There is a loving, knowing ignorance in white feminism”?

ORTEGA: Yes. This goes back to the history of women of color feminism. What I'm saying really is a repetition of the work that other women of color have done in feminism. So it’s really not a new idea, this idea that feminism should take into consideration the work of women of color. What is new in my account is that I am saying that this is… There is, at the same time, that there is the highlighting of whiteness in feminism, and the highlighting of text written by white women. And there is knowledge of the production, the intellectual production of women of color, and the need for feminism to be attuned to that production. And there’s also a kind of lovingness meaning a desire to include that work of women of color. There is still the emphasis on the work produced by white women, and to me that is incredibly telling that you can have the erasure of women of color in feminism, while at the same time being aware they produced all this knowledge, and at the same time, claiming or thinking that you are loving towards them. So, there is a huge blind spot. So it’s a contradictory notion. It’s an odd notion to say that you are lovingly, knowingly ignorant. But what happens is that when you are lovingly, knowingly ignorant, you continue to produce ignorance of the work of women of color because you don't engage with their work in a serious way. You don't integrate it into your thinking. What you do is drop a quote from Audrey Lorde or Angela Davis, and you think you're done, when in fact what we need is the integration of the work of women of color into these theories of feminism.

BELL: You founded The Roundtable of Latina Feminism. Correct?

ORTEGA: Yes.

BELL: I wonder if that is a response to this phenomenon that we’re talking about, and how you and other members of the round table approach this subject differently, like what you’re doing differently.

ORTEGA: Yes. It is a direct response to the fact that I felt that even though feminism is supposed to be attuned to the work of women of color, I would go to conferences and if there was a panel on women of color, or women of color feminism, it would be basically the token panel on women of color feminism. In some cases, it was not even mentioned. And yet, I would go to the conferences and a lot of people would quote the famous quotes or famous sayings by women of color but never engage with their work. So, I decided that I would create a space, a very small intimate space, where all the papers would be on the work of women of color. And it’s open to whoever is working on women of color feminism, primarily Latina feminism, but anybody who is interested in working seriously and in-depth in this work. In terms of the other part of your question, how do we feel and how are we countering these trends? In The Roundtable, we engage in scholarship in which we actually look at the work of women of color the same way we would approach Kant or Hegel or Heidegger where you read the primary sources and then you look at secondary sources. You go in-depth into these writings.

BELL: We were talking about your 2006 piece titled “Being Knowingly, Lovingly Ignorant” in the context of feminism and gender. I was really intrigued by what you were saying about people needing to engage in these conversations in a more serious way. You know, you were talking about people quoting Audre Lorde and then feeling like the work is done. I wonder if you see the same thing happening in regards to race as opposed to gender and how that same thing happens.

ORTEGA: Yes, I think the same phenomenon is happening when people discus race. A lot of people think that we are living in a post-racial time.

BELL: And you laugh. Why do you laugh about that?

ORTEGA: Because clearly if we take a look at the news and the incidents of police brutality, we know that we still have a tremendous violence that is connected to race. Of course, race is intersected with other identities, but there are definitely clear connections to race that a lot of people are trying to say have nothing to do with race, or they are trying to avoid the issue. But given that we are supposed to be at this time, we also know that we are not supposed to be classic racists. So we cannot be very specific about racist beliefs. So we have to be quite careful about talking about race. So when we talk about race, I think sometimes both theoretically and in the public realm, we say a few things about race, primarily things or theories that are well known and accepted. Or we quote the famous philosopher of race; a black or Latino, or primarily a black philosopher of race, and we say we've done the job. Right? There aren't that many people engaged in deep in-depth discussion, at least in philosophy, of the philosophies that are being produced by people of color in the profession. There are philosophers of color who are engaging in that conversation, but the mainstream is not.

BELL: Can you provide an example of loving, knowing ignorance in regards to race? Sort of, like a specific example?

ORTEGA: Yes. If I think about the work of Charles Mills, for example, who wrote The Racial Contract, and he’s the one who made us think about this idea of the epistemology of ignorance. His work is quoted many times. At the same time, there is not necessarily a deep engagement with his view. So, just as we can quote Audrey Lorde and feel good that we have done our job because we have quoted some famous black, woman feminist, we can talk about Charles Mills. But then we don't go and ask ourselves about how the practices of the discipline of philosophy are creating a context in which there is more ignorance about people of color. Or we are not very willing to engage with the racist comments of famous philosophers. So we want to talk about race, we want to admit that there is work being done on race, but we don't want to go deeper. If we go deeper, we will have to do a lot of change within the structures of philosophy, and that is a huge commitment. I think that a lot people, even loving people, who wish to listen to the work of philosophers of color, it’s a scary proposition. So, the amount of work that real engagement with the thought of people of color from the past and present entails a tremendous disruption to the present. So, I think some people might not be willing to go that far.

BELL: How can we encourage people to get past that fear? Whether they be a philosopher, or you know, a well-meaning family member, or friend, or neighbor. I mean, how do we get beyond that where we can have those deeper conversations?

ORTEGA: Yes, I think that's a question of an issue that interests me a lot, which is the issue of collision. How can we be willing to work with others even though they might not share an identity marker? And how can we at least work in such a way that we create structures that would allow us to have deeper conversations? I think the first step has to be to have an acknowledgement that there is a problem. I think that’s very difficult, especially if we talk about gender because feminism is supposed to be already attuned to race, right? And, if we talk about issues of race it’s difficult because we are supposed to go beyond the time when we should be talking about race because we already have a black president.

BELL: We’re post-racial. Right?

ORTEGA: Exactly. So, those two obstacles are quite difficult, and I think we have to somehow be able to recognize these two issues and then sit down and not have a romanticized vision of what it would mean to work together as white and women of color work together, as members of different races work together. I think we have recognize our differences and understand that even within our differences there will be points that we could share. For example, the fact that it is our bodies that are the sites of the violence of racism and sexism. That we do share that. And that we have to find a way to not only personally, but in terms of structural issues, do work that will preclude the possibility of more of us getting hurt and being the casualties of the brutality of racism and xenophobia and sexism.

BELL: In terms of race relations in the U.S., I know that we've been talking about these intersections, but in the end our show is about race. I wonder what you would like to see done differently and what your hope is for race relations in the United States in the years to come.

ORTEGA: One of the things that I am very interested in is the work across racial groups, and I think that it would be really important for us to be able to understand what aspects of our race and what characteristics of our racialization we share with our group. But even though we have those shared experiences that we can be open to understanding what it means for a black person in the U.S. to suffer racism. If I'm a Latina, and I have suffered racism in the U.S., to be able to at least have the possibility allowing myself to be open to understanding the experience of the violence that other people from other races have. That this is not a competition of the traumas and the wounds that come from racist brutality. That we are here as people who, all of us have a sense of this brutality one way or another, some more than others. But that we have to be willing to at least understand that we as people of color who have experienced racism and xenophobia, or maybe our ancestors you know, our group has this experience. That we can be open to understanding the experience of wounds that others have had. I think that’s key for our conversations, and not to rather be pit apart in specific groups, such that in the end, Blacks and Latinos and Asians, they’re all going one side or the other. We have to understand how all of us are in the midst of this time in which racist and xenophobic tendencies are growing, and that it will hurt us. Not just us in terms of our group, but other people who are racialized.