What Happened at Hypatia? Public Seminar, May 12 2017

Academic Facebook has melted down again: this week, it is philosophy’s turn. At the center of the controversy is Rhodes College assistant professor Rebecca Tuvel’s article, “In Defense of Transracialism,” published in the most recent issue of the feminist philosophy journal Hypatia. Analyzing Rachel Dolezal’s disputed assertion that, having been born to white parents, she believes herself to be African-American, Tuvel addresses the “widespread social perception that it is neither possible nor acceptable to change one’s race in the way it might be to change one’s sex.” However, she continues, “Considerations that support transgenderism seem to apply equally to transracialism.” The comparative case study that Tuvel chose was the former Olympic athlete and reality television star Caitlyn Jenner.

In response, over 500 feminists — a mix of senior, untenured and independent scholars, as well as graduate and a few undergraduate students, signed a letter demanding that Hypatia retract Tuvel’s article. They argue that it “falls short of scholarly standards in various areas,” uses incorrect vocabulary, “deadnames” Jenner (refers to a birth, rather than a chosen, name), “mischaracteriz[es] various theories and practices relating to religious identity and conversion,” and fails to engage with relevant scholarship in race and transgender studies. Worse, these “failures” had caused “harm to the communities who might expect better from Hypatia,” the letter continues. “It is difficult to imagine that this article could have been endorsed by referees working in critical race theory and trans theory, which are the two areas of specialization that should have been most relevant to the review process. A message has been sent, to authors and readers alike, that white cis scholars may engage in speculative discussion of these themes without broad and sustained engagement with those theorists whose lives are most directly affected by transphobia and racism.” You can read the whole letter, with a list of the original signers, here.

On May 1, on Facebook, Hypatia’s editorial board issued a “profound apology to our friends and colleagues in feminist philosophy, especially transfeminists, queer feminists, and feminists of color, for the harms that the publication of the article on transracialism has caused.”

What follows is a conversation about some of the issues raised in this debate between Timothy Burke, Professor of African History and Chair of the History Department at Swarthmore; Meryl Altman, Professor of English and Women’s Studies at DePauw University; and myself, Claire Potter,  a Professor of History at The New School and the Executive Editor of Public Seminar. Our exchange began on Facebook several days ago; in the interests of engaging more deeply without escalating the conflict on social media, we shifted to Messenger in order to produce a first draft of our conversation that could be edited for publication.

We choose to address, not the specific merits or critiques of Tuvel’s article (which we think can be the subject of healthy disagreement) or Hypatia’s specific actions in relation to the essay and its critics, but the scholarly issues that have arisen during the controversy. We were particularly interested in: the ethics of peer review; the ethics of academic kinship; and the wisdom of using social media to coordinate scholarly statements, especially letters that are open to all signatories.

To read this conversation, go to Public Seminar.

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