I received my Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Arizona in 2012, with a dissertation that developed a theory of oppressive burdens, and asked whether victims owed it to themselves to resist. Although my background was in political science and political philosophy, struggling with the agency and obligations of victims made a feminist philosopher out of me. After Arizona, I was a GRIPP/RGCS postdoctoral research fellow at McGill University from 2012-2013. I then joined the University of Connecticut in 2013 as an assistant professor, jointly appointed in Philosophy and the Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies program.
The project is called Complicit Identities: The Ethics of Looking Out For Yourself. While my earlier work focused on the obligation to resist oppression, this project investigates cases where victims stray into complicity simply because of who they are or what they aim to do in life. None of these choices are inherently wrong, but they end up contributing to oppression because of the prior existence of stereotypes, unfair burdens, and other background pressures. An example of a complicit identity is when a gay man or a person of color ‘passes’ as straight or white in order to escape oppressive treatment, but only escapes that treatment in virtue of participating in the very system that constraints them and others like them. What should we say about such passing? Is it wrong because it’s a form of deception or inauthenticity? Does it reinforce stereotypes by removing counterexamples from the public’s view, or harm one’s fellow victims by opting one out of the fight against oppression? These are the most common judgments you hear about passing, and I think they all miss the mark.On my view, passing and more traditional forms of resistance actually share an aim: they’re both attempts to improve one’s life or circumstances in the face of oppression. But whereas resisting victims attempt to improve their well-being by undermining, changing, or escaping the oppressive system that constrains their well-being, passing victims keep those constraints in place, and make the most advantageous trade-off they can under the circumstances. Passing might allow a person to advance her plans and projects, or to cultivate worthwhile connections, or to gain access to valuable goods, but at the expense of her security as she worries about discovery, or her sense of belonging as relationships with family and community fray, or her self-respect as she struggles with how she obtained those goods. The trade-offs vary, but the strategy depends on making such a trade-off: giving up what you can live without to have the life you want. Passing victims are thus complicit in their own oppression, benefiting from a system that’s still ultimately harmful to them. But while that makes passing a limited strategy for improving one’s life, it doesn’t necessarily make it wrong. These victims aren’t failing themselves. They’re looking out for themselves in circumstances they shouldn’t even be in, and more often than not, they’re successful. If we want to engage seriously with questions of victim agency, then we have to move beyond simple dichotomies of good resistance and bad complicity. We need a new ethics of looking out for yourself.
How did you arrive at this topic?
Honestly, it was the realization I described in the last question. Victim agency was more complicated than I was appreciating — maybe even too complicated for the straightforward principles and clean verdicts of academic philosophy. I began my research talking about obligations to self, and why resistance was important for victims. But the more I examined these cases, the more I understood that we don’t actually get very far by talking about resistance. Of course it’s good. The problem is that, for victims, complicity can also be good. It can often unlock all the same benefits as resistance, and do so with diminished risk and fewer potential costs. So we can’t just dismiss complicity as mere selfishness or an insensitivity to the demands of justice. It’s a strategy for dealing with oppressive burdens, not a way to avoid dealing with them.
As you can imagine, I gradually stopped writing about resistance, and the focus of my research changed. And while I was coming to this realization, ‘passing’ was the example I kept coming back to. Partly because it presents a fascinating, messy, real-world dilemma for ethical systems. Partly because it’s so timely, with many recent cases receiving national attention. Partly because there are so many applications, like understanding so-called ‘reverse passing’ and the possibility of trans-race identities, reaching careful conclusions about how to navigate daily life with an ‘inauthentic’ identity, and making sense of invisible disabilities like mental illness. And partly because, well, navigating the pros and cons of passing is personal for me. (You should never 100% trust an academic whose research focus is passing.)
What impact might your work have on a larger public understanding of your topic?
We badly need an ethics of looking out for yourself. The trick is, the phrase ‘looking out for yourself’ has both negative and positive connotations. It can be a term of reproach for individuals that shirk their obligations or opt out of a shared struggle against oppression. But it can also be a term of praise for people that take care of themselves in circumstances that threaten their well-being, and for those who strive to live the life they want despite the burdens they face. Complicit Identity cases are challenging because these individuals ‘look out for themselves’ in both senses of the phrase, upending simple verdicts about the importance of resistance and the impermissibility of complicity. So while my project presents a framework for understanding victimhood and passing that moves beyond familiar, misguided debates about deception and authenticity, I hope it can also say something about a dilemma we all face: how to balance what we owe ourselves with what we owe others in times of injustice.