I am a Black woman living in America. My whole life, the culture that surrounds me has taught me that the value of a Black woman is largely extrinsic. Like Aunt Viv in the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or Regina King’s role in Miss Congeniality 2, the Black woman is most often portrayed in the capacity of what she can do for someone else. What can she do for her husband and children? What can she do for her white associate or employer? What can she do for her lovers (of which, knowing her, there are probably multiple)? She is comic relief, canned and trite attitude and sass, and her backstory is usually irrelevant, or if it is a part of the story, it is tragic. A Black woman in mainstream American culture is not valued for who she is as a person but what she can do for other people. In other words, she mainly holds extrinsic value.
I took my first philosophy class when I was a junior in high school, dually enrolled as a college student at Guilford College. The course was Philosophy 101: Intro to Philosophy. One of the first concepts that was introduced to us was intrinsic versus extrinsic value. As I approached the time of applying to colleges and choosing a major, I considered the intrinsic and extrinsic value of the fields I wanted to study, Education and Philosophy. Education would be my primary major. It was practical and would likely lead to a sustainable career, if not a terribly profitable one. I also valued it intrinsically, because of a love of learning and sharing knowledge. I had always enjoyed school, and wanted to create an environment of my own where I could foster inspiration in young people. Philosophy was to be my second major, no more than for the reason I loved studying philosophy. My father, a PhD graduate in Theology and Ethics, had raised me amongst piles of books in every room in the house, from Camus and Sartre to Cornel West and Reinhold Niebuhr. To the outside world, I was just a young Black woman, mostly waiting to be used as a vessel for whatever role I was meant to play for someone else. But at home with my father and his piles books, I could celebrate the love of learning and knowledge because I enjoyed it, and not because of what it did for me practically or extrinsically.
I did not earn my double major in Education and Philosophy. My tragic backstory-briefly put: an experience with sexual assault that led to a bout of depression where I was unable to maintain my grades and ultimately failed one of the classes in the Education program-led to the Education Department at UNC removing me from the program. I took a year off from school to recover mentally, and when I returned I finished the Philosophy degree I had started. My GPA wasn’t stellar, mostly due to my struggles with mental health, but I had endured and accomplished my goal of graduating, despite my obstacles.
Out in the “real world,” I quickly learned a Bachelor’s degree, to most employers, held very little extrinsic value. I knew that my degree had prepared me for problem-solving, critical thinking, writing, time management, and creativity, but it did not translate well on a job application. My first job out of college was as a teacher at a middle school that was so desperate to fill the position, where the reputation for students with bad behavior and low test scores well preceded them, that they hired me on the spot despite my lack of credentials. After two years, I decided it wasn’t the right age group or neighborhood for me to teach constructively. What followed was a handful of years of never being able to obtain another job beyond the service industry (retail, food service, and even a 3-month stint at a call center) where I could barely support myself financially or thrive intellectually.
And now, I have come full circle, back to the intrinsic value of philosophy, but also, more importantly, discovering the intrinsic value of myself. Despite my desperate efforts over the last four years to pour into every role I told myself I was meant to play as a Black woman, from the girlfriend to the hourly wage employee, I was unfulfilled and empty. Even during my days of folding sweaters and preparing food, I had always secretly dreamed of coming back to philosophy, even though I knew it was a field where there were very few women and very few black people. Did I even belong? And unlike Economics or Business, fields that are lauded for their extrinsic value in our capitalist society, how could I dare to dream to study in a field that most people consider to be impractical?
I am daring to continue my personal study of philosophy because it is a radical act of celebrating the intrinsic and extrinsic value of a field that is older than history, and crucial to the legacy of human thought. Perhaps even more importantly, it’s a radical celebration of the intrinsic value of myself. Outside of just being someone’s romantic partner, or a nameless employee, a Black woman like me studying philosophy is defiance against a culture who says she is only valuable for what she provides, and against a field that traditionally honors white men who study other white men, to teach white men. But while I also aim to celebrate my intrinsic value as a lifelong learner, I dream of showing how the tenants of Continental philosophy, particularly through the lens of social justice, can be used to counteract the confines of a capitalist society that tells Black and brown women, men, and queer folk, that their value is primarily extrinsic. Writers such as myself need to help break down and then dismantle mainstream cultural ideations of the bodies of Black and brown people used for consumption, and to instead uplift them as members of society who are valued for their own intrinsic worth, a privilege historically and still primarily belonging to cisgender white people. By allowing myself to put aside my obligations of extrinsic value as a Black woman in mainstream America and embrace my intrinsic value as a Black woman who is a writer and student of life, I aim to use my voice to help bring about the liberation for people like me who, up to this point, haven’t been allowed in our world to consider and embrace their intrinsic value… as simply human beings.