CFP: The Logic of Racial Practice: Embodied Cognition, Habitus, and Implicit Bias

Submission deadline: December 10, 2017

Conference date(s):
April 12, 2018 - April 14, 2018

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Conference Venue:

Department of Religious Studies, University of Pittsburgh
Pittsburgh, United States



Dr. Brock Bahler, Department of Religious Studies, University of Pittsburgh

Dr. Gabby Yearwood, Department of Anthropology, University of Pittsburgh


Plenary Speakers:

Dr. Michael Brownstein, Department of Philosophy, John Jay University

Dr. Joy James, Africana Studies & Political Science, Williams College

Dr. George Yancy, Department of Philosophy, Emory University

In the last few years, the concept of implicit bias related to racial stereotyping has risen to prominence not only in a diverse body of scholarly research but also in mass media. While the standard definition of implicit bias regularly describes it as an unconscious or involuntary behavior, some researchers are also taking up the language of “habit” or of an embodied practice to explain automatic racial stereotyping and discriminatory actions (Devine et al. 2012; Byrne & Tanesini 2015; Rees 2016). This turn to the importance of habit and embodiment has recently garnered broad support from both qualitative and quantitative methods of research.

Regarding more qualitative approaches, the description of racism as a habit(us) or embodied practice surely calls to mind the legacies of scholars who argued for the primacy of praxis over theory, and of the inherent logic of emotions and unconscious behaviors—including William James, Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty, and Pierre Bourdieu, among many others. Most significantly, it resonates with the descriptive and phenomenological approaches to whiteness studies and critical race theory, where scholars have described whiteness or racism as not so much a mental belief that is conceptually articulated but more of an embodied habit that has become sedimented into our bodies through the repetitive instilling of racist dispositions, postures, and ways of being in the world (Blee 2002; Sullivan 2006; Ahmed 2007; Yancy 2008; MacMullan 2009; Yancy 2012; Jennings). It also aligns with the work of numerous scholars in anthropology and religious studies who have highlighted the meaningfulness and significance of religious rituals and practices over mental assent and propositional thought (Csordas 1994; Stoller 1997; Asad 2003; McGuire 2008; Vasquez 2011; Benson 2013; Smith 2013).

From the hard sciences and medicine, it parallels with the extensive research that has revealed the power of embodied practices such as religious meditation, mindfulness, and yoga to change the make-up of the brain, successfully treat individuals suffering from the effects of trauma, and make us more compassionate individuals (Goleman & Davidson 2017; van der Kolk 2014; Newberg, D’Aquili & Rause 2002; Newberg & Waldman 2009). And it suggests a strong correlation with the position in the field of cognitive science known as embodied cognition, which suggests that bodily movements, emotions, and habits not only profoundly shape cognition and brain activity but that thinking itself extends throughout the body and is scaffolded upon a material and social world (Damasio 1994; Gallagher 2005; Gopnik, Meltzoff, & Kuhl 2009; Rowlands 2010; Sheets-Johnstone 2011; Shapiro 2014; Zahavi 2014; Bahler 2016).

While these distinct fields of study often work in silos, the similarities in their conclusions warrant the convergence of scholars toward a robust interdisciplinary project that might foster charitable dialogue across disciplines and constructively add to the existing literature. To that end, this three-day symposium will bring scholars together for a synthetic analysis of race, religion, and cognition around the themes of embodied practices and habits. The symposium will involve both working papers (including plans to be published as an edited collection) and three public plenary presentations. Brief responses to working papers will be offered by appropriate faculty from the University of Pittsburgh. Some possible research topics may include...

- How religious practices and quasi-religious rituals shape perception and our being-in the world, and what this might reveal about our views of about race

- The (mis)use of religious practices, myths, and rituals for developing racist viewpoints

- The social, cultural, and institutional implications of defining unconscious biases as habits

- Embodied theory of mind and the roots of implicit bias and confirmation basis

- White privilege and embodiment

- Ways in which racial stereotypes are perpetuated and passed on within minority communities

- Embodied cognition, self-hatred, and internalized racism

- Talking about white privilege and racism with those who say we should stop talking about race

- Embodiment and the implicit association test

- Embodied cognition and interracial group relations

- The moral implications and/or personal responsibility of implicit bias/unconscious stereotyping

- How one uncovers one’s own unconscious racist habits, dispositions, and attitudes

- The practical value of using the language of habit for overcoming unconscious racist assumptions and implicit biases

- Embodied cognition and the political realm

- Parenting and/or child development in discussing of race and racism

- The development of a praxis-based theory of education about race and racism

- Anti-racism as a cultivation of a virtuous habit

Proposals are invited for papers on a wide range of interdisciplinary work at the crossroads of implicit bias research, critical race theory, anthropology, cognitive neuroscience, sociology, religious studies, education, psychology, and more. Abstracts of no more than 500 words plus a 2-3 page CV should be sent to Brock Bahler ( by Dec. 10, 2017. Notifications of acceptance will be given by January 15, 2018.  

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