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A Creative Path to Raising Questions

Philosophy professor explores ideas on race, language and humor and their impact on people’s lives.

Luvell Anderson embraces creative thinking. An associate professor of philosophy in Syracuse University’s College of Arts and Sciences, Anderson welcomes creative insights that emerge from interdisciplinary collaborations. He’s also a musician, a fan of comedy and an admirer of aesthetics. His main area of expertise is social philosophy and, amid today’s often divisive political and cultural landscape, he’s exploring ideas at the nexus of race, language and humor. “Race plays a crucial role in a number of different arenas in our everyday lives,” he says. “I think about ways in which language and our humor practices are affected by race, the way that race impacts how we understand the world, ourselves and one another.”

In raising questions about race, racism and the interaction of race, gender and class, Anderson delves into the ethics of racial language, such as what makes slurs offensive, and has crafted theories on racist humor and the use of racial stereotypes in humor. “Many of the issues that seem to be prevalent in the public sphere right now concern race, gender and class to some extent,” he says.

Portrait of Luvell Anderson

Luvell Anderson is an associate professor of philosophy who studies racial humor and sees it as a way to undermine harmful stereotypes.

Anderson is co-editor of The Routledge Companion to the Philosophy of Race (Routledge, 2017) and has two books in the works: The Philosophy of Race and Racism: The Basics (Routledge), an introductory text in which he asks questions about race, racism, race and gender, and the impact of race on political organizations; and The Ethics of Racial Humor (Oxford University Press). “I think about our practices of racial humor and some of the dangers and benefits,” he says. “I think about what constitutes racist humor as opposed to racially insensitive or merely racial humor. I look at when we decide whether a joke or a bit of humor is racist or not, and how one can responsibly satirize racial themes. I also think about the responsibilities audience members have for interacting with humor that focuses on experiences they don’t personally share, as well as what makes racial humor funny.”

I think about ways in which language and our humor practices are affected by race, the way that race impacts how we understand the world, ourselves and one another.

—Luvell Anderson, associate professor of philosophy

Racial humor can undermine harmful stereotypes and create a shared space among people of different races, he says, while “racist humor promotes or pushes forward harmful racial stereotypes and is primarily focused on creating those issues, supporting intellectual ammunition for those who would want society to be divided by race and further supporting the racist divisions that are used, for example, to deny people services or full citizenship rights.”

The Role of Satire and Comedy

Luvell Anderson poses outside

As a musician and philosopher, Anderson sees similarities between composing music and developing intellectual ideas.

Anderson believes satire plays an important role in our society, provoking critical thoughts on the issues of the day. “Satire provides an avenue for voices that might not otherwise be heard,” he says. “Racial satire, in particular, has been a traditional tool to attempt to address problems of race relations in our country. These forms of critique allow for an engagement with very troubling issues that are often difficult for people to grapple with.”

Anderson’s research on racial satire takes him to comedy clubs to watch performances and gauge audience reactions. He follows research by other academics on the topic, views videos of comedians’ past performances and monitors social media for examples. Roy Wood Jr., who makes frequent appearances on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah, is a prime example of a comedian who “satirizes racist and sexist attitudes in clear and compelling ways,” Anderson says. “He uncovers the absurdity in racist attitudes with sharp and witty humor.”

Anderson also cites comedians and satirists for their ability to break through what he calls the “public bubble”—the safe harbor where people’s personal beliefs and ideas are protected from conflicting ones. “Perhaps the most important social voices right now are those of the comedians and the satirists,” he says. “We see the impact of them getting people to think about issues in a way they otherwise wouldn’t.”

My role as a teacher is to inspire students to think about what they have to contribute and how what they contribute can make what we all do better.

—Luvell Anderson, associate professor of philosophy

Blending Humor, Music and Philosophy

Anderson grew up with comedy. His parents liked to joke around with the family. They tuned in to shows like Comic View and In Living Color, and Anderson recalls watching Jerry Lewis movies with his mother. “My parents are really funny people,” he says. “It was a household that was steeped in comedies.”

Along with humor, music was at the forefront of Anderson’s life. While pursuing a music career, he took a break from his university education and held a series of menial labor jobs that gave him time to read and think, feeding his intellectual curiosity. His path took a turn when Cornel West’s American Evasion of Philosophy captured his attention and inspired him to consider philosophy as a profession. He also gravitated toward philosophy because he saw its parallels with music. “Playing around with scales, different progressions and compositions allowed me to express my creative side and put together various ideas in new and interesting ways,” says Anderson, who’s primarily a keyboardist, but also plays trumpet and guitar and has performed with groups in styles ranging from gospel and soul to jazz, funk, hip hop and rock. “In philosophy, the range of ideas was interesting to me in the way that different people would compose ideas in different kinds of ways that, to me, reflected this analogy with musical composition. In this case, intellectual ideas are the notes in the scale with which you put together different compositions.”

Satire provides an avenue for voices that might not otherwise be heard. Racial satire, in particular, has been a traditional tool to attempt to address problems of race relations in our country.

—Luvell Anderson, associate professor of philosophy

Anderson earned a bachelor’s degree in philosophy from the University of Missouri at St. Louis, then received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Rutgers, followed by a post-doctoral fellowship at Penn State. He was an assistant professor at the University of Memphis for six years before joining the Syracuse University faculty in 2018. With an interdisciplinary outlook, he often draws on the social sciences and linguistics and is an affiliate faculty member of the departments of women’s and gender studies and African American studies. He enjoys working with a range of colleagues from different departments and disciplines, creating an environment that generates ideas. “We can learn new things through interdisciplinary collaboration that we wouldn’t otherwise come across in our own disciplines that make for a more comprehensive approach to understanding the fundamental issues of our world,” he says.

In the classroom, Anderson says his students are interested in exploring questions about race and language and are eager to learn and apply their knowledge to what they’re studying. He wants students to go beyond the discipline’s existing traditions and push in new directions. “My role as a teacher is to inspire students to think about what they have to contribute and how what they contribute can make what we all do better,” he says.

We can learn new things through interdisciplinary collaboration that we wouldn’t otherwise come across in our own disciplines that make for a more comprehensive approach to understanding the fundamental issues of our world.

—Luvell Anderson, associate professor of philosophy

Anderson understands how issues of race, racism, gender, sexism and class are prevalent in people’s everyday lives and can have a significant impact on their identities and experiences. “One impact I hope to make through my work is to clear up what I see as confusions around ideas about race, gender and class—confusions that generate discrimination and oppression, that really make life hard for certain communities of people,” he says. “I’m hoping that giving clarity to these issues will produce more just, more fair forms of life for all people.”

Jay Cox

This story was published on .


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