An Interview with Myisha Cherry, Assistant Professor of Philosophy at UC Riverside and Former Graduate Fellow

By: Alexis Jimenez Maldonado

Smiling black woman in a grey jacket with black glasses and braids

Myisha Cherry is an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California, Riverside. Her research interest lies at the intersection of moral psychology and social and political philosophy. More specifically she is interested in the role of emotions and attitudes in public life.

In 2016-17, Cherry was a Visiting Edmond J. Safra Graduate Fellow in Ethics at Harvard University. Her recent book, The Case for Rage: Why Anger is Essential to Anti-Racist Struggle (Oxford University Press, 2021) argues that anger at racial injustice is important for anti-racism work. Myisha Cherry holds a BA in philosophy from Morgan State University, a Master of Divinity from Howard University, and a Masters and Ph.D. in philosophy from University of Illinois, Chicago. She also hosts the UnMute Podcast, a podcast where she interviews philosophers about the social and political issues of our day.

This conversation happened on November 9, 2021. The transcript of the interview has been edited for clarity.

Alexis Jimenez Maldonado: You have been a part of the Center since 2016, when you were a visiting graduate fellow. It’s actually rare for the Center to accept visiting graduate fellows at all. Can you talk about how you became aware of the Center and what drew you towards pursuing a graduate fellowship?

Myisha Cherry: Tommie Shelby, he's on the faculty committee at the Center, told me about the program. He knew that, at the time, I was working on a dissertation about forgiveness and he thought it was a good fit for me to be in that space. I was also surprised, and not all that optimistic, that it would be approved and accepted. Basically, my connection was to someone who was on the advisory committee who suggested that would be a good space to think through and help improve my dissertation.

I hadn’t started on the dissertation until I came to the Center. I had just completed my course work and Shelby knew I would be working on the project after that course work. I was very clear about what I wanted to do for the dissertation before even going into graduate school. He was familiar with the project I was working on and thought that would be a good place to nurture the programming of the project. My fingers were crossed for like four months and it happened and I was very grateful.

It was because of being in the program that I was able to complete my dissertation as quickly as I was able to. But ultimately, Shelby just thought it was a good fit and that it would really help me think through and complete the dissertation. I'm pretty grateful for that experience.

AJM: More broadly, what was the fellowship experience like? What has the impact of that experience been on your work thus far?

MC: One of the things that it did was at the end of each semester, we had to have a chapter completed in order to do the workshop. It allowed me to complete two chapters, and my dissertation is four chapters. So, at the end of the year, I was able to have two chapters done.

The fellowship gives you that timeline, because you know that you are going to present and need to be ready. But, in addition to having that timeline, it allowed me to be a little more disciplined and productive to get my stuff done.

The first semester, I remember the comments that we got on our projects on how to improve them were basically questions and constructive criticism given by other graduate students. I had the opportunity to get an interdisciplinary perspective about my project. That was something that was quite new for me. I'm a philosopher, I'm used to philosophers thinking in the way that philosophers think. And ultimately, being at the table with city planners, historians, and people who were doing education allowed me to think of the project in a very different way. Those insights helped the project in a very unique way.

In the second semester, we got constructive criticism by professors who were doing something similar. That added a different dimension and a different viewpoint, in addition to the comments from my peers, which made my project better.

Deadlines, different perspectives, interdisciplinary perspectives, all that stuff really helped. It allowed me not only to write those two chapters, but it also allowed me to have a discipline and perspective in place as I finished the other two chapters the following year.

AJM: Your research interests are at the intersection of moral psychology and social and political philosophy, but more specifically, the role of emotions and attitudes in public life. Could you talk about how that work developed during your time as a graduate fellow and also how those interests connect to the mission of the Center?

MC: It's interesting because at the time, my dissertation was on looking at the appropriateness of asking for forgiveness. While I was at the Center, the topic/overall project was still in development. There's a developmental process that goes on to try to get a sense of the direction that the project is going to take and that’s an open-ended question. But there was someone else, a faculty fellow and social psychologist who was also working on a forgiveness project. I had the opportunity, as I was thinking about how to develop this project into a broader kind of project, to talk to a social psychologist who was also doing work on forgiveness. Her work on forgiveness was more concerned with forgiveness in the workplace. She was at the business school at UVA, but I had someone to talk to and to think through these particular ideas as far as development is concerned. Talking to my cohort and to a faculty fellow who was doing something similar was a great resource.

I knew that the dissertation would be on forgiveness, but I didn’t know the direction it would take. As a result of all that, I had a topic and I had questions that I wanted to get at. I had a sense of the forgiveness aspect which was something I wanted to explore, but to the extent of how it would grow into a social political space was still an open question. The direction that the dissertation eventually took was asking about the nature of these questions in the private sphere. I also wondered, how does it look when you go public? That's how the second half of the dissertation looked.

My cohort and my mentors really pushed me in developing in that particular way. For the fall semester, I knew that I would examine the nature of these requests, but not really the direction that it would take. The project ended up being a result of constantly talking to people and getting comments. The flow of it ended up being private and then we would talk about the public stuff.

When I talk about the intersection of moral psychology and social political philosophy, the project was able to develop in that way because of the feedback that I received from someone who was looking at the project in a social context, but also through the perspective of my peers.

AJM: As a fellow divinity school graduate, I would love to hear about your Master of Divinity from Howard University and how theology has played a role in your work.

MC: Here is the interesting thing, there are other philosophers who do work around forgiveness. I was talking to a mentor of mine and we came up with a theory. We said, what is this thing that we all have in common? We seem to all be attracted to this topic, and the commonality we found is that we all have a Christian background. That’s what draws us to that particular topic.

When I think about the questions that I am interested in or the particular emotions and attitudes that I’m interested in, I’ve inhabited those questions through my religious background and my religious training. Forgiveness is constantly something that was being talked about when I was growing up. It was considered something that you should do as a good Christian.

I remember being in seminary and it wasn't even a question to be examined—if it's appropriate or not, how it could get messy, etc. Forgiveness was just something Jesus said we should do. When I think about forgiveness and even anger, it’s not yet settled [for me]. Some people use scripture to justify anger and some people use scripture to suggest that we should never be angry. All those attitudes and emotions originated from the theological context that I grew up in. These attitudes and emotions have been so prevalent in my religious experience, and I want to examine it from a philosophical perspective. I want to take myself out of the doctrine of it all and try to look at it in a different light. But no doubt, the things that I am interested in all originated from that theological training. They’re questions that I had then and also the religious upbringing I was a part of.

AJM: You are currently an assistant professor of philosophy at the University of California Riverside. How has your work with the Center informed your teaching, especially within the UC system?

MC: Teaching, teaching, teaching… one of things I must say is that the fellowship was an interdisciplinary space. It was not just my fellowship cohort of graduate students, but also the faculty fellows, they were all from different disciplines. I learned in that space that the ways in which I would talk with philosophers would not allow me to communicate in that particular setting. One of the things that I learned and witnessed, even from Danielle Allen, was to move away from using jargon. There's a way to talk so that everybody at the table can understand you, no matter what the discipline. Speaking in that way allows everyone the opportunity to contribute to your project despite where you come from. And not only that, but everyone can also have something to contribute to your project despite what kind of disciplinary training they’ve been in.

I think that has had a tremendous effect on my teaching. It was important for me to learn how to communicate because a lot of my students are not philosophy majors, they do not have a philosophical background, and many of them are first generation college students. So how do you communicate with them and how do you give them freedom to communicate with you despite their lack of having a PhD in philosophy? I think I witnessed that model in those spaces and had the opportunity to practice how to communicate in that space which prepared me to be a better communicator to my students.

AJM: You are currently on a book tour for your new book, The Case for Rage: Why Anger is Essential for Anti-Racist Struggle, which has been generating a lot of media attention. Can you talk about the inspiration behind this book and why you think it has resonated so much with people?

MC: I came to the topic of anger through my research on forgiveness. I remember this all happened around 2012 when Trayvon Martin was murdered, and I was trying to get in touch with my anger at the acquittal. I was also trying to understand the anger of other people who felt the way that I felt. And I was also trying to understand why people were fearful of that particular anger. I was amazed by people who kept telling others to forgive.

I was trying to figure out, what does forgiveness mean? So, I went to the philosophical research. One of the most popular understandings of forgiveness is letting go of anger. I realized that was a popular view, therefore I started trying to figure out what is it about anger as an emotion that makes so many eager to get rid of it? I really didn't see what the worry or what the issue was. It was through that, that I began to think anger is valuable. Why would you want to get rid of it?

I went down a rabbit hole trying to figure out what anger is. What are its uses? Do we have to get rid of it? Those questions began to sow the seeds of another bigger project. The book is me making a case for rage­­––a certain kind of anger––and its utility for the work of racial justice. I start the book out talking about the kinds of anger I'm not talking about. I think the problem has been that a lot of people who have had problems with anger have a tendency to paint it in broad strokes and suggest that anger is one thing. In the very first chapter, I'm trying to say that anger is about what people are motivated to do with it and their perspective around it.

I was highly inspired by the poet and scholar feminist Audre Lorde. I noticed in my research that everybody was mentioning her, although she's not a PhD in philosophy. All the feminist philosophers were talking about the essay “The Uses of Anger,” and I was tremendously inspired by it. The account of the anti-racist anger that I am defending in my book comes from that essay. It's a kind of anger that is directed at racism, racists, and racial attitudes. It's the kind of anger that aims for change and transformation of our world. It’s an anger that values the lives of all individuals and it’s an anger that is concerned with not just getting justice for oneself, but justice for other people. There are some problematic forms of anger, but this is the kind of anger that we need to keep because it has an important role to play.

That’s what I'm trying to do in the book. I want it to be a love letter to the outraged. It's a guidebook on how to manage and put rage to use for revolutionary justice. It's a book that I hope will persuade people who were once scared of anger to interrogate why they were scared and change their broad strokes mindset about what anger can do in the world.

I am grateful that the book is finally out. It’s something I’ve been thinking about for the last eight or nine years. I'm glad that it's resonating with people but I’m also sad that it still is resonating with people. You think about what happened 2012 with Trayvon Martin and about what happened 2020 with George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and it's unfortunate that it still is resonating. But I'm glad people have found it useful.

AJM: How has the book tour been?

MC: It’s been interesting having a book tour during a pandemic. Mind you, it's a very different kind of pandemic timing. A lot of my friends whose book came out last year, they were all doing virtual stuff. My book tour has been more of a hybrid. The first week of the tour was all virtual and the next two weeks of the tour was visiting colleges in person. I was finally in the presence of people, while wearing a mask.

I also have been able to talk to people I wouldn’t probably traditionally talk to. I was at Skidmore University and then last week I was in New York City. I'll go to Weber State University in Utah tomorrow and then from there I will go to Tulane University in New Orleans. I complete the tour all online with Long Beach Community College, University of Georgia, and Vanderbilt University. Then, I can rest for 30 days. But it's been great to do virtual stuff and also to be in person with people to discuss these ideas. It has been both energizing and tiring.

AJM: I usually ask our community profile interviewees if they are currently listening to any podcasts, but you actually host your own podcast: UnMute. In fact, several other former fellows and faculty have been included in the podcast. Could you talk about the podcast and what it’s been like interviewing colleagues and faculty from the Center?

MC: The UnMute Podcast is a podcast where I talk to diverse philosophers about the social and political issues of our day. What that means is I talk to people with PhDs in philosophy and although they are probably writing in academic journals and books, I believe that what they have to say in that academic space could resonate and connect with what's happening in the real world. That’s what I try to do, I try to bridge the gap and show people that academic philosophy is relevant to our everyday lives. I am trying to provide a space to make those particular connections.

I started the podcast as a graduate student and recording started officially in 2015. When I went to the Center, I was really only a year or two into the podcast. There were people in my cohort that I thought were doing work that would resonate with folks. I remember with Winston Thompson, we did a philosophy of education podcast, and with Rachel McKinney we did  something on language and power. Getting the opportunity to talk to them was a pleasure, but also I hadn’t met Winston prior to the fellowship, so I was getting the opportunity to meet people who were doing work that I probably would not traditionally encounter. It was a joy, but mind you I was still a graduate student, so it took a lot of guts to go out and send emails. I was worried about them taking me seriously as a grad student, but people took me seriously at that time.

I'm so fortunate and grateful that they were able to take the time to engage me on a whole bunch of questions. And yes, a lot of fellows and even Tommy Shelby were on the podcast. It has been a lot of folks connected to the Center who shared their time and knowledge with me that has just made the podcast, and the project as a whole, a wonderful experience to listeners and for myself.

AJM: The podcast led to your last book, UnMuted: Conversations on Prejudice, Oppression, and Social Justice. How was the experience of creating this podcast and adapting it into a written medium?

MC: As a scholar, one of things I want to do is to make public a lot of things that are happening in private, or at least happening in the academic sector. I want to make work accessible. Anything that I publish, I always post it on Twitter or Facebook.

I felt that although the project was an opportunity to make philosophy accessible, it was only accessible to people who could hear. I thought that there was more I could do for those who are hearing impaired. I could also make it more accessible to those who don't traditionally listen to podcasts. [Laughing] There are people who do not listen to podcasts.

The book was a project to continue with the accessibility mission. I thought it would be easy to put those conversations together into a book, but I realized it requires creativity and effort. A lot of conversations are edited, in a good way. I'm very happy with the way that it turned out, but it was a lot of work. I'm also happy for those who may not have had access to those conversations and now do have access.

AJM: Did you find that the content of UnMuted was able to reach a broader audience with both forms (podcast and book) or did you intend for the audiences of to be different?

MC: Yes, it’s been amazing. I can report on the extent that I've heard from people, for example, students. Imagine when you were an undergrad, there was a lot of things you weren’t exposed to, right? So one of the things I’ve heard is people have used the book and some of the conversations in their classes. The ways that it has reached students and the ways in which teachers have used it in the classroom was something that I wasn't prepared for. That's been very interesting. It’s one thing to tell your students to listen to a podcast, but it's another thing when you tell them to read these particular interviews. I wasn't prepared for the ways that it has been used in the classroom.

And mind you, the interviews are about forty to fifty minutes long (the audio version) and so it would be quicker for students to actually read the interviews transcribed. I just wasn’t prepared for the pedagogical use of it for high school and college students. I'm happy that it's been able to resonate with them and to help teachers to teach these particular issues.

AJM: Do you have any projects on the horizon?

MC: I can say this, I have a book coming out in 2023 with Princeton University Press and tentatively titled, The Failures of Forgiveness. The new book has some ideas that were in dissertation, but a lot of ideas that were not. Ninety percent of the ideas in the book were not in the dissertation.  I’m looking forward to the world reading about forgiveness and what I have to say about forgiveness. That’s the upcoming book.

AJM: What do you do in your spare time, do you have any hobbies?

MC: Oh, I have lots of hobbies. I collect jazz albums, so I listen to jazz a lot. I play video games and when I say video games I mean that in the most extreme way. I have an arcade in my house with real arcade and pinball machines and a racing rig. I wouldn’t say I take them very seriously, but I would say I take that down time to focus on other things (rather than academia) very seriously. Video games are something that allowed me to do just that.

I’m also a cinephile. I really love movies from the forties, fifties, and sixties. Right now, I’m going down a rabbit hole of lots of French and Italian films from those eras.

I’m also a fitness fanatic. I love all things fitness and all things sports. Those are some of things that I do in my spare time.

AJM: Do you have a podcast that you listening to or a show that you are watching?

MC: I really like “Still Processing” from the New York Times. They’re so freaking smart and they’re so freaking smart as it relates to culture. I'm just amazed every time I listen to an episode, the topic can be about a song by Solange that can just be intellectually rich for the next forty to fifty minutes. I just really admire their relationship to culture.

AJM: What are you most excited about in the coming year?

MC: In the coming months, I should be wrapping up my forgiveness book and turning it into the publisher. I know that doesn’t sound amazing, but my homework assignment would be completed! That would make me really happy, and my next project would begin. That’s what I’m excited about, wrapping up one thing which is a wonderful feat and beginning anew. I’m thinking about another book that I’m working on and that’s what I’m most excited about in the coming year.