Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò: “Oppression Is Not a Prep School”
In activist and academic circles, privileged people are expected to automatically defer to marginalized people on issues of oppression. Philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò argues that this norm kills solidarity and replaces effective politics with endless navel-gazing.
- Interview by
- Daniel Denvir
If you’re a privileged person in activism or academia, you’ve likely been encouraged to “pass the mic” to marginalized people on the basis that their disadvantages give them special political insight. On one level, this norm makes sense: women, people of color, and queer people have long been excluded from these spaces, and their inclusion brings valuable perspectives that others may lack.
But this norm also has its drawbacks. According to the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò, it caricatures marginalized people, disproportionately empowers elite members of oppressed groups, and weakens relationships between people engaged in common pursuits. In his influential essay “Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference,” Táíwò argues that this new “deference epistemology” betrays the spirit of commonsense “standpoint epistemology,” which came out of Marxism and the women’s liberation movement. These projects didn’t compete for influence in grad school seminars or nonprofit boardrooms; they sought to strengthen bonds of comradeship in the struggle for radical change.
Táíwò talked about his essay with Daniel Denvir for The Dig, a Jacobin Radio podcast. In their conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length, they discuss how politicizing knowledge can build solidarity, rather than tearing movements apart. “If I ask someone to take the kinds of risks that activism requires,” Táíwò says, “the very minimum I owe them in return is to treat them as a person and not as a subject who I order around.”
You open your essay by reflecting upon an email you received from a freelance journalist who offered to pass along a story idea to you. She wrote, “I abandoned the pitch because I don’t think I’m the right person to write this story — I have no idea what it’s like to be black.”
On one level, this is the most ordinary sort of interaction these days. But scratching a bit below the surface, it proves to be a lot more complex. “What it’s like to be black” — those words, upon closer inspection, contain multitudes.
What did she mean by that, and what did it mean to you? What was her implicit understanding of what you have in common with black people in general? And how did that understanding misfire?
We talked for a while after that email. I got the strong impression that she’s extremely thoughtful about these issues. Helen is not someone who’s just thoughtlessly imitating things she’s heard in organizing spaces; she thinks deeply about what these kinds of interactions are about and how they should go.
Helen was talking about a story idea that involved the environmental consequences of policy decisions and environmental racism. So I think the ideal writer she had in mind was someone who’s black, who grew up in a redlined community, who grew up near environmental toxins as a result of living in the kind of community that is preyed upon by titans of industry.
There are a number of things going on here. She had one suspicion that seemed to be about knowledge: If I tried to do the story, I might not get the details right. I might not really understand what’s properly at stake. I might misrepresent the issue.
But she also, I think, had another set of thoughts, which are often run together with those first thoughts but are actually different. Helen was also thinking about the fact that, when we write stories, we get paid, and we get credit. We get our name out there as writers — in her case, as a journalist. So part of her thought was: Even if I could get it right, is it my place? Am I the right person to tell this story from a moral perspective, irrespective of whether or not I could accurately represent what’s happening in these communities?
As I said before, Helen thought deeply about these things. She thought that the right thing to do was to pass along the story idea to someone who was better situated, in ideally both of those respects, to tell the story.
She wanted someone who was from the right racial identity group, and we could tell the story of why she identified that group in a number of ways. Maybe she just trusts people from that group to know whether or not they have the relevant experience. Maybe she takes being in the right kind of racial identity group to come alongside having the right kind of experience. Or maybe she just thinks those people should decide what’s relevant in the first place. So maybe it’s just a moral argument all the way down.
What’s important is not ascribing to Helen a particular view. As I said, she actually has deep thoughts about all of these things. But what I took her to be doing in that situation was following a norm, acting on the basis of a pattern of ways that people respond to issues like this in the journalism world. Similar norms hold quite a bit beyond the journalism world, in a lot of activism and academia and culture.
In this story, you identify an equivalence drawn between you — a Nigerian American — and a black American who is a descendant of enslaved Africans: one whose family, for example, arrived in a deindustrializing Chicago during the Great Migration, and then attended underfunded all-black schools, in a neighborhood where poverty was concentrated by legal and extralegal forces of segregation, and where young men excluded from the labor market were targeted by the carceral state.
I doubt that Helen really thought that my experience was equivalent to the experience of someone from a working-class African-American neighborhood, descended from generations of people who had been enslaved in this country. I take Helen to be the kind of person who understands those complications.
But what’s interesting is that the norms we’re called to follow actually block those distinctions from discussion. They obscure those things, and, more important, they call us to treat each other in ways that don’t attend to those differences.
Before we get any further, let’s define “standpoint epistemology.” You cite this definition:
- Knowledge is socially situated.
- Marginalized people have some positional advantages in gaining some forms of knowledge.
- Research programs ought to reflect these facts.
That all seems pretty straightforward and unimpeachable. But in practice, you write, we instead see instead what you call “deference epistemology.” Explain the distinction you’re drawing.
Standpoint epistemology is a perspective on knowledge. It’s a perspective on how we get knowledge, and to some extent, it’s a perspective on how we should get knowledge. There’s been a lot of discussion about standpoint epistemology in many different areas of thought and practice, some of which are academic and some of which are not.
The origin of standpoint epistemology was in the work of a Hungarian Marxist philosopher, for whom it was firmly about the difference that class position makes to what one knows and what perspective one has. And feminists built on that foundation, came to some additional conclusions, and learned more about the kinds of positions that matter.
Deference epistemology is more like number three on that list than one and two. If you stare at number three — the claim that research programs ought to reflect these facts about how knowledge is situated and who gets what kinds of knowledge — it doesn’t tell you how these forces operate, in and of itself.
Deference epistemology, as I characterize it, is just a particular way of living out standpoint epistemology. It’s a particular way of answering the question: How should we do number three? How should research programs or anything else that we do reflect the facts that knowledge is socially situated and that marginalized people have some advantages in gaining some forms of knowledge?
Deference epistemology is one kind of answer, but we could answer that question about what to do in another way. I think a different answer, which I call “constructive epistemology,” offers a better way of living out what standpoint epistemology is about.
Standpoint epistemology has become so associated with certain sides of these identity debates that we’re always enmeshed in, but you could trace it all the way back to Karl Marx, who certainly believed that knowledge was socially situated.
Yeah, definitely. And I think that core thought — that who you are impacts what you know — is a very old thought in many traditions of philosophy, many intellectual traditions, and many political traditions.
Whether it’s brought up in the feminist tradition or in the Marxist tradition or in the Marxist-feminist tradition or in any other tradition, I think paying attention to that core thought is extremely important.
We owe a lot to the people who have done the work to make that apparent to us. But one of the things we owe them is, I think, living out standpoint epistemology in a way that is progressive, that is good, that moves the world forward rather than backward.
You write, “The trap wasn’t that standpoint epistemology was affecting the conversation, but how. Broadly, the norms of putting standpoint epistemology into practice call for practices of deference: giving offerings, passing the mic, believing.” You add that these norms are typically enacted within rooms occupied by elites.
I’d like you to explain how these norms operate and also why this framework so often locates questions of justice in the realms of conversation, discourse, recognition, and representation.
So the conversation with Helen is a good example of the kind of thing that I had in mind. You can think of it as an occasion of “passing the mic.”
Helen has an idea about a story that she thinks ought to be told. She thinks that story would be good. It would be helpful for people who are facing environmental racism. But she worries that she’s not the right person to tell it, given her understanding of the norms with which people are going to evaluate her and her own understanding of the stakes of the norms.
And so she passes the mic. She says, “I’m not the right person to tell this story. I’m looking for someone who is the right person to tell this story, because I think it’s worth being told.” She starts a conversation with me, since I meet enough of the right characteristics, given my racial identity. And she says, “Maybe you should tell the story rather than me.”
Both of us are people from very privileged backgrounds — on a national scale and on a global scale, compared to most of the people that live on this earth. That’s a fact in and of itself. It helps to explain why we were in touch, and it helps explain how our interaction went, when it’s combined with these norms that I’m calling deference epistemology.
Does it also explain the emphasis on discourse and language?
I think it does. To me, the emphasis on discourse and language fits broadly with this phenomenon called “elite capture” that I’ve been thinking about.
I wrote another piece on elite capture, and in that one I thought about the distinction between elites and the rest of their group, whatever their group might be. One thing that’s typically true of elites as a group is that they have simpler social problems than the rest of that group.
I can put that in really visceral terms, as a Nigerian American. There are millions upon millions of Nigerians who face much different and much graver problems than I do, with respect to housing insecurity, with respect to police violence. Afrobarometer put out a report saying that something like three quarters of all Nigerians who had interacted with police in any way, shape, or form reported being extorted for money.
These are not problems that are characteristic of my life. Yet I am likelier than most Nigerians to be in the elite spaces where Nigerian issues might come up, whether it’s the African studies department at Georgetown University or whether it’s a panel being held by a DC think tank — because of where I am, because of what prestige I have, because of my privileges of various kinds.
In these spaces, I could have different kinds of priorities. Maybe what’s important to me is changing the structure of policing or changing the material structures of the global economy and the Nigerian economy, such that people don’t face those kinds of problems.
But my experiences of those issues are much different than most Nigerians’. I’m housing secure. I have income security. I’m a salaried employee. And so the thing about me that overlaps with what Nigerians experience might be the reputation of Nigeria, or it might be the presence or prestige given to intellectual figures or activists from that background.
So the conversation might tap into those kinds of questions that I do have in common with the rest of the group. But it might not have the same kinds of priorities that the full group would have.
It might be more important to me than someone who’s housing insecure — it might be more important to me than someone who faces particularly extortionist policing — that the students at Georgetown University read texts that Nigerians have produced. So it’s a question of priorities, I think.
Access to these rooms is itself a kind of social advantage, and one often gained through some prior social advantage. . . . They are most likely to be in the room precisely because of ways in which they are systematically different from (and thus potentially unrepresentative of) the very people they are then asked to represent in the room.
Are the two things related? In other words, does the very emphasis on the balance of power within the room serve to obscure the much larger imbalance of power between the room and the rest of the world?
I think that’s exactly how it functions. The focus on what’s going on in the room, who’s being listened to in the room, obscures the broader social questions that we might ask if we were thinking equivalently about the people who aren’t in the room. The story about selection, the story about how I got into the room, helps explain why.
One, it helps explain why my interests are different from the interests of the average person who isn’t in the room. Two, I think it helps explain why the kinds of things I will say, the kinds of things that matter to me, and the kinds of things I will push for, as a result of being empowered within the room, do not have any necessary relationship to the larger group dynamics that are the supposed reason for empowering my viewpoint.
Because that’s a little bit abstract, let’s take the example of racial justice. The very things that put me in the room where racial justice is the conversation topic might explain why, when I talk about racial justice, I talk about the sorts of things that are of concern to the sorts of people who could make it onto fancy panels, rather than the kinds of issues I mentioned before — rather than housing insecurity, rather than police extortion, rather than various kinds of intimate partner violence.
I have resources that let me navigate those problems in a much different way than other people. It doesn’t make me immune to those problems, but I have a different relationship to them than other people.
There’s this really tired debate that pits race against class or pits various forms of identity against class. Your essay makes it clear that racism is an incredibly powerful force, but it has various manifestations, and the variety of those manifestations is profoundly material.
I think that’s right. I’m not even sure what it would mean to pit race against class, especially on the view of the world that I have, which is often referred to using the term “racial capitalism.”
Even that’s a little misleading because it makes it sound like there are two things — race and capitalism — and the world is just those two things. More fundamentally, I think there’s power.
There is power over your material circumstances, and there are various ways to answer the question of how this or that person ended up with power over their material circumstances. But once you’ve answered that question, then you have something to use to understand the world, to understand how that person relates to the world, and to understand what’s at stake for that person in a given interaction.
That understanding doesn’t become any more or less true because we’re using race to think about power, rather than using class or gender to think about power.
Deference practices that serve attention-focused campaigns (e.g., we’ve read too many white men, let’s now read some people of color) can fail on their own highly questionable terms: attention to spokespeople from marginalized groups could, for example, direct attention away from the need to change the social system that marginalizes them.
Elites from marginalized groups can benefit from this arrangement in ways that are compatible with social progress. But treating group elites’ interests as necessarily or even presumptively aligned with full group interests involves a political naivete we cannot afford. Such treatment of elite interests functions as a racial Reaganomics: a strategy reliant on fantasies about the exchange rate between the attention economy and the material economy.
Perhaps the lucky few who get jobs finding the most culturally authentic and cosmetically radical description of the continuing carnage are really winning one for the culture. Then, after we in the chattering class get the clout we deserve and secure the bag, its contents will eventually trickle down to the workers who clean up after our conferences, to slums of the Global South’s megacities, to its countryside.
But probably not.
What is the presumed exchange rate between the attention economy and the material economy here? Is that relationship to the material economy thought about at all when these norms are created and enacted?
I think the distinction in the question is an important one. And from day to day, I feel like I waffle between different answers to that question.
Some days I wake up and I think that most people really do believe that if we diversify the syllabi, if we consume media from people of the right backgrounds, the rest of the world is going to change. They’re not sure, or not saying, how — but there is a trail that starts at reading Frantz Fanon and ends at the dismantling of racial capitalism.
Other days I wake up and I think, no — no one believes that. There are some people who trust that someone else has a more specific answer or maybe trust that we will come up with a more specific answer. But nobody thinks that we have one now. And people are just content with short-term, reliable benefits in lieu of that larger social transformation. It’s enough that we listen to different people than we were listening to yesterday. It’s enough that different people are famous or that different people are empowered in this or that organizing space. That’s enough.
There’s a very cynical version of that line of thinking. We could say: maybe the people who believe that are the people who would be empowered, or maybe they have some weird parasocial relationship to the people who would be empowered.
I try to shy away as much as I can from the psychology, especially when it would tempt me to say bad-faith things. Whenever I get in that mode of thought, I go back to thinking about people like Helen.
And Helen’s just one recent and convenient example. I’ve met a thousand people of all the identity groups who were very thoughtful and serious people and meant everything they said from a social justice standpoint. I respect these people, I’ve trusted them with my safety, and I’ve trusted them with my labor. And so I just don’t believe that the whole phenomenon is reducible to people out there grifting. That’s just not what’s happening.
But nevertheless, people are asking a bunch of questions, and no one has come up with good answers. How do we get from a redistribution of attention to solutions? Maybe I just demand different things out of those answers than other people do. I think that’s plausible. But I think there are real problems in this area.
A lot of people are no doubt sincere. Others are no doubt nervous about doing or saying the wrong thing. But we can also learn from the interests of the institutions where conversations take place.
One can presume a little more cynicism in universities, corporate America, the nonprofit-industrial complex, or liberal Democratic politics — or, in the case of Jess La Bombalera, the flamboyant white Jewish academic who for years pretended she was Afro-Latina and was a notorious scold about precisely the sort of deference epistemology practices that that you’re critiquing.
Yeah. There’s definitely a bubble. There are definitely people who are, in a clear-eyed way, exploiting social norms. I don’t have anything interesting to say about those people. We can’t avoid the imprints of those people by switching to different norms. They are people who don’t believe in the moral project that norms are for.
There will always be grifters: at a population level, you can’t prevent a few out of the seven billion of us from exploiting whatever norms are there. So I want to acknowledge that but then leave them aside. These institutional formations that you’re pointing out are actually a good reason to move away from the “grifter model” of explaining what’s happening in social justice spaces.
Take the institution of the university, which I obviously participate in and have some experience with. If you think about the reward structure, the incentive structure, and, just as important, the punishment structure of universities, you can start to tell a story about why these sorts of things take hold. That story doesn’t at all invoke this cynical grifter kind of scenario.
What do you get rewarded for in the academy, especially in the parts of the academy where these norms circulate? You get rewarded for thinking of a new name for a thing. That’s how you get people to cite your paper. You get rewarded for your description of a phenomenon.
Sometimes the evaluation is aesthetic; sometimes it’s social. Does the in-crowd in your discipline view that as a helpful elaboration on something someone has said? Does it help them acquire prestige?
If you look at these political forces, you’re looking at the things that train academics to engage with social issues in the academy in the way that they do. And because the academy takes up so much of our thought and consciousness — because, for a lot of us who are in the academy, it is an outsize proportion of our engagement with the issues that we think of — it’s training us. It’s creating our politics.
This is a point Nick Mitchell raises in Spectre in his review of Frank Wilderson’s book, Afropessimism. This takes place in an institutional context, and that institutional context can tell us a lot about why people say and do the things that they say and do. And so I don’t think it’s that people are being dishonest. I think people are honestly engaging in politics in a way that makes sense where they are.
Again, this is the insight of standpoint epistemology: how you are socially situated affects what you know. It turns out that your “social situation” isn’t just your identity group. It’s your actual material circumstances, your incentives — it’s where you stand in social life.
The academy is a place to stand in social life. And if you look at what the academy is like and what it rewards, then you’ll see the kinds of things that point toward deference epistemology.
All that said, is it still better to intentionally have more women, more black people, and more Latinos on academic panels, in published books, on TV, and on podcasts?
Yeah, absolutely. When the point’s put squarely like that, then the question to me becomes: Why not? Our research projects should reflect the fact that in general, different people who are situated differently know different things.
Much more important, there wasn’t a good reason for the exclusion of these people in the first place. There wasn’t a good reason that intellectual life should have been cis-, white-, and male-dominated. And so there’s no reason to carry forward yesterday’s apartheid into tomorrow’s academy or tomorrow’s entertainment industry or tomorrow’s whatever.
Because there’s inertia in social and political systems, we might have to actually put effort in to undo the demographic imprint of yesterday’s apartheid. And so, sure: diversify the syllabi, diversify the podcast hosts, whatever. Just don’t confuse that project with the project of racial justice, with the project of anti-capitalism, with the project of fixing the most serious things that are broken about society.
There’s no guaranteed relationship, and perhaps no relationship at all, between those two goals.
We started by talking about how you in a sense got misrecognized as a different sort of black man than you are. But of course, it’s not just identity politics or deference epistemology that does that.
American racism has constructed racial categories that are nonetheless very much real, precisely because people, including the police, see someone like you as black. Full stop.
As W. E. B. du Bois famously said, “The black man is a person who must ride ‘Jim Crow’ in Georgia.” Or on a recent podcast about immigration in southern New England called Mosaic, someone said that, in reference to New England’s Cape Verdean community, “The Cape Verdean from Pawtucket understands that he or she is black when their hands are on the hood of the police car.”
How does the practice of deference epistemology fit into this issue of how racism makes race, along the lines of what the Fields sisters write about in Racecraft? Given that racism imposes its racial categories upon everyone, whether one likes it or not, we can’t wave race away as an illusion — but we also shouldn’t, as you emphasize, operate within its naturalized confines. How do you navigate that tension?
That tension is tough because, on the one hand, in a deep way, that’s what race is, right? When people were abducted and put on slave ships and enslaved, they were Yoruba, they were Hausa, they were Fulani. They were whatever they were.
They had their own political ecology, and they had their own history. They had their own social basis for deciding who they were and what that meant. There was a whole different set of struggles around trying to renegotiate those things or maintain those things.
They were taken to a part of the world that wanted to impose different identities on them. You’re no longer Hausa; now you are black. That’s what’s important about you. That’s what’s true about you.
So the question is what social categories even are, from the perspective of politics and from the perspective of power. What I’m saying is less that these categories are illusory, and more that we need to think about what challenges those categories, and much more important the forms of injustice that circulate, create, and sustain them.
We need to be a little more serious about what challenges to those mean, because those people are in rooms too. And they don’t tend to be in the rooms that can be seriously challenged by deference epistemology.
This is a point that circles back to your earlier question about the focus on conversation, discourse, and attention. Let’s suppose that the primary thing creating race and racism is, to use your example, what the police are doing, whether they’re stopping and frisking people or perpetrating other forms of harassment; maybe it’s what the banks are doing, in terms of who they deem creditworthy and where investment goes; maybe it’s what the welfare offices are doing.
If it turns out that these systems of racial oppression and gender oppression are being planned in different rooms than the rooms that we’re debating conversational etiquette in, and if our conversational etiquette doesn’t challenge those basic things — doesn’t prevent the police from harassing Cape Verdeans, doesn’t prevent the bankers from denying loans on the basis of race, doesn’t prevent intimate partner violence, doesn’t prevent the construction of inaccessible housing — then we put our focus in the wrong place.
If we don’t have a story about how we’re going to challenge those deeper practices by way of these smaller practices, then I have to question the focus on these smaller practices.
An example along the lines of policing that comes to mind is the most famous one from the pre–Black Lives Matter Obama administration, which was Henry Louis Gates Jr being interpolated in a very reductive way as black when he was arrested by that Cambridge cop.
But then his experience ends with the beer summit at the White House, which is not the standard outcome of such an interaction with police. And you can imagine: What did the police officer and Skip Gates and Barack Obama discuss at this beer summit?
I’m sure they all shared the mic. I’m sure they all heard each other’s perspectives, and I’m sure that nothing changed as a result of it. To what extent does it matter how that conversation went?
That’s a conversation that included some of the most powerful people in the world: a very powerful academic and the so-called leader of the free world, the president of this large imperial country that sits atop the global order. If their conversation didn’t matter, substantively speaking, what are we going to challenge by way of our conversations?
And again, that’s not to say that conversations are irrelevant. That’s not to say that it doesn’t matter how we talk to each other. We just need to be clear on what we can achieve by changing how we talk to each other.
Your critique was on my mind as I read coverage of Joe Biden’s appointments, where the issue of race and gender representation competed with attention to appointees’ ideologies for space in the newspaper.
Overall, I think the question of race and gender representation won out decisively in terms of what mattered about these appointees, as though ideology is somehow unrelated to racial or gender justice — when in fact ideology determines what a given appointee thinks US foreign policy toward Palestinians should be, or what criminal justice policy should look like for mass-incarcerated Americans, or if the economy might be remade to empower women who are forced to work a double shift at work and then at home.
What do you make of these dynamics just in activist spaces or in academia? At the highest echelons of empire and capital and the carceral state, you see deference epistemology marshaled to actually defend or deflect attention away from incredibly racist and oppressive and violent institutions and politics.
If we’re talking about what powerful elected officials and formal political types are up to, then I think you do need to bring back the cynical grifter story that we set aside. Here I fully embrace my cynical side. Does anyone genuinely believe that it matters that Gina Haspel runs our black sites as opposed to a cis man? Find me a person who argues that, and I’ll find you a liar.
I don’t even think there’s anything else to say about those people. It’s entirely cynical appropriation and co-option of thoughts that often travel in tandem with standpoint epistemology. I’m sure that’s the prevailing view among standpoint epistemologists, though maybe not all of them down to a person obviously.
I think we should let those people be disingenuous and instead worry about what we believe.
Perhaps the most prominent recent distillation of deference epistemology has been the liberal call on Twitter and elsewhere to “listen to black women.” But it often turns out, upon closer inspection, that there’s a rather selective group of black women who liberals believe are appropriate spokespeople for black women.
Does the operation of deference epistemology not only privilege elite speakers within elite spaces, but also confer on elites, including white elites, the power to choose who gets to represent oppressed groups?
I think the ability to decide who you defer to in strategic ways clearly, in a direct sense, cheapens the very notion of deference. If you just ignore the people in the identity group who don’t agree with the perspective you’ve already developed, then all you’ve really gained is the ability to use someone else’s identity as a smokescreen for your own politics.
That falls under the heading of what I described as “moral cowardice” at some point in the essay.
But what is also interesting about that is that, in the US context, deference epistemology weaponizes the US’s own history of segregation and its imprint on passage to elite spaces. I imagine the white liberal, whether they’re earnest or cynical, must hear a very different thing from “believe black women” than I do. Because for most people in this country, particularly of those affluent white backgrounds, their friend groups and social groups aren’t that diverse.
There was a study around this a while back. I can’t recall the numbers off the top of my head, but the modal white American has a very small number of direct social connections to black people. And so, for a number of these people, the only contact with political perspectives on the relevant issues might just be the person trotted in front of them as a black woman with a perspective on this issue.
“Listen to black women” more or less just means “listen to Joy Reid” for them, because that’s the only person to whose ideas they’re going to have real kind of exposure. Whereas as someone with a different background, I grew up around many, many black people. There are many black women whose perspectives I’m familiar with on this issue or that issue.
My academic training involved connection to people, and so there’s a there’s a range of perspectives I could think about when someone says to me, “Believe black women.” So I don’t know what the intended social impact of that phrase is supposed to be. But that’s the social environment it interacts with. I think that works out well for you if you’re Joy Reid. I don’t know how well it works for working-class black women.
That’s a really important point. Some of this deference epistemology really thrives within our segregated society, because if one knows a decent number of black people or Latino people or whatever, one would realize that they have an incredible diversity of opinions on pretty much anything, like all human beings.
It’s not hard to read. I don’t want to pick on that particular slogan in general, for a number of reasons, one of which is because it means a different thing among black people. It’s a much more defensible thing to say if you’re talking to black people, I think, or at least a different kind of thing to say. Then it seems like it’s a criticism of patriarchy and a phenomenon of not taking women seriously in our own spaces. And that’s a much different statement than telling the white liberal to listen to Joy Reid, in effect.
But in a way, that’s one of the hard things about social media. It’s so hard to tie a message to a particular context, because messages circulate in different ways than they would without that technology.
We have this dynamic where we’ve had a black president and now a black woman vice president, but we have not seen any meaningful curbing of residential and educational segregation, mass incarceration, or so many other problems that are characteristic of many black people’s experience in this country.
This contradiction between the promise of a black president and the persistent injustices of black reality has often, I think correctly, been seen as the context within which Black Lives Matter first erupted. To what degree do you see present-day black radical politics grappling with this issue of deference epistemology?
That’s an interesting way of framing the most recent years of black radical struggle. It just seems to me that, especially where politicians are concerned, black activists in the United States have been very clear-eyed about what black leadership does and does not mean, particularly in the most recent decade or so.
I think the uprising in Baltimore and the ongoing BLM LA campaign, for example, both protested black political leaders. In LA, activists have been protesting a black district attorney, Jackie Lacey, for four years. There’s an understanding among movement people that officials aren’t guaranteed to protect your interests based on what their identity is.
What’s most interesting to me is how that has failed to inform the commentary in other spaces on the issues that these movements are talking about.
I think it was probably apparent to people in Flint or Baltimore that what was at issue was how people were treated and that racism had everything to do with that, but that beating back structural racism was more than just having black faces in high places.
I think that sort of thing was clear on other dimensions of identity as well. Working back from that to a broader view of what identity means and what it doesn’t mean is the project my essay was about.
Deference epistemology can also facilitate really bad dynamics within political organizations. You touch on this rather carefully, but it can also empower troubled personalities who destabilize groups and undermine their political project. You write,
In Conflict Is Not Abuse, Sarah Schulman makes a provocative observation about the psychological effects of both trauma and felt superiority: while these often come about for different reasons and have very different moral statuses, they result in similar behavioral patterns. Chief among these are misrepresenting the stakes of conflict (often by overstating harm) or representing others’ independence as a hostile threat (such as failures to “center” the right topics or people). These behaviors, whatever their causal history, have corrosive effects on individuals who perform them as well as the groups around them, especially when a community’s norms magnify or multiply these behaviors rather than constraining or metabolizing them.
This is a powerful passage that I know will resonate with many. My question is: How does that operate? How does deference do these two related things, both transforming political disagreements into unforgivable wrongs and also creating group norms that protect such behavior by calling such criticism, say, “tone policing”?
There are forms of sanction that protect deference epistemology, like the accusation of tone policing, for example. But I think the deeper thing is just deference itself.
I’m confident that if you had social norms where things people said — whether they were about harm or offense or trauma — were evaluated, that by itself would produce a very different social environment than deference epistemology. Because, at the end of the day, deference epistemology tells you not to evaluate certain things in certain situations. I think the potential of that for particularly egregious kinds of exploitation is obvious.
If you say, well, this person’s perspective is what we’re going with, kind of regardless of what I privately feel, I think you’re going to encourage very recognizable forms of abuse, very recognizable forms of bullying.
Part of the reason why I was so oblique about this and why I’m still being so oblique about this is because I’m confident that people will recognize this phenomenon. And the point isn’t to demonize people who behave in a certain way or who have dealt with certain kinds of psychological problems. I just want to point out the role of norms in making those things worse, rather than helping the situation.
And it’s also obviously not to say that people don’t suffer or that we shouldn’t pay attention to trauma and take it seriously. You write:
I take concerns about trauma especially seriously. I grew up in the United States, a nation structured by settler colonialism, racial slavery, and their aftermath, with enough collective and historical trauma to go round. I also grew up in a Nigerian diasporic community, populated by many who had genocide in living memory. At the national and community level, I have seen a lot of traits of norms, personality, quirks of habit and action that I’ve suspected were downstream of these facts. At the level of individual experience, I’ve watched and felt myself change in reaction to fearing for my dignity or life, to crushing pain and humiliation. I reflect on these traumatic moments often and very seldom think: “That was educational. . . .”
Contra the old expression, pain — whether born of oppression or not — is a poor teacher. Suffering is partial, shortsighted, and self-absorbed. We shouldn’t have a politics that expects different: oppression is not a prep school.
How does deference epistemology rely upon conferring a sort of pedagogical status upon suffering and trauma? And why, contrary to conventional wisdom, is that neither accurate nor helpful?
One of the things I’ve found most alienating about deference epistemology is the attitude toward trauma and suffering that’s typically involved. And this section of the essay was my attempt to say why.
But I introduced the section by saying, “That’s what I have to say.” The section about trauma is more my conviction than a traditional argument.
But it’s just the furthest thing from how I’ve experienced the world — the idea that trauma is educational. And I don’t think I’m alone in this. Unfortunately, the world contains depths of violence and despair where we could test this theory out. You could go to places postgenocide, you could go to places post–ethnic cleansing, and you could see how character-building of an experience trauma was.
I don’t understand the reverence that trauma holds in some political corners. That’s not what it means to me. That’s not what it meant to the other people around me growing up. And I don’t see the things that come out of treating trauma this way in a positive light.
I think deference epistemology, in the fact that it often legitimates itself by invoking the language or experience of trauma, takes it that oppressed people have the insight that the strategy seems to assume trauma grants you. That strikes me as a thoroughly fictional relationship to reality, to suffering.
Much deeper than anything else I said in the essay, I just have no desire to participate in that, and I won’t.
You draw this distinction between the raw experience of trauma, which is a poor teacher, and the process of drawing political wisdom from trauma, which is something that you write requires consciousness-raising.
Consciousness-raising, in turn, seems like it requires what we might call organizing: this ideological and psychological transformation that can occur when people organize with others. It’s a process of coming to personal and politically contextualized knowledge through being in a sociopolitical relationship with other people.
Yeah, it’s work. And it’s a lot of work. And one of the reasons why it’s a lot of work is because trauma is, by default, bad for you. That’s part of why we don’t want to experience it. It’s not like exercise, where feeling the burn is constructive. The default case is that trauma mostly messes you up.
It’s a testament to the work and effort and struggles of the feminist movement and of labor movements that those people have made something other than more suffering out of trauma. It’s an achievement that people have made radical intellectual traditions and whole cultural practices out of trauma, encoding something like knowledge or insight.
It’s a testament to the work that they did. It’s not some automatic crown that you get for suffering. This insight was built, and it was built intentionally. And to build this knowledge intentionally, people had to recognize that it wasn’t there already.
This made me think about the work that my friend and comrade, the political scientist Mie Inouye, is doing. She’s writing about organizing and how a basic problem for organizers is to help people overcome incapacitation.
Oppression does give people knowledge of their own suffering, but it also undermines people’s sense of their own political efficacy and their opportunity to develop political skills. Like you say, oppression is not a prep school. Organizing, at its most basic level, aims to change that.
Does deference epistemology’s treatment of trauma, which includes a “hyper-sanitized and thoroughly fictional caricature” of oppressed people, undermine the very philosophy that must guide the actual practice of organizing?
Yeah. It invites us to look away from the disadvantages that come with oppression and trauma, which undermines the practical things we would have to do to address those and to respond to those.
And not only does it look away from those things, but I think, on one interpretation, it lies about them: it tells you that it doesn’t matter that people don’t have labs or research time to be able to prove that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality is lying about the quality of the water. It tells you that those things don’t matter.
It tells you that it doesn’t matter that people don’t have any organized body to coordinate a strike, for example. It only calls attention to this supposed advantage of knowledge and does so in a way that assumes either the nonexistence or irrelevance of all these other material disadvantages, in which we should try to intervene.
To organize in response to exactly the sorts of things that motivated standpoint epistemology in the first place, I think we’d have to start by telling the truth: that those disadvantages matter. And to the extent that we can intervene in those disadvantages, we need to build power.
What’s important to me about the alternative, which I call the “constructive” view, is that it starts from telling the truth about the full set of advantages and disadvantages that are at play.
Yes, experiencing oppression and trauma can give you insight and information that you can’t get any other way. But that’s not the only thing that matters. It matters whether you’re able to produce knowledge with other people and to produce proof with other people.
To use the example of Flint, it matters whether people have the time to create and communicate knowledge. It matters that you have the organization to convert knowledge that something is wrong into holding a strike, for example, and challenging what is wrong.
You also need to believe you have the power to change it.
Exactly: believing that you have the power to mount a challenge, having the evidence that backs up your challenge, and having the resources to make that challenge real. Until we tell the truth about those things, these points about the potential epistemic benefits of trauma and oppression ring hollow.
Not only does deference epistemology undermine organizing, but also the other way around: our disorganized society facilitates the spread of deference epistemology.
Your essay brings up this question about what individuals or entities can speak for larger groups with whom they’re associated. Are individuals considered representative of groups because they share a common trait like race or gender? Or are they representative of groups because they have some relational bond of representation through an organized group?
I’m thinking about a slippage between two different but related definitions of the word “representative”: a person chosen to speak or act on behalf of others and a person who is somehow typical of a group. To me, treating certain individuals in elite spaces as automatically representative of larger social groups seems connected to this broader problem of representation in an era of massive and systematic disorganization.
There’s a vacuum of substantive representation of organized activities, because there’s a major lack of popular organization in our society. Without concrete social and political organization, individuals get treated as automatically representative of abstract social groups.
You emphasize elite capture, which I think is important. But I think there’s another deep factor at play here, perhaps, which is the notion that an individual can automatically represent some imagined collectivity in the absence of any organizational relationship to that collectivity.
I think that the deorganization of society makes elite capture possible. I organize it in my head under the heading of “elite capture,” but there are obviously lots of ways you could think about it.
Decades ago, if you wanted to weigh in on an issue that had to do with a group, and that group was represented by organizations, you might think twice about it. As a self-proclaimed spokesperson, you would have to answer to an organized group of other people.
That organization created spaces where people could develop their own views and develop confidence in those views, both of which are important. It would also develop relationships of accountability.
So if you were a visible member of those organizations — like Dr Martin Luther King was for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or like Malcolm X was for the Nation of Islam — and you shared your perspective without authorization, a whole group of people would have something to say to you the next time you saw them at the grocery store.
And just as important, if you contradicted something that they said, then they would have ways of getting out an alternative message. They would have groups where that contradictory message could be discussed. They might have newspapers or pamphlets to get out the message contradicting yours.
Even if you were bold enough to ignore those relationships of accountability — even if you were confident enough in your views that you weren’t bothered by resistance from your organization — you might just be out-organized by them from a messaging standpoint.
That’s not true now. Now we have Big Tech corporations that have essentially asserted ownership over the hugely socially important aspects of knowledge distribution.
The digital commons were born and then enclosed.
Right. And if Mark Zuckerberg owns the attention economy rather than Marcus Garvey, then there are going to be different rules about who can say what on the topic of racial justice. Different sorts of decisions will structure how these ideas circulate. And those decisions are increasingly made by EdgeRank or whatever other algorithm and not made by us at all, those of us who have justice in mind.
One passage from your essay that really hit home was your analysis of how deference epistemology can make white people or others deemed privileged into pretty crappy comrades. You write:
For those who defer, the habit can supercharge moral cowardice. The norms provide social cover for the abdication of responsibility: it displaces onto individual heroes, a hero class, or a mythicized past the work that is ours to do now in the present. Their perspective may be clearer on this or that specific matter, but their overall point of view isn’t any less particular or constrained by history than ours. More importantly, deference places the accountability that is all of ours to bear onto select people — and, more often than not, a hyper-sanitized and thoroughly fictional caricature of them.
I know of situations where white people, perhaps with the encouragement of a lonely person of color in the room, concluded that the room was not optimally representative and so decided the most socially just thing they could do was nothing. This is often explained in the terminology of “stepping back.”
What sort of comrade does this dynamic turn white people or others seen as privileged into? And how does that rely on this romantic, noble savage caricature of the other?
I use the term “cowardice” in the essay, because I wanted to make the point as forcefully as I could. But I think it’s also important to keep track of the fact that two things are being weaponized by these norms.
One is insecurity. Why expose yourself to the social sanction that might come from contradicting someone who you ought to defer to? It would take quite a bit of self-confidence or conviction, depending on the situation, depending on the room.
But it also exploits trust. I remember being in organizing spaces where there were new people who didn’t have a lot of experience with social justice or activist culture and who just saw everyone else doing these strange deference epistemology things.
They had to make a decision: Do they regard themselves as the sort of person who can evaluate this rightly, as the person who just entered the room? Suppose the experienced activists say, “If there are no people of color here, then we do nothing.” I just got here. What do I do? And, you know, I think the point is especially sharp if we’re thinking about people who might be new in these spaces. But the fact remains that trust is a part of what’s going on here.
And I don’t want to make it sound like this only applies to people who are unwilling to stick to their guns, who are cowards. But your question stands. The kind of people produced by these messages are not trained to stand up to power.
Even in the most convenient version of the case for deference epistemology, we have to think that we’re very selectively training people to stand up to power. These are the people that we want to confront the cops, the bosses, and the military. We want them to be lions in the streets and lambs in the organizing rooms.
Maybe this works. People are capable of compartmentalizing. I don’t know. But I would never ask someone to do that. I would never ask someone to put themselves in harm’s way with me, and sometimes even for me, who I don’t trust enough to hear respectful disagreement from. I don’t understand why we have that expectation for anyone else.
Here, I have to say what I said before: I just won’t do it. This is something I won’t participate in. In a way, you can only get so far with argument and reasoning. I’m just not on this team.
And if I ask someone to take the kinds of risks that activism requires, the very minimum I owe them in return is to treat them as a person and not as a subject who I order around.
I also think about James Baldwin’s realization that the things that tormented him the most were “the very things that connected me with all the people who were alive, who had ever been alive.” That I have survived abuse of various kinds, have faced near-death from both accidental circumstance and violence (different as the particulars of these may be from those around me) is not a card to play in gamified social interaction or a weapon to wield in battles over prestige. It is not what gives me a special right to speak, to evaluate, or to decide for a group. It is a concrete, experiential manifestation of the vulnerability that connects me to most of the people on this earth. It comes between me and other people not as a wall, but as a bridge.
With deference epistemology, the question is not just what people know because of who they are but what people cannot know because of who they are and are not. Where does this commonplace notion of radical epistemological alterity fit into your analysis, and why should we think of experience as a bridge rather than a wall?
One of the core points here calls back to something that came up earlier in the essay: as identities become more and more fine-grain and disagreement sharper, we come to realize that coalitional politics — struggle across difference — is simply politics, and thus the deferential orientation is ultimately anti-political.
There are a couple of ways that we can treat the importance of experience and specifically the importance of experiences like trauma, pain, suffering, and experience of oppression. These are things that can cleave us apart from one another. Or they can do the opposite.
And Baldwin, in particular, seems to me like someone who understood that deeply. I think, from a very young age, he saw himself as trying to figure out why other people were doing the things that they were doing. Whether you agree with those people or not, you can either see them as obstacles to your self-actualization, or you can see yourself as trying to live with them in a different way.
What I was trying to say at the end there is that there’s something in this second option for us, beyond the fact that it’s just better to describe people as their own fully-fledged human beings with their own pain and lives. That’s simply true about the world and about other people, and that’s the way that you have to look at the world to get things right.
But I just think there’s also something in it for us. If we look at other people this way and if we adopt the corresponding view of ourselves, that’s the basis for solidarity. This is where solidarity comes from. It’s not from sameness — solidarity is not the idea that we’ve been through the same things or want the same things or have the same ideas. Solidarity comes from a much more fundamental commonality. We all need each other, because we are all trying to deal with this huge thing: the world and our social structure in the world.
These are things that exceed us, that are bigger than us, that were here before us and will be here after us. We can’t possibly hope to fix them on our own terms, with our own hands and our own power. That basic commonality can be enough if we have the right relationship to ourselves, if we look at our differences as potential resources rather than walls.
I hope I don’t sound like a “Kumbaya” hippie-type person. But this is what I believe, and I don’t want to shy away from saying what I think is true. This is the view that I think is true, helpful, and useful.
You close your essay with a really interesting argument about what standpoint epistemology looks like when it is actually put into practice. It would “focus on building and rebuilding rooms, not regulating traffic within and between them.” It would “be accountable and responsive to people who aren’t yet in the room, to build the kinds of rooms we could sit in together rather than merely judiciously navigating the rooms history has built for us.”
You point to the struggle launched by residents of Flint, Michigan, in alliance with scientists, to expose their city’s contaminated drinking water and to get clean water instead. You write:
They didn’t need their oppression to be “celebrated,” “centered,” or narrated in the newest academic parlance. They didn’t need someone to understand what it felt like to be poisoned. What they needed was the lead out of their water. So they got to work.
You do write that establishing epistemic authority was their first step. Explain this argument and why actual standpoint epistemology requires this orientation toward concrete political action in the world.
There are a few things going on there. One is that epistemic authority was required, but the Flint residents were using it. So epistemic authority wasn’t itself the goal. It wasn’t the thing that they were organizing their lives around. It was a way of getting to their goal, which was clean water.
That’s one kind of difference from moralizing ways of thinking about deference epistemology, where we’re just trying to fix complicity with oppressive structures. Deferring to this person or that person makes you morally right, in a way that’s insensitive to actual practical consequences.
So one part of what’s going on was that epistemic authority was part of a political project — an instrumental part of the political project, as opposed to being its own goal.
Second, from what I can tell from the outside as an outsider, the people were very clear-eyed about what their material objective was. And that made them make different decisions about what kinds of knowledge they needed to develop.
People, especially in the academy, make a big deal about the fact that environmental racism was at play in Flint, Michigan. And I have no disagreement with them. I think that’s right. But we should notice that people went and found scientists that could prove that the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality was saying fraudulent things. They didn’t go to the humanities departments or cultural studies departments for a new fancy reading of Fanon or Du Bois and then present that. That was not what they needed, and so that’s not what they did.
I think the lesson from that is: if what keeps us up at night is how to read paragraph seven of page forty-two of this or that important radical thinker, then tell me the full story of what we get from answering those questions. That’s not to say we shouldn’t do those things. I’m a nerd like everybody else. But if we want to contribute, if we really think of ourselves as part of these movements, we should learn to think about knowledge in the ways that they demonstrate.
They started with a practical objective and figured out what knowledge was relevant to achieving it. If the people that lived in Flint at the time could figure that out, why can’t the rest of us?
I think we should take a page from that book in general. We should figure out what knowledge is needed that isn’t there or what knowledge needs to circulate. And we should try to figure out the practical projects that knowledge acquisition can fit into, rather than having debates for debate’s sake.
This goes back to something we discussed at the beginning, which is that the institutions that produce knowledge don’t reward this. They incentivize us to produce knowledge that people in power can use, as opposed to knowledge that can be used against them. Or they incentivize us not to produce knowledge at all, at least not knowledge that’s politically relevant.
This is true regardless of the pretensions of the people producing knowledge. Some of these people say nothing about politics. Some of these people say a lot about politics.
But what it comes down to is what gets used and what’s usable. As soon as we start to think about knowledge production in those terms, I think we’ll come up with better ideas about how to be in these institutions — whether it’s the newsroom, the think tank, or the policy office of an elected official.
The people who are producing knowledge should be thinking about this kind of thing rather than deference politics.