Epistemic colonialism: A few thoughts 

 

On being taught my experience

A few months ago I was asked to speak at a community event on Fanon, decoloniality and radical mental health. There, I was approached, after my talk by a white man wishing to have a conversation. He said he wanted to invite me to a conference. We exchanged email addresses. When he later got in touch, he had made his way through Race Reflections on which he had posted half a dozen ‘private’ comments which he said were for my ‘benefit and learning’ only. Mainly, he was agreeing with my writing, indeed even commenting on the fact that I had a very good understanding of the issues. He elaborated on some ideas, and suggested some reading.  All posts commented upon dealt with Black womanhood and my lived experience. That conference he had mentioned, he had no intention to invite me to speak at. Instead, he wanted to invite me to hear him speak. About Blackness and Fanon.

There was something quite violent if not slightly triggering, in the confidence with which that white man felt I would benefit from being schooled on my lived experience as a Black woman. It is quite disorienting and subtly objectifying to be doubted in or ‘assessed’ on one’s capacity to know especially when that knowing relates to one’s intimate relationship with oneself and the world. Something that mirrors the ease with which people with social power feel able to access and inhabit the phenomenological reality of the marginalised. And so… non-Muslim women have worn the Hijab for a day to ‘understand’ the gendered racism Muslim women have faced for generations. White people have gone black (face) to appreciate the continuing existence anti-blackness and, the wealthy and materially secure have slept rough in the streets of London (and of many other cities I am sure) to advocate for the homeless.

Knowing and inhabiting spaces

It is not only what we know about the world that is shaped by our ‘perspective’ but also what we cannot know. I have previously used a house analogy to try to illustrate that very point. When people speak about their (lived) experience, they describe what it is like to inhabit a particular space, which may be envisaged as a house. Clearly residing outside the house, would make any perspective on inhabiting the house impossible. One could not with any degree of validity agree, disagree or even comment on the experience of living in that space or assess what being inside might feel like or what the atmosphere may be experienced as, for example. Being outside the house actually means having no point of view, no perspective on living inside.

Even if one came to visit a few times, had friends living in the house, or if the windows were wide open, with the inside of the house in full view; one would not know about living inside and this would remain so, irrespective of how reflective one may be with regards to one’s social location and its map of power relations and whatever the relationship with the house’s residents. The above feel necessary to establish as there seems to be have been a shift towards more uncritical and quite oppressive adoption of ‘perspectives’ and positionality which give licence to more socially privileged people to speak and comment, with authority, on marginalised people’s lived experience while claiming to merely be offering a ‘perspective’. Nonetheless one which will often be strenuously defended as a right, and which will usually be claimed to be valid. As valid as our lived experience, if not more. 

The inhabiting of Others’ space geographically, geo-politically or phenomenologically, is naturally a function of social privilege. And, it is a reflection of the social order that the presence of the more socially powerful in such spaces is rendered automatically legitimate and thus deemed as such by those who may essentially be seen to be trespassing. There is no two-way street here. I struggle to imagine a Black woman asking a white man she’s just met to hear her speak on the ‘white experience’ or commenting profusely on his experience of white manhood. In fact, I even struggle to imagine a Black woman becoming an authority on the lived experience of white men. Similarly, geo-politically, whilst the Africanness of white people located in various countries in Africa is often taken for granted, the claim of people colour in relation to their Europeaness continues to be widely contested and mocked.

Phenomenological colonialism

White people will eventually acquire legitimate occupancy rights, if not native status; often above and beyond the indigenous populations whose land(s) they settled in. Privilege enables dominant groups to be blind to their ease of access and frequent feelings of entitlement to marginalised/colonised  spaces and to the various ways their claim to knowledge of our lived experience reproduces violence. The ideas that we can have a valid ‘perspective’ whilst holding ourselves almost as a kind of metropolis of every phenomenon or experience seems quite imperialist. Colonialism as a reminder, involved making illegitimate claims onto others’ territories and appropriating them for the purpose of economic, political and psychological exploitation, in addition, to taking at least partial, usually complete control of the said lands or alternatively, occupying them with settlers.

The justifications of colonial rule often rested upon strongly held beliefs in the supposed rights of colonisers, often thought to be divine, bolstered by claims of benevolence and/or superiority. Of course not everyone who speaks of the lived experience of the marginalised do so out of or with arrogance, saviourism or dominance. Nevertheless, knowing, particularly when it is made public, is not merely an individual act, it is also a social act. Certainly, it has social consequences.  The ‘invasion’ of the phenomenological worlds of the marginalised has effects which are harmful, notably because when voices deemed of authority give a name to a space, they transform that very space.  Those voices essentially bring a new place into existence (Creswell, 2004) and in doing so; erase any pre-existing notion of that space. In the same way America and Africa were ‘created’ as (meaningful) places at the beginning of their colonial encounter, the phenomenological field of the marginalised, despite claim of positionality, is at risk of becoming erased and replaced by the so called perspective of those with social power.

The process of place making (and thus place erasing) is mirrored when voices of authority speak of a phenomenon or experience, even when they are located outside that experience. Perversely. As has been tirelessly theorised, knowing is inherently linked to power and, all marginalised groups within society are defined as non-knowers, to various extents. Offering privileged ‘perspectives’ crowds the field of our experiential knowledge with accounts that obscure our lived experience by those who are clearly located outside of the same but who are socially believed to have more elaborated capacities for analysis and whose knowledge can therefore be more easily trusted: the knowers.

The process of ‘perspective offering’ arguably here also reproduces a particular kind of violence which has been termed testimonial injustice by Fricker (2009).  Testimonial Injustice according to the Philosopher, is a kind of epistemic injustice whereby the legitimacy of marginalised people as knower, namely here of our own experience, is wronged in the main, because of societal prejudices and biases. ‘Testimonial injustice’ in addition to subjecting ‘minorities’ to violence, quietly reproduces material inequalities and social injustice. So…I did thank that man who congratulated me on my understanding of my own experience and proposed a take on it.  And, I thank him explicitly for that but, I was not flattered. And, I kindly declined to have anything to do with him.

Thank you for reading.

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