Education requests, exploitation & oppression

‘Let me tell you what it feels like to stand in front of a white man and explain privilege to him. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. Sometimes it is exhilarating. Every single time it is hard. Every single time I get angry that I have to do this, that this is my job, that this shouldn’t be my job. Every single time I am proud of myself that I’ve been able to say these things because I used to not be able to and because some days I just don’t want to’ (McCleave-Maharawal, 2011)

The violence of public scholarship

Since I have started writing and speaking about race and oppression my intellectual and to some degree my professional lives have been transformed. In the main, for the better. I am thankful. There are however aspects of this public life that continue to be extremely violent. Navigating any public space particularly as a scholar when your body is Black, and female can be treacherous. There are those who will always have a hard time with women and Black bodies taking up space and, occupying any position that affords their voice a platform. Or their thinking an audience.

The worse I have had so far, is a rape threat. A single one though, and so I consider myself lucky. Some of my peers have to contend with recurrent threats of rape, death and mutilation and, sometimes even threats to their loved ones. That’s in addition to everyday racist and sexist harassment that is sadly so banal, it is not even worth a mention. This is the backdrop to our scholarly work. That our words alone would cause such intense aggressive impulses to freely become bare, in public, often in the most ardent defenders of free speech, requires sustained reflection.

One of the aims of such conduct is of course social control via intimidation. It is to remind us of our place. To trigger sufficient fear, or distress that we merge back into silence and return the space we’re occupying to some fantasised or constructed rightful owner. Or knower. Bodies with the ‘right’ gender and the ‘right’ colour. Women of colour, Black women in particular, are not supposed to know or, be scholars. Let alone public ones. How dare we think that what we have to say and that our thinking, particularly when it challenges established (white male) orthodoxies, matter enough to constitute and contribute to knowledge?

Still I rise… above my station.

Overt aggression is not the only form of violence marginalised scholars face. Recurrently and increasingly, I am asked to provide the emotional or intellectual labour of educating privileged folks on oppression, racism and (although much, much less frequently) sexism via requests for of ‘debate’, elaboration or information. These demands for education occur on and off social media. Publicly and privately. They reach me almost daily. Simply reading them recurrently leaves me exhausted. Often frustrated. Sometimes angry that so many would expect such a laborious service, from me for free and, the imperial echoes this has. Always, I am left feeling heavy.

Because of this, I have taken the political position of not responding. Of course, this attracts strong reactions too. Often anger, dismay and/or more insults. Much of it, and often unbeknown to the education seeker, becomes manifest because it is still socially transgressive for a Black woman to refuse to serve those who demand that she’d be of service. How dare I. Again. Moreover, not only am I a scholar but I am too a therapist. Surely, it is part of my role as a ‘helping professional’ to kindly and dutifully educate and explain, on request?

Well, it may be so, but I would argue that non-education here, is in fact education (on exploitation and on the de-centering of whiteness) and that above all, that it is an act of self-preservation. And that I do indeed need to exist safe and sound to do my job. Even if that is the only contribution of value some may see in my existence. The continuing role of history in the structuring of power relations and, of the wider social world has long been recognised. It is central to group analytic scholarship including the concept of the social unconscious or indeed, the intergenerational transmission of cultural experiences and of relational/social configurations.

Oppression as trauma

Considering a different axe of oppression to hopefully make the point (this is not a perfect rhetorical device)… would we expect survivors of gendered violence and victims of male rape to educate men, on request, on what it is like to be groped and sexually exploited? If you find this proposition more absurd or problematic you may want to take a few minutes of reflection. All oppressive experiences are traumatic.

As we still struggle to accept this simple statement as fact particularly in relation to racism, let alone embody it relationally, I am going to write it again. All oppressive experiences are traumatic. It hurts. It makes you tired. Sometimes it makes you want to cry. The cumulative effect of subtle and everyday or micro experiences of othering and discrimination is grinding. It is draining. And again, every single time it is hard. But more than that, it wears our health and mental health down. It renders us vulnerable to psychological distress and make us feel unsafe in the world, the very definition of insidious trauma.

Given this impact, the expectation that we should as a matter of course and at the drop of a hat, subject our bodies to such effects is frankly gross in its lack of compassion and consideration. It also has a sadistic element which needs attention. It is the ultimate stripping of our subjecthood. And, as such it is of course also historically loaded. I would thus argue, it is another way to reproduce the commodification of our bodies and to dehumanise us, maintaining both the status-quo and power relations, the education seeker purports to want to challenge and/or to understand. This extract from an I email received a few days ago via Race Reflections is a good illustration and, I hope a learning opportunity.

Education and oppression

The email above is from a therapist and someone who likely considers themselves an ‘ally’. Someone thus, who could reasonably be expected to be familiar with issues of boundaries, emotional distress and trauma. Indeed, their apparent grasp of the issues is expressly stated; ‘I understand how utterly emotionally draining it can be for the majority people of colour to have to get into these conversations’. It would appear, they get it. Some evidence of compassion or at least empathy for the taxing conundrums her request would expose people of colour to, seems to be present. Alas this empathy is not extended to me and, I am excluded from their circle of compassion.

It is unclear wether I have not been included in that ‘majority’, because I am believed to somehow possess some inherent protection from or resilience to experiencing the said emotional tax, in the author’s mind and if so, on what basis or; whether the writer’s needs ‘to understand’ in spite of their apparent awareness of the emotional costs to me, takes precedence. Or again, wether they are completely split off from their impact on me. Indeed, the request is presented as a banal one. It has a ‘hey girl’ or ‘no biggie’ quality. ‘I’d appreciate your thoughts on how I can considerably learn more’. And of course, it would be a banal, nothing to see here request since at least in their mind, the author may be ‘a bit more educated than the rest’.

These education requests are thus clear communications. They state whose bodies matter and whose experiences or needs should be centred. They render our bodies instruments or territories to be exploited for the self-development and enrichment of those with more social power. When violence to our bodies and our welfare matter less than the curiosity our experience provoke and/or demands for ‘education’, we are once more albeit unconsciously or inadvertently, sacrificed by and for those who seek to grow at our expense. Often without our consent. Our psychological boundaries are tested and there is a desire or at least a move, albeit likely unconscious to intrude and exploit. An attempt, I would say, at psychological colonialism.

Projection and psychological exploitation

Each time we are asked to educate mindlessly, not only must we re-experience oppression and racism, we must often carry the weight of the privileged’s inability to tolerate their own responses, distress, discomfort and, the disturbance caused to their benevolent sense of self or worldview, which often gets passed on to us via projection. Projection, as a defense mechanism takes place when we unconsciously attribute feelings, drives or impulses located within us to someone else. Usually emotional states that are unwanted and, that we are unable and/or unwilling to carry or hold ourselves. It is not unusual for example, for those who challenge racism to be called racist, bully or some other persecutory term. One may say, attributes that are disowned and projected outwards onto marginalised bodies, here people of colour. 

Projection per se is not harmful. Projective identification however can often be. With projective identification we are induced to feel or act in accordance with the material that has been disowned and projected onto us. We lose our psychological agency and autonomy and with that, the capacity to distinguish what belongs to us and what belongs to the ‘projector’. Our thoughts, feelings and experiences become merged and/or replaced by those implanted into us. The breach of psychological boundary by excellence. We are made to carry someone else’s unwanted psychological baggage and, we experience it as being our own. Psychological pressure is unconsciously exerted to coerce us into being once more, of service.

In doing so, we become estranged from our own mind which is turned into a vessel for the exploitation of those who project onto us, here those with more social power, indeed specifically White people. It can be difficult to know when we’re identifying with a projection, it requires a fairly high level of self-awareness, and often support from a therapist or an analytically orientated supervisor. One way to tell if you have access to neither, is you may start to experience confusion about your experience and, your feelings may appear disproportionate and/or seem out of place (and could plausibly be attributed to the other entity). In the case of racial projections, you may become the container for strong feelings or shame, guilt, inadequacy or distress which do not belong to you, whilst their rightful owner will be blissfully split off from them and therefore, free from carrying their own shit.

Education and epistemic exploitation

Another way to conceptualise the exploitative nature of education requests in the context of oppression, is in terms of epistemic practice. Berenstain (2016) ‘s framework of epistemic exploitation is particularly helpful here. Epistemic exploitation according to her, occurs when privileged folks force marginalised folks to educate them about the nature of their oppression in an unpaid capacity. This educational labour leads to a double bind since there are costs associated with both meeting the demand for education and, costs associated with refusing to meet it. If one decides to comply with the request, one must face testimonial and hermeneutical injustice and scepticism by virtue of one’s very belonging to a marginalised group.

Thus, despite education demands, marginalised perspectives and knowledge are usually dismissed and subject to unattainable epistemic or truth thresholds. Refusing the request on the other hand, because it is socially transgressive, exposes marginalised bodies to violence or hostility via retaliation, affront and anger. According to the philosopher, epistemic exploitation despite being ubiquitous is rarely recognised as a form of epistemic violence which is part of wider macro systemic socio-political oppression. Rather, it is often dressed as a practice deemed epistemically virtuous, as a necessary part of social exchanges and knowledge acquisition; creating an unjust burden on the marginalised to educate and enlighten all while limiting their capacity to do so and, exposing them to violence and harm.

Concluding thoughts

To conclude, relational and psychological configurations will invariably mirror socio-economic and historico-material configurations, if relationships are left to their own devices. I doubt that enacting oppression can ever lead to anything other than oppression and, therefore to the reproduction of the status-quo, even if there was no other, less harmful way to acquire the education sought. Which there is. As we say on Twitter street, Google is your friend. Liberation is something we do in the material world, not uniquely something we conceive and intellectualise. Burdening, harming and marginalising the needs and experiences of those whose freedom and liberation we say we seek to support is the height of white ignorance and as such, does nothing but reproduce whiteness as a structure. Thus, if you take just one sentence from this piece, remember this one; ‘it hurts, it makes you tired, sometimes it makes you want to cry‘.

Thank you for reading

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  1. Ridiculous interpretation & diss of an ally
    Man up, not everything is oppressive it is just your interpretation of it.

    1. Thank you for stopping by. Difficult to take your ‘man-up’ comment seriously (without even getting it the gendered problematic) in light of the fact you have not got the courage to make your identity public so your words can be attributed to you. This looks like cowardice.
      Alas, I am not surprised. But just for fun… if we’re going to deal with interpretations, I guess at worse my take is as good as yours? And perhaps there’s something to be reflected upon 1) in terms of your dictating what a black woman ought to find & not find oppressive, 2) the defensive nature of your response.
      But in any event, I’ll decide who is an ally to me, even if it displeases you. I’ll also decide what I find oppressive, even if this offends or outrages you.

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