Social Justice Usage
Source: Bailey, Alison. “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes.” Hypatia, 32(4), 2018: 876–892, p. 876.
We know injustice when we feel it. Productive engagement with these topics should call our collective attention to the relationships among knowledge, power, and embodied identity in ways that challenge students’ default assumption that knowledge is marked by certainty, universality, and objectivity.
Source: Bailey, Alison. “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes.” Hypatia, 32(4), 2018: 876–892, pp. 880–881.
The discursive patterns associated with privilege-preserving epistemic pushback are unmarked, nuanced, and are extremely difficult to spot in philosophy classes because they easily pass as acceptable philosophical engagements. I confess that, in the interest of meeting students halfway, I’ve sometimes treated this pushback as an objection to an argument; but I feel extremely uneasy about doing so because treating willful ignorance as critical engagement muddies philosophical waters. Philosophy classrooms should be spaces where students learn to engage material carefully and critically, and “I don’t buy it! I think you are wrong. You need to convince me!” is a psychological and not a well-reasoned response. Treating privilege-preserving epistemic pushback as a form of critical engagement validates it and allows it to circulate more freely; this, as I’ll argue later, can do epistemic violence to oppressed groups. For these reasons, we need to be clear about the differences among critical thinking, healthy skepticism, and privilege-preserving epistemic pushback.
Source: Bailey, Alison. “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes.” Hypatia, 32(4), 2018: 876–892, p. 882.
I’m adamant that philosophical engagements on issues of social justice must simultaneously track the production of knowledge and ignorance. Teaching social-justice issues requires an attentiveness not only to the ways students take up course content, but also to the strategies they use to resist it.
New Discourses Commentary
In Critical Social Justice, especially in its Theory, the idea of “engagement” is considered very important. In brief, engagement in Critical Social Justice means active participation in and agreement with the materials and Theory of Critical Social Justice. That is, the view in Social Justice is that if one doesn’t agree with the Theory, claims, or accusations being made from that perspective, then one must have failed to engage properly with it. This proceeds from a belief that proper engagement with Social Justice materials will produce agreement, and any disagreement must be the result of various “defensive moves” or false consciousness that stands in the way of having properly understood it.
This claim, which admittedly sounds extreme, can be evidenced by considering the consistency with which this idea appears in the literature (see the many examples provided, which are but a very small sample) and the rather astonishing number of ways it is Theorized. The Social Justice educator and philosopher Alison Bailey refers to her own contributions to the analysis of disagreement with Social Justice—privilege-preserving epistemic pushback (and also, shadow text)—as documenting “one particular node in this constellation of resistant responses.” In addition to her ideas, resistance to Social Justice is Theorized at least under various concepts including (but not limited to): white complicity, white fragility, white ignorance, white innocence, white silence, white solidarity, white talk, colortalk, the racial contract, aversive racism, positioning oneself as a good white, problematic approaches to allyship (see also, centering), anti-blackness, active ignorance, pernicious ignorance, and willful ignorance. Theory also concerns itself with ways the system has been made by dominant people to ensure and maintain this state, including ideas such as epistemic injustice (see also, testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice), epistemic oppression, and epistemic violence. These don’t even touch into the means by which false consciousness creates similar epistemic impediments, including internalized dominance, internalized oppression, internalized misogyny, and internalized racism. All of these are means by which Theory attempts to demonstrate or explain that failure to agree with Theory implies an intentional, defensive, or unconscious (see also, racial stress, white comfort, and white equilibrium) refusal to have engaged with it properly. This is such a profound focus within Theory, in fact, that it’s arguable that rationalizing disagreement as anything but genuine is one of its central occupations.
There is no attempt here to strawman what is going on in Theory in this regard. Indeed, the general concept is perfectly comprehensible once it is understood more clearly what “engagement” means in the context of Critical Social Justice. It means critical engagement. Take this phrasing from Alison Bailey, for example: “Philosophy classrooms should be spaces where students learn to engage material carefully and critically” (see below for further context). If one does not realize that Critical Social Justice takes tremendous pains to distinguish critical thinking from critical methods (see also, Critical Theory), this statement seems immanently reasonable, but in Critical Social Justice, it means something very specific and not entirely expected from outside that worldview. Bailey, indeed (in the same paper quoted here), takes pains to explain how critical thinking as we usually think of it falls among the “master’s tools” described by black feminist Audre Lorde—that is, part of the very system of knowledge that prevents oppressed groups from having any hope of equality or liberation.
What is meant by critical engagement—which Critical Social Justice sees as the only authentic engagement with its materials—is engaging with it from a perspective that has adopted its assumptions, imperative, and self-asserted necessity. That is, engagement is only considered authentic when it is done on the terms set out by the relevant critical theory. Proper engagement with Social Justice requires engaging it from a position of critical consciousness, which is what Theory exists to produce in people (see also, wokeness).
Engagement on these terms, of course, will more or less guarantee agreement because it begins with an insistence that to have properly engaged with Critical Social Justice requires having adopted the Critical Social Justice mindset. (This is reminiscent of certain religious tracts that insist one must have faith in God before one can see God.) Thus, we find Theorists like Barbara Applebaum writing, “One can disagree and remain engaged in the material, for example, by asking questions and searching for clarification and understanding. Denials, however, function as a way to distance oneself from the material and to dismiss without engagement.” Only seeking to understand the critical perspective more counts as disagreeing while remaining engaged.
In practice, understanding the idea of authentic engagement as critical engagement—that is, having adopted Theory first before rendering an opinion on Theory—serves as a nearly airtight way to dismiss any thoughtful criticism. All one has to do is say that the reason someone disagrees is that they didn’t understand it properly, is too invested in their own privilege to consider it, is blinded by their privilege, are too biased to understand, or lacked the “racial stamina” to handle it (see also, white fragility)—or suffers from some kind of false consciousness that prevents them from understanding it correctly—and the disagreement can be dismissed as uninformed, dishonest, and/or facile. This is, in fact, precisely what Theory does, and more importantly teaches teachers to think is what’s going on in their classrooms when they approach education in a critical way (see also, critical pedagogy).
Active ignorance; Allyship; Anti-blackness; Authentic; Aversive racism; Bias; Black feminism; Center; Colortalk; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical pedagogy; Critical Theory; Dominance; Epistemic injustice; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; Equality; False consciousness; Good white; Hermeneutical injustice; Internalized dominance; Internalized misogyny; Internalized oppression; Internalized racism; Liberation; Marginalization; Master’s tools; Oppression; Pernicious ignorance; Position; Power (systemic); Privilege; Privilege-preserving epistemic pushback; Problematic; Racial contract; Racial stamina; Shadow text; Social Justice; System, the; Testimonial injustice; Theory; White comfort; White complicity; White equilibrium; White fragility; White ignorance; White innocence; White silence; White solidarity; White talk; Whiteness; Willful ignorance; Woke/Wokeness
Source: Applebaum, Barbara. Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy. Lexington Books, 2010, pp. 42–43.
Educational researchers, especially researchers who study how white students engage in social justice education, have given serious attention to such denials. At the present time, there are a plethora of studies that have explored how white students use discursive maneuvers to resist knowledge of their complicity. Such resistance is expressed in multifarious ways from emotional oppositional outbursts in class to passivity and silence. … These rhetorical strategies work to obstruct engagement so that deliberations about one’s complicity in systemic oppression can be avoided. … What becomes apparent throughout this scholarship is that white ignorance is not only sustained by denials of complicity but white ignorance also authorizes such denials. In effect, “resisters” believe they are just disagreeing with the material. Consequently, their disagreement also functions as a “justified” reason to dismiss and to refuse to engage with what is not compatible with their beliefs.
One can disagree and remain engaged in the material, for example, by asking questions and searching for clarification and understanding. Denials, however, function as a way to distance oneself from the material and to dismiss without engagement. Hytten and Warren explain that such strategic denials are not only already available in the sense that they are socially authorized but also that they serve to protect the center, the location of privilege. Such discursive strategies of denial are an “implicit way of resisting critical engagements with whiteness.” When white students, for instance, refuse to acknowledge the depth of their privilege, their privilege is reflected in the very questioning of the social facts that are at odds with their experience. They have what Peggy McIntosh refers to as permission to escape and what Alice McIntyre identifies as “privileged choice.” In other words, the mere fact that they can question the existence of systemic oppression is a function of their privilege to choose to ignore discussions of systemic oppression or not.
Source: Bailey, Alison. “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes.” Hypatia, 32(4), 2018: 876–892, pp. 876–877.
Classroom discussions of race, gender, and their intersections with class/caste, ability, and sexuality use on-the-ground experiences with injustice as their starting point and as such have strong psychological and affective dimensions. We know injustice when we feel it. Productive engagement with these topics should call our collective attention to the relationships among knowledge, power, and embodied identity in ways that challenge students’ default assumption that knowledge is marked by certainty, universality, and objectivity.
Classrooms are unlevel knowing fields: contested terrains where knowledge and ignorance are simultaneously produced and circulate with equal vigor. There are constellations of resistances at play here. Dominant groups are accustomed to having an “epistemic home-turf advantage”; that is, we are used to having conversations about racism or sexism in discursive spaces where our perceptions go unchallenged. So, when our epistemic home terrain is under threat, we hold our ground. Consider the white student who is unwilling to hear the testimonies of students of color about the daily injustices they experience as anything more than complaining. Members of marginalized groups also resist: we push back against texts and conversations that distort, erase, or fail to acknowledge our experiences. Consider the Latina who chooses to be silent or to skip class rather than have another conversation about race and immigration with white folks who just want to argue.
Source: Bailey, Alison. “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes.” Hypatia, 32(4), 2018: 876–892, p. 879.
When ideologies like the myth of meritocracy or their sense of who they are as a person, are deeply unsettled, students will often fall back on various defense mechanisms to try to maintain order. In practice, privilege-preserving epistemic pushback is a family of cognitive, affective, nonverbal, and discursive tactics that are used habitually to avoid engaging ideas that threaten us. This resistance, as José Medina argues, offers a form of “cognitive self-protection.” When our sense of self, group identity, core beliefs, and privileged place in the social order is challenged, we adopt defensive postures to resist what we perceive to be destabilizing. Protecting our epistemic terrain requires that we put up barriers made of opinions and prejudices, which are fortified by anger, shame, guilt, indifference, arrogance, jealously, pride, and sometimes silence. These feelings sit in our bodies: our hearts beat faster, our muscles tighten, we scowl, and our minds chatter. Sometimes we shut down completely.
Source: DiAngelo, Robin. White Fragility: Why It’s so Hard for White People to Talk about Racism. Beacon Press, 2018, p. 111.
However, whites do engage in racial discourse under controlled conditions. We notice the racial positions of racial others and discuss this freely among ourselves, albeit often in coded ways. The refusal to directly acknowledge this race talk results in a kind of split consciousness that leads to irrationality and incoherence. This denial also guarantees that racial misinformation that circulates in the culture and frames our perspectives will be left unexamined. The continual retreat from the discomfort of authentic racial engagement in a culture in which racial disparity is infused limits white people’s ability to form authentic connections across racial lines and perpetuates a cycle that keeps racism in place.
Source: Bailey, Alison. “Tracking Privilege-Preserving Epistemic Pushback in Feminist and Critical Race Philosophy Classes.” Hypatia, 32(4), 2018: 876–892, p. 886.
Shadow texts direct our attention to the ways epistemic resistance circulates during classroom discussions. I use the term metaphorically to point to the written and the spoken cognitive-affective content of this discursive resistance. DeEndré’s claim that “It’s better to talk about intimate partner violence in general!” is a shadow text. His response shadows the readings in the same way a detective shadows a suspicious person. Good detectives follow their subjects tenaciously without being noticed. The word “shadow” calls to mind the image of something walking closely alongside another thing without engaging it. If Jennifer continues to press philosophical concepts into the service of a broader refusal to understand the dehumanizing history of the n-word, then “I mentioned but didn’t use the word ‘n—–’” is a shadow text. Shadow texts can certainly be understood as reactions to course content, but I prefer to think of them as being called up by deeply affective-cognitive responses to the material. They are deployed protectively. When an idea or comment makes us feel uncomfortable, we stalk the offending claim in an effort to monitor and control its circulation.
Source: Applebaum, Barbara. Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy. Lexington Books, 2010, pp. 3–4.
This book will be of particular interest to those who practice and research social justice pedagogy. White denials of complicity are particularly widespread in courses that teach about social justice. Not unlike the ordinary German who denied being guilty of complicity with Nazi crimes, white students often conflate complicity with guilt, the guilt that arises from direct causality to harm. Such notions of responsibility support and encourage denials of complicity. White students believe that they are justified in denying their complicity because they claim that they do not have any “bad intentions” or any “causal connection” to the harms of systemic racism. Often white students refuse to even engage with the possibility that they are complicit. Most white students see themselves as good people and take the charge of complicity as a serious affront to their moral being. They perceive their moral being as transcending their whiteness. Denials of complicity go deep and are maintained, as will be demonstrated, by certain conceptions of responsibility.
Source: Applebaum, Barbara. Being White, Being Good: White Complicity, White Moral Responsibility, and Social Justice Pedagogy. Lexington Books, 2010, p. 39.
Because of white ignorance, white people will be unable to understand the racial world they themselves have made. One of the significant features of white ignorance is that it involves not just “not knowing” but also “not knowing what one does not know and believing that one knows.” White ignorance is a form of white knowledge. It is a type of ignorance that arrogantly parades as knowledge. Rather than an absence of knowledge, white ignorance is a particular way of everyday knowing or thinking that one knows how the social world works that is intimately related to what it means to be white. Moreover, such “ignorance as knowledge” is socially sanctioned. Thus white people tend not to hesitate to dismiss and rebuff the knowledge of those who have been victims of systemic racial injustice rather than engaging with them, inquiring for more information and having the humility to acknowledge what they do not know.
Revision date: 7/13/20