Social Justice Usage
Source: hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994, pp. 74–75.
We have still to collectively make feminist revolution. I am grateful that we are collectively searching as feminist thinkers/theorists for ways to make this movement happen. Our search leads us back to where it all began, to that moment when an individual woman or child, who may have thought she was all alone, began a feminist uprising, began to name her practice, indeed began to formulate theory from lived experience. Let us imagine that this woman or child was suffering the pain of sexism and sexist oppression, that she wanted to make the hurt go away. I am grateful that I can be a witness, testifying that we can create a feminist theory, a feminist practice, a revolutionary feminist movement that can speak directly to the pain that is within folks, and offer them healing words, healing strategies, healing theory. There is no one among us who has not felt the pain of sexism and sexist oppression, the anguish that male domination can create in daily life, the profound and unrelenting misery and sorrow.
Source: Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Second Edition. Routledge, 2000, p. 276.
Whether viewed through the lens of a single system of power, or through that of intersecting oppressions, any particular matrix of domination is organized via four interrelated domains of power, namely, the structural, disciplinary, hegemonic, and interpersonal domains. Each domain serves a particular purpose. The structural domain organizes oppression, whereas the disciplinary domain manages it. The hegemonic domain justifies oppression, and the interpersonal domain influences everyday lived experience and the individual consciousness that ensues.
New Discourses Commentary
In the Theory of Critical Social Justice, for what turn out to be surprisingly deep and philosophically (almost) sophisticated reasons, lived experience is the overwhelmingly primary way in which knowledge can be obtained. This should not be mistaken to mean one’s firsthand experience, which most of us already recognize to provide a rather weak claim upon knowledge, though it is both implied and claimed that this is what “lived experience” refers to in Critical Social Justice. Lived experience, as Critical Social Justice uses the term, refers more specifically to one’s life experiences in allegedly systemic power dynamics of dominance and oppression that shape society structurally as understood with a critical consciousness and interpreted through Theory. That is, one’s “lived experience” refers to the interpretation that Critical Social Justice Theory gives for the anecdotal accounts of experiences one has had.
Because “lived experience” refers to an interpretation through Theory, it is only the “lived experience of oppression,” as Theory will have it, that counts. Thus, people in dominant groups or occupying relatively dominant positionalities in an intersectional analysis generally cannot appeal to their own experiences and call them “lived experience.” They haven’t lived the experience of oppression. The only exception to this is confessing their discoveries of complicity in systemic dominance, though this emphatically does not give their claims any epistemic weight except in the one context that Theory allows: convincing other dominant group members that they are still operating comfortably within privilege and unaware of it due to internalized dominance (see also, white ignorance, white innocence, white comfort, white complicity, and white equilibrium). Certainly, the claimed “lived experience” of members of dominant groups cannot be in any way used to challenge or dispute the assertions of Theory or those claiming to speak from it (see also, hegemony).
This restriction extends to members of “minoritized” groups who disagree with Theory as well—Theory cannot be authentically disagreed with. One might think that the lived experience of a member of oppressed groups would be admissible as a valid challenge to the claims of Theory, but this not so. They may be talking about their own experiences in life, but they aren’t appealing to lived experience, which must comport with Theory. Whether as a result of some form of false consciousness like internalized oppression or as a result of some cynical self-interest like acting white (see also, race traitor, gender traitor, straight passing, white adjacent, patriarchal reward, male approval, white approval, neoliberal reward, and model minority), any member of a minoritized group who disagrees with Theory cannot possibly be doing so honestly or authentically.
This is all very confusing and appears to be exactly what it is—a form of manipulating knowledge and epistemology as a means of asserting power and rigging the system such that those assertions of power cannot be challenged. Nevertheless, it isn’t merely an application of power and has a rather interesting and deep philosophical explanation that must be understood to understand why “lived experience” holds the status that it does and why it must comport with Theory to be granted veridical status and epistemic weight. This has everything to do with the fact that the roots of Critical Social Justice are in critical theories and, especially, postmodern philosophy.
The radical anti-realism of postmodernism (see also, reality, realities, knowledge(s), and ways of knowing) creates a peculiar situation in terms of how knowledge can be created. Anti-realism, in briefest expression, is the belief that what is “true” does not (necessarily) correspond to reality. This matter is especially important in Critical Social Justice due to the influence of Michel Foucault’s idea that knowledge is always culturally contingent and thus a function of power—indeed, identical to power (see also, power-knowledge and biopower). That is, knowledge is something local to a particular people at a particular time, and it is just politics by a particular means.
Recognizing this attitude about knowledge is the crucial one for understanding the epistemic status of “lived experience” in Critical Social Justice. If knowledge has no necessary relationship to reality and is wholly cultural, one immediately runs into the problem that is often considered to be one of the chief virtues and lessons of postmodernism: it isn’t just that we lack grounds to criticize other cultures’ systems of knowledge; it’s also that we lack grounds to trust the validity of our own. This is often understood by postmodernists as an important form of epistemic and cultural humility. It can be (and is: Foucauldian genealogy is essentially just this) summarized as arising from the recognition that we’ve been (scientifically) wrong consistently in the past, so we have no basis upon which we can believe we are (scientifically) right in the present. Indeed, to think otherwise would be the height of arrogance. This understanding therefore sees knowledge and truth as socially constructed (see also, social constructivism) and thus the elevation of any one means of claiming knowledge or making statements of truth (say, science) as little more than cultural chauvinism.
This view, wrongly labeled as a call to humility, generates a tremendously difficult puzzle to solve if we want to figure out not necessarily what is true or known (Foucault believed that to talk about these sorts of things at all is meaningless, thus to miss the point) but which statements can be trusted. If all culturally sanctioned knowledge is politics (micropolitics, for Foucault), then one’s own lived experience is one of the few trustworthy places to turn, and even this cannot be considered worth much unless it is first stripped of as much cultural interpretive baggage as possible (see also, bias, ideology, hegemony, and internalized dominance). To do this, Foucault would recommend applying criticism (i.e., some form of critical theory) and genealogy, and he described this radically skeptical process as “liberatory” and evocative of “potentialities” that are otherwise constrained.
When Critical Social Justice was forged (roughly within a few years on either side of 1989) by taking the radical identity politics–oriented activism of the New Left and related critical theory and equipping it with postmodern Theory, this anti-realist aspect of postmodern Theory was considered both extremely useful and extremely important to the task. Thus, among all the aspects of postmodernism in Critical Social Justice Theory, Foucaldian thought is the most keenly present. What was it useful for? Erecting the lived experience of oppression as a kind of epistemological rock around which all of Theory and related activism could turn.
This development seems to have been significant particularly within black feminism, as black feminists tended to focus on the ways in which feminism ignored black experience, black liberationism ignored women’s experiences, and both ignored the unique experiences of black women, which were taken as the fundamental observations necessary to have a true understanding of what oppression looks like. “Consciousness” (meaning critical consciousness) is believed to be the result of the lived experience of oppression, which strongly supports the claim that “lived experience” means one’s own analysis of one’s experiences as interpreted through Theory. For example, black feminist giant Patricia Hill Collins writes, “Black women’s motherwork reflects how political consciousness can emerge within everyday lived experience” (p. 209) in her landmark Black Feminist Thought, in which she also dedicates an entire section to “lived experience as a criterion of meaning.”
Lived experience as it was most (but not exlusively) interesting to postmodernists like Foucault was that of unjust oppression (say, of homosexuals) and marginalization (say, of the mad and homosexuals). This went on to form a backbone for Critical Social Justice thought. (NB: Derrida was interested in direct experience too, thus his criticism of language, as were all the other postmodernists who were dealing with their own authenticity crises in their own ways—consider Lyotard’s postmodern condition, Baudrillard’s simulation and simulacra, Deleuze and Guattari’s capitalism and schizophrenia, the nostalgia and unreality that Jameson was all pessimistic about.) The lived experience of oppression—and in particular the way that hegemony and ideology create a false consciousness that prevents most everyday people from recognizing their experience as oppressed or oppressive—was also the central concern of the Neo-Marxist school of Critical Theory (see also, Frankfurt School). The radical feminists (in many but not all respects) and black liberationism activists of the American New Left (especially the black feminists who laid the groundwork for critical race Theory) were specifically and centrally occupied with this understanding—or lack thereof—of the lived experience of oppression. Thus, the lived experience of oppression, which is the core grievance of the radical critical methods of the first applied postmodernism Theorists, was the one thing they really believed is real. As such, it became the backbone of their entire program.
This is why they refer to their Theory-based interpretation of issues like racism as “the realities of racism.” In the Theory of Critical Social Justice, which is anti-realist except about the lived experience of oppression, there’s no other access to reality. Furthermore, there’s no authentic way to interpret that experience except through Theory (with a critical consciousness) since anything else would be false consciousness or self-interested cynicism, thus an incorrect, biased, or corrupted (mis)interpretation of what had been experienced. In this way, experience is transformed into “lived experience” by having been put into accordance with Theory, and this is considered to be the only legitimate path to knowledge(s) (see also, standpoint epistemology; epistemic injustice, epistemic oppression, and epistemic violence).
Acting white; Applied postmodernism; Authentic; Bias; Biopower; Black feminism; Black liberationism; Complicity; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical race Theory; Critical theory; Cultural humility; Cultural Marxism; Dominance; Episteme; Epistemic injustice; Epistemic oppression; Epistemic violence; False consciousness; Feminism; Foucauldian; Frankfurt School; Gender traitor; Genealogy; Hegemony; Identity politics; Ideology; Injustice; Internalized dominance; Internalized oppression; Intersectionality; Knowledge(s); Liberationism; Male approval; Marginalization; Minoritize; Model minority; Neoliberal reward; Neo-Marxism; New Left; Oppression; Patriarchal reward; Positionality; Postmodern; Power-knowledge; Privilege; Race traitor; Racism (systemic); Radical; Radical feminism; Realities; Reality; Science; Social construction; Social constructivism; Social Justice; Straight passing; Standpoint epistemology; Structural; Systemic power; Theory; Truth; Ways of knowing; White adjacent; White approval; White comfort; White complicity; White equilibrium; White ignorance; White innocence
Source: Sensoy, Ozlem, and Robin DiAngelo. Is Everyone Really Equal?: An Introduction to Key Concepts in Social Justice Education, second edition. Teacher’s College Press: New York, 2017, p. 51.
From a critical social justice framework, informed knowledge does not refer exclusively to academic scholarship, but also includes the lived experiences and perspectives that marginalized groups bring to bear on an issue, due to their insider standing. However, scholarship can provide useful language with which marginalized groups can frame their experiences within the broader society.
Source: Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Second Edition. Routledge, 2000, p. 299.
identity politics: a way of knowing that sees lived experiences as important to creating knowledge and crafting group-based political strategies. Also, a form of political resistance where an oppressed group rejects its devalued status.
Source: hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994, p. 61.
When our lived experience of theorizing is fundamentally linked to processes of self-recovery, of collective liberation, no gap exists between theory and practice. Indeed, what such experience makes more evident is the bond between the two—that ultimately reciprocal process wherein one enables the other.
Source: Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Second Edition. Routledge, 2000, p. 257.
African-American women need wisdom to know how to deal with the “educated fools” who would “take a shotgun to a roach.” As members of a sub-ordinate group, Black women cannot afford to be fools of any type, for our objectification as the Other denies us the protections that White skin, maleness, and wealth confer. This distinction between knowledge and wisdom, and the use of experience as the cutting edge dividing them, has been key to Black women’s survival. In the context of intersecting oppressions, the distinction is essential. Knowledge without wisdom is adequate for the powerful, but wisdom is essential to the survival of the subordinate.
For most African-American women those individuals who have lived through the experiences about which they claim to be experts are more believable and credible than those who have merely read or thought about such experiences. Thus lived experience as a criterion for credibility frequently is invoked by U.S. Black women when making knowledge claims.
Source: Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Second Edition. Routledge, 2000, p. 265.
An example drawn from an undergraduate class session where the students were all Black women illustrates the uniqueness of this portion of the knowledge validation process. During one class discussion I asked the students to evaluate a prominent Black male scholar’s analysis of Black feminism. Instead of removing the scholar from his context in order to dissect the rationality of his thesis, my students demanded facts about the author’s personal biography. They were especially interested in specific details of his life, such as his relationships with Black women, his marital status, and his social class background. By requesting data on dimensions of his personal life routinely excluded in positivist approaches to knowledge validation, they invoked lived experience as a criterion of meaning. They used this information to assess whether he really cared about his topic and drew on this ethic of caring in advancing their knowledge claims about his work. Furthermore, they refused to evaluate the rationality of his written ideas without some indication of his personal credibility as an ethical human being.
Source: Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Second Edition. Routledge, 2000, p. 275.
Together, these two approaches to power point to two important uses of knowledge for African-American women and other social groups engaged in social justice projects. Dialectical approaches emphasize the significance of knowledge in developing self-defined, group-based standpoints that, in turn, can foster the type of group solidarity necessary for resisting oppressions. In contrast, subjectivity approaches emphasize how domination and resistance shape and are shaped by individual agency. Issues of consciousness link the two. In the former, group-based consciousness emerges through developing oppositional knowledges such as Black feminist thought. In the latter, individual self-definitions and behaviors shift in tandem with a changed consciousness concerning everyday lived experience. Black feminist thought encompasses both meanings of consciousness—neither is sufficient without the other. Together, both approaches to power also highlight the significance of multiplicity in shaping consciousness. For example, viewing domination itself as encompassing intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nation points to the significance of these oppressions in shaping the overall organization of a particular matrix of domination. Similarly, personal identities constructed around individual under- standings of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nation define each individual’s unique biography.
Both of these approaches remain theoretically useful because they each provide partial and different perspectives on empowerment. Unfortunately, these two views are often presented as competing rather than potentially complementary approaches. As a result, each provides a useful starting point for thinking through African-American women’s empowerment in the context of constantly changing power relations, but neither is sufficient. Black feminism and other social justice projects require a language of power that is grounded within yet transcends these approaches. Social justice projects need a common, functional vocabulary that furthers their understanding of the politics of empowerment.
Source: Kang, Jerry. “The Trojan Horses of Race.” In Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic (eds.) Critical Race Theory: The Cutting Edge, third edition. Temple University Press, 2013, p. 213.
One way to break current deadlocks is to turn to new bodies of knowledge uncovered by social science, specifically the remarkable findings of social cognition. Not only do they provide a more precise, particularized, and empirically grounded picture of how race functions in our minds, and thus in our societies; they also rattle us out of a complacency that set in with the demise of de jure discrimination. Further calls for equality are often derogated as whining by those who cannot compete in a modern meritocracy. Social cognition discoveries dispute that resentful characterization and make us reexamine our individual and collective responsibilities for persistent racial inequality. For better and worse, law has turned sharply in favor of quantified and empirical analyses. Social cognition allows those who study race to take that same turn, to fight fire with fire, and to profit from a body of science that supports, particularizes, and checks what we intuit as the truth of our lived experiences.
Source: hooks, bell. Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom. Routledge, 1994, pp. 120–121.
In search of scholarly material to document the evidence of my lived experience, I was stunned by either the complete lack of any focus on gender difference in black life or the tacit assumption that because many black females worked outside the home, gender roles were inverted. Scholars usually talked about black experience when they were really speaking solely about black male experience. Significantly, I found that when “women” were talked about, the experience of white women was universalized to stand for all female experience and that when “black people” were talked about, the experience of black men was the point of reference. Frustrated, I begin to interrogate the ways in which racist and sexist biases shaped and informed all scholarship dealing with black experience, with female experience. It was clear that these biases had created a circumstance where there was little or no information about the distinct experiences of black women. It was this critical gap that motivated me to research and write Ain’t I a Woman. It was published years later, after publishers of feminist work accepted that “race” was both an appropriate and marketable subject within the field of feminist scholarship. This acceptance came only when white women began to show an interest in issues of race and gender.
Revision date: 4/17/20