Social Justice Usage
Source: Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Second Edition. Routledge, 2000, pp. 273–274.
Black feminist thought offers two important contributions concerning the significance of knowledge for a politics of empowerment. First, Black feminist thought fosters a fundamental paradigmatic shift in how we think about unjust power relations. By embracing a paradigm of intersecting oppressions of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nation, as well as Black women’s individual and collective agency within them, Black feminist thought reconceptualizes the social relations of domination and resistance. Second, Black feminist thought addresses ongoing epistemological debates concerning the power dynamics that underlie what counts as knowledge. Offering U.S. Black women new knowledge about our own experiences can be empowering. But activating epistemologies that criticize prevailing knowledge and that enable us to define our own realities on our own terms has far greater implications.
New Discourses Commentary
There are actually two ideas—two related but distinct entries—in this encyclopedia in terms of how adherents to Critical Social Justice and its Theory use the words (1) reality and (2) realities. This entry covers realities, as appears in the sentence “white people can ignore the realities of racism due to their privilege.” The other documents more of Theory’s relationship to and beliefs about reality (mostly due to postmodern influence) rather than how it uses the term “reality.” For that, see reality. Readers are encouraged to do so because the fundamentally but not quite complete anti-realist perspective in Theory (especially its postmodern aspects) is needed to properly understand the usage discussed here.
Under Critical Social Justice, the realities it tends to bring up and talk about are the “realities” of some form of marginalization or oppression, essentially always referring to these in terms of their lived experience, not anything to do with data (perhaps unless it supports their claims directly). “Realities” (or “reality” at times) in this context in the literature of Critical Social Justice refers to one or both of one’s subjective “reality” (i.e., lived experience) or “social reality,” as interpreted subjectively. This approach is taken, not wholly unreasonably, in response to a belief that domination defines who subordinated people have to be, thus, for instance, it is a claim that black people get to define what it means to be black for themselves.
That is, when Critical Social Justice discusses the “realities” of something, they’re probably not talking about realities at all. They’re much more likely to be talking about their perception of events, circumstances, and phenomena after having been interpreted through their own understanding of Theory and its applicability to the situation (see also, ways of knowing and critical consciousness). In other words, they’re talking about how critical theories would construe (and, often, misconstrue) the realities of the situation. In this understanding, different people who occupy different cultural positions and utilize different cultural narratives would, in fact, have completely different realities that are affirmed by their “lived experiences” as having been interpreted through those narratives.
This seems bizarre, but there is much to say about why this is the case, and this is illustrative of the Critical Social Justice mindset—and, in some ways, a postmodern mindset more broadly. Before continuing, readers will find the “lived experience” entry useful and clarifying and are encouraged to read it before continuing. In short, lived experience—which means one’s own interpretation of what one has lived, which is in turn only authentic if it agrees with or develops Theory—isn’t just the gold-standard for understanding reality in Critical Social Justice; it’s the only (allegedly) reliable tool for understanding reality that can exist.
Further, background (drawing from the “reality” entry) is also needed to understand this peculiar use of an everyday term like “realities.” Postmodern Theory, upon which much thought in Critical Social Justice is based, is fundamentally anti-realist in orientation. That is, truth is not considered to be determined through correspondence with reality but by some other means. In postmodernism in general, that means is believed to be power. Those with power become the authenticators of facts, what is true, and what can be considered knowledge, and knowledge and power are literally deemed to be fused into a single object that postmodern philosopher Michel Foucault referred to as power-knowledge (see also, Foucauldian, biopower, and episteme). Under this convention, freedom from this constraint—thus knowledge of a different sort—is available through lived experience, which becomes elevated in its status as a way of knowing.
Critical Social Justice adopted this convention of anti-realism with knowledge being a function of power with a slight but significant modification. In a fully anti-realist view, there is no correspondence between truth and reality; indeed, there is no relationship whatsoever between reality and truth (or that relationship cannot be in any way determined). Critical Social Justice, in some sense, is a continuation of the critical line of the radical New Left (see also, Critical Theory, Neo-Marxism, Cultural Marxism, and Frankfurt School) that adapted and adopted postmodern Theory to its purposes. Specifically, it identifies the lived experience of oppression (especially systemic oppression) as real and, as philosophers might put it, properly basic (which more or less means you can’t argue with it when it’s claimed).
Thus, the peculiar usage of “realities” to mean “interpretation of events through Theory” is immediately comprehensible. The “realities” of oppression are learned only through direct lived experience, and lived experience is only considered authentic when it has been properly interpreted in terms of Theory. This is only possible when the interpretation proceeds (applying Theory) with a “critical consciousness” because if that is lacking, the interpretation given is likely to suffer from some sort of false consciousness (e.g., internalized dominance or internalized oppression, depending upon one’s positionality with respect to the relevant systemic power dynamics). This has the result that the “realities” of some alleged systemic problematic like racism are what Theory says the experience of those must be like.
In practice, this leads to two significant consequences. First, it tends to justify the use of standpoint epistemology as it applies within intersectional thought. This is a way of thinking that insists that the lived experience of oppression provides unique insights to the oppressed that are not available to the dominant, which requires members of dominant groups to “shut up and listen” and “stay in their lane.” The highly interpretive claims, always consistent with Theory, of the Woke about their lived experience are indicative of the realities of systemic oppression and marginalization, after all. Second, it also leads to the impossibility of explaining anything within the headings of “oppression” in any way other than through Theory. To offer another explanation would be to defy the “realities” of the situation in the only way that those can be known, by experiencing oppression directly. Thus, standpoint epistemology is never a recommendation or mere interpretive tool in Critical Social Justice; it is the only way knowledge of realities can be known and resulting differences of opinion can be decided.
Authentic; Biopower; Critical; Critical consciousness; Critical theory; Cultural Marxism; Dominance; Episteme; False consciousness; Foucauldian; Frankfurt School; Internalized dominance; Internalized oppression; Intersectionality; Knowledge(s); Lived experience; Marginalization; Narrative; Neo-Marxism; New Left; Oppression; Positionality; Postmodern; Power-knowledge; Privilege; Problematic; Racism (systemic); Radical; Reality; Shut up and listen; Social Justice; Standpoint epistemology; Stay in your lane; Subordination; Systemic power; Theory; Truth; Ways of knowing; White; Woke/Wokeness
Source: Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Second Edition. Routledge, 2000, p. 12.
The exclusion of Black women’s ideas from mainstream academic discourse and the curious placement of African-American women intellectuals in feminist thinking, Black social and political theories, and in other important thought such as U.S. labor studies has meant that U.S. Black women intellectuals have found themselves in outsider-within positions in many academic endeavors. The assumptions on which full group membership are based—Whiteness for feminist thought, maleness for Black social and political thought, and the combination for mainstream scholarship—all negate Black women’s realities. Prevented from becoming full insiders in any of these areas of inquiry, Black women remained in outsider-within locations, individuals whose marginality provided a distinctive angle of vision on these intellectual and political entities.
Source: Collins, Patricia Hill. Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment, Second Edition. Routledge, 2000, p. 114.
The insistence on Black women’s self-definitions reframes the entire dialogue from one of protesting the technical accuracy of an image—namely, refuting the Black matriarchy thesis—to one stressing the power dynamics underlying the very process of definition itself. By insisting on self-definition, Black women question not only what has been said about African-American women but the credibility and the intentions of those possessing the power to define. When Black women define ourselves, we clearly reject the assumption that those in positions granting them the authority to interpret our reality are entitled to do so. Regardless of the actual content of Black women’s self-definitions, the act of insisting on Black female self-definition validates Black women’s power as human subjects.
Revision date: 4/17/20