Black Feminism and Epistemology of Ignorance

I have some thoughts that have been simmering on the back burner for a while now. It is specifically relates to black feminism. That isn’t something I normally read about, but I came across a quote by Angela Davis and started reading one of her books, The Meaning of Freedom (Kindle Locations 170-174):

“More than once I have heard people say, “If only a new Black Panther Party could be organized, then we could seriously deal with The Man, you know?” But suppose we were to say: “There is no Man anymore.” There is suffering. There is oppression. There is terrifying racism. But this racism does not come from the mythical “Man.” Moreover, it is laced with sexism and homophobia and unprecedented class exploitation associated with a dangerously globalized capitalism. We need new ideas and new strategies that will take us into the twenty-first century.”

This quote was on my mind when the “Not All Men” meme went viral. It really put things in contrast. Davis’ reference to the mythical “Man” refers as much to feminist issues as to racial issues. There literally is no “All Men”. It isn’t fundamentally about blame or evasion of responsibility, as the “Not All Men” argument was framed.

The grand insight of black feminism has been that there is no singular vantage point for all women, no universal set of truths for all feminism. Black feminists saw middle class white feminists as part of the same racial and class hierarchy. Identity politics can create a kind of blindness to important distinctions and inconvenient knowledge.

As a basic example, a middle class white woman in America has more privilege and experiences less violence and oppression than a poor black man in post-colonial Africa (or even most poor black men in America). Or, as another example, consider the issue of women and violence. Most rape and abuse happens to poor minority women, not middle class white women. As far as that goes, a black man in prison is probably more likely to be raped and abused than a middle class white woman.

It isn’t just about being a man or woman. It isn’t just about being black or white. It isn’t just about being rich or poor. It isn’t about any single thing. It is how these factors and issues combine in the lived experiences of particular people and populations.

Generalizations can be misleading and dangerous. They can be used to ignore the real issues. This is how race becomes a proxy for class and in many ways so does gender, for women make less money than men. If class is the most major issue, then all the rest of identity politics can be problematic when they don’t take this into account.

It was from there that I began looking more into intersectionality (where identities and disadvantages intersect), which is related to the larger fields of feminist epistemology and philosophy of science. Intersectionality as a basic understanding has been developing for a long time, across many fields. A major connection goes back to Marxism and its influence on feminist thought through standpoint theory:

“Standpoint theory supports what feminist theorist Sandra Harding calls strong objectivity, or the notion that the perspectives of marginalized and/or oppressed individuals can help to create more objective accounts of the world. Through the outsider-within phenomenon, these individuals are placed in a unique position to point to patterns of behavior that those immersed in the dominant group culture are unable to recognize.[2] Standpoint theory gives voice to the marginalized groups by allowing them to challenge the status quo as the outsider within. The status quo representing the dominant white male position of privilege.[3]

“The predominant culture in which all groups exist is not experienced in the same way by all persons or groups. The views of those who belong to groups with more social power are validated more than those in marginalized groups. Those in marginalized groups must learn to be bicultural, or to “pass” in the dominant culture to survive, even though that perspective is not their own.[4] For persons of color, in an effort to help organizations achieve their diversity initiatives, there is an expectation that they will check their color at the door in order to assimilate into the existing culture and discursive practices.[5]

One’s viewpoint depends on one’s social identities and one’s social position. This isn’t just a philosophical debate, for it has real world consequences. Studies show that environment has a strong influence on individual development and behavior.

Recent studies on the upper class and lower class makes this abundantly clear. Wealthier people have less empathic accuracy in that they are less able to read the emotional experience of others, to understand and appreciate the persepctive of others. They don’t listen to and pay attention to others as much. They also express fewer pro-social behaviors such as being more rude and aggressive (e.g., driving behavior) along with being less generous.

This goes straight to the class issue. Blacks and women, most especially black women, are among the poorest people in America and in the world. Being poor, in some ways, makes them more likely to act in ways that are considered caring and humane. To be on the bottom of society, an individual is more dependent on and interdependent with others.

This could explain why middle and upper class people, both black and white, don’t understand the family structures and support systems of the poor. All they see are marriages under stressful conditions, calling the families weak or broken, but they don’t see the strength of communities surviving under almost impossible conditions.. The ignorance of this judgment from privilege hit home for me when I read the following passage from Stephen Steinberg’s “Poor Culture”:

“More important, feminist scholars forced us to reassess single parenting. In her 1973 study All Our Kin, Carol Stack showed how poor single mothers develop a domestic network consisting of that indispensable grandmother, grandfathers, uncles, aunts, cousins, and a patchwork of neighbors and friends who provide mutual assistance with childrearing and the other exigencies of life. By comparison , the prototypical nuclear family, sequestered in a suburban house, surrounded by hedges and cut off from neighbors, removed from the pulsating vitality of poor urban neighborhoods, looks rather bleak. As a black friend once commented , “I didn’t know that blacks had weak families until I got to college.””

Those rich in wealth are poor in so many other ways. And those poor in wealth are rich in so many ways. It depends on what you value. People can’t value what they don’t see and understand.

The issue of knowledge and ignorance has been perplexing me for most of my adult life. My perplexity has been caught between the rocks of despair and the riptide of outrage.  I have thought about and written about this endlessly. It is what anchors me in place. It is the mystery around which everything else revolves.

I was glad to come across the book Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, a collection of papers by various authors. In the Introduction, Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana state that “ignorance results from humans’ situatedness as knowers. Because we are located, partial beings, we cannot know everything” (Kindle Locations 64-65). This line of thought is continued in Chapter 2 with “Epistemologies of Ignorance: Three Types” by Linda Martin Alcoff. In that essay, Alcoff explains that both knowledge and ignorance are situated (Kindle Locations 607-611):

“Thus from the fact of our general situatedness it follows that ignorance should be understood as contextual, since it does not accrue to me simply as an individual outside of a particular situation. I may be a trained linguist with the ability to communicate in eight languages, or an excellent seamstress capable of making my own designs from scratch, but insofar as I am attending a medical operation, I am ignorant of the skills needed to fully assess the health of the patient. What is determinative of ignorance is the interplay between my individual epistemic situatedness- my location, experience, perceptual abilities, and so forth, not all of which will be relevant in any given case-and what is called for in reaching conclusions about this particular object of inquiry.”

The author then connects this situatedness to race (Kindle Locations 698-699):

“most whites in the United States seem to believe that the United States is a form of society based mostly on individual merit, while most nonwhites seem to believe that the United States is a form of society based on a racial contract.”

That caught my attention because it relates to the studies on socioeconomic class. The studies found that wealthier people tend to take individual credit for their wealth, for their position and privilege. Poor people tend to emphasize the importance of their environment.

This seems to directly correlate to the differences in seeing families as nuclear versus as extended networks of support. For the wealthier, even families are seen as individualistic and isolated, and of course they see that as normal despite how unusual it has been throughout history and continues to be for most families throughout the world. Nuclear families are a fairly recent invention and hardly the sign of a healthy society.

Upper class white Westerners are truly weird (and WEIRD–Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and they don’t even know it. However, some might argue that the ‘D’ for democracy isn’t entirely accurate, considering forms of imperialism still remain dominant in the West, for democratic rhetoric is too often simply used to rationalize power. White Westerners have the privilege to be ignorant of how racism, classism, and other forms of oppression continues in their own countries and are enforced on other countries.

This is a major point made by Alcoff (Kindle Locations 700-706):

“Mills suggests that “whiteness,” which he carefully defines as a political construct rather than simply an ethnic category, brings with it a “cognitive model that precludes self-transparency and genuine understanding of all social realities,” that it ensures that whites will live in a “racial fantasyland, [or] a `consensual hallucination,”‘ and that the root of all this is the “cognitive and moral economy psychically required for conquest, colonization, and enslavement” (Mills 1997, 18-19). If it is true that most people prefer to think of themselves as moral or at least excusable in their actions, then in unjust societies those in dominant and privileged positions must be able to construct representations of themselves and others to support a fantasyland of moral approbation. Thus such whites might believe that the academy is a meritocracy, that modernity began in Europe and then spread outward, and that global poverty is disconnected from Western wealth. The persistence of such myths in spite of increasing empirical and theoretical counterevidence certainly suggests that the cognitive dysfunctions responsible for myth maintenance are more than a matter of differences in group experiences or expertise.”

This is what we face with the overwhelming injustice and suffering in the world today. This is why so many people remain ignorant and remain ignorant of their ignorance. This is how people simultaneously know and don’t know.

As Angela Davis suggests, “We need new ideas and new strategies”. We need to get past our conceptual blindness, our cultural biases, our vested interests. We need to get past all of that toward a broader view, toward a greater sense of shared vision and common cause.

I want to add a caveat as part of my conclusion.

In this endeavor, we should especially listen to those who are in a position to know what we don’t know or don’t fully understand. This isn’t about being allies to the disadvantaged, but about expanding our sense of humanity. It is also to realize every position has its own sets of knowledge and sets of ignorance.

We all have disadvantages, including the wealthy, as the studies show. As for the rest of us not so disadvantaged with wealth, we are the majority of people in the world. Even most white men lack much power and influence in a wealthy country like the U.S. We also shouldn’t forget that most poor people in this country are white. One of the most ignored and silenced groups in America are poor rural whites. They have a position of knowledge on our society that gets heard less often than that of poor urban blacks.

Identity politics can be self-destructive when it divides us. This is where intersectionality is so important. What intersectionality speaks to is what connects, what crosses the artificial boundaries we create. That is the potential we need to find a new language to communicate.

* * * *

If you’re interested in learning about the studies on economic class, here are some videos and articles that go into the details:

4 thoughts on “Black Feminism and Epistemology of Ignorance

  1. The most post-modern tendency to move away from common narratives (because they can be legitimately critiqued) to identities means that there is no way to transcend the very limits and oppressions in those identities. That is a point that needs to considered and most don’t.

    • That is one of those things that defines my ‘liberalism’. I feel strongly suspect toward overly broad, universalistic narratives such as Whiggish histories. But I also feel a strong impulse to defend common narratives against the splintering of identity politics.

      The challenge is common narratives must speak to the details of lived experience and not ignore them. That is why intersectionality appeals to me. It points to differences that matter and yet points to the connections as well.

      Intersectionality needs to be taken up by those in all fields and not remain isolated to feminism. Feminists have a specific position of knowledge (and ignorance). This field of thought needs to be developed by those who come from different positions.

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