Who is allowed to know things in our society? Duwayne Brooks wasn’t. When Duwayne’s friend, Stephen Lawrence, was murdered in a racist attack in south-east London in 1993, he told the police what he’d seen: six white thugs killing his friend while shouting racist abuse. But his testimony was discounted because, as a young Black man, Brooks was not considered a credible witness by the Metropolitan police.
The political philosopher Miranda Fricker describes Brooks’ experience at the hands of the state as ‘testimonial injustice’ – an injustice perpetrated when someone’s account is rejected because of prejudices about their characteristics. Systemic oppression makes you unbelievable, no matter what you saw, no matter what you say. Examples abound: consider sex workers who are told they can’t have been raped because they’re sex workers; women who urge doctors to believe their physical pain, only to be told it’s in their heads; children whose disclosures of abuse are smoothed over for the sake of adult peace; trans people whose gender identities are derided… the list goes on.
This is, for Fricker, part of an overarching problem which she calls ‘epistemic injustice’, and which I’m introducing here as one portal (of many) into understanding why we need to ensure narrative change is led by those currently excluded from that work. Episteme means knowledge, so ‘epistemic injustice’ is a way of conceptualising the many oppressions perpetrated in the realm of knowledge. Who gets recognised as knowing things? Which knowledge counts? How must knowledge be packaged and communicated to be credible? I’m sure we can all think of many encounters with gatekeepers of these capacities, both our own and those we’ve witnessed.
Fricker is not the first person to put forward an idea like this – like all offerings, hers rests on the shoulders of myriad others. These include Gayatri Spivak who wrote in 1988 of the silencing of colonised peoples and their knowledges as a form of ‘epistemic violence’, and the related points made by the sociologist Linsey McGoey with her idea that some people are delegitimised as ‘inferior knowers’. The message is unanimous and clear: being believed is not an equally distributed resource.
But having our statements believed is only part of the problem of epistemic injustice. If you’re able to articulate your experience, then you have also been able to give it shape in your mind, to find words that fit, or at least almost fit, the nature of that experience, even if you are ignored when you tell that story. But what if the prevailing culture has such a stranglehold on knowledge that we can’t even understand our own experience?
That’s what happened to Carmita Wood. When she was 44 and a single parent of two, she found herself on the receiving end of unwanted sexual advances by a ‘distinguished professor’ in the university physics department where she worked as an administrator. His advances, which escalated to assault, provoked Wood to quit her job and apply for unemployment insurance. But when the claims investigator asked why she’d resigned, Wood didn’t know what to say.
It was the mid-1970s and the term ‘sexual harassment’ has not yet been coined. Without that term and all its connotations, Wood couldn’t articulate why what had been happening was so bad. Ringing in her ears were the words of the supervisor with whom she’d raised the harassment before quitting: ‘Any mature woman should be able to handle it’. She was experiencing another form of Fricker’s epistemic injustice, this time not about telling her story and it being discounted, but about not being able to tell it in the first place – an injustice that is deep inside us, in which our very self-knowledge and ability to interpret our experience is curtailed, limited and caged by the limitations of our cultures. This isn’t a theoretical point. The inability to explain who we are and how things have been for us shapes our material reality. In Wood’s case, it meant her benefits claim was rejected.
Wood’s experience led to a revolution in ideas about acceptable workplace conduct. A group of women, herself included, came together and shared their experiences, defining the idea of ‘sexual harassment’, holding rallies and making other awareness-raising interventions, until they remade the world, bit by bit, into that which we recognise today – one in which the term ‘sexual harassment’ is so widely known that Wood’s void of self-articulation is far less common. Obviously it hasn’t solved the problem which it describes, but it has enabled us to (sometimes) speak about its harm in ways which weren’t possible or plausible before, to organise in response to it and, just possibly, to reach something better in the future.
The idea that naming things has power is not new. Across the world, many myths, legends, fairy tales and other stories include names as magical devices, often to defeat or escape from a villain. In the German folktale Rumpelstiltskin, a woman must guess the eponymous character’s name or he will take her firstborn child from her. Similarly, in Scandinavian folklore, you could protect yourself from being kidnapped by nøkker, water sprites, by calling their names. Examples like these abound across history and culture. This is not chance, but a telling coincidence: being able to know and to speak the truth can set us free.
But how do we do that? Fricker suggests we might undo epistemic injustice by improving participation. So, we should notice who is excluded from spaces of power and remedy that with inclusion. But participation, when viewed as an amendment to already-existent spaces and ways, is not the same thing as power. Marginalised voices have been ‘participating’ in political systems – establishment and otherwise – for a long time, but decisions and practices rarely alter in their favour. Instead of the overhauls imagined, we find that exclusion reigns once more, merely in a new configuration, because the rules of the game have remained the same. Do you use the correct language, present a coherent narrative, display the appropriate manners and social-professional codes? These are not accidental, but exclusionary tactics. As Fricker herself writes, ‘The whole engine of social meaning [is] effectively geared to keeping these obscured experiences out of sight’. It’s convenient to keep the right to knowledge in limited supply. After all, if we democratise it, who can say how the world might change?
Superficially, Duwayne Brooks needed the police to hear him. Carmita Wood needed her supervisor and benefits claim investigator to approve of her distress. But individual amendments are no match for structural revolution. Instead of tinkering with existent spaces, we need to make new kinds of containers. Building Our Narrative Power is striving to be one of them; rather than ‘permission to enter’, it promises ‘power to shape’. Olúfémi Táíwò has written compellingly about the difference in these two approaches. The former, permission to enter, creates only ‘parochial advantage’ , meaning advantage which is narrow and limited in its scope. While this can be mistaken for justice, Táíwò observes that it ‘may soothe short-term psychological wounds…[but] entrenches a politics unbefitting of anyone fighting from freedom rather than for privilege’.
Avoiding this harmful pitfall is complex, long-term work – the kind of work that sits ill with prevailing ideals about timelines and outputs, with the very notion of narrative and its implications of coherence, linearity and arc. It should be complex, anyway, because if it seems simple, the chances are it’s collapsing under the weight of our dominant culture, back into outdated binaries, the duplicitous ease of sameness, and superficial victories.
What are the stories that haven’t been told, that haven’t been respected, that haven’t been known, even to the people living them? What is the name that you have never spoken? Epistemic injustice is one invitation to ask these questions, and to generate the practical structures in which they can be answered.
Emily Kenway Oct 2023