Being-in-the-Room Privilege: Elite Capture and Epistemic Deference - Olúfẹ́mi Táíwò

“I abandoned the pitch because I don’t think I’m the right person to write this story – I have no idea what it’s like to be Black... I can send you the Google doc with my notes, too?”

I flinched inwardly. It was an innocent and properly motivated offer: Helen, a freelance journalist, was offering to give up something for me, stemming from her concern to live out an ethos of racial justice. But I worried that it was also a trap.

Even setting aside the mistake about the power dynamics of the conversation (I am Black, but also a tenure-track professor), there was a problem here that I had seen many times before. Behind the assumption that I had experiential insight she lacked was the recognizable cultural imprint of a much discussed, polarizing perspective on knowledge and politics: standpoint epistemology.

If you consider a textbook definition of standpoint epistemology, it may be hard to see the controversy around this idea. The International Encyclopedia of Philosophy boils it down to three innocuous-sounding contentions:

1) Knowledge is socially situated
2) Marginalized people have some positional advantages in gaining some forms of knowledge
3) Research programs ought to reflect these facts.

Liam Kofi Bright argues persuasively that these contentions are derivable from a combination of 1) basic empiricist commitments, and 2) a minimally plausible account of how the social world affects what knowledge groups of people are likely to seek and find.

So, if the problem isn’t the basic idea, what is it?

I think it’s less about the core ideas and more about the prevailing norms that convert them into practice. The call to “listen to the most affected” or “centre the most marginalized” is ubiquitous in many academic and activist circles. But it’s never sat well with me. In my experience, when people say they need to “listen to the most affected”, it isn’t because they intend to set up Skype calls to refugee camps or to collaborate with houseless people. Instead, it has more often meant handing conversational authority and attentional goods to those who most snugly fit into the social categories associated with these ills – regardless of what they actually do or do not know, or what they have or have not personally experienced. In the case of my conversation with Helen, my racial category tied me more “authentically” to an experience that neither of us had had. She was called to defer to me by the rules of the game as we understood it. Even where stakes are high – where potential researchers are discussing how to understand a social phenomenon, where activists are deciding what to target – these rules often prevail.

The trap wasn’t that standpoint epistemology was affecting the conversation, but how. Broadly, the norms of putting standpoint epistemology into practice call for practices of deference: giving offerings, passing the mic, believing. These are good ideas in many cases, and the norms that ask us to be ready to do them stem from admirable motivations: a desire to increase the social power of marginalized people identified as sources of knowledge and rightful targets of deferential behaviour. But deferring in this way as a rule or default political orientation can actually work counter to marginalized groups’ interests, especially in elite spaces.

Some rooms have outsize power and influence: the Situation Room, the newsroom, the bargaining table, the conference room. Being in these rooms means being in a position to affect institutions and broader social dynamics by way of deciding what one is to say and do. Access to these rooms is itself a kind of social advantage, and one often gained through some prior social advantage. From a societal standpoint, the “most affected” by the social injustices we associate with politically important identities like gender, class, race, and nationality are disproportionately likely to be incarcerated, underemployed, or part of the 44 percent of the world’s population without internet access – and thus both left out of the rooms of power and largely ignored by the people in the rooms of power. Individuals who make it past the various social selection pressures that filter out those social identities associated with these negative outcomes are most likely to be in the room. That is, they are most likely to be in the room precisely because of ways in which they are systematically different from (and thus potentially unrepresentative of) the very people they are then asked to represent in the room.

I suspected that Helen’s offer was a trap. She was not the one who set it, but it threatened to ensnare us both all the same. Broader cultural norms – the sort set in motion by prefacing statements with “As a Black man…” – cued up a set of standpoint-respecting practices that many of us know consciously or unconsciously by rote. However, the forms of deference that often follow are ultimately self-undermining and only reliably serve “elite capture”: the control over political agendas and resources by a group’s most advantaged people. If we want to use standpoint epistemology to challenge unjust power arrangements, it’s hard to imagine how we could do worse.

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