There have been two recent, thought-provoking posts on Racialicious about who is allowed to speak about racism. In May I Be Offended on Your Behalf? Tami of What Tami Said, who is black, recalls some negative experiences with non-black people speaking about black experience. Because of this, she held herself back from writing a post about racism against Asian Americans. She wants allies and the mainstream to be sensitive and intolerant of race bias, but also she wants them to keep their privilege in check. She then questions this and asks if she (or anyone) has the right to be offended on someone else’s behalf.
In A Question of Authority, Fatemeh Fakhraie of Muslimah Media Watch was advised by somebody not speak to about racial issues “past a certain point,” because Fatemeh can pass for white. She was annoyed by this, because one of her identities is being a Middle Eastern woman, she knows many Middle Eastern women, and she also does her homework on the subject. Similar to Tami, Fatemeh is annoyed when some white people speak for people of colour. In particular, Fatemeh mentions white academics and non-profit workers who speak for Middle Eastern and South Asian women, when Middle Eastern and South Asian academics and activists are capable of speaking for themselves. However, she wonders if a South Asian professor of African American studies has the authority to speak about issues facing Black Americans. She also points out that being from a particular background does not make one a “spokesperson” or “expert” on everyone of the same background. She asks: (1) What defines an authority on the subject? (2) Who has the right to speak as an authority on a race or ethnicity? and (3) Who gets to decide who’s an authority or not?
LM, a commenter on A Question of Authority, made an interesting point:
Anyone has a right to speak; whether they’re an authority is a separate question.
Why does it matter who is speaking? The truth-value of a proposition is independent of its speaker.
If there are such things as truths about racism and what we call “race”, then these truths exist independently of who speaks about them and regardless of if anyone speaks about them at all. The real problem here is not who is speaking, but what is being said.
The problem is that most people outside the racial group being spoken about simply lack the racial knowledge specific about that group. Not only that, but many people who fit this category are unaware of the extent of their racial ignorance; they believe that they are knowledgeable. Kruger and Dunning (1999) published a psychology study titled, “Unskilled and unaware of it: how difficulties in recognizing one’s own incompetence lead to inflated self-assessments” (PDF)(HTML). The study showed that the participants who were particularly incompetent in a particular subject or skill grossly over-estimated their competence in that subject or skill.
If we accept the hypothesis that people incompetent in a knowledge domain generally have inflated self-assessments with respect to their competence in that knowledge domain, and if we combine this with society’s expectation that white people are more competent and knowledgeable in general, then that white presumptuousness about race that feels all-too-common is an unsurprising result. Obviously, personally observing hundreds of white and black people shake hands does not give you access to the inner thoughts of non-whites with respect to handshaking preference; watching BET heavily does not make you especially knowledgeable about black culture; reading The Joy Luck Club does not mean you understand Chinese American culture; and even if you had studied race for over a dozen years, no white person—or even black person—is the spokesperson for black people. Unfortunately, many white people think that it’s that simple, that people of colour can be understood through prototyping, stereotyping, and generalization.
Like other subjects considered difficult, race and racism are complex subjects. Even if you want it to simplify it by embracing racial color blindness so that you don’t have to think about race, it doesn’t make race simple. Even if you want to simplify it by embracing multiculturalism and celebrating differences, it still doesn’t make race simple. It’s a lot more complicated than that, and there are a billion little things that cannot be generalized in addition to the few things that can be generalized that make up people’s racial experiences. It’s great to look for patterns, but be educated about rigorous empirical methods, because it’s not that simple. For example, personal observation is not a good way to draw conclusions about people outside your racial group.
Where does authority come from? Authority comes from knowledge.
Again, the truth of a proposition is independent of who the speaker is. The reason that academics are often authorities on specific types of knowledge is that they are often right, or at least they are generally more knowledgeable than everyone else. Somebody who has studied a specific subject (such as a scientific discipline) intensely for several years is going to be exposed to more knowledge about the topic than somebody who knows of the subject only through fictional portrayals on TV, for example.
My dad once commented that he thought that scientists were presumptuous, because they make scientific claims about evolution. He believed that his opinion that evolution is illogical (based on the false assumption that evolution is about moving from the primitive to the advanced) is as equally valid as that of a biologist’s. I thought that he was presumptuous for thinking that biology was that easy, that biologists spent years of advanced study without ever coming across his type of criticism, because they had never thought of it before or even debunked it in high school biology. Of course, when I suggested that he read an introductory book on the topic of evolution, he refused, believing that one does not have to study evolution to know that it’s crap.
You should always question authority, but if you find yourself dismissing the the claims of people who have studied a subject for years or lived an experience for years, believing that these views are not worth considering, you are the one who is presumptuous, not the “experts”.
Society confers a type of authority on those who are knowledgeable (generally). Although there are good reasons for conferring authority on to academics, authority is more about how society works than about truth per se. Knowledge and truth are more closely tied to one another, but what counts as “knowledge”?
Is personal experience a type of knowledge?
Yes, but personal experience is imperfect knowledge.
The hasty generalization is a fallacy, even if you are a person of colour. People of colour are individuals, and have a myriad of different racial, ethnic, and cultural identities intersecting with other identities, such as gender, sexual orientation, class, and nationality. In addition, there are people of colour who arrogant, stupid, and cunning enough to try to be the spokesperson for their racial or ethnic group, and there are many white people who will accept what they say uncritically.
The problem here is that sweeping generalizations about people are false even when they are about people of colour. (Imagine that!) People are not homogenous, and statistical analysis can be assumed to be necessary in population studies of people of colour as well. People of colour don’t literally live in a different world from white people which defies the laws of physics, statistics, and logic.
White people need to be critical of self-appointed spokespersons of colour, because generalizing from one instance to all instances was never an effective empirical method as far as generating truth is concerned. This should not be a racial issue, but it is, because of racialization.
Once again, the issue is not about deference to racial authority between whites and non-whites, but about racial truths versus racial falsities, racial knowledge versus racial ignorance. Often whites make false or misleading statements about a different racial group even when they have good intentions, but it is the wrongness that is the problem, not the fact that they said it. When the white woman told Tami that “any black person who saw it would be offended”, the statement itself is absurd, even if it was told by a black person to another black person who disagreed that it was offensive.
Similarly, there are non-whites like Michelle Malkin, Irshad Manji, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and my archenemy Chinese Canuck who often make generalizations from their personal experience to an entire group of people. While their personal experiences are of course valid, their generalizations are not. The problem is not who is doing the talking; it is what is being said.
Everyone has the right to speak. Whether you are knowledgeable or correct is a separate question.