Friday, July 31, 2009

IBARW 4: On knowledge and knowing and audience

I have spent most of the past year thinking about knowledge, about who gets to know what, about who gets to disseminate that knowledge, about whom people think the knowledge is being disseminated to. It is a mixture of my experiences of year one of grad school, along with a constant debate with myself on the who, what and why of my own blog.

Much of it is prompted by the extremely common fallacy that non-white people/POC do not exist outside of the white eye, that our countries are "discovered" even though we have been living there for centuries, that our cultures are there to be explained by white people to white people. I've seen this play out in person over various iterations of Racefail online, but the important point is that this is not new. This is a tool that has been used over centuries by colonizers to justify their own narratives, to make themselves the heroes of their own stories, and to erase non-white/POC contributions to history. I cannot count how many times I have picked up a book titled "The History of [Subject]" only to have it cover the Western history of [subject]. Occasionally, if the writers are "generous," we get a brief mention of Egypt or China or the Ottoman Empire, but always with the assumption that these civilizations are static ones that existed only in the past, that their contributions are blips on the radar, unconnected to anything coming before or after. Joanna Russ talks about how taking away the context and the narrative disempowers female writers in How to Suppress, and the same tactic is at work here.

My Academic Crisis

I actually come from this from the opposite side, insofar as there are sides. I majored in East Asian Studies as an undergraduate and devoured the many texts written by white men about Japanese and Chinese history; I learned my own history faster and better in the United States. I swallowed the lie that scholarship by those outside of a culture is more accurate and less biased, and it was easy to do so when the nationalism in my Chinese—not Taiwanese, Chinese—history textbooks in Taiwan (probably written and approved by the KMT) was so blatant. I very much believed that even though it was not possible to be fully objective, academics basically tried their best to do so, and that that method worked out overall.

I am no longer so sure about this. My final paper for a class last semester was on race and the Internet; I read quite a few articles on how racial and ethnic minorities use the Internet. Many were by POC, but even so, they were talking about "them" and what "they" did. It was incredibly disconcerting to read, and even though the studies were not about me per se, they made me feel like a bug under a magnifying glass, something to be examined and poked at and written about. It was many things that did so, particularly the contrast between informal quotes from those being studied and the academic language explaining and discussing and dissecting those quotes. It was all done with the intent of being objective, but I found I preferred the lack of that intent. I wanted to know how the authors defined race and racism and if they agreed or disagreed with the people they were quoting. By attempting to take on a veneer of objectivity, it read as though the writers had positioned themselves above the people they were writing about.

I did find articles and books that did not strike me this way, particularly ones from the school of Critical Sociology, but I did not cite them. I was too worried my professor would think my sources were "biased," that I was not constructing a "proper" argument, that I could not simply define things like race and racism for myself, but had to look for definitions of things like "aversive racism" or "POC" from "authoritative" sources.

It hurt to write that paper. It hurt every time I had to cite things I knew, every time I had to "prove" things that are common knowledge with most of the people I talk to online. It hurt to have to go through something with an obvious sexist, Western, white, middle-class, ablist, heteronormative slant and to not be able to just say "unmarked position defaults to the mythical norm" and have people be able to piece it together themselves.

Yes, academia in the United States is based on proof and citation. But much of that is also based on what you assume your audience knows and what you think you must explain. The general advice we got is to always assume people don't know, but there are always assumptions of what people know, assumptions of what language to use, of what vocabularly is common to the field. And, of course, when you assume what "most" people don't know, you are establishing a norm for conversation, and that norm is frequently based on that unmarked position.

And it is a conversation I am no longer interested in. Not on those terms.

The right to know and not know

The assumptions of what people know and what is common knowledge runs parallel with defining who has a right to know. If there is knowledge that the "majority" of people can be assumed not to know, then the corresponding action frequently is to discover that knowledge and to make it known. But again, we get the questions of "Who knows?" Who is this supposed majority, and why am I not surprised that it so often defaults to Western and white? Who is "discovering" the knowledge, and is it an actual discovery?

At a Wiscon panel on science and colonialism, I talked about who has the right to know with regard to science and probably derailed the panel quite a bit, as I am more concerned with how this plays out in the social sciences, as opposed to sciences that focus less on humans. This is, of course, not limited to social scientists or academics, but manifests itself everywhere. It's the history of stealing artifacts and bodies from people to display in museums as Other, the taking and naming of land in the name of "discovery," the experiments conducted on the bodies of disenfranchised people for knowledge, the idea that culture (but only some cultures) is free for the taking (but only by some people). It is people saying, "I know what gender you are. I know your body and what it does. I know what race you are and what that means. I know how and why you have sex. I know where your space is in life. I know what your reactions should be. I know who you are. And I will tell you, because I know better than you."

I sound like I oppose cross-cultural learning or scientific discovery, and I don't, not really. But there has been so much abuse carried out under the name of knowledge that I am wary of any blanket statement declaring that all people have the right to know. Because maybe we all do, but the way it's played out through history, only some people have had the right to know. Everyone else gets that knowledge forced upon them, written about them, is left outside of the process even as they are scrutinized.

And those who are most often given that blanket right to know are usually those who most often exercise the right to not know. You see it in the recent Avatar fail, but also in the way common and hidden knowledge plays out, in the way so many histories and stories are not lost, but deliberately destroyed or written out. You see it in how bits and pieces of culture are taken and assimilated, and how people using those pieces of culture do so with the assumption that they now know that entire culture. And when this lack of knowledge is combined with the belief in the right to know, we end up with people demanding explanations again and again, the repeated requests for academics to get into locked spaces so they can observe their subjects in the wild, the simultaneous asking for education even as the askers are hard at work denying all the answers they are given, with so many people wanting access without making ties to communities, without putting in any work.

Presumed audience and defaults

And this all somehow comes back to my blog and the spaces I occupy.

What should I explain? What should I assume people know? Who am I talking to? What should I say and how should I say it?

Over the years, I've been decreasingly inclined to write general posts on race and racism. I feel like I have nothing new to add, and more and more, I prefer to post in non-open spaces or to discuss things over chat or on email or on the phone with people I trust. I don't mind making 101 posts once in a while, but having to deliberately expose the costs of racism on me personally again and again is too painful to do very often.

I emphasize that this is a personal choice for me. I am incredibly grateful for people writing general posts and educating in comments. I have learned and continue to learn a lot from them, and carving out space in white-dominated areas is so hard and so painful.

I'm still trying to figure out how to create a spaces around me that are not default white, how to discourage unthinking demands for knowledge without discouraging all the intra-POC conversations where we are learning about each other and talking to each other about all our identites, how to have these conversations without their being taken and used as weapons against us.

More than that, I keep coming back to Andrea Hairston's closing challenge at the Conquest panel at Wiscon, where she asked (paraphrased), "What are we doing to protect our most vulnerable populations?"

What spaces are we creating? Who are they centered around? What kind of language is being used?

My pronouns here start to vary between "us" and "them" because of where I stand in terms of privilege and social justice, because I am still educating myself about so many aspects of social justice and how they intersect, because I am still trying with varying degrees of success to do anti-oppression work in areas where I have privilege, because I am still learning about how to contribute both to communities where I have privilege and where I do not. And I keep saying "I" because I don't yet know how to change things on a larger level when I am still working on not failing all the time.

I want to change so that my own ignorance is a burden and a statement about myself, not something forced on other people the way POC are forced to bear the burden of proof, to be the outliers and not the norm. I want "hidden" knowledge and "alternate" histories to be common knowledge and accepted history. I want a world that is radically different from the one we have now, where knowledge and knowing aren't constantly used against people.

x-posted here

No comments: