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Oyceter ([personal profile] oyceter) wrote2009-07-29 16:37

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.
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[personal profile] wealhtheow 2009-07-30 01:46 (UTC)(link)
I'm so glad to see this post! I was in the audience of the "Science, Colonialism, Genocide, and Science Fiction" panel, and have thought about the comment you made then ever since.
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[personal profile] wealhtheow 2009-07-30 02:30 (UTC)(link)
OK, so, I wanted to think about this a little before I responded.

I think your points dovetail with the criticisms leveled at the Singularity Narrative, or Open Source. The concept of "everyone has all knowledge and experience at their fingertips" is nice, but it ignores the fact that we already have a LOT Of knowledge available and don't pay attention to it, and that the knowledge we do get is all too often viewed through lenses greased with our biases. I think it's important for that criticism to loom larger in those debates.

BUT. I can't help but think that true knowledge is all that defeats bad knowledge. The only thing that strikes down prejudice and stereotypes is learning how wrong they are. And I'm sure you know this already, and I don't want to take away from the really excellent points you made in this essay, or dismiss the need for safe spaces. It's just that for me at least, there's a great deal of tension between not wanting to put the burden of education on already oppressed or under/mis-represented groups and wanting to make sure that their voices aren't silenced under the weight of majority groups studying them, or talking for them. I mean, I want to learn true history, or as close to the truth as I can get. And that's just not possible if only one group is speaking, or speaking where I can hear.

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laurashapiro: a woman sits at a kitchen table reading a book, cup of tea in hand. Table has a sliced apple and teapot. A cat looks on. (Default)

[personal profile] laurashapiro 2009-07-30 01:55 (UTC)(link)
Thank you for this. It's very thoughtful and thought-provoking, and I feel lucky to get to see your thoughts like this. It's not something I take for granted.

I still wanna kick that prof you had this year. Hard.
ext_6167: (Default)

[identity profile] delux-vivens.livejournal.com 2009-07-30 06:24 (UTC)(link)
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.

This is why we are so clear that there will be cutting about people attempting to use deadbrowalking and sex_and_race for their academic 'research'.
ciderpress: default: woman with red umbrella (Default)

[personal profile] ciderpress 2009-07-30 07:21 (UTC)(link)
This is a fantastic post; thank you so much for sharing it.

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.

Yes. In addition, from my own experiences in academia, I frequently feel that relationships between academics and/or those who feel they have a natural right to knowledge and demand knowledge and the disprivileged communit being "observed" largely reflects real world dynamics, the relationship is often abused and is devoid of any groundwork of trust. I've been struck by the ordinary nature of the absence of informed consent in conversation contexts in fandom as well as academia; it's not surprising but the very lack of privileged people asking whether they can ask for education (but rather jumping straight to demanding education and then derailing through recrimination and tone arguments when they are refused).

Eh. I'm kind of rambling but this post has made me very thinky! Thanks!
dichroic: (Default)

[personal profile] dichroic 2009-07-30 08:24 (UTC)(link)
What's a better word than "discovery", to describe the moment when two cultures meet and begin to know about each other? I mean, I'm well aware that you're be entirely justified in using "beginning of the genocide" to talk about what happened when Columbus got to the Americas or Captain Cook to Australia. But it's an important moment historically and I'd like to have a word that acknowledges at least the possibility that one of them doesn't end up disappeared.

The best example of a non-genocidal contact I can think of is Marco Polo going to China; typically the word "voyage" is used, but that's not really very descriptive. I suspect his trip wasn't all that much of a new discovery on either side, that at least some level of East/West trade had gone on forever, but it was something of a milestone. I think.

"First contact", maybe?
nojojojo: (Default)

[personal profile] nojojojo 2009-07-30 13:45 (UTC)(link)
I'm fond of "first contact", personally, as it emphasizes there's someone there to get in contact with. I've also heard that moment described as Encounter, but I'm drawing a blank on where I saw that usage. (Gah! Bad scholarship on my part!)

[identity profile] jinian.livejournal.com 2009-07-30 18:44 (UTC)(link)
That's what it's called in science fiction, so why not? It implies alienness for that reason, but as long as it doesn't say which group the aliens are it may be all right.
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[personal profile] shewhohashope 2009-07-30 19:35 (UTC)(link)
Ecounter?

That's what i call it.
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[personal profile] thistleingrey 2009-07-31 16:38 (UTC)(link)
At a friendly tangent: we think of Marco Polo all the time, but we think less often of William of Rubruck, traveling a little earlier, or of ibn Battuta a little later. For all of these, really, isn't it more than "two cultures"? We know about the individuals who went very far indeed, but the ones who had reasons to travel between *only* two cultures all the time tend not to have impressed anyone strongly enough to have their texts copied, recopied, eventually typeset. Or they were too busy being merchants, lawyers, doctors, whatever to write down their observations. For that matter, someone was reading Arabic in a manuscript in SW England (I think Exeter), in the eleventh century.

Re: cultural getting-to-know, my impulse is to think in terms of individual incidents, exposures, and changes (or refusals to change) in personal thought, rather than whole groups coming into contact. But then, I'm a medievalist, not a demographer; I can at least see that the flaw in my preference is that the standard analytical tools work better in terms of groups, synthesis, etc. One person meeting individuals of other cultures doesn't "count"--except for the individuals involved--unless there's a big splash and a bestselling book/film/etc. Maybe? Yet it is still meaningful contact for those individuals. *fumbles around in dark*
skywardprodigal: Beautiful seated woman, laughing, in Vlisco. (Default)

[personal profile] skywardprodigal 2009-09-01 17:10 (UTC)(link)
But when Columbus came here, he came using technology garnered from the what the Portuguese would eventually call Angola and claim was actually Portugal (not a colony) and this while hunting for humans to enslave and gold.

That's why they came.

It's not first contact because the sea-faring Africans from whom Prince Henry's techs got the tech for navigating the oceans were already in contact with the Europeans and the native inhabitants of what's now known as the Americans in the common parlance.


nojojojo: (Default)

[personal profile] nojojojo 2009-07-30 13:44 (UTC)(link)
I want to say -- I've always enjoyed your writing. You make me think differently about things, whether that's manga or Deep Race Issues. I can see how that would be draining, and if you need to step back or stop, do it. I'll be sad, but I think you've inspired your share of others to do the same thing, so you can "retire" in good conscience. =)

Thanks for sharing all this.

[personal profile] dsgood 2009-07-30 18:03 (UTC)(link)
One bit of bias you haven't mentioned: The assumption that "the West" is the only heir of classical Greco-Roman civilization. This leaves out a few places, including the Arab and Greek Orthodox worlds.

[identity profile] parallactic.livejournal.com 2009-07-30 22:23 (UTC)(link)
This post gave me a lot to chew over, and crystallized some things for me.

And those who are most often given that blanket right to know are usually those who most often exercise the right to not know.

Yeah, that. It's what I've noticed, but couldn't put into words. Presumed objectivity ends up being the justification to pick and choose what knowledge is and isn't valuable and credible. And it took me a while to realize that, because I did believe in knowledge for its own sake and well-intentioned academic objectivity.

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.

And this, too. I've wondered how you couldnavigate finding commonality and interPoC alliance building, while also avoiding being appropriative of another PoC group's experiences. In other words, how do you avoid reinforcing the racist system and not use people as stepping stones?

Because it's not fun to have your experience and words and identity dissected, twisted, and used as raw material to reinforce someone else's worldview.

[identity profile] kothithelegu.livejournal.com 2009-07-30 22:52 (UTC)(link)
I'd like to approach your comments from a slightly different perspective of emotional themes. Please feel free to disagree! I apologize ahead of time for what is not clear. :)

First, I believe that feeling disillusioned is a natural process of learning when you realize the limitations of your approach and its ability to describe reality with its complexity intact.

Second, it seems perfectly reasonable that you would feel anger that these studies de-humanize their subjects. Condensing what is "important" about the behavior, activities, actions, thoughts and words of subjects requires a context in which some parts are kept and some discarded. Much is left out that could illustrate important and human qualities of the people studied. Even worse, the information that is garnered could lead those same populations under study to misinterpret themselves based on a limited or myopic understanding propagated by that research.

Third, it makes sense that you might feel it is an injustice to blindly accept a context composed of the "white", "Western", "male" viewpoint as gender/race neutral and objective. However much this perspective creates a useful simplifying tool for analysis, it can also lead to a fragmented and incomplete understanding.

Fourth, with this emotional backdrop it seems eminently sane to become frustrated and withdraw from fruitless argument or dialog. This is especially true when conversation is used as ammunition to propagate ignorance instead of growing mutual understanding.

I think it's great that you're using your experiences as an impetus to search for a new type of conversational space. One idea, these new conversational spaces could be centered on people's common human experiences such as birth, death, work, leisure, family, friends, ceremonies, music, etc. Using inclusive pronouns such as "we" instead of "us" and "them" in discussion, the conversation could focus on the form each of these experiences takes in a particular group or culture. Maybe diverse people can come to understand their similarities, differences and the underlying cultural assumptions that drive them by comparing and contrasting shared experiences among human beings.
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[personal profile] la_vie_noire 2009-07-30 23:26 (UTC)(link)
Thank you for writing this. It was necessary to say.
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[personal profile] pseudo_tsuga 2009-07-31 04:55 (UTC)(link)
I just wanted to thank you for writing this. It's given me a lot to chew over.
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[personal profile] thistleingrey 2009-07-31 16:52 (UTC)(link)
Thank you for this, also.

Mostly, I need to go and chew on your thinky thoughts :) --I've been noticing in my self-ed reading how various scholars have positioned themselves.... In order to assert something and synthesize, one does need a certain visible confidence, I think, but as you suggest, that manner need not cover *everything*, nor extend as far as blind arrogance.

I am not really surprised by the fact that my tossing up an on-topic IBARW post yesterday yielded default-white comments. (Saddened a bit, since the commenters so far are friends or acquaintances, not strangers, but it's not a surprise.) All I did to offset the construction of a default-white space was to assert myself: this is my voice, and it is not default white. It's like litmus paper: if that kind of small act does suffice, one day, things will have changed a little.
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[personal profile] daedala 2009-08-03 22:03 (UTC)(link)
Thank you for writing this. I kept wanting to say something smart, but now I think I will just give up on that and comment with thanks. :)

And those who are most often given that blanket right to know are usually those who most often exercise the right to not know.

Yes. Most privilege seems to come down to the ability to choose...whatever. Knowledge, integrity, space, privacy, what to do in life, what to say, how to say it... :(
skywardprodigal: Beautiful seated woman, laughing, in Vlisco. (Default)

[personal profile] skywardprodigal 2009-09-01 17:14 (UTC)(link)
Oyce,

Is it possible to get a copy of that paper, or at least the sources you used, and the sources you wanted to use but couldn't?

I'm designing a course on conflict and communication and your perspective would be helpful to me.

I'm struggling with how to explain that hidden knowledge and alternate histories are common knowledge and accepted history. And I'm trying to work this out within the framework of making peace.