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Questioning intentions and academia

Emily Kingsley's picture

This is a long and winding exploration of some thoughts and concepts that have been on my mind for a while. The post centers around questions of intention in social justice work—why we do what we do and how (seemingly good) intentions might actually be damaging. I also write about sociology and academia, thinking about how these institutions can promote injustice even while purporting to fight against it.

When I went in for my first introductory meeting at The Haven this summer, one of the principal pieces of advice that my boss, Stephen, gave me was to really think about why I wanted to do this work—to be clear about what my intentions were and why I was there. If I didn’t think about it too much, this seemed easy enough. I was there because I wanted to better understand the inequalities in my hometown, and because I wanted to humanize and know by name the people I walked past uncomfortably on the downtown mall for years. So far so good. Yet, as I kept digging around in my mind for reasons I was there, I happened upon some not so pleasant realizations, upturning stones that muddied the waters and launched me into new lines of questioning.

 In addition to my more noble and praise-worthy intentions, I came to realize that I was also harboring some potentially dangerous ideas as well. When I searched deeply enough, this is what I found:

  1. I come from a privileged background and have not experienced  the kinds of violence and suffering that many others experience on a daily basis. This internship, then, was a way to become more “legitimate” in my desire to talk about inequality and oppression. By seeing some serious hardship, I could claim more authority in conversations about social justice, could speak from experience as someone who “knows what it’s like out there.”
  2. Discovering this lurking desire for social justice legitimacy led me to a second, even more worrying mental practice. I found that I was unintentionally engaging in something that I termed “eating others’ trauma.” This process occurs when one person listens to someone else’s stories of hardship and injustice with the conscious (or more often subconscious) goal of feeling like a better and more compassionate person as a result. It certainly wasn’t my intention to consume others’ suffering in this way, but if I’m being honest, that is kind of what happened. I noticed that I felt good when people told me about their hardships; I felt like I had a secret, I had a new weight inside me that made me special and more wise than I was before. I do recognize, on one hand, that there is nothing inherently wrong or problematic about holding space to hear someone’s experiences. In fact, this can be a quite beautiful and meaningful process. The shocking part to me was that even this most compassionate of acts can become encumbered with sticky, murky questions of who is benefiting from these exchanges, and how this equation of listener + trauma=better person can lead to the unintended dehumanization of those most affected by oppression.

 I saw this kind of dehumanization occurring in my own mind me when I caught myself listing all of the people I’d had intense/personal conversations with over the summer. What made me uncomfortable wasn’t the act of mulling over who I’d talked to, but instead why I found myself doing it. Indeed, I wasn’t just reminiscing or nurturing gratitude for these people. I was using them as stepping stones toward my own growth, as possible stories to tell later that would show how much I’d learned and how much I’d seen; in my mind, these weren’t people anymore so much as anecdotes helping me reach my quota of vicariously-experienced oppression.

 These were just some of the twisting, disorienting mental paths that I began exploring this summer.  While one could easily write this all off as my overly-academic, self-critical personality getting in the way of the good work I was doing, my gut says otherwise. My gut says that much of the ‘good work’ that goes on unquestioned is actually far more warped, complex, and tenuous than we often care to realize. A phrase that ran through my head a lot this summer (and that I am still working to understand and unpack) is internalized colonialism. In what ways have we as a culture internalized imperialist/domineering attitudes that lead us to exert power over others instead of standing in solidarity with them?  How might ‘good work’ function in service of power structures seeking to control (and benefit from) the oppressed without really fighting for liberation?

As my mind kept  churning through these questions and uncertainties, I started thinking bigger picture, wondering how the narratives we use to frame our social justice work might also be having a negative impact on the work itself. This has been a complex concept for me to wrap my mind around, but here’s how my thinking went:

When people used to ask me about myself and my interests, one thing I would tell them was that I feel best about myself when I am helping people in need. Naturally, this statement always garnered lots of praise and sparked comments about how ‘thoughtful’ and ‘selfless’ I was. Looking back on this logic now, though, something new has begun to dawn on me: Having one’s self-esteem and self-concept dependent on the ability to help worse-off others necessitates the continued existence of a supply of oppressed people in need of benevolent assistance. In other words, this is not a liberatory framework, but instead an undercover oppressive one that benefits the helper while prolonging the disempowerment of those served.

 From there, I started asking how this same way of thinking might span beyond my own mindset to characterize a whole academic approach, like sociology. If sociology is the study of inequality, I began to wonder, does the discipline then depend on the continued existence of inequalities to be studied? Sometimes when I do sociology, I find myself hoping to discover a major injustice because it gives me something more juicy, more clear-cut to talk about. And what does this say about the perspective this type of work can foster? When students and academics are so busy searching for dramatic inequalities to highlight in a new paper or book, who are they really helping? Danielle Stevens, co-founder of the black queer women-led health and healing organization, This Bridge Called Our Health, spoke to this dynamic in an interview, saying:  

“We live in a society where people are capitalizing off of anti-Blackness; From the enduring criminalization of Black people through state-sanctioned violence and the prison industrial complex, to the ways that non-Black people are literally getting checks by talking about the violence Black people face; Blackness continues to be a commodity that everyone is getting paid for except for us! It’s really dangerous.”

 These words ring true for me as a sociology major. Indeed, I see myself reflected in them. What does it mean that scholars of inequality—who are in many cases far removed from the experiences they speak about—have the legitimacy to direct policy and garner acclaim while those most affected by the issues discussed remained unheard and without resources? It might be helpful here to link these questions of academic activism to Audre Lorde’s famous quote that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (This Bridge Called My Back 99). Since the history of academia rests squarely on the shoulders of capitalism, patriarchy, and white supremacy, could we ever expect it to tear down the very power dynamics that it benefits from? This is not to say that there is no place for scholarly studies of inequality. Certainly, I have learned so much from reading academic texts about real world issues. I have, however, lost faith in the ability of academic approaches—and of sociology in particular—to work for liberation in radical, large-scale ways.

 When only certain ways of knowing and speaking are considered valuable,

 when no decisions can be made without data to back it up,

 when access to knowledge production is so tightly constrained, I question how revolutionary the academy can be.