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Conditionality forces the embrace of epistemic uncertainty – uncertainty creates unique benefits

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Conditionality forces the embrace of epistemic uncertainty – uncertainty creates unique benefits

Sholock 12 – Chatham University

(Adale, “Methodology of the Privileged: White Anti-racist Feminism, Systematic Ignorance, and Epistemic Uncertainty”, Hypatia Volume 27, Issue 4, pages 701–714, November 2012, dml)

However, something profound happens in The Color of Fear that troubles the epistemological arrogance and self-deception that epitomize normative whiteness. David frustrates everyone to the point where Victor Lewis, an African American man in the group, finally loses his patience and lashes out in anger at David's willful ignorance. This is a climactic moment in the film and one that I find instructive to white anti-racist efforts both feminist and otherwise. Lee Mun Wah, the filmmaker and facilitator of the discussion, gently but skillfully asks David what is keeping him from believing Victor's claims about pervasive racism: “So what would it mean David, then, if life really was that harsh? What if the world was not as you thought, that [racial injustice] is actually happening to lots of human beings on this earth?” He continues, “What if he knew his reality better than you?” What then occurs is best described as a “lightbulb moment”: David says with uncharacteristic thoughtfulness, “Oh, that's very saddening. You don't want to believe that man can be so cruel to himself and his own kind.” David's comment startlingly echoes what James Baldwin has described as the double-bind of white folk: “White America remains unable to believe that Black America's grievances are real; they are unable to believe this because they cannot face what this fact says about themselves and their country” (Baldwin 1985, 536). David's newfound awareness not only challenges his self-assuredness—as Baldwin suggests—but also his very authority as a knower. In other words, David shifts from the cognitive comforts of not knowing that he doesn't know to the epistemic uncertainties of knowing that he doesn't know.

I admit that The Color of Fear has sometimes made me feel a depressing lack of confidence in the ability of the privileged (myself included) to achieve any kind of mutually reciprocal relationship with the racially and geopolitically oppressed. Yet I believe that it is more accurate to view The Color of Fear as an allegory of hope and possibility for the future of feminism without borders. Of course, it is still uncomfortable to watch The Color of Fear and recognize that I might think and act more like David than I can fully comprehend, that his ignorance is structurally related to my own, and that I will not always know better. Nevertheless, I remind myself that it is the very moment when David admits his ignorance that Victor extends the offer, “from here I can work with you.”

David and Victor's breakthrough indicates that effective coalition across racial and other power inequities might actually benefit from epistemic uncertainty among the privileged. Of course, this observation will likely unsettle whites who are conditioned to assert epistemic mastery and authority. As Pratt admits, “to acknowledge … that there are things that I do not know … [is] an admission hard on my pride, and harder to do than it sounds” (Pratt 1984, 42). However, Bernice Johnson Reagon sagely reminds us that comfort is rarely part of coalition-building, as verified by the contentious conversations in The Color of Fear. Coalition work is “some of the most dangerous work you can do. And you shouldn't look for comfort. Some people will come to a coalition and they rate the success of the coalition on whether or not they feel good when they get there” (Reagon 1983, 359). Accordingly, a methodology of the privileged might embrace the discomforts of epistemic uncertainty as an indication of effectiveness rather than failure within coalitional politics.

Perhaps more than self-reflexivity or racial sedition, epistemic uncertainty is a methodology that highlights the necessary interdependence of the privileged and the oppressed in struggles to eliminate injustice.12 For instance, when David's intellectual confidence finally wavers, he must rely upon the knowledge claims of non-whites in the group. In other words, it is only through Victor's keen understanding of racial oppression and white privilege that David recognizes his ignorance. According to Harding, in order for anti-racist and transnational solidarity to flourish, white women's reliance on insights developed by women of color feminists is “not a luxury but a necessity” (Harding 1991, 282). This methodological directive is itself evidence of the instruction Harding takes from women of color who assert that the epistemic accomplishments of the oppressed hold the key to the eradication of ignorance within feminist theory and praxis (Collins 1986; Narayan 1989; Anzaldúa, 1987; Sandoval 2000).

We aren’t a view from nowhere – situated impartial knowledge is neither objective nor disinterested – they are the flip side of the same coin by claiming to have unique access to knowledge

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