José Medina is a philosophy professor at Vanderbilt University who specializes in Gender and Race Theory. His book The Epistemology of Resistance introduces a “contextualist” model for understanding how our participation in systems of oppression via our race, gender, and sexuality affects our ability to know truth. While its highly technical language may be difficult for readers unfamiliar with philosophy, it’s an excellent example of how contemporary critical theory approaches epistemology, that is, the study of how we come to know truth.
Medina’s basic thesis is that our social location, in particular whether we are part of a dominant, oppressor group or a subordinate, oppressed group, will influence our understanding of and our sensitivity to the truth:
“In a situation of oppression, epistemic relations are screwed up. Inequality is the enemy of knowledge: it handicaps our capacity to know and to learn from each other. Social injustices breed epistemic injustices… this is the premise of this book… and it is also an idea amply discussed in the recent philosophical literature on social knowledge, especially in normative epistemology, feminist theory, and critical race theory” (p. 27).
On the one hand, whites, men, heterosexuals, cisgendered individuals, etc… will tend to be blind to certain truths and, what’s more, will tend to be ‘blind to their own blindness. (Medina calls this situation ‘meta-blindness’, p. 75). On the other hand, people of color, women, LGBTQ+ individuals, etc… will potentially be aware of certain truths and will also be more sensitive to the ways in which social location produces blindness:
“Gender- and color-blindness are forms of active ignorance supported by the epistemic vices we have discussed. Gender- and color-blind subjects tend to arrogantly assume that there is nothing to see, that those aspects of identity can play no role or have no significance, no matter what others see. These subjects also become epistemically lazy… and close-minded” (p. 38)
“oppressed groups do have a distinctive set of experiences and … are better positioned and better equipped for a particular kind of epistemic subversion… As Mills puts it, ‘Hegemonic [dominant] groups characteristically have experiences that foster illusory perceptions about society’s functioning, whereas subordinate groups characteristically have experiences that (at least potentially) give rise to more adequate conceptualizations’” (p. 46).
While Medina affirms that this asymmetry extends to all areas of social oppression, he focuses on race in particular as a site of ‘epistemic injustice’, where racial ideology produces blindness and ignorance for whites while creating a ‘double consciousness’ in people of color that can produce heightened perception of truth and clarity of thought.
“racially privileged subjects tend to develop a special kind of hermeneutical insensitivity with respect to racial meanings, whereas racially oppressed subjects tend to become attentive and sensitive to them” (p. 104)
“In his now-classic The Racial Contract, Charles Mills (1997) put white ignorance on the agenda of critical race theory. There Mills argues that privileged white subjects have become unable to understand the world that they themselves have created; and he calls attention to the cognitive dysfunctions and pathologies inscribed in the white world and constitutive of its epistemic economy, which revolves not only around the epistemic exclusion and stigmatization of people of color, but also around a carefully cultivated racial blindness of the white gaze. As Mills suggests, white racial ignorance is a form of self-ignorance: the inability to recognize one’s own racial identity and the presuppositions and consequences of one’s racial positionality” (p. 105)
“white ignorance is a prime example of active ignorance – a recalcitrant, self-protecting ignorance that builds itself around an entire system of resistances” (p. 107)
“active ignorance that protects privilege and hides complicity with oppression is motivated by the need not to know… Maintaining privilege can indeed be a powerful source of resistance against expanding one’s hermeneutical sensibilities, resulting in a stubborn refusal to understand certain things that can destabilize one’s life and identity” (p. 109)
Despite these statements, Medina’s position is far more nuanced that the claims of radical postmodernists or standpoint epistemologists. For example, Medina insists that social location alone is insufficient to determine whether one is blind or lucid: “belonging to the dominant class is not a necessary condition for having any particular epistemic vice [nor is it a] sufficient condition for the epistemic vices” (p. 40). “We cannot generalize and talk about the epistemic perspective of the oppressed or the epistemic perspective of the oppressor. Such rigid and homogeneous categorizations of social groups lead to nothing but stereotypes, bad sociology, and bad epistemology” (p. 45). In addition, Medina clearly rejects relativism and insists that objective truth exists although, admittedly, it is not entirely clear what he means by objective truth.
Medina insists that his model merely claims that, under conditions of social injustice, dominant groups tend towards blindness and that subordinate groups tend towards lucidity, which is why any productive search for truth must include ‘epistemic friction’, where the perspectives of differently socially-situated groups are brought into dialogue. A perpetual posture of intellectual humility and openness towards new groups is a necessary component of truth-seeking.
While Christians should certainly take Medina’s admonitions to heart regarding intellectual humility and openness towards new groups, the emphasis he puts on the potential blindness of dominant groups seems to open the door to the kind of rigid standpoint epistemology that he rejects.
For example, if a man and a woman disagree about the origin of the gender pay gap, what precisely would prevent the woman from insisting that the man’s privileged social position has produced in him epistemic vices that prohibit him from recognizing the truth? If he protests that his beliefs are substantiated by the objective evidence, couldn’t the woman insist that his claim to objectivity is merely evidence of any even higher-level meta-blindness, which prevents him from recognizing how dependent his beliefs are on his social location?
This conversation becomes particularly interesting with regard to the meta-question: “are there conditions of social injustice in the first place?” For example, imagine that I -as a half-Indian- insisted that half-Indians experience tremendous levels of social injustice. If someone disputed this claim, could I not insist that the tremendous levels of social injustice that half-Indians experience are precisely the reason that they fail to accept my testimony as a half-Indian? Medina’s project is predicated upon a particular consensus about social injustice that already exists and which is presupposed to be objectively true. But absent such a consensus, it’s not clear how his project can get off the ground. If a person doesn’t accept the idea that social inequalities between whites and blacks, or men and women, or heterosexuals and LGBTQ+ individuals produce pervasive, daily epistemic injustices, how are they to be convinced otherwise?
This criticism points to a larger problem of Medina’s work: the absence of any empirical evidence to support his claims. In the first chapter, Medina claims that his conclusions are “supported by empirical studies in psychology and in the educational science” (p. 27) but provides no references to such studies. By the end of the book, the only evidence to which Medina had explicitly appealed to substantiate his theories consisted of two novels, an incident at his university, and the work of other theorists. The difficulty here is not the absence of empirical evidence; but the absence of empirical evidence to substantiate empirical claims.
For instance, when Medina observes that the testimony of blacks was not given equal weight in the Jim Crow South as the testimony of whites, he is undoubtedly correct. Yet for him to claim that the same epistemic injustice exists today for all other subordinate groups is a more controversial claim that will not be accepted by all people. Thus, some appeal to empirical evidence is presumably necessary, unless he is willing to live with an irreducible diversity of views on whether his foundational assumptions are objectively false.
Similarly, he extrapolates from testimonial injustice to other epistemic injustices without comment. While it might be true that a woman experiences epistemic injustice when recounting her personal experiences, is it equally true that a female scientist experiences epistemic injustice when submitting peer-reviewed journal articles? Before answering, we should recognize that this is an empirical question, not a purely theoretical one, and that the empirical evidence might surprise us. To fail to appeal to the empirical evidence at all is therefore problematic.
In summary, Medina’s book avoids some of the excesses of rigid standpoint epistemology and postmodernism. Christians would do well to heed Medina’s admonitions about intellectual humility and the need to listen to a diversity of views. On the other hand, his thesis seems open to critique on multiple levels, not only for its failure to substantiate its claims with appeals to empirical evidence, but also for its lack of clarity surrounding the nature of objective truth.
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