Who Decides What's Racist?

The problem with "standpoint epistemology."


By David Bernstein

Growing out of the Critical Race Theory (CRT) movement, a culture of censorship has taken root in many of our institutions.

CRT makes two basic observations: First, that bias and prejudice exist not just in the hearts and minds of individuals, but also in society’s social structures and systems. And second, that bias embedded in systems is frequently invisible to the dominant class but perfectly perceptible to its victims. “Minority status,” explain Richard Delgado and Jean Stefancic, the authors of Critical Race Theory, “brings with it a presumed competence to speak about race and racism.”

Both of these observations are true at least some of the time. The problem is that the second—sometimes referred to as “standpoint epistemology”—contends that only minorities have standing to articulate a view on race and racism. In her book What Does It Mean to Be White?, Robin DiAngelo puts it this way: “Sometimes I am asked, ‘But what if the person of color is wrong and what they think is racism isn’t racism at all?’ To this I say that people of color are much more qualified than we are to make this determination. My not being able to see racism is unrelated to its reality.” Anyone who proffers an alternative perspective can be accused of “privilege.” In addition to being stifling and punitive, this demand for adherence will almost certainly make it more difficult to overcome the racial divide.

Proponents of this view assert the primacy of “lived experience”—the reality felt by a marginalized community or individual. Given America’s history of racism, we do have a special obligation to listen closely when marginalized people talk about their experience: The victims of racism will indeed have insights that others cannot possibly glean on their own. It was through listening to people of color, for example, that I learned about the scourge of mass incarceration, which led me to spend years advocating for criminal justice reform.

But I cannot agree that, in making space for marginalized voices, everyone else should defer to whatever ideological claims members of a minority group attach to their definition of racism. In today’s ideological environment, it tends to go like this: Defer to my lived experience; my lived experience reveals that critical race theory is true; you, too, must abide by critical race theory.

What’s wrong with this demand for deference? First, insisting that large swaths of people keep quiet is not a sustainable moral undertaking. Calling on those deemed privileged to mute themselves permanently on issues of race and racism only engenders resentment. After hearing a marginalized person’s perspective, there must be room in the conversation for those outside the marginalized community to disagree with that viewpoint about the nature of racism.

There’s a difference between listening to someone’s experience and tying oneself to their entire worldview. Challenging someone’s viewpoint should not be taken as invalidating their feelings. You can empathize with a person’s struggle and hear their concerns without automatically deferring to their perspective. At the end of the day, even if proponents of CRT try to tarnish everyone who disagrees with them, many of those scorned will still go to the polls with a pronounced identitarian fervor, as we’ve seen in the past two national elections, and they’ll vote those ideas rather than open themselves up to discussion. You can’t shut out voices and expect social progress.  

Second, oppressed people, like all people, are sometimes wrong. Some impart earth-shattering truths. Others spread lies and become victimizers themselves. Lived experience, while important, is just one data point in understanding social reality. Being oppressed doesn’t give anyone a monopoly on wisdom, even about oppression. Indeed, our experience can bias our insight. As a Jew who has experienced anti-Semitism, I can surely describe what it’s like to be taunted and demeaned, but I also recognize that because of that experience I’m more, not less, susceptible to overstating the threat I face in society.

Third, marginalized communities are diverse. There is no single authoritative position among marginalized people on racism. Randall Kennedy, a law professor at Harvard, has traced the vast diversity of the Black community since the time of slavery. “The spectrum of thought amongst African Americans is and has always been much broader and multifarious than commonly perceived,” he writes. “Neglect of that fact has led to a homogenization that has tended to submerge African American individuality.”

Today, Black people are no less diverse in their political views than they’ve been through the ages. Who alone speaks for a marginalized people? I, for one, will listen to anyone willing to talk with me. None, in my eyes at least, represents the definitive perspective, and it’s not my job to pick spokespeople.

Fourth, oppressed people around the world hold claims that directly contradict those of other oppressed people. Do we demand that Israelis accept a Palestinian denial of all Jewish connections to the land because Palestinians are an oppressed people? Do we demand that Palestinians accept an Israeli denial of all Palestinian connections to the land because Jews were victims in Europe and the Middle East? If you agree that one oppressed group has standing to define reality, it’s hard to argue that all oppressed people around the world don’t have similar standing to define their narratives of oppression, some of which conflict with each other.

Fifth, once you allow someone else to define reality for you, you never know where it will take you. You’ve now outsourced your analysis to a third party, who may down the line make absurd statements or engage in untenable behavior that you now feel compelled to defend because you’ve made them an unquestioned authority. Are Asian-American allies of the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, now bound by the claims made by some activists that the recent wave of violence against Asians is solely a function of white supremacy, even though many of the assailants are non-white? In having to contort your position in the name of allyship, your own principles may eventually become unrecognizable.

Without a doubt, our society is still a long way from eradicating racism and racial disparities. We will never effectively address our problems, however, if one set of voices claims unique insight and seeks to shut out the rest from the discussion.

David Bernstein is a former CEO of Jewish advocacy organizations and is currently a principal of Viewpoint Worldwide, a consulting firm that supports diversity in organizational settings.