For Deanna Feedback Isaac Fifelski
Dr. M. Ferrari
November 26, 2021
Understanding Epistemic Oppression through “My Dungeon Shook”
Word Count: 1,312
When we think about oppression, there’s generally some physical aspect related to it. People are oppressed by being denied access to something, and usually it is to some sort of right such as voting or some need such as food. Epistemic oppression, on the other hand, is a bit more abstract, but just as deadly. Epistemic oppression follows the same formula as normal oppression, but what is being taken away from people is the ability to have their truths be told (Teichman n.d.). Take, for example, a story from its founder, Professor Patricia Williams. When Professor Williams wanted to enter a store in SoHo to buy things during the Christmas shopping season. Even though there were multiple white shoppers in the store, and it was in the middle of the afternoon, the shop employee told Williams that the store was closed and she was not allowed entry.
That wasn’t the epistemic oppression, though. The epistemic oppression occurred later, when Professor Williams was talking to her White friends. Instead of accepting what she was trying to say and show that racism still occurs, her friends tried to find other explanations and completely disregarded Williams’ argument that it was a racist act, even though their White Privilege would not allow them to see how racism is played out in the first place. The act of taking her power of adding anything to the existing “truth” of the situation, even though Williams was the one who experienced the incident, is epistemic oppression. In the end, Williams was placed into what Kristie Dotson calls a “double bind” and has two bad choices to choose from (Teichman n.d.). Either Williams will have to continue pushing the point that she is to be believed, but face the consequences of being gaslit and diminishing her own credibility, or she can close the conversation at the expense of normalizing this racist action as no one believes that it is one even though it explicitly is.
While rooted in the feminist tradition, the idea of epistemic oppression can be forwarded into a racial lens quite easily, as shown through Professor Williams’ experience having her experience gatekeeped (Teichman n.d.). Taking a historical perspective on the existence of epistemic oppression, we find many pieces of evidence that it existed for decades before the time that it was formally defined. One such example is in the chapter “My Dungeon Shook: A Letter to my Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation,” a chapter in James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time wherein the author discusses his experiences to his pre-teen nephew of the same name. In discussing the fate of his father, his nephew’s grandfather, and in discussing the community where he is growing up, Brooklyn, Baldwin shows the presence of epistemic oppression in 1963 and its awful effects on his family and his community. These examples found in Baldwin’s work leads to a conclusion both of the existence and power of epistemic oppression. By gatekeeping what is knowable when talking about the individual and communities, I argue the White majority manifests racism by corrupting the true image of the self and communities in the Black experience through discussions of Baldwin’s father and Harlem.
One of the most jarring examples of how epistemic oppression can affect an individual can be seen through Baldwin talking about his nephew’s grandfather, his father. Baldwin discusses how his father was “defeated long before he died” due to the fact that he fell into the trap of epistemic oppression and “he really believed what White people said about him” (Baldwin 1993, 4). In discussing the eventual defeat of his grandfather by epistemic oppression, we can both better understand how epistemic oppression was conducted and how it affects the psyche of those who are subjected to it.
The epistemic oppression enacted on Baldwin’s father was that of failing to disambiguate the White Gaze from reality. Yancy in “Walking While Back in ‘The White Gaze’” discusses how the White Gaze ensures that individuals who are Black are abstracted into a stereotypical archetype of someone who is violent and is up to no good (Yancy 2013). Considering that this was written originally in 1962, Baldwin’s father grew up in a time where racism even in New York was still commonplace, even if the de jure practices of racism such as segregation were common only in the South. Being so affected by the White Gaze is another form of epistemic oppression as the person being looked onto doesn’t have the ability to plead their case, only be subjected to the whim of the perception of others. In order to escape the White Gaze, Baldwin describes how his father became “so holy,” as the Church could be seen as a way to be nominally better than the stereotype given by the white gaze (Baldwin 1993, 4).
Yet, the double bind still exists. Even in trying to escape the White Gaze, the transition into holiness was not enough to challenge the existing structures enough to change the stereotype. When Baldwin’s father is on the street, he still gets suspicious looks and people checking if their wallets are still there as he passes. Some people may even think that his Sunday best wasn’t his in the first place, diminishing his credibility as the double bind says it will. This, over periods of years, became internalized within Baldwin’s father. This led him eventually starting to believe that the White gaze was reality; that he should “make peace with mediocrity”(Baldwin 1993, 7). This leads to him being “defeated” and living “a terrible life” because he’s believing awful things about him that are simply not true (Baldwin 1993, 4). In short, epistemic oppression, when chronic, becomes even more deadly as it can deteriorate the spirit and make you start to believe the lies that the system is telling you.
This is also shown through the discussion and the comments of the heritage of black people, leading to the comment “They do not know Harlem, I do. So do you” (Baldwin 1993, 8). The commentary at this point in the chapter is discussing the very point above, how the systems in White America are meant to elicit feelings of worthlessness and lack of freedoms given to Black people (Baldwin 1993, 7). This leads to a crux, where Baldwin says that he understands that there will be dissenters who will try and invalidate his own experiences of the system (Baldwin 1993, 8). This in itself is an example of epistemic oppression through yet another attempt of “[his nephew’s] countrymen” —other Americans— trying to tell him that he is exaggerating his experiences in life (Baldwin 1993, 8). This, through his quote about Harlem, is quickly torn into shreds. By discussing Harlem in this light, Baldwin appeals to his nephew’s understanding of the district, something that none of the other naysayers, nor even I, can truly understand as we are out of the context of Harlem at that time. While not in-situ, some assumptions can be made by this remark. Harlem was left to experience urban decay in the mid-twentieth century, though it was an important cultural landmark for Black heritage. I took this as Baldwin saying something along the lines of his nephew understanding the true extent to how much the American system left Black people behind, even if the hegemonic narrative says otherwise.
In conclusion, Baldwin discusses how epistemic oppression exists for Black people through using personal experience to explain the effects on the individual and the community. What should be explored next, as Baldwin himself does in the final pages of “My Dungeon Shook,” is exactly how to break free of the epistemic oppression that has been placed on Black people. Whether through “[accepting White people] with love” or through other means is the way to have their chains finally fall off (Baldwin 1993, 8).
Baldwin, James. 1993. “My Dungeon Shook: A Letter to My Nephew on the One Hundredth Anniversary of the Emancipation.” In The Fire Next Time. New York, NY: Vintage International.
Teichman, Matt. n.d. “Episode 92: Kristie Dotson Discusses Epistemic Oppression – Elucidations.” Elucidations. Accessed November 26, 2021. https://lucian.uchicago.edu/blogs/elucidations/2017/01/14/episode-92-kristie-dotson-discusses-epistemic-oppression/.
Yancy, George. 2013. “Walking While Black in the ‘White Gaze.’” The Stone, September 1, 2013.