Considering the Evidence Movement Through a Black Feminist Lens

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The evidence-based (or if you prefer, evidence-informed/data-driven) decision-making movement is riding some rough seas these days. With the rise of populist leaders like Donald Trump and Jair Balsonaro, we are seeing a new crop of digital-age politicians around the world who view information not as a resource to be cultivated for the public good, but as a weapon to be exploited for their own gain. News organizations, universities, and other mainstream institutions have had their hands full in recent years defending reality-based discourse from parties attempting to construct alternative narratives, and social media platforms have expended enormous resources fighting an avalanche of false information on their servers. Even the public health arena is not immune, as the current coronavirus pandemic has polarized opinions on everything from mask-wearing to drug treatments to school reopening timelines. Rarely has there been a time when the pursuit of objective, unbiased truth mattered more, it would seem.

And yet at the same time, as I’ve followed social justice conversations over the past decade, I’ve witnessed challenges to the notion of objectivity itself with increasing frequency— specifically, the idea that “objectivity” as a concept is racially coded and therefore has no place in anti-racist work, which to be clear is work that I would hope we all aspire to. In the past couple of years, these challenges have progressed beyond the realm of slogans and found a home in the Equitable Evaluation Initiative as well as a voice among a number of colleagues of mine in the program evaluation world whom I greatly respect.

I wanted to better understand what it means to embrace “multiple truths” and “alternative ways of knowing,” especially when set against the siege scientists are facing from the populist right on topics ranging from climate change to immigration to the benefits of staying at home. A common rallying cry among Obama-era Democrats has been “everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not to their own facts.” And yet if we reject objectivity outright, aren’t we conceding that everyone is entitled to just that?

This is a sprawling topic that I’ve only begun to explore, and I intend to continue writing about it in the coming months and years as I learn more. I’m not going to lie: it’s one I find uncomfortable to engage with as someone raised as part of a dominant culture and accustomed to working within a Western scientific paradigm. But I see building intellectual bridges between different schools of thought as an important part of my life’s work, and in order to build those bridges I need to understand diverse points of view well enough to be able to make a translation between them. My hope is that somewhere buried in all this discourse is a way for those of us in learning-oriented professions to pursue the work of making the world a better place in true partnership instead of stepping on one another’s toes. Will I find it? Let’s start to find out.

Choosing Who to Believe

“Far from being the apolitical study of truth, epistemology points to the ways in which power relations shape who is believed and why.” — Patricia Hill Collins

While centuries of philosophers have raised questions about objectivity in science, there are clear echoes between the specific objections I’ve been hearing in my professional networks and the Black feminist movement in academia. Perhaps no author has taken on this thesis as directly as Patricia Hill Collins, whose 1990 book Black Feminist Thought offers a chapter entitled “Black Feminist Epistemology.”

“Black Feminist Epistemology” argues that Western knowledge validation processes and paradigms evolved to serve the interests of elite white men while sublimating, ignoring, or distorting Black women’s experiences and interests. Collins groups a variety of European-derived thinking styles and philosophies under the general label of “positivism,” the distinguishing characteristics of which include an expectation of distance between the researcher and what’s being researched; an absence of emotion from the analytical process; a belief that supposedly subjective concerns such as values and ethics are tangential to the subject under inquiry; and a practice of attempting to reveal truth by way of adversarial debate. Each of these expectations is in strong tension with Black feminist values and ways of being, with Collins going so far as to write that they “ask African-American women to objectify ourselves, devalue our emotional life, displace our motivations for furthering knowledge about Black women, and confront in an adversarial relationship those with more social, economic, and professional power.” Because elite white men excluded their perspectives from the dominant culture, Black women have had to develop alternative standards for evaluating truth that are rooted in their shared, material experiences of life.

So what exactly is Black feminist epistemology? According to Collins, Black women access knowledge via a variety of sources including everyday events, observations of others’ behavior, conversations, literature, music, and spiritual teaching. They test knowledge gained from these sources through “dialogue,” i.e. by asking friends, family, and other people in their network if they’ve had the same experiences or believe the same things. This cross-checking activity is the central validation mechanism for the belief system Collins describes. Black feminist epistemology requires an “ethic of personal accountability” in the sense that people in the community are expected to offer knowledge claims in good faith and voice their disagreement if they have any; failure to do either of these things is seen by other community members as a betrayal.

Collins maintains that it’s impossible for anyone to ignore the ways in which intersecting and interlocking systems of oppression have shaped their ideas. In this belief system, therefore, the message cannot be disentangled from the messenger and one must always evaluate knowledge claims alongside the character, values, and ethics of the party making them. Emotions, moreover —a product of what Collins calls “an ethic of caring” — are treated as relevant information and an essential part of the knowledge validation process. Black feminist epistemology thus disagrees fundamentally with positivism about where trustworthiness comes from: whereas positivist approaches view distance between the researcher and their subject as a signal that conflict of interest and motivated reasoning have not affected the conclusions, Black feminists distrust that distance as a signal that the researcher doesn’t know what they’re talking about and isn’t invested in the interests of the community they’re studying. For knowledge inquiry to be seen as valid by Black feminists, it must have an ethical aim and be in the service of justice.

I should note that Collins never suggests Black feminist epistemology is intrinsically superior to positivism (except, perhaps, in the context of researching Black women directly) or cannot coexist alongside it. Moreover, despite her identification of this way of thinking with a demographic identity, Collins is careful not to fall into essentialism; she makes clear that Black feminist epistemology has its roots not in biology, but in the shared historical experience of African American women and the social habits and institutions they developed in the context of slavery and its aftermath. And she specifically disavows the notion that there’s anything inherently “Black” or “White” about specific research methodologies like quantitative analysis or interviews.

Out of Many (Truths), One?

In describing the specifics of Black feminist epistemology, Collins necessarily articulates a more general vision of a world that can accommodate multiple belief systems that simultaneously coexist. She readily acknowledges that this is a political act: by questioning dominant epistemology itself, she writes, “all prior knowledge claims validated under the dominant model become suspect.” Even so, Collins affirms that Black feminist epistemology believes in truth and seeks to discover the truth, which is of course the reason for having a knowledge validation system at all. Its pathway to doing so relies on considering and synthesizing the perspectives of multiple individuals and groups both within and outside the community. The more those different perspectives and the belief systems associated with them converge in their conclusions, Collins suggests, the more truthful the relevant claim(s) are considered to be:

“Although it is tempting to claim that Black women are more oppressed than everyone else and therefore have the best standpoint from which to understand the mechanisms, processes, and effects of oppression, this is not the case. Instead, those ideas that are validated as true by African-American women, African-American men, Latina lesbians, Asian-American women, Puerto Rican men, and other groups with distinctive standpoints, with each group using the epistemological approaches growing from its unique standpoint, become the most “objective” truths. Each group speaks from its own standpoint and shares its own partial, situated knowledge. But because each group perceives its own truth as partial, its knowledge is unfinished. Each group becomes better able to consider other groups’ standpoints without relinquishing the uniqueness of its own standpoint or suppressing other groups’ partial perspectives.”

The above ideas draw inspiration from and expand upon standpoint theory, an epistemology arising from (white) feminist writings from the 1980s. Standpoint theorists do believe in a single material reality, but hold that the grasp of any one group or individual on that reality is necessarily “unfinished,” and requires dialogue with other standpoints to arrive at a more complete, universal picture. This belief system thus distinguishes itself from postmodernism, which takes seriously a statement like “there is no such thing as objectivity” and follows it to its logical conclusion, i.e. that no one perspective on reality is more valid than any other.

With that said, “Black Feminist Epistemology” doesn’t really address the question of how truth claims might be adjudicated between overlapping belief systems. While Collins describes how other standpoints can inform and update the truth as considered from a Black feminist standpoint (and vice versa), I found myself wondering what a synthesis rooted in many different perspectives without having a “home” in any of them would look like, how that would be accomplished, or whether it would even be a good thing to attempt.

The Most Important Decision is How to Decide

I recognize that one’s epistemology is, in the end, a personal expression of faith. If you’re someone who believes that the Bible describes literally true events, or that we’re all living in a computer simulation, or that we are all going to die in a supernova tomorrow, there’s no way for me to demonstrate otherwise with absolute certainty. Part of living a free life means being free to believe what we want to believe, and to make decisions for ourselves accordingly.

The problem is that, at least in the reality that I know, the decisions we make have consequences not just for ourselves but for others as well — and the decisions social sector leaders make often have consequences for many, many people besides themselves. When we find ourselves in positions of power over and responsibility toward others, what moral obligations do those positions place upon us when we choose who to believe and why?

Believing in a shared reality is not the same thing as claiming that one has (or can have) access to a complete understanding of that reality. But we can still recognize that having more understanding is usually better than less. We can devise standards for making judgments about who has a better understanding of the aspects of reality that are most relevant to our choices, and therefore whose truths we should seek out and take seriously. In doing so, we can aspire towards objectivity even if we realize that we can never fully achieve it. And because we lived in a mixed, integrated society in which it’s rare for consequential decisions to solely affect one well-defined group, I think aspiring toward objectivity is essential for any public service mission.

In that sense, then, I read “Black Feminist Epistemology,” as well as more recent writing on the subject such as this essay by Pulitzer-Prize-winning journalist Wesley Lowry, less as a bid to discredit objectivity and more as a bid to hold it to account. Patricia Hill Collins is pointing out that cultural experiences and hierarchical power relations shape who we believe and why in ways that don’t always correspond with our shared reality. Would-be practitioners of any evidence-based discipline ought to heed her words.

Smarter decisions for a better world

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