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Knowledge of Racism: The Best Conceptual Structure

2022 Irving and Jeanne Glovin Award winner

Tejas Pandya

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Abstract 

When minorities claim they experienced racism there is often a challenge posed: “how do you know it was racism?” If traditional Cartesian epistemology is used, making knowledge claims of experienced racism is impossible. Cartesian epistemology states that if you can’t know X for certain then you don’t know X. Given this high bar, under Cartesian epistemology one cannot claim that they have knowledge of having experienced racism. Being unable to express knowledge claims of experienced racism is a problem since it hinders respect and acceptance of others. I argue that Austinian epistemology solves this problem by making knowledge claims tantamount to making a promise. Thus, under Austinian epistemology minorities are able to say “I know I experienced racism” while under Cartesian epistemology they are not. Given this, I argue that for making knowledge claims of racism, Austinian epistemology is superlative and is the conceptual framework we should operate under. I argue this primarily on ethical grounds, in that Austinian epistemology allows minorities to express knowledge of their experiences encountering racism. Thus, Austinian epistemology allows for greater respect, acceptance, and good human conduct in society, as it allows minorities to express knowledge of their experiences encountering racism.

Introduction

In this paper, I apply J.L Austin’s framework of knowledge to knowledge claims of racism. Often times, when minorities claim that they experienced racism there is a challenge posed: “but how do you know it was racism?” If Rene Descartes’ framework of knowledge (the Cartesian framework) is used, making knowledge claims of experienced racism is impossible. The Cartesian framework of knowledge states that we can never know that there are other minds. Thus, the Cartesian framework would state that we can’t know if someone was racist to us because we can’t get into their mind and we don’t even know whether they have a mind. Thus, under the Cartesian framework it is impossible to say, “I know I experienced racism.” This is a problem since the Cartesian Framework, for this specific problem at least, does not promote good human conduct, respect, or acceptance of others. The Austinian framework of knowledge solves this problem by creating a system that does promote good human conduct, respect, and acceptance of others. The Austinian framework uses the word “knowledge” as it is typically used in everyday language. In everyday language, claiming to have knowledge of something is tantamount to making a promise, swearing, or giving a guarantee. When making a knowledge claim, we are conducting a performance which we are staking our credibility on.

This paper proceeds as follows. First, I summarize the Cartesian framework and show how it applies to knowledge claims of racism. Second, I summarize the Austinian framework of knowledge. Third, I demonstrate how the Austinian framework applies to knowledge claims of racism. Fourth and last, I argue that the Austinian framework of knowledge provides an ameliorative account of knowledge claims regarding racism. I argue this primarily on ethical grounds, in that the Austinian framework allows minorities to express knowledge of their experiences encountering racism, thus promoting acceptance and respect of all regardless of background.

The Cartesian and Austinian Frameworks of Knowledge

The Cartesian Framework

Before summarizing the Austinian framework a quick overview of the Cartesian framework will be useful. This is because Austin is largely responding to Descartes or other frameworks that are similar to Descartes. Descartes’ view was that if you can’t know X for certain then you don’t know X (Descartes, 1641). Put otherwise, if it is logically possible that you don’t know X then you don’t know X. In applying this infallibilist standard, Descartes comes to the initial conclusion[1] of skepticism, which is that we can only have knowledge of our mind (Descartes, 1641). In other words, we can only have knowledge that we exist (Descartes, 1641). We can’t have knowledge of others existing as we cannot directly access other minds (Descartes, 1641). Since we cannot directly access other minds, others could just be figments of our imagination (Descartes, 1641). Thus, we cannot claim to have knowledge of other minds which means that we cannot know that others exist (Descartes, 1641).

Given Descartes high bar for making knowledge claims in general, it is easy to see how under the Cartesian framework one could not make a knowledge claim of racism. Under the Cartesian framework, one could not say “I know I experienced racism” because it is impossible to get into another person’s mind to see if they were intentionally being racist[2]. It could be the case that the supposed victim is just imagining or falsely construing something to be racist when it is actually not. Thus, since the high bar of indubitable knowledge is not met in this case, one cannot claim that they have knowledge of having experienced racism.

Hence, under the Cartesian framework the dialogue between a person expressing that they experienced racism and the person challenging must conclude with the person expressing the claim conceding that they cannot know whether they experienced racism. It will be helpful to see how this dialogue under the Cartesian framework might proceed. This is outlined below. In the dialogue, a powerful racial slur is used. This slur is intentionally used to show how even seemingly clear cases of racism cannot be expressed as knowledge under the Cartesian framework. If ‘high bar’ cases such as the one illustrated in the dialogue do not count as knowledge then all the cases under it will also not count as knowledge.[3] Now, to define terms in the dialogue. “Person Expressing” stands for the person who is expressing the claim that they experienced racism. “Person Challenging” stands for the person who is challenging the claim of Person Expressing. “Person P” stands for the person who used the racial slur against Person Expressing.

Person Expressing: “Person P was racist to me.”
Person Challenging: “How do you know Person P was being racist?”
Person Expressing: “He called me a N*****. I know I experienced racism.”
Person Challenging: “I’m so sorry to hear that. But, how do you know it was racism? After all, he could have just been joking, no?”
Person Expressing: “He didn’t seem to be joking to me.”
Person Challenging: “Well, he could have been joking, no? Also, it’s not like we know his intentions. Perhaps he just said the word without meaning to be racist.”
Person Expressing: “Well sure…. he could have been joking or he could have just said the word without meaning to be racist.”
Person Challenging: “Well, since he could have been joking or not intending to be racist we can’t say for certain that he was being racist. Since we can’t say for certain that he was being racist we can’t say we know he was being racist. Given what he said, there’s a good chance he was being racist, but again, we can’t say we know he was being racist. Since we can’t say that we know he was being racist, you can’t really say you know you experienced racism.”
Person Expressing: “I guess you’re right.”

Under the Cartesian framework, this is how the structure of the dialogue must proceed. Of course, the particular language used will be different in each case, but the general structure[4] will be the same in every case. It is important to note that this dialogue is often the way discussions of racism go in the real world. This is a problem and clearly hinders good human conduct, respect, and acceptance of others. By operating under the Cartesian framework, consciously or unconsciously, for both Person Expressing and Person Challenging, this constitutes an epistemic injustice for Person Expressing. This is because Person Expressing will never be able to express knowledge of experiences of racism under the Cartesian framework. Person Expressing will be able to say that they very likely experienced racism, but they cannot say they know they experienced racism. This has serious ethical, social, and political consequences. If knowledge of racism cannot be expressed then racism will be taken less seriously. If racism is taken less seriously then racism will persist for longer at the individual, social, and political levels. If racism continues to persist this hinders acceptance, respect, and good human conduct. Thus, this problem has tangible negative consequences.

The Austinian Framework

Austin states that expressing a knowledge claim is akin to making a promise. In laying this out, Austin goes through a systematic discussion of how he comes to this conclusion. Laying out Austin’s framework chronologically will be best as his framework mimics the outline of knowledge claims regarding racism. Readers should be aware that “angry” can easily be substituted for “racist” and “anger” for “racism.” Every time the words “angry” or “anger” are used in a sentence, readers should go back and substitute these words with “racist” or “racism.” This will give a more intuitive feel for how the Austinian framework maps on to knowledge claims regarding racism. The terms Person Expressing, Person Challenging, and Person P, from the last section will be used. Keeping these terms similar throughout will help to see the parallels.

Austin begins with the example of Person Expressing claiming that Person P is angry. After Person Expressing makes this claim, the claim is challenged with two questions by Person Challenging: 1) “Do you know he is angry?” and “2) How do you know?” If Person Expressing answers yes to 1, then Person Challenging proceeds to asking question 2. Person Expressing then explains how they know. If Person Expressing answers “No”, Person Expressing fleshes this out by saying, “No, but I believe he is angry.”[5] Person Challenging may respond to this by saying, “Why do you believe that?”[6] If Person Challenging finds Person Expressing’s answer to “how do you know?” to be unconvincing, Person Challenging will say “But that doesn’t prove it: in that case you don’t really know it at all”[7] (Austin, 1946, p. 355). If Person Challenging finds Person Expressing’s answer to “why do you believe that?” they will say “that’s very poor evidence to go on: you oughtn’t to believe it on the strength of that alone”[8] (Austin, 1946, p. 355).

Austin notes that the questions asked by Person Challenging “may be asked out of respectful curiosity, from a genuine desire to learn” but may also be asked as “pointed questions” (Austin, 1946, p. 354). Asking someone “how do you know” implies that perhaps they don’t know (Austin, 1946, p. 354). Similarly, “why do you believe that” implies that perhaps they should not believe what they believe (Austin, 1946, p. 354-355). Austin notes that when asking these questions, “the ‘existence’ of [an] alleged belief is not challenged, but the ‘existence’ of your alleged knowledge is challenged” (Austin, 1946, p. 355).

With the questions asked so far, Person Challenging has not challenged the credentials or disputed the facts of Person Expressing (Austin, 1946, p. 360). However, Person Challenging may challenge the reliability of Person Expressing’s supposed “credentials” and/or “facts” (Austin, 1946, p. 360). Austin gives examples of goldfinches to explain this point, but we can stick with anger for consistencies sake.[9] Person Challenging may ask:

1) But do you know Person P is actually angry? After all, how do you know you are not just imagining it?
2) But are you certain anger is the right way to categorize how Person P is feeling? Are you sure Person P isn’t just disappointed?

Although these two points can overlap, they are distinct (Austin, 1946, p. 360). In both of the given cases, Person Challenging is questioning the credentials and facts of Person Expressing (Austin, 1946, p. 360). When Person Challenging questions the actuality of a claim, as in (1), this is questioning the reality of the claim (Austin, 1946, p. 360). Here, Person Challenging must have some “reason for suggesting” that the experience of Person Expressing isn’t real, and thus communicates that the experience may be phoney (Austin, 1946, p. 361).

The final way Person Challenging challenges Person Expressing is by saying that “if you know you can’t be wrong” (Austin, 1946, p. 367). Austin points out that this challenge is ridiculous because “the human intellect and senses are, indeed, inherently fallible and delusive” (Austin, 1946, p. 367). Given this, any theory of knowledge which says we can never be wrong ends up denying the existence of knowledge (Austin, 1946, p. 367). This is a ridiculous conclusion which means that we must allow the possibility of knowledge claims to be wrong (Austin, 1946, p. 368).

Austin then moves on to demonstrating the similarities between saying “I know” and saying “I promise.” In both cases, the possibility of being wrong is present. With saying “I know” the possibility of being mistaken is present and with saying “I promise” the possibility of breaking my word is present (367). However, the possibility of being wrong is no reason for not being able to use these expressions at all (Austin, 1946, p. 368). Furthermore, when I say “I promise”, I am performing a sort of ritual whereby I go beyond a mere intention (Austin, 1946, p. 368). This ritual comprises me staking my reputation on my promise (Austin, 1946, p. 368). Saying “I know” is a similar kind of ritual (Austin, 1946, p. 368). When I say “I know” I am staking my reputation on my knowledge claim (Austin, 1946, p. 368). I “give others my word” and “give others my authority for saying that S is P” (Austin, 1946, p. 368). Thus, when Person Expressing makes their knowledge claims they are staking their reputation on the claim.

How the Austinian Framework Applies to Knowledge Claims of Racism

The Austinian framework provides an excellent account of how knowledge claims of racism should work and how they do work concerning the initial claims of Person Expressing. By this I mean, in everyday life Person Expressing begins making a knowledge claim about racism operating under the Austinian framework. Now, this often flips into operating under the Cartesian framework when Person Challenging challenges Person Expressing’s claim[10], but the knowledge claim at least begins under the Austinian framework. In this section, I flesh out how the dialogue between Person Expressing and Person Challenging would go when fully operating under Austin’s framework. The structure of this dialogue will be familiar to readers, as this structure is sometimes followed when knowledge claims of racism are made. I leave the normative stance that knowledge claims of racism should operate under Austin’s framework for the next section.

Person Expressing: “Person P was racist to me.”
Person Challenging: “How do you know Person P was being racist?”
Person Expressing: “He called me a N*****. I know I experienced racism.”
Person Challenging: “I’m so sorry to hear that. I believe you.”

A refreshing dialogue! Clearly, this dialogue promotes respect, acceptance, and good human conduct! Under the Austinian framework, this is how the structure of the dialogue must proceed. As can be seen, when operating under the Austinian framework, when Person Expressing states that they know they experienced racism, Person Challenging immediately accepts their claim. This is because Person Expressing is staking their credibility on the knowledge claim, akin to making a promise. When Person Expressing invokes the phrase “I know I experienced racism” they are performing the ritual of a knowledge claim. It is possible that Person Expressing could be mistaken that they experienced racism, as is the case with making a promise. However, the possibility of being mistaken is no reason for Person Expressing to be unable to claim knowledge of racism. When Person Challenging states “I believe you” they acknowledge and accept the Austinian knowledge claim that Person Expressing makes. Person Challenging is acknowledging that it is “fundamental in talking that we are entitled to trust others, except in so far as there is some concrete reason to distrust them” (Austin, 1946, p. 357). Person Challenging acknowledges that “[b]elieving persons, accepting testimony, is the, or one main, point of talking” (Austin, 1946, p. 357). As Austin states, “If I have said I know or I promise, you insult me in a special way by refusing to accept it” (Austin, 1946, p. 368-369). The nice thing about the Austinian framework is that Person Challenging actually accepts the knowledge claim of racism of Person Expressing. The contrast between this framework and the Cartesian framework is evident. In the Cartesian framework Person Challenging pressures Person Expressing into the position that Person Expressing cannot express knowledge of experienced racism. In the Austinian framework this is avoided.[11]

Austin’s Framework as an Ameliorative Project

Ameliorative projects, a term coined by Sally Haslanger, are those that “involve trying to formulate a concept that best suits the point of having such a term” (as cited in Manne, 2018, p. 42). Ameliorative projects ask “[h]ow can we work toward an overall conceptual scheme that best supports liberatory political goals, and other worthwhile projects” (as cited in Manne, 2018, p. 42). Ameliorative projects take the view that “if we want to change the world, we may need to conceptualize it differently” (as cited in Manne, 2018, p. 42). Given this view, ameliorative projects are well suited to the task of driving social progress (as cited in Manne, 2018, p. 43). Thus, we can think of ameliorative accounts as pragmatist projects that place normativity first and then determine what epistemology or metaphysics best suit the normative goals.[12]

The Austinian framework functions as an ameliorative account when applied to knowledge claims of racism. This is because under the Austinian framework, knowledge of experienced racism can be expressed. In contrast, under the Cartesian framework, knowledge of racism cannot be expressed. This is not a mere semantic difference; it has important ethical, political, and social, ramifications. If knowledge of racism cannot be expressed, as occurs under the Cartesian framework, then racism will be taken less seriously. If racism is taken less seriously then racism will persist for longer at the individual, social, and political levels. In contrast, if knowledge of racism can be expressed, as occurs under the Austinian Framework, racism will be taken more seriously. If racism is taken more seriously then it will be easier to combat racism at the individual, social, and political levels.

The Austinian framework works as an ameliorative account since it allows us to conceptualize of knowledge in a way that is best suited to combating racism. If we start with the liberatory ethical, social, and political goal, of combating racism, it is clear we want a conceptual scheme that allows individuals to claim knowledge of their experiences encountering racism. The Cartesian framework that we often operate under when discussing claims of experienced racism simply does not allow for this liberatory goal to be reached. In fact, it hinders it. Thus, we need another conceptual framework to operate under, which is the Austinian framework.

It may be argued that we cannot use the Austinian framework and should instead use the Cartesian framework, as the Cartesian framework is more epistemologically accurate. For the reasons outlined in summarizing Austin’s framework, I think this is wrong. The infallibilist standard of the Cartesian framework is too high and allows us to make almost no knowledge claims. This is a ridiculous conclusion and in real life no one fully operates under this standard. Thus, what is more likely to be going on when Person Challenging applies the Cartesian framework to knowledge claims of racism, is that Person Challenging is consciously or unconsciously requiring such a high standard of knowledge for racist reasons.[13] By this I mean, it is oddly suspicious that Person Challenging enacts the Cartesian framework for racial knowledge claims, but in most situations in life does not enact this standard. For example, if a new Person Expressing was to say to Person Challenging “my car got stolen!” Person Challenging would likely not challenge this claim. Person Challenging would likely not go, “Well how do you know your car got stolen?” Person Challenging would likely not be a person to challenge and would just believe Person Expressing. In this case, Person Challenging would be operating under the Austinian framework. Thus, the inconsistency for which the Cartesian framework applies indicates ill motivation on the part of Person Challenging, whether conscious or unconscious.

It is important to note that both Person Challenging and Person Expressing are often not aware that they are inconsistently and wrongly operating the Cartesian framework when it comes to knowledge claims of racism. Person Challenging is likely unaware for the reasons aforementioned, but Person Expressing is also likely unaware since they do not object to the subtle move played by Person Challenging to operate under the Cartesian Framework. Once both are operating within the Cartesian framework, it seems perfectly reasonable for Person Challenging to press Person Expressing on how they know they experienced racism. On the flip side, it is perfectly reasonable for Person Expressing to say that they don’t know they experienced racism. In fact, under the Cartesian framework it is the only reasonable conclusion that can be drawn. The problem is with the subtle implementation of the Cartesian framework in the first place.

While inconsistency in the usage of the Cartesian framework is one way to argue against the claim that the Cartesian framework is more epistemologically accurate, it might be claimed that this doesn’t really address the objection. It might be argued that even if one is being inconsistent with their application of the Cartesian framework that this doesn’t disprove that the Cartesian framework is less epistemological accurate. After all, we could conceive of a person that operates under the Cartesian framework in a perfectly consistent way. There is nothing logically impossible about this. Thus, the Cartesian framework has not actually been refuted. The problem with this view is that it ignores the ameliorative account that I propose. With ameliorative projects, normativity comes first and the epistemology or metaphysics then justifies the normative end. Thus, ameliorative projects consider the most accurate epistemology to be the one that best advances the normative goal. In the case of being able to make knowledge claims of racism, the Austinian account achieves this while the Cartesian framework does not. Thus, Austin’s framework is the most epistemologically accurate.

Conclusion

I propose that we have been tricked. We have been tricked by our unconscious racist biases into operating under a conceptual structure that has the pernicious effect of maintaining and propagating racism. This conceptual structure does not promote good human conduct, respect, or acceptance of others. Most of the time, the conceptual structure we are operating under when we ask the question, “But how do you know it was racism?” is wrong. This conceptual structure is the Cartesian framework which requires certainty of X to make a knowledge claim about X. When we challenge knowledge claims of racism, it can seem perfectly reasonable to do so. However, the reasonability is an illusion. Making the challenge is reasonable within the confines of the Cartesian framework, but the Cartesian framework is, most of the time, the wrong framework to be operating under. This is because knowledge of racism cannot be expressed under this framework. This constitutes an epistemic injustice against minorities. The Austinian framework provides the perfect conceptual structure for fixing this problem as it does promote good human conduct, respect, and acceptance of others. When operating under the Austinian framework, minorities can claim knowledge of experienced racism. This is because under the Austinian framework saying, “I know” is like saying “I promise”. Making a knowledge claim is tantamount to making a promise, swearing, or giving a guarantee. Applying the Austinian framework to knowledge claims of racism serves as an ameliorative project. If knowledge of racism can be expressed, as occurs under the Austinian Framework, racism will be taken more seriously. If racism is taken more seriously then it will be easier to combat racism at the individual, social, and political levels. By operating under Austin’s framework we are using a conceptual scheme that supports the normative end of combating racism. Combating racism has important effects on the world as it promotes good human conduct, respect, and acceptance of others regardless of background. Thus, for making knowledge claims of racism, the Austinian framework is not only epistemologically superlative but also ethically superlative.

Works Cited

Austin, J. L. (1946). Other Minds. Aristotelian Society Supplementary, vol. XX, 353-378.

Bosman, Julie and Timothy Williams. (2019, March 27). Jussie Smollett Case Unspools in Bizarre Narrative, With Chicago as Backdrop. The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/03/27/us/jussie-smollett.html.

Manne, Kate. (2018). Down Girl: The Logic of Misogyny. Oxford University Press.

Mills, Charles. (2007). White Ignorance. Race and Epistemologies of Ignorance, edited by Shannon Sullivan and Nancy Tuana, State University of New York Press, 13-38.

Descartes, Rene (2013). Meditations on First Philosophy (Andrew Baily, Trans). Broadview Press. (Original work published 1641).

Biography

Tejas Pandya is a master’s student in philosophy. He holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Windsor and a master’s degree in political science from the University of Toronto. Tejas is interested in politics, philosophy, and the connection between the two. Tejas is a TedX speaker, occasional op-ed writer, and Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council funded scholar. Tejas plans to refine his paper “Knowledge of Racism: The Best Conceptual Structure” so that he can publish in it in a peer reviewed academic philosophy journal.


  1. I leave out his final conclusion that uses God to overcome skepticism. Descartes initial conclusion of skepticism is more pertinent to the work I am trying to achieve.
  2. I am assuming a definition of racism that is based on racist intentions.
  3. For example, more ‘low bar’ cases of racist microaggressions will not count as knowledge. Suppose the following case. A white person, Sally, asks an Indian person, Biladi, “where are you from?” Biladi, who was born and raised in Canada, says, “Canada.” Sally follows up by saying, “No, where are you really from?” This is a case of a racist microaggression. This is the case because Sally is implying that Biladi is not really from Canada. In Sally’s eyes, Biladi is really from India because of her ethnic background. Under the Cartesian framework, Biladi cannot claim knowledge of experienced racism.
  4. By general structure, I mean the first line of Person Expressing, the first line of Person Challenging, the last line of Person Challenging, and the last line of Person Expressing.
  5. Or, “No but I think he is angry”, etc (354).
  6. Or, “what makes you think so?” or, “what induces you to suppose so?”, etc (354).
  7. Or, “then you don’t know such a thing”, etc.
  8. Or, “you oughn’t to say you know it at all” (355).
  9. In the two examples given, I use the structure of Austin’s goldfinch case where Person Challenging questions whether a goldfinch is a real goldfinch or counts as a goldfinch (360). However, I use anger for both consistencies sake and because it more closely mimics the case of racism as both are internal.
  10. Following the dialogue style as illustrated in the section summarizing the Cartesian framework.
  11. While the benefit of Austin’s framework is evident, it might be argued that there should be cases where Person Challenging pushes Person Expressing on their knowledge claim of experienced racism. This is because, while rare, lying about experienced racism does happen. For example, there is Jesse Smollett case. In this case, Smollett, an African American actor, claimed that he had been the victim of a hate crime. Smollett claimed that he had been attacked by two men who put a rope around his neck while shouting racial slurs at him. However, later it came out that this had not actually happened; Smollett had staged the incident and paid the two men to attack him (New York Times, 2019). Cases like these are rare, but they do happen. Thus, rarely but sometimes, Person Challenging should press Person Expressing on their knowledge claim of experienced racism. As to what these cases are, I leave this to others given the size of this project.
  12. Haslanger’s view is similar to Charles Mills. Mills states that “the epistemic desideratum is that the naturalizing and socializing of epistemology should have as a component, the naturalizing and socializing of moral epistemology also and the study of pervasive social patterns of mistaken moral cognition. Thus, the idea is that the improvements in our cognitive practice should have a practical payoff in heightened sensitivity to social oppression and the attempt to reduce and ultimately eliminate that oppression” (Mills, 2018, p.22).
  13. See Charles Mills article, “White Ignorance” for a broader account of testimonial injustice against minorities. Mill illustrates that minorities have an “epistemic presumption against their credibility” that white people do not (33).

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