If knowledge is power, not knowing is privilege.
It has long since been understood that knowledge is power. Women and other subjugated voices have recognized that those who control the world are those who define the world— and define not simply what counts as knowledge—that is the content of knowledge, but they also define the production of knowledge—that is what sources and means are considered resources for knowing. Just as Michael Foucault has made this clear in his deconstruction of discursive power, so have womanists and black feminists like Patricia Hill Collins who have called for an “epistemology of knowledge, where the meaning of knowledge itself, in terms of content and production, is re-examined and re-defined. For it is undeniable that the what and ways of knowing peculiar to marginalized groups and classes of people are rarely considered knowledge—perhaps “wisdom,” “folkways,” “customs,” “superstitions,” or “women’s intuition,” but not knowledge, not something worth knowing and thus not something worth teaching. Why am I talking about all of this today?
It never ceases to amaze each day that I am in the classroom, not simply what students don’t know, but also what they apparently don’t need to know to be considered knowledgeable. How many of you have heard of Jane Austin, Charlotte Bronte, George Eliot, Mary Shelley, Emily Dickinson, and Louisa May Alcott? All hands go up. How many of you have heard of Nella Larson, Ann Plato, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Elizabeth Keckley or Anne Petry? A tentative one or two hands go up. How many of you have heard of the Women’s Suffrage Movement, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony? All hands go up? How many of your have heard of the Negro Women’s Club Movement, Anna Julia Cooper and Maria Stewart? No hands go up. If knowledge is power, not knowing is privilege. Defining what one is privileged not to know, is just as important to understanding the dynamics of power as defining what one needs to know. For it is not simply a matter of lack, it is a matter of absence. Certain “cognitions” are completely absent from our discourse of knowledge, that is, not even considered to be a part of the terrain of possibility for what should at some point be known. It is not about “subjugation,” it is about “negation,” it is a negation of the very existence of “bodies” of knowledge. Certain bodies and experiences are not regarded as being knowledge producers and so they are more than subjugated they are negated even from consideration of thought—and so they are virtually invisible to our knowing and too often in our teaching.
Why am I talking about all of this on today? This is Black History Month and there is no month that makes me more aware of the negated bodies of knowledge than this one. Even as certain “heroines and heroes” are lifted up to a place of awareness, African American bodies of knowledge—that is ways of knowings/knowledge forms continue to be negated. The way in which black bodies view the world and, the ways in which black bodies form knowledge is still not taken seriously. It does not altar or challenge the dominant understandings of knowledge and knowledge formation. Black stories are grafted onto dominant cultural knowledge forms, they do not change those forms. Consequently, perspectives on realities, perceptions of truths, worldviews are not challenged or changed. The privilege of not knowing virtually remains intact. The status-quo of knowledge is unchallenged.
Why am I talking about all of this on today? Because knowledge changes the way we live in the world. It shapes the way we see ourselves, each other and god. It fosters our relationships, human and divine. It has the capacity to richly complicate our realities and to recognize that there is more than one way of seeing, being and knowing. It compels never-ending conversations with different bodies of knowers. If we are indeed going to change this world and disrupt the way people are marginalized, mistreated and disregarded, then epistemological privilege must be must be named, challenged and dismantled. If knowledge is power, not knowing is privilege. This is what I am thinking about today.
Kelly Brown Douglas is Professor and Director of the Religion Program at Goucher College where she has held the Elizabeth Conolly Todd Distinguished Professorship. She was recently awarded The Goucher College Caroline Doebler Bruckerl Award for outstanding faculty achievement. Kelly is a leading voice in the development of a womanist theology, Essence magazine counts Douglas “among this country’s most distinguished religious thinkers, teachers, ministers, and counselors.” She has published numerous essays and articles in national publications, and her books include The Black Christ, Sexuality and the Black Church, What’s Faith Got to Do With It?: Black Bodies/Christian Soul. Black Bodies and the Black Church: A Blues Slant is her most recently released book (Palgrave Macmillan, Fall 2012). Kelly is also a priest in the Episcopal Church and has served as Associate Priest at Holy Comforter Episcopal Church in Washington D.C. for over 20 years.