Knowledge is Power by Kelly Brown Douglas


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 ChristSexuality and the Black ChurchWhat’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.

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Categories: civil rights, General, Justice, Naming, power, Race and Ethnicity

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12 replies

  1. Not knowing is privilege, I agree with you. But it is also structured into the academy. When I was a student I never even read any of the white women you say “everyone” knows about now. Moreover, as a student, I was being “brainwashed” into the notion of canon, and was backpedaling so fast to try to figure out what canoical authors were trying to say (most which made no sense to me at all) that I did not have the wherewithall to ask who was being left out. Perhaps you should not forgive other female academics for their lack of knowing, but I would go easy on students, who after all, are reading what they are told to read, for the most part.

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    • I didn’t read Professor Brown Douglas as “being hard” on students for what they don’t know, but as lamenting the exclusivist epistemology that makes this situation so common and impoverishes students’ knowledge.

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  2. Dr. Douglas in your brilliance, re-imagination and expansion of “epistemology of knowledge,” you lay bare the absurdity of the privilege of selective ignorance. Humanity is the lesser for such a choice, but conversely we are collectively made better with the inclusion of those we leave out. Thank you.

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  3. It’s great to hear those names you’ve included where no hands go up, the Negro Women’s Club Movement, Anna Julia Cooper and Maria Stewart!!! Even so, from another perspective, you are blessed to be different, to be outside the mainstream, to find your own way. You mention Emily Dickinson. She called herself the “only kangaroo among the beauty.” She could not handle the demands of society, the social graces, the fitting in, the conformity. She sequestered herself and never published in her lifetime. But Dickinson found her way artistically, just because of all that difference and separation, and thus produced some of the best American poetry ever written. One of her most beloved poems says:

    How happy is the little stone
    That rambles in the road alone,
    And doesn’t care about careers
    And exigencies never fears —
    Whose coat of elemental brown
    A passing universe put on;
    And independent as the sun,
    Associates or glows alone,
    Fulfilling absolute decree
    In casual simplicity.

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  4. Very interesting! I just learned a lot from you. Thanks!

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  5. Thank you for a very interesting piece, which served as a kick in the rear for me. I like someone pointing out not only what I don’t know, but why I may not know it. As a “priveleged” person, I need things that open me up and “richly complicate” my reality. So, in my less-than-humble opinion, does society.

    I think you make an important point when you say “Black stories are grafted on to dominant cultural knowledge forms, they do not change those forms.” Women’s stories may be another (unfortunate) example of the same phenomenon. Will we ever reach a day when both story lines are accepted as “knowledge,” which can therefore influence change?

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  6. Thank you all for your thoughtful comments. Carol, you are indeed right in terms of imputing blame. The point is to recognize the discourses of privilege that create a certain unkowing, not to blame students in this instance for the unknowing. Indeed, your point is well taken in that we are really talking about the systems and structures that foster and produce discourses of power and privilege. Our tasks as womanist/feminist scholars is to name, deconstruct and dismantle those discourses and indeed systems and structures. Nevertheless, even as students, we must have a certain awareness of our world to be able to know that there are perspectives and stories other than our own, even if we don’t know what they are–we should be able to sense/recognize the lack of differing stories.
    Thanks again, I continue to learn from all of your comments.

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  7. My student years are very far away. I agree with you that students today “should” know more than my younger self did because they live in a different world. It is so important for every student to know her foremothers and to read works by those who share her experience of the world. It is also important for women who are not “of color” to learn the history of women of color. OK, I am going to admit it, I don’t know the histories of all the women you name. My privilege is most likely also my loss! Thanks again for your essay.

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  8. You do have me thinking here. I just wanted to add an explanation of my comment that “my privilege is also likely my loss.” To invoke the history of a black woman whose story I do know something about, Rosa Parks did not just change the world for black people. She also changed it for me. I am profoundly grateful that I no longer live in a country where I would get to sit at the front of the bus by virtue of my color. Rosa Parks’ history is “my” history too. She changed my life too. Kelly, I would love it if you would introduce us on the blog to some of the women you mention and provide us with suggestions for further reading. (I know it is not your “job” to do this, so take my request up only if you would enjoy sharing some of these women’s stories!)

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  9. Kelly today in my online class on The Return of the Goddess I posted your blog and raised the question of epistemic privilege. As I myself was kept out of discussions by terms that I did not understand as a student, I make it a practice to translate these terms into ordinary language. I just came up with “the privilege to know or not to know” as an ordinary language equivalent of epistememological privilege. I offer it in hopes that it will be useful to others who are reading your blog.

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