A Look at America's Racism and Epistemology

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An Exploration of Racism and Epistemology


I attended a lecture seminar at the Egyptian Theatre on November 3rd. The seminar was titled, “Uprooting Racism: How White People Can Work for Social Justice”, and was presented by a nationally acclaimed author, Paul Kivel. The event was very large, filling one of the biggest theatre rooms at the Edwards Theatre, around two hundred people. The event started with a traditional native tribal dance, where Idaho natives wore indigenous attire and opened for the lecture. After their performance, Mr. Kivel gave his thanks before his presentation, but ended with a thank you to natives for letting us continue to use their stolen land. He then goes on to discuss the problem of structural racism in modern society, and how it hasn’t been eradicated. He pinpoints that white people specifically are doubtful that it still exists, because they presume themselves as not racist. That, he states, is inherently the problem - people don’t confront racism, they shrug it off as something they don’t participate in which allows it to subvertly fester. He also elaborates on how we are all at fault for participating in structural racism. He asked the audience to stand for everything they do. He asked questions such as: do you participate in an educational system that undermines the success of minorities? Do you buy clothes from companies that make their profits off of minorities working unsafe factory jobs for incredibly low wages? After every question, practically the whole audience was standing up, then sitting back down, just to stand again. Everyone realized that their everyday actions feed structural racism. Later in the lecture, a panel of Idaho minorities shared their experiences, how they’ve been affected by covert racism, and how often their multiple (or intersection) of identities affected their lives.

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Line of Inquiry

The focus of the presentation was on how white Idahoans can be positive allies in the fight against structural racism. Kivel references how everyone participates in a materialized form of subverted racism - but if racism is embedded in modern society materially, could it’s foundations also be engrained in the epistemology of communities of knowers? This left to me to consider and question both the ways of knowing and the areas of knowledge and how they can and are used to support racist epistemologies.

Ways of Knowing

Sense Perception: Sense perception, based on a knower’s (or community of knowers) personality, can often times play into an epistemology that crowds out cultural heritage. Modern day entertainment for Americans is an action packed, violent, sexualized, overly material movie. However, if presented with a traditional native dance, such as Kevil’s seminar opened with, most would be highly bored and would not want to see it. Why does violence, cars, and sex appeal more to american audiences than a piece of cultural expression from those who are normally marginalized?

Language: During the group discussion of minorities and their experiences, they shared that often times they would have to change their names or adopt a nickname in order to assimilate into social interactions. We have all had moments where teachers try to pronounce someone’s name and it goes terribly bad - it’s incredibly awkward. So why do barriers in languages force some to conform just to avoid cultural misunderstandings?

Emotion: Because of recent traumatizing events, such as the Paris terror attack and the shootings in San Bernardino, racialized fears of entire populations have been formulated based on emotional appeals. The Western call for increased security has lead some people to believe we should shut entire groups of people out of our country, such as Syrian refugees or even Muslims writ large, as well as implement identification systems specific to certain religions and ethnicities.

Logic: These emotional appeals develops a form of logic that justifies proposals based on emotional appeals. Ideas such as blocking Syrian refugees, deporting undocumented immigrants, creating identification systems for Muslims, and increasing surveillance of mosques are all attemptedly justified based on emotional appeals. In what ways can emotion be a justification as logic?

Faith: As Kevil makes the argument, the problem of why racism persists is the faith knower’s have that makes us think the world can get better, that people and society will improve. This “bad faith” pacifies concrete strategies to resist racism in which allows its continuation through passivity. Conceptions and faith that society has gotten better also fails to acknowledge the presence of structural racism in our society today.

Areas of Knowledge

History: Historically, racism has been embedded into the foundations of modern civilization. However, accounting it accurately has been a struggle of the modern era. While most society’s wish to highlight the achievements of a nation, they often attempt to shadow or even hide in some cases historically relevant misdoings, such as racist actions. While history books will never undercover the importance of the Constitution, the American Revolution, and the US’s glory days, education often lacks better understanding of colonialism, slavery, and the constant struggle for representation and equality that people of color experience even today.

Indigenous Knowledge Systems: Humorously, often times it seems that indigenous knowledge systems (or cultures) attempt to remove the indigenous knowledge from them. this is the central narrative behind native struggles in the US today. While our American culture was built upon “stolen land” as Kevil put it, our cultural practices are built off of the annihilation of the non-Western practices of indigenous peoples. So as a turn to this, Kevil started his seminar re-introducing indigenous knowledge into American cultural conversations. This viewpoint allows questioning for what indigenous knowledge creates a system - does dance as a form of expression equally compare to Western society’s written word?

Knowledge Questions

While I posed some questions and inquiries that sprouted from my analysis of different ways of knowing and areas of knowledge, I developed more specific knowledge questions:

  1. To what extent do emotion and language shift the direction of analysis when studying and analyzing history?
  2. In what ways can a knower’s biases in combination with different ways of knowing (sense perception, language, emotion, faith) marginalize differing indigenous knowledge systems?

Knowledge Claim

Revealing and interrogating racism within epistemological foundations (such as ways of knowing and areas of knowledge) is beneficial for a society of knower’s shared understanding of counter-perspectives and reducing biases when analyzing knowledge and formulating conclusions.


When examining the first knowledge question, it opens up space for investigation for a knower’s emotions and language can alter understandings of history. Adopting a counter-perspective of a real life situation, there are currently problems in countries in the Middle East that are attempting to take the Holocaust out of history classes, because they believe it didn’t occur. Examining the emotional appeals behind that decision opens up scenarios in which we can see history or the understanding of it can change when a piece is left out. The lack of acknowledgement of differing perspectives provides muddled insight of historical knowledge. When examining language, it is essential to look at how communication of history is recorded for pools of collective knowledge. Native peoples, for example, didn’t record histories via written texts, they mostly shared histories via oral communication. At that point, the barriers between languages and the accumulation of time provides insufficient understanding of the histories of native peoples. This illustrates how language can be an important tool that either enhances understandings of history, but can also limit it.

Examining the second knowledge question, one can see how bias plays a role in the knowledge we take in. A racially biased knower who experiences a memory through sense perception per se will have a different memory of it than a racially unbiased person. Examining the role bias plays in knowledge accumulation can then show how minority indigenous knowledge systems are marginalized by majority populations. For example in the modern day, white knower’s create perceptions of black folk as drugged, gang-affiliated, criminals based on sense perception from media attention and language that is used to describe people of color. This creates a societal marginalization against people of color because they are presumed to be criminal and “uncivilized” in a sense, which in turn replicates racial stereotypes by the biased ways of knowing from American societies knowers.

Upon examining the implications for these knowledge questions one can draw relative conclusions from them. While material challenges to racism is important, challenging the epistemological foundations is crucial because it provides the base for materialization to occur. Though many are quick to say “racism is decreasing” or “I’m not a racist”, Kevil reminds us that avoiding confrontation allows structural racism to continue. Epistemological interrogation of the methods in which racial bias can be justified and given coherence through methods of knowledge production, such as ways of knowing and areas of knowledge, is essential to find ways in which racism continues in society today, and opens avenues in which knower’s can challenge racism within their own and others framework for knowing.

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