“The personal is political.” You’ve heard this before. This expression emphasizes how our personal experiences are formed by cultural forces within the context of history and institutions. It’s pretty hard to deny that people’s politics are shaped by their lived experiences: their childhood, their family members, their environment, their interactions. Socially-lived theorizing is the idea that we should form feminist knowledge from day-to-day experiences of marginalized groups (those most often excluded from academic products). It’s a commitment to creating knowledge grounded in people’s personal experiences because we know that people construct their own knowledge by inhabiting particular social locations. For example, a trans woman of colour will automatically see the world through a different lens than a Muslim man with a disability or a queer Latin woman.
Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. We live in a society where the dominant institutions determine what evidence is ‘reliable.’ In other words, they determine whose lived experiences are valid.
Evidence: let’s break it down.
First, the evidence exists in two forms. Evidence is something that relates to objects (having evidence of something) but also to subjects (someone has evidence).
Second, evidence rests on a continuum of time. Evidence is not just something from the past (as evidence points to something that has already happened), but is brought forth in the present to facilitate a specific future. For example, adopting a new policy on building shelters requires statistics on need and usage (evidence from the past) to be shared (at the present) before the new policy can come to fruition (for use in the future).
Third, evidence is both objective and subjective. If I have evidence, I have something that supports my assertion or argument. That means evidence is something from which inferences can be drawn. So the evidence itself is objective, but the conclusions that are drawn from the evidence are subjective. For example, knowing that Mary eats cereal every morning for breakfast is evidence. But one person may infer from that statistic that Mary loves cereal, while another may infer that cereal is the only option available to Mary.
Institutional resistance to evidence.
Evidence has an element of subjectivity, and because of that, predicting what evidence will be dismissed becomes unpredictable. How do we decide what evidence is and is not valid? On whose biases and priorities do we decide? Under which type of analysis do we unpack evidence? Based on whose values do we deem a person presenting evidence as credible or not credible?
The answer to almost any question pertaining to evidence is the dominant paradigm: the patriarchy. Society’s presumptions/biases impact how we determine whose evidence is acceptable and what kind of evidence is acceptable. We dismiss certain groups of people when they provide evidence: Black men are often perceived as ‘thugs,’ women are deemed ‘overly emotional,’ and Jewish people are stereotyped as solely propelled by money. Not only do we value certain people who provide evidence, we also value certain types of evidence. Our society consistently values tangible evidence over intangible evidence. We prefer written over oral contracts, and we prefer statistics over lived experiences.
Within Canada’s criminal justice system, our institutions dictate what evidence is accepted. An obvious example is sexual assault trials. Lawyers try to ‘discredit’ the victim by bringing up their lifestyle and/or their past actions so to deem their evidence unreliable. They use their lifestyle choices as a means to say the evidence should be dismissed, no matter how convincing it is, because they themselves are tainted and cannot be trusted. The actual evidence becomes irrelevant and the person providing the evidence is subjectively evaluated by judges and juries. Similarly, Indigenous oral traditions have largely not been accepted in Canadian courts. They are either completely barred from being brought forth in court, or are inevitably declared not credible. Once again, this is because society (rooted in Eurocentrism) holds written histories in higher regard than oral histories. The content of those histories is the same, but their form is deemed insufficient. It is our institutions declaring we like our way better than your way and we will say your way is unreliable because we don’t want to accept it.
Removing (i.e. discrediting, dismissing, ignoring) evidence that is not evident to those who operate within the institution is a method used to render it as non-existent or not reliable. This is easy to do because marginalized communities are so often excluded from institutions. As a result, the individuals within our institutions often don’t understand the realities of vulnerable populations and therefore don’t find their lived experiences evident. If it isn’t obvious, rather than taking the time to try to understand, they dismiss it.
Negating lived experiences of marginalized communities.
So why do our institutions almost always deem lived experiences as insufficient? Because our institutions operate within the patriarchy and work to uphold the paradigm. By espousing patriarchal values, and putting those values into action through dismissing certain truths (evidence), it ensures that things stay the same. As Sarah Ahmed said, “That the evidence we have of racism and sexism is deemed insufficient because of racism and sexism.” It’s a vicious cycle. Racism and sexism disregard evidence so to deny the existence of racism and sexism. This dismissal works to maintain an order of things.
No matter how much evidence of discrimination/oppression that you have - diary entries, emails, memories - your evidence is deemed insufficient. No matter how much research you can point to, or phrases/words you can refer to, your evidence is still deemed insufficient. The more you show, the more ‘inflammatory’ or ‘desperate’ you are deemed to be. The more you talk the more they fight back.
We know what happens when women talk about sexual harassment. They tell someone that their boss/friend/colleague/stranger made an unwanted advance, and they are bombarded by distrust and doubt: “Isn’t your memory hazy from all that alcohol? But you’d been flirting. Are you sure they weren’t just being friendly?”
The same distrust and dismissal happens for all marginalized groups. When a personal of colour shares their experience with a micro aggression, people question whether their lived experience is reliable evidence. “How do you know that had anything to do with race? Maybe that person just actually didn’t see you. You are just jumping to conclusions. How can you know that for sure? You’re making something out of nothing.”
So what happens when people are consistently dismissed when they try to share their lived experience? People (most often from marginalized communities) become hesitant to speak up. Time and time again we don’t believe people from vulnerable backgrounds. Instead, we rush to demand empirical data to prove the existence of the discrimination (that they have personally faced). This demand of extrinsic evidence belittles marginalized groups who have lived experiences of unease/harassment. This disregarding lived experiences, this demand of “more reliable evidence,” allows bigotry to persist. Declaring that someone’s lived experiences are unreliable is demeaning and serves to maintain the status quo. If you ‘can’t trust’ what someone says then there’s no proof that there is a problem! As Sarah Ahmed has said, “that evidence of something is deemed insufficient is a mechanism for reproducing something.”
Fake Case Study: Tacos!
Let’s create a fictional situation, based on common real life occurrences, to illustrate what I’ve been rambling on about.
Terrific Tacos exists to offer delicious tacos to the residents of Toronto. Jessica (a woman of colour) was told that a service, getting extra guacamole, was unavailable. At the same time, George (a white man) with the same request is offered this service hassle-free.
We may not easily see how race is a factor here because we believe racial bias is only demonstrated through overt racist words and actions. It’s only evident to us that race is a factor when someone says the N word or paints swastikas. So when the woman of colour shares her evidence that she experienced racism, we dismiss this.
But the bottom line is that we don't know what happened. We weren’t there. But when a friend, a contemporary or a total stranger expresses their worries, we need to listen. Though it may be our gut response, we need to refrain from questioning them and telling them all the reasons why we think they might be wrong.
We, the system.
We - the whiteness, the maleness, the straightness, the ableness - keep the voices of minorities at the margins. We discredit their testimonies so we can tell ourselves there isn’t a problem. We tell them they are liars, exaggerators and rebels and their truths are unaccepted. We demean them by dismissing their lived experiences.
We won’t see an equitable society until we bring the oppressed from the margins to the centre. There will be no justice until all voices are heard, all pain is acknowledged, and all truths are accepted.