Linguistic Prejudice and a Call for Epistemic Rights

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In her 2013 memoir PHD to Ph.D.: How Education Saved My Life, Elaine Richardson writes of school English:

“It looks you in the face and tells you, you don’t even know what you know” (200).

Dr. E's "From PHD to Ph.D"

In doing so, Richardson names the harms of diminishing one’s ways of knowing, experiencing, and explaining the world. For this blog post, I’d like to zoom in on two key terms that also help to explain these harms and suggest a way for countering them:

(1) epistemic injustice, or harm done to a person’s capacity as a knower, and
(2) epistemic rights, or the right to one’s own knowledge, experience, and earned expertise.

Through work on a larger project, I have come to believe that the terms and related framework of epistemic injustice and epistemic rights are crucial. They are crucial for explaining the wrong of school English when it strips writers of their sense of knowing and their attendant agency, confidence, and even personhood. They are crucial for identifying, describing, and responding to the wrongdoing—the microaggressions and larger injustices—that Richardson recounts and that many scholars (e.g., Powell; Smitherman; Villanueva; Young) have documented. And they are crucial in indicating the need to rethink single language / single modality approaches, which allow for, if not directly support, epistemic injustice enabled by linguistic prejudice.

A number of philosophers and sociolinguists alike have taken up questions of epistemic agency, (in)justice, entitlement, and rights. Among these researchers, Miranda Fricker provides an in-depth analysis in her 2007 book Epistemic Injustice. Fricker identifies two types of epistemic injustice—testimonial injustice and hermeneutical injustice—and explores the associations among power, prejudice, and the ethics of knowing. Fricker provides these definitions:

“Testimonial injustice occurs when prejudice causes a hearer to give a deflated level of credibility to a speaker’s word; hermeneutical injustice occurs at a prior stage, when a gap in collective interpretive resources puts someone at an unfair disadvantage when it comes to making sense of their social experiences.” (1)

Both types of epistemic injustice are enabled by prejudice, and both are related to writing and writing instruction. To illustrate, because testimonial injustice impacts a writer’s credibility and reception, it helps us to see the links among seemingly innocuous feedback, linguistic privilege and prejudice, wider systems of power and oppression, and the marginalization and dehumanization of writers.

Epistemic injustice can arise in all sorts of human interactions, spoken and written. Around writing, testimonial injustice often involves linguistic prejudice, which leads readers to unfairly deflate or dismiss some writers’ credibility, as discussed in the policy statement SRTOL and subsequent and continuing work on language diversity and translingualism. This injustice results in a whole host of primary and secondary harms, including attacks on a person’s authority and, subsequently, on their personhood and human value. Think here of Gloria Anzaldúa’s line:

“So, if you want to really hurt me, talk badly about my language” (How to Tame a Wild Tongue, para. 27).

Primary and secondary harms impact individuals on three levels: personally, socially, and structurally. For instance, persistent epistemic injustice may result in internal impacts like the loss of intellectual courage, lowered self-confidence, and hindered educational development (Fricker, chapter 3). As with other micro-inequities and microaggressions (i.e., systemic inequities that are enacted in small and often implicit, but no-less cumulative and consequential, ways), the impact of epistemic injustice cumulates over time and feeds the very prejudices and related injustices that support and bring it about.

To counter epistemic injustice, I ask that we actively recognize writers’ epistemic rights. We don’t often use this term epistemic rights in the field of composition and rhetoric, but I see value in adopting an understanding of rights as related to entitlement to experience or knowledge—the basis on which we write or ask students to write. My understanding of epistemic rights comes from sociolinguistics research by Harvey Sacks (who distinguished between first-hand and removed rights to personal experience) and John Heritage and Geoffrey Raymond (who studied how individuals rank their rights to assess by upgrading and downgrading assertions through conversational turns). Their research has informed my investigation into epistemic rights, which I define more broadly, and yet quite literally, as rights to experience, knowledge, and earned expertise. My research shows that when working collaboratively in sustained relationships, writers are able to upgrade their epistemic rights to make strong assertions relative to audiences who have greater institutional power and more implicit right to speak.

The framework of epistemic injustice and epistemic rights helps us to name the wrong done when school English—that is, a single language / single modality approach to school English—“looks you in the face and tells you, you don’t even know what you know” (Richardson 200). The framework of epistemic rights helps us to connect students’ right to their own language with the related rights to experience, express, name, narrate, and know. These are rights to your own experience, knowledge, and earned expertise. Too often writers are denied these rights because of complex and intertwined prejudices, including linguistic prejudice. A concrete step toward upholding them is naming them as rights.

Only a short bit can be accomplished in a brief blog post. My hope is that this post begins to outline two central terms—epistemic injustice and epistemic rights—and to preview a much larger argument for why this framework is needed in composition and rhetoric. By countering epistemic injustice and instead recognizing writers’ epistemic rights, we can work against the harms associated with a single language/modality “standard” on which other ways of speaking, writing, and knowing are diminished. We can work against some languages being endowed with prestige, while others stigmatized. And we can envision new multi-, trans- approaches that articulate, recognize, and respect all writers’ rights.

About Author(s)

Beth Godbee is Assistant Professor of English at Marquette University. She studies how collaborative writing talk (and the relationship-building, writing, revision, and rethinking involved in that talk) can bring about more equitable relations for writers and members of their social networks.

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