So Cambridge’s Women’s Forum was hosted by FLY (the BME women’s group) last night. It was a fantastic event and a lively discussion where I think a lot of people probably were made to consider things they hadn’t before.
One of the points I was keen to emphasise at the event was one which is especially relevant to Cambridge and other ‘intellectual’ spaces: that of invalidating people’s lived experiences. The problem with academia on the whole, and especially academia which is suffused with a history of white male privilege, is that ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are perceived in very limited ways and ways which marginalise and erase many people’s own experiences. So, for example, the value placed on being able to debate in a persuasive, data-based and point-by-point manner means that most discussions at Cambridge – even those to do with personal experiences, feelings and opinions – are forced into the framework of ‘academic exercises’. Now that isn’t always necessarily a negative thing, however, the problem is that when we place this form of discussion and this way of ‘knowing’ and ‘proving the truth’ as the primary and most valid way of doing so, we devalue people’s lived experiences.
I’ll explain using an example: me coming back to college and telling a friend that perhaps I felt I experienced a racist/Islamophobic micro-aggression on the way back from Sainsbury’s (let’s say). If said friend begins to debate this with me – and I’m not saying questioning and analysing these situations is wrong, in fact it is often fruitful and illuminating – in a way that invalidates my lived experience because I have no ‘proof’, because it’s ‘anecdotal’ etc., this can actually be deeply, deeply disempowering. When we invalidate or devalue the importance or ‘truth’ of feelings and anecdotes we actually reinforce the erasure and are complicit in the silencing of minority groups. Minority groups specifically, because these groups are groups without long histories of ‘databased’ experiences, of measured and empirically proven stories. This is the obvious outcome of a society, history and culture that always represents the dominant group in the main; the result of unlogged, unwritten and unexplored histories – but normal everyday actions can perpetuate this silencing by simply upholding power-structures and hierarchies of ‘truth’.
So this is something I get sick of in a Cambridge environment. Sick of having to explain my feelings in an essay format of point, evidence, explanation. Sick of being invalidated by people who say ‘I haven’t personally experienced that’. Because, as much as I understand that empathy is difficult, sympathy and listening are not. Accepting that sometimes you may not have considered something from someone else’s perspective (because of course we live our lives trapped in our own skin which is hardly our own fault) is the start of creating truly intersectional feminism. Every day of this week I have seen examples of where hierarchies of ways of knowing have silenced and been used to marginalise the already marginalised. On Monday at a talk on welfare in Cambridge testimonial accounts were dismissed – but what other account or database of mental health issues or staff problems do we have? On Tuesday I met the amazing, incredible Selma James who just proved to me how frustrating academia and academic expectations of ‘proof’ can be. Empathy, validation and intersectionality all come together. And though it is frustrating that intersectional approaches of empathy are so simple and yet so rare, I have hope.
Things that give me hope include a message from a girl I talked to in first term. She messaged me after the intersectionality workshop to apologise for what she now accepted and realised to have been an invalidation of other people’s lived experiences and an assumed universalisation of her own in first term. Her humility and courage and her even bothering to tell me after all this time gave me such hope and reminded me of how much we all have to learn. We start learning when we start accepting other people’s accounts of life as valid, and in doing so we vastly expand our own interpretation of the world before us.