Knowledge and Experience Part One
Yesterday in class, I experienced a hilarious incident that also had profound meaning. I had set up a small group discussion activity with mixed groups in the classroom. I teach in a diverse and urban high school in Seattle with many students of color in the classroom alongside their white peers. It is also a college prep school, with the expectation that all students will attend college after enrollment. Because of this, it offers an interesting mix of students from a variety of socioeconomic backgrounds, as well as ethnicities and races.
During our small group activity, which was highly structured, students were given the opportunity to “discuss” a particular element of which they had prepared. Mostly they were asked to answer objective questions, however, this time they were discussing an opinion based question. They were asked to collaborate as a group, either choosing to pick the best answer from everyone’s to support the group or to guide the group in synthesizing the overall ideas into one. While most groups chose the first option, a few attempted the latter. The volume level in the class grew accordingly, which was fine because students were mostly on task. Then it happened.
In a moment of exhilaration, a student, a white boy from an upper-middle-class family who feels as though he is “woker” than thou, blurts out, “Did you even learn about slavery?” Mind you half the students in class turn and look at the palest student in the room. Another student, another white boy nonetheless, but one who has no filter responds, “Boy, shut up! You were a damn slave owner,” to which the class erupts in laughter.
A similar phenomenon abounds in public school classrooms. Despite how hilarious this statement was and how unshaken (but maybe a tiny bit embarrassed) the well-meaning student was about his comment, it struck a chord. This chord rings well to the tune of online culture, as well as harmonizes with movements at the forefront of social justice, and it brings up an important point. While the student clearly had the best intentions (and I do not discourage him from speaking up in general), something about a white upper-middle-class student, who has probably never experienced racial oppression, teaching other students--many of whom are from lower-income families--about a reality of racism in the form of slavery, feels disjointed, off-kilter, at least in the way it came across. However, it brings up the critical difference between two important words that are shaping our world and discourse in the 21st century: knowledge and experience.
Trained in experiential education, I often dream about the connections between experience and knowledge and how they reinforce each other in a positive sense. While they are often connected, it is imperative to understand them distinctly, too, especially regarding social experience.
In the prior scenario, the student clearly had knowledge about the subject of slavery. He clearly pointed out the atrocities and, attempting to use the knowledge for praxis, he was speaking truth to power. However, to a group of students whose lived experience has probably more closely aligned with those oppressed folks, there is a bit of hilarity in the gesture due to the reality of having a relatable lived experience.
Though this does get to the heart of some of the fights currently within social movements, I do not mean to claim that white people can never talk about racism or that men should never speak about sexism. Indeed, they should probably never claim to be experts, at least in terms of the experiences of those things. However, if we moved beyond lived experience into the realm of more objective forms of knowledge, men and white folks can be just as well versed as anyone else to relay information. For example, a white professor at a community college teaching slavery in West African history who has a Ph.D. and studied abroad and wrote books about Ghana is going to have much more content knowledge and an understanding of the lives of slaves than just your average black person. However, that same professor, being upper-middle-class mostly likely, would not necessarily have similar experiences to people of color in the US that may feel connected to Ghana through their African heritage with that country if their ancestors were brought here as slaves.
The latter statement is one that gets incredibly lost in discussions of privilege, oppression, and social justice, I think. And, as of now, the world is worse off for it.
In no way am I advocating that white folks or men are the experts at having a lived experience of sexism. Though if we were to really delve into the details, there can be some objections clarified in ways that the current movement also does not like. But those are comments for another time. For my purpose right now, I just want to clarify the differences between the two because they are impactful when understood discretely.
When a person claims to hold the knowledge that only another group has, this is clearly a missed spot, something they should not claim to have, even if their ego inspires it. On the other hand, when folks have a certain expertise in relevant areas, they should feel empowered to use that, especially when around other people of a similar background. For example, as a white educator, not only do I feel it is my duty to teach slavery and oppression, but I think it is almost even more important for some white students to hear it. This is not because they benefit from it more, but rather because they learn just as much as well as more about the experience of those different from them.
In the end, we should be careful to criticize, open to discussion, and promote as much dialogue as possible, in the true Freirean sense. To do this, though, we need to clearly define our terms, which means staking the differences between a lived experience of oppression and the knowledge of an oppression. The same is true for numerous other topics.
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About the Author
Ethan C Smith is an educator, adventurer, and thinker who is passionate about education, ecology, and social class. He happens to also spend a great deal of time reading and thinking about history, literature, philosophy, music, the future, and coffee.