Notes on: Scheurich, J and Young, M. (1997) Coloring Epistemologies: Are Our Research Epistemologies Racially Biased? Educational Researcher 26 (4) 34 – 16.

Dave Harris

[Old/classic piece. Much cited. NB 'epistemological racism' is often rendered as 'epistemic racism' these days]

Others have suggested that epistemologies in education research may be racially biased ways of knowing, implicitly, suggesting that there might be 'epistemological racism' (4), although this has led to little response, certainly compared to the usual debates about quantitative versus qualitative or objective versus subjective. Is that because this is too disquieting, or because it is another example of white people ignoring race?

The authors are both white and they intend to offer a substantive response. Their own view is that researchers have not understood that race is a significant epistemological problem, affecting a whole range of research epistemologies 'including positivism, post-positivisms, neorealisms, interpretive-isms, Constructivisms, the critical tradition, and post-modernisms' (4). All are racially biased. Five categories of racism in particular are linked to research.

The first two, overt and covert racism, operate at the individual level, the next two, organisational and social categories, 'create the social context' for the first two. The final one is a civilisational category creating or constituting the possibility for all the first four, and it is that one that is the most salient.

The individual level is the most commonly understood and arises where say a professor makes a public racial slur during a lecture. This is usually agreed to be unacceptable. Covert racism might appear say when ethnic minority applicants are not promoted, and there may be publicly acceptable reasons provided, although such acts are regarded as unacceptable and may even be unlawful. In academia as more widely, racism is seen mostly as intended, conscious and individual, a matter of personal evaluation, and this restricts understanding, especially of research epistemology. As it is, even antiracist individuals might still use an epistemology that 'could be judged to be racially biased' (5).

Institutional racism arises when there are 'standard operating procedures (intended or unintended) that hurt members of one or more races in relation to members of the dominant race' (5). Institutional or organisational cultures rules habits and symbols may have the same effect, and be found in, say, promotional policies, pedagogical methods, or where beliefs or assumptions are embedded in a research discipline, community of researchers, or even labels or concepts of discipline, for example a phrase like '"culturally disadvantaged" or "cultural deprivation" to indicate why some students of colour did not succeed in school [is] institutional racism'. Some have argued that this kind of racism 'is endemic to the social sciences' ignoring or demeaning members of minority races or distorting minority conditions and potentials (6) [the reference is to Gordon et al 1990]. The superiority of the white race can also be found in other work such as inheritance and different racial groups, racial difference in anthropology and biology, race and intelligence, and even in current ideas of black people being at risk, emotionally disturbed or '"learning disabled". This is still not epistemological racism, however, even though research might use uncritically these labels, and the critical tradition has argued this particularly strongly.

Societal racism exists on a broad societywide scale and appears in major social conflicts or major social events such as the O.J. Simpson trial, or national debates about leadership or the rights of native American Indians, or governmental programs for social relief. This is still not epistemological racism, however which comes from an even deeper level the civilisation level 'the deepest most primary level' (6), fundamental to Euro-American modernism itself.

At this level we find broad civilisational assumptions, not usually held consciously, but related to fundamental ideas about what the world is, or the real. These are different for different civilisations. They often include dominant and subordinate cultures with different civilisational assumptions, leading to quite different interpretations of reality and ways of thinking. Modernism describes the major ways that the Euro-American dominant culture constructs the world and the real, and it has as one of its major assumptions 'civilisational racism' (7), associated with colonial and territorial expansion. The Tempest is an example of white supremacy and widely accepted racial hierarchies. They were central to the founding of the USA, to the wars against Mexicans, to slavery. The assumptions of the white subset have become seen as natural, the dominant way to construct the world. Edward Said is cited. Thus epistemology and axiology are deeply woven with social history, affected by privileged residents [NB!] of historically specific societies. All the dominant philosophers have been white. They have all been influenced [determined by?] by dominant ideas in the cultures and sub- societies in which they have lived, even 'constructed by their position place and time' (8), thus 'reality is determined largely [!]  through our cultural context'.

There is no racial conspiracy, more a series of limits from social context, which affect not only those in the past but ourselves [we liberals and activists as well?]. 'No epistemology is context free', and all the dominant and legitimate ones have arisen 'exclusively out of the social history of the dominant white race', thus they must be 'racially biased'. They need not be covertly or overtly racist, it need not be conscious, it is simply that dominant epistemologies 'logically reflect and reinforce that social history and that racial group (while excluding the epistemologies of other races/cultures) and that this has negative results for people of colour in general and scholars of colour in particular'. This excludes the range of possibilities and has negative consequences.

It delegitimise other epistemologies and research such as African-American social history or First Nations social history because the real merit of those approaches cannot be judged — e.g. Apache stories and songs. Applying standard epistemologies distorts the lives of other racial groups and tend to pathologise them. This can be internalised and/or lead to time-consuming struggles to reject and resist. The dominant approaches just fit white researchers better, and do not require scholars to be bicultural. [All of which assumes that the dominant white culture has not actually been that dominant, that the historical lag somehow persists?]

The critical tradition might be exempt? There has been much white participation in antiracism, and has even led to a new interest in a recovery of history for nonwhite people. Nevertheless it is still based on European paradigms and still open to critique for residual racial biases [they accuse all the different critical approaches — 'critical theory, feminism, lesbian/gay orientations and critical post-modernism' (10)]. Nor is critical theory identical to race-based emancipatory epistemology.

We need a new race-based epistemology, such as Collins' black feminist thought, which is Afrocentric. She stresses concrete experience as a criterion of meaning, the use of dialogue and assessing knowledge claims, the ethic of caring, the ethic of personal accountability. This was based on experience and relations with African-American women, who were encouraged to develop their voice. This admittedly reflected the conditions of its creators. It has become respected by other black women and has been used in research, for example in a more recent study of teachers of African-American children [must look it up] . Apparently its adequacy lies in reflecting who people think they are and the experiences they have had in helping them manage membership in a marginalised racial and cultural group, something that fits social history, that emerges from a particular social history not the history of a dominant race. Others have developed an Afrocentric epistemology using similar perspectives and there have been other applications [cited on page 10]. The claim is that this perspective '"allows Africans to be subjects of their own historical experience rather than objects… On the fringes of Europe'. It is claimed to be emancipatory. It includes qualitative methodology and critical dialogue 'with those involved in the research education and action'.

Another perspective originated in legal studies — critical race theory, which began to look at how legal thought and doctrine constructed and maintained social domination and subordination. It became necessary to criticise assumptions and presuppositions of the prevailing paradigms in legal institutions, both liberal and conservative and also to address the silence of critical legal studies, who had largely ignored race and racism. This has migrated into social sciences and there have been calls for papers on CRT in the USA. It has been largely confined to race oriented academic journals so far because mainstream journals do not accept papers which 'do not conform to acceptable paradigms'(11). This makes a nice case — 'the very existence of these journals is one of the consequences of the mainstream exclusion of race-based epistemologies'.

There are others and these need to be respected and discussed. Above all though we need to rethink what racism is. White researchers might be 'unconsciously promulgating racism on an epistemological level', promoting the social history of the dominant race. Vigorous debate and dialogue is required especially among methods scholars. Traditional researchers want to argue that their epistemology reaches towards context free truth but they need to join the discussion — 'let us have a fierce row over this '[we can't]. New antiracist epistemologies need to be taught, even though they are more risky. We should support doctoral studies and encourage publication, even sponsoring special editions and new research methods courses we must make the problem visible. We cannot continue in our old ways.

[Interesting piece but a bit paradoxical? White/colonial epistemology seems to have no contradictions, alternatives or crises? No white people opposed colonisation, racism or slavery? Europeans had no time for Islamic, Arabic, Greek or Indian philosophy (although not African or First Nation, to be fair except via various romances)? There are no reflexive or self-critical bits -- although these two white writers have managed to come up with a fundamental critique -- did they draw on indigenous knowledge to do so? The philosophies of the elite seem simply to have dominated. In other words, this is a dominant ideology thesis, particulalry tricky to apply to methods I would have thought. The problem is that e[pistemic racism is so general and pervasive that it rules out any kind of effort other than indigenous (any kind of indigenous?) critical thinking, implies that all such thinking is racist, whether the thinker themself is racist or not, and presumably disqualifies all but the authentically indigenous unsulllied by whiteness?].