Harris, D. ( 2022) Counterstories, Critical Race Theory, and Symbolic Violence. Unpublished


This preliminary paper brings together two of my interests. There is an interest in qualitative research, its claims and limits, and, more recently, an interest in developments in Critical Race Theory (CRT). To introduce the second one, I should say I have been working as a sociologist for more than 30 years teaching about race and other forms of stratification and my personal website has many sets of notes based on resources I have accumulated on that topic. I have been interested to see what exactly is claimed to be new about CRT and its basic 'tenets'. These can be found in a number of introductions and commentaries such as Rollock and Gillborn (2011) or Pluckrose and Lindsay (2021),and it is common to find short summaries in many articles  Discussing them all is a longer term project, but one tenet in particular concerns the value of counterstories:

The voices and experiences of people of colour (POC) are particularly important in understanding the operation of racism. Official accounts are too often based in highly limited 'colourblind' 'neutral' 'objective' principles or unacknowledged 'epistemic Whiteness' that systematically reduce the significance of these voices. These voices and experiences are particularly suited to the development of counter stories or counter narratives, and may take the form of autobiographies, allegories, metaphor, poetry, fictional accounts, or 'chronicles'. They also have the function of 'psychic preservation', preserving the morale of oppressed groups, and educating oppressors about the limits of their stereotypes.
This clearly belongs to a wider debate about the value of qualitative research in social science and its role in following various agendas related to social justice, although there is clearly a need to preserve the specificity of the debates about race.

In what follows, I have included some introductory remarks, which probably need editing, to suggest a way into the debates about counterstories. I have included some thoughts and examples, and selected one for more detailed examination that I hope will be of wider interest for anyone interested it in the old issues of theory and practice and how they might be related in teacher education.
For me, the issue of symbolic violence, as defined in Bourdieu (2000 for example), is a major issue, with racism as a manifestation of it in these particular cases. I hope this will not be interpreted as hostility towards analyses of racism, however. The whole issue is clearly one involving strong passions and political commitments. Mine is primarily a technical interest, but that might still be seen as 'race-evasive'. However, to silence oneself is even worse. I hope I might be given the benefit of any doubt about my political intentions in offering this commentary.

I intend to examine other tenets of CRT in due course related to other sociological interests. I would welcome any comments.

Epistemic whiteness is discussed at greater length elsewhere in my project. Briefly, it refers to a claim made by writers like Scheurich and Young (1997), which has had wide circulation. They want to add epistemic Whiteness to the most general level of all kinds of racism, epistemological racism, and say it is fundamental to Euro-American modernism itself. It consists of broad assumptions, constructions of the world and what counts as real. It is not always held explicitly. These assumptions have become dominant in the USA and in European colonial powers. They have arisen 'exclusively out of the social history of the dominant White race', thus they must be 'racially biased' (1997, p. 7), and they exclude the epistemologies and intellectual traditions of other races and cultures, delegitimising and distorting them. As a result, White academics might be 'unconsciously promulgating racism on an epistemological level' (1997, p. 11). The best current alternatives are Afrocentric approaches, including Black feminist thought and CRT, and there are implications stretching to debates on decolonising the academy and the incorporation of indigenous knowledge, of more relevance here, the counterstory is also claimed to be a working alternative, and traces of the debates appear in the detailed example of a counterstory discussed below.

There are some problems with this argument, of course, not to be pursued here. An obvious one is that Scheurich and Young seem to have produced this profound critique using only the resources of White epistemology themselves – they make clear they are not indigenous people themselves – which points to a critical reflexive corrigible element in epistemic Whiteness. It is not clear whether that could be found to the same extent in traditional or indigenous alternatives even if it were easy to agree what these terms meant. Nor is it clear that such alternatives could eliminate all forms of symbolic violence.

The legal context

Returning to specifics, there is an original legal context for the deployment of the term counterstory in the remarks about US legal processes: Ladson-Billings (1998, p. 13) says that legal argument in the USA  is a story itself, but one designed to mystify,  based on 'universalism over particularity' especially in '"theoretical legal understanding"' apparently based on 'transcendent, acontextual, universal legal truths or procedures'. Others have made similar points. Harris (1995) argues that common expectations and assumptions in early White-dominated US society were reified into legal codes and proceedings, principally those enshrining Black subordination, including the notorious notion that race was determined by the presence of ‘Black blood’ and that even ‘one drop’ of it made a person subordinate. Bell (1985, p. 12) argued that US law constructed argument designed to resolve 'the unreconciled contradiction between our commitment to equality and preservation of the subordinate status of blacks… Shrouded and denied by our attachment to racial fantasy and myth'.  Abstract legal language and unexamined assumptions about what was natural and normal assisted the mystified procedures in maintaining an apparent neutrality.

However, jurisprudence cannot be expected to develop much of a reflexive capacity, it seems to me, because it must constantly maintain that it is interest free if it is to have any legitimacy. It cannot subject its basic assumptions to constant critique since the law must claim to be somehow sacred in the Durkheimian sense, focused on shared values, above petty material disputes. It has no method to acquire or study these sacred values but must assume, detect, inherit or receive them and maintain the claim that these are somehow above subjective interests even though disputes can take place within them. This makes it particularly open to charges of epistemic limitation.

What plaintiffs experience when they encounter the law is what Bourdieu would call 'symbolic violence' (Bourdieu 2000). Particular specialist discourses, including all academic discourses, not just jurisprudence but social science as well, pursue a particular kind of symbolic labour developing specialist concepts and arguments, which eventually get organized into whole scholastic points of view, quite different from the points of view of nonspecialists, what might be called 'commonsense views', discussed further below. Indeed, this contrast with non-scholastic points of view is what gives them their value, ethically and aesthetically as well as materially.  Although they emerge from definite social contexts and social strata, they often claim to be universal — Bourdieu's particular example here (Bourdieu 1986) is Kantian philosophy, which claims to operate with an autonomous artistic field, free from economic and social constraints.  There needs to be people who can specialize in developing a suitably pure disposition. They come to just assume their positions of privilege, see them as a matter of ‘gift’ and justified by ‘the racism of intelligence’ (2000, p. 12).  There is a wider notion of human ‘imperatives of universality’, however (p. 122) in arguing for the transpersonal and the objective rather than subjective and egoistic interests, but empirically, these are often threatened.  They have to be defended by specialist agents in ‘social microcosms’, as in the development of jurisprudence, or the rise of the state.  Paradoxically, these universal resources are monopolised by a few,  a 'state nobility', but universalism and disinterestedness remain as a basis of critique of such usurpation, and have to be invoked in claims to legitimacy. It should also be said immediately that sociology should counter these tendencies by developing a particularly acute form of reflexivity about its own activities.

It is easy to see that, by contrast, nonspecialist views are seen as operating with far less ethical, more restricted and far more personally interested perspectives, and these must be limited and incapable of grasping the universal. When they encounter specialists, their accounts, views, feelings and arguments are translated into specialist ones which clearly involves a form of symbolic violence, often a violent reduction to specialist terms. Specialists clearly dominate proceedings thereafter, especially since specialist views operate with particularly privileged categories and systems of classification.  Finally, ‘the form par excellence of symbolic violence is the power which… is exercised through rational communication’ (2000, p. 83).

Bourdieu goes on to identify symbolic violence at work in all the major academic disciplines, and does not exempt most sociology, noting that a scientific intention is sometimes seen by those subjected to it as ‘an unbearable violence’ (p. 128), confusing it with rhetorical strategies including denunciations. However, resisting it is not at all easy, although there is conflict between the different academic disciplines, and nearly always a tension between specialist perspectives and actual experiences. This can lead to reactions on the part of victims of symbolic violence like 'imperative statements of resignation: “That’s not for us”’ (p. 185). Most forms of resistance will require the acquisition of symbolic and cultural capital by people themselves.

Bourdieu finds forms of symbolic violence in social relations as well as in explicit discourses, in gift relations of various kinds, including some that are State sponsored, for example. Symbolic violence is exercised obscurely, through the dispositions, beneath the rational and conscious level.  The example here is male domination ‘the form par excellence of symbolic domination’ (p. 171).  However, submission cannot be seen as voluntary. Its coercive qualities operate through 'the consent that the dominated cannot fail to give to the dominator’ (p.170), because their understandings and classifications of the situation are held in common—‘it is itself the effect of a power’, sometimes represented by the trappings of office (p. 171).  Such tacit beliefs (found in an unconscious habitus) are produced by ‘the training of the body’, and it will not be dispelled by consciousness raising alone: ‘ only a thoroughgoing process of countertraining, involving repeated exercises, can, like an athlete’s training, durably transform habitus’ (p. 172).

The term symbolic violence is well-chosen in describing the reactions of those who find their own accounts of their own experiences transformed into technical language and subjected to impersonal rational discussion. It is not at all surprising that those who saw George Floyd being killed by a White policeman felt outrage at the suggestion that that there could be any doubt at all of the officer’s guilt or of his motivation, and yet US law assumes innocence until proven guilty, and the precise nature of the offence and the motives involved had to be established within legal proceedings.  Those who saw only the recordings of the violence available on social media will not necessarily have known anything of factors that were considered relevant to the trial, such as the law on homicide, the procedures on arrest and constraint of suspects, the medical history of the victim and so on. Activists will have seen the events as evidence of widespread racism, but the court was charged with a far more specific and technical task of judging an individual’s responsibility. I can imagine the rage and despair felt by victims and their relatives in these and other cases, including those women facing discrimination in the cases cited by Crenshaw (1995) who lost as a result of what looks like legal technicalities, which they only discovered in court.

I can even personally testify, as a victim of a violent assault, of the humiliation and dehumanisation experienced by having police officers calmly debating whether the offence counted as one of causing actual or grievous bodily harm. The working definition of grievous bodily harm was whether any bones had been broken, and they discussed whether a tooth broken off in the assault qualified as a broken bone. I had left the tooth at the scene so there was no actual evidence even that the assault had caused the damage. Having decided I had not suffered grievous bodily harm as the law defined it, both officers said there was nothing they could do.  I can only imagine how personally devastating it must feel to be the victim of far more serious assaults.

Turning back to general CRT accounts, Delgado (1989) sees US law based on a 'bundle of presuppositions, received wisdoms, and shared understandings against the background of which legal and political discourse takes place' (p. 2413). These are nearly invisible and rarely focused upon. Delgado uses a familiar term: ideology — 'the received wisdom', justifying oppression as natural.  There is an alternative, however,  stories told by ordinary people which can shatter complacency and challenge the status quo, especially if they are 'ironic or satiric' (p. 2414), as is the tradition with many Black or Hispanic storytellers. They can stir the imagination, conjure into existence new worlds, and reveal that current beliefs are 'ridiculous, self-serving or cruel' (2415). They offer a respite from 'linear coercive discourse' characteristic of legal writing, and, it could be argued, of much social science writing. Delgado also notes that stories can be persuasive in their own way, they 'must be or must appear to be non-coercive', inviting the suspension of judgement in deciding on their truth (p. 2415). Stories have always been an essential tool to survival and liberation, 'psychic self-preservation' (p. 2436) and a means of 'lessening... subordination' as the oppressed become tellers and listeners, gaining moral and epistemological benefits.  The oppressors should also listen to these stories: 'in order to enrich their own reality' (p. 2439) because we all suffer if we are isolated from diverse stories, and do not participate in the dialectic of listening and telling. We can all overcome ethnocentrism and acquire 'the ability to see the world through others’ eyes'. This can 'reduce the felt terror of otherness' (p. 2440).

We have an early justification for what became known as counterstories in CRT. Delgado himself illustrates with different versions of the same event, a case involving a charge of racial discrimination against a university law faculty. The official Court account is provided first, which found for the Faculty, then one written by the applicant, with quite different emphases as might be imagined, including elements of self-doubt. The final contribution was provided by an activist who gave a speech outside the Faculty in question, accusing it of being an all-white club and urging the students to press them to address its ethnocentricity by boycotting or disrupting classes, withholding alumni contributions and various other things. The talk received a lot of attention. Delgado saw it as 'an authentic counter story' (p. 2430), directly challenging the corporate story and rejecting most of its premises and excuses. The reasonable discourse of law was rejected, anger displayed, and others listened.

 If this qualifies as a counterstory, so might other examples of radical political speeches and arguments.

Politicised counterstories – Rastafarianism

Subin (2021) relates some really challenging counterstories (in this sense) offered by the founders of Rastafarianism in the 1930s. One spokesperson announced that Haile Selassie was now the king and predicted that ‘”The white people will have to bow to the Negro Race”’ just as White diplomats had bowed at Selassie’s coronation.  He believed that the Christian heaven was ‘a white man’s trick’ (p. 26), and that Haile Selassie was organising to repatriate Black people from the Caribbean to Ethiopia on a fleet of steamships, or possibly by walking along the floor of the seabed after the waters had been parted. In the USA, a Black pastor wrote an alternative version of the Bible, The Holy Piby whose new creation myth had Adam and Eve ‘”of a mixed complexion”’ (p. 22). Another Black priest, after lengthy study of the Bible, saw Whiteness as a curse dating back to the Garden of Eden and advocated a new system of ‘black supremacy’ (p.37).

Rastafarianism had an influence on the thinking and culture of Black youth in the UK especially in the 1980s and 1990s, and ‘many young blacks’ in Cashmore (2012, p. 112 ) seems to have embraced the ‘rasta vision of history...white colonial capitalists have sought, over a period of four hundred years to enslave blacks...After the abolition of slavery in 1865, whites...had to devise less obvious methods of control. Racism and discrimination fitted the bill’. One respondent in particular,  a 19 year old Black youth, developed this view as: ‘Blacks have been property, so they’ve got no roots, no culture and they’ve been “evil” all the way through history...At school...it’s the white man who’s educating them, who’s actually turning blacks against themselves’. Cashmore says that ‘many young blacks’ called the system ‘Babylon, to denote captivity and repression’, and think that despite all the ‘immense changes that have improved the general social condition of blacks...The basic power relationship between blacks and whites has remained intact’ (p.115). Rastafarianism seems to have produced a view of British society which is remarkably similar to the basic initial tenets of CRT.

Modern examples

Modern examples of counterstories seem much more cautious and institutionalized, however.  One which seems well-cited is Martinez (2016) based on different accounts of a disagreement over an assessment in a university, one which decided progress or otherwise in a PhD programme. Martinez begins with a personal account of her struggles in academia as a Chican@/a and single mother. She then displays official statistics showing considerable underachievement among Latin@ and Chican@ students in terms of gaining doctorates. Then we focus on a particular episode when a female Chicana candidate is being examined as part of a progress review.

Rather as in Delgado, we get two sides of the episode, the Faculty’s version and the candidate’s response (she was initially unsuccessful). Martinez draws on CRT writers to defend the counterstory and claims that conventional academic work stresses the cognitive rather than the emotional dimensions of interaction. She wants to commune not only with POC, but with those more difficult to persuade: ‘”academics . . . who hope to join in the work of antiracism [who] need to stop minimizing the complexity and significance of narrative, stop depoliticizing the personal, and start studying the rich epistemological and rhetorical tradition that inform the narratives of people of color”’ (quoting Condon) (2012, p. 33).

She explains that she composes the stories as a ‘composites dialogue’ (p. 70) with composite characters. That draws on the tradition that ‘allow(s) the dialogue to speak to the research findings and creatively challenge racism and other forms of subordination’ (citing Yosso). There is a danger of ‘overly-stereotyped depictions of certain ideologies or politics’ (p. 71), however. A concept like an ‘ideal type’ and how to gauge its adequacy, might have helped here.

Martinez’s ‘stock story’ represents the dialogue among the assessors discussing the candidate, a Chicana, sometimes patronising her (referring to her bringing ‘Mexican cake’ to class for example). They also face the classic dilemmas of wanting to widen access while maintaining a commitment to meritocracy and high standards, and the need to deny undue affirmative action. They identify problems with the candidate such as her relative lack of contribution to discussion, her wanting to retreat to safe ground (sociology and social oppression). They end by discussing whether mentoring would help the applicant proceed, but decide there would not be sufficient resources to provide it.

The counterstory takes the form of a dialogue between the applicant and her redoubtable mother, just after the rejection has been announced. At first, the applicant internalizes the judgment, but her mother wins her over, insists she is a hard worker and says she should persist. The applicant is able to reinterpret her apparent faults – she is quiet in class because one of the professors is unwelcoming and hostile and she feels isolated. It is not that she does not understand. She has experienced racism or at least cultural insensitivity, being wrongly identified, treated with the assumption that she would only be interested in Chicana literature. Her mother was scornful that the professor mistook cornbread for Mexican cake. Mother says the professors have clearly not understood or properly ‘seen’ her daughter. The dialogue ends with the remoralized applicant vowing to contest the decision and make them ‘see’ her properly.

The two stories illustrate the symbolic violence of academic and bureaucratic discourse as well as possible forms of racism. The applicant, her mother, and the professors do discuss the personal qualities of the applicant and their views are based on experience and personal knowledge: the mother’s view is obviously more extensive and more attuned to ambiguity. However, the professors are also discussing the perceived ability of the applicant to complete a PhD in their institution, and here it is they who have the experience and specialist knowledge. They also consider university policy on admissions and standards, and the costs and benefits of mentoring, more specialist topics, understandably not discussed at all in the counterstory.  The particular sting that led to the hurt in this case might well have arisen from this familiar clash between personal and bureaucratic criteria of suitability.

Racism or other forms of bias in various personal forms might still have had an influence, but there could possibly still be a difference between these two perspectives even without it. However, some form of epistemic racism might have been at work specifically here behind the discussions of matters like ‘suitability’, ‘high standards’ and eligibility for mentoring. Martinez cites commentators who think the data cited at the front of the paper clearly do show evidence of racism of some unspecified kind. She draws on her own experiences and the work of CRT writers as well. Overall, the counterstory is still rather ambiguous as a description of actual practice as a result – possibly it should be seen as entirely persuasive in intent, leaving no room for doubt, scripted so that the professors must be displaying epistemic racism

Debates about epistemic racism appear with the same ambiguity in another case. Jackson et al. (2022) included counterstories in their accounts of a struggle with their university over an application for a research grant to do oral history. They were refused a grant. They told their own stories of their careers and their problems working in the academy, partly to demonstrate what they took to be proper oral history, drawing on spiritual resources, tapping into indigenous oral traditions and cultivating a liberatory process, helping them theorise research as ‘ReVision’, rather than following traditional guidelines.  Again, the personal racism they experienced stands as a kind of confirmation of the implied epistemic racism exercised by the university in deciding against their proposal. However, presumably the university rejects lots of proposals and it would have been interesting to examine some of those as well.

‘Racial distinctiveness’

For CRT specifically, Kennedy (1989) offers serious critique of the implied 'racial distinctive thesis' which seems to be at work, the belief that because minority scholars have experienced racial oppression they view the world with an especially valuable perspective compared to their white colleagues, in particular when interpreting the impact of racial discrimination on the law, or developing various views on race relations scholarship, 'a special voice' by those who have experienced discrimination, or  'distinctive normative insights' (p. 1747).  There is, of course, understandable and justified 'bone deep resentment and distrust that finds expression in the racial critique literature' (p.1753), and a disgraceful and ‘cruel’ history of racist attitudes and discrimination in intellectual work. Kennedy’s account says that Bell had been treated in a very demeaning manner personally, apparently by having 'a remedial series of lectures to supplement his course on constitutional law' constructed by white students and professors at Stanford, an 'affront' (p. 1767).

Nevertheless, Kennedy identifies various deficiencies in the suggestion that counterstories on their own are the best way to challenge such racism. Kennedy detects a tendency to avoid or suppress complications to support the claims, and a form of argument based on normative premises, especially that white academics should have less standing to participate in race relations law discourse.  Advocates claim that the very minority status of academics of colour 'should serve as a positive credential for purposes of evaluating their work' (p. 1749).  There is a particular problem with race relations law which 'necessarily embraces more than any single group' so it is hard to see that anyone racial identity will have particular expertise. It is also unwise to assume that just having membership of a group conveys expertise, as some kind of substitute for the 'discipline of study essential to achieving expertise'(p. 1777): no one is born with expert knowledge. Delgado argues that outsiders must produce deficient race relations scholarship, but by the same token scholars of colour are outsiders to white communities and so cannot understand race relations law affecting them. Must outsiders always be intellectually limited?

Kennedy is unimpressed with claims by writers like Matsuda to have discovered new insights, new voices, and unusually realistic and challenging work in counterstories, particularly in actual works of legal scholarship. Experiencing racial oppression is no 'inoculation against complacency nor... prejudice and tyranny' (p. 1780). Free blacks owned slave blacks, light-skinned Negroes shunned dark skinned ones, blacks subjugated other people of colour (and examples cited include black people in the military and in the Vietnam War). Oppression sometimes produces docility and acquiescence, as even Martin Luther King agreed. Writers like Matsuda overlook 'other social determinants of thought and conduct' (p.1782) including class affiliation, which she says is less important than race, but racial groups are not monolithic, and class variables will produce different forms of racial victimisation, and did so even during slavery and subsequent segregation. Gender, region and other group affiliations will also produce differences.  Kennedy think differences of political opinion between Black politicians have also been minimised, and as a result, an ironic tendency is detectable: advocates stereotype scholars, deny their particularity, overemphasise the characteristics of the racial group with which they are associated, a form of '"they all look alike to me"' (p. 1787). The notion of race based standing (a legal term related to the right to bear witness) 'replicates deeply traditional ideas about the naturalness, essentiality, and inescapability of race' (1801), even 'that race is destiny', that knowing a person's race can properly lead to assumptions or conclusions about the worthiness of that person or their capacities, in this case a particular scholarly voice that might be of value, an intellectual credential. This actually concludes with elite notions of meritocracy. The legacy of racial oppression becomes a source of intellectual authority — 'it makes minority academics a "chosen people"' (p. 1802).  Finally, in what is a devastating reading of CRT writers, Kennedy points out that even if experience of oppression is taken as conferring some privileged insight, in many cases we do not know what sort of oppression other writers have suffered nor what scholars have experienced as well as their oppression, regardless of the racial background they have been ascribed.

Qualitative research in social science

Sociologists will also recognize familiar claims in these discussion made for qualitative research against quantitative ‘positivist’ research in social sciences, sociology and psychology, or in official surveys of the kind that informed the Sewell Report. Those too only produce stories, mystified by sets of ‘scientific’ procedures and quantitative operations claiming an ‘objectivity’ which masks the subjective values and opinions of the researchers. The subjective values and meanings of the respondents can only be examined adequately if they tell their own stories through ethnographic research or in various more direct ways (such as in life histories). Recent trends in qualitative research have implicated positivist research in the exercise of power and joined it to capitalist ideology, patriarchy, and then to colonialism and racism, sometimes through the concept of epistemic Whiteness as its basis,  making the connection with CRT complete. There have been interesting forms involving personal knowledge and social science insights from the same person in autoethnography (the 2006 special edition of the Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, 35, usefully debates autoethnography, and see Ellis & Bochner 2006 and Denzin 2006 for specific contributions). There has been exploration of much more experimental writing in qualitative social science too, often autobiographical in content but written in poetic sometimes polyvocal forms (see Denzin 2006 for an example).

Unlike legal discourse, social science discourse has developed a vigorous self-critical tradition that accompanies even the most positivist research. Research of the kind embraced by CRT or by ‘committed’ qualitative social science research, has additional problems here. Research that is openly committed to political positions will not be read at all by those who do not share those positions, and activism runs the risk of being heroic but futile. To paraphrase Adorno (1962), while critical theory must criticize social arrangements as well as arguments, openly politicized argument tends to lead to simplification which then reduces its effectiveness as analysis. It becomes difficult to see the function of research at all if the conclusions are given already, and one key function in particular is at risk –corrigibility. This is the way in which research findings can test commitments and theories based upon them if it is to have any legitimacy, discover unintended consequences or errors. The alternative is what has been called ‘lazy theorizing’   – simply immediately ‘recognizing’ events that seem to match the theoretical categories. While ‘objectivity’ might be unobtainable, some measure of intersubjective agreement based on transparent procedures and willingness to be corrected might at least prevent blatant partisanship and obvious special pleading.

Not all theorists agree with this general connection between CRT and qualitative research, and Sablan (2019) argues that quantitative analysis, even statistical modelling, can have a place in CRT, despite its unfortunate historical associations. There is "quantitative intersectionality"' (2019, p.183) for example looking at how Chicana/o students progress through the educational pipeline and disaggregating the data by gender, class and citizenship status.  Generally, there is no reason why CRT should not develop 'predictive, experimental/quasiexperimental and evaluative modelling' (p.186) since it already uses descriptive statistics, in Gillborn’s work, say (see below).  Sablan’s own work tried to measure the ‘community cultural wealth’ of ethnic minorities, a long overdue resource to help them resist and counter dominant notions of cultural capital: the various components were developed as scales, and these were assessed using standard measurement theory for 'preliminary reliability and validity evidence' (p.191). The intention was to use the scales in multivariate analysis: an earlier factor analysis had indicated that 50% of the items for resistant capital loaded on to a single factor -- ‘identification of oppression in society and motivation to transform oppressive structures’ (p.194). This is in agreement with CRT, and helps Sablan make the general point that, rather as was argued with formal philosophy above, statistical analysis can link with CRT if it is understood, taught to CRT practitioners and developed to their full potential in conjunction with theoretical studies. There are other pieces which argue for compatibility between CRT and quantitative analysis too, most recently Gillborn et al. (2017) on Black underachievement in the UK, and Young & Young (2022)

Tikley (2015), a major CRT theorist, has also offered a rather interesting critique of conventional analysis based on Bhaskar’s ‘critical realism’ (see Archer et al. 1998). This sees empiricism as the major error of analyses like Sewell’s and many other approaches in social science, and Tikley offers the familiar criticisms that it 'conflates an understanding of reality with what can be empirically observed'— an 'epistemic fallacy' (p.239).  Briefly, what is really behind empirical events are various transcendental non-empirical structures or systems, and these cannot be captured by empirical studies or causal models, let alone correlational studies. What is needed is a particular type of philosophical reasoning – ‘transcendental deduction’ (and see also Archer et al. 1998). However, Bhaskar’s critique also applies to the more subjective approaches which are usually contrasted to empirical objective ones. Tikley refers to ‘interpretivism’ specifically in saying that there is another epistemic fallacy reducing the realm of the real to how reality is interpreted, an overreliance on inductive forms of reasoning, and  'risks involved in assuming that the data being analysed represent all aspects of the reality of the phenomenon' (p.242). There is also 'an implicit normative bias' (p.243). Tikley notes the corrigibility and open-endedness of critical realism in contrast to both approaches and suggests it as a kind of middle way for a number of areas – in this particular case for international and comparative education, but also for future research in racism and education in UK education.

Nevertheless it is very common for CRT practitioners to encourage POC to develop a variety of subjective stories with no self-critique. These clearly make a number of strong claims for the personal, psychic, political, legal and humanist benefits of telling stories, but still leave as problematic the issue of understanding racism except from a personal point of view. There may well be compromises involved in being creative, developing ironic inflections, enhancing psychic preservation or trying to humanely engage oppressors and at the same time providing an accurate account of something that happened for research purposes.

A detailed example

Counterstories seem to vary from a single sentence uttered by primary school students to short paragraphs. I am not claiming to have undertaken a comprehensive survey or to have chosen a typical example, but, to take one more recent example of particular interest, Tanksley and Estrada (2022) include a counterstory in their own account of an encounter with practitioners in a partnership with researchers and say that counterstory is a CRT method and methodology 'to bring the stories of those racially and socially marginalised to the forefront', which seems to be sufficient justification for them to use it. Their account was published in a special edition of an educational research journal aiming to develop ‘Racially-just epistemologies and methodologies that disrupt whiteness’ (Rizvi 2022). It is worth discussing the example in some detail.

In the editorial to the second volume of the special edition, Rizvi (2022) recognises that:

Critics of pursuing racial justice within educational research may argue that such epistemologies, methodologies, methods and reflections are not only deeply political and ill-placed in a field such as educational research, but that they also fall short of conventional standards of rigour and validity.  [But]... Scholars such as Cheryl Matias and Venus Evans-Winters and others engaging in racially-just epistemologies and methodologies have also challenged this imposed gatekeeping and exclusion by traditional empiricists (not to be confused with empirical), which not only undermine methods such as counter stories but also continue to reinforce deficit narratives of marginalized communities.

Introducing the particular paper in question, Rizvi says:

The sixth paper, authored by Tanksley and Estrada (2022), echoes the concerns of Jackson et al. (2022) that existing ‘inclusive’ methodologies and frameworks need to examine the role of race, power and positionality and how this mediates the field experiences of women of colour scholars (Rizvi 2019). Tanksley and Estrada (2022) focus on Research-Practice Partnerships (RPP) as a framework, which has over the years explored the inequitable relationships between school practitioners and university researchers but which is, nonetheless, based on the assumption that practitioners occupy a minoritized status and researchers hold institutional power and privilege. The authors challenge this assumption by questioning what happens ‘when the roles are reversed?’ (Tanksley and Estrada 2022, p. 2), and examine whether frameworks such as RPP are appropriate when the researchers involved occupy a historically minoritized status and practitioners occupy privileged positions. They also critique how race-evasive frameworks weaponize ‘niceness’ (Davis 2016), leaving scholars of colour ‘hyper-vulnerable to and under-protected from racial and gender microaggressions’ (Tanksley and Estrada 2022, p. 3).

… Based on their experiences, the authors suggest that RPP requires reforming from a critical race (CR) perspective and propose a revised framework, namely CR-RPP which: (1) Recognizes that white supremacy and institutional racism are deeply embedded within school practices; (2) Considers how power imbalance mediates researcher/practitioner partnerships; (3) Consistently addresses racism and forms of oppression during such partnerships; (4) ‘Privileging’ rather than creating equal opportunities to participate; and lastly, (5) Making the overriding goal of such partnerships to be to improve student and community experiences rather than benefitting the partners in this relationship. Tanksley and Estrada (2022) critically unpack how methods and methodologies can be performative and become sites of real oppression for those who hold liminal positionalities, and why conversations around intersecting oppressive structures are essential if research is to create meaningful change.

I acknowledge fully that this counterstory might well have satisfied the other purposes of counterstories in Delgado’s (1989) account, including helping the ‘psychic self-preservation’ of the writers or serving any aim of modifying the ethnocentrism of readers such as myself. They might have gained pleasure by writing ironically or satirically. However, my initial interest is focused on how the counterstory serves to justify the specific claims made that hierarchies of privilege between theorists and practitioners can be reversed if researchers ‘hold a minoritized position’ and how ‘race-evasive frameworks weaponize “niceness”’’, and have left these WOC ‘hyper-vulnerable to and underprotected from racial and gender microaggressions’. Broader issues arise to the extent that this particular counterstory presents evidence for the White supremacy, institutional racism and oppression in such partnerships generally, and why the reforms proposed are necessary. To ask questions about those claims is not in any way to deny the other possible personal benefits of telling the counterstory.

The Abstract to the actual article declares an intention to use ‘counterstories to unpack and interrogate the onto-epistemological and sociopolitical structure of RPPs [Research-Practice Partnerships in education] and ...theorize a Critical Race-RPP (CR-RPP) methodology to decentre whiteness ’(Tanksley & Estrada (2022, p.397).  They claim that their ‘liminal existence’ has helped them expose ‘racialized ruptures in RPP’s equity-oriented design’, providing them with ‘robust epistemological vantage points’ (p. 398), which seems to be what Kennedy would call a ‘racial (and gender) distinctive’ stance. They add that they understand ‘as a Black Womxn and a Chicana...that unbiased research does not exist, and that conventional research is often “race-evasive” and rooted in whiteness’ (citing a 2021 edition of what I have referred to as Smith 2008). This is supplemented by their studies and by their ‘personal experiences with racial domination’. They are not criticising any particular team or project but rather interrogating ‘the socio-political infrastructure’, again making the connection between personal and institutional or epistemological levels of racism.

They summarise the ‘tenets’ of CRT (more or less as I have done elsewhere), and each is ‘applied’ to RPPs. Thus the permanence of racism becomes ‘the endemic and institutionalised disease of white supremacy that not only creates socially constructed racial categories for “researcher” and “practitioner” (but because these are reversed in this case), simultaneously allows for the Othering of WOC researchers as deviant and less than’ (p. 399). The tenet of intersectionality ‘illuminates how unidimensional constructions of race, power and privilege further subjugate WOC researchers, disallowing truly equitable research partnerships to materialise’ (p.400). The centrality of experientiality and voices of POC ‘recognises WOC researchers as holders and creators of knowledge whose everyday experiences with micro-aggressions can illuminate the vestiges of racialized sexism within RPP’ (p.400). Finally, the challenge to dominant ideologies in ‘the case of RPPs...illuminates how notions of objectivity (eg who is capable of conducting valid and trustworthy research) and meritocracy (eg who serves the right to serve as researcher) are weaponized against WOC researchers ‘to position them as deviant, aggressive and unprofessional in an attempt to silence their funds of knowledge and continually curtail any attempt to enact true transformative change for racially marginalized communities’ (p. 400).

Their adoption of these tenets are described as ‘an onto-epistemological and theoretical standpoint’ (p.399) but they seem to leave little room for doubt as to what is the case. The findings seem bound up with the ‘applications’ already. The connection with the research undertaken is not clear. Did these commitments arise after the research was undertaken and did they follow from it, or was it the other way around? They say they acknowledge the tenets as ‘vital to the way they see the world and approach educational research’ (p.400) which implies the latter. That seems to be confirmed by them saying that they wish to ‘bring these manifestations to light’, ‘to demonstrate how RPPs protect whiteness’. There seems to be little interest in testing any of the assertions or examining how they might work in practice, very little to actually analyse, very little that is new to inform any new approaches or disrupt whiteness any further. There might be a check to the naive official view that RPPs rectify the imbalance of power between theorists and practitioners and that this on its own renders irrelevant all other kinds of power imbalance. Any brief experience of the micropolitics of such partnerships would rapidly lead to those conclusions as well, however.

Harris (1995) on ‘whiteness as property’ seems to be the main ‘analytic tool’, as developed by Annamma. Property rights lie behind the ‘right to a good reputation and elevated status and the right to exclude’ in particular (p. 400), and the latter extends to ‘white privileges such as conducting trustworthy research’.

RPPs generally have asked that researchers ‘check their institutional privilege’, where whiteness is bolstered by the academy, itself institutionally, culturally and demographically. Equalizing the power balance with practitioners in schools, especially those populated by Black and Latinx students should help counter such whiteness. Yet it has also preserved ‘monolithic racializations of researchers as “white and privileged”’ (p.401). By not allowing for ‘Researchers of Colour’, RPPs have not attended to ‘the ways in which invisible systems of race, gender and class continue to shape institutional partnerships on ideological systemic and interpersonal levels’ (p.401). They need to make these visible to achieve ‘transformational change’. It might be said right away that the monolithic racialization of researchers has been challenged by some Black critics of elite universities too. As we shall see, Tanksley and Estrada also seem to want to retain some of the traditional privileges of researchers, however.

Practitioners seem to be required to perform a rather sophisticated balance of awarding privilege as a result. Tanksley and Estrada propose a standing agenda for RPP business where issues of racism can be continually called in or out. That might well end any ‘race-evasive’ practices, but it would probably give Black researchers the right to simply dominate proceedings.

As a part of their official research, Tanksley and Estrada recorded observations in field notes including ‘photos, videos, student artefacts, and our candid “observer comments” about the classroom proceedings’ (p. 402).  It might have helped establish the claims had we learned more about the actual classroom research and specifically the classroom comment that caused the problem. We are told the research helped them ’write freely about how we witnessed racial injustice play out within our partner schools’ (p.402). The first set of counterstories arose from ’sadness and anger’ with RPPs, because their findings ‘opposed the majoritarian narrative perpetuated by RPPs’. However, this was not a majoritarian narrative denying racial injustice within schools affecting students, it seems, but a matter of suggesting ‘WOC researchers have equitable and impermeable [?] access to institutional privilege granted by academe’ (p.402). If I have understood this correctly, WOC academics were being accused of the old taunt of being as unsympathetic towards actual practitioners as any academics, and coming in with some naive idealistic proposals for reform, telling them what to do. They also experienced ‘many microaggressions’ but have selected among them in their stories. That became the focus of their counterstories.

The counterstory arose from incorporating other (unnamed) resources, sharing stories of their individual experiences, and retelling their stories to each other. The technique is justified by reference to CRT and other literature. They finally 'reached a point of saturation' and then employed 'concept coding which allowed us to use key concepts and phrases that represented larger ideas'. However, they include no details about these coding practices, whether they followed any of the standard procedures including attempting to achieve measures of intercoder reliability, for example, or rejected them as western or White and used their own. They used these to create categories collaboratively 'that allowed us to centre a unique narrative in order to provide nuance to the extant literature on [the partnerships]' (2022, p. 403). Then they told their stories in the journal article in the form of a dialogue.

But this is clearly not a naturalistic spontaneous dialogue or story, despite its homely setting and first-name forms but rather a selection of items which 'exemplifies the pervasiveness of race-evasive racism within [partnership] norms beliefs and infrastructures' (p. 402). It is laid out as a normal dialogue, though, with separate speakers identified, and includes conversational links such as ‘UGHH. It’s so cold outside’; ‘Oh nooooo! What happened?’ (p. 402) and ‘Oh god, it gets worse?! ‘(p. 403). It takes place in what could be a domestic setting.

The background to the counterstory relates ‘’moments of hope’ but also ‘many’ moments when Tiera felt unwelcome and invisible as a Black Womxn in RPP meetings. We are told of no moments of hope. Prompted by Cynthia, she recalls a ‘roundtable session’ where they were talking about ‘challenges and tensions ‘between researchers and practitioners. She told them about an episode involving Cynthia where her ‘teacher partner was a white man who was questioning your qualifications’ after sharing her field notes of observations. He dropped out of the study afterwards. Tiera thought it was a problem that ‘this white man was questioning a Womxn of Colour as if he knew more about research than she did’

Prompted again by Cynthia, Tiera says she had explained that this man had read the field notes ‘that included practices that were rooted in scholarly research – IN PEER REVIEWED ARTICLES’ [original emphasis]. He thought that including her own feelings was unprofessional and unscholarly but Tiera explained that Cynthia was using comments as a guide to reflection on her experience.

Cynthia agreed it was legitimate, and she had separated her observer comments from the field notes ‘to make it known it was separate from the narration’. ‘It was honestly so cool and engaging’. The teacher was enthusiastic, but the students were not engaged so she pulled from her own experience to try and understand what was going on. But all that the complaining teacher read was that one set of observer comments, none of the positive things or how she was trying to understand.

Tiera says she explained all that to the roundtable and that ‘it was so obvious that white fragility was at play. As a white man he was not about to let a Womxn of Colour depict him in a negative light...the fact that he then mansplained to you what a classroom observation should look like, when you’re a doctoral student…’

Cynthia says she was nervous after the white teacher emailed a complaint, but was comforted by her boss and by Tiera. But she still felt ‘imposter syndrome’.

Tiera then says it gets worse because this ‘story as an obvious example of whiteness at work’ was challenged by a ‘random conference attendee at my table’. She assumed the story was about Tiera herself and then suggested the RPP failed because Tiera was ‘”too aggressive” and “too angry”’ and needed to be more aware of how she was presenting herself.

Cynthia (rhetorically?) asks Tiera to repeat the remarks and then says ‘That’s literally by the book misogynoir!’

Tiera agrees after an eyeroll. She corrected her challenger, denied she had been angry and pointed out that the words were ‘racist, sexist and stereotypical’. The accuser got even angrier, ‘basically doubled down on her racism’ and said ‘it [the failure of the RPP] was clearly something that I did on my end.... I just rolled my eyes and left’

Cynthia expresses amazement and sorrow, although she must have heard the story before.

Tiera says RPPs are supposed to be about equity but participants do micro-assaults. How can they do equity for students if they ‘constantly denigrate and attack Womxn of Colour who are speaking up for those same communities’.

Cynthia says RPPs need a stronger racial analysis instead of a focus on ‘”equity” and “inclusion” rather than race, racism and white supremacy’

Tiera say ‘Exactly...we need a Critical Race RPP to really get things done’.

Subsequent comments were also added. We are told that the complainant declined to discuss the issue with the ‘bosses’ ‘to work through this racialized rupture’ (p. 406). Tiera also shared the story at another conference:

as a way to spark discussion around her concerns about [the partnership’s] s race-evasive approaches to equity, a white female conference attendee insisted that Tiera did not know how to conduct ... research and offered instructions for how to do so appropriately. Both the practitioner and conference attendee admitted to having minimal experience with the research methods, theoretical frames, and coursework being leveraged by the researchers. Yet, the implied reason for the ineffective partnerships was the sole result of racial deviance, gendered incompetence, and poor understandings of professionalism. ...In this case, the absolute right to exclude manifested in the right to question our academic credentials and label us as intellectually suspicious and unqualified (p. 406)

However, ‘’constant” denigration, attack and implications of ‘racial deviance, gendered incompetence and poor understandings’ are not the only problems. Even discussions that did not feature angry exchanges or microaggressions could indicate racism: ‘Niceness is weaponized as a means of protecting the inequitable status quo...”Niceness” is a fundamental component of whiteness as property as the social norms defining the “nice” and “appropriate” ways of talking about racial equity protect white interests’ (p. 406).  It serves to ‘criminalize uncomfortable discussions about race, racism and oppression’, and this lay behind the condemnation of Tiera as aggressive and angry discussed above. This is traced to the right to a good reputation and elevated status as in the notion of whiteness as property: such tracings are also a recurrent theme.

More detailed comments appear below, but there are immediate problems with generalizing from this episode to RPPs in general. This counterstory seems to be based on fairly limited experience and there was an unfortunate disruptive episode which may have been atypical, and which ended a partnership. It is obviously risky to read between the lines to try and guess what the issue might have been that led to the rupture in relationships in this RPP, and the storytellers give us few details, and, obviously, their own personal views rather than attempting a more distanced or balanced account.  It is very tempting, although it might be quite misdirected, to see this as an episode in the ‘culture wars’, which are reportedly prominent in some American educational circles, centered on the fears of the penetration of CRT itself. If Cynthia was suggesting that the lack of engagement of the students she observed was the result of their exclusion from a White curriculum, for example, and this can only be a speculation, this could be the sort of remark that could be supported both by her own experience and by the CRT literature and research she was citing in her field notes. It could easily produce an angry response in some quarters, however, and an eventual lack of cooperation as a form of localised ‘pushback’. 

Symbolic violence in counterstories?

It might be seen as simply inappropriate to offer any sort of critical discussion of a specific counterstory – what can be said of a personal account told by the participants themselves of events known only to them? Given the personally wounding nature of some of the events, what should be said? Specifically, do counterstories exclude symbolic violence?

The general issues are focused particularly well in an article by Ellis and Rawicki (2014) on the moral and theoretical dilemmas in discussing what might be seen as counterstories, told in this case by survivors of the Holocaust. Survivors engaged with researchers in 'collaborative witnessing in which we freely exchange ideas and work back-and-forth over an extended period to write and explore concrete stories of [their] experiences' (100). However Ellis also felt that she wanted to connect 'the broader literature' to the particular story provided by this survivor.
Rawicki is the survivor in this case, and he tends to attribute his survival to factors based on 'luck' while Ellis is much more interested in background variables, found in classical sociological analysis. These two approaches are in tension throughout, despite attempting to engage in 'compassionate collaborative research' (p. 99). Rawicki describes several situations in which he managed to survive dangerous encounters, for example, and Ellis sees them as involving physical health and linguistic talents, as well as considerable '"ethnographic sensibilities"', being resourceful, pretending to share the views, even the anti-Semitism of Germans, being able to read others correctly, being able to blend in with crowds and maintaining his nerve and courage. At the same time, there were elements of accident and luck, 'good fortune', including an episode where misrecognition saved the day. Rawicki mentions merely ‘luck’, chance events in the survival of himself and others, and denies any kind of agency, skill or even much forethought on his part. Ellis notes that similar themes are found in accounts by other survivors, and begins to suspect that attributing survival just to luck is really 'a moral explanation' denying any superiority, a '"humbling before the dead"', refusing to blame any victims.

This is a particularly interesting piece because Ellis is a pioneer of autoethnography, which she defended in a famous debate with a critic (Ellis and Bochner 2006). There, she insisted precisely on taking what people said on television as their authentic views, and compared these, with all their emotional richness, with the sterility and dullness of orthodox sociological ethnographic interviewing. Those who held the latter view were often 'older white men… The male paradigm… Is characterized by impersonal abstraction' (p. 442) and empiricism. Orthodox researchers turned away from 'a good story', and the chance to write in the first person. By contrast, Ellis and Bochner write in the form of a (contrived) conversation, like Tanksley and Estrada, with explanations and also ‘textual shifters’ like compliments about each other’s kindness, or reminders about their own publications.

They are clearly deliberately personally involved in a documentary about the victims of Hurricane Katrina they are watching on television, so much so that it is hard to concentrate on the article they are writing. Ellis says that she 'can't pull myself away from stories and images of the horrors of loss… I don't want people away. I want to get as close as I can… Give some sign, however inadequate that somebody is listening, somebody cares, somebody really wants to know… Sometimes I feel as if I am there' (p. 430). The victims simply are expressing their real emotions even though they are on television and will therefore be mediated through television's conventions, and may even have been vetted or coached: 'He [a black man speaking to a reporter] speaks so poetically… Like the house he lost, he is split in two' (p. 430). And finally 'Art and I wipe tears. "Those people feel all alone," I say. "Somebody's got to show them that we are all in this together."' (p. 447).
In the 2014 article, Ellis takes quite a different stance, and finds it necessary to consider other aspects of the survivors’ story. Here, she is ready to commit symbolic violence on the account provided by a Holocaust survivor. She wants to deny the view that 'the Holocaust is mystical, unexplainable, unspeakable and beyond human reason' (p. 109).   Nor does she wish to reinforce the stereotype of Jews as passive and incapable. She is also 'committed as a scholar to explore the complexity of survivors' memories' (p. 104). There are very difficult issues here, including those of 'survivor guilt', where those who survived did so at the expense of their own companions in various ways: clearly an insistence on luck would be 'a way not condemn or judge those who survived' (p. 109).  Ellis seems willing to risk probing an account that might have serious consequences for the psychic preservation of Rawicki.

She goes on to summarize some of the classic conventional academic works on survival. Variables include cultural conditions and resources as well as personal characteristics, national and geographical differences and 'municipal – level factors' including the loyalties of local members of the population. The existence of '"informal communities"' also seemed important, together with a 'survival ideology of living in the moment' (p. 111). She goes on to identify in the literature other personal and social factors like age, gender, health, skill and knowledge, some of which produced 'a curvilinear effect on survival'. Financial resources were obviously helpful as were occupational skills. Various physical and psychological factors played a part including perseverance and optimism, and various 'mental mechanisms of defence' including 'estrangement from self'. This partly explains the marked differences in terms of those Jewish people killed in different areas of Europe. In other words, Ellis is pursuing a classic sociological argument, including impersonal abstraction and empiricism, revealing social patterns to suggest that there are deeper social forces at work which exceeds the personal understandings of those who were actually involved. She uses a variety of sources for this data ranging from questionnaires to novels like those written by Primo Levi.

Ellis discusses the differences in interpretation with Rawicki and notes that when she says she is interested in the meaning of the Holocaust,  '"meaning"' refers to how social scientists and historians think and talk, not how survivors do — unless they are academics' (113). Rawicki still insists on the validity of his own experience, and draws on the 'cries of his dead relatives' while Ellis refers back to the 'voices of research scholars' (115). Ellis still finally decides that 'his explanation of lack seem to camouflage so many important details'. In the notes, there is recognition that 'luck' might be an ambiguous term, but again Ellis is not just working with how the participant defines and accepts things. She evidently thinks she has very good reasons for doing so in this case.
Returning to the detailed example under discussion, one problem is the second-hand nature of the account. Tiera is describing what happened to Cynthia to a meeting, and then relating what happened at the meeting back to Cynthia, before both are invited to agree with the other’s interpretation. That does not stop either of them from confidently asserting what they take to be the case. White fragility is ‘so obvious’; Tiera just knows the white teacher was ‘mansplaining’ to Cynthia,  although she did not witness the event; Cynthia takes Tiera’s report of a remark as ‘literally by the book misogynoir’; the end of the partnership is described as a ‘racialized rupture’. 

These are also examples of symbolic violence, where academic categories are used to interpret the activities of practitioners. It is not clear whether Tanksley and Estrada would wish to claim any of the justifications cited by Ellis for exercising this symbolic violence, or add any others like the overriding claims of legitimate political commitments. Further explanation seems desirable if not required– what exactly is implied about consciousness or intention by categorising something as ‘white fragility’? Whiteness itself is often a term that implies an absence of personal responsibility or intention, but then the complaining teacher is said to be ‘not about to let a Womxn of Colour depict him in a negative light’, which might imply a more personal intention after all. There do seem to be levels of multiple interpretations that might have been unravelled. Motives or characteristics are just asserted, for example, especially for the complaining teacher –even that he knew less about research than Cynthia did. The same might be said of the descriptions of the encounters between Tiera and the persons she met at the conferences. Her descriptions of their actions are categorised as manifestations of Harris’s (1995) absolute right to exclude based on the connections between whiteness and property rights. Counterstories license the tellers to abandon the usual researchers’ obligation to try systematically to see the point of view of others, or to check their own understandings. They may do this in preparing the final version of the counterstory, of course, but we were not told in this case if anyone else, attendees at the conferences, say,  those ‘bosses’ who received the complaint,  the practitioner colleagues of the complainer, or other theorists in other partnerships were ever asked for their views.

It seems the remark made by Estrada in her fieldnotes was shared with a practitioner who objected to it on the grounds that her approach did not represent ‘”appropriate” research...free of opinions...i.e. traditional westernized notions of objective research’ (p.405), which convicts him, in effect, of epistemological racism.  There seemed to be no personally racist language or behaviour at this stage, just this rather abstract symbolic form of racism.  There is some irony here, given that the authors also rely on the status provided by such notions in the form of peer-reviewed research, the conventional separation of theoretical and personal commentary, reliance on conventional university qualifications, and, as we shall, the deployment of conventional narrative forms, to support their own claims.

Whether the complaint offered any other forms or examples of racism is not clear. The terms used by the first conference participant to Tiera might well have been described as racist and sexist stereotypes, but not so much by the second one – Tiera finds racism is ‘implied’ here. Again, there is some ambiguity about whether this means intended and deliberate or not. We simply have to depend on the storytellers’ interpretations and whether they successfully overcame any of the limits of commonsense thinking here, a naive positivism in the way surface features are explained via simple correlation, a reliance on personal conviction rather than corrigibility.  Prima facie, it is disturbing to find the storytellers finding things like white fragility ‘so obvious’.

Commonsense views often seem just obvious to those who hold them, requiring no further justification. One of the interviewees in Cashmore (2012) thought it obvious that deporting Black immigrants to the UK would reduce the unemployment rate among White residents, for example. In an example of more ‘scientific ‘racism, St Louis (2004) noted that the observable success of Black athletes in apparently fair and equal sporting competitions were often explained by 'uncomplicated realism and objectivism... [leading to]... a biological basis for racial athleticism' (p. 32). St Louis expands the notion of commonsense here via Gramsci to indicate working beliefs which are fragmentary, incoherent, and conform to the social and cultural position of various classes and class fractions, often operating at a non-discursive level. Like more formal hegemonic ideologies it can easily absorb different discourses. They can appear to be autonomous and voluntary, although they often conform to dominant views. Above all, in this case, commonsense can be used to explain and organise empirical observations of differences.  Racialized claims can appear to be testable and objective, arising from scientific exploration programmes (I have heard my own students citing research on different muscle types among Black males, for example). However, there are naive realist and objectivist assumptions there too, as well as a flawed form of inductivism. The scientific claims are in fact held very uncritically and without an awareness of the problems of generalisation (they are invariably cited uncritically  and without much awareness, at least, in my experience).

The authors of the detailed example allow for the possibility that this might be a conventional clash between academic and practice-based forms of expertise and stress Cynthia’s deployment of resources found in peer-reviewed journals, her qualifications and status as a doctoral student. These qualifications do not always carry much weight with practitioners, in my experience, and it is not surprising that Cynthia felt ‘imposter syndrome’. It would have been particularly interesting to get the views of Black practitioners and White theorists on this matter. Stressing qualifications could also be seen as microaggresssion and lead to counteraggression by micropolitical opponents. The point is that this sort of micropolitical struggle is long established in teacher education and can be expected to feature prominently in the proceedings of RPPs: racial identities might be better seen as not the underlying mechanism driving the whole encounter described here, but as a useful resource with which to conduct such micropolitics (along with gender, social class, age and generation, geographical location and localism, party politics, personal appearance, timekeeping habits, personal administration, dress, and lifestyle).

These more apparently superficial matters can still be seen as code for forms of discrimination along the lines of race, class or gender, of course. There is a theoretical debate among CRT theorists about which of these underlying structural dimensions is dominant: Crenshaw (1989) has outlined a Black feminist critique of White feminism, for example and denied its claims to universality, while Gillborn has debated with several marxists the relevance of class and race as primary categories (see Walton 2020 for a summary). In more methodological terms, Reilly (2021) identifies a problem with the ‘CV studies’ where the same CV/resume is sent to employers but one has a ‘Black’ name: that one tends to get more rejections. However, Reilly points out that names also code for social class and that names like '"Nia, Malcolm, or Malia"’ are less likely to be perceived as Black (in a ‘street’ sense) than names like '"DaShawn, DaQuan or Lakisha"' according to a 2107 study (2021, p. 23).

The debate extends to the topic of microaggressions too. This cannot be covered in any depth here, but there is a recent study by Cantu and Jussim (2022) which raises serious doubts about the reliability of perceived microaggressions as indicators of racism specifically: after careful review of empirical studies trying to link microaggressions to other measures of racial prejudice or its perception, they conclude the claim made for their legitimacy here 'is significantly unwarranted’ (p, 222) and their utility 'limited' , they are also likely to be 'socially caustic — and therefore counter-productive in the quest for social justice'. The whole exercise is contaminated by '"methodological activism"'.  They also note a suspicious corporate interest, including an interest in universities, in developing ‘unconscious bias’ training regimes.

Anyone entering a field that is as contested as employment in education risks encountering serious micropolitics and symbolic violence, especially if they have been socially mobile. The field is suffused with different class fractions and parties trying to raise or preserve the value of the particular kind of educational, social and cultural capital they have acquired, often after long labour and sacrifice. Games are played to raise the value of one’s own capital and diminish the value of that of rivals. Marginalization, isolation and sometimes open denigration and bullying are relatively common, although there are social class variants (Bourdieu 1988 has some examples of elegant but wounding French elite insults by ironic praise, euphemism or dubious metaphors, sometimes offered in obituaries, for example). Serious stakes are involved – employment and advancement in a career and all that that implies for personal status.

Above all, anyone working in a modern university will meet serious symbolic violence directed at them from the management strata, as a number of accounts testify. They will be treated as resources, audited in terms of their ability to generate income directly in the form of research grants, perhaps, or indirectly in terms of student recruitment. These factors are more likely to affect the course of any project to decolonize the curriculum than any CRT critique, in my view. As they get older and more expensive to employ, academic staff might well risk being replaced by desperate younger staff on casual contracts. Anyone resisting will be met with the sort of symbolic violence discussed above. I have myself been involved in several seriously unpleasant sets of disciplinary proceedings, following informal campaigns of denigration, threat and isolation. None of the accusers were POC. I have seen the results in serious demoralization and ill health among the accused even when they have ‘won’. I have even been one of the victims at the centre of a disciplinary procedure and heard my published work denounced, my teaching contributions devalued, and my personal conduct questioned  -- I was accused, for example, of what might be called a microaggression these days, ‘entering a room aggressively’.  None of the accusations proved to be credible and I also ‘won’, naturally at a cost. Racism was not involved in my case, although social class might have been.

My own view, for what it is worth, is that new entrants, especially if socially mobile, should be rapidly disabused of any romantic notions of community life among scholars in universities, have processes of Bourdieuvian class closure, social distancing and symbolic violence explained to them, and warned  to expect micropolitical behaviour disguised as administrative or technical procedure, academic argument,  or just ’the obvious way to do things’, and encouraged to be analytic and resilient.

Authenticity and realism

The final complication arises for those who see counterstories as somehow more authentic, realistic or valid than the results of conventional research. It has been argued by Clough (1992), for example, that subjective data in the form of interview results, ethnographic accounts or anthropological observations have gained their plausibility and persuasiveness only by deploying certain writing conventions. These persuade readers that what they are encountering is real and authentic and that readers are actually co-present as events occur. However, Clough argues, the conventions that deliver these effects are substantially those that are found in popular forms of fictional writing, borrowed and modified in academic writing, perhaps in most academic writing (Harris 1996).

Clough goes on to find examples in many of the classic American sociological works, particularly in ethnography. Blumer was one who saw the capacity of empirical findings to resist initial interpretation as some sort of guarantee of their independence, and this has persisted in the value of ‘surprise’, something apparently unexpected in the course of the research. Initial puzzles were to be resolved by subsequent and more detached theorizing stressing coherence and rational relations. Becker also focused on ordinary lives and intended to show their richness and ‘spirituality’,  using plain writing, focusing on democratic potential, expressing understanding and support for ‘the underdog’, as in his famous studies of deviants. His particular contribution was to do this 'while informing sociological discourse with an emotional realism' (p. 78).  Goffman’s technique is to engross the reader, to write texts with 'holding power' (p. 109) , to offer a stream of interesting examples, using all the flexibility and playfulness of language to do so and in the process disregarding any boundaries between fact and fiction. What they have in common is that they have all closely mirrored popular forms of writing including forms found in electronic media – Blumer the observational techniques of cinematic documentary, Becker the emotional realism of television, Goffman the drama-documentary and more radically, the computer simulation, or possibly the educational computer game.

One common feature is the heroic narrative of adversity encountered, endured and eventually overcome. Ethnographers display this as they describe the obstacles to their entry to the field, and it is the same structure usually found most explicitly in male heroics featured in popular adventure stories or travel writing, for example. The tellers of counterstories also often start with tales of setbacks and hardships, discrimination, prejudice, microaggressions and exclusions that have had to be overcome. The general aim is twofold for Clough – to maintain the author as a full human subject with insight, knowledge and feelings, and to maintain a special sense of the empirical reality of what is being described (because it is external, resistant, hostile). Developing a realist narrative of a particular kind is the key to deliver both empirical reality and full subjectivity. In the process, complexity is often simplified, at first by offering a series of plausible categorisations, and these are used to claim a certain objectivity and insight for the narrator.

In a variant popular in classic realist novels and films (McCabe 1981), alternative interpretations of the situation are initially offered by the different characters and these are exposed for evaluation by the reader or audience until only that narrator’s view prevails. The opposing views are usually clearly marked by what is called, in another tradition ‘textual shifters’. Characters are weak, revealed to be untrustworthy or cowardly, ill-informed or simply factually wrong, or, as in these examples, aggressive, unqualified, ignorant or ‘random’, misogynist and racist. Their views are inadequate to grasp all the detail, contradicted by events, or exposed as out of date, ideological, or fragile, limited by being ‘westernized’. Classically, complexity is reduced finally to some underlying privileged term as a claim to reveal ultimate reality or truth. The claims to privilege of the fully unified subject who is conveying the counterstory emerges only at the end of the narration, when the effect of realism or of knowledge of the real is triumphantly delivered.

Clough is deploying arguments based on feminist post-structuralism. When she refers to ‘the subject’ she means the technical form that operates a narrative, not the human subject as such. However, she and MacCabe both note there is a slippage between the two concepts and this serves ideological functions. The subject as a human person in realist texts resembles the autonomous individual at the heart of ideology in Althusser’s conception (discussed elsewhere) (Althusser 1977). Actually, as hinted above, Clough and MacCabe both trace the notion of the ideological human subject in this case to Lacan, whose work was once connected to Althusser but who identifies a duality at the heart of the entire semiotic order, one based on the possession or otherwise of the (symbolic) phallus: all conventional forms of language, whether written or visual are irredeemably phallocentric. Feminists in particular have striven to develop non-phallocentric experimental forms of language instead of trying to bend conventional forms to radical purposes. 

It is the same sort of argument found in early CRT about whether Black emancipation could be advanced by working within the existing framework of liberal legislation or whether a break into a new formulation was needed, and we know that the decision there was to break.  At the moment, counterstories like the one by Tanksley and Estrada, using classic realist forms, risk only a limited departure from ‘traditional westernized notions’ of research. They maintain the narrative form that guided early anthropological adventures in colonialism and which underpin current ideological notions of the individual in the phallocentric Symbolic.
There is no easy alternative, however.  Avant-garde forms which break with realist narratives have been developed by Derrida for example (much admired by Clough) but these risk being inaccessible for all but enthusiasts with considerable cultural capital. Glas is an egregious example (Derrida 1990).  It is described in the Wikipedia entry (nd) as ‘written in two columns in different type sizes. The left column is about Hegel, the right column is about Genet. Each column weaves its way around quotations of all kinds, both from the works discussed and from dictionaries… Derrida's "side notes"... [are described as]…"marginalia, supplementary comments, lengthy quotations, and dictionary definitions.”... Sometimes words are cut in half by a quotation which may last several pages.’

Methodological alternatives to counterstories

Overall, conventional qualitative research techniques seem to offer a much better option. They seem better able to combine the two sorts of discourses described in Ellis and Rawicki (2014), that of the persons experiencing the event and that of the sociologist aware of the literature. Of course, the teller of a counterstory might also have both experience and expert knowledge, but interviews or group discussions offer the chance to go beyond the perspective of one person. Any single perspective must have limits even if only of memory or perception, and questioning by others must help extend the account. It is easy to see how the limits of legal discourse or the constraints of questionnaires or rigid coding restrain and repress the full stories of Black people, but not all research is so closed off. The responses to challenges, questions and comparisons offered by an interviewer and second participants produce some insights which seem at least equal in value, and there is a plethora of such work available,  including the ones cited on ‘ordinary racism’, or some of the studies on the Black middle class parents (discussed elsewhere) (eg Ball et al.).

There are ways to minimize symbolic violence in these approaches if not to remove it altogether, if that is considered the main problem. Bourdieu et al (1999) offer advice in their substantial work on ‘suffering in contemporary society’. The objects of the book are the people who occupy problem zones in urban areas in and around Paris, although there is also a study of people living in a crack house in New York. It is about social disorder and demoralisation and not particularly about race, although race is a frequent topic of discussion and some of the respondents are immigrants.

As might be expected, they note that the potential for symbolic violence is always present in any research encounter, and the first requirement is for researchers to be aware of this and be reflexive, ‘Researchers must gain knowledge of their own presuppositions and reflect on the effects of the research itself. All research involves constructions of knowledge, and it is essential to become aware of the work of construction and to master its effects.’ (p.608) The task is to focus on the 'singularity of a particular life history', but combined with 'methodical construction, founded on the knowledge of the objective conditions common to an entire social category' (609). If interviewers are selected suitably, 'social proximity and familiarity provide two of the conditions of "non-violent" communication' (p. 610). Such proximity encourages lower levels of symbolic threat -- 'that subjective reasoning [will not be] reduced to objective causes'-- and permits constant interchanges of verbal and non-verbal signs which show 'immediate and continuously confirmed agreement' (p. 610). It is 'favourable to plain speaking' (p. 612).

Nevertheless,  they are trying to construct discourses scientifically 'in such a way that [they] yield the elements necessary for [their] own explanation' (p. 611)  and avoiding two extremes: 'total overlap between investigator and respondents, when nothing can be said because, since nothing can be questioned, everything goes without saying; and total divergence, where understanding and trust would become impossible'. Researchers are aware that they do not simply share the same point of view, but are still capable of  'mentally putting themselves in [the respondent's] place' (p. 613). This is not merely a matter of 'projection' or empathy, but can only arise from a proper grasp of the social relations involved, such as  'the circumstances of life and the social mechanisms that affect the entire category to which any individual belongs' (p. 613). Interviewers are required to have considerable knowledge of the subject and of the social relations involved, far more than is required by more routine research.

This knowledge also helps 'constant improvisation of pertinent questions, genuine hypotheses' aimed at more complete revelations (p. 613). However, researchers must still attend to others and display a 'self-abnegation and openness rarely encountered in everyday life' (p. 614). It is easy to be inattentive and to accept 'immediate half understanding'. The process is perhaps best understood as a form of spiritual conversion, a 'forgetfulness of self... a true conversion of the way we look at other people... the capacity to take that person and understand just as they are in their distinctive necessity... a sort of intellectual love' (p. 614). These preconditions permit an 'extra-ordinary discourse, which might never have been spoken, but which was already there, merely awaiting the conditions for its actualization' (p. 614). A note suggests that we should 'aim to propose and not impose, to formulate suggestions sometimes explicitly presented as such... and intended to offer multiple, open-ended continuations to the interviewee's argument, to their hesitations or searchings for appropriate expression' (pp. 614 - 15).

Respondents often see themselves as being offered a unique opportunity to explain themselves. In doing so, as 'an induced and accompanied self analysis', and they can even experience a  'joy in expression' (p. 615). Sometimes this leads to the expression of 'experiences and thoughts long kept unsaid or repressed'. However, interviewees  can also: take a chance to present themselves in the best light, sometimes censoring their opinions; construct a 'false, collusive objectification' of themselves, seemingly analyzing themselves but 'without questioning anything essential' (p. 616); take the interview over, asking and answering questions for themselves -- 'the researcher is taken in by the "authenticity" of the respondent's testimony... the respondent plays her expected part' (p. 617), and both get seduced by what seems like the literary value of the speech.  Researchers can be swept along, and engage in 'a form of intellectual narcissism which may combine with or hide within a populist sense of wonder', losing their critical penetration in favour of a recognition of their own conceptions of disadvantaged groups (p. 616).

Researchers should submit to the data. Paradoxically, this requires 'an act of construction' in order to properly hear what is being said, 'how to read in... words the structure of the objective relations, present and past', such as the educational establishments attended and their effects (p. 618). This does not reduce the individuality of the respondent but attempts to explain him or her as a 'singular complexity'.  More than just collecting conversations and studying their dynamics, interest lies in the 'invisible structures that organize' such interactions.

An active criticism of common-sense is required to take on common representations, including those in the media, which interpret adversely the experience of the disadvantaged. Ordinary people do not have access to social science, nor do they always say what they mean. By contrast sociology is in a position to challenge reconstructions and presuppositions, and the apparent spontaneity of opinion. Thus in researching hostility to foreigners, especially among those who do not know any, sociologists can understand it as 'displacement', accounting for contradictory experiences among the petty bourgeoisie, for example (farmers and small shopkeepers are the specific cases given here) (p. 621). These social contradictions are 'The real basis of the discontent and dissatisfaction expressed... in this hostility... people are... both unaware of [them] and, in another sense, know them better than anyone'. The role of the sociologist here is 'like a midwife' (the process is compared to psychoanalysis earlier), but this is again a craft rather than an abstract way of knowing, following a 'real "disposition to pursue truth"' (p. 621), which often leads to improvisation.

When transcribing, there is a need to try to be faithful to the contents of the interview, while retaining an interest in readability, which forbids, for example, describing intonation, rhythm, voice, gesture and so on -- and a note on page 622 reminds us that 'irony, which is often the product of a deliberate discrepancy between body and verbal symbolism or between different levels of the verbal message, is almost inevitably lost in transcription. And the same goes for the ambiguities, double meanings, uncertainty and vagueness so characteristic of oral language'.

The aim is to offer true self-expression rather than literal speech -- for example to manage hesitations, interruptions, digressions, ambiguities, references to concrete situations and so on. These often have to be omitted, since they can make transcriptions unreadable. Nevertheless, transcripts can 'have the effect of a revelation, especially for those who share some general characteristics with the speaker' (p. 623). This certainly describes the effect on me of some of the passages in the book. Such emotional effects 'can produce the shifts in thinking in seeing that are often the precondition for comprehension... but... also generate ambiguity, even confusion, in symbolic effects'. For example, it is difficult to report racist remarks without seeming to legitimate racism, or offer personal descriptions (for example of a hairstyle) without referring to personal aesthetics.

Even the reader is addressed: the team noticed that some non-specialist readers read the interviews merely as confidences or gossip, and took the opportunity to socially differentiate themselves from the respondents. For this reason it was necessary to intersperse the transcripts with headings, subheadings and introductory sections to enable readers to reconstruct the writers' stance. It is essential to get people to read the transcripts with 'sustained, receptive attention', as if they were philosophical or literary texts (p. 624). A note reminds us how difficult this is, since we commonly mix together readings of texts and judgements about the social standing of the writer --'Nothing escapes the logic of the academic unconscious which guides this a priori distribution of respect or indifference', and less specialist readers have even less chance to escape prejudices.

Overall, Bourdieu et al. insist that sociologists have to manage their own peculiar point of view, which is to take the point of view of others and resituate it within social space -- this is possible only by remaining objective about all possible points of view. This in turn requires sociologists to objectify themselves, while remaining aware of their own place in the social world and trying to reconstruct the point of view of others in other places, 'to understand that if they were in their shoes they would doubtless be and think just like them' (p. 626). Readers will have to judge for themselves if the disciplinary efforts have delivered insights – in my view they have certainly delivered complexity and a depth of understanding of all those concerned, from criminals to policemen, local ‘ordinary racists’ to second-generation African immigrants.

Further thoughts on CRT

This discussion has focused on the counterstory as a research technique, while acknowledging its other functions. It is quite a different technique from the painstaking work involved in understanding in the Bourdieuvian sense. That is because much of the work has already been done in the form of the other tenets made by CRT in its other tenets, especially that racism is everywhere and pervades all institutions and even thought itself in White societies. Those broader claims, almost always explicitly stated in CRT work,  fill in the evidential gaps, so to speak, that link personal experiences with bureaucratic and institutional forms of denial and frustration.  The actual researcher can take these for granted. The levels must be linked for CRT theorists, but this can clearly introduce some circularity:  personal arguments must be indications of racism, without any need for further argument  if the whole system is agreed to be racist, and, equally, the system must be racist if there is so much unrelieved validated experience of personal racism.

These broader issues will be discussed in later papers.


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