Academic invalidation of Lived Experience

Cambridge’s Women’s Forum was hosted by FLY (the BME women’s group) last night. It was a fantastic event and a lively discussion where a lot of people probably were made to consider things they hadn’t before.

One of the points I was keen to emphasise at the event was one which is especially relevant to Cambridge and other ‘intellectual’ spaces: that of invalidating people’s lived experiences. The problem with academia on the whole and especially academia which is suffused with an inherent history of white male privilige, is that ‘knowledge’ and ‘truth’ are perceived in very limited ways and ways which marginalise and erase many people’s own experiences. So for example, the value placed on being able to debate in a persuasive, data-based and point-by-point manner means that most discussions at Cambridge – even those to do with personal experiences, feelings and opinions – are forced into the framework of ‘academic exercises’. Now, that isn’t always necessarily a negative thing, however, the problem is that when we place this form of discussion and this way of ‘knowing’ and ‘proving’ ‘the truth’ as the primary and most valid way; we devalue people’s lived experiences.

‘Ah but where are your statistics proving you experienced racist abuse?’

What I mean by this, to explain via an example, is me telling a friend that perhaps I felt I experienced a racist/Islamaphobic microaggression earlier in the day. If said friend begins to debate this with me – and not just questioning and analysing the situation which may be ruitful and illuminating – but questioning in a way that invalidates my lived experience because I have no ‘proof’, because it’s ‘anecdotal’ etc; this can actually be deeply deeply disempowering. When we invalidate or devalue the importance or ‘truth’ of feelings and anecdotes we actually reinforce the erasure and are complicit in the silencing of minority groups. Minority groups specifically, because these groups are groups without long histories of ‘databased’ experiences, of measured and empirically proven stories. Obviously this is the outcome of society, history and culture always representing the dominant group in the main; the result of unlogged, unwritten and unexplored histories; but normal everyday actions can perpetuate this silencing by simply upholding power-structures and hierarchies of ‘truth’.

We don’t have these databases!

This is something I get sick of in a Cambridge environment. Sick of having to explain my feelings in an essay format of point, evidence, explanation. Sick of being invalidated by people who say ‘I haven’t personally experienced that’. Because, as much as I understand that empathy is difficult; sympathy and listening are not. Accepting that sometimes you may not have considered something from someone else’s angle (because of course we live our lives trapped in our own skins which is hardly our own fault) is the start of creating truly intersectional feminism. Everyday of this week I have seen examples of where hierarchies of ways of knowing have silenced and been used to marginalise the already marginalised. On Monday at a talk on welfare in Cambridge testimonial accounts were dismissed – but what other account or database of mental health issues or staff problems do we have? On Tuesday I met the amazing, incredible Selma James who just proved to me how frustrating academia and academic expectations of ‘proof’ can be. Empathy, validation and intersectionality all come together. And though it is frustrating that intersectional approaches of empathy are so simple and yet so rare, I have hope.

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