Epistemic Justice: Therapy as a Liberatory PracticeOn August 20, 2021 by sarmientoverano
By: Lucia Sarmiento Verano
Can Therapy help us fight against Epistemic Injustice?
I keep coming back to writing about perspectives different than the White European middle class one. I am constantly reminding my readers how these tend to be invisibilised and dismissed, in favour of a Eurocentric viewpoint.
I have previously explained how perspectives from the Global North, in particular a white cis middle class perspective is the one dominating the world right now and the effects this can have in terms of distance between therapist and client, and in turn, on the therapeutic alliance, on feelings of cultural shame and our therapeutic models.
There is something else to be said about the importance of fully acknowledging and honouring different perspectives. It has to do with how the person feels in this world, navigates it. Dismissing entire worldviews and meaning making systems has the effect of fostering a sense of hopelessness and helplessness which can in turn result in passivity, repression, depression (Freire, 1989) that go as far as intra community violence or violence against even more marginalised communities.
Epistemology is the study of knowledge, its origin, method of production, validity, scope etc. Every culture and every community has its own way of meaning making, its own knowledge of the way this world and our societies function, including humans, the natural world and our relationships.
Colonisation and oppression over the past few centuries was not only a matter of physical extermination, economic domination and exploitation. It was also a matter of cultural and epistemological domination, by which the Eurocentric perspectives and epistemologies were imposed over others which became marginalised and considered inferior.
Thus Epistemic Injustice is when someone or a community is wronged in their capacity as a knower. It happens mainly to oppressed groups and includes silencing, distortion or undervaluing of one’s meanings etc. For example, colonized groups were wronged when colonisers replaced the concepts and categories that the colonized groups used to understand themselves and the world (Bhargava, 2013).
The origins of this concept can be traced back to the work of Sojourner Truth in the 1860s and Anna Julia Cooper in the 1890s, in their claims that Black women are denied recognition as knowers. More recently Spivak’s work on the subaltern (1988) mentioned how subaltern persons are prevented from speaking about their own interests because others claim to know better.
The effects of Epistemic Injustice
If our way of knowledge, our perspective, epistemology and our way of making sense of this world is invalidated or invisibilised, and we grow up adopting a dominant perspective like colonised peoples had to do over the last few centuries, we lose our own way of making sense of the world. In turn, we lose the feeling of our capacity to be actors in this world and to shape or change it (Santos, 2018; Freire, 1989).
Historical epistemicide disempowers people and communities “rendering them incapable of representing the world as their own in their own terms, and thus considering the world as susceptible to being changed by their own power and for their own objectives.” (Santos, 2018). Fatalism and passivity may be some of the effects brought by epistemic injustice or violence, a sense of helplessness and inferiority, internalised gaze of the oppressor over one’s own community. These effects can be seen at a personal level as well as at a collective level.
Thus decolonial efforts start by building, validating and gathering epistemologies and perspectives of marginalised groups. Acknowledging their histories as seen from their standpoint and their lived experiences by way of testimonial practices, counter-memorials and artistic practices which are incredibly powerful tools of resistance.
Having said this, it is important to note that Black and Indigenous communities have been surviving this epistemicide, along with an ongoing attempt at physical genocide for centuries. Their resilience and resistance in finding new ways to keep their knowledge, cultures and perspectives alive is where this wisdom comes from primarily. We owe this knowledge to them. Let’s not fall into the trap of thinking that the white men that have written about this have discovered these practices of resistance. That is not the case.
Oppression in the Room: Risk of Epistemic Violence
Now let’s consider this within the context of therapy work. Oppressive violence has an epistemic side to it. As someone that has been in an abusive relationship for a long time, a person having suffered from racist abuse for example is not usually given spaces or tools to acknowledge or validate what has happened to them. Society is in a constant state of denial and gaslighting around these issues and marginalised people may even start doubting their own reality, or their perceptions of their own experiences.
What happens when someone that has suffered from epistemological injustice, and may be epistemically homeless (Kinouani, 2017) comes to counselling?
Therapy is supposed to be the safe space where a person that has been wronged can fully express and make meaning of their experiences and their world. When working with someone coming from a culture outside of the Eurocentric paradigm that underlies psychotherapeutic theories and practice, there is a clear risk of reproducing Epistemic Injustice within the work. This, especially if the therapist is not aware that our frameworks and theories come from the same dominant perspective as the epistemology that has attempted to erase the client’s ancestral worldview and their community’s experiences.
From a Transactional Analysis perspective, Keith Chinnock and Karen Minikin have conceptualized the Colonising Process (2015) to describe ways in which the therapist may consciously or not oppress the client by imposing their frame of reference without due consideration of alternative values or perspectives. This, the authors say, is more likely to happen in moments where the therapist may be feeling insecure, threatened or undermined, and may seek containment in theory and frameworks. It’s a power dynamic designed to recover a sense of safety in our work. Their concept draws the link between this dynamic and actual processes of colonisation.
The potential parallel to our work is that when we inadvertently misuse our position as practitioners by using our knowledge defensively, we may put pressure on our clients to take something from us (eg a diagnosis or an interpretation) and in that process we may take something from them. In reframing their subjective experience we risk robbing them of an aspect of their process or identity.
I would argue that when the counsellor comes from a dominant culture and the client from a marginalised perspective this process happens more often than we think, at an unconscious level. This, not only when the counsellor is feeling vulnerable or threatened and using theory or frameworks to understand what is going on. I believe it happens routinely, when the therapist has not done the work of learning about colonial power dynamics and of exploring their own oppressive behaviours.
Moreover, Chinnock and Minikin draw on Christopher Bollas’ concept of Extractive Introjection (1987) which conceptualises the act of theft of an element of a person’s psychic life. He described four types of Extractive Introjection, but we are specifically concerned by one of them today.
The Theft of the Self happens when we deconstruct our client’s histories according to how we see them. We may risk robbing them of their history seen through the lens of their own cultural heritage. In other words we may rob them of their own story told and felt in their own way. Alongside the potential benefits of deconstructing our histories, there is a risk of loss. Bollas describes this potential loss of our histories and identities as a “catastrophe, from which there may well be no recovery.” (p.166)
Restoring Epistemological Homes
The client’s truth relating to their positionality and their experiences of oppression are to be taken seriously. Clients coming with stories of gendered violence, racial trauma, cultural shame, etc. have most likely also experience constant denial of their experience and gaslighting. The level of epistemic injustice in all areas of society may also have left some people without the capacity to know what has happened to them, or to name it.
We can see this when we see people minimising their own emotional reactions to experiences of oppression, dismissing their own interpretations of certain dynamics, or not recognising the abusive nature of racist comments for example.
Now therapy should be a space to allow the client to explore their own truth and experience, to make meaning of it themselves. Imagine working with someone having suffered from domestic violence or childhood sexual abuse, and coming out of a situation in which they could not talk about their experience for fear of not being believed. Imagine them coming to therapy and getting no response from the therapist when they share their stories, a blank screen, or worse, having a therapist openly deny what happened to them. Unethical, violent and harmful right? If we cannot imagine doing that with someone having suffered interpersonal abuse, why is it common practice when a client of colour attempts to share their experience with racism in the therapy room?
Everytime this happens, even in the most subtle ways therapy only reinforces a lifetime of epistemic violence and injustice that the client and their community have suffered. The therapist doesn’t even need to be aware of what’s happening to enact this violence.
As I have stated earlier, this may happen even when it is not our intention, at a subtle and unconscious level, especially if as therapists, we are from a dominant culture. However we can develop our work and learn to mitigate this. Being constantly aware of the power dynamics, structural and institutional in the relationship is a start. Aware of what privileged/dominant positions we hold in front of our client informs us directly of what experiences we might be more inclined to not see, not hear, or worse, to colonise because of power differentials.
Therapy can be a generative exploration, in the freirian sense, by providing space to let the client’s own questions emerge, making them generative questions to explore and elucidate the truth of their experience. Never in an individualised way but always working with knowledge of their context and social power dynamics. Sometimes the client with lived experience is not aware of the particular structural power dynamics in which their negative experiences are embedded. In this sense the therapist can be called to naming some of these dynamics, after thorough exploration of the client’s experience.
Practicing Naming and Conscientization
I am aware that Person-centred approaches can be very averse to the practice of naming. I personally find this attitude potentially harmful (I am immediately reminded of the dreadful video of Carl Rogers “counselling” an unnamed black man). Lack of naming from the therapist is the equivalent of silence, and in the context of oppression and discrimination, silence is violence.
It is not about avoiding putting our words on an experience at all costs, as it is not about interpreting ourselves every single aspect of a client’s experience. There is a middle ground to this. It is, of course, important to understand the risks and to keep them in mind. We can facilitate thorough exploration of our clients experience, reactions and emotions before naming the dynamics we are seeing. Naming also requires tentativeness as well as checking if what we have offered fits the client’s experience.
Given that, as I mentioned earlier, some people may not have the tools yet to recognise the abusive dynamics of oppression due to constant denial and gaslighting, it is our duty as therapists to provide the space and, sometimes, the concepts to acknowledge the harm our clients endure. Not only this, but to help them resist internalising oppression by putting their experiences into context, situating them as embedded within a racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, ableist system. Putting words on the enormity of structural violence is also a way of helping people understand their own emotional reactions as normal and valid.
As such, naming is about mental liberation via conscientization (and if you haven’t read Freire or Martin-Baro yet get to it). This means facilitating a critical understanding of the client’s difficulties in the social context and helping them get to the root causes of the harm they endure. This knowledge, which may seem overly politicised to some, threatening to others, gives the client more choices. They will be equipped to respond to this harm by thinking of appropriate coping and resistance strategies, something impossible to do when the real root cause of harm is not clearly identified.
Restoring a sense of agency like so helps address what Freire and Santos had described, by helping marginalised peoples become actors aware of their capacity to change the world. Conscientization is, in my view, how we go beyond a non-racist stance to an actively anti-racist approach as therapists.
I personally believe the movement toward Epistemic Justice in general is not only about making space for more marginalised voices and experiences to be heard humbly and respectfully. That is a necessary start, but things need to go much deeper than that.
Epistemic Justice requires taking people’s experiences and stories of oppression seriously enough, to be impacted deeply enough, to commit ourselves to participate actively in the struggle for change alongside them. It is the continuous practice of abandoning our cultural dominant certainties and of letting ourselves, as therapist and as human beings, be transformed by what we hear and what we witness. In turn, we ought to apply these leanings and unlearnings around us, including in our work.
Bhargava, Rajeev (2013). “Overcoming the Epistemic Injustice of Colonialism”. Global Policy. 4 (4): 413–417
Bollas C. (1987) The Shadow of the Object. Columbia University Press.
Chinnock, K. & Minikin, K. (2015) Multiple Contemporaneous Games in Psychotherapy: Psychodynamic and Political Perspectives. Transactional Analysis Journal, 45(2), pp141-152
Freire, P. (1989) Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum
Martin-Baro I. (1994) Writings for a liberation psychology. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Santos, Boaventura de Sousa (2018) The End of the Cognitive Empire, The Coming of Age of Epistemologies of the South. Durham; London: Duke University Press
Spivak, Gayatri Chakravorty (1988), “Can the Subaltern Speak?”, Marxism and the Interpretation of Culture, Macmillan Education UK, pp. 271–313
TED. (2017, December 1). Epistemic Homelessness | Guilaine Kinouani | TEDxUCLWomen [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MoKBLPbkB5I&ab_channel=TEDxTalks
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