Purpose: This article explores the strategies technical and professional communicators use in addressing issues of social injustice in their daily lives, including academic workplaces and communities. In embracing a storytelling approach and Black Feminist epistemology, we explore the limits of traditional heuristics, illustrating the need to couple storytelling and lived experience with heuristic frameworks.
Method: This study employs a qualitative, narrative inquiry methodology and semi-structured interview data collection approaches.
Results: Two elements of Walton, Moore, and Jones’ (2019) 4Rs heuristic were expanded upon and further articulated through participant stories. To help people develop the ability to recognize injustice, data identified three sources for building expertise: lived experience, reading and proximity to lived experience, and accumulation within and across experiences. Revealing injustices occurred through both planned, often written, responses and in-the-moment responses.
Conclusion: Stories and lived experience can augment our understanding of how heuristics work in context and provide a source of critical imagination for those attempting to use heuristics.
KEYWORDS: Social Justice, Workplace Writing, Heuristics, Narrative Inquiry, Black Feminist Theory
Heuristics are often used to simplify the work of technical communicators; stories and storytelling practices can aid in the localization of heuristics, particularly when entering into communities affected by systemic inequities.
The ability to recognize injustice in the workplace (and elsewhere) accumulates through lived experience—one’s own experiences and the experiences of others.
Written communication can play strategic roles in the work of revealing injustice in the workplace.
It is no secret that inequities and other kinds of injustice exist within professional spaces, including in academic workplaces (Gutiérrez y Muhs et al., 2012; Matthew, 2016). And, as advocates of a more socially just world, when we recognize an unjust process or terminology or practice, we want to replace it. But replacing is often institutionally complex. When a company hires a new UX specialist, for example, the interview process is often dictated by both organizational and historical norms, even if the standard practices are steeped in exclusionary language (e.g., using a term like “wizard” to describe ideal candidates) and technology (e.g., turning on closed captioning during Zoom interviews only if requested by candidates). As these examples suggest, replacement of these practices is rarely possible to do unilaterally or individually. Often it requires coalitions—or groups of people who are at least temporarily aligned in working together toward a common goal. Yet, in organizations such as universities and corporations, these efforts are typically siloed (i.e., centralized in one area of the organization like human resources in corporations or a diversity office in universities) (Ahmed, 2012). And the work of these siloed units tends to focus on individual bad behaviors, a focus which is not particularly useful for enacting institutional change.
Walton, Moore, and Jones (2019) introduced a heuristic, called the 4Rs, developed to support people in intervening against injustice:
- First, one must recognize injustice is occurring.
- The second step is reveal: putting together a coalition and calling upon a coalition to recognize, together, the problem. Drawing together this group can not only bring to bear a range of resources and perspectives but also build momentum for institutional change.
- The third R is rejecting the unjust practice or process, an important step that sweeps clear a path for the constructive work of . . .
- Replacing, which is the fourth R; this refers to both the dismantling and replacing of systems and the replacement of small acts of inequity and injustice.
Shortly after the 4Rs heuristic was published, the Office of Equity at Utah State University developed a new set of implicit bias training materials based directly on the 4Rs. They trained the deans and their respective leadership teams for all eight colleges using these materials, inviting feedback through conversations with trainees as well as through a post-training survey. Feedback from participants suggested that, alone, the 4Rs heuristic may not be sufficient to support people in engaging in the critically imaginative work necessary to get started (i.e., to recognize injustice as such when one encounters it in the mundane contexts of one’s daily work). Similarly, people can struggle with strategies of revelation: What’s the most effective way to reveal injustice to others?
Feedback from training attendees suggested they needed rich, localized narratives to supplement the heuristic. People came to the training from a range of starting places: some were brand new to the concept of implicit bias, while others had already engaged in deep reflections on equity, justice, marginalization, and other related topics. And the Office of Equity found that whether attendees needed to get started with introspection or just needed support in enriching the understandings they’d already developed, narrative was important: rich stories of human experience that reveal oppression in localized, and therefore very recognizable, ways.
This on-the-ground use of the 4Rs confirmed some of our own suspicions about the 4Rs: in order to make the heuristic really useful, it needed to be situated within contexts of use and lived experiences of redressing inequities. Our approach to situating the 4Rs within contexts of use included a narrative inquiry study, wherein we asked technical communication and rhetoric scholars who pursue social justice in their daily work to describe their interventions. We report a subset of our findings here.
Across the field of technical communication, heuristics have been used as tools for decision-making and design. One prominent example of heuristics is in Selber and Johnson-Eilola’s Solving Problems in Technical Communication. In each of the books’ chapters, authors provide readers with a heuristic for thinking about and addressing the topic. Spinuzzi’s (2013) chapter on organizational research is an apt example: not only do we learn from him about the ways organizational research unfolds in a case, but we also finish the chapter learning how we can use the best practices in organizational research in our own work. In providing the heuristic, Spinuzzi, like other authors, provides a portable frame for translating theory into practice in a variety of contexts. This is the draw of heuristics: they often bridge the particular and the abstract.
In web design and usability, heuristics help designers both evaluate (Donker-Kuijer, de Jong, & Lentz, 2010; Nielson, 2005) and make iterative design decisions (Rose & Cardinal, 2021). In other contexts, heuristics offer more expansive affordances: Simmons (2007), Sackey (2020), and Moore (2016), for example, offer heuristics as ways to design and develop ethical and just approaches to public engagement with environmentally risky projects and large-scale government planning. In these and other cases, heuristics broaden and sometimes even shift expectations as groups deliberate and make decisions.
Because of these affordances, we three have also developed heuristics in our collective work. In both “Disrupting the Past to Disrupt the Future” and Technical Communication After the Social Justice Turn, we employ heuristics (the 3Ps and the 4Rs, described above) to aid other technical communication scholars in their attempts to employ social justice in their specific contexts.
As we discuss in these (and other) works, in the past two decades, the field of technical and professional communication (TPC) has experienced a social justice turn, wherein scholars acknowledge the need to address the injustices brought about by the field of TPC. In 2012, Haas articulated the frustrating reality of teaching graduate students about race and technology in the field of TPC; after cobbling together readings for her students, she called on the field to develop its understanding of race, oppression, and colonizing practices more fully. In 2013, Agboka challenged the field to consider social justice within our methodological approaches. Drawing on decolonizing and participatory methodologies, he troubled the field’s positivist foundations and demonstrated the harm done to localized communities when our methodologies fail to engage justly with our participants. In 2011, Savage and Matveeva also connected social justice to our programmatic endeavors, arguing for the need to consider representation and diversity in our curricula and classroom practices. We joined these authors in 2016, seeking to disrupt traditional narratives about TPC that marginalized efforts towards integrating social justice into the fabric of our field.
Extending from the cultural turn and the acknowledgement of social constructivism, the social justice turn has resulted in several key claims or threads of research:
- The field of TPC should address issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion in its academic programs (Agboka, 2013; Dayley & Walton, 2018; Eble, 2020; Gonzales & Baca, 2017; Jones, Savage, & Yu, 2014; Savage & Mattson 2011; Savage & Matveeva 2011; Popham, 2016);
- Although the field of TPC engages in science and technology (and the communication surrounding both), neither science and technology nor the field’s communicative approaches are neutral—they often are complicit in systems of oppression (Haas, 2007; Sackey, 2018; Sano-Franchini, 2017);
- Although all scientific and technological endeavors intertwine with systemic injustice, some areas are particularly important for TPC to pay attention to: health and medical communication (Novotny & Hutchison, 2019; De Hertogh & DeVasto, 2020; technology design (Kim & Lane, 2019; Tham, 2020); public policy and participation (Jones & Williams, 2017; Moore, 2016); data and information practices (Atherton, 2021); workplace practices and policy (Edenfield, 2018; Petersen, 2019); and intercultural and global communication (Acharya, 2019; Baniya, 2019; Petersen & Matheson, 2017; Veeramoothoo, 2020; Walton & Hopton, 2018); and
- Social Justice endeavors can and should engage with a range of topical, theoretical, and methodological approaches, including disability theory (Zdenek, 2015, 2019), queer theory (Dadas & Cox, 2019; Edenfield, 2019; Green, 2020), feminist theory (Frost, 2016; Tham, 2019), theories of decoloniality (Agboka, 2013; Haas, 2012; Itchuaqiyaq & Matheson, 2021), trans theory (Sanchez, 2019), intersectionality (Gonzales, 2019), critical race theory (Martinez, 2018, 2020), and many, many others.
As might be obvious, the social justice turn has been handily taken up by a range of scholars in TPC. As we say in our 2016 article, however, there is still more work to do, even five years later. In order to effectively elaborate on the application of our 4Rs heuristic, we turn to Black Feminist Theory, a theoretical approach that unabashedly entangles activism and the development of theory. Black Feminism helps explain the ways that the participants in our study articulated their own knowledge about activism and the 4Rs. In exploring with participants how they understood the institutional oppression they worked to recognize, reveal, reject, and replace, we learned that dialogue and lived experience are central to the work of recognizing and revealing injustice.
BLACK FEMINIST THEORY
Black Feminist Theory is an expansive theoretical perspective that establishes a feminism that centers, supports, and responds to Black women’s experiences in the world. Although historically Feminist Theory has been taken up by scholars in technical communication (Frost, 2016; Koerber, 2000; Smith & Thompson, 2002), Black Feminism has only just begun to shape the way TPC frames and enacts its work (Moore, 2018; Shelton, 2020; Walton, Moore, & Jones, 2019). As Shelton and Moore demonstrate, however, Black Feminist Theory has the potential to create ethical and just guidelines for our work in TPC. We are specifically drawn to Black Feminist Theory because it encourages an epistemological shift away from the empirical and imperial logics that dominate TPC and towards an embrace of lived experience and stories as legitimate and valuable sources of knowledge.
In contradistinction to the (perhaps navel-gazing) theories of the academy, Black Feminist Theory grows out of action, stories, and lived experiences. Black Feminist scholar Ula Taylor (1998) explains:
[T]he historical evolution of Black feminism in the United States not only developed out of Black women’s antagonistic and dialectical engagement with White women but also out of their need to ameliorate conditions for empowerment on their own terms. (p. 235)
In her historical account of Black Feminism, Taylor locates Black Feminist Theory in activist actions taken by Black women, demonstrating the centrality of doing as the basis of the theoretical perspective. For the purpose of our study, the nature of the doing is worth noting here: Black women’s activism worked to empower Black women (and others) who have traditionally been marginalized by dominant power systems. Rising up out of abolition and civil rights efforts, Black Feminism took shape in its work, indivisible from the material, institutional, cultural, and emotional experiences of Black women activists. The stories of activists are Black Feminism.
Black Feminist Theory prompts us (as research-minded scholars and action-oriented practitioners) to shift our methods and heuristics: What kinds of stories and lived experiences can help clarify our theory? How can we build theory in and with experience, and how can we develop action- and decision-oriented heuristics that account for (rather than sideline) lived experience?
In 1998, Taylor argued that Black Feminist Theory grew out of the lived experiences of Black women fighting to address abolition and civil rights. Other key activists like Angela Davis, bell hooks, Audre Lorde, and Toni Morrison similarly respond to the need for civil rights and political justice. Out of her experience of working as a Black Panther, Davis (2011, 2012) provides a library of Black Feminist political approaches to domestic and global problems, including the prison-industrial system (and particularly the for-profit prison-industrial system). In Audre Lorde’s body of work (including essays, poems, and memoirs), Lorde writes from her experience as a Black lesbian to explore how we can and should address injustices around us. In “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” for example, Lorde (1984/2020) writes from her experience recovering from cancer to articulate a theory of power, silence, and language; her theory extends through an ethic of care with and from others. She writes:
The women who sustained me through that period . . . all gave me a strength and concern without which I could not have survived intact. Within those weeks of acute fear came the knowledge—within the war we are all waging with the forces of death, subtle and otherwise, conscious or not—I am not only a casualty, I am also a warrior. (p. 41)
While Lorde’s prose reads unlike other theories of power and knowledge, we rely on in the TPC field, the strength of her theory is the experience; indeed, the experience and the theory are one in the same. Elsewhere (Walton, Moore, & Jones, 2019), we use these and other activists’ work to articulate a theory of social justice for the field of technical communication, predicated on the potential for our action-oriented field to build with and from Black women’s work. But we draw attention here to the ways Black Feminist Theory does theory differently: it does theory in action, theory in experience, theory in relationship, and theory in dialogue. And as such, it requires theory with care and personal accountability.
Arguably, in the decades since Taylor’s 1998 article, an additional wave of Black Feminism has emerged, as Black women leaders have come to the forefront of political action in response to the unjust killing of Black men, women, and children at the hands of the police. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi founded #BlackLivesMatter, an organization and movement dedicated to creating visibility for police brutality against Black communities. In the 2020 Presidential elections, Stacey Abrams, and other Black women activists like LaTosha Brown, led the country in addressing Black voter suppression. In these recent stories of Black women leading the country towards a more just political and policing system, we recognize aspects of Black Feminist Theory in action and as action.
A particularly influential contribution to Black Feminist Theory is Patricia Hill Collins’ (2008) four tenets of Black Feminist epistemology, which provide a heuristic for making and assessing knowledge. Collins’ (2008) tenets can be summarized as follows:
Lived Experience as a Criterion of Meaning: Locating wisdom in knowledge differentiates between education and experience and reveres experience as a way of understanding the world (pp. 275-279).
The Use of Dialogue in Assessing Knowledge Claims: Valuing the antiphonal back-and-forth that generates knowledge through discussion rather than adversarial debate (pp. 279-281).
The Ethics of Caring, Emphasizing the Expressiveness: The emotions and empathy required to validate and build knowledge (pp. 281-284).
The Ethic of Personal Accountability: Reflecting on the relationship between the knowledge claim an individual makes and assuming responsibility for it vis-à-vis, connecting to an individual’s character, values, and ethics (pp. 284-285).
Further, Collins asserts that Black Feminist “epistemology uses different standards that are consistent with Black women's criteria for substantiated knowledge and with our criteria for methodological adequacy” (p. 275).
And, in our own field, Black women are shaping and extending our understanding of the role empowerment and activism can and should play in our work as professional and technical communicators. When Natasha Jones, for example, was the chair of the 2018 national conference for the Association for Teachers of Technical Writing, she (along with co-chair J. Blake Scott) devised the first-ever plenary panel, imagining it not just as a single talk, but instead designing a series of dialogic conversations between junior and senior scholars in the field. That’s a form of Black Feminist knowledge-making, brought to the field by a Black woman scholar. In “Shifting out of Neutral,” Cecelia Shelton (2020) enacts and explains Black Feminism by articulating her own positionality and lived experience as an opening for her pedagogical approach to teaching professional writing, positioning her scholarship within the Black Feminist tradition, and offering up her experience for others who teach professional writing. That’s a form of Black Feminist knowledge-making, brought to the field by a Black woman scholar. Kimberly Harper’s (2020) scholarship on Black women’s maternal health extends from lived experience and challenges technical communicators to approach their rhetorical work with an ethic of care. In her talk at the #BlackTechComm panel, Harper articulated a “Black rhetorics of health communication, BRHC for short,” which is rooted both in lived experience and in an ethic of accountability. BHRC, Harper explained:
Explicitly focuses on the experiences of Black patients and is grounded in the African rhetorical concept of nomo, which acknowledges the power of the word. So your word is your bond . . . You are required to be truthful and honest, and the word both written and spoken have the power to bring good into our worlds.
That’s a form of Black Feminist knowledge-making, brought to the field by a Black woman scholar.
At its heart, Black Feminist Theory rises up out of lived experience—the struggle to solve problems and to empower those at the margin—often emerging from stories and activism. To seek answers about how people intervene for social justice using the 4Rs, we developed our methodology through these tenets of Black Feminism:
- If we wanted to learn about activism, we should engage dialogically.
- If we wanted to learn about social justice, we should explore the lived experiences of those intervening for justice.
- If we wanted to study the activist, social justice approaches our colleagues were using, we needed an ethic of care and personal accountability built into our methods.
Drawing on Black Feminist Theory, we agreed that stories should be at the center of our project, for lived experience to motivate our study. And in the next section, we articulate our research methodology, further explaining the ways Black Feminist Theory motivated and shaped our narrative inquiry study.
METHODOLOGY AND METHODS
Our methodology, narrative inquiry, draws together Black Feminist Theory and more traditional qualitative research methods so as to highlight lived experiences through stories. As Jones (2020) notes, “when used critically with an eye to decolonizing, narrative inquiry—concurrently a methodology, perspective, and practice—calls for us to listen and privilege the particular and lived experiences, especially those of the multiply marginalized” (p. 520). Storytelling practices themselves have a long history in Black and Indigenous ways of learning, knowing, and being. Narrative inquiry, as described by Clandinin and Connelly (2000), pays special attention to place, temporality, and sociality. And while these narrative inquiry commonplaces were considerations for our study, we broadened our conceptualization of these themes using a Black Feminist perspective. That is, we sought to simultaneously grapple with the ambiguity, power dynamics, and interdependent nature of experience as narrative and narrative as experience. We sought participant stories that specifically address the ways in which participants intervened for social justice in their workplaces: how they encountered, recognized, and resisted oppression for themselves and on behalf of others. We listened carefully to the stories of marginalized scholars who shared their experiences with us, and we listened to the experiences of scholars from a multiplicity of positionalities whose lived experience involved addressing and redressing oppression in a variety of circumstances and contexts.
In an effort to gather stories, place these stories in conversation with one another, and “demand a thoughtful response” of ourselves and our field (Royster, 1996, p. 30), we engaged a narrative-oriented interviewing approach. As Tracy (2013) notes, interviews are appropriate for exploring complex ideas that aren’t easily observed or accessed, and they should be used when deep, rich narratives or accounts are needed to answer the research question. We interviewed 24 TPC scholars who considered social justice relevant to their work; although participants varied in their specific areas of research or training, all participants were current or former academics working within TPC or a closely related field. We sought answer to the following research questions:
- How have researchers in TPC worked to replace unjust or oppressive behaviors in their sites of work?
- How does positionality and margin of maneuverability affect the ways participants reveal and reject unjust or oppressive behaviors?
- How do participants identify, articulate, or describe situations in which they have recognized oppression or injustice?
Our IRB-approved study was designed using a modified snowball sampling approach that we call “coalitional sampling,” in which we asked participants, “Who’s in your coalition? Whose work do we need to learn about?” Ultimately, we listened to the stories of 24 scholars who varied in career level, university type, geographic location within the United States, and identity markers and characteristics (e.g., race, gender, ethnicity). Many participants identify as marginalized or multiply marginalized, and in our recruitment we sought varied representation across race, gender, and other identity markers. Here, it’s worth noting that although our participants had academic titles, many of them discussed stories and experiences from non-academic contexts: the stories we report come from governmental agencies, community-based organizations and NGOs, and large corporations, as well as university workplace contexts.
In addition to sampling through a coalitional approach, we also conducted the interviews as a coalition (rather than individually). For each narrative interview, at least two researchers engaged with the participants. Typically, one would take the lead on asking questions, while the other would take notes and ask follow-up questions. Interviews were audio recorded and transcribed, and the transcription was shared with participants as a form of member checking. Immediately following each interview, the researchers also wrote individual reflective memos. Finally, using memos and the transcribed interviews, we conducted thematic coding for the 4Rs (recognize, reveal, reject, and replace).
Our interview sessions lasted between 41 minutes and one hour and 15 minutes, and in total we collected just under 22 hours of interview data. These interviews were recorded, transcribed, and uploaded into NVivo. The thematic codes reported in this article emerged from analyzing the data according to our 4Rs heuristic. Participant stories were read and then analyzed for each stage of the 4Rs: recognize, reveal, reject, replace. We developed this framework with a goal of moving from critical analysis to critical action (Walton & Rose, 2015), seeking to contextualize our heuristic for engaging in coalitional, socially just change-making within academic and professional organizations. In reporting a subset of our findings in the Discussion section below, we provide exemplars from the data to preserve the storied nature of our data while also honoring the readers’ (and publication’s) need for digestible and reasonably sized reporting.
The 4Rs draw upon Black Feminist theoretical orientations that inherently call for theories as praxis, grounded in lived experience, attuned to issues of accountability as well as ambiguity, while negotiating power dynamics that can amplify or constrain ways of making meaning. Congruent with this Black Feminist perspective, our motivation for creating the 4Rs heuristic was to provide scholars with a way to redress inequity. But one cannot reject and replace oppressive practices without first recognizing them as such and revealing the recognized injustice (Walton et al., 2019, p. 133). In the Discussion section below, we discuss how these first two R’s surfaced in the narratives of scholars who shared their stories with us.
In this section, we share findings related to the first two R’s: recognize and reveal. Illustrated by stories from participants in TPC working to intervene for justice, this section helps us to better understand what makes someone able to recognize injustice as injustice when they encounter it at work and the strategies people use to reveal that injustice to others.
Each participant offered a number of stories about how they intervened in or addressed injustices, and these injustices varied wildly:
- A bureaucratic IT system deadnames a member of an organization.
- A community grant project procedurally and systematically excludes non-white community members.
- A supervisor offers unequal compensation for work across different racial groups.
- A hiring committee member questions the relevance of a BIPOC applicant’s skills while praising a white male applicant’s skills.
- A student in class uses a racial slur.
These are just a few examples, but they demonstrate that TPC scholars and practitioners are engaged in social justice work at varied levels and in a range of contexts, from the industry workplace to the community to the classroom. In our interviews, participants’ narratives helped us understand more concretely how to intervene in these and other injustices. One key takeaway from the study that’s useful to keep in mind is that these strategies are applicable across contexts, that workplaces (e.g., NGOs to corporations to start ups) inhere particular power, privilege, and positionality complexities that require focused attention to navigate and change.
Recognition Accumulates Through Lived Experience
Even according to the experts whom we interviewed, the ability to recognize injustice remains elusive—often connected to gut instinct or, as one participant said, “spidey sense.” When participants offered examples of interventions against injustice, we asked, “How did you know it was an injustice?” or “how did you know it was oppressive?” Narrative data related to recognition of injustice suggested that the ability to recognize accumulates through lived experience. Or, put another way, knowledge-making about injustice requires valuing lived experience, as highlighted in the first tenet of Black Feminist epistemology. In this section, we home in on two aspects of that finding: the kinds of lived experience that help people to recognize injustice and how that experience may accumulate.
Relevant Lived Experience
What kinds of experience helps people to develop the ability to recognize injustice when they encounter it in their sites of work (and other places, too, for that matter)? Black Feminist scholarship (e.g., Collins, 2008) has long noted that people who are multiply marginalized—say, women of color, for example—accumulate a lot of direct experience of oppression over many areas of their life over time, conferring upon them an expertise in oppression. Congruent with this scholarship, we found that this direct experience of being oppressed connotes expertise in recognizing oppression, even when that oppression does not personally affect oneself:
I think that there are a lot of instances where, I don’t want to say a lot of times, [sighs] the fight comes to me, but it does, you know. […] So I mean, sometimes it’s just, like, the shit I’m swimming in.
As illustrated in the quote above, for some participants, oppression was often the “shit they swam in” as they experienced injustice in many areas of their life, to include the workplace.
But direct, personal experience was not the only way that participants accumulated expertise in recognizing injustice. Many participants credited reading work by authors with marginalized identities with the participants’ own ability to recognize injustice when they encountered it in the workplace: for example, reading Black Feminist Theory, reading queer theory, reading popular press books by and about the lived experiences of marginalized people—especially people with identity markers different from their own (e.g., different gender or race). This engagement with reading about injustice raised some participants’ awareness, helping them to recognize injustice. A similar type of lived experience that helps people to recognize injustice includes having relationships with people whose identities—and therefore experiences—differ from their own. Like reading, these relationships enabled participants to accumulate knowledge about recognizing injustice by listening to others’ experiences. A final key was reflecting on what they had experienced, read, and heard. Reflection seems crucial to developing a kind of “spidey sense” that tingles in the moment and enables people to recognize that something is not simply unfortunate; it’s unjust.
The narrative below is representative of this lived experience, beginning with relationships with others, reading scholarship by marginalized authors, and feeling affected by it upon reflection:
I think part of my enculturation started with hanging out with feminists when I was an undergraduate . . . And then in reading people like Paulo Freire and Karl Marx, even, and bell hooks and Gloria Anzaldúa and, um, just being like, this [injustice they write about] is fucked up, right? […] I just remember my 20s as just being a really emotional time of caring about the world a lot. […] I’ve been trained into certain ways of feeling about the world, um, intellectually, and affectively. I can’t fully separate those, but right, and you just see something that’s wrong, and you, you want to do something about it.
It is important to acknowledge that reading about oppression does not equate with directly experiencing oppression. Afterall, as the first tenet of Black Feminist epistemology asserts, lived experience confers valuable knowledge and expertise. But this finding—that the ability to recognize injustice accrues through one’s own lived experience of oppression, as well as through exposure to and reflection upon other people’s lived experience of oppression—is particularly instructive to scholars who do not directly experience many types of oppression themselves. Those who occupy positions of privilege and who want to be “accomplices” in justice work will need to do more “homework.” It is through reading, learning about, and reflecting upon the lived experiences of marginalized people that accomplices can hone their ability to recognize injustice, including injustices they do not experience directly.
Accumulation — Within and across experiences
When asked about how they recognize injustice, participants told stories that demonstrated not only that lived experience shapes their recognition but also that the ability to recognize accumulates both within and across their experiences.
Accumulation within an experience
One participant, for example, tells a story that illustrates how their understanding of justice accumulated within the experience of a particular hiring process: although it wasn’t immediately clear that the hiring process was unjust, the participant’s discernment built over a series of small events within the single experience of trying to make a hire.
In this story, the participant’s department attempted to make a “diversity line” hire, but over the course of the hiring process, little discrepancies from the typical process started piling up. When a candidate arrived for a campus visit, an expense that the university typically covered directly wasn’t paid for, so the candidate had to self-pay and put in for reimbursement:
So, you know, as an isolated incident, I was just like, “Well, that sucks.” You know, like, “That’s weird.” Nothing like that happened to me on my visit, but, like, maybe someone just truly made a mistake. But it was like things kept happening.
In meetings with university administrators, candidates encountered some caginess and unwillingness to share information. Then there was another discrepancy in the campus visit agenda for these candidates versus others in past visits. The participant explained that, as they became aware of these discrepancies, the participant started wondering why this hiring process had so many seemingly small differences from the typical hiring process. Their “spidey sense,” a nagging feeling that something was amiss, began to tingle: “So it was like an accumulation of things where [I was] kind of like, ‘hmm.’”
A final problem confirmed the injustice: a significant omission in the offer package made to the diversity hire compared to a recent hire in the same field. When the candidate negotiated to request the omitted benefit, they encountered what seemed like feigned surprise that such a benefit would be requested, despite the same university unit having recently offered that particular benefit in an initial offer package to a recent hire in the same field. Discrepancy upon discrepancy, caginess in meetings with university representatives, differences in the campus visit agenda, and, finally, a less-competitive offer package. The participant explained that the accumulation of related incidents finally culminated, and they knew it was not a mistake or innocent difference of process; it was injustice.
Accumulation across disparate experiences
But recognition of injustice can also occur across disparate experiences. Participants explained that because they are attuned to injustice across different areas of their lives, they were able to recognize an instance of injustice when it cropped up. They were ready for it. In this story, a participant was meeting with an undergraduate student team comprised of several women of color and a white man. The man lamented to his teammates how hard it was for him to get an internship, especially as a white man. The participant immediately recognized that remark as a microaggression and initiated a conversation with the student team to reveal it as such.
When we asked the participant, “How did you know? How did you recognize that comment as microaggressive in the moment?” they explained that at the time, they were reading Safiya Noble’s Algorithms of Oppression, so they were thinking about the hidden ways that oppression manifests, and they were teaching a class on technology design and had just been talking with the class about how design can discriminate, and they were working on a research team in which they had to keep reminding their research partners about recruiting from marginalized communities because if they didn’t, then their findings would represent only the perspectives of dominant groups: “It was my spidey sense. […] It just felt like it [injustice] was all, it was in the air. It was all around.”
So it was from within this context of reading and teaching and researching injustice that the participant encountered a student microagressing his teammates by implying that they can more easily secure internships because of their marginalized identities. And the participant explained, “And l had that feeling of, like, not again, not a project that I care about deeply. We’re not gonna do that.”
To summarize this finding, the ability to recognize injustice accumulates through lived experience. Relevant experiences include direct experience of oppression oneself, as well as encountering (e.g., through readings or relationships) and reflecting upon the experiences of others, especially those whose identities differ from oneself. The accumulation of relevant experiences can occur in at least two ways: 1) when seemingly small, related incidents accumulate to signal injustice, and 2) when one is attuned to injustice across multiple areas of their life, which helps them to immediately recognize injustice when they encounter it.
Stories about recognizing injustice offer TPC scholars and practitioners useful starting points for developing their own skills at recognizing injustice:
- Expertise in recognizing injustice requires lived experience. It can’t be achieved through abstract engagement with ideas alone.
- Expertise in recognizing injustice for multiply marginalized or underrepresented (MMU) scholars is embodied and accumulates over time by nature of living as a marginalized person.
- Expertise in recognizing injustice can be developed purposefully. It emerges through the targeted cultivation of long-term engagement to educate oneself about injustice: listening to folks impacted by injustice, reading about others’ lived experiences of oppression, and reflecting upon what one has heard and learned. For folks with more privilege, developing this ability to recognize oppression requires intentionally, reflectively working to attune themselves to it.
- We don’t always immediately know the difference between a mistake/discrepancy and an actual injustice. Even for MMU folks, there can be moments of questioning (e.g., “Was that really what I think it was?”). But when we are attuned to our “spidey sense” and acknowledge our experiences as valuable ways of knowing, we can pay better attention (i.e., be open to recognizing injustice) and be prepared for the next step: revealing injustice to others.
In Technical Communication After the Social Justice Turn, we (2019) articulate the work of revealing as central to building coalitions and taking action. Simply recognizing injustices doesn’t complete the work of redressing inequities, and we wanted to understand who our participants communicated with about injustices and how this reveal led to rejecting and replacing injustice.
As our participants shared, revealing injustice—especially to those who have caused it—can be an unwelcome message that can put vulnerable people at risk. And even if one reveals to people other than those causing the injustice, it can be difficult to explain, especially when one’s own recognition is based on ways of knowing that are not recognized by dominant culture as legitimate, such as lived experience and “spidey sense.” In this section, we share some strategies for revealing injustice, as illustrated by the stories of our participants. In analyzing the strategies used by participants to reveal injustice, we noted that one meaningful distinction is whether the reveal is planned (when one can plan ahead about how to reveal a particular injustice) versus in the moment (when one is just doing their job and—boom!—they recognize injustice that they reveal immediately). These two types of reveals suggest two different forms of intervention and strategies for coalition building.
Planned reveals inhere a kind of strategizing that often involves written communication. Indeed, across our participants’ stories, we noted that written forms of TPC were often central to the work of revealing injustice. For example, one participant explained that a report was released at the university level about the lack of diversity on campus. That report provided exigence for developing a diversity statement for a university working group of which the participant was a member. The participant wanted the university group to adopt a diversity statement that specifically and accurately reflected its support for diversity. Past experience (e.g., hiring committee discussions) had demonstrated that many of the participant’s colleagues were uncomfortable talking about race. They’d talk around it, talk about everything except race, but would not mention or discuss race. So the participant felt like it might be hard to get their colleagues to talk about diversity in the context of their working group (e.g., what it had to do with them, as well as laying out their group’s particular stance or position on diversity as it relates to their work).
The participant recognized that the group’s unwillingness or inability to discuss racial inequities could act as a barrier to the goal of crafting and adopting a diversity statement. So the participant began by creating a class project in which students could conduct research and then collaboratively, iteratively develop a diversity statement that the participant could pitch to the working group:
So our final assignment in that technical writing class was to develop a statement that our [working group] could use and then propose that statement to the [working group]. And so what we would do is vote on the top statement, work on it together as a class, and then I would pitch it to the [working group]. And so essentially, that’s what happened. We came up with a statement. We talked a little bit about what we wanted the statement to include. They [the students] did some analysis of the [working group], what we wanted, essentially, and, and yeah. I pitched the statement, after some small revisions, to the [working group]. And it was interesting. We had to have conversations about what the [group] is like, who are we. And that, I think, helped to open up some conversations about race in a way that I was hoping to see. So we have faculty that I’d never seen talk about race before end up saying, you know, “Well, what about this? Like, how can we—?” And so it became more like our [group] working on a document collectively.
Before the working group’s meeting, the participant sent the draft statement to attendees to seed their thinking. Then the participant used handouts during the meeting to direct the focus of the conversation. As conveyed in the story above, their colleagues were actively engaged, discussing race and other considerations of diversity more directly and specifically than the participant had ever observed.
This story demonstrates some useful roles for written text in planned reveals. Written text, such as the university-wide report documenting the lack of diversity, can provide exigence for a reveal and offer a more widely legitimized type of evidence to support the message that injustice is occurring. Additionally, this participant was able to use written text to create a productive environment for discussing uncomfortable topics. Sending out the text of the diversity statement before the meeting enabled meeting attendees to begin thinking about considerations of identity, marginalization, representation, and diversity ahead of time. In the meeting itself, the draft statement provided a focus for conversations, allowing colleagues to workshop documents, not ideas.
Another example highlighting the usefulness of written text in planned reveals is noteworthy in part because the participant first engaged in an in-the-moment reveal which they followed up in writing with a planned reveal. This participant observed a lack of diversity in a group being selected for a highly visible representational role:
Their diversity is a very specific kind of diversity. So when they’re choosing people of color, they will choose younger, fair-skinned, traditionally attractive people of color as a part of their, as a part of their face of diversity and not, and not others that don’t fit that.
In the moment, the participant raised concerns verbally in a meeting, pointing out that few people of color had been selected and that those selected were disproportionately young and light skinned. But the participant didn’t stop with a verbal, in-the-moment reveal because they didn’t believe it would be sufficient to prompt the next two R’s (reject and replace):
I also tell them, “And, yeah, by the way, I went ahead and, and emailed the diversity folks in the [working group] because I think it’s important that they know this too.” […] Because I know that a lot of times if I don’t use all of the resources that I have at hand, nothing’s going to happen. […] Because they may not recognize or be willing to recognize what I’m saying without a little extra push.
As described in the story above, after the meeting the participant contacted the organization’s diversity group to register their concern and then, as an additional motivator to take action, followed up with the original party in writing to say they had informed the diversity group of the concern. In this story, we note additional roles for written communication in the work of revealing injustice:
- Written communication can reinforce and remind about verbal reveals, which is often necessary even when all parties are well meaning and share values.
- Written communication can be harder to ignore than verbal reveals, which makes written text especially useful when all parties don’t share the same values or priorities.
- Written communication can call in relevant coalition members who can add ethos, or credibility, to the reveal and lend their expertise to the next steps of rejecting and replacing unjust practices or decisions.
Planning ahead for a strategic revelation of injustice can be useful, but that’s not always possible. Many study participants had the experience of just doing their jobs and recognizing something unjust right in the moment that needed to be revealed immediately. Appropriate strategies for in-the-moment reveals vary according to the particular circumstance and, especially, the positionality of the stakeholders involved. But one strategy that several participants employed for in-the-moment reveals is framing the reveal within in a larger structural context. Framing an in-the-moment reveal structurally offers several benefits. For example, structural framing shifts the focus of the reveal from an individual to social structures, which can reduce defensiveness and support recognition. Framing in-the-moment reveals structurally also offers an alternative way of recognizing injustice that’s not based solely on intentions of the perpetrator. Especially if people feel defensive, they may respond to a reveal by defending their own intentions (e.g., “I didn’t mean to be ableist!”) rather than reflecting on the effects of their words or behavior. And, finally, framing in-the-moment reveals structurally equips for future recognition of injustice; it contextualizes the specific instance of injustice in ways that can help the person recognize not just this particular instance but to begin accumulating expertise based on lived experience to be better able to recognize future injustices.
Illustrating how one might frame a reveal structurally is a story from one participant about their experience of serving on a hiring committee. The hiring committee was composed of trusted colleagues, all of whom were explicitly committed to broadening the representation of their faculty to include more members of underrepresented groups. They shared a goal that was justice related, as well as long-standing positive relationships. It was a best-case scenario. And yet, even in this context, the participant observed that one of the candidates who wasn’t the best fit for the programmatic needs laid out in the job ad was getting a lot of positive attention in the committee discussions. So the participant spoke up to caution the group:
And I said, “I just want to caution us against getting too hyped about a white guy with cool tech.” And one of my colleagues on the committee took offense to that and said, “Well, you can’t say that. You couldn’t say that about, you know, what if you’d said that about a Black candidate?” And I was like, “No, no, no. Because implicit bias works both ways. Right? It’s not just bias against; it’s bias for.”
The participant went on to explain that because implicit bias tends to make people predisposed towards those who are the most like ourselves, the committee, which was composed solely of white faculty members, needed to be especially careful in guarding against implicit bias toward certain candidates as well as implicit bias against others. The initial exchange led to multiple follow-up conversations: an extensive discussion in the next hiring committee meeting as well as private discussions outside of the committee. Not only did the committee go on to hire an outstanding MMU scholar, but also the previously offended colleague came to acknowledge the value of guarding against implicit bias:
He and I talked about it after the fact and he said, “When you put it that way, right, like, that’s great. I just, I really reacted badly to the way that you phrased, you know, like, ‘the white guy with cool tech.’” And then he was like, “And also I mean, to be fair, out of our entire candidate pool, that was the candidate who looked most like me, […] so maybe there’s some bias towards replicating ourselves.”
This story not only illustrates the potential effectiveness of framing in-the-moment reveals in a broader structural context but also demonstrates that reveals often need to be repeated and followed up. Such follow-up conversations provide time for people to reflect upon what happened and shift their focus away from themselves (e.g., their own intentions) and instead to center marginalized perspectives (e.g., possible effects or outcomes).
This example also illustrates that even when one is working in coalition, has good relationships with the people involved, and when everyone is working toward an agreed-upon, justice-related goal, a reveal still might become necessary. And that reveal may not seem to be effective, initially. At first, the participant didn’t think it necessary to frame the reveal in a structural context:
Everybody in the room was aware of the fact and on board with the idea that we need to pay some very explicit attention to diversity among our faculty, and recruitment is the place to start. Like, like, I knew that this was a receptive audience to all of those things. So it [my tone] was mostly joking. In terms of the phrasing, writing out the content, I didn’t think that I would need to spell it all out. Right? That what I was saying was a caution about a type of implicit bias that we might not be looking for.
But such structural framing was necessary—it provided a context to recognize and interpret the dynamic of the conversations the hiring committee was having and the decisions those conversations would lead to.
Another story similarly illustrates the effectiveness of structurally framing an in-the-moment reveal. This participant was leading a class discussion when a student used a problematic term without recognizing it as racist and classist. The participant explained to us that they felt comfortable pausing the lesson-focused discussion to have an extended discussion historicizing the term and opening a dialogue with the class to reveal the term as dehumanizing. In describing their reveal, the participant explained that their approach sought to frame the reveal around the language, not a person:
Nobody likes to be called a racist. Right? And I, what I’ve also realized is that like, I’m also like, white people in particular do not like to be called racist, and calling people racist, I think, what it does is it, unfortunately, it shuts them down. And it prevents them from thinking critically. […] So they’re not really focusing on the situation. So the thing that I’ve always done and I’ve always thought to be helpful is to sort of focus on the activity and not the person. […] Because I think what’s really important is that in people’s minds, when they think about racism, classism, or any particular, like, issue of that kind, it’s always about intent, right? It’s easier to sort of recognize racism, if it’s intent, right? The KKK is intentionally being racist. But if you sort of take intent away, you need to focus on the activity. Then I think what people can, can think about is like, “Oh, where does this come from? […] I’m practicing something that was given to me.” And let’s sort of, like, unpack this and think about the larger effects of doing this.
This participant wanted the student, and the class at large, to be able to think critically about not only the particular term but also its broader social and historical context, to recognize the way that we tend to accept our social world with its oppressive structures, including linguistic structures, which can make it difficult recognize injustice without critical reflection. To reveal that message effectively, the participant used structural framing targeted to language and action.
Our research study solicited stories of lived experiences of redressing injustices in order to hone the usefulness of the 4Rs heuristic. Participant stories sharpened our understanding of the first two R’s, recognize and reveal, and these stories can lay a foundation for others to work from the heuristic. As these stories demonstrate, no situation wherein we attempt to address or redress inequity has a perfectly pre-charted path. And although heuristics allow us to think through situations, the thinking, planning, and strategies needed to employ a heuristic for justice requires critical imagination, which Royster and Kirsch (2012) define as “an inquiring tool, a mechanism for seeing the noticed and the unnoticed, rethinking what is there and not there, and speculating about what could be there instead” (p. 20). Pairing stories with heuristics provide opportunities to expand beyond what the individual user of the heuristic might, themselves, imagine. Our data suggests that stories are important touchpoints for a Black Feminist framework to understanding inequities, and we offer these stories to invite and stimulate the critical imagination necessary for redressing inequities, forming coalitions, and building a more just future.
Our study thus has implications not only for TPC practitioners and scholars doing the work of social justice and developing expertise in intervening against unjust practices in their workplaces and beyond. When engaging with any heuristic (not just the four Rs) that seeks justice—here, we think about Simmons’ (2007) heuristic for creating more equitable and just public participation—stories can provide a foundation for working within particular contexts. In other words, lived experience matters. Further, heuristics being used towards justice require both an ethic of care and personal accountability. These ethics can be enacted by honoring lived experiences and by working in dialogue. For academics, this is particularly important: If we are to do theory in dialogue with others and in relationship with others, we cannot cozy ourselves up to our own ideas, to our solitary desks and abstract thoughts. Instead, we must engage with care, because our ideas are connected to people and their lives, which means our words and theories have the potential to do violence.
Our study also has methodological implications: it shows how useful and appropriate narrative inquiry is for the study of social justice. As our stories demonstrate, the commonplaces of narrative inquiry provide insight for how narrative inquiry works alongside (not in tension with) heuristics. More specifically, narrative inquiry commonplaces (e.g., sociality, temporality, and place [Clandinin & Connelly, 2000]) are evident in the ways that participants situated their stories about their experiences with injustice. For example, many of our participants talked about specific spaces and places (geographic and symbolic) in which they encountered injustice. Their stories about injustice in some ways are tied to the spaces and places in which they did the work of recognizing injustice or revealing injustice. We see this, for example, when participants describe being in the classroom, being in a meeting, or being in a particular geographic region. The commonplace of temporality is perhaps the most visible in our participants’ stories about accumulating the ability to recognize injustice over time—both within and across events. In the case of MMU folks, temporality may function more subtly because oppression is, as one participant described, “the shit one swims in.” In other words, many MMU folks accumulate the ability to recognize oppression because unabating experiences of oppression over the course of their lifetime confer this expertise. Finally, the sociality commonplace is also readily apparent in the way participants shared their stories. As a methodology and as an approach, narrative inquiry focuses on lived experience (Clandinin & Connelly, 2000), and people lead “storied lives” (p. 40). So, the sociality of our experiences is inherent in the stories we tell, share, and co-construct. Further, because “people shape their daily lives by stories of who they and others are and they interpret their past in terms of these stories,” stories are indeed a valid way of understanding living, being, and existing in the world (p. 40). We know from Black Feminist Theory that lived experience confers valuable knowledge. Built upon the foundation of Black Feminist epistemology, our research indicates that the ability to recognize injustice accumulates based on storied, lived experiences. This finding pushes back against “objective” or “provable” definitions of “evidence” as the only valid foundations of expertise.
In addition to offering methodological implications, this study also illustrates how Black Feminist Theory, and its epistemological tenets, can illumine the work of TPC practitioners and scholars, particularly (though not exclusively) as we work towards social justice and inclusion in our practices. Yet much more potential for marrying Black Feminism and TPC exists, and future explorations are needed to fully engage TPC and Black Feminism. Individually and coalitionally, our future research will be dedicated to the amplification of Black Feminisms, Black Feminists, and other theoretical and methodological approaches that remain at the margins of the field. This dedication enacts Mckoy’s (2019) framework for amplification rhetorics, introduced in her award-winning dissertation:
AR [amplification rhetorics] are characterized by three tenets: (1) the reclamation of agency (ownership of embodied rhetorical practices), (2) the accentuation and acknowledgement of narratives (validated lived experiences), and (3) the inclusion of marginalized epistemologies (that add to new ways of learning). (p. 27)
In other words, by crafting a narrative inquiry study built upon the foundations of Black Feminist Theory, we engage in amplification rhetorics that contribute to the TPC field by centering marginalized perspectives.
We close by acknowledging the limits of this article and the research study on which it reports in moving the needle of the field: this is but one study from one critical frame. We need more studies of social justice work from different coalitions, different perspectives, and with different marginalized epistemologies in order to fully realize an inclusive and just TPC. Further, the study could be expanded by exploring the 4Rs heuristic with other populations in different areas of study, and we plan to expand our participant pool to include other disciplinary experts and practitioners.
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ABOUT THE AUTHORS
Dr. Kristen R. Moore is an associate professor in the Departments of Engineering Education and English at the University at Buffalo, where she researches how technical communicators might intervene in the seemingly mundane justices that creep into organizational policies and procedures. She is the co-author of Technical Communication after the Social Justice Turn, and a number of award-winning articles and book chapters.
Dr. Natasha N. Jones is a technical communication scholar and co-author of the book Technical Communication after the Social Justice Turn: Building Coalitions for Action (winner of the 2021 CCCC Best Book in Technical or Scientific Communication). Her research interests include social justice, narrative, and technical communication pedagogy. She holds herself especially accountable to Black women and marginalized genders and other systemically marginalized communities. She currently serves as the President of the Association of Teachers of Technical Writing (ATTW) and is an Associate Professor at Michigan State University in the Writing, Rhetoric, and American Cultures department.
Dr. Rebecca Walton is an associate dean in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Utah State University and the editor of the journal Technical Communication Quarterly. Dr. Walton researches how people intervene for justice in their workplaces. Her co-authored scholarship has won multiple national awards, including awards for best book, best theory article, and best empirical research article. Her research has informed implicit bias training, policy revision, and curriculum development at multiple universities.