Faculty Spotlight

“When Does Resilience Turn into Epistemic Injustice?” An Interview with Renada Goldberg

The following conversation took place between Dr. Renada Goldberg, Assistant Professor in the School of Social Work at Simmons University, and Taylor Eubanks, graduate student in the Gender and Cultural Studies program. Professor Goldberg talks about her current project for the Hazel Dick Leonard fellowship that rethinks resilience in relation to epistemic injustice.

What are you working on for the HDL seminar?

Renada Goldberg: For the seminar I’m working on a paper tentatively titled: “When Does Resilience Turn into Epistemic Injustice?” I’m looking at epistemic injustice versus resilience and writing a commentary about how we as scholars, researchers, and practitioners in social work, in particular, think and talk about resilience as an internal motivation to do well, despite substantial risk factors.

In my paper, I say that resilience is a bad word—I refer to it as “the R-word.” Folks of color and those who hold marginalized identities, we are told to be resilient at our own expense. It is difficult when we’re constantly told to be resilient, but the problem is the structural systems we have to be resilient against.

So we're asked to change rather than the systems changing. That means social workers who hold marginalized identities are often expected to exemplify people who have resilience, to represent people who have adapted to racist, sexist, homophobic “isms” in the system. Our positions somehow mean we’re more resilient, but that assumption puts us at a disadvantage. We're told we’re resilient, but we have clients that look like us or share our identities who are told they're not resilient.

Does this mean that the system is asking too much of social workers and clients?

RG: Yes. I’ll back up a bit to better explain how. To begin, epistemic injustice is a branch of epistemology—the study of knowledge or how we know what we know. As the people who are receiving information, do we trust information coming from a particular person or group of people? An epistemic injustice occurs when we don't truly believe the words or experiences of certain people based on societal prejudices about them.

An example of this is clear in rape culture. Women are not necessarily trusted when they say they've been sexually assaulted. They need proof or evidence because we don't understand how they can be a victim if they wear short skirts, or live in small towns in Massachusetts where “things like that don’t happen,” or the rape occurs in the afternoon, and especially if the accused is someone we consider to be a good person. Not believing the words we are hearing because we don’t take those words as knowledge. That type of epistemic injustice is called testimonial injustice.

Social workers who hold marginalized identities are often expected to exemplify people who have resilience, to represent people who have adapted to racist, sexist, homophobic ‘isms’ in the system.

The other type of injustice is called hermeneutic injustice, and this means one’s lived experience is not considered to be true; their understanding of their experience is silenced. For example, perhaps I have a new client and we’re working together on their employment case. They tell me they’ve had a hard time finding a job that will accommodate their specific situation: they have two small children at home and no reliable transportation. Hermeneutic injustice is telling the client that not only do they need to figure it out, but that I don’t believe their struggles because I have other clients with small children and unreliable transportation who go to their job everyday. In this scenario, I don’t believe my new client’s challenges and struggles are real because I have other clients in similar circumstances who do not say they cannot find employment.

What do you think a just system looks like?

RG: That is a great question without an easy answer. First, we [social workers] need to recognize that epistemic injustices happen. I frequently tell my students, “all of these systems are human made.” Meaning, as social scientists and social work practitioners we are dealing with systems designed by humans, and even if they are evidence based and informed, at the end of the day, we work in human made systems that are imperfect and capable of change.

Once we acknowledge the need for change, we must advocate for change. I often refer to the book What Does Justice Look Like (2013) by Indigneous writer Waziyatawin. She asks questions about what justice looks like to Indigenous people, as well as how asking those questions makes people feel defensive. We tend to think, “I'm told I’m doing something wrong, the blame is placed on me. I have to give up something that I hold dear, I paid for, or I've worked for in order to have justice.”

And that is not what Waziyatawin is saying. She is saying we are part of this human made system, so we can decide on new terms to change what justice looks like in our human made systems—starting right now. I think this applies directly to social workers and how we need to meet our clients where they are right now.

Justice looks like us using all our capacities and strengths. Justice is recognizing that in order to make one another’s lives better, we have to believe each other. We have to think of ways where we stop pitting people against one another. We have to be allies that work together.

How does resilience relate to epistemic injustice?

RG: Resilience is related to epistemic injustice because of where the term sits in our lexicon. When we hear the word “resilience” we tend to think “strong, against all odds,” maybe even “magical.”

If we are not all working together to change the system, but we are all still talking about resilience, then that is epistemic injustice.

An example I use in my paper is to explain the problem of how we think about the word “resilience” as Black Girl Magic. I know it is coming from a place of giving strength to, or acknowledging strength of, Black women and girls, and acknowledging we have overcome racism that intersects with sexism, classism, and so on. But a problem I have with Black Girl Magic is it takes away my humanity, my vulnerability, and my need to be protected. I become magical, so I am viewed as able to survive under constant adversity.

In a system that is not made for Black women and girls, instead of owning that we need to change the current system that requires Black women and girls to work harder and do more to meet the status quo, we say “Great job, keep it up, you’re resilient.” The onus is placed on the resilient person to overcome obstacles instead of changing the system that creates obstacles in the first place. No one should have to live in a state of resilience.

What is important about this project?

RG: Pushing the social work profession. I realize that I am part of the problem. I have other papers that I’m working on where I use “resilience” repeatedly. It seems like a hopeful word: we want people to live well, despite facing so many risks.

In social work we talk a lot about anti-oppressive practices, and we ask ourselves, “How am I practicing anti-oppression in my actions?” But we need to take a few steps back because as social workers, we want to fix but I think we need to sit with the question “what does fixing actually look like?”

It is important for social workers to take a step back and think about how we are perpetuating the problems of ‘resiliency’ with our clients, and ourselves.

We don’t have a lot of time to sit back and think in our profession. We have our caseloads with so many people, and more clients coming in, so we need to fix the problem right in front of us to continue on our work load. We’re caught up in a reactive system—for lack of a better word—because the system is reactive. It is important for social workers to take a step back and think about how we are perpetuating the problems of “resiliency” with our clients, and ourselves.

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