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We Love ‘Lived Experience’...Until It Undermines the Narrative
Critical Social Justice Ideology Cannot Define Me
WE LOVE ‘LIVED EXPERIENCE’...UNTIL IT UNDERMINES THE NARRATIVE
Critical Social Justice Ideology Cannot Define Me
There is an unhealthy relationship in our culture between victim status and what is called “lived experience.” Ironically, it is through my own experiences with these two concepts that I have come to see this. I used to look at the world through the lens of victimhood. When I identified as a victim, my lived experience was lauded by all as authentic. However, when I came out as a proudly free-thinking black individual, and no longer claimed victimhood as a part of my identity, my lived experience was rejected and discredited by both friends and strangers alike. This striking selectiveness in other people’s acceptance of my lived experience has led me down a somewhat sad and perplexing path.
Critical social justice ideology crept into my worldview when I was in college, transforming my perspective for the worse. Prior to that season of life, I believed that racism was real, but not powerful enough to deter me from my destiny, thanks to black voices of influence during my high school years, such as Dr. Ben Carson, Nelson Mandela, and Desmond Tutu. However, I knew that moving to the United States from South Africa would require an emptying of what I previously knew, in order to stand properly equipped for whatever my destiny had in store.
My entrance into collegiate life was not simply the pursuit of higher education, but an opportunity to reconstruct my entire persona for proper acclimation to American life. However, unbeknownst to me at the time, third-wave feminist theory and critical race pedagogy was sprinkled throughout my various courses of study in sociology, symbolism, and mythology (to name a few). It wasn’t long before I assumed the persona of a black woman with special insight into the experience of social inferiority and harm that I believed those with other shades of skin could never grasp.
It was only when I exited the college system that I realized this new persona was not one that I naturally fit into. The worldview that I had assumed was awfully cynical, as I filtered all my daily interactions through the lens of racial power dynamics. Any mistreatment that I perceived from strangers or friends I often interpreted as a diluted form of racism called a microaggression.
These perceived microaggressions soon became the main cause of depressive episodes in my day-to-day life. There were times when it felt futile to wake up. At other times, I would burst out crying simply because I was too overwhelmed by the prospect of having to face another day of missed opportunities in a racist society.
I came to realize that this “way of knowing,” in the currently fashionable language, was more of a burden than a realization of identity. I vividly recall the day I sat down at my dining table and decided that I’d had enough. Whatever lens I had viewed the world through prior to moving to the States, I wanted it back. The Nelson Mandela approach to reconciliation. The Dr. Ben Carson attitude towards accomplishment. I began to release the grudges that I held against those I deemed “racist.” It was through this process that I reconnected with an essential part of being human, a part of myself that I had lost under the spell of critical social justice ideology. We as humans all have the potential—in fact, we are all bound—to make mistakes. For that reason, we all deserve a chance at a “restart” in the hearts of those around us.
It was only with the “racial-awakening” events of 2020 and 2021 that my eyes were fully opened to the true nature of the worldview that I had recently broken free of. From the more analytical standpoint I now occupied, I came to understand that “lived experience” was not a generous concept. Not all black folks find or can hope to find refuge under its wings. Its application is only relevant when a marginalized person’s experience attests to oppression under very particular conditions. I noticed that these conditions must meet the criteria of being patriarchal, capitalistic, heteronormative, and white-centered for an authentic “Lived Experience” stamp of approval.
Prior to the murder of George Floyd, I had spent a year adopting a worldview of gratitude and rejecting grievance through a practice of daily forgiveness. As a result, I had formed better relationships with others, relationships strong enough to withstand the global social “pause.” As the racial tensions in the country intensified, critical social justice ideology crept into many workplaces and schools, and the cry of this burdensome strain of “lived experience” was at its loudest. It became apparent that there was a stark contrast between my own authentic lived experience, inclusive of my forgiveness journey, and what was represented in mainstream media. Not only that, but lived experiences like mine that contradicted the oppression narrative supposedly further “harmed” the already oppressed. I therefore felt it necessary to hide my true self, so as to not disturb the power-approved national black identity marked by victimhood.
But it wouldn’t be long before my silence felt selfish, and guilt began to consume me. I knew how much this cynical worldview had negatively affected my health when I had subscribed to it. How badly must it be affecting others? From the close of 2020 and into 2021, this victimhood narrative was quickly being etched in stone as the sole definition of blackness, and my window of opportunity for dissent was swiftly closing. Once I found the courage, I aired my own dissenting lived experience through a series of YouTube videos. As expected, a few viewers did not take well to the fact that my lived experience deviated from the approved standard. But for an overwhelming majority of people of various ethnicities, my testimonies came as a shocking relief. I respect lived experience, but I can’t respect it, along with its overarching philosophy, if it excludes and suppresses a great many real black lives in an ironic effort of inclusivity.
It wasn’t until the days following the July 11th protests in Cuba that many people had the chance to see the hypocrisy of critical social justice the way I did. The “Patria Y Vida,” or “Homeland And Life,” movement spurred Cubans to protest against an oppressive regime and leverage the internet to seek international intervention. In the midst of the uprising, much faith was placed in the Black Lives Matter movement to amplify the pleading voices of the people on the island. It came as a shock to many when the organization proved to be uninterested in conveying the heart of the protest message in its most authentic form: “down with communism.” A narrative spun by the Cuban dictatorship claimed the protests were a result of medical shortages, which in turn were an outcome of the US Embargo against Cuba. Black Lives Matter, an organization founded on the language of critical social justice, chose to convey the narrative of the oppressor, rather than the cry for freedom of the oppressed black and brown voices.
Many Cubans and Cuban allies were devastated by BLM’s decision to favor communist ideology and a repressive regime over real flesh-and-blood lives. Many Americans ought to see that our current understanding of lived experience, and its accompanying ideology rooted in critical social justice ideology, favors a presupposed idea over the objective reality of a black individual's experience. That presupposed idea defines black existence as only skin-deep, with the assumption that most opportunities in life have revolved and will only ever revolve around melanin. It teaches young black boys and girls to adjust to suffering as a default condition, and that any bliss they may accidentally find in forgiveness must be discarded because, God forbid, it will serve to fortify the white, straight, cisheteronormative hegemony.
As black individuals, wouldn’t we be better off jettisoning the expectation of victimhood and embracing instead, first, a positive expectation to meet with good in others, regardless of color; second, a swiftness to forgive the inevitable slights that are an expected part of the human condition; and, third, an internal locus of control to resist the temptation of learned helplessness? After changing our dispositions in these three ways, then we should assess the quality of our lived experience thereafter. My own life shows that this shift in mindset brings with it a transformation of experience. In this new year, I pray for this transformation for the better for all my brothers and sisters who are needlessly suffering under the oppressive and inflexible dictates of critical social justice ideology.
Kimi Katiti is an interdisciplinary artist. She creates visual art, produces and performs music, and expresses her views through video essays. Her African upbringing and faith inform her worldview and, ultimately, the art she creates. Born in Boston, MA, Kimi is ethnically Ugandan and was brought up in Uganda, Tanzania, and South Africa. She moved to the United States 8 years ago and is currently based in North Hollywood, California, where she can often be found at local skateparks. Check out her channel on YouTube, follow her art on Instagram, hear her music on Spotify, connect with her on LinkedIn, and keep up with all her activities by visiting her website.