Ethics of Representation

Recently, I read an article for one of my classes that focused on the ethics of speaking for other people. Taking on the task to represent a person or a group of people that you are not part of comes with a whole host of ethical issues. Some would argue that if you cannot claim any sort of membership to an identity or identified group, then you do not have ethical grounds to speak about them. On one level, this seems totally kosher. How could I, a white woman, be a spokesperson for African American men? It’s the same reason why an all-male legislature making laws about women’s reproductive health is so absurd.


The author of the article I read for class then asked a difficult question: was speaking about other people the same thing as speaking for them?


When an anthropologist spends years in a little known Amazonian tribal community to do research, presumably that research will be published in an academic work. For someone who has not spent years among this tribe, the anthropologist’s ethnography will be the authoritative source of information. Though the researcher is merely writing about the tribe, their words function as the tribe's words because the public would not have the first-hand experience and observation. This dilemma has encouraged many academics to use more direct quotations from their research subjects and encourage subject participation in producing knowledge about themselves, but many researchers still claim authority to be someone else’s voice.


Elected officials veer into this subject by definition of a representational democracy. In theory, the people elected to public office would represent the views of the public, and they would be our voice. As we saw in the most recent presidential election, sometimes this process goes awry. Additionally, our current president does reflect the views and attitudes of some people in this country. Their voices were heard, but mine wasn’t. Should our president, then, be the authority on what Americans believe?

This all came to a head when I brought up the article that started all of this to a professor of mine. For this professor’s class, we were reading another article that was written about a person of color and their work. In our discussion, I wondered aloud who had written the article because it was making some strong claims that almost seemed to contradict the ones made by the subject about their own work. Turns out, it was written by a white woman. I wasn’t trying to discount the article because I really felt it had merit, but I was trying to make us aware of the role positionality played in the conversation.


My professor did not take well to my comment. This professor thought I was saying that the article should not have even been written because white people couldn’t write about people of color. It wasn’t quite the “death of liberal arts” theory, but it was close. My professor said that the classroom should be a place where it was safe to explore any and all topics, even if we didn’t identify with them. To them, I was challenging the position of the academic to ever stray outside their own sphere of identity.


I understand their frustration, and I understand their misconception. It is uncomfortable to be made aware of power structures and your own privilege. It is uncomfortable to realize you have to be careful about what you say and how you say it because your words may be speaking for other people and taken as authority. But it’s more than uncomfortable to have your voice shut out from discourse. It’s more than uncomfortable to realize that the only words said about your people are spoken by outsiders. It’s more than uncomfortable to hear comments made about yourself that you did not sanction and that may not even be true.

I agree with my professor that the classroom is a safe space to explore alternative viewpoints and to take up work from diverse perspectives. However, I also think that it never hurts to be aware of where you stand in terms of the power structures that are operating on the work you study.


Image Credit: Feature, 1, 2