Vegan for Environmental Justice

This week I’m caught up in strong emotions and difficulty finding words as I watch the precarity, migrations, and destruction associated with climate change. The world is literally on fire and under water, and yet there is still widespread denial of global warming:

Or, as some might say, the world is trying to kill us:Screen Shot 2017-09-12 at 7.16.49 PM

This current environmental destruction is not only extreme, but it’s also extremely inequitable. The people who least can afford to are bearing the weight of hurricanes, fires, droughts, and related environmental destruction from toxic waste and hazardous pollutants. We’re witnessing the impacts of environmental discrimination, which is entwined with discrimination based on race, nationality, socioeconomic class, and other group memberships. And discrimination is why we need the language of environmental justice, or equitable and just distribution of environmental protections and impacts.

One of the many reasons I’m vegan is for environmental justice. Veganism offers anti-speciesism as part of an intersectional approach to justice. Veganism also contributes by limiting greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, and methane emissions, among other pollutants, and reducing carbon footprints. The impact of eating vegan is environmentally significant—much more significant than eating locally or upgrading appliances or turning off lights.

Certainly, there are a LOT of ways to work for environmental justice. Veganism isn’t the only answer. Antiracism isn’t the only answer. Anti-discrimination isn’t the only answer. However, these are pieces of a larger puzzle, and when these pieces are missing, there are evident gaps. What’s so troubling is that their absences seem frequently to not even to be noticed.

Though I’m sorely limited in what I understand from my privileged position in the world, I can see more and more that the unwillingness or inability to engage veganism is connected to the unwillingness or inability to engage larger matters of rights violations, discrimination, racism, inequity, injustice, and the related need for justice. It’s not enough for vegans to be vegans. Vegans, too, must take an intersectional approach that works to dismantle white supremacy and to enact racial, social, economic, and other forms of justice.

This intersectional approach is why environmental justice matters for vegans and why veganism matters for environmental justice.

This intersectional approach is needed within environmental organizations and vegan organizations alike (thanks, Dr. Amie “Breeze” Harper, for your advocacy).

This intersectional approach is why veganism for environmental sustainability is much richer when rethought in terms of environmental justice and commitments to justice.

So, why am I vegan? Because I’m committed to environmental justice. And as a commitment, environmental justice leads me to an intersectional vegan approach.

This post is written by
Beth Godbee for Feel free to check out other answers to “why I’m vegan,” including cookie dough, ecofeminism, and doing something small and sustained. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Mantras to Stand TALL for Justice

This week I returned to teaching First-Year English (FYE), a course focused on information literacy, academic writing, undergraduate research, and the first-year college experience. This course helps students in making the transition to college, asking research questions, and navigating academic disciplines and the larger university system. The goal is for students to see themselves as critical readers, writers, and researchers—agents with response-abilities to make change.

With the start of this new school year, I’ve been thinking about who I was as a college student and who the students I teach might be. I’ve been considering what hopes I hold for the students and myself and what I might say to encourage students to conduct inquiries that really matter in the world. Teaching at this time feels especially important and even urgent. How might I spark students to social action? How might I play a role in helping others identify and act on their purposes? How might I teach in a way to inspire speaking and writing UP?

And wouldn’t you know that in the midst of such reflection, I come across a poster that speaks to me (and in a gas station bathroom, of all places):

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I can’t count the number of times I’ve repeated mantas about grounding and growing tall:

“I am grounded. I am safe and protected. I am securely rooted.”
“It is safe for me to be seen. It is safe to speak my truth. It is safe to be me.”
“Even when scared, I show up. I stand TALL.”

Stumbling upon this poster felt like confirmation that there’s value in sharing these mantras as wishes, hopes, and goals for students. There is real power in standing TALL—steady and true, like trees—in our commitments … in acting as our best selves, witnessing injustice, speaking truth, countering dehumanization, honoring ourselves and others, asking for more, and demanding justice.

Standing TALL, as I understand it, includes more than physically standing as part of a protest or demonstration. Yes, that physical presence is important, and it helps us see how presence—where and when to put one’s body, words, and actions—is always already political action.

Two examples:

For a student of color, attending the predominantly white university already makes a claim of one’s right to belong within that space. Attending classes already involves standing TALL. It already involves resilience and courage in the face of everyday microaggressions.

For a white student, choices to speak against microaggressions, to study white supremacy, to build cross-racial relations, to embrace marginalized stories, and to rethink one’s worldview similarly involve standing TALL. To shake up/off what’s been inherited and normalized involves the groundedness to be true to one’s self, while striving for change.

In other words (words I’ve encountered through yoga asana practice):

To stand TALL, we must “root to rise.”

This wisdom is more than metaphor. The deeper the trees’ roots, the taller, wider, and more expansive trees grow. Similarly, the stronger the feet and the firmer their planting, the higher humans can stretch—literally, becoming taller.

Growing roots can be hard because it requires stability and resolve—and at a time when students are uprooted. Transitions can feel especially unsettling, as though the ground is constantly shifting and the horizon always unknown. The transition to college, whether from high school or work or parenting or another place in life, can take us to new ground, too, literally and figuratively.

When so much is shifting, it can help to come back to grounding, again and again. And it can help to remember why we’re needed in the world, standing tall among others, a voice against racism and tyranny and violence and what’s wrong.

To the students in my FYE courses and, truly, to all of us as writers, speakers, and actors in the world, I share some mantras for finding the courage to speak, write, and act:

May we get rooted in what’s true, what’s peaceful, what’s equitable, and what’s humane. May we be grounded and courageous in our commitments. May we write-speak-act for justice. May we stand TALL. May we root to rise. May we rise to what is asked of us at this time and in the times to come.

This post is written by Beth Godbee for For more posts like this one, you might try “Answering the Call for Artistic Activism: Yes, I’m an Artist!” or “Disrupting the Mind-Body Split.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

When Times Get Tough: Simple Sautéed Spinach and Tempeh

Sautéed spinach and tempeh is a vegan + gluten-free recipe I turn to when times are tough—when I’m overly stressed or traveling or just don’t have the time or energy to cook. And times have been tough recently, creating a sense of whiplash, as I attempt to process one instance of injustice after another.

To stay in the work, to stay with the emotions that arise, and to stay committed to justice, I also commit to caring for myself with joy and ease. This recipe supports these related commitments. It supports my ongoing healing, the enactment of ecofeminism, and the need to refuel for long-term resilience and resistance.


These measurements are estimates, and ingredients can be adapted to what’s on hand:

  • Spinach (or other greens)—full package or large bunch
  • Tempeh—full package, diced or cut into strips
  • Onion—1 small onion, diced
  • Salt and Pepper—to taste
  • Olive oil—1+ tablespoon for sautéing

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Optional Add-ins:

  • Garlic, tomatoes, peppers, pepper flakes, or other spices.

Preparation Time:

  • 15 minutes, including preparation and cook time.


  1. Cut the onion and tempeh into bite-size bits, and add to a frying pan along with a generous amount of oil.

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  1. Once the onions and tempeh begin to brown, add spinach, and continue sautéing until wilted.

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  1. Sprinkle salt and pepper at any stage of the process or when serving, along with any optional add-ins. Or serve along with salsa, mustard, or other dips.

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  1. Enjoy. This tasty, nutritious, and complete meal provides fuel for the road ahead.

This post is written by Beth Godbee for For more posts like this one, you might try “Three Chocolate Smoothies for Fueling the Road Ahead,” other vegan + gluten-free recipes, or the series of posts answering why I’m vegan. Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

What I’ve Learned in the Week Since Charlottesville: Five Lessons for White Folks Who Care about Racism and Racial Justice

This week has been INTENSE. As a writer, educator, and person committed to racial justice and the work of healing internalized white supremacy, I’ve been following and affected by the dysfunction, injury, and trauma on display. I’ve been confronting my own shadow, while watching collective shadows in the United States come into light.

And these shadows ask us to reckon with legacies of colonialism and slavery, institutionalized racism, and deep dehumanization. These shadows ask no less than for us to answer: Who are we as a people?

With this question in mind, I share five lessons I’ve been learning (and re-learning) this week. I share these in hopes that they may be of help to others, especially other white folks, as the work for racial justice is ongoing far, far beyond this week.

1. To make a commitment is to make a long-term investment.

Yes, tactical, improvisational, and immediate responses are needed when intense events/emotions erupt, but these must be paired with strategic, sustainable, and long-term plans to make commitments actionable for the long haul.

I think I know and will remember the importance of pairing tactics with strategies, but then a major event arises, emotions take over, and I get pulled into the moment, burning myself out through the immediate response. So, I’m learning again that a commitment to justice is a commitment to long-term investment.

Commitments ask us to put in the work regularly and not only when there’s a crisis.
Commitments ask us to look within, recognize what’s hard, and engage in healing work.
Commitments ask us to ready ourselves with response-ability (the ability to respond).
Commitments ask us to look to the future, readying ourselves with the willingness to act.

2. Self-care really, really matters.

It’s a tough time to talk about self-care because it can be used as the exit line to disengage from racial justice work. Still, I’ve been reminded this week that if I’m getting depleted and not refueling, then I’m no any good to myself or anyone else. I need to practice self-love in order to write, speak, and act with love.

What I’m re-learning is that while I can skimp on sleep for a night or two, by day three or four, I’m a crying, complaining wreck. If I sugar binge for more than a few days, my body rebels, and I truly don’t want to be doubled over in the bathroom or aching all over! And if prioritize play/pool time and meditation/movement, I actually come to more creative solutions and more compassionate stances sooner.

The more that I ride the roller coaster of emotions, the more I need self-care to support critical self-work that’s required for unlearning conditioned racist crap.

3. It’s important to name lies and look at my own complicity.

I’ve been living with so many lies (many I’ve internalized), and the more I identify them and call them lies, the more they lose their power. Countering the BIG lie of “I’m not enough” feels especially important for building the courage, resilience, “willingness to be disturbed,” and other attributes needed at this time and going forward.

When I see myself as “not enough,” then I need to be sure of my goodness (that I’m a “good person”). And that need to be “good” keeps me from recognizing, much less befriending, the “bad” within. To confront my shadow, I need the certainty that I’m already enough, worthy, valuable, divine. From this certainty, I find the courage to visit my inner dungeon, looking where I’ve actively and passively participated in white supremacy. I see that racism is here, at home, and within me. It’s not just out there, with them, with “THOSE racists.”

This blog post that’s been circulating—“How America Spreads the Disease that Is Racism by Not Confronting Racist Family Members and Friends”—includes a racism scale for plotting attitudes and internalized beliefs. In the past week, I’ve had several conversations about this scale, and I believe it’s helpful for digging into internalized lies that need to be named and reckoned with. To name racism only as covert, explicit, hateful acts—as only Nazis marching—is to perpetuate another damaging lie. And I’m invested in naming and owning my own lies, my own complicity, and my own responsibilities.

4. I keep learning from feminists and womanists of color.

This week I’ve been especially inspired and challenged by Adrienne Maree Brown, A. Breeze Harper, Sagashus Levingston, Vanessa Mártir, Mia Mingus, Docta E Richardson, and Loretta J. Ross, among other colleagues and friends and scholars. (Deep, deep gratitude!)

So, when I’ve been asked by white people this week what I believe are authentic questions—like “How can I learn about racism?” and “I know what I’m seeing wrong, but what can I do?”—I’m clear that the answer must involve reading and learning from feminists and womanists of color. If you’re white and reading only white authors, changing this is one good place to start. Check out these blogs by feminists and womanists of color, and please add other resources/links to this post’s comments.

I’m learning again that sharing resources can help with building community and capacity. And it’s clear that we need each other—we need community—for the long-term investment.

5. Truth-telling can feel shaming when the truth if shameful.

So much is written about white fragility and emotional resilience, I believe, because of lies associating whiteness with “goodness” (that I am good, that the United States is good, that our neighborhoods are good, and so on). And when goodness needs to be complicated (because, really, how could there be a single, flat narrative?), realizations about dirty, ugly histories and ongoing, violent injustice raise intense emotions of betrayal, hurt, anger, guilt, and shame.

This week I’ve had some tough interactions in which I’ve blushed red. I’ve felt anger and heat rush through my body. I’ve felt both defensive and like a guard or bully on the offensive team. And what I’ve realized from these interactions is that truth-telling can feel like shaming when there’s deep shame around internalized white supremacy. Unpacking this shame is important healing work.

Like naming lies lies, it’s important to name shameful histories and realities as shameful.

It’s important to engage in truth-telling work that is sure to be messy and involve messing up. I write in other posts about countering perfectionism, in part, because perfectionism is a construct of whiteness. Letting go of being “good” or “right” (much less “perfect”) is central to racial justice work, and I can’t help but notice it’s central to my own healing work as well.

This is to say that I’m learning yet again that it’s important to say something, even when saying it awkwardly. And to do something, even when doing it wrong. And to show up, even when showing up incomplete, imperfect, and truly as “a mess.”

May we keep learning together.
May we keep speaking, writing, and standing up.
May we listen more openly than ever before.
May we keep committing to racial justice.
May we resolve to the work that lies ahead.
May we ready ourselves and be ever-ready.

In solidarity! ~ Beth

This post is written by Beth Godbee for For more posts like this one, you might try “For White Friends Using Social Media and Not Responding to Charlottesville,” “Trusting the Alarm Behind Supposedly ‘Alarmist Rhetoric,’” and “Microaggressions Matter.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!


For White Friends Using Social Media and Not Responding to Charlottesville

This post is for white friends who’ve remained silent or continued social media posts as though there’s not a national crisis. Certainly, white supremacy is systemic and personal, historical and contemporary, everyday and ongoing. Yet, this weekend it’s especially visible and sanctioned, immediately resulting in intimidation, terrorism, injury, and death. The events in Charlottesville have wide-reaching impact, and to deny (or fail to engage/recognize) the significance of these events is to deny the trauma and ongoing threats facing Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).

As I’ve watched white friends posting updates of cute animals and kids, of beautiful sunsets and delicious food, I’ve felt disconnected. I’ve felt betrayed.

As a rhetorician, I think about intention and impact—what words, photos, and actions say about the author and what they communicate to audiences. Through status updates and social media, we indicate affiliations—who we see ourselves in relation with, who we stand with and alongside, and who we see as part of our relational networks. Bottom line: our communication indicates who and what matters to us.

Status updates acting as though there’s not a major crisis—as though the display of white supremacy doesn’t need comment—undercut the possibility of cross-racial relations, affiliation, and solidarity. These updates communicate relations with other white folks and lack of care for BIPOC.

Thinking metaphorically, imagine showing up at a funeral in bright colors, laughing, and pulling out videos of fluffy chicks. Now, certainly I’ve been to family gatherings where grief turns to humor, and the desire to look at fluffy chicks takes center stage. But not until there’s real recognition of loss, hurt, anger, resentment, regret, and a range of emotions that can fold the lighthearted into heavy grief. And not without relational connectedness that involves ongoing recognition that the grief remains and needs attention too.

So, when I’m seeing white friends share vegan recipes, food pics, and arguments, I’m just not there. Yes, I’m vegan too, and yes, I write these posts too. But unless I’m going to make an intersectional argument about how veganism is connected to my stand against white supremacy and why vegans need to act for racial justice, this isn’t the time. My post about tahini dressing can wait.

And when I see white friends posting photos from summer vacations, I’m wondering who gets to celebrate or depict joy right now. I get that vacationing makes it easy to be out of touch with national events, but any engagement with social media reveals the trauma unfolding. And vacation photos aren’t time-sensitive.

What is time-sensitive?

  • Signaling deep care for Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC).
  • Believing the experiences, insights, and knowledges of BIPOC.
  • Recognizing the deep hurt of this moment.
  • Doing the self-work involved in countering internalized white supremacy.
  • Acknowledging white shame and the “ghost of whiteness” lingering over everyday interactions, including those in social media.
  • Self-regulating by asking with each new post: “Who am I relating with? Who am I imagining this post will connect with? And who am I alienating?”
  • Considering how everyday “stuff”—like food and vacations—is shaped by the ghost of whiteness.
  • Taking action to learn more about allyship and what allies can do.
  • Saying something to acknowledge that this really is happening, and it matters.
  • Committing to racial justice. Again, and again.

This post is written by Beth Godbee for For more posts like this one, you might try “Trusting the Alarm Behind Supposedly ‘Alarmist Rhetoric,’” “Reframing ‘Independence Day’ as a Day for Truth-Telling and Committing to Justice,” and “Microaggressions Matter.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Playing Through the Pain

I’ve written recently about violence in our everyday lives, in our shared social world. For many of us, this violence is internal and personal as well. Even though I aspire to self-love and self-care, I fall back into patterns of negative self-talk and “playing through the pain.” I continue to push myself even when I recognize the desire to slow down. I do violence to myself even when I set the intention of being gentler, kinder, and more forgiving. With this recognition, I’m setting an intention to re-purpose play in my life—to redefine what it means to “play through the pain.”

I set this intention during a guided healing session last week, in which I embraced the affirmation: I flow freely with life.

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This affirmation invokes a sense of playfulness, lightness, wonder, awe, and joy. Still, I walked out of that healing session and set to work, not to play.

Within a day or two, my back started speaking up, getting louder in its complaints. I continued over-working and over-stretching. My back responded with more pain, enough to limit mobility and enough that I had to STOP and LISTEN.

I have a history of back pain (degenerative disc disease), which has motivated me to learn and practice yoga, Reiki, and other healing modalities. This history has taught me how to manage acute pain. Care includes specialized pillows and heating pads, homeopathy and balms, and gentle movements like rolling on the floor and floating in the pool.

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To care for my pain, I took to the swimming pool—a place where I also have a history, but a history with good memories. I think of warm summer days, fieldtrips with friends, and the summer camp I longed for year-round in childhood. I remember unexpected triathlon training during graduate school that allowed me to find strength as a lap swimmer. I love swimming not only for this history, but also for the fun of movement. I repeat mantras and think through complicated questions as I propel myself forward. I kick and flail and float and surely look silly. I allow my body to make big movements and to take up space. And after this play, I soak in the hot tub, taking time to relax. Truly, I enjoy myself.

Despite my love for swimming, I don’t often do it. I complain about the time involved. I complain about putting on goggles, washing off chlorine, and drying out swimsuits. I get hung up on the details. I don’t prioritize play.

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As I found myself in the pool this week, paying attention to sensations in my back, hips, and legs, I kept repeating: “I flow freely with life. I flow freely with life. I flow freely with life.”

I felt myself floating. Flying. Flowing. And I laughed when I could see that acute pain had gotten me to the exact place where I’ve known play, where I experience play, and where I prioritize play.

Apparently, I had chosen to “play hard”—to wait for pain to motivate action—instead of “playing easy” and choosing joy. It took a serious problem to get me into the pool. What if I actually allowed myself to act on affirmations and intentions even when they conflict with productivity or ideas of what I “should” do? What if I resolved not to “play through the pain,” but to PLAY throughout, alongside, and for the pain?

*     *     *     *     *

Along with violence, there’s so much pain in our shared social world—so much pain in witnessing, internalizing, and participating in injustice. Thinking about swimming, I’m struck by how racism marks this activity and how layers of privilege (race, class, ability, size, sexuality, age) show up here, as in other places.

Like my back pain, this pain has much to teach, including the importance of play. I am reminded that commitments to justice must be JOYFUL—full of potential, vision, and hope. I am reminded, too, that embracing play in a time of pain (a different version of “playing through the pain”) builds stamina, momentum, and even resilience. Lightness, wonder, and awe are qualities that support the seriousness of attempting to live for justice.

Going forward, I embrace PLAY. Not to ignore pain, but to recognize and heal it. To heal myself so that I can show up more fully, more vulnerable, and more true.

This post is written by Beth Godbee for For more posts like this one, you might try “Attending to Anger” or “Potato & Kale Casserole (vegan + gluten-free): Finding Comfort in the Growth Zone.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!

Trusting the Alarm Behind Supposedly “Alarmist Rhetoric”

There are numerous alarms about how far off the tracks we’ve gotten as a people. While many people are facing insurmountable odds, injury, and even death, many are also desensitized to violence and going about business as usual. Against a background of ever-increasing injustice, I’m still hearing people caution against “alarmist rhetoric,” and I’m wondering:

If we’re not alarmed now, then when?

I don’t believe the alarm is coming at the wrong time, with the wrong urgency, or under the wrong conditions. Rather, I believe it’s a matter of choosing whether or not to trust the alarm that’s being raised. That is, choosing whether or not to dismiss urgent and life-saving alarms as “alarmist rhetoric.”

Today’s Alarms and Why They Matter

People in the United States and around the world are being killed daily and in many ways: directly through hate crimes, police violence, military force, and other means AND indirectly through denial of healthcare, living wages, stable housing, quality foods, and so on. Through direct and indirect means, we’re undermining the basic value of life, of humanity. And this undermining happens at a time when humans as a species are facing extreme precarity—arguably, unlike any we’ve seen—of “accelerating extinction risk from climate change.” Life is devalued. Life is at risk. Life is written off.

This devaluing impacts most greatly the very people who are raising the alarm: people who are dehumanized, exploited, and oppressed. People of color, indigenous people, LGBTQ+ people, poor people, and other marginalized peoples. These are the people who are sharing first-hand knowledge to raise the alarm. This is why we hear repeated assertions: #BlackLivesMatter, #MuslimLivesMatter, #TransLivesMatter.

It’s no coincidence, for example, that Trump’s election occurred alongside the DAPL protests. It’s also no coincidence that the language of staying “woke” to name social awareness originates within the black community. It’s no coincidence that black news sources and journalists report on the everyday realities that are ignored, minimized, or glossed over in “mainstream” (read: white) news sources.

Communities of color and other marginalized communities are constructing and sharing new knowledge, naming what’s otherwise hidden, obscured, or unknown. Yet, this knowledge is systemically devalued, just as marginalized peoples are systemically devalued. Similarly, distrust of the alarm is rooted in distrust of the people raising the alarm. And the alarm calls on all of us—especially white folks, folks with privilege, and folks with power—to WAKE UP.

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The Consequences of Ignoring Alarms

In February, I saw activist-journalist Shaun King speak here in Milwaukee, and he called us to action, saying: “If you’re waiting for an emergency, this is it.”

It’s one thing to ignore an alarm clock, which creates annoyance and noise as a wake-up call. It’s another to ignore sirens or fire alarms, alarms with the purpose of saving lives. These alarms help us see the importance of recognizing and responding to emergencies. They also help us see the relationship among denial, disbelief, and the costs/consequences of deferring responsibility.

In terms of denial, here are some ways I’ve found myself literally ignoring alarms:

  1. I’ve been conditioned to expect sirens as part of regular equipment testing, and so when I hear a siren, I believe it’s only “a test” and not a “real alarm.”
  2. I haven’t changed the batteries in months, so when the fire alarm goes off, I assume it’s the fault of old batteries and not an actual fire.
  3. I’ve set off the alarm when cooking because it’s located too close to the stove, so I believe it’s simply too sensitive and not a true predictor.

For various reasons (these and others), I’ve had occasions of choosing not to trust a siren or alarm. At times, I’ve chosen to believe it’s not reliable or precise enough; I imagine it to be broken or malfunctioning; or I imagine that it’s incorrectly programmed. These are beliefs that motivate dismissal of the alarm: beliefs that provide reasons for not trusting the alarm. And the costs of not trusting can be especially high, because sirens and alarms serve as warning systems—to alert, caution, and prevent serious harm.

One time I told my mom that the tornado siren was “just a test” because it was during a weekday and the skies appeared clear. We found out afterwards that a tornado was indeed in the area, and it had caused real damage only miles away. We never took shelter, much less looked around or acted with real care/caution. My dismissal of the alarm could have had real consequences for my mom, who was trusting me when I told her with certainty that it was only a test.

Thinking metaphorically, I can see how fables like “the boy who cried wolf” lead to a cultural expectation for not being too “alarmist” OR too sensitive to alarms. This story leads to the justification of idleness or lack of response. It’s as though we worry more about being falsely alarmed than we do about failing to heed an alarm. Yet, alarms have real purposes—often connected to the preservation of life—and so we have real responsibility to listen and act.

At this time—a time of emergency—we’re hearing alarms and being asked to respond. Complaints about “alarmist rhetoric” are like me saying “it’s only a test.” The distrust of alarms is preventing recognition that there is an actual emergency.

Building Trust in the Alarm

To respond to the alarm—to wake up, to evacuate, to fight fire, or to take other action—we need, first, to trust the alarm. And if trustworthiness is the matter, then I must ask: Who do you trust? And why?

My academic research has been teaching me that some people—by virtue of positioning within systems of power, privilege, and prejudice—are listened for and believed over others. That is, people with institutional power and privilege already benefit from what Miranda Fricker calls “epistemic excess.” Think, for example, about assumptions in a hospital space: without ever having met a physician before, it’s likely that if a white man in a white coat walks into the room, he will be assumed to have the credentials and expertise to be a physician. It’s also likely that if the patient is white man—especially one who’s younger, well-educated, able-bodied, cis-gendered, and thin—he’ll be taken seriously, and his health complaints will be assumed to be true.

In contrast, people marginalized within institutional power and privilege—people who are further away from what Audre Lorde has called the “mythical norm”— already face assumed “epistemic deficit.” In the same hospital space, we know that white women and women of color, men of color, people with visible disabilities, and others are more likely to be questioned. Think, for example, about when a woman walks into the room and is assumed to be a nurse instead of a doctor. Her credentials are further undermined when she is challenged about her diagnosis and questioned about her recommendations. Or consider if the patient is a woman instead of a man: then we know that complaints of pain are likely not to be taken seriously. She may be left waiting for longer periods of time, not given medication, assumed to be experiencing only emotional and not physical pain, and called “hysterical.”

I give these hospital examples to explain epistemic injustice, defined as harm done to people in their capacity as knowers. Epistemic injustice is always already operating in the world and shaping what we hear (and don’t), how we listen (and don’t), and who we believe (and don’t).

These assumptions highlight prejudice that we all carry with us, which is why it’s so important to develop bias literacy—an understanding of the unconscious, internalized, and structural bias that shapes day-to-day life, including ideas about ourselves and others. The question isn’t whether we have prejudice (we do), but how we can work to unlearn prejudicial judgments. How can we learn to see and experience the world differently? How can we short-circuit unjust assumptions? How can we undo the problems associated with assumed epistemic excess and deficit?

Whose Alarm Is Listened to, When, and Why?

Getting back to alarms, epistemic injustice helps to explain why some people’s voices are listened for and trusted over others. Some people—by virtue of being positioned with privilege, power, and epistemic excess—already have a louder volume, are already pitched for reception, and are already placed in homes or other places where their alarms can be heard.

In contrast, other people—again, by virtue of being positioned within inequitable and oppressive systems that perpetuate epistemic deficit—aren’t being heard. Their alarms are already called into questioned, assumed to be unreliable, or perceived as mis-programmed. They are already “presumed incompetent.” It doesn’t even matter what the alarm conveys; it’s already facing disbelief and distrust.

To counter epistemic injustice, we must ask ourselves often: Whose voices are we listening to? Who are we trusting? And why? In the case of raising alarms, we must similarly ask about who we choose to trust and who we don’t.

Those who are best positioned to raise the alarm—people of color, indigenous people, and other marginalized peoples—are saying these are urgent, desperate times. “The earth is in crisis.” “Shit’s going down, and it’s going down now.” “They’re killing us. Our lives don’t matter.” Or, in Shaun King’s words: “If you’re waiting for an emergency, this is it.”

Certainly, the inability to hear the alarm can be deeply emotional—like the desire to remain in a warm bed, blissfully asleep, snoozing the morning’s alarm, and not yet “woke.” It can also be about conditioning—about cautions against raising alarms too often or too soon, or else face the creditability loss of “the boy who cried wolf.” And, undeniably, it can operate unconsciously without awareness of the prejudice, racism, and perpetuation of injustice associated with unearned epistemic excess/deficit. Acknowledging these emotional and unintentional dimensions of the problem softens my heart, as I see my own complicity as a white woman with varied privileges and prejudices. I soften my heart as I see how deeply mired in the muck we all are.

With a soft heart and a lot of love, I affirm: Yes, it’s time to be alarmed.

2017-07-28 21.21.07

A Final Note

The only people I’ve seen criticize “alarmist rhetoric” are white folks, which is why this critique seems so clearly about epistemic injustice—about the denial of experience, knowledge, and earned expertise within communities of color. I want to ask, therefore, all of us but especially white folks to listen for, acknowledge, and choose to trust the alarms. For alarms lead to action, they demand response, and they ask us to wake up. This moment is about no less than who we want to be, how we want to live, and how we see ourselves in relation to others.

This post is written by
Beth Godbee for For more posts like this one, you might try “Microaggressions Matter,” “Today Resistance Looks Like …,” or “Swinging from Sweet to Sour.” Please also consider following the blog via email. Thanks!