Theorizing as Emancipatory Action; Emancipatory Action as Theorizing

Over the past year those of us managing the Nursology.net website have experienced two unintended consequences – growing awareness of the importance of fundamental nursing/ public health knowledge and action, and the imperative to examine the structural and interpersonal dynamics of racism. As the web manager of this Nursology.net site as well as the NurseManifest.com website, the home of “Overdue Reckoning on Racism in Nursing,” I have had a front-row seat from which to witness and participate in these two complimentary processes.

From the NurseManifest sphere, we have addressed (explicitly and implicitly) questions such as: “How does our activism contribute to our discipline?” “What are the fault-lines in nursing created by our failure to address racism in nursing?” “How can we engage in authentic reckoning with racism in nursing?” “How can this reckoning shift nursing to more fully engage in facilitation of humanization for those who have historically been harmed by racism?” “How can nursing knowledge be decolonized to fully embrace the knowledge and wisdom of Black, Indigenous, Latina/x, and other nurses of color?”

From the Nursology.net sphere, we have addressed (explicitly and implicitly) questions such as: “What does decolonization of nursing knowledge mean?” “What dynamics have persisted to bring us to this point in history where the scholarship and theorizing of Black, Indigenous, Latina/x and other nurses of color are strikingly absent from our historical record?” “How can we move away from performative action, to fully abandon white privilege in nursing, and to welcome nurse scholars of color to the center of our discourse?”

I do not have direct answers to any of these questions. In fact I believe there are no specific “action” prescriptions that can provide “answers.” The response to all of these questions is what I believe to be critical emancipatory process — a process that begins with a recognition of the fundamental realities of racism and dedication to the hard work of deepened awareness and action for change. In the first chapter of the text “Philosophies and Practices of Emancipatory Nursing,”(1) Kagan, Smith and Chinn identified the following characteristics of emancipatory knowledge and critical theory that informs emancipatory action, as revealed by the chapter authors who contributed to the text:

What is “critical’ –

  • Unpacking hegemonies
  • Upstream thinking
  • Interrogating historical/social context
  • Framing/anticipating transformative action

What is “emancipatory”

  • Facilitating humanization
  • Disrupting structural inequities
  • Self-reflection
  • Engaging communities

Taken together, these characteristics point to a deep understanding of what it might mean to bring knowledge and action together as one – the process and understanding that emerges from “knowing what we do, and doing what we know.” In my experience growing up and becoming an “elder” as a fully colonized white woman, I know all too well the experience of separation of mind and body, of understanding and experience. But there is a glimmer of recognition when I encounter instances – my own and those revealed to me in stories others recount – when experience and understanding come together as one – when we recognize the importance of personal knowing and doing. And, recognize when that unified experience reveals new knowledge, new understanding. This process of action/reflection is theorizing at its best. African American scholar Anthony James Williams described this process of theorizing that he observed in his mother and grandmother:

Everyday black women theorists are often forgotten, undervalued and rarely considered theorists due to their lack of formal training and scholarly publications. But for my maternal lineage, the social patterns they observed became lessons. Those lessons then became theories about the social world they incorporated into their daily lives. Keen observation on their part lead to mental maps of where it would be safe to walk as black women, raise their children and avoid white violence. As the wife of a man in the military, my grandmother inevitably had her own theory of residential redlining based on her lived experience well before any academics published on the topic. (2)

Now is the time to engage in the critical emancipatory act of centering the voices of nurses of color who have been undervalued and discounted, only rarely recognized as theorists. The privileged white gaze from which nursing scholarship views the world recognizes only that which appears consistent with white experience, white culture. To face the realities surrounding white complicity that perpetuates racism is a possibility that is either far too frightening, or simply not comprehensible. But comprehend we must if we are to ever move to a reality where all experience is celebrated as valid and valuable, where skin color is not a determinant of whether you live or die.

The time has now come for all in our discipline – nursologists, nurses, students, educators, administrators, policy-makers – to make a strong and unequivocal turn away from all words and actions that render advantage for those whose skin is “white” and that disadvantage all of those with dark skin. It is time to abandon performative words and actions that claim to care for all, and turn instead to dismantle dehumanizing forces of racism and restore full humanization for all. For those who have white skin, it is time to reckon with your own complicity, unveiling the fault-lines (rifts, splits) created by the persistence of racism, and engage in the healing that must be done. For those who have dark skin, it is time to gather the courage to speak your truth, calling on your keen capabilities to discern injustice. For all of us together, it is time to form strong bonds of connection and support for this difficult path. It is a difficult path, but it is the path that will lead us to mental maps – to theorizing the healing that must take place. As we have experienced in our “Overdue Reckoning on Racism in Nursing” journey, it is also a path that is lined with moments of pure joy!

Sources:

  1. Kagan, P. N., Smith, M. C., & Chinn, P. L. (2014). Introduction. In P. N. Kagan, M. C. Smith, & P. L. Chinn (Eds.), Philosophies And Practices Of Emancipatory Nursing: Social Justice As Praxis (pp. 1–20). Routledge Taylor & Francis Group.
  2. Williams, A. J. (2018, June 15). Who Teaches Academics to Theorize? Inside Higher Ed. https://www.insidehighered.com/advice/2018/06/15/theorizing-black-scholars-differs-white-western-academic-standards-no-less-valid