The importance of testimonial injustice: why black voices matter

By Maya Bagshaw  

Testimonial injustice is a form of discrimination related to knowledge which occurs when the reliability of an individual’s claim is undermined by the hearer’s prejudice towards them. The hearer either fails to consider the significance of the speakers’ words before discounting them, or unjustly evaluates them due to preconceived prejudices. This prejudice may lead to a credibility excess: when someone receives more credibility than they otherwise would have, or a credibility deficit: less credibility than they otherwise would have. Factors such as race, gender, age, disability, and class help to create these excesses and deficits. 

So, why is testimonial injustice relevant? Testimonial injustice is prevalent in our everyday lives and, if not addressed, can have potentially devastating effects. The Stephen Lawrence case is one example in which testimonial injustice had a destructive impact upon human lives.

Testimonial injustice is prevalent in our everyday lives and, if not addressed, can have potentially devastating effects.

Stephen Lawrence was a black British teenager from London. In April 1993, after spending the evening playing video games at an uncle’s house with his friend Duwayne Brooks, the two were waiting at a bus stop. As Stephen began to cross the road to check for any buses, a gang of white youths descended upon him. The mob forced Stephen to the ground and stabbed him to a depth of thirteen centimetres, leaving his arteries severed and his lung punctured. Duwayne began to flee the scene, calling for Stephen to follow him. Stephen ran over 100 yards before he eventually collapsed, bleeding to death on the pavement. 

Two people were charged for Stephen’s death in the following months, but by the end of July all charges had been dropped, with the police declaring that Duwayne’s evidence as the sole witness was unreliable. Throughout the entire process of finding Stephen’s killers, Duwayne was not treated as a victim, but rather a criminal. 

Duwayne witnessed the brutal and unprovoked slaughter of his friend, and yet when being questioned on the night of the attack, the police attempted to take a print of Duwayne’s trainer, believing him to be implicated in a separate robbery. He was also accused of breaking a window in the police station and of stealing soft drinks. Later it was suggested that he had falsified his identifications of suspects: when he picked two men out in an identity line-up he was accused of guesswork. The Macpherson report, an inquiry stemming from the Stephen Lawrence case, decreed that officers failed “to accept that what he [Duwayne] said was true”. Various setbacks such as these led to Stephen’s killers being sentenced nineteen years after his brutal death. 

In both the US and UK testimonial injustices are regularly being committed.

Duwayne Brooks was a victim of testimonial injustice. The police officers who interviewed him failed to acknowledge the validity of his claims due to their beliefs about black people. Despite the landmark Macpherson report exposing the institutionalised racism in the police force, prejudice against black voices is still not a rarity, but rather a normality.

In the UK medical field, myths around black people’s biology leads to them being 50% less likely to receive pain medication and black women five times more likely to die during childbirth. In the US, according to a study published in 2016, 40% of first and second-year medical students endorsed the belief that “black people’s skin is thicker than white people’s”. Despite this claim having no scientific basis, medical professionals ignore black people’s protestations of pain, failing to take their words into account and thus neglecting their suffering. Studies conducted found that despite black and Hispanic women reporting higher postpartum pain scores, they received significantly fewer painkillers than their white counterparts, and were also less likely to receive an opioid prescription for when they went home post birth. The study highlighted the disparities in pain management experienced by black and Hispanic women, and yet these cannot be justified by less perceived pain, as on a scale of one to ten, ​4.2% of white women reported pain scores of five or higher, in comparison to 7.7% of black and Hispanic women.

To disregard the voices of any group…is to harm the epistemic authority of a society as a whole.

Here it is clear that in both the US and UK testimonial injustices are regularly being committed. Medical professionals fail to acknowledge and accept the words of black and Hispanic people, thus creating a credibility deficit. These injustices are not only harmful in that they result in the speaker losing faith in their epistemic abilities, but cases such as these they lead to deaths. Black voices, like the voices of any other human being, have inherent value. Black people deserve to be heard in the same respectful manner as anybody else – this is a given. But to disregard the voices of any group, whether that be black people, other ethnic minorities, women, members of the LGBTQ+ community or the disabled, is to harm the epistemic authority of a society as a whole.

Testimonial injustice not only causes emotional suffering in that it leads the speaker to lose faith in their epistemic capabilities, but it may also impair an individual’s capacity as a giver of knowledge, thus meaning they are hindered in their contribution to society’s accumulating pool of knowledge. This in turn influences society’s ability to be a safe and encouraging space for all its members, regardless of whether they have been a victim of testimonial injustice​. Therefore, it is not only morally imperative to give black voices the credibility they deserve, but in every person’s best interests should they wish to live in a civilised society.

Image: Tigney Injury Law Firm via Unsplash.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.