Direct expertise in social justice

In a social justice context, it’s taken as a standard principle that when talking about group X, the ultimate authorities are members of group X. From this principle, people draw a variety of conclusions and cultural practices. For example:

  1. If someone is a part of group X, then we should take their opinion on the subject seriously.
  2. When people say the wrong things about group X, we can infer that this comes from people who are not part of group X, who failed to listen.
  3. If you’re not part of group X, you should stop talking about them, instead amplifying the voices of people within that group.

The way I think about it, there’s a certain kind of expertise that comes from having direct experience with an identity. We might call it “direct experience expertise”, but I think just “direct expertise” has a nicer ring to it.

Direct expertise has justifications, but also limitations. Trusting experts is a useful and justifiable rule of thumb. However, like other forms of expertise, there are cases where experts are wrong, or where they disagree. I also find some of the conclusions listed above to be unwarranted. In this article, I’ll explore the source and scope of direct expertise.

Where does it come from?

Does a person acquire direct expertise simply through life experiences? For example, does someone become an expert on women simply by going through life as a woman?

I think that’s part of it, but it’s not the whole story. In order to really become a worthy expert in women’s experiences, you would have to understand the experiences of women, plural. Your own personal experience does not suffice. So, if expertise on women comes from observing other women, why is this more accessible to women?

I think there are two main answers.  First, by having personal experience as a woman, that tends to provide an interpretive lens that enhances a woman’s ability to absorb knowledge from observing other women. A man might see a woman and think her behavior makes no sense; another woman might see it, and be quicker to understand.

Second, I think women may simply pay more attention when women’s experiences are discussed. Or they may move in social circles with more women in them.

Experience without expertise

Something that interests me are exceptions to direct expertise. Under what scenario can a person lack expertise on a group that they are part of?

Some personal motivation: I’m half-Asian, half-White, but I often feel like I lack any real insight into the mixed-race “experience”. I’m aware of a few commonalities and ideas, but nothing I feel sure of. I’ve heard that many mixed race people feel similarly. I have some expertise arising from the fact that I pay more attention to mixed-race accounts that I come across, but there are so few accounts to work with. My own experience is not enough.

I think this may also apply to other groups, especially groups that lack a strong personal identity. For example, it is my understanding that height discrimination is real, and yet most people don’t conceptualize shortness as a marginalized identity–including people who are themselves short. Without a coherent short identity, short people will spend less time talking about their personal experiences, or listening to the experiences of others. Short people may still have some form of direct expertise, but I suspect not very much. (Of course, I’m very tall so what do I know?)

People tend to consider direct expertise mostly in relation to certain canonical axes of oppression–gender, sexuality, race, ability, and so on. I think there is good reason for this. Direct expertise does not simply emerge fully formed from personal experience. Expertise is produced by activism. And identity labels are an especially effective tool, as they strongly encourage members of a group to educate themselves about the group they are part of.

Intersectionality as limitation

Although a White woman may gain expertise in the experience of White women, does that expertise extend to Black women? Given the distinct experiences, separate social circles, and often separate activisms, probably not.

But there is a danger that she may think she is an expert. Since White is an unmarked category, she doesn’t think of herself as a White woman, she thinks of herself as a woman—an expert on women’s experiences and not merely White women’s experiences. Thus, intersectionality can be framed as a critique of direct expertise. It shows that someone can have less expertise than they think they do.

Disagreements among experts

One argument that I particularly dislike, is that if someone is wrong about group X, then they must not be part of group X. As a concrete example, back when I did research for an article on the word “womxn”, I saw numerous people claim that the word is only promoted by cis white feminists who don’t know how to do right by women of color or trans people. It may be the case that cis white feminists are its biggest advocates, but I do not know whether that is the case, and I wouldn’t assume so without evidence

In fact, it is very easy to find women of color using “womxn” in a sincere way, and that doesn’t mean it’s a good word, but it does paint a more complicated picture. Experts do not all agree with each other, and understanding that is an important step in becoming an expert yourself.

Shut up and amplify

Another common principle, is saying that if you’re not part of group X, then you should refrain from talking about them, and instead amplify the voices of people who are part of the group.  I call this the “shut up and amplify” rule. My impression is that people apply the rule very selectively, and it mostly just feels like a way to shut down people they don’t like. To be clear, I am in favor of shutting down arguments for basically any reason, but that leaves me feeling like “shut up and amplify” is just an excuse to do something we should have felt empowered to do without excuses.

I believe that “shut up and amplify” is an overly restrictive rule, and one that I don’t follow in my own blogging. I will critically engage with topics related to groups I am not part of. And I thought to write a defense of this practice, but perhaps it’s better for my work to speak for itself.

At the same time, “shut up and amplify” feels insufficient. If you aren’t competent enough to say anything whatsoever on a subject, how can we trust you to sift through expert perspectives to choose which ones are worth amplifying?

On the other hand, what’s the alternative? Staying completely silent? Sadly there is no fixed set of rules that can lead you to perfection.

Expertise or power?

Direct expertise is a framework that I’ve basically invented in this essay to describe how I think of the problem, but it’s definitely not the only way to think about it. One alternative that I can think of is the framework of self-determination. Regardless of how knowledgeable Asian Americans are about issues affecting Asian Americans, you might say that they still deserve the biggest say over those issues.

The framework of self-determination surely has some value, and is not mutually exclusive. But I prefer the direct expertise framework, because I find it a bit more transparent. I understand where knowledge comes from, but where does power come from? Power is granted socially through a complex set of rules that nobody agrees on. And I think the power framework has a harder time dealing with some of the ambiguous cases I’ve discussed, like whether short people have the power of self-determination, and when intersectionality is important. (For example, do Chinese Americans deserve a say over Vietnamese Americans?)


Direct expertise is a framework I use to understand why members of marginalized groups have authority when speaking of the same groups. I argued that this expertise is not built solely on personal experience, but is generated by community discussion, activists, and the power of identity labels. Direct expertise can be limited by boundaries between inersectional subgroups. It is also common for experts to disagree with one another, and you may find yourself having to choose which experts to rely on. I hope that better understanding the shape of direct expertise will better equip us to make those decisions.

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