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Self-Preservation or Epistemic Exploitation?

Disclaimer: Posts are solely the views of the author and do not represent the views of Brandeis University or The Institute on Assets and Social Policy.

These days I find myself caught between a rock and a hard place. I find myself contending with choices that are seemingly straightforward but in reality, prove to be nearly impossible to make. I find myself compelled to choose between opposing extremes: benevolence or indifference, confrontation or avoidance, resistance or acceptance? I deliberate over the contradictory nature of these extremes and by the end, I remain in an indecisive state– frustrated, confused, and unsettled.


Do I choose joy over anger? Hope over despair?  Self-preservation over epistemic exploitation?

Choosing one extreme over the other is not a choice that I want to make. However, when I am confronted with the reality of the twin pandemics (COVID-19 & anti-Black racism) facing our country, I feel constrained by my options.  Do I choose joy over anger? Hope over despair?  Self-preservation over epistemic exploitation? Eventually, I get to a space where I convince myself that I do not have to choose one position over the other. I suddenly remember the complexity of duality, and I remind myself that two opposing feelings can exist at the same time. As I come into this realization, I experience a moment of relief, but my relief is short-lived, and an overwhelming feeling of betrayal takes over. It is in this moment that I realize the struggle I have with giving myself permission to allow multiple truths to coexist.

So I Unwillingly Chose Epistemic Exploitation

            After the senseless murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Ahmaud Arbery, I felt a strong sense of urgency—a call to action. It was the same urgency that I felt years prior, after the murder of Trayvon Martin. Perhaps a bit naïve at that time, I believed that Trayvon’s murderer would be convicted. I was fresh out of college, and I was optimistic that the verdict would rule in favor of the prosecution. But to my surprise, Trayvon’s killer was set free.

This verdict lit a fire under me and like many others who shared in my anger and frustrations, I took to the streets and began protesting. After attending a couple of protests, I realized that I wanted to do more. Little did I know that more would come at a cost that I wasn’t quite prepared for. Overnight, I became the unofficial consultant for colleagues and university officials. I became the educator for well-meaning white people and allies. I became the advocate, confidant, and unlicensed therapist for Black and Brown students who sought my counsel. I became the spokesperson and resident expert for all things Black. And truthfully speaking, I wasn’t mentally or emotionally ready for the level of epistemic exploitation I would endure.

Epistemic exploitation, according to Nora Berenstain, is comprised of the “unrecognized, uncompensated, emotionally taxing, coerced epistemic labor” forced on individuals who hold marginalized identities. [“Epistemic” refers to the nature of knowledge or belief]. Epistemic exploitation places the undue burden on the oppressed to educate others about the scope of their oppression, and in doing so, exploits the emotional and cognitive labor of minoritized groups. Yes, I wanted to do more, but this was not the more that I signed up for.


I have become pessimistic, and I am beginning to believe that the epistemic exploitation that I have endured these past few years have all been in vain.

It has been nearly eight years since the murder of Trayvon Martin and unfortunately, not much has changed. The fire that was once ignited in me is now beginning to dim. I have become pessimistic, and I am beginning to believe that the epistemic exploitation that I have endured these past few years have all been in vain. I am exhausted. I am overwhelmed by the racial battle fatigue consuming every piece of me. And fearfully, I am concerned that I may have nothing left to give.

Moving Towards Self-Preservation

Recently, in a team meeting, I announced that I was looking forward to prioritizing me for the upcoming academic year. I boldly shared with my colleagues that I was going to be “selfish and unapologetic about it.”  My impassioned declaration was inspired by the words of Audre Lorde: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”   The warfare I chose to embark on after the murder of Trayvon Martin did not yield the results I expected, so perhaps my move towards self-preservation will present a different set of outcomes.

Still and all, even as I share my aspiration to move towards self-preservation, I find myself reverting back to old habits, questioning whether I can and should be choosing this extreme over the epistemic exploitation I had grown so accustomed to. I hesitate to move towards self-preservation because internally, I do not know if this is a luxury afforded to me and my people. I struggle to accept self-preservation because the murderers of Breonna Taylor are still out there. I resist the desire to only worry about myself because if I ever become the next Breonna Taylor, I want someone to care and know that my life mattered.

The Struggle Continues

Sadly, our nation’s leaders continue to respond poorly to the twin pandemics, placing the burden on the most vulnerable among us to extend the few resources we have at our disposal to serve our own communities. While I have no doubt that members of marginalized communities possess the necessary skills to address these matters, I am concerned that the burden continues to fall on us. We can’t do it alone. And we shouldn’t have to.

There is nothing normal about living in a constant state of fear, be it fear for the safety of our loved ones, or the safety of our own lives.

Today, as our country begins settling into our “new normal,” I am reminded that there is nothing normal about what we are all experiencing. There is nothing normal about needing to walk around with masks and face coverings.  There is nothing normal about watching video clips of Black men and women die at the hand of law enforcement.  There is nothing normal about living in a constant state of fear, be it fear for the safety of our loved ones, or the safety of our own lives. Least of all, there is nothing normal about how we’ve chosen to continue business as usual and disregard its impact on the most marginalized.

We cannot accept this new normal. We must begin to do the internal and external work to unpack why we are so eager to resume business as usual. We must begin to ask ourselves how we have benefitted and/or become complicit in a system that continues to oppress minoritized groups. And we must do the work to understand where we fall in the spectrum of opposing extremes.

Personally, grappling with these opposing extremes continues to leave me in a state of confusion. I am constantly battling myself as I work to unlearn the deep-seated binary ways of thinking that are ingrained in me. This is not an easy quest by any stretch of the imagination. However, the type of change I’m reimagining for this country requires me to sit with my discomfort, understand what it is trying to tell me, and learn from it.  I invite you to join me in doing the same.


By Habiba Braimah, Ph.D. Candidate
By Habiba Braimah, Ph.D. Candidate



Berenstain, Nora (2016). Epistemic Exploitation. Ergo: An Open Access Journal of Philosophy, 3(22), 569-590.

Jones, A. L. (2016, June 16). The Twin Pandemics of Racism and COVID-19. Psychology Today.

Lorde, A. (1988). A burst of light: essays. NY: Firebrand Books.

Smith, W. A., Yosso, T. J. & Solórzano, D. G. (2006). Challenging racial battle fatigue on historically white campuses: A critical race examination of race-related stress. In C. A. Stanley (Ed.), Faculty of color: Teaching in predominantly white colleges and universities (pp. 299–327). Bolton, MA: Anker.