Maybe seeking social justice is not only about seeking social justice, but about critiquing and interrupting the minute moments of social injustice that permeate our everyday identity performances, and hoping for a better tomorrow with others in our lives.—Satoshi Toyosaki and Sandra L. Pensoneau-Conway1
I (Cassidy) open my copy of the Handbook of Autoethnography2 to start making notes for this essay. When I turn to the back to search the index, the back cover flips easily to a blank page on which I wrote thoughts when initially reading these chapters. The last note reads: What do I want my autoethnography to do? What is the larger purpose of my work beyond the assignment for class, submission for conferences, or attempt at publication? How do I want my work to be situated amongst others, extending or pushing back [on] or challenging those before me, [as well as] those with whom I write contemporarily? While these questions were written by a graduate student early on in their doctoral studies, they are nevertheless necessary for any autoethnographer to consider. Specifically, these questions ask us to reflect on autoethnography’s social justice imperative and our engagement with social justice as autoethnographers.
I reread these questions and revisit these chapters today, in the sociopolitical context of constant attacks on marginalized groups by both the Trump administration and state governments across the country, the rise of violence associated with ultra-conservatism, and the continued devaluation of scholars of color and scholars with other marginalized identities within our discipline and the academy at large. In this context, social justice feels even more critical to consider in our autoethnographic work.
The context in which we are writing, working, and living today poses a dilemma for practitioners of autoethnography because it requires autoethnographers to ask tough questions to ensure their work aligns with their politics. It is challenging autoethnographic writers to critically consider what we want our stories to do. It’s forcing us to reflexively interrogate our contributions to social justice. For autoethnographers with privilege, particularly white autoethnographers, it continues to be essential to engage self-reflexivity and work toward decentering privilege. It is more important than ever for autoethnographers to ask: Who are we writing for? Who are we writing to? What do we want our work to do?
We reflect on these questions, attempting to reckon with the role of praxis-oriented social justice within autoethnographic inquiry. While others have written about autoethnography, social justice, and praxis3, we seek to further highlight this conversation and hone in on the social justice and praxis imperatives within autoethnography. Additionally, we follow others who make a call for greater (self-reflexive) attention to Whiteness within personal narrative. We use this space to consider the role, or lack thereof, of social justice in autoethnographic writing. In what follows, we define the relationship between social justice and autoethnography, critically interrogate the utilization of social justice praxis within autoethnography, and think toward a praxis-oriented social justice autoethnography that is needed today.
Defining Social Justice within Autoethnography
We briefly outline the ways in which autoethnography has been positioned as a social justice–focused method with political utility. A commitment to social justice is an oft-cited aim of autoethnography, and praxis or accessibility is in many cases named as an author’s impetus for choosing an autoethnography. For instance, in the introduction to the Handbook of Autoethnography, Holman Jones, Adams, and Ellis4 offer five purposes of autoethnography, all of which revolve around an interest in social justice. Social justice is directly apparent in the fourth purpose: “breaking silence, (re)claiming voice, and writing to right.”5 Specifically, they write that autoethnographers use story and experience “to promote social change by compelling readers to think about taken-for-granted cultural experiences in astonishing, unique, and often problematic ways and…to take new and different action in the world based on the insights generated by the research.”6 Thus, autoethnography is uniquely situated as a social justice–informed method, often achieved by “[writing] through silence and (re)claim[ing] the voices of subverted and subjugated experience.”7
Additionally, Toyosaki and Pensoneau-Conway seek to make the connection between social justice, praxis, and autoethnography most clear, arguing that the “‘doing’” of autoethnography [is] the praxis of social justice”8 because of autoethnography’s ability to transform individuals and bring them into community. They trace how autoethnography has the potential to enact social justice on micro and macro levels (individual, relational, and community). Others such as Faulkner9 and Holman Jones10 have articulated the political importance of autoethnography while demonstrating the multiple and more accessible forms it can take.
Interrogating Social Justice in Autoethnography: Returning to Other Genealogies
Considering the problem of the lack of deep engagement with social justice in many contemporary iterations of autoethnography calls us to return to early formulations of it theoretically and methodologically, as well as its guiding principles. It is important to note that scholars such as Robin Boylorn, Ahmet Atay, Devika Chawla, Amber Johnson, Richie Neil Hao, Shinsuke Eguchi, and Aisha Durham offer models of autoethnography that are critical and undergirded by social justice. These scholars not only center power, but draw on citational practices that are reflective of activist and social justice impetus. They model an intersectional approach to autoethnography, such as that advocated by Calafell,11 which models what Jones12 terms as intersectional reflexivity. Furthermore, many of these scholars trace their autoethnographic approach to women of color feminisms, which Green and Calafell13 reclaim as an important history often ignored in contemporary and popular discussions of autoethnography. Likewise, Bhattacharya and Keating14 name queer and Chicana feminist scholar Gloria Anzaldúa’s autohistoria-teoría as central to this discussion. Thus, a critical, social justice, or activist approach to autoethnography must acknowledge what Moraga and Anzaldúa term the theory in the flesh or knowledge connected to and emanating from the body.15
Similarly, in returning to these feminist origins, it is just as significant to consider foundationary, yet rarely cited formations, of autoethnography that are grounded in power, resistance, and critical representation. For example, Pratt’s definition of autoethnography is instructive here. Pratt defines an autoethnographic text as “a text in which people undertake to describe themselves in ways that engage with representations that Others have made of them. Thus, if ethnographic texts are those in which European metropolitan subjects represent to themselves their others (usually their conquered others), autoethnographic texts are representations that the so defined others construct in response to or in dialogue with those texts. Autoethnographic texts are not, then, what are usually thought of as autochthonous forms of expression or self-representation.”16 This critical approach echoes bell hooks’s17 discussion of talking back as a form of resistance and self-representation for Black women. These genealogies work against critiques of autoethnography by scholars of color examining communities they are a part of as “meresearch”—a critique rarely leveled against white autoethnographers. Further, they keep autoethnography critical by demanding its writers fully locate themselves within systems of power and privilege. Naming this problem in autoethnography, Calafell and Moreman write, “The lack of attention demonstrated by some White scholars to their own Whiteness and how that Whiteness shapes their research and worldviews are important to note for the ways their narratives are understood or read particularly when their Whiteness goes unnamed while our Otherness is always prominent.”18 Calafell and Moreman also explore how this approach assumes a White reader, which in turn normalizes Whiteness at another level. Thus, a first step in moving autoethnography more deeply into a social justice and activist orientation would be not simply to name one’s Whiteness, but to deeply engage and critique it alongside aspects of identities that are critically examined. Dawn Marie McIntosh’s work is illustrative here, as she critiques not simply her performance of femininity and sexuality, but how we make sense of them in terms of Whiteness.19 Second, autoethnographers who proclaim themselves as committed to social justice must be willing to consider the theoretical and methodological lineages that undergird their work. Employing an intersectionally reflexive lens, as well as an intentionally activist theoretical and methodological base, will also push autoethnographers to be more aware of the assumptions they make about their readers.
Autoethnography is an important political project that is capable of “writing to right”20 within today’s sociopolitical context. However, to be efficacious, bodies must become central for a praxis-oriented social justice autoethnography. Autoethnographers must stop writing about social justice, stop writing about reflexivity, and stop writing about privilege. Merely writing about these things constructs lifeless narratives with little utility for achieving autoethnography’s goals. Instead, autoethnographers must centralize the actual material bodies that inhabit the text. Our narratives are alive and breathing, just like the bodies our narratives bring voice to and (often) silence. Without attention to the body, the material stakes of our work are easily forgotten, and Others continue to be erased.
As an MA student, I (Bernadette) was drawn to autoethnography, what I believed was a revolutionary research method. However, as time went on, I started to feel maybe it wasn’t quite as revolutionary as I had hoped. Performances of class and white privilege went unchecked, uninterrogated, and often celebrated. Thus, I went back to my roots, literally; my feminist and queer of color roots, as well as radical framings of autoethnography to find a sense of hope. This is the genealogy I present to my students. This is the genealogy that will keep us critical. This is the genealogy that we need in this crucial moment when so many are working to silence our voices even though some of us have just gotten here. Finally, maybe it’s time for some of the loudest, and most privileged, voices to listen rather than speak.
Satoshi Toyosaki and Sandra L. Pensoneau-Conway, “Autoethnography as a Praxis of Social Justice: Three Ontological Contexts,” in Handbook of Autoethnography, eds. Stacy Holman Jones, Tony E. Adams, and Carolyn Ellis (New York: Routledge, 2013), 557–575.
Tony E. Adams, Stacy Holman Jones, and Carolyn Ellis, eds. Handbook of Autoethnography (New York: Routledge, 2013).
Toyosaki and Pensoneau-Conway.
Stacy Holman Jones, Tony E. Adams, and Carolyn Ellis, “Introduction: Coming to Know Autoethnography As More Than a Method,” in Handbook of Autoethnography, eds. Tony E. Adams, Stacy Holman Jones, and Carolyn Ellis (New York: Routledge, 2013), 17–47.
Holman Jones, Adams, and Ellis, 35.
Holman Jones, Adams, and Ellis, 36.
Holman Jones, Adams, and Ellis, 36.
Toyosaki and Pensoneau-Conway, 558.
Sandra L. Faulkner, “Poetry is Politics: An Autoethnographic Poetry Manifesto,” International Review of Qualitative Research 10 (2017): 89–96.
Holman Jones, “Autoethnography: Making the Personal Political,” in Handbook of Qualitative Research (3rd ed.), eds. Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (Thousand Oaks, CA: SAGE, 2005), 763–791.
Bernadette Marie Calafell, “(I)dentities: Considering Accountability, Reflexivity, and Intersectionality in the I and the We,” Liminalities: A Journal of Performance Studies 9 (2013): 6–13.
Richard G. Jones Jr., “Putting Privilege into Practice Through ‘Intersectional Reflexivity’: Ruminations, Interventions, and Possibilities,” Reflections (2010): 122–125.
Caleb Green and Bernadette Marie Calafell. “Naming and Reclaiming Decolonial, Feminist, Performative, and Other Approaches to Critical Autoethnography,” in Handbook of Autoethnography (2nd ed.), eds. Tony Adams, Stacy Holman Jones, and Carolyn Ellis. In press.
Kakali Bhattacharya and AnaLouise Keating, “Expanding Beyond Public and Private Realities: Evoking Anzaldúan Authistoria-teoría in Two Voices,” Qualitative Inquiry 24 (2018): 345–354.
Green and Calafell.
Mary Louise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991): 35.
bell hooks, Talking Back: Thinking Feminist, Thinking Black. (Boston: South End Press, 1989).
Bernadette Marie Calafell and Shane T. Moreman, “Envisioning an Academic Readership: Latina/o Performativities Per the Form of Publication,” Text and Performance Quarterly 29 (2009): 125.
Dawn Marie McIntosh, “White Feelings, Feeling Straight: Cultivating Affective Attentiveness for Queer Futurities,” QED: A Journal of Queer Worldmaking 4 (2017): 162–169; Dawn Marie McIntosh, “Victims, Protectors, and Possibilities for Change: White Womanhood and the Violence of Heteronormativity,” QED: A Journal of Queer Worldmaking 1 (2014): 154–158.
Holman Jones, Adams, and Ellis, 35.