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Reflections on Reflexivity 2: Lowering My Gaze

By Davina Appiagyei, on 6 May 2021

This is a personal reflection written for the Overseas Practice Engagement module on the MSc Social Development Programme. It was written in May 2020, and is part of the SDP Reflection in Practice series. 

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Recently, I have asked myself several questions; what it truly means to be adaptable, what it truly means to shape a community. I have asked myself about my hasty acceptance of the writing of Heyzer et al (1995) and Moosa-Mitha (2016) who discuss the importance and responsibility of ‘safeguarding’ and ‘protecting’ the ‘rights’ and ‘environments’ of all individuals in development within the global south; but not why I have never considered the ways in which we fail to protect and safeguard the rights of our own in the Global West. These are large questions. Questions we may never find a definitive answer to, but questions which have discussions (not answers) I have gone some way in attempting to articulate. I suggest that we must all (development practitioners, students, lecturers, politicians and world leaders alike-) lower our gaze.

I do want to acknowledge that these past few months have been unprecedented; every single human being is treading lightly on what is completely new and terrifying territory. Not a single person of any tribe or tongue could have predicted or prepared for what was to come, and it has been both humorous and harrowing to look to our world leaders, who also know nothing of how to truly lead their people and guide their countries. We criticised and laughed at Boris for his poor personal presentation when addressing the nation; his delayed reactions, unkempt hair and confused speeches, but we didn’t acknowledge the fear and stress he too must feel. We criticised our institutions for replacement Zoom lectures that were frustrating; hard to engage with and hard concentrate on, but we didn’t acknowledge that for many lecturers, redesigning curriculums in days must be equally frustrating; hard to engage with and make meaningful; even harder to concentrate on.

Many of us have been forced to reckon with ourselves during this time; and in the last ‘Reflections on Reflexivity’ I acknowledged my unconscious bias as a British educated individual. I acknowledged that what informed my desire to pursue a career in development was not any lived experiences or even witnessed experiences, but the unequivocal assumption that I was in a position to make change, and what’s worse – that I would be right to. I asked myself who or what gave me authority to dictate what change in the global south should actually look like, and quickly realised that the truth laid in the remnants of colonial white supremacy of knowledge and understanding, of social organisation, and of life. I realised that I had tapped into a certain western privilege within education and academia which meant that I would be “legitimated” more automatically; respected more immediately (White, 2002.) But what has been odd recently, is that I have realised that this very system that put me on my (personally perceived) pedestal, is not as wonderful as it so wants us to think. Yes, I am British-born, raised and educated. My passport is red and my accent is ‘London’, but I am still and will always be Black. I am ‘British’ but I am really actually Black-British. I am still pushed into certain literal and metaphorical categories and queues before I am even able to speak or ‘prove’ (which I shouldn’t have to do in the first place) that I am worthy of respect.

I immediately think of Fraser and of Sen. Arguably, I am a fully integrated member of society. I have full and abundant citizenship rights. I can exercise freedoms that many cannot, and I have the capabilities and agency to live my life the way I want to in several ways. I am seen and I am ‘recognised’ in the political sense and ‘represented’ in censuses and visible statistically, but not in the real felt sense. It struck me quite funnily that I had been reading these texts through an ignorant rose-tinted lens. I was reading to inform my research on others without realising I was processing what also pertained to me. My mind was cast to ‘Rethinking Recognition’ by Fraser (2000) and how she argues that “misrecognition is neither a psychic deformation nor a free-standing cultural harm but an institutionalized relation of social subordination.” When reading about the Hegelian concepts of mutual recognition beyond economic and material representations of distribution I never thought about myself. When reading about “the stigmatizing gaze of a culturally dominant other’ I wasn’t thinking about my personal experience UK and when I read about “internalised negative self-images” I never thought about my own.

I realised that in class I hardly ever spoke up unless I was certain that my contribution was worthy. This is not because I am inferior, nor unqualified, but because I knew that mediocrity was not acceptable for a black person. I know that we need to work ‘twice as hard to get half as much’ – a truth I had so deeply internalised that I never even thought to acknowledge it. I started to realise that the power dynamics Alex referenced in class when speaking about communities and their defining and dividing categories impacting participation; were the very same power dynamics we needed to address on home soil.  I realised that the distorted identity and “internal self-dislocation” suffered by the “de-esteemed” groups Fraser references was as true for me as for those in (what I perceived to be) suffering groups in other parts of the world.

This is why I realised that I need to lower my gaze. As much as I am still desperately passionate to see and contribute to justice all over the world, I must first reckon with the injustice at my doorstep. I have raised my head and stretched my neck to question the inequality far across the pond, but have completely shut-out the immediate and pressing inequality right at my feet. Before I write and research about making meaningful social impacts in the countries we don’t inhabit or know, why can’t I start with the communities around me? Why are there more white and western writers on African policy and sociology than Africans, and why do more Africans yearn for a white or western education? The absurdity of it all has led me to question my gaze and exactly how I can lower it in a meaningful way; just as Fraser (1995) asks how the eclipse of a “socialist imaginary” centred around exploitation and distribution can shift to acknowledge a “political imaginary”; one centred around identity and culture.

Our final term was focused around producing a research proposal (through virtual meetings over Whatsapp and Zoom calls in the UK) to be implemented for real in Indonesia. I found irony in our classes’ constant criticism of “predetermined development solutions and narrow terms of consultation” (O’Meally, 2014). I thought about how our strong disapproval of the “instrument of domination” (Pottier, 2003) that is the ‘external and western “criteria of relevance” (Mosse, 2004) was exactly what we had succumbed to. The idea of a ‘remote’ engagement was uncomfortable in its premise. I googled the words definition too; ‘distant’ or ‘having very little connection with or relationship to’ and grew even more concerned about how I never thought that part of learning adaptability and reflexivity is accepting the truth that circumstances unduly shape outcomes and distort intentions. The truth is that although it is slightly problematic, the only other choice would have been to completely cancel or postpone the engagement as a whole. Postponing or cancelling the engagement would have been like postponing a whole communities’ real and lived experiential issues because it was ‘inconvenient.’ We cannot treat our work like some kind of entertainment show or display. We cannot put real livelihoods on pause and revisit them when we are ready or more comfortable to.

In my groups case, we addressed Tenure Insecurity in Sungai Jingah; a riverside community in Banjarmasin, Indonesia. My role in particular was to read around inclusive citizenship and how it can be enhanced within our context. I read around the inclusionary and exclusionary lenses of social interaction (Lister, 2007; Holston 2008); the ways in which a felt sense of belonging strongly influenced identity (Kabeer, 2005; Bose 2013.) I read about the ways in which “forms of injustice are rooted in hegemonic cultural definitions deny full personhood to certain groups” (Kabeer, 2005) and how those threads of injustice are then woven into policy. I then thought about the uprising of the Black Lives Matter movement worldwide; how more and more people have begun to wake up to the “social subordination” (Fraser, 2000) and oppression of racism and white supremacy. How people are waking up to the disgusting truth that more black people are targeted and incarcerated, less black people have the economic and social opportunities of their white counterparts and how at a crazily disproportionate rate, more black people are dying from COVID-19 than any other group. I read on Fraser, Kabeer (2005) and Lister (2007) on how inclusive citizenship constitutes wealth creation and distribution and political engagement; how it affects the development of social capital and “participatory parity.” I realised that whilst this was useful for shaping our research proposal in Indonesia and engaging with how tenure insecurity is so closely related to identity, belonging and citizenship, it was a very apparent reality I too was facing in my own community and when engaging with my own life and experiences. And whilst my issue may not be about securing tenure rights in order to enhance and sustain a livelihood, it is about claiming my fundamental human rights and equality in order to create and sustain a livelihood.

I know that I will continue to work to build sustainable and well-informed solutions to the issues of disparity and inequality faced in other parts of the world, but I will also make an equal and parallel effort to dismantle the institutional structures of oppression where I am. I will make a more deliberate effort to talk about race. I will work with my community to “jettison internalised negative identities and to produce a self-affirming culture of our own” as Fraser says. I will work on building platforms on which individuals can co-learn and co-produce knowledge to cultivate change and I can’t stop until it happens. I know, just as I’m sure many other black people right also know – that this is an EXHAUSTING task. I can admit to shutting off from realities and ignoring pain to be able to fully function. I can admit to multiple breakdowns over the past few weeks over the sheer force and size of the issue we are challenging (and the fear and hopelessness that comes with acknowledging it.) Even in this very moment, as I write these very words, I am tired. I am tired of fighting for equality; which should never be a debate in the first place. I am tired of literally having to chant that I matter? I am tired of being tired, but what this course has taught me as a development practitioner, what learning adaptability and reflexivity has taught me, and what this pandemic (which came like a rudely awakening slap in the face) has taught me, is that we can never give up. We can never turn our backs on injustice just because it is uncomfortable. I said in the last reflection that I don’t have the answers or solutions for change and for shifting discourse, and the truth is that I still don’t, but one thing I know – is that it starts with this. It starts with speaking; for our lives begin to end the moment we become silent on the things that matter’ – Martin Luther King.

 

 

Sources:

  1. Bose, P., 2013. Individual tenure rights, citizenship, and conflicts: Outcomes from tribal India’s forest governance. Forest Policy and Economics33, pp.71-79.
  2. Fraser, N., 1995. From redistribution to recognition? Dilemmas of justice in a’post-socialist’age. New left review, pp.68-68.
  3. Fraser, N. (2000). Rethinking recognition. New Left Review. 3. p107-118.
  4. Heyzer, N., Riker, J. and Quizon, A. (1995). Government-NGO Relations in Asia. London: Palgrave Macmillan Limited.
  5. Holston, J., 2008. Citizenship made strange. Insurgent Citizenship: Disjunctions of Democracy and Modernity in Brazil, pp.3-35.
  6. Kabeer, N., 2005. Introduction: The search for inclusive citizenship: Meanings and expressions in an interconnected world. In In N Kabeer (ed.) Inclusive Citizenship: Meanings and Expressions. London: Zed, 05..
  7. Lister, R., 2007. Inclusive citizenship: Realizing the potential. Citizenship studies11(1), pp.49-61.
  8. Moosa-Mitha, M., 2016. Reconfiguring citizenship: Social exclusion and diversity within inclusive citizenship practices. Routledge.
  9. Mosse, D. (2004). The Goddess and the PRA: local knowledge and planning. Cultivating Development. An Ethnography of Aid Policy and Practice, pp.75-102.
  10. O’Meally, S. (2014). The Contradictions of Pro-poor Participation and Empowerment: The World Bank in East Africa. Development and Change, 45(6), pp.1248–1283.
  11. Pottier, J. (2003). Negotiating Local Knowledge: an Introduction. Negotiating Local Knowledge : Power and Identity in Development, pp.1–29.
  12. White, S. (2002). Thinking race, thinking development. Third World Quarterly, 23(3), pp.407–419.

 

About the SDP Reflection in Practice series.

The module social development in practice places emphasis on building a reflexive lens to co-learning, and research practice. This is captured through individual and collective reflections, which offer a space to develop an ethical practice attentive to the complexity of social identities, relationships, and power structures inherent in any social change programme. 

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