Uncomfortable in white Skin: Research, (Self-)Reflexivity and Representation

by Fiona Faye

I felt uncomfortable when writing about other people after my last research stay in Benin. In qualitative research, you have so much material and then you need to decide what to take in, what to leave out. The picture is always incomplete because you only have a certain number of pages. How can you make comprehensible to the readers all you saw and experienced and everything people explained to you so patiently? Even worse, you have the power to choose and thereby to substantially shape what the readers will think about the persons or groups of people you are writing about. It’s this kind of power, which is probably impossible to avoid (is it?) when writing about somebody else, which makes me feel uncomfortable in my skin, especially as a white researcher in Benin.

Reversing expert roles

With the baggage of colonial history and its legacies, it doesn’t get easier at all to encounter each other on eye-level. Even though we mostly transcended the colonial discourse of civilized vs. uncivilized nowadays (unfortunately, exceptions seem to prove the rule), the development discourse has taken over. This means, that regardless of ‘development’ practitioner or researcher, too often as a completely unqualified white volunteer, ‘we’ white folks either actively take or are assigned to the role of the “expert” when moving our bodies to the global South. Within this discourse we are supposed to define the problems of the global South and then to solve them (obviously, without tackling global power inequalities). There is hardly any space for questioning the location, production and representation of knowledge – in fact: of knowledges (and of the problems).

In my research, I intended to do it the other way round. Rather than coming as the expert, I wanted to learn from visions, inspirations and solutions in the global South, more precisely in the ideas and practices of a good life of Rastas in Benin. I hoped that these could also help ‘us’ with problems in the global North and additionally, that learning from the global South could help us in overcoming racist attitudes over here.

I have learned a lot during my research, my first larger scale qualitative research of nearly three months of interviews and participant observation. Purposely, I had not read much about Rastafari before, which made it easier for me to perceive my interview partners as the experts they are and learn directly from them. I certainly personally got inspiration from their attitudes and lifestyles.

Aware of the asymmetric power situation of my research, I tried to share power wherever I could and for instance always asked people where they would like to meet for the interview. However, tiny gestures like this will hardly have made a substantial difference in the overall power constellation of a white researcher and black interview partners with this whole burden of colonial history consciously or unconsciously in our minds. At the end of the interviews I made sure to say: „Now, I asked you so many questions. Do you have questions for me?“. Some people were curious about my own imagination of a good life, others about my home country Germany, so this felt somewhat like reducing the one-sidedness of the conversation. Nevertheless, this cannot hide the fact that while my interest was driven by genuine curiosity and personal interest, my ultimate motivation was to use the material for a research paper earning me a university degree.

Struggles of voice and representation

It’s such a huge responsibility to represent other people. Especially, if you don’t just want to extract knowledge, but to show from whom this knowledge derives. That’s also why I usually quoted the names of my interview partners. Still, I wondered if I should also mention something which presents somebody in a negative light from my personal perspective (but not from their own)? Let me give one example when I struggled with the (re-)presentation of one of my interview partners.  There was one really nice guy, and I appreciated talking to him a lot – except when it came to his sexist statements. In general, sexism was not really an issue in my research and most of my interlocutors were very much concerned about gender equality. However, I told myself I should just not pretend examples like this didn’t happen. In my writing, I should also show the frictions and contradictions within the group of Rastas (as in any group). But on the other hand, I felt bad presenting him like this, and was afraid that other people might think of him in a negative way, when reading it. At the same time, it is his responsibility what he expresses. For example, he said that „men are not made to cook“. He said it, so should I leave him to live with the consequences of potentially being perceived as a macho and sexist?  Is it something else to talk face-to-face to a person in a rather intimate setting (he agreed to be recorded though) or having a bunch of strangers read what you said some years ago? You might have changed your mind in the meantime, but the statement will be written down forever. In the end, I decided to take the statement in, but without mentioning his name in contrast to my usual practice of naming my interview partners (of course with their consent). I opted not to present somebody who generously shared his time and ideas with me in a light that I perceive as negative. I hope including the statement only anonymously was not paternalistic, though, as I kind of intended to “protect” him from other people’s reactions on his own utterances. Otherwise, I could (should?) have asked my interlocutors for their approval of at least the passages where I quote them.

Who benefits, really?

What is my relation to the people I did research about anyway? A few were friends I got to know during the six months of my internship before the research phase, most were rather acquaintances. I am still in contact with those I count as friends, from the majority I haven‘t heard of in a while. I have no plans to go back to Benin. Most of the contact was easy to establish, just with an elderly Rasta couple I felt a little bit intimidated because their age, appearance and conduct radiated so much authority.

With my thesis being written in German, there was little sense in providing it to my non-German speaking interview partners, only the aforementioned couple still wanted to have it sent. When more than one year later, I sent the finished German thesis with an abstract in French and one in English to them, I received an angry response with the demand to provide a version in English at least. I felt so small. It‘s true that I told them before I would write in German, but nevertheless I felt very stupid at that moment. They were right. For whose sake did I write in German about French-speaking people? The thesis was completely out of their reach language-wise and moreover out of their control. Before submitting, I didn‘t ask them, if they were o.k. with what I wrote about them and how I represented what they said. I would have had to write in French for doing so, and to the (potential) illiterate among my interview partners, I would actually have had to read it out to them. I would have needed to go back to Benin, to have the people approve what I wrote (only those whose names were mentioned or everybody?) before handing it in to my university. And if I received new feedback from my supervisor, who would be the last person having to approve the thesis? Would interview partners only need to approve to what I wrote about them personally or also to the bigger picture of the thesis? I still have more questions than answers.

My thesis wasn‘t written for my interview partners as an audience. Academic language would have been a constraint for quite a few, the length of the thesis being another barrier for people who read slowly. And what would they get out of reading it? They probably would have got some deeper insights into what is important for other Rastas in Benin. It might even have changed something, created a stronger group dynamic. It might have done nothing. Eventually, the questions that I posed seemed relevant to me, but I have no clue if they were relevant to them. Some of my interlocutors said, they liked talking to me about what a good life constitutes for them. That they never before took so much time thinking about it. But what if I had asked them in the beginning, what questions were relevant to them? What would they like (me) to find out, to work on, to understand – then probably the research question would have been something else. It might have been something more practical, more applied, something concerning daily life or political work or else. I didn‘t ask, so I cannot know. Instead, I followed my personal curiosity for Rasta imaginations and practices of a good life.

Reaching out for reciprocity

I had hoped for a certain level of reciprocity in my actions, but I don’t think I reached an ideal in any way. Or do I need to decolonise my idea of reciprocity? Who says that you give back to the very same person who gave something to you? Maybe life works differently, in bigger circles, and even if you don‘t directly give something back to the person who shared with you, you will share generosity with somebody else. Without really being able to grasp this, I feel I have learned this some years back when staying in Senegal for 6 months. Or maybe even this is just an imagination which helps me to feel better about my research?

What next? I plan to familiarise myself with participative action research and the idea of co-creation of knowledges to find out if this could be an approach to circumvent the pitfalls of writing about other people and writing, creating together with them instead.

Fiona Faye is a white and quite privileged German M.A. student in ‘Global Political Economy and Development’ at the University of Kassel.  She is active in kassel postkolonial and afrique-europe-interact.

One thought on “Uncomfortable in white Skin: Research, (Self-)Reflexivity and Representation”

  1. Fiona,

    Thanks for this intimate text about your role as social researcher. I find plausible to have questions and go for them wherever the answers are. I find that you approach the people with kindness and that you write in the language that you growth with. I also think that any academic text can not be considered as the last word, it is just like a picture, those statements were made in a particular moment, in a particular circumstance both of you as researcher and of the people; therefore, nor people nor you could be judge just for one work. You also let me some questions, thanks for them. Maybe we can continue this talk in another moment.

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