Blog #8/ [When Are We] Positioned Out of Bounds?

These two quotes reverberated in my stream of consciousness as I read Elizabeth Hordge-Freeman’s Out of Bounds?: Negotiating Researcher Positionality in Brazil. Tangled up my thought digestion is the tension between being both a researcher and an activist and how sometimes sharing identities is not enough to presume insider status. As a self-identified black North American female, Hordge-Freeman reflects on her ambiguous position within the Afro-Brazilian community she was researching: “I naively presumed that privilege and exploitation were mainly issues for white researchers to work out, and had not anticipated the degree to which I would also feel ambivalent about the researcher gaze and the activist posture.”

Let’s pause here. I want to muse on the pairings of researcher gaze and activist posture for just a moment. What do those pairings mean? At first murmur I like the way “researcher gaze and activist posture” slips off the tongue. So then I reverse it: researcher posture and activist gaze. A gaze feels almost passive to me, it feels a bit uncomfortably removed with calculated distance (from what is being researched). Posture strikes me as more active, more participatory. Something akin to a backbone, the literal vertebrae that sustains us and holds us up. I am not resolved in the ordering of these four words but I found it to be an interesting exercise.

Hordge-Freeman discusses how her own researcher/activist tension led her to take up the role of a hair braider in the Afro-Brazilian community she was studying. Spurred to occupy this new role stemmed from witnessing Afro-Brazilian girls get teased for their “cabelo duro” (hard hair). While hair braiding, Hordge-Freeman was able to create a space where she could engage with her activist posture by exposing young girls to affirmation: “These moments of affirmation would certainly not erase the constant messages that reproduce racial hierarchies, but they did expose [the] young girls to alternative readings of [their] racialized and gendered body.”

Hordge-Freeman did something really powerful and important here. By becoming a hair braider to young girls who were ridiculed for their natural hair, Hordge-Freeman negotiated a way to blend her researcher gaze and activist posture:

The extent of my subjectivity expanded beyond my role as hair braider, as there were intentional ways that I manipulated my own personal appearance both as a form of research and activism. Realizing how much racialization processes and notions of beauty are framed in terms of hair, I begin to manipulate my own hair in response to racialized comments about “cabelo bom” and “cabelo ruim” (good and bad hair).”

So, as researchers, activists, and human beings with vertebrae, subjectivity, and fervor, we must never remain neutral or silent. We should take into great consideration the words of Tressie McMillan Cottom and seek venues wherein we can retain all parts of ourselves that we do not wish to submit to institutional transformation and, as Hordge-Freeman attests: “reframe what activism means for [us] and work to foster ruptures in the status quo, consciousness-raising, and empowerment that reflect [our] own capabilities.

Let us deeply consider the complexities of what it means to be out of bounds and when/why we are considered to be out of bounds as scholars/activists. How might we carve out the space necessary to negotiating ambivalence in our roles as scholars and activists? To take Hordge-Freeman’s sports analogy, when will we intentionally go “out of bounds” in order to experience an advantage?