Explorations of otherness and the politics of (self)representation

by Dr Ute Kelly

The reflections that follow are inspired by a two-day ‘Otherness Lab’ we held this May at the University of Bradford, with students and alumni in Peace Studies and International Development, and in collaboration with OpenEdge. We were trying to explore questions that had emerged from a series of overlapping conversations around dynamics of privilege and marginalisation, silencing and voice, not only in the wider world but also within the academic space we shared.

What kind of a space? At first glance, this looks like a space in which people from diverse backgrounds come together to explore questions that matter in today’s world. And in some ways, of course, it is. In other ways, though, it is also a space that encourages performances of success, that frames students as cosmopolitan professionals, and that perhaps discourages us from exploring more challenging questions: Is this really as diverse a space as we like to believe? Are we actually as comfortable with the differences that exist between us as we like to think? Are we ready to explore the dynamics that have privileged some of us over others? I suspect that the honest answer to these questions, for many of us, is no. I believe that we need to open up more searching conversations about these dynamics, about who we are and what this means for how we approach work and life and each other.

Among other things, this involves exploring experiences of othering/being othered — dynamics that centre some people, experiences and needs while marginalising others, that mean some of us are seen for who we are and what we do, while others are made invisible, that make it easier for some to be heard than for others.

One of our first activities in the Otherness Lab involved exploring a collection of images, individually and collectively. In a first step, we took a look at these images and each chose two that, for whatever reason, represented otherness to us. This was an interesting challenge. It’s one thing to notice your own responses, another to be brave enough to own them by picking up images that feel genuinely Other. In an important sense, choosing how to engage with representations of Others raises critical questions about the politics of self-representation too…

In reflecting on our choices afterwards, some of us spoke about going with initial gut reactions. For others, it was a more conscious choice. Some picked representations that they knew felt Other to them; for others, it was a surprise to notice that things they might have expected to feel Other didn’t, or vice versa. Some acknowledged that the choices they made were safe rather than brave. And some of us found aspects of our own identities — acknowledged or not — represented in images picked by other participants.

It was interesting, then, to reflect together on the images that were picked and on those that were left behind: Which of these were the more challenging? What might the ways in which we chose some and left others tell us about ourselves? About our individual and collective (dis)comfort zones? About us as a group? What conversations, sharing, reflections did our choices open up or close down?

Approaching an exploration of otherness via images was an interesting technique. Reflecting on our ways of seeing — and on how others see us, or don’t — is important. But not everything that is visible matters, and many things that matter are not visible. For good reason, much of our time was spent talking and listening, both to ourselves and to others.

There were some important moments of talking and listening. Moments in which people spoke of experiences that mattered: Of how it feels when there is a gap between how others see you and how you see yourself, when only one of the many facets of your identity is noticed; of what it’s like when a significant dimension of who you is unknown or unacknowledged by people around you, and how much courage it can take to draw attention to it; of why some of us feel less at ease and more on edge in this University setting than others; of how hard it can be when others ask how you are and are not prepared to listen to uncomfortable answers; of how it takes courage to be curious about human experiences that challenge deeply held values or beliefs.

Talking of values or beliefs as ‘deeply held’ draws attention to perhaps the most important dimension in which processes of othering and being othered are experienced — the ways in which they become embodied as visceral responses and ways of being. This too became part of our exploration of what it is like to be ourselves in relation to others. We were invited to attend to our bodies, to encounter each other within the physical space that contained our interactions, to embody experiences of feeling centred or marginalised, othered or at home, to notice and extend our comfort zones.

And still, some of the things that were hardest to explore in this shared space were to do with what it means to be embodied: Questions around gender, race, sexuality, violence, unmet needs, trauma, disability, death and grief. For many of us, approaching these sorts of questions means taking risks with our own vulnerabilities and emotions and/or with those of others. For some of us, taking such risks was a healing experience. For others, it opened up difficult things that will take a while to process, and for many, it felt better or more appropriate — for now, in this space — to listen.

How do we interpret the silences that are always also part of a shared space? I think these were of different kinds: The deliberate silences of people who were aware that their experiences are centred more often than those of others, who wanted to leave space and time for others to speak. The uncertain silences of people who had things to share but needed time to gather the courage to do so. The chosen silences that protect privacy. The reflective silences that made it possible for the voices of others to resonate and move in our own internal spaces. The silences that represent work in progress that may not be voiced.

But also: The silences of those who had chosen not to enter this particular space. The silences of those who would have liked to but could not, in some cases because they were facing greater obstacles than others. And perhaps, the silences that represent resistance to the curiosity of those with more power, resistance to their/our desires ‘for access to the other, and to the knowledge and experiences of the other’.

If we are serious about questioning and transforming experiences of othering, some of the work that is needed concerns ourselves and each other in the spaces and moments we share. But this work also involves zooming out of particular experiences and situations to see the larger contexts in which all of us are situated. It involves listening not only to the voices that are within touching distance, but also to echoes, resonances and silences across time and space. It involves noticing patterns, structures, histories, narratives. It means asking ourselves and each other how we are experiencing our positionings within these larger structures, what ways of naming them make sense to us or challenge us, and what challenges may be needed even while they are uncomfortable.

It also means asking what transforming the bigger patterns might actually involve. This, too, raises some difficult questions in relation to othering. Many of us other power: People who hold power over us, behaviours that are privileged but that we feel excluded from, institutions that produce a sense of alienation.

What do we do with this? Should our attempts at transformation try to avoid ‘us and them’ framings and dynamics, or do we need them to clarify what (and who?) we stand for and against? When is framing power as Other a convenient strategy to avoid more challenging questions? Do we acknowledge that many of us play a part in sustaining systems that marginalise others? That we benefit from them? Might we need to ‘unother’ desires for power and privilege in ourselves? How, with what intentions and towards what ends? Who are ‘we’?

What alternatives can we imagine, and how might it feel to move towards them? And as we do so, can we take up Lederach’s suggestion that ‘[t]he key for peacebuilding is to remember that change, if it is to be sparked and then sustained, must link and bring into relationships sets of people, processes, and activities that are not like-situated nor of similar persuasion’?

These are not easy questions, and they will, and should not, engender a single response. But if we can find ways of listening more deeply to the questions we are posing and to those being posed by others, if we can become more attentive to what our various responses contain and what they leave out, if we can notice more often where our attention tends to go and where it doesn’t, and if we can extend our internal spaces and comfort zones to make space for a wider range of stories and thoughts, emotions and imaginations, then perhaps that’s a start.

With thanks to Sarri Bater, Hussein Salahaldin and Juleus Ghunta for taking part in a series of critical conversations leading up to and beyond this Otherness Lab pilot, to Sarri, Hussein and Sophie Docker for planning and co-facilitating much of what happened during the two days we spent together, to Maiko Shimizu for taking photos, to OpenEdge-Transforming Conflict for imagining and developing the idea of an ‘Otherness Lab’, and to the Quaker Peace Studies Trust for funding it. And thanks to all those who took part and turned the space and time we had together into such a rich learning experience.

A slightly longer version of this piece was first published on Ute’s personal blog at https://fromthehonestybox.home.blog/.

Dr Ute Kelly is a Lecturer in Peace Studies at the University of Bradford. Much of her work revolves around the question of how to encourage meaningful conversations on challenging issues and how in difficult times, we might cultivate and practice ‘the moral imagination’ in ourselves and others. Among other things, she is currently engaged in conversations on difference, otherness, trauma and inequalities within and beyond Universities.