The uncomfortable truths — who we are and the politics of self-representation

Essay by Dr Ján Michalko*

Photo by Marc-Olivier Jodoin on Unsplash

The political system of apartheid — a colonial, white supremacist, patriarchal regime in South Africa — had a profound impact on researchers and academics. For example, as South African sociologist Edward Webster writes, the regime shaped how individuals and institutions engaged with their academic discipline, including the appetite to critically influence policies and public discourses.

The regime also shaped how researchers decided what societal phenomena were of interest, who was the subject of their interrogations, and how they portrayed them to the wider public. There was — and still is — for instance the perceived emphasis on needing to focus on so-called ‘toxic’ (black) masculinities to address challenges such as gender-based violence, instead of taking a more holistic or intersectional approach to gender inequalities that would also interrogate white Afrikaner and English masculinities against the global context.

It is not only in authoritarian regimes like apartheid that the political establishment and people with power intervene in the knowledge production process and shape public understanding of what societal challenges are and who is seemingly responsible for them.

Take for example the UK’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who has been dehumanizing Muslim womxn, migrants and other people in his statements. Situating societal ills and problems with people who are marginalized and ostracised as the ‘other’ serves him as a means to convince the public of his policies that feed (on) global inequalities .

People’s representations in research, policy, and public statements such as those made by Johnson, the U.S. president, Donald Trump, and others, have very tangible, life and death implications. They shape the way the voting public and taxpayers view whose life is worthy of being saved or who is deserving of financial support and protection, not least through allocation of international development aid to various priorities. Domestic politics in donor countries can then ultimately lead to life-saving treatments being stopped in recipient countries or life-taking military operations being authorised.

As Professor Amina Mama and others have demonstrated, discourses and the processes of knowledge production more generally, are shaped by the systems of power in which they are produced. Therefore, changes to the academic and public representation of the ‘other’ are crucial steps towards the improvement of people’s lives.

Some thinkers, probably most famously Black feminist Audre Lorde, suggest that one cannot dismantle these systems of oppression by using the ‘master’s tools’. Based on this premise, international development — as an academic discipline and practice rooted in colonialism and global capitalism — might not be able to radically uproot the causes of inequality and exploitation in the world. This ongoing debate, about whether it is possible to really dismantle the hierarchical structures and entrenched power dynamics within international development, is for example being poignantly reflected on by Convivial Thinking, a group of scholars thinking and working on issues related to post- and decolonial approaches to development studies.

Whilst these conversations consider representation in the context of the ‘development industry’ more broadly, in this piece I seek to think about what we as individuals working in, and researching international development, can do in the interim, within the wider context of rising xenophobic hate in public discourses and politics.

I believe we would be more effective in countering false representations and othering discourses of the current elites, and ultimately be better positioned to change perceptions marred by centuries of oppression and exploitation, if we institutionalise a culture in which each practitioner or researcher is held accountable for undertaking an in-depth analysis of their personal histories and is expected to face and share the uncomfortable truths of where they stand in the world.

Various ethnographies of development practice show the importance of the personal for the professional in development. While many practitioners tend to be aware of this linkage, there is still an overall lack of institutional attention and support for it. Mainstreaming reflexivity and self-representation in international development that is meaningful and impactful — and not leaving it to the vestige of ‘grievance studies’ — would help practitioners and researchers gain trust of people on both sides of the dividing lines of our field, as unrealistic and, as many would argue unhelpful, as they are: North-South, developing-developed, vulnerable-privileged, and so on. Only so can solidarity and transformative political action ensue.

Feminist reflexivity and tracking of linkages

When I first visited Tanzania as a university student, I remember visiting a missionary church in the coastal town of Bagamoyo. Inside, a mural depicted Mary, mother of Jesus. Ascending from a church building below her, were crowds of people. There were also images of men arriving on boats to deliver the word of God to these crowds. Needless to say, the masses of sinners, who were also shown toiling in the fields, were Africans, while the men of God and of the book were white. Standing in front of the mural, I felt uneasy about the messages hidden behind the painting, which told people in the pews who was God-like and who was less of a human.

Thanks to my mentor and lecturer, Dr Cymone Fourshey, I had known to critically assess the representations before me and see the power with which they were laden. For many years after my visit, however, I did not have the need to reflect on my own journey into international development in relation to the mural in the church in Bagamoyo. There was no time or space to examine the parallels between my professional career and the mural.

I started to dig deeper into my own histories and positionality during my PhD at SOAS as I was encouraged to consider their impact on my research with university students in South Africa. I became increasingly confronted with a sense of shame for having had my initial interest in international development driven by my white saviour complex. Granted, years back I had perceived it as an altruistic desire to help others, who cannot help themselves, as many practitioners tend to do. To be honest, I had known my initial motivations all along, but it was easier to ignore the fact that I had felt the sense of entitlement to help others fix their lives and countries, or to externalise this superiority as part of the discipline and the industry, rather than something deeply personal.

Even during my PhD research on womxn’s empowerment through role models, I did not need to share my histories and motivations with others in the departments and platforms where I stood or in writing that I produced for my thesis. Reflexivity and self-representation were about identifying the immediately recognizable differences in power and writing about my positionality as I went to interview my research participants. However, for reflexivity to be meaningful and useful to facilitate practical change, as it has been encouraged by feminists and other thinkers, it should be firstly an in-depth research of one’s own life tied to self-representation and others, which is more than a mere acknowledgement of identities in a box ticking exercise.

Based on my experiences and discussions with other scholars and practitioners, I concur with Anne-Meike Fechter amongst other scholars, that NGO professionals in the ‘Global North’ or international organisations like the World Bank as well as early career academics, are not pushed to analyse and represent their own journeys as a central responsibility of their work, if they are not outrightly discouraged from doing so. At best, these reflections are relegated for novels, bespoke feminist journals or special panels rather than the ‘mainstream’ development spaces, which tend to be dominated by the quantitative disciplines and methods, which are (falsely) perceived as objective. The personal, in this sense, is either not political (and important) or perhaps too political (and hence not technical and relevant to development).

It is, however, not enough to reflect on and represent how a development academic or a practitioner interjects into the world of their research or project partner and hence share lessons learnt from practicing development. The discourse of ‘the field’ into which we enter and into which we relegate the poor and the marginalized of the ‘developing world’ enables this insufficient reflexivity on one’s own life-long journey and positionalities across various contexts. As systems of power are co-constitutive and linked locally and globally, they requires reflections on varying linkages and scales. In his analysis of the #RhodesMustFall protests, which took place at the University of Cape Town in South Africa in 2015–2017, Francis Nyamnjoh skilfully captures this as he writes:

“Black pain and white privilege are two sides of the same coin. Both are the result of encounters in a hierarchized world shaped by ideologies around factors such as race, place, class, gender, education, cultivation and civilisation. In such a world, the pain, poverty and discomforts of the one are actively produced or co-produced by the privilege and power of the other.” (89)

Drawing the linkages between the two sides of the coin is crucial for tackling the misogyny, racism and exploitation of the poor, as many people involved in development policy and practice remain immune to seeing these linkages.

I was reminded of how unaware people might be of these connections between various forms of privilege as I encountered a senior academic speaking at a panel on internationalisation in higher education at a leading European conference for political sciences. Raising concerns about the lack of decolonisation in the debate, I was dismissed by the scholar. From their perspective, decolonisation was only relevant for universities in former centres of empire, and not others on the continent. The systematic linkages between whiteness, capitalism and patriarchy and their impact on how universities function and the knowledge that is produced were not recognized. It seemed that reflexivity on an individual level, tied to the institutional and societal levels, were completely missing.

No wonder that in her 2019 address to the Development Studies Association Conference, award-winning Oxford academic Robtel Pailey called on us to put racism on the agenda of development studies and tackle it head on. In her speech, Pailey builds on generations of academics, who have called on their fellow researchers in positions of power and those with easier access to ‘white towers of academia’ to do the intellectual labour of understanding the systems in which knowledge is being produced and in which they are embedded. While such individual-level intellectual change will not topple the system, it is required for political action to be possible and to enable what Akwugo Emejulu terms interactional solidarity.

Dealing with privilege

One place to start this process, but which is by no means sufficient, is to institutionalize new expectations within departments and degree programmes that shape the new generations of development practitioners. We need to give the space and allocate the time for all people to do the intellectual labour of reflecting on and representing one’s own privilege in a way that unsettles whiteness, patriarchy and capitalism from within, and shakes those who possess it. It needs to become a commonplace practice engrained in researcher training, and an expectation in hiring processes and performance appraisals, as much as in proposals and reports for institutional donor funding, or at least a sector-wide good-practice standard.

However, it must not only be applicable to those working on issues such as womxn’s empowerment or who work ‘in the field’ using participatory methods. It also affects economists, engineers and other experts whose knowledge is falsely seen as universal and objective, but who, as it was suggested before, are still products of the systems of power in which they arise.

The second step is to translate one’s reflexivity into public self-representation using the theoretical and conceptual tools of those with whom we research and who are marginalized by the same system that privileges us. The deliberate use of concepts that may not be part of our usual disciplinary language forces us to understand the world of other people, who have been forced to understand the world of the privileged majority in order to survive. This is an important step towards meaningfully achieving solidarity and ally-ship that moves beyond the wide-spread claims that ‘we should all be feminist’ or that our research is decolonized and/or intersectional. In such acts we attempt to take ownership of the privilege and support those who have been burdened with explaining the system to ‘us’ and for ‘us’ for centuries.

I think the early foundations of my sense of privilege lie in my experiences in elementary school– a parochial institution in Slovakia. They were built on a sense of a moral high-ground that I drew from being pampered by teachers who saw me as a church-going, God-fearing, rule-abiding, non-confrontational boy. I still remember being picked to play Jesus in a class-play because of this connection. In such an environment it became easy to feel superior to a classmate playing the Samaritan womxn from a famous scene of Jesus by the well.

The role of Christian churches in building white (male) saviour complex and privilege is well documented and it might therefore not be surprising that Boris Johnson claims that his desire to have power arose after having played God in a school play. Seeing the connections and linkages between seemingly disassociated individuals like me and Boris Johnson, as minute as they might be, is the first step in breaking down the divides amongst people. Development scholars’ and practitioners’ reflexivity and honest self-representation is a starting point for building trust amongst people, which is required for political action to evolve and consequently, enable the panning out of ways to effectively dismantle the current systems of oppression.

* With much gratitude for in-depth editorial feedback and suggestions from Rebecca Gordon, Lakshmi Bose and Sharon Walker, as well as other reviewers who commented on an earlier version of this essay.

Ján has recently finished his PhD in Gender studies at SOAS, with specific focus on womxn’s empowerment through role models and political representation in South Africa. He is now part of a specialist team of network builders who focus on strengthening young people’s access to networks and relatable role models. The views expressed here are his own.

The Politics of Representation

The Politics of Representation

We aim to explore and foster debate on wider questions of the politics of representation.

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