Musings on research, international development and other stuff

Whose experience is it anyway?


I was born and brought up in Scotland but throughout my school days I had a dirty little secret… my parents are English. I was terrified that my school friends would find out and taunt me mercilessly for this. To this day, one of the easiest ways to annoy me is to tell me that I am ‘not really Scottish’. This has nothing to do with any latent anti-English feeling. I love England and indeed have chosen to live in England for over a decade. But I find it insulting for someone else to question my identity. For a start there are some outward signs that I suggest I am Scottish (my addiction to diet irn bru, my usage of the word ‘wee’ to mean something other than urine…) but more important is the fact that I FEEL Scottish. Telling me that I am not really Scottish makes me feel that you are invalidating my experience – suggesting that my self-identity is somehow fraudulent.

Perhaps the above explains why I get so fed up with the constant sniping in international development circles about whose voice is authentic and valid. I think that those who work in international development are often afraid to express the complexity of their experiences and feelings because they fear they will be shot down as not being experienced enough to hold opinions (or worse, accused of being racist). There are some brave exceptions (see for example this remarkable account of development work in Haiti). But too often those who do express their views attract a barrage of criticism from people saying they are not experienced enough to comment.

Take this excellent series of articles by Martin Robbins commenting on the development industry propaganda-machine he encountered when visiting Kenya. Before long, comments accusing him of only having visited Kenya twice appeared. Laura Seay received a similar response to this article about journalism on Africa with one journalist accusing her of not having spent enough time living in Africa to be able to comment. Members of the African diaspora have also been accused of not being African enough to comment on Africa as described by Ida Horner here.

I think these comments are missing the point. People’s experiences are ALWAYS valid. Even if someone has visited a country only once, the experience they have there is still valid. If your experience is different, by all means, describe it. If you disagree completely with the conclusions they draw from their experiences – great! Explain why you disagree. Engage with the debate. Use it as an opportunity to move the discourse forward. But please don’t discount an opinion because the person writing is not African (or Scottish) enough to have it!


8 thoughts on “Whose experience is it anyway?

  1. If one is writing about one’s own personal experiences, I would be inclined to agree with you. But if – as Robbins and Seay sought to do – you use broad, simplistic brush strokes to explain complex situations to large audiences, you owe it to them to bring objectivity and nuance to your work. Otherwise, write and autobiography and don’t pretend to be a journalist.

  2. I have an Irish surname, of my brothers dad, my dad was Asian, my mother is Welsh, I was raised by a Lancastrian.
    Home is Britain for me. 🙂

  3. Thanks, Kirsty. As a girl born in Preston, Lancashire, England and raised in Krugersdorp, South Africa, I can totally relate to your concern. I have been told that I am not South African – even though I have lived here for 38 years (i.e. most of my life). When I go to Preston, Lancashire (to visit relatives) I get treated as definitely a foreigner. In short, if other people have their way, I have no real identity (honestly, I don’t really have the patience to imbue myself with an national identity anyway, and believe that my national identity is fairly irrelevant). So, at t times, I feel quite frustrated with the question of ‘voice’ and when, how, where, etc to use my voice.

    Having said that, however I am very much in sympathy with South African ‘black consciousness’ and ‘pan-African’ activists, debates, and discourse. I understand their need to articulate that ‘Africa belongs to’ them, and not white people of European descent. I do feel very aggrieved that when political events occur in South Africa, in the media, it is always white voices that dominate the phone-ins, the letters to the editor, and in short the ‘hegemony’ of the political elites is alway a white hegemony.

    Therefore, I think it reckless to say that one should simply be allowed to espouse your opinion and experiences as significant (which if aired anywhere other than privately, are imbued with significances depending on where you are perceived to fit in the pecking order) without a thorough understanding of the power dynamics at play.

    After all, the discomfort you feel at hesitating to speak from your position of privilege, is nothing compared to the experience of being silenced due to your absolute lack of privilege. From my perspective, your analysis of whether or not to use your privilege to speak and be heard, or to actually give way to other voices, must always be contextual (e.g. I do not silence myself in social media spaces, because technically, it is possible to disinvest voices of power (delete/block/etc), but in meetings where decisions are being made or viewpoints discussed, I want to ensure that many voices are heard, and I am cautious about the extent to which my voice dominates (even then I sometimes realise I’ve overstepped the mark by speaking too much at the expense of other less powerful persons/voices)). In short, I think it childish to use assumed or actual identity in an effort to discredit someone (if that is the only objection), but I don’t think it is childish or petulant to ask someone to be quiet to make room for the voices of the less powerful – in specific contexts.

    Furthermore, I think it important to acknowledge that relative positions of privilege and power *shape* perceptions and interpretations of events/moments/circumstances, and sometimes I don’t want to or have time to take apart your whole argument piece-by-piece to expose its faults and your prejudices so, in such instances, noting your place in the pecking order (aka identity) is a short-hand for ‘you are ignorant of the complexities, influenced by your privilege, and we’ve heard your offensive view a gazillion trillion times before, and would rather you take it and shove it’.

    Hence, sometimes I do say to other white South Africans: ‘Yes, but it’s not surprising you think xyz about pqr event – you are white.’ And, in fact, on twitter, we even have a # we use to label someone’s tiresome views that we see no need to engage with i.e. #diewittwitter (written in Afrikaans, because that imbues the hashtag with extra layers of meaning that I can’t convey in a short blog comment; straight translation = the white twitter).

    Therefore, I think it important, when someone labels your argument with an identity tag, to think about whether they are indeed being churlish and refusing to confront a valid point, or whether they are in fact using a shorthand to point out that your identity (aka position of power) colours your perception.

    And if, indeed, your identity is colouring your perceptions, perhaps you need to go and read one hell of a lot more (and feel uncomfortable with your assumptions), instead of expecting the already disempowered person who has confronted you with your ignorance, to then also be responsible for educating you by spending their precious time debating with the ignorance of the privileged.

    In my experience, there are times when the ‘opponent’ of your views is being churlish, and there are times when they are simply dismissing you because:

    1) they don’t see why they should spend time educating you, when you are the one with the full access to and privilege of a (supposedly) superior education;
    2) they are tired of hearing that particular prejudice repeated over and over, without end.

    Therefore, instead of lumping all such comments towards the African diaspora together as being all equally ignorant, each instance needs to be examined by the recipients much more closely. Because, like it or not, the African diaspora are in positions of relative privilege compared to most Africans in Africa. It is important for all us privileged to face up to that privilege and confront how that shapes our thoughts, ideas and words.

  4. So at a workshop on indigenous people and health systems I discussed my own experience as an outsider and my personal insight into cultural prejudice and racism. At first people thought I was mad, who am I to discuss being an outsider. I’m British, middle class and white! Well, I too was an undercover English Scott. Its only today that I can even talk about it without some self-loathing slipping in there, how dreadful is that? I dreaded parent teacher day because I knew that the teachers were going to look at me differently from then on, in the know that my parents were in fact-middle class and English!!! I would come home in tears but wouldn’t let my mother have words with the teacher…Because, I was embarrassed of my mother!! I recall one particular teacher making me drill the word ‘drawing’ over and over again in front of the class so that she could demonstrate that there was an English accent in me, and that the English can’t spell because they don’t pronounce all their letters like the Scottish. Turns out I was actually an undiagnosed dyslexic.
    One year a mix raced friend of mine was in the class of that same teacher who picked her out in front of other pupils for her skin colour. Her mother, of course leapt on it! Racism! abhorrent! And the teacher was chastised in some mild manner by the head teacher.
    Denying someone their identity is humiliating and isolating and just as bad, just not always as visible and easy advocate against. Still Kristy, I am pretty sure it’s made me the person I am today: Driven by a sense of justice and determined to see prejudice, bullying and arrogance shot down anywhere I find it whilst sitting in my flat in Hove, swigging on my diet iron bru x

  5. I am inclined to agree with you on the issue of experiences versus the ‘RIGHT” to comment, despite the validity and reliability of the comments being made. Perhaps, one would ask, how do you determine the experience?

  6. My former English neighbour used to invalidate my Luxembourg language skills, suggesting that my self-identity is somehow fraudulent – having been born and raised in Luxembourg by two Luxembourgians. I think jealousy was at work. She was very jealous.

    • I just approved this comment before realising that it was written by MY former neighbour! Am now trying to figure out if he is slipping in an undercover slight by refering to me as his ‘English’ neighbour or whether he is refering to our other neighbour who did ask him (after a few glasses of vino) whether Luxembourg was a ‘real’ country!!

  7. You see why I had to leave the country. The discrimination became unbearable. But my escape was short lived. The Frenchies are worse than the Brits. That’s why we are coming back in the beginning of December (for a week). Hope you have time to meet and insult my mother tongue a bit more over dinner one evening, I miss it.

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