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Should White Scholars Write about Indigenous Populations?

I wanted this paper to be on the exploration of neoliberal poverty management of Indigenous Hawaiians in Hawaii for a graduate class I was taking on post-colonial feminism. It was suggested to me that as a white person, perhaps it was not my place to write about the Indigenous Hawaiian experience. Initially defensive, I wanted to construct an argument that somehow justified this project and demonstrated that scholarship was objective and anyone could perform analysis on any topic and it does not matter what their race is, although I knew well that this was not true. That argument would miss the point entirely. True objectivity does not exist, and representation matters, as does the identity of the person creating the representation. I thought I was ‘woke enough’ to write about this issue in a way that did not further alienate and disenfranchise an already colonized and oppressed group. When I investigated this belief further, I realized perhaps I was not as confident in my ability to do so, and furthermore doubted if I should even write about this group of people that I did not belong to. Instead, I wanted to examine if white scholars should engage in scholarship about people of color, formerly and currently colonized peoples, indigenous people, or any other cultures. And if they can, how can they write about these groups in a method that furthers a mission of liberation rather than further colonizing.

 

Scholarship cannot be objective. Much of academia is founded on an ideal that truth can be known if one eliminates bias, presents information as value-free, and represents only ‘the facts’ in their work. While these conditions may be met within a laboratory, social sciences often rely on the scholar themselves to be the research instrument in our social world. Ethnography requires a researcher to immerse themselves in their field, observe participants, and conduct interviews. An ethnographer enters the field with her own identity; lived experiences, values, culture, abilities and training which guides her interests, inclinations, and perspectives. A researcher’s identity informs her initial interest in the research area. Her values will mediate the social phenomena she observes to be distinct or note-worthy. Her own culture and socialization will influence her entrance into the field, the level of exposure she has with participants, and the ways in which participants respond to her bids for entrée into their social world. Refusing to acknowledge one’s identity and the subsequent influence that this identity has on her research is a misguided attempt to legitimize social science under the guise of objectivity in the face of academic elitism.

 

Not all academic disciplines expect researchers to present to the field with true objectivity, and instead encourage researchers to locate one’s identity in the social matrix of power and privilege as a means to further explore our social world, rather than presenting a subjective ‘truth.’ Especially Women and Gender Studies departments, and some liberal areas of Sociology and Anthropology recognize that declaring a researcher’s positionality is vital to the research process because their identity will undoubtedly influence their results. Beyond the reliability of research findings, some argue that it is more ethical to recognize one’s identity as it relates to the power and privilege at play during their research. There is a long history of feminist scholars calling others to situate their identity, and write from their own perspective. For example, Adrienne Rich (1984) asks white feminists to situate themselves in their body when considering feminist theory. Starting from one’s body encourages connection to our own histories, geographic location and context rather than making generalizations about other’s experiences. Abstractions that allow theory creation in academia involve making generalizations about groups of people that remove the unique intersectional experiences of the individual. Under hegemonic feminism, theory written about ‘all women,’ and the collective ‘we’ is actually written from the white, western feminist. In this way, hegemonic feminism and scholarship generally alienates its subjects, often people who are not represented in the academy, and perpetuates the same oppressive discourses it seeks to explain. Research requires that a researcher forsake their own lens in order to become an unbiased research instrument in order to stake generalizable claims about their research subject. This process is harmful to both the researcher and the subject.

 

Underneath this question about objectivity is a more important question; is scholarship inherently problematic for the Black, indigenous, people of color (BIPOC) communities it studies? Academia is rife with examples of white scholars trampling into spaces ‘foreign’ to the upper-class white male perspective. While research has advanced, and more robust ethnics have appealed to scholars to be less intrusive, is it still harmful for scholars not belonging to the group they are studying to insert themselves into marginalized communities? White scholars have a legacy of harm too expansive to adequately list to contend with when approaching communities of color for research purposes. Historically, examples of exploitation range from the unethical medical experimentation conducted on black bodies which laid the foundation for modern gynecology, to more modern examples like the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiments. Academia has built much of its foundation on the backs of brown and black bodies with little to no recognition to the costs of such research and experimentation from the white researchers. Beyond medical advances, social research has exploited BIPOC people with an academic gaze that does little to benefit the communities it invades.

 

Researchers who present to the field for ethnography unwittingly re-traumatize communities through voyeuristic participation in their daily lives for the sake of documenting what is deemed exotic to the academy. The presence of white researchers in communities abused by the medical and academic realms elicits mistrust, fear and generational trauma from participants. Beyond medical experimentation, and voyeuristic ethnography, social scientists hurt communities of color through their representation of their subjects in published research. In order to appear courageous in the face of danger, many ethnographers will depict their subjects as wild or exotic (Small 2015). An example of this is Alice Goffman’s On the Run, which studied the effect of police raids in an impoverished African American neighborhood and was critiqued for her portrayal of her subjects and their neighborhood as a jungle (Betts 2014). Goffman focused on the perceived taboo aspects of her subjects lives rather than their human characteristics to create a sensational book. Small (2015) implores ethnographers to reject the dominant move towards depicting the BIPOC urban poor as dangerous and exotic in contrast to the ethnographer themselves, but rather focus on the similarities present to create an accurate and ethical representation of their subjects. Focusing on the similarities of one’s subjects enhances the connection readers feel towards people they deem different from themselves, thereby fostering connection and compassion. By replicating previous harms inflicted by the scientific community through research and ill-formed portrayal in published works, researchers reproduce structures of oppression through academic discourse.

 

Members of marginalized communities should have a more recognized role in the scholarship being produced about their communities as a means to represent their experiences and avoid the inherent issues that white scholars bring to research. A researcher from the community studied in Goffman’s (2014) work would likely bring a different perspective to Goffman’s study of police raids and their impact in African American neighborhoods. Rather than presenting to this community as an outsider, the BIPOC researcher would share commonalities with her participants and her identity would be less likely to garner the traumatic response white researchers raise. While white supremacy operates on everyone within its system, researchers of color are privy to its reach and are more apt to evade the tendency to characterize participants as dangerous in contrast to themselves to bolster their own image as an ethnographer. BIPOC researchers may be more likely to understand the harm that comes from generalizable claims made through research about their communities.

 

To avoid reproducing oppression, and scholarship that feigns objectivity, white scholars who write about marginalized communities should write from their own grounded perspective. This perspective is always modified through whiteness. A white race scholar could produce innovative work about whiteness. A queer white scholar could write about LGBTQ+ issues from a perspective that carefully considers how whiteness impacts the lived experience of queer and trans people. Instead of creating research that seeks to make generalizable claims about groups of people the researcher does not belong to, their research can speak to their own experience. White researchers who seek to examine race outside of their own experience should do so on a biracial research team and allow the BIPOC researcher to take leadership on issues regarding race. When participating in a biracial research team, a white researcher should take care to create conditions in their working relationships and research that challenge white supremacy.

 

To challenge white supremacy within research in collaboration with BIPOC researchers and subjects, a white researcher should honor differences, locate herself in relationship to power and privilege, invite accountability and intervene whenever harm has been done (Johnson and Kelly 2020). To honor differences is to appreciate that each member of the team and all participants have varied experiences of white supremacy. White people benefit from white supremacy and are unlikely to notice the systemic issues unless they have made efforts to educate themselves, whereas BIPOC folks are living under this oppressive system and know too well the effects it has on our social world. A white scholar who honors these differences is likely to seek expertise from her BIPOC colleagues and participants. Locating one’s self in relation to power and privilege requires a researcher to be aware of how power and privilege shows up during research and take care to act accordingly. A white researcher locating herself in relation to power and privilege will navigate the discomfort of waking up to whiteness, when to lead or hang back, and monitor the impact of her actions. Doing so creates conditions that allow her BIPOC peers to rightfully lead and contribute when appropriate. Inviting accountability requires that a white researcher be open to listening whenever she has caused harm by inadvertently participating in racism. Instead of meeting potential mistakes with defensiveness, a researcher inviting accountability will meet claims made about harms with curiosity and openness to right any wrongs. In addition to being willing to hear about harm, white researchers should be willing to intervene whenever harm is happening. This involves the researcher stepping up and stopping racism when it is witnessed. White privilege allows white bodies to be safer than BIPOC bodies, especially when intervening with powerful entities like Universities or police. A white research collaborating with BIPOC researchers or participants should start with these suggestions to avoid causing further harm to communities of color.

 

White scholars should take care to write about Black, indigenous, people of color in their scholarship to avoid creating further harm. Academia shares an ugly history of exploiting BIPOC folks for intellectual gain. White researchers especially must employ exceptional self-awareness and commitment towards dismantling white supremacy before entering into partnership with BIPOC colleagues and research participants. White scholars should consider writing from a grounded place located in one’s own identity and avoid making generalization about groups of people from which they do not belong. White scholars should fight against the notion that research and subsequent scholarship is objective and instead share knowledge from their perspective. This perspective does not limit the potential scope of research areas, instead it changes the orientation to potential research areas. If research requires that race or ethnicity different from one’s own is examined, do so in collaboration with BIPOC researchers. Allow the folks on the team who identify as BIPOC to take the lead. Create conditions that challenge white supremacy and open the possibilities for accountability. Recognize where power and privilege show up in one’s work by honoring the different perspectives and knowledges various members bring to the team. Be willing to hear when you have inadvertently harmed someone and repair that mistake, in addition to intervening when you witness harm.

 

Initially, I wanted to write a paper on the experience of indigenous Hawaiians with poverty in Hawaii. Instead, I sought to examine if this paper would be better written by someone who is a member of the Hawaiian community. The argument I have made states that BIPOC folks are more suited to write about their own communities, and incur less harm by doing so than a white researcher. I might still write about Hawaii, but a better research question to guide my study would focus on how the presence of colonizers has led to the degradation of Hawaiian culture. Instead of examining Hawaiians, my unit of analysis would be white Americans in Hawaii, or the role of white Americans in stripping the natural resources and culture from Hawaiians. In this sense, I would be examining my own community’s participation in this process rather than angling the ethnographic eye towards the colonized. If I did find in a situation that warranted a study on neoliberal poverty management of indigenous Hawaiians, I would take care to do so with a research team that included someone who identified as an indigenous Hawaiian. In collaboration with this team, I would take a back seat and implement my tools for being a better white ally to my colleague and research participants. Ultimately, I would seek to take up less space and instead offer assistance when asked.

 

Dismantling white supremacy requires that white scholars implement strategies for racial justice in our professional lives. It is not enough to hide behind the guise of objectivity and intellectual pursuit to defend the harms research has inflicted on BIPOC communities. Including more BIPOC researchers and academics is one step along the path of creating more inclusive scholarship. White researchers should ensure that their research projects and teams conduct their work in a manner that is consistent with racial equity. This includes allowing BIPOC folks to represent their own communities. When necessary, white researchers involved in these projects must take care to manage their own power and privilege in relation to their teammates and research participants. Above all, white supremacy requires that we be open to learning from our mistakes by being held accountable and changing our behavior in and outside the academy.

Quick Guide for White Scholars Engaging in Scholarship about BIPOC Communities:

  • Write from a grounded perspective that describes one’s identity in relationship to the research participants:
    • In terms of power and privilege, state the specific limitations of one’s identity, the potential harms involvement creates.
  • Express intention and relationship to the subject:
    • Why are you participating in this study? What is your relationship to the subject?
  • Gain community insight and participation in a reciprocal manner:
    • Recruit participation from research subjects openly, state your intentions.
    • Compensate for your research participant’s time and insights.
    • Seek to publish works that benefit the community you studied.
  • Give participants the opportunity to review scholarship prior to publishing:
    • Give participants an opportunity to review your work prior to publishing.
      • Hold a listening session with community stake holders.
      • Be open to receiving feedback and implementing changes.

 

           

REFERENCES

Betts, Dwayne. 2014. “The Stoop Isn’t the Jungle.” Slate. Retrieved Dec. 4, 2020 

Goffman, Alice. 2014. On the Run: Fugitive Life in an American City. Chicago IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Johnson, Michelle Cassandra and Carrie Kelly. 2020. “Respect, Principles and Solidarity: Concrete Tools for White Women to Dismantle Racist Systems.”

Rich, Adrienne. 1984. “Notes Towards a Politic of Location.” Pp. 29-42 in Feminist Postcolonial Theory: A Reader edited by R. Lewis and S. Mills. New York: Routledge.

Small, Mario. 2015. “De-Exoticizing Ghetto Poverty: On the Ethnics of Representation in Urban Ethnography.” City & Community 14(4):352-358.

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