Subaltern


 

I wrote this a few years ago.  I have learned so much since then.  I hope I am a better journalist and listener.

     In March, 2012, I landed in Kingston, Jamaica as a CusoInternational volunteer. I was embarking on a position as a Communications Advisor with Youth Opportunities Unlimited, an NGO that mentors youth from at-risk communities. This career change from journalism reflected a nice confluence of my professional, personal and academic endeavours, as since the age of 15, I have volunteered in my community. I had also recently completed a Master’s in political science (with a focus on international development in undergrad), so this was my first opportunity to apply and combine my domestic volunteering experience with newly acquired theoretical knowledge. But first, prior to departure, I participated in extensive training in acknowledgment of the culture shock volunteers face. CusoInternational ensures that participants are as prepared as possible with five days of training, which is underpinned theoretically by the “ice berg” theory of culture.

Created by Edward T. Hall, this theory posits that when one encounters a new culture, one absorbs only superficial components- the tip of the iceberg. We are only aware of the hulking remainder of the iceberg’s foundation at an intuitive, blind level, the theory states. In the realm of international development, this seems especially relevant. Volunteers are also shown Chimamanda Adichie’s“The Danger of a Single Story”, which is well-circulated in international development circles and in conversations about race and culture. Needless to say, academic theories always leave room for debate as to merit or accuracy. But it was this framework with which I joined busy, hectic Kingston and began a new career in international development.

In addition to this suggested outlook, I brought to the table a life of travel to many countries and several years living in India and Australia. So I was not too worried about actually living and working in Jamaica. It quickly became clear that I was known as “whitey,” and that I would always stand out, and this reality troubled me only mildly. What concerned me more, however, was as a writer and communications advisor, how I would share my experiences. How would I, a white woman coming from a privileged background, report on and characterize the Jamaicans I encountered.

I knew a few things to be true: I cannot shed my cultural or social status; I cannot truly share the Jamaican perspective (and every one is different), but I can try to understand, and that race and colour play powerful and often confusing and contradictory roles in Jamaican society. I knew my challenge would be to find a balance between respectfully sharing my experiences and telling stories that need to be told, while simultaneously keeping a check on my own perspective and status and their corresponding biases and prejudices. To be specific, when writing about the youth that my NGO works with, (I am challenged by this at home, to a certain extent, as well), I must avoid the trap of crossing a line of writing from a place of admiration to a place of reverence. I say reverence because I find my feelings can become excessive and frivolous and less than sober. This excess can tend towards de-humanizing these youth by lionizing them to the point of caricature.

This danger is based on popular culture’s treatment of these “ghetto” youth, which regularly stereotypes them, regards them from a vantage point of white privilege, and then praises them for overcoming their horrible circumstances. It is a challenge not to fall into this trap. For I am inspired by these youth, let there be no doubt. They face things, on a daily basis, that others not conditioned to them would be felled by after one day. Children have told me of being accustomed to diving under their bed when gunshots ring out in their neigbourhood; not having enough money to pay for shoes so they can attend school; losing their “bredren” to violence; handing out hundreds of resumes but not being hired because of their address, and acting as a “bleacher” (someone who guards a garrison community with a gun). These circumstances place severe limitations on the choices and opportunities they have in a way that their wealthy peers do not have to deal with.

Prior to moving to Kingston, I was never able to accurately put a finger on the reason for my mild discomfort about the way in which I, and other mainly North American media outlets report on children or youth who are disadvantaged, underprivileged, of a lower socio-economic status, or whatever euphemism for poor you wish to use. In examining my own feelings with honesty, I find a tinge of pity and a tinge of guilt (why am I born to privileged circumstances and they are not?). There is also some of what psychologists call some “confirmation bias” going on. In other words, I see the stories I want to see, in a way that affirms my own beliefs, prejudices and biases. I cannot help but see these youth in a way that retells the narrative I already know: these youth must try to make it out of the ghetto; they hear gunshots at night and dive for cover; they do not have money to pay school fees or buy books; their father is absent, and on it goes. While these things are often true, there is much,muchmore to the story. These are not one-dimensional characters trying to overcome. They are complex, complicated, multifaceted people with hopes and dreams, who make horrible mistakes one day and achieve greatness the next.

So how do I first see these stories accurately, free of the trappings of white privilege, and second, relay them in a respectful manner? I might turn to the  many sources for codes of conduct for the profession of journalism that I could follow (http://www.rjionline.org/codes-ethics) but most basically advise the reporter to treat the subject with respect as a subject and human being, which includes respect for their privacy and other personal details. But it is not always so straightforward, especially when one takes into account one’s own story and how it influences the way in which we regard the world and subsequently tell stories about it. Especially when those stories go beyond journalism’s five Ws: ‘who, what, when, where and why’.

One perspective I was recently alerted to that has helped me to think about this challenge is an essay by Gayatri ChakavortrySpivak, an Indian woman who writes about the dominance of Western culture and colonialism’s lingering influence. I do not have the space, nor the full extent of understanding possible to do the essay justice, but in essence, Spivak illuminates the difficulty of overcoming one’s Western, privilegedperspective. Entitled “Can the Subaltern Speak?” the essay highlights the difficulty of the “subaltern” (a marginalized, non-white, non-descendent of colonialists) from telling his or her own story, or having it told in a fair and just manner by a member of the dominant class (which is less than ideal).

With no possibility of nostalgia for that lost origin, the historian must suspend (as far as possible), the clamor of his or her own consciousness (or consciousness-effect, as operated by disciplinary training) so that the elaboration of the insurgency, packaged with an insurgent-consciousness, does not freeze into an ‘object of investigation’, or worse yet, a model for imitation” – Spivak writes.

 As a journalist, I translate this to mean that I cannot ever fully cast off the trappings of my upbringing. As a result, it shapes the way I report on things. To a certain extent, this is true for anything: we are never free of our own narrative. But I knew this would be a delicate challenge when I moved to Jamaica and attempted to write a daily blog post about my work and the encounters I have with people. I also realize I am not the saviorwhen it comes to telling these stories or giving the “subaltern” a mouthpiece, yet I want to do what comes naturally to me. As a result, I made a conscious choice before I came to Jamaica to tackle this challenge by sticking to the facts as much as possible. As always, the audience should decide how to frame the subject and then draw conclusions for themselves. I have attempted, to the best of my abilities, to keep this commitment. I have second-guessed most posts, scoured them for any offensive or overly assumptive language, misinformation or inaccuracies (as it is a blog, I do not try to be objective, rather I aim at fairness as well as the provision of useful information). But I am still left with the dilemma: both reality and stereotype dictate that many of the youth I write about will not succeed, when they do, it is remarkable. That is, their courage, perseverance, dedication and character are remarkable. So how do I portray this without condescension and without buying into the subaltern/dominant, white privileged narrative of Western culture that always exhibits wonder that these marginalized “others” succeed?

A recent interaction on Twitter, however, taught me more than I have learned in the year-plus I have been blogging and writing. A young, gay Jamaican man I have worked with is the recent subject of a media profile for a major, North American daily newspaper. One day he tweeted the following:

I don’t want to be immortalized as a victim. I wish journalists who approached me had an understanding of discursive victimization.”

I asked him to expand on this statement, and here is what he said:

Instead of asking questions to find quotes to fill your story, it’s better to ask the subject what story they’d like to tell.”

An invaluable reminder to let the story, or the subject speak for themselves. Then, really listen. Open ears, minds and hearts, clear them as much as they can be cleared of preconceptions and future preparations for the story we expect to hear. Of course, it is not so simple, but armed with some awareness of our own perspective, it is possible. I realize I am still engaging in the dynamic of acting as a conduit for the subaltern, but what better way to continue to change this dynamic than to first be aware of it, and second, actively try to subvert it? Or in the words of my colleague, ask the subject what story they would like to tell.

 

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