«Keywords: feminist methodology, feminist oral history, critical Indigenous theory, forced migration, queer studies, LGBT refugees Copyright by ...»
As a volunteer for Rainbow Refugee, I sit down every week with LGBT refugee claimants to answer any questions they have about the refugee process. These sit-down meetings always last over an hour for each claimant. We talk about the refugee process and what to expect. Most of the time, I am listening to the person as they talk about their past experiences and present challenges. One of the most common questions refugee claimants ask me is, “Do you understand?” They ask this because it is important for them to have Journal of Feminist Scholarship 10 (Spring 2016) me understand their story and situation in order to help them prepare for the refugee hearing. They also ask this of me to get assurance that what they are saying is making sense to an outsider.
“Do you understand?” followed me when I conducted my oral history interviews. This question would come up repeatedly. I first thought that it was rhetorical, something to stimulate the conversation. I soon discovered this was not a rhetorical question. It was a way for the participants to show their agency in telling their story as important knowledge producers. By focusing only on the role of the researcher and their position of power in the research, participants’ authority over knowledge can be masked (Stearns 1998). It can also create a false impression that the participants themselves are not the “authorities on the issue of their own authority” (Kim 2008, 1352). Soon Nam Kim (2008) and Soyini Madison (1993) write that people who occupy a marginalized position in a culture are the most astute to the workings of both the dominant culture and their own marginal one. Authority, power, and agency are at the core of their daily resistance against oppression. Even in the most extreme situations, individuals have agency.
While their voices may not be represented by mainstream or popular history, in their daily lives and within their various communities they are most certainly not silenced. To talk about interpretative authority from only the researcher’s perspective leaves behind the authority of the participant as knowledge producers. As important knowledge producers, participants are constantly questioning the researcher and the research.
Questioning is never one-sided. As much as oral historians may be assessing and questioning the narrator, the narrator is also questioning and assessing the interviewer. As Michael Frisch writes, “You cannot open a question without leaving yourself open to it. You cannot scrutinize a ‘subject’ without being scrutinized by it. You cannot do any of these things without renewing ties with the season of childhoods, the season of the mind’s possibilities” (1990, 189). The researcher must offer their experience up to the same scrutiny and rigor that they place on the text they collect.
My experience was very similar to Amy Best’s (2003) ethnography of high school proms, in which the cultural practice of whiteness is actively negotiated and differently articulated by both racialized and white participants. In interviewing two black and Latina female high school students, what was first seen by Best as an awkward interview with too many false starts, gaps, silences, and “You know what I mean?” questions became a richly textured dialogue that provided significant insight into how race is practiced within the interview as well as how the participants actively and assertively negotiate the interview process. In rereading the interview, Best shows how the two women purposefully shaped and reshaped their narratives with the understanding that Best, a middle-class white educated woman, may not be able to make full sense of what they have to say or is likely to miss important parts of their story. As Best writes, “They seem to recognize almost intuitively that there are different modes of hearing and listening (just as there are different ways of seeing) and that these differences might be traceable to social location” (2003, 902). The repeated question “You know what I mean?” asked by these young women was not rhetorical but a direct request to Best to acknowledge their social position and to clarify their important points. “You know what I mean?” also points to the social reality these racialized young women face as they struggle to translate their realities to others and in the process are often misheard (2003, 902). The interview becomes a site in which the two women provide a counternarrative to unquestioned assumptions about race, and in doing so demonstrate the ways in which race is woven into and constituted through the research process itself.
Like Best, I also did not realize until later that I was not recognizing the participants’ agency as authoritative knowledge producers. I was not seeing their agency in telling their story to a white Western settler audience. I did not fully understand how important and significant that story was to their daily life.
From my desire to know a different story about their life it did not follow that they had to tell it to me.
Journal of Feminist Scholarship 10 (Spring 2016) It was my privilege to ask for their story and their right to tell the story that they wanted to tell. “Do you understand?” was not only a request for me to pay attention but also a reflection on the struggle they have gone through in order to not be misheard. I thought that I was the one asking the questions, but they were asking questions right back at me. In their questioning of me they were confronting the unequal racial structures of knowledge production that silence and disregard their own important knowledge and voice.
By doing this they were challenging my role as an outsider and the position of privilege I held in speaking and being listened to by people in power about refugee issues and concerns. “Do you understand?” was a way of speaking towards power in which I was held accountable for my actions. It was a political act based on personal experiences of fighting to be heard.
Navigating the Hyphen: Interpretative Authority and Collaboration Well… The whole refugee process was traumatic. It was like being traumatized again. I aged from it. And the thing is, again, for a long time I think we thought that these people, the refugee decision makers… They really don’t care… That’s why it was at that moment during my hearing that I will never forget that, the judge is asking me all these questions. And it was question after question. I just couldn’t take it anymore. I punched the table and everything just flew all over the place and all of a sudden I opened my mouth and I couldn’t speak, I couldn’t breathe. The words… They just couldn’t come out… I started to shake and cry. I couldn’t even see straight. I just kept thinking that I just want to have a normal life. You know, with just one tiny little detail that I just love men, I don’t love somebody female, I love male. That’s the only detail, but other than that, leave me alone! I wanna have a life… It was at the refugee hearing that something came out. I was fighting for my rights. I think for the first time for real. I just wanted the judge to hear me. Just hear what I was trying to say. I didn’t care if I had to scream it at him. I needed him to understand. And I was lucky, so very blessed that he did. I thank God that he did. I still thank God… The above excerpt is from Hector, a gay-identified cisgendered male refugee from South America who received his refugee status in the early 2000s and is now a Canadian citizen. Hector saw his refugee hearing as a defining moment for himself. Speaking out and telling the Immigration and Refugee Board member that he deserved to be treated with dignity and human rights was a political act for Hector after years of repression, discrimination, and violence. Hector was proud of his bravery that day. He felt that he finally stood up for himself and for others like him who have been and continue to be repressed by homophobia and transphobia. During our interviews, Hector was very vocal about the importance of having the ability to tell his story and having control of what his story meant. He would review the transcripts of our interviews.
He would ask me questions on what I thought about his story, as well as my general conclusions about LGBT refugees’ experiences. He provided very helpful and informative feedback on my research. Hector wanted to make sure not only that his story was not misheard but that I understood its political and social significance. Sharing his story was a political act, and he was taking a considerable leap of faith in trusting my abilities to interpret and convey his story to an outside audience.
Interpretative authority is both a necessary function in critical Indigenous theory and a political act. Reclaiming interpretative authority by Indigenous persons over Indigenous knowledge is seen as fundamental not only in promoting critical Indigenous voices but also in challenging destructive norms in Journal of Feminist Scholarship 10 (Spring 2016) Western knowledge structures and pedagogies. Appropriating the language of the colonizers as the language of the colonized in order to “write back to the Empire” is argued by some Indigenous scholars to be a means to understand how the colonized actually use language to talk about their social realities in order to speak to both the audience of the colonized and the audience of the colonizers (Tuhiwai Smith 1999). This requires historicizing and contextualizing not only the use and power of language and discourse in the research, but also the effects of the project in various networks of discursive, structural, and material power.
For oral historians researching in highly politically charged environments, interpretative authority can be an opportunity to bring forth questions of confidentiality and accountability. Erin Jessee’s (2011) oral history work in Rwanda and Bosnia and Hercegovina with survivors, ex-combatants, and perpetrators shows that despite her best intentions to provide an “intimate view from below” of the aftermath of mass atrocities, the project was quickly overwhelmed by conflicting political agendas of the informants, the ruling states, and herself as a Western academic researcher. Jessee was faced with the dilemma about the limits interpretative authority has in the context of highly charged political arenas. On the one hand, she wanted to give voice to those who were absent from the national histories of the Rwandan genocide and the Bosnian war. On the other, the choice of uncritically disseminating the narratives of complex political actors would risk propagating ethnically and nationally charged memories, scripts, and myths that could be used to promote further bloodshed. In addition, Jessee’s role as an outside Western researcher meant that her work would be intensely monitored by local officials, which could leave her participants vulnerable to policing and state sanctioning, as well as permanently restrict Jessee’s ability to enter Rwanda and Bosnia and Hercegovina again. In the end, Jessee writes that more theorization and discussion is needed on interpretative authority when doing oral history in highly politicized research settings. In these situations, interpretative authority, while still at the hand of the researcher, becomes a challenge when individual lives and community well-being are at stake.
The question becomes even further complicated when faced with participants whose accounts may reinforce hatred and oppression in the community. While the researcher may find these individuals’ accounts highly problematic or even ethically or morally repugnant, their authors are also contributing members to historical and present social reality, and are among those who have been silenced in the past. We cannot talk about giving voice to those who have been silenced without also acknowledging the difficulties voice and recognition have in certain contexts.
When debating interpretative authority, many feminist oral historians have come into serious conflict and been silenced due to institutional hierarchy of knowledge and national politics. As an educated workingclass woman researching working-class women, Diane Reay (1996) writes about the challenges she faced adopting a working-class position and knowledge in her feminist research. Reay was left with the difficult task of trying to interpret and ultimately translate two different “truths”: one established from a workingclass woman’s perspective and the other from that of institutionalized academia. Reay’s experience is not unique; many feminist, Indigenous, and critical race researchers have faced similar dilemmas working as “insiders” with marginalized populations. As far as feminist research has come, it is still situated in unequal institutions of power and knowledge. These gaps between power and knowledge become especially acute when researching racialized and migrant communities. Cynthia Brown (2006) notes that despite greater attention to the diversity of background and experience between or within migrant communities in oral history research, the politics of multiculturalism (in this case, British multiculturalism) have created a single-sided discourse in which questions regarding racism, inequality, and integration are directed only at racialized minorities. By doing this, socially and economically dominant white populations and institutions Journal of Feminist Scholarship 10 (Spring 2016) need not engage with difficult conversations on race, nationalism, and settlement. Instead, the conversation is either left entirely ignored by those in power or forwarded to minority populations as their problem. This reinforces the imposition on racialized and migrant minorities of an ill-begotten victim status that they themselves oppose (Brown 2006).