Privileges and Critical Whiteness

When I heard of the (Global Learning) request of a school near Munich to deal with the topics of post-colonialism and mission in Tanzania, I was delighted and activated to walk this journey together. I was particularly motivated by reflexivity that showed itself in the dedication of the students to have their Tanzanian partner school visit them in return (as they had visited their partner school in Tanzania last summer). Through ENSA, the school exchange program of Bildung trifft Entwicklung (“education meets development”) their partner school may soon be able to visit the students in Germany.

So I responded, and collected a list of possible topics for a kick-off workshop, in which the students would further reflect and deepen their experience of their visit to Tanzania last summer. To my delight, they chose the topic of privileges and critical whiteness, which I could resonate concerning its particular importance after an extended stay in a country of the Global South, as a young person without any deeper prior knowledge to the global colonial matrix of power.

I don’t feel like an expert or anyone who has something specific to share other than her own struggles with the global inequalities and her own position, born into a context of imperialism and settler colonialism. So the workshop was a reflection of such self-understanding as vulnerable (re)-searcher, one who has voyaged through personal struggles that were triggered by becoming aware of global coloniality.

We began with image associations concerning life on the African continent (Senegal in particular), and then ventured into the use of language (White, Black, PoC ). With the walk of power, we explored privilege and intersectionality and took an extended slot of time to reflect these embodied experiences.

I was deeply impressed by the level of reflection and openness among the group. I kept on realizing that the reflections on post/de- coloniality are a lifelong process and one in which we all need each other, both cognitively/intelectually and also spiritually, emotionally and physically.

Thank you for holding this mirror up for me and relate with such openness.

Us vs Them from a privileged position.

It was kind of serendipitous to leave the political and academic setting of the Post-Development conference in Kassel for a very hands-on, relational workshop on Theater for Living. With the topic being “Us vs Them”, I took some time for reflecting my relation to this particular topic and how this may have played into my wish to participate.

My own “Us vs Them”
My “Us vs. Them” feels like it has much to do with my conscious and cautious self-positioning as a white privileged person, in a relationship with an “oppressed” (from my perspective, while he wouldn’t agree to such labeling of himself at the moment) Person of Colour and our child. It feels as if it was weaved into my wish to be “one of them” – to stand on their side to fight the right battle alongside them – in my particular personal history mostly referring to Rwandans – but seemingly prototypically for all African people. With this desire, knowing that I can never physically be one of them (if it truly is about skin colour), I feel trapped in the urge to side with them, while never really being able to leave the us – at least inside of my head, in the ways I am personally othering myself.

To explain my struggle with and the story behind this positioning, let us travel some 9 years back in time. 2010, in preparation of my voluntary year in Kigali (Rwanda), I first came in touch with the perspective of structual racism through the walk of power/privilege – and I was deeply confused, because I had never seen myself as one of the disadvantaged. In there, however, I noticed how people were advancing forward one step at a time, while I stayed somewhere in the back of the room. Comparing my own social position to those of others was awful and strange. And I felt like all of this did not even matter a single bit when I was in Rwanda shortly after. I admit, I sometimes played out the “I-am-not-as-purely-German-as-the-others-“ card when I was asked about my origin and I would rightfully say Kazakhstan. It was a complex ( )story.

More than six years have passed with a condition of trying to make myself pay for a collective legacy of guilt and Eurocentrism. I felt like I was given the only taste of healing through pregnancy and giving birth to our son – who was neither ‘us’ nor ‘them’. I felt this sense of him being the impersonification of all my desires for re-humanization and decoloniality – and still, over time, I realized that my and my partner’s positionalities put our child in a very tense and difficult situation, because he can never fully be “us” here, and never fully be “them” there – no matter from which place and position you voice this, it might be holding true (in a very pessimistic sense).

Theatre for Living
Back to Hamburg, September 2019. I entered the workshop of Theater for Living with this  lived heaviness of “us vs them”, the desire of being with “them”, not really expecting too much about the topic as such, but much more excited to learn about the technique which I haven’t experienced myself yet.

The academic journeying into the post-development conference in Kassel, has left me with sense of powerlessness that usually haunts me after deep reflections on the world and its future/systematic change. Still, it has poured some drops on a seed of agency that lies buried in my head (or heart?). With Theater for Living, I felt like the soil has been watered, fed and exposed to the sunlight, because of a sense of agency that was created in concrete theater exercises, derived from lived and felt experiences of the people in the room.

Theater for Living is based on Augusto Boal’s Theater of the Oppressed, and it transcends it through a systemic understanding of oppression (and all other social phenomena). It aims not just to storytell at them (the oppressors), but rather with them, acknowledging that the oppressors and their violences are not just something out there, but are weaved into and have grown out of the community as such.

And it did take courage. David used to say “making theatre (or anything) about people we want to help does not take as much courage as making theatre about us”. The Eurocentric way of thinking and doing politics/development/peace has been perfecting the judgement calls on people over there, while rarely looking itself in the mirror and thereby acknowledging the entanglement of histories across the globe. David’s observation that communities are hungry for storytelling resonated in my cells and fueled my desire to listen to the stories we share collectively. 

Offering, adding to and transforming stories became collective therapeutic practice inside the living organism of the group. It was miraculous.

For the first time ever since I started to read and learn about coloniality and racism, capitalism and modernity, I could feel a true sense of agency in the small stories that were present in the room. It chills me to the bones even as I write these lines. David repeatedly said: Specifity creates Universality, and it became alive through the experiences I was given in this workshop. I realized that what might seem as mundane stories in my own life mirror larger stories of global interconnectedness and the big pictures that I often seemed to feel powerless about.

Back to my “us and them”. Eventually, through the practice of techniques and methods from Theater for Living, I understood through my body what has been cognitively clear to me ever since I dived into peace studies, namely that the illusion of seperation is at the root of conflict. There is no us and them, and where there is, it arises from a conglomerate of needs and fears which want to be heard. My personal story of “us and them”, along with my desire of being with them, is eventually not a story about taking position on either side of the oppression or the violence. It now feels more like Ndlovu-Gatsheni calls it – choosing “the will to live” as a decolonial attitude against the “the will to power” which is at the base of coloniality. Hence, I find myself at precisely the crossroads that David identified when he said that we might need to change the tactic: Instead of merely protesting against something we don’t want, let us rather creating change that we do want.
The systems theoretical approach that lies at the foundation of Theater for Living provides it with powerful and transformative qualities of personal and collective agency. With deep and heartfelt thanks, I remain activated by these insights.

Thank you David.

Further Reading

Diamond, David. 2007. Theatre for Living. the art and science of community-based dialogue.

Children of Imperialism

Kazakhstan, the vastness of your miraculous steppe does something with me; responds to the calling of my soul, lingering ‘home’. Vastness, freedom, where borders neither exist nor claim their control.

Kazakhstan, place I was born into. Where my mother and my father have grown up, were educated and socialized. It did not take me long to understand that I am a child of imperialism. I hear the colonial legacy in comments such as “Kazakh people are not able to work properly” or “You cannot trust them, they have these (makes a face to mimic ‘Asian’ facial features) eyes”. Something within me calls for dropping this legacy, while I know that I can’t ever rid myself of the entanglements of my ancestors’ histories and the paths that my being-in-this-world paves for my descendants and their generations. Between moral and energetic (holistic) reasonings, I swirl back and forth between differentiating myself from the imperialist mindset of Russian (Soviet) settlers and integrating myself into the wholeness of what happened here.

Kazakhstan, land of the wanderers. Coinciding with the brutal scars that have been left upon you by forced deportation, starvation and cultural epistemicides. While walking through the national military museum, I can’t help myself but assuming that all these paintings decorating the giant walls (which have no creation dates) depict processes of mimicry of the Western ideology that sets what counts as ‘culture’ – a certain type of fine arts, a certain way of exposing objects, a certain… kind of ‘civilization’.

I do not know whether and how the global colonial matrix includes the imperial relation between the former Soviet Union and the regions and peoples it swallowed. Yet, I did read that the governmentally-induced famines of the 1920 and 1930s decimated the native Kazakh population to become a national minority, constituting a dramatic, yet forgotten genocide.

No, I cannot shake this legacy off, when I am amidst the German-Russian part of my family who push the memories of Kazakhstan and Soviet times to the edges of their being-in-this-world. When I touch a sense of transgenerational traumatization that is being relativized by reminders of rational reasoning, economic welfare in the present and a desire for development in the future. No, I can neither shake this legacy off when I visit the Russian-Ukrainian part of my family in Kazakhstan, where latent downgrading of Kazakh natives accompany everyday life. Where holding on to an idea of Soviet-Russian civilization, culture and groupness constitutes a sense of belonging, which constantly represses its own shadows.

But this legacy has called me, whispering songs of its longing for truth, integration, acknowledgement. And has sparked in my heart a fire of a decolonial attitude, which silently screams for reconstitution of love and shared humanity as foundation of being-in-this world.

As a child of imperialism, my soul longs to unite with a harmony that has never fully gone lost. I am also a child of the world.

Von Menschen und Büchern

Manchmal führt uns das Leben, ohne dass wir es ahnen. Manchmal gibt es uns schon vorher Zeichen, die wir in dem Moment, in dem sie geschehen, nicht als solche wahrnehmen, aber rückblickend verbinden und aus ihnen Sinn ablesen können.

Als ich eines Tages im Frühjahr 2013 für mein Praktikum bei “Genocide Watch” im Büro saß, und Artikel über den Kongo überflog, rief Greg uns für ein spontanes Meeting in den Konferenzsaal – wir hatten Besuch bekommen. Zachary Kaufmann war gekommen, und Greg wollte uns die Gelegenheit geben, mit einem renommierten Forscher im Bereich der Transitional Justice zu tratschen – über unsere professionelle Zukunft, seinen Berufs- und Bildungsweg, und über Mut. Ich erinnere mich noch daran, dass wir über Forschung in Ruanda sprachen, als er mich fragte, ob ich schonmal die öffentliche Bücherei in Kacyiru besucht hatte. Ich verneinte.

Er empfiel mir, mal vorbeizuschauen, denn die Bücherei war vom Rotary Club finanziert und von ihm mit-initiiert und mit Wissen (i.e. Büchern) gefüllt worden.

Flash Forward. Frühjahr 2015. Da sitze ich nun, in der Bücherei, deren Atmosphäre mich ein wenig an die Uni-Bib erinnert – fast alle Arbeitsplätze sind besetzt, junge SchülerInnen und StudentInnen  arbeiten, lesen, eine angenehme Stille herrscht – und Bücher, von denen ich nur träumen könnte, dass sie hier in der öffentlichen Bücherei in Kigali verfügbar seien. Ich schreibe meine Bachelorarbeit, der letzte Schritt hin zum Abschluss.

Und ich schmunzele, weil ich die letzten Tage in Passau noch alle möglichen Bücher eingescannt habe, aus Furcht davor, in Kigali keinen Zugriff zu Literatur zu haben. Eine Gruppe von Erstklässern besucht die Bücherei. Für einige Minuten wird es unruhig, die Kleinen stampfen die Treppe hinauf und werden durch die verschiedenen Abteilungen geführt. Sie wirken aufgeregt und hungrig nach Wissen. Für einen kurzen Moment denke ich zurück an Zachary und wie er mir vor zwei Jahren davon erzählt hat, was er für Herzblut in das Projekt “Bücher für alle” gesteckt hat. Danke.images