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When Westerners Engage with International Causes: A Letter on Reflexivity

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February 22, 2013

Dear Readers,

On International Thinking Day, here’s some food for thought: how we think about international issues. It’s also National Margarita Day, so feel free to ponder this over a tasty drink.

As activists, advocates, students, researchers, theorists, believers in justice and individuals with a cause, we know that the discussions we have in the West – America, specifically – reverberate around the world.  Likewise, Westerners listen for and try to dissect problems around the globe.  With our desire to make the world more like it should be comes the responsibility of reflexivity.

Reflexivity refers to the capacity of a person or group to recognize how they have been socialized and how that socialization affects their thoughts and actions – i.e., how their background and identity have shaped and continued to shape who they are and how they see the world.

When engaging with our causes – considering that most if not all causes concern people – looking outward and critiquing is just as important as looking inward and examining.  This is especially true when Westerners engage with issues in other countries, particularly non-Western countries. 

In her piece, “Cross-Cultural Connections, Border-Crossings, and ‘Death by Culture,’” Uma Narayan discusses the ways our national context influences which international issues we consider to be the most important. She also discusses how our own context shapes and distorts the way we understand the issue, because we analyze it with our own lenses rather than through the lens of context it exists in.

In her article “The Problem of Speaking for Others”, Linda Alcoff explores the ways in which “speaking for others” proves to be problematic. As employed in her essay, “speaking for others” refers to the phenomenon of speakers with privileged social positions speaking on behalf of less privileged persons. What makes this phenomenon so problematic, she argues, is that these privileged speakers, though often well intentioned, can perpetuate the oppression of the group on whose behalf they are speaking. Persons from dominant groups tend to be treated as authorities who communicate the (liberatory) interests of oppressed groups with legitimacy and credibility, thus reinforcing the idea that their voices are more worth hearing than those of the oppressed groups for whom they speak. In doing so, these speakers perpetuate the same social hierarchies they seek to eliminate by speaking for others.

Both Uma Narayan and Linda Alcoff bring attention to the epistemic (relating to knowledge and belief) implications of one’s social position. Narayan’s text suggests that social position affects what knowledge a person has and can obtain, whereas Alcoff’s suggests that social position affects how a person communicates this knowledge to others.

We cannot rid ourselves of our biases, but we can make them known, first to ourselves and then to others. By practicing reflexivity, we can consciously challenge the natural inclination to transplant our systems of belief – morals, ethics, values, ect.  – onto problems that come from a context we do not (try to) understand.  We can make sure we think deeply about the context in which the problem occurs.  Only then can we see true differences, uncover seemingly unlikely similarities and make connections.  Only then are we acting respectably and responsibly.

As we move through the world finding problems that need fixing, it’s important to recognize how our own identities and backgrounds influence our opinions and beliefs; then we must consider how our opinions and beliefs are influencing the way we are looking at an issue.

P.S. Reflexivity is a practice that takes practice. Don’t beat yourself up.

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