Reflections on being the white American researching Africans in China
“Just…don’t be a colonizer,” a close friend warned me over Skype after I explained my research project upon arriving in China.
“Of course,” I snorted, laughing off his comment. Me? A colonizer? I’ve read more than my fair share of Marx and Fanon and Freire. My favorite conversations are those interrogating my own ‘privilege’. Over the past seven years I have been fortunate to live, work and study in diverse places and conditions all around the world, in part in an effort to achieve a more empathetic and critical attitude. How could I possibly be a colonizer?
Besides, what does that even mean?
Putting his comment aside, a few months later I began to carry out interviews with African students. My second interview was with a student who lives down the hall from me. I had just finished shakily delivering my “informed consent” spiel, in which I describe my project, reasons for conducting it, measures I take to protect my interviewees’ anonymity, etc. After pausing to think, my interviewee responded with the hint of a smile: “So basically, you will use this information that you get from me and my African classmates to become rich and famous. Then what? What about us? What do we get out of it?”
Flushing, I sputtered out the suddenly flimsy rationale that I had included in my consent speech: my findings will benefit future students, uh, by addressing and combating some of the misunderstandings and stereotypes about Africans in China that lead to discrimination. But as I said this, I was struck by a thought: even if my research might be considered “ethical” by a board of scholars in the States, the (immediate) gains from my project would certainly not be equitably shared with those I am interviewing—upon whom the success of my project is reliant. Noticing my discomfort, he laughed mercifully and encouraged me to begin the interview.
Is this what my friend meant when he warned me not to be a colonizer?
The following week, there was another incident. I had hired a friend from francophone Africa to help me interview some of the other French-speaking students. He had also taken it upon himself to help me arrange interviews. One evening, when I went to check in with him about our meetings for the following day, I noticed that something was bothering him. When I asked him about it, he explained the following:
An African woman living in our dorm had previously agreed to an interview. However, when he tried to set up a time after finding her with a group of their African friends, she suddenly become agitated. Angrily, she all but shouted at him: why is this white man researching us? Who does he think he is? Do we go around researching white people in China? Though he tried to defuse the situation by explaining my “noble” research goals, soon others had decided that they wanted little to do with my research.
“You have to understand,” my friend explained to me. “Because of colonialism, you know, the issue is a bit sensitive.”
I quickly reiterated – more for myself than for him – the many ways that I hoped my research would “help” future African students (as if they need my help!) and assured him that these interviews were entirely voluntary. Anyone who was even slightly uncomfortable should of course not participate in an interview.
But that night, while reflecting on the knot still in my gut, the implications of what he recalled to me set in. These students felt uncomfortable, singled out, even exploited by my project. Regardless of my intentions or how much liberation theology I had read, to a certain extent I was still considered “a colonizer” by others.
After swallowing this, I was finally able reflect more critically on how I was in some ways playing the part of colonizer. For instance: a common critique of African studies, particularly in China but also elsewhere, is that too often Africa is treated as simply as a source of raw data, to be extracted, gathered and then processed in institutions abroad. By interviewing students from Africa (with US government funding), was I not potentially doing the same?
In a recent essay, Wieseltier critiques modern society as “rife with theories and practices that flatten and shrink and chill the human subject…” As I sat in my cold dorm room, coding the previous day’s interviews – i.e. breaking human stories into tiny, comparable bits (to reduce risks, even stripping them of all identifying information) – I could not help but think that, though I was acting in accordance with poly-sci principles, I was perhaps engaged in a dehumanizing endeavor. Was this not in some ways an act of colonization?
Certainly not ready to throw my project to the wind, I determined to continue my research—only better and more consciously, if possible. Rather than just asking the questions that I wanted answers, I memorized and put away my interview guide and spent more time getting to know the people that I was speaking with. I spoke more about myself.
Confused by the shift, my friend scolded me after a particularly long and winding conversation. “This is your job,” he told me. “Get the information you need and get out.”
Instead of being a waste of time as he was implying, my shift in questioning bore answers that seemed more truthful, more complete. By entering into these conversations humbly and treating my interviewees as what they are, humans – not just ‘subjects’ or ‘informants’ or data points – I got more human answers. In place of the awkward scientific coldness that I brought to early interviews (imagining this to be the “proper” attitude of a field scholar), I just tried to be myself resulting in interviews that were warmer and more fun. I have since formed strong personal connections with many of my interviewees. One student cooked me a meal from her home country.
This is certainly not to suggest that I have “solved the problem” – I am not sure it is one to be solved. I am still coding my interviews and still stand to gain more than those sharing their stories. There are still students who are (justifiably) uncomfortable with my imperfect project. But my experience has given me hope that research like mine can be more collaborative and less exploitive. To do so, however, requires ongoing, conscious effort, beginning with the recognition that who the researcher is inherent problematizes the research process.
For me, that means acknowledging the following: because I am a white American male researching the experience of Africans, I have a responsibility to make every effort to strive to not be a colonizer.