Experiencing “Other”

Africa, Business, Charity, HR, L&D, Race, Uncategorized, values, Volunteer

The really important thing is to see connections. It is only when we see real connections that we can meaningfully talk about differences, similarities, and identities.                                                          

– Borders & Bridges, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o

Recently on a trip to Uganda (volunteering with homeless children and using HR skills to help local staff in case you haven’t heard 100 times already) I had my first experience of feeling “Other”. I won’t discuss the critical theory and postcolonial theory surrounding Othering, but if you’re interested in learning more see the works of Michel Foucault and Edward Said as good starting places.  A disclaimer – this blog is not intended to illicit sympathy (poor white girl got stared at), but simply to share a moment of new experience creating a different and enhanced perspective.

One evening walking to buy water with my Brit friend in Kampala we drew a lot of attention. I am VERY white, with orange hair, and I’m pretty tall too at around 5 ft 10 and the average height of Ugandan women (according to google) is about 5 ft 2. I felt very different. Being a typical Brit I also did not speak any of the local languages. I didn’t feel in danger I hasten to add, but I felt like a spectacle, something to be stared at – why was I there? During this I had a moment of empathy for my boyfriend; we live in a very white town in North Yorkshire and he is mixed race (Afro-Caribbean & White British) and he feels different and unwanted (especially as our town voted to leave in Brexit). I’ve always been sympathetic to his situation but I had a moment of clarity and empathy whilst in Kampala. We live in the same house, in the same town and yet we’re both living a completely different experience as I’ve always found the town friendly and welcoming.

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Another instance of feeling a spectacle was when the group of us white Brits (and one Ozzy) walked through the slums. Although we were in Kampala to help it was hard not to feel like a voyeur walking through the slums, knowing that we could leave any time we chose and could go back to our nice hotel. Everybody in the slums, especially the children were lovely, friendly and welcoming and I felt like Princess Diana and that was surprisingly uncomfortable. We must have seemed like royalty, those living there assuming that we were rich and could potentially help them out of their poverty should we be in the mood to help. I don’t wish to belittle or in anyway diminish the great work we did out there (for Retrak charity) but I think it is important to critically think about perception, culture and Othering.

In a twist to the original theory of Othering, I experienced being Other from a perceived position of power. It is hard to express in words how that felt. Ultimately I experienced “White Guilt” – as Jean-Marc Ferry observed, “[w]e have to remember, in a critical way, the violence and humiliation we have inflicted on whole peoples in every continent in order to impose our own vision of humanity and civilization.”. This is something, having studied postcolonialsim, I’m acutely aware of.

I want to end this blog post on a positive note, I wholeheartedly agree with the quote I started on of Ngugi Wa Thiong’o – that we need to see real connections, and as Maya Angelou said –

We are more alike, my friends, than we are unalike.

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