Numa identifies as Bangladeshi-Austrian for the sake of convenience, and works in the field of International Development for which she sometimes gets paid a living wage. She has the ambition of engaging and encouraging wider dialogue on development from a dusty perspective and hopes that she can contribute to making the world less fail in one way or another. She is trying to blog regularly on awkwardatbest.wordpress.com but mostly has a very short attention span.
I grew up in a multicultural bubble where the idea of discrimination because of race, gender, class, ability, and sexuality was never discussed openly. It wasn't until 2006-7, at university, where I started reading about privilege and oppression, that I discovered the tools to process my own experiences as a WOC. I realized that it wasn't so much that my environment growing up had been free of racism or sexism, but that I had just never been primed to recognize any -isms as such.
My immigrant parents were not equipped to help me deal with my experiences as an ethnic minority. They had grown up in a country where they were not the Other, and so subtle racism, or institutional racism didn't really register with them. The only type of racism that they had learned to recognize, was the blatant "Get the fuck out of my country, you dirty brown foreigner" type of racism.
So I what I internalized was that discrimination was always blatant and happened out of ignorance, out of a lack of education. "Ignorance" was also code for "poor", and for the longest time I genuinely believed this incredibly classist explanation. I really thought the only people who could be racist were uneducated, and thus, poor.
I realize now that this was a badly thought out, almost instinctive, coping mechanism where my class privilege was used as a form of protection against the forms of oppression I faced, namely racism. It was a bit like "Ha, I may be brown, but at least I'm not poor!" sort of thing, where oppressions are pitted against each other.
This kind of attitude also helped insulate me against the racism of my peers and immediate environment. As long as racism was only perpetuated by a group I never had to deal with, then the things that felt like racism invoked by my peers, were a different kind of creature. I was able to maintain the illusion of safety and lead a relatively untroubled existence.
Unfortunately for me, this meant that I once realized the actual pervasiveness of racism and other kinds of -isms, I found myself surrounded by people who had never had to think about any of these issues either. If it hadn't been for the internet, I would have never have found the resources to help me make sense of my experiences with oppression and privilege.
By the time I started my postgraduate studies at the end of 2008, I was already well-versed in issues of discrimination. However, I had not yet thought about how oppression and privilege manifests itself within international development. When I started my degree, I was still naïvely under the impression that since the very concept of international development was about ensuring global economic and social justice, development theory and practice would be critical of all kinds of oppression. Like some kind of -ism free utopia..
But I was quite mistaken. At first, I thought that this omission was because this degree was very praxis focused so there was very little space for an exploration of privilege and oppression. However, even for a praxis focused course, it lacked any form of self-reflexiveness whatsoever. In none of my courses, did we ever explicitly question our own privileges as development practitioners and how that influences the work we do.
The assumptions we made about ourselves and the people we worked with were left unchecked. There are many examples that I can think of, but the one that struck me the most is the following:
When we were in Uganda on our field trip, some of my fellow students treated the children they met there like exotic accessories, taking pictures of them, cooing over how cute they were, and frankly being really creepy. And their behaviour wasn't called out by our tutors as problematic.
Not only was their behaviour disturbing because of the blatant exotification of brown bodies, but also because of the treatment of these children as objects for my classmates' consumption. I'm pretty sure that none of my fellow students would have dared to behave as freely with unknown children in Western countries. Imagine being a tourist wandering around in Paris and picking up random toddlers on the street to take pictures of them! You'd definitely get into trouble, especially if the roles were reversed and a POC took pictures of white children.
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