Whose Knowledge Do We Care About? Unpacking the Colonial-Whiteness Permeating ‘Objective’ Knowledge & Knowers

Written by: Kanishka Sikri

Touring through the key themes and strategies for community engagement I found most memorable throughout IDSD10: Community-based Media Tactics for Development Advocacy and Social Change, I make salient and explicit the multilayered and power imbued structure of knowledge production, means of knowing, and praxis of sharing within both the “legitimate” academy and “illegitimate” community. Situating such dialogue, I locate how we can understand community and grassroots development as a site to subjectify practices, embody knowledge, and lived experience, as well as a location to develop toolkits and pathways to begin decolonizing our own psyches and consciousness.

From our first class to our last, a thread running through our discussions was one of privilege consciousness. As students of University of Toronto who hold the privilege and positionality that provides us praxis and power of knowledge, we must organize and create spaces on and off campus such as our class, that bridge the divides between the binary of community and academy; which does not have to be a binary at all. Creating and claiming areas of consciousness raising groups or community engagement collectives takes effort, support, and political and social will to create spaces outside of the bounds of objectivity as power. At the end of one of our seminars, we briefly touched upon the idea and key concern of whose knowledge the academy traditionally respects. Who is producing what we consider fact? Why are they producing and writing as such? Interrogating the objective as a site to conceal the interests of the seemingly universal—white, middle class straight man—it is our duty to bring subjective knowledge, which is marked positively by emotion, materiality, and lived reality, into our spaces. Our seminars have forced me to think continually about how objectivity has become the site for academic rigour, and concurrently displaces subjective and embodied knowledge, such as storytelling and spoken word. Blessing for instance, offered an important insight in that community sharing such as storytelling is a fundamental part of our existence, and when we own our stories and creatively make them known, we disrupt and transgress such dominant views of knowledge production and translation.                                                    

Alongside the importance of these community spaces, another key theme salient throughout our workshops and classes was the idea of  “internalized inferiority” as coined by Frantz Fanon, and the ways it is entrenched and embedded in the psyches of black and brown peoples; thus influencing the ways we navigate our own personal relations and broader societal interactions. In such space, education and professional experiences are shaped by how we view ourselves and how we perceive others view us—thus exaggerating stereotypical dismissal and profiling of black youth and women of colour in particular. I particularly enjoyed Taibu’s consistent recognition of the ways the systematic and individual exist in interplay with one another. Many anti-racist Afrocentric approaches can overdetermine the role of the individual without recognizing the ways systematic racism and individual supremacism support and curate one another. As Taibu stressed, without utilizing system-based approaches, we can rarely if ever tackle the one-off, personal relations where white supremacy is exerted.   

The third most explicit takeaway for me was the importance of prioritizing diverse means of knowledge sharing and community development. In our workshop on storytelling, broadening spoken word and poetry from white conventional and mainstream understandings of what poetry is, Salma made a very insightful connection between activism, struggle, and community change with oral tradition. Spoken word, even while not defined as such, has been a tool for community engagement for centuries around the globe, even while poetry has been considered a white form of creativity. As a Black Muslim woman, as Salma has powerfully stated, utilizing spoken word and claiming it, has been a way for her to rebel against the dominant status-quo that continually picks and chooses which parts of her identity are considered important in different spaces. Analyzing writing as a colonial enterprise, as Salma encourages utilizing Frantz Fanon as a guiding script, allows us to look at writing as a proxy through which whiteness is imbued within everyday relations and interactions. Since writing in its historical and contemporary form, is predicated on the lens of the objective English word, it concurrently displaces community based sharing as inferior; the more we ascribe to writing as a tool of power, the closer we come to whiteness, and eventually assimilate into it.                                                                                           

Taking part in this course, I have been at a heavy crossroads with my future path in international development. Throughout the years, the cracks of the academy and the NGO world have deepened, exacerbated, and opened new issues and challenges I could never imagine. Both spaces—the academy and the international development space—are built upon the same structures, systems, institutions of oppression that hurt, discard, torture, kill our world and its peoples. For instance, learning in our Volunteer Toronto workshop the staggering impact of the volunteering-NGO dynamic on our economy not only makes explicit its power, but the methods in which NGO’s are commodified and utilized to further specific interests such as that of the rich and few funding providers. Thus, it is not only that NGO’s have this economic impact, but that their existence and practices are constantly (re)manufactured by a select few powerful actors through economic incentives. As I continue my path—in or outside the academy—I must try to mitigate (or at least be conscious of) the ways we hold power as researchers because it is important to create toolkits that utilize community methods of sharing and translation, such as that of oral storytelling. To do so, we must place our priori toolkits backwards—still there for reference—and utilize community practices to create ones rooted in contextualized and localized design, not a mere checklist.                                                  

Throughout the course, I have also seen and tried to implement the idea that various variables/structures of oppression do not just collide with one another, but consistently determine and (re)manufacture one another. For instance, cultural violence such as honour killings are made possible by patriarchal standards that give authority and legitimacy to men. If and when these structures change, the other variables/structures will also follow. Examining and entangling our various capstone projects together, we can look at the connection between gendered violence, immigration policies, and gun violence among the African Canadian community, and understand the ways in which the other systems support and curate the other. We can examine their interdependency as immigration policies breed fear and secrecy for immigrant communities with legal institutions, which in turn allows gender-based violence to flourish as women do not want to engage with formal institutions for grievance reporting.   

Concurrently, we have focused on understanding the mechanisms and processes through which we can mark, understand, and analyze “complex” issues which are invisible, and in many cases deliberately concealed within formal international development interventions that disengage the “parts” from the whole. I will carry this frame/matrix of examining structures throughout my professional and academic experience to target the root through which development is hindered and contained. One quote I am placing in my own toolkit is, “who is ‘managing’ whose ‘development'”? We must unveil the power dynamics that place certain actors and agents as superior and capable of defining what others need. In adhering to such saviour-esque beliefs we ignore the localized, contextualized, and participatory process of learning and community change that grassroots organizations are striving for. Within this localized frame of thinking I hope to carry with me, we can understand cultural conceptions of time, and the ways in which we place certain acts of oppression in a past temporal scope—i.e slavery, violence, and genocide against racialized and gendered communities—without recognizing the ways in which these “technologies” of oppression have shifted, moved, and been altered to become more applicable and accepted within our social fabric. By ignoring the non-linearity of oppression, we are unable to attend to current development issues, both in and outside of Canada.                        

As students and imagined eventual practitioners and/or researchers within international development, we must have the necessary support and capacity to continue analyzing issues of international development from a critical, decolonial, anti-racist, and feminist frame. The phrase, “knowledge is power” has never been more important. Having access to knowledge is critical and is power, understanding knowledge is power, learning through knowledge is power, but producing knowledge and sharing it—that is the essence through which we base power hierarchies around well, power. The academy has traditionally relied upon “legitimate” and scholarly sources, and consequently disregarded and displaced community methods of knowledge sharing and embodied learning from their analysis. We can see such power hierarchies of knowledge production in north/south divide of databases, in that countries in the “global south” even while researching and applying theory in light of being gazed at as data points for extraction, do not have access to publish their own work or read those of others because of classist, colonial, and white supremacist publishing platforms (owned by 3 major corporations) which reduce the global south to a site for data but not scholarly research and praxis.                                                   

Utilizing Ursula Franklin’s critical frame, it is our duty as students of critical development studies to retrace and reconceptualize the ways we see “objective” knowledge as objective, and understand the ways multiple oppressions underpin and permeate the seemingly “fair” and inclusive technocratic structures we live around. These structures, as highlighted by Saman during our Franklin “Hackathon” are not neutral but are curated by and through the interests of the corporations and entities designing then. We must remain vigilant in interrogating the design infrastructure as to not embed injustices as we build wider and further. The federal government, particularly its international development divisions such as Grand Challenges and Global Affairs Canada, must support free, open-access knowledge production and sharing that is not ruled and decided by capitalist corporations. While this is needed, it is seldom possible, as Canada, and North America as a whole, have built themselves on the power of capitalist genocide of communities, of peoples, of knowledge. Until the state—even while built upon this settler-colonial framework—is able to provide students and researchers globally the capacity to theorize, share, and disseminate their research, it will not be able to support true international development that targets, understands, and opposes its own creation as a form of colonial and white supremacist intervention. International development is not natural, it is manufactured, authorized, and normalized based on the knowledge we know to be true. Until we are able to give way to knowledge outside of these confines, we will not be able to re-imagine what development truly is, and who it is for. We need federal, national, municipal support, coupled with global efforts to support the decolonized knowers, ways of knowing, and sharing of that “illegitimate” knowledge.

Reflecting on why, for what, and how we can understand community-based learning and sharing as a legitimate tool to generate the necessary toolkits to foster social and political will, I feel thoroughly inspired to imagine my own role in the ways I can engage my community beyond extractive tendencies. Utilizing visualization tools, storytelling, spoken word, and/or consciousness raising groups and collectives as community-based participatory toolkits allow us to create accessible, simplified, and informed knowledge production and translation that can be widely distributed and understood; without being plagued by the invisiblization of power laden frameworks, and academic jargon that disengages more communities than it does engage. Drawing from (Patricia Hill-Collins, 1990)’s as she writes, “social science research typically focuses on public, official, visible political activity even though unofficial, private, and seemingly invisible spheres of social life and organization may be equally important”; I understand my future path in critical development as rooted in the prioritization and uncovering of these everyday forms of resistance, protest, and survival.

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