Naming ourselves so we can name the world

I recently attended a conference on popular education entitled ‘forging solidarity’. Popular education has been around since the 16th century. Popular education is not adult education or informal education it is a form of interaction that sits at the crossroads between politics and pedagogy. The aim of popular education is a collective liberation against oppression or to put it another way a conscientisation of individuals and groups who are working together to transform society.

Paulo Freire, a 20th century educator, is most well known for his contributions to popular education and how the educational process can be designed to be liberating both for those that are born into an oppressed group and those that are born into a group that oppresses. What I love about Freire’s ideas is that emancipation is only possible if both the oppressed and oppressor need to be liberated from that which perpetuates unjust practice in the world. This unjust practice is possible because of the way in which we internalise ways of being that enable us to see ‘the other’ as less than us. It is also made possible through the competitive desire for ownership of the means of production and thus the wealth that is gained from this ownership. To justify this ownership, oppressor communities need to create myths of being and acting in the world which make it possible for oppressive practices to continue. One such myth is that everyone has an equal chance of gaining wealth and it all comes down to how hard one works. Another myth is that Western races are ‘more advanced’ in terms of cultural, political and economic structures and this is the reason for their progress and dominance in the world. All that has really happened is that Western structures have been able to institutionalise unjust practices that are now taken as ‘normal’ and ‘right’. The way forward is the myth that less advanced nations to simply catch up. This is obviously not going to solve the inequalities in the world.

What I found very intriguing about the colloquium was not only the diversity of work that is happening in popular education and how the political pedagogy is still (and probably always will be) emerging but also how individuals within the group acknowledged the presence of oppressive structures. This was done by acknowledging their context or should I say the context into which they are born and now live. This is important as the context we are born into may not be the context within which we now live. This has definitely been the case for me at least. As Bhaskar argues, when it comes to structure and agency, structure always comes first. We are born into a context and a historical moment that we have no choice over. What we do within this context and historical moment is where our agency lies. Freire speaks of agency as conscientisation that is both personal and collective. This continual dance between what the context of oppression and the context of the oppressed was very apparent at the colloquium as was the way in which people tried to personally deal with this.

It was a common practice for presenters to start their presentations by either owning their experiences of oppression or confessing their oppressor status. For example, acknowledging that “I have been born into an middle class family from a high caste.” or “I am a black woman who grew up and knows the experience of poverty” or “I am a black academic who has struggled to make it to this point and has to continually fight against the unseen structures of patriarchy and racism in Universities which are environments that make me feel excluded.” This made me think about the conscientisation process and what it means to own an oppressive experience and then see this as an identity or to confess to having grown up in an oppressor context and acknowledging the advantage this has given one. I began to think of how I would engage in my own ownership and confessional process.

I can claim oppression as a woman in an overly hyped masculine society and I can confess to being born to a father and mother that had made it to the middle class by abandoning their home country to come to South Africa during one of the darkest years in Apartheid’s history – 1976. At home they were not part of this class. I can acknowledge that growing up white in South Africa in the 80’s gave me an education that was much better than any of my comrades of colour and I can also say that I experienced the horror of being sexually abused and bullied by male students. I can say that my father, due to scholarship he won for his university education (his parents were not wealthy and unable to afford tertiary education at the time) and his determination to succeed in a foreign country meant that most of my tertiary education was paid for. I am the first person in my family to get a masters (and hopefully Phd) and this is probably due to the South African priviledges I grew up with. I often wonder if I would have received such a good education if my family had remained in England. I can also say that it is due to my fathers savings that he was able to accumulate from his many years of work as an engineer that I am now able to own a house with my partner. My father covered the deposit on the loan of the house. It is these generational payments that have made it possible for me to find work. It is also the colour of my skin that makes people react to me in a different way and open up doors that would be closed to others. So interestingly I was not born into a community of oppressors but, to some extent, a community that was oppressed as my father’s family were working class Liverpudlian’s struggling in the aftermath of World War two. I was, however, transplanted into an oppressor community when the education my father fought so hard for landed him a job in South Africa.

I will always remember wanting to treat a Xhosa friend to a meal at a restaurant. My Xhosa friend introduced me to a isiXhosa dance group called the Masande players when I was 20. I became a member and danced with them for about four years. What he did was more than give me an opportunity to perform he gave me an opportunity to enter a world that was closed to me. He offered me a friendship that was more than a personal sense of compassion for each other. He also offered me the opportunity to be more South African and to learn what it meant to be part of the oppressor community in the context of a South Africa crawling out of apartheid . His only surviving parent was an alcoholic and so during his matric exams I offered him a space to stay so he could study. He suffered for this because this was in the time when white people were not trusted. His association with me led to his family consulting with a sangoma and putting a curse on both of us. I do not understand this and still don’t but I still have the letter he wrote to me before he left town telling me that he was in danger and so was I. He advised me to leave town too but I was not a believer nor did I understand the nature of what was happening in his life. This was all still foreign to me and still is which shows how some doors are still closed to me. But I am getting side tracked. When I offered my friend a meal at the restaurant he became uncomfortable. He nervously looked at the menu and eventually said, “would you mind if we rather buy food for the same amount as this meal at checkers. Then I can share it with my family and it will last longer.”

I have been contemplating is how the ownership of oppression is the ownership of an experience of oppression first and then a slow and often painful process of understanding the underlying causes of this oppression. Freire would call this learning to read the world and therefore understanding how oppression can even be possible. For Bhaskar this is going beyond the empirical or events (the experience of oppression) to understanding the causal mechanisms of how the event and the results of the event could have happened to begin with.

But do we do the same when we confess to being born into a community that oppresses or into a culture of people that are oppressors or into a country that legislates oppression? Do we rather start the other way around and instead of ‘owning our labe’s confess to the structural labels of the oppressors?– I am middle class. I am white. I am man. I am from the first world. I am heterosexual. Why don’t our confessions also start with the experience of being born into oppressor status? This made me think of how it does feel to own oppressor status.

This morning, while I meditated, I conjured up a moment of exclusion, a moment where my privilege was so apparent and I sat with the feelings that arose. All I can say is there was a sense of my chest collapsing inward on myself. I wanted to withdraw, be small, tiny, insignificant. Things were crawling inside of me. My eyes could not look straight but darted around. When I think of a label for this feeling the only one that comes to mind is shame coupled with a feeling of helplessness. There was no agency. There was not a feeling, in the moment, that I could do anything but stand there shameful and helpless. This feeling of having the status oppressor or privileged, if we want a gentler word, makes me understand more than anything that structures of oppression trap all of us, oppressor and oppressed alike. Which reminds me of a very important conversation we had at the popular education conference around why do we act in solidarity or what is this thing we call solidarity which I suppose is asking, is it possible for solidarity to exist between the diversity of our collective experiences of living in this world? Some people spoke of ‘a responsibility’ and others of ‘the struggle to be’. There was a lot of talk about what it means to stand up and stand down, to give space and to leave space. The comment that struck home the most was a comment made by an comrade from India who pushed away the word ‘responsibility’ as if it stung him. No, for him the act of solidarity came from an understanding that even the most privileged are not free in the enactment of oppression. It is not a responsibility to align oneself against oppression it is the core of our humanity that makes us do so because once we understand that we are trapped, closed off, reigned in from experiencing each other and the world then we know there is no other choice but to fight oppression in every which form we find it. This then is the act of love and first and foremost it is an act of self love. If I truly love and care for myself then an opppressor status is unthinkable. To not challenge this and question this is an act of hate towards myself and an acceptance of the prison it puts me in.

Liberation is an act of courage as it means a continual working with contradictions that are both internal and the contradictions that manifest in the external world. As Peter Park remarks in a conversation with Freire, “The structure is one thing, and how we live is another. Daily, we speak the language of racism. We speak the language of sexism. We speak these ideologies in our body language and the ways in which we live and interact with others. So unless we change the way we live, from the inside out, just talking liberatory education or progressive politics is not going to be enough.” (Dardar, 2015, 149).

Freire replies that the progressive movement will not be enough to change a society that is oppressive. The internal work is important but there is also an acknowledgement that the structures that are in place sometimes inhibit us so much that change is not possible. He speaks here in relation to schools and universities and countries, particularly the United States. He argues that ‘internally, there are mechanisms that are set up unwittingly, that stand in the way of practicing progressive education. It’s not because they are bad people, but the traditional structure to which they adhere interfers.” Therefore it is vital that we reach out to others through a willingness to dialogue with the oppressing-oppressive contradictions that emerge in our very being and acting in the world.

I recently went to another academic event, the transgressive research school. There was an opening here in the academy that I have not seen before and a willingness to dialogue. For me it was a welcome surprise as I am very cynical about the current status of the university. For another participant it was experienced very differently. She saw it as a silencing, elitist space that spouted words with very little connection to action and experience. Maybe she saw the ideologies and positionings that we held in our body language and in the way in which the school was educationally structured with too much focus on concepts and models and not the lived, thinking and feeling experience of oppression. She spoke out against this which has placed us in a space or possibility of dialogue.

It also made me contemplate another way of thinking about working together towards liberation which Leigh Anne Naidoo raised at the popular education conference. She spoke of time travel and space travel and how, for some the history of struggle is over and the need for protests is gone whereas others are still living that history and are still moving in spaces where no liberation has occurred and the struggle for liberation is very real (Naidoo, pers comm, 2016). For me, who has a history with the department who held the transgressive education research school, the workshop was exciting, different and opened up new spaces that have not been present at the university for as long as I have had an association with it. For my fellow participant who is new to this space and has a different history to me it was experienced as silencing and arrogant. As educators then who want to engage in the transgressive space we need to learn to time travel and to space travel to open up moments of dialogue (Naidoo, L, pers comm, 2016). We also need to reflect on our own histories and spaces and whether within the movements we make and words that we utter speak to only our space and time or can cross over through space and time and blend a union across difference.

Academic research is often on ‘the other’ which our fellow participant of the transgressive research school clearly identified. She said that she did not hear our stories, the stories of the people in the room. Maybe by labelling this space transgressive the organisers, possibly without knowing it, have invited in some meaningful and possibly uncomfortable conversations. Maybe it is a process of turning the mirror on academy and, on all of us that are associated with it, and watching our gestures and our enactments of meaning. Maybe we need to think of how we would introduce ourselves into these diverse spaces and whether we need to own our experiences of oppression and also our experiences of oppressing. If we remain here for a few moments with deep discomfort we may be able to approach our theories of change differently. We could engage from a place of knowing each other not as people seeking to own identities or attempting to lay them down but people that are trapped together and hold between ourselves an equal opportunity of moving towards something new. As Freire states: “…our movements of awakening to critical consciousness or ‘the breakthrough of a new form of awareness in understanding the world is not the privilege of one person (or one institution – my addition). The experience that makes possible the ‘breakthrough’ is a collective ‘experience’ (Dardar, 2015, 81).

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