The Question of Difference (Part three of three): Poverty of Imagination

Feminist or a Womanist?

. . . Those in the middle get caught in the cross – fire away at the other side. If you are not for us, then you must be against us. If you are not for us, then you must be against us. People get scared enough, they pick a team. Be it for Buddha or Krishna or Christ, I believe God is that place between belief and what you name it. I believe holy is what you do when there is nothing between your actions and the truth. The truth is I’m afraid to draw your black lines around me, I’m not always pale in the middle, I come in too many flavors for one fucking spoon. I am never one thing or the other.  At night I am everything I fear, tears and sorrows, black windows and muffled screams. In the morning, I am all I ever want to be: rain and laughter, bare footprints and invisible seams, always without breath or definition. I claim every single dawn, for yesterday is simply what I was, and tomorrow even that will be gone. . ..

By Staceyann Chen

If feminist researchers are interested in the question of difference, then they cannot do without the possibility and the reality of human imagination. One of the reasons why feminists have engaged with other forms of knowing – poems, stories, songs – is precisely because the visioning of new world order or even to make sense of this one requires the active use of imagination. A feminist emancipation cannot be anticipated without the feminist imagination. So, the question is – if I am trapped within my skin and cannot shrug off the privilege that is written on me, then can I feel for another person, with another person? Can I not understand someone who is not of my own, or my own? I am not claiming an experience of the other; instead, I am claiming that I have to engage with the enterprise of understanding the fear and pain of someone who has been violated. My experience need not align with theirs, but my empathy can – my understanding can, and my fight for a different world where they do not feel that way again can. So, definitely, emancipation is impossible without the use of that imagination.

I find that often people think research does not require this use of the imaginative world. Research engages with fiction that people tell us and themselves. We often teach this in our ethics course. The reality of research is that the truth that you emerge with is no longer the truth that you have left behind. All we are dealing with are partial truths, at best. The nature of the social world is such that it changes with every interaction. Zadie Smith says (a friend of mine told me this) that fiction is about stepping into someone’s shoes and even though it might not be necessarily real, but it has to give you an experience of what it means to be in the other person’s shoes. To me, good research is precisely that. When we conduct our research workshops, that’s what we emphasise – if we are unable to capture the reality of the people of whom we have met, if we are not able to inhabit the skin of another, then we cannot tell their story.

So, creating a conversation around imagination can help engage with the question of difference by not treating it as timeless, universal, or salient that transcends culture or precedes culture. Difference through the framework of imagination can then be seen as something negotiated , constantly transforming, and moving towards something. So, to return to my friend at the work shop who insisted that those of us who are privileged cannot study those who are not, he is right. We cannot be writing this other narrative for another gender, caste, or another ‘other’ – but we cannot also believe that this is a singular relationship and that is the only one that can be established. If we stick to the essentialism of identities, then we cannot move beyond the physical existence of identities, and have a conversation that moves us from beyond our privileged existence – to be at the cross-roads and at the borderlands, here, is crucial. I cannot deny my stable identity, and yet, I need not be trapped within it.

Of course, the point can be made that in my interaction with Mira, my stable identity has provided me continuous privilege and power, and it has not done so for her. This crucial difference cannot be conveniently forgotten. But my point is that while that interaction was taking place, we had a mutual connection. And that mutuality of that connection has to be given some form of space in our conversation of difference. So, when I invoke Mira, I cannot think of her without also feeling some of the terror that was visited upon her. When I sat with her, I understood that while I had the power to change her narrative, I was also with her when she narrated those moments of terror. When we tell ourselves that we can only engage with the experiences with those who are like us  (and I am questioning who this us is), we then are also admitting to a significant failure of our imagination and are denying our significant abilities to empathise. By enclosing myself to the experiences of a singular identity, I will, inadvertently and ironically, be admitting to feeling no culpability of my own privilege. The burden of my privilege can be felt and understood by me only when I am able to imagine the pain that is visited upon the ‘other’ through and by me. Of course, the experience is denied to me, but the knowledge is not.

Essentially, we cannot just talk about differences in terms of how we are different, and who can speak for whom – all of which are critical questions – but we also have to examine the larger structures of domination that underlie each of our changing subject positions as well as the ones that we can lay claim to. It is the centrality of the power – of institutionalised, structural power of caste, religion, gender, or any other social category – that gives rise to the particularities of the difference. When we view difference as an “ongoing interactional accomplishment”( West & Fenstermaker, pg. 9), then we can start to experience social categories as socially organising categories, and it is our right and a duty to understand the systems behind it. So, my friend is right – I have to inhabit my position as an oppressor and there is a severe need to be a reckoning around it – especially from me, because this inhabiting of the position oppresses in material terms. And yet, there is a space for connections – of movement beyond the differences that we find. So, as has been articulated by my black feminist mentors, I am exploring if we have the space for solidarity as we acknowledge the ramifications of difference – to find kinship where power separates us and dialogue when blindness consumes us.  Because I’d like to believe it is not a simple matter of engaging with intersectionality or with the question of difference, but primarily about who we think a woman is, and how she exists in the world. So, I return now to Anzaldua and try to sit within the lines that divide us as clearly as they unite us and think about the borderlands and crossroads within me.

[Disclaimer: Views presented above are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of CBPS]

Niveditha Menon
Senior Research Advisor, CBPS



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