By Amy Zavitz, MAGG Graduate (2017)
“To speak … means above all to assume a culture, to support the weight of a civilization.”
– Franz Fanon, Black Skins, White Masks
In the very act of speaking, enunciating and representing, we either generate or reinforce a specific image of reality. Such images are far from benign, for every word carries the weight of a people, a culture, a civilization.
We often generate reduced and generalized ‘images’ to represent different spaces. We use these imaginaries to frame our understanding of the world, while both including and excluding certain actors, forces and systems from our frames of reference. As I began to unpack in my last blog post, the gentrified imaginary of Johannesburg frames the city as a vibrant metropolis full of potential and opportunity, while rendering invisible the marginalized and excluded. In the Canadian context, hegemonic representations frame the country as a progressive mecca of global multiculturalism, while erasing the ongoing structural violence imposed on Indigenous populations. In this regard, I see clear analogy between these two contexts, both of which reflect the legacies of colonialism. Indeed, both are represented through the frame of an ‘ideal image’ that seeks to project an almost utopian conception of space and development while disregarding and minimalizing the grim realities of contemporary structural violence.
So what does it mean for us to speak of places? And how does our speaking relate to the places themselves?
I occupy the position of a global traveler positioned between two spaces with complex structural parallels, rooted in shared histories of violence and plunder. In writing this blog post, I must speak, forge or represent a specific image of reality, and yet I am fully aware of the many cruelties and contradictions inscribed in our dominant frames of reference. How then am I to speak? Is it possible to do so without reproducing the cruelties and contradictions outlined above?
Such questions as these highlight the extreme importance of critical self-reflection. We all-too-often enunciate in ignorance of our own biases and presuppositions, thus reproducing the very dilemmas we seek to resolve. However, it is important to remain aware of the moral and ethical imperative of evaluating the influence of our positionality on how we represent and speak of people and places. Without doing so, we run the risk of excluding the realities and erasing the experiences of those whose voices remain inaudible.
With the ability to speak comes the responsibility to reflect. But, such reflection must accomplish a double movement. This movement should consist firstly of the spaces we observe and are attempting to communicate, accounting not only for dominant conceptions of reality, but also for that which remains invisible to hegemonic representation. Secondly, we must reflect on the ways in which our own biographies shape and condition the ways in which we view and understand these spaces. Without such reflections, we lack the critical insight necessary to accurately represent people and place. These questions and the insights they stimulate are particularly crucial for those of us occupying privileged platforms such as these.