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Process: putting relational ethos into WhiteSpaces practice

Updated: Aug 18, 2022

Interdependency … is the way to a freedom which allows the I to be, not in order to be used, but in order to be creative. There is a difference between the passive be and the active being. … In our world divide and conquer must become define and empower (Audre Lorde, 1979, Sister Outsider )[1]

This commitment to relationality and the interdependence of coming into being together in and through our differences underpins the methodological foundations of WhiteSpaces practice. This is a methodological practice that works against the fostering of individualism in favour of valuing human differentiation and promoting the multiplication and power of our human/being differentiation through collectively generated self knowledge. This is following the Black, brown, queer feminist decolonial relational thinking like Lorde's that inspires WhiteSpaces. Following this commitment to relationality means working through the fullest recognition possible of our multiple intersectional locatedness temporally, geographically, physically intellectually and emotionally. [2]

This commitment to the principle of relational locatedness is why WhiteSpaces names whiteness as the fundamental relation of power and inequality in the global colonial English present in which the initiative was originally conceived. This global coloniality is the set of spatial temporal relations which work together to define human in terms of hierarchical racial formation where whiteness is at the top and where whiteness is therefore the metaphorical standard used to judge humanness. This mythology of whiteness as humanness works intersectionally through a set of complex and contradictory relationships with other relations of social difference like sexuality, gender, generation, capacity and debility. This naming is important because whiteness operates as a normalising code for everyday activity and this makes it difficult to see clearly and pin down in its operations.

This commitment to relational locatedness underpins WhiteSpaces use of 'we' to recognise the centrality of human interconnections and interdependencies to its practices and offerings. This 'we' is used as a call to those who are willing to recognise themselves as being part of a collective which is highly differentiated and contested in the nature of its experiences, practices and desires, but which is also connected through these experiences, practices and desires. It is a call to those who are willing to recognise themselves as powerful and vulnerable in their everyday relationships and willing to think about the ways that these powers and vulnerabilities constitute social categories of domination and the conditions for the practices of resistance. It is a call to collectively generative differentiated action, not a label of universal sameness.

Recognising the generativity as well as the complex and potentially violent nature of difference in the context of our current asymmetric global coloniality is challenging for the practices of meeting, gathering and working together. It means we are always meeting in what Mary Louise Pratt calls the 'Contact Zone'...

where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power such as colonialism, slavery, or their aftermaths as they are lived out in many parts of the world today. ... The classroom functioned not like a homogenous community or a horizontal alliance but like a contact zone. Every single text we read stood in specific historical relationships to the students in the class, but the range and variety of historical relationships in play were enormous. Everybody had a stake in nearly everything we read, but the range and kind of stakes varied widely. (Mary Louise Pratt, 1991, The Arts of the Contact Zone) [3]

Pratt's work was important to challenging the idea of safe space. There is no safe space. [4] However, there can be safer spaces and this is what the principles and practices help to create.

We can use the work of María Lugones [5] to extend and deepen this idea of a contact zone from a feminist decolonial point of view. Specifically, to understand the violence of that past-present colonial encounter as fundamental to the force of human agency resistant to the practices of domination.

The long process of coloniality begins subjectively and intersubjectively in a tense encounter that both forms and will not simply yield to capitalist, modern, colonial normativity. The crucial point about the encounter is that the subjective and intersubjective construction of it informs the resistance offered to the ingredients of colonial domination. The global, capitalist, colonial, modern system of power that ... met not a world to be formed, a world of empty minds and evolving animals. Rather, it encountered complex, cultural, political, economic, and religious beings: selves in complex relations to cosmo, to other selves, to generation, to the earth, to living beings, to the inorganic, in production; selves whose erotic, aesthetic, and linguistic expressivity, whose knowledges, senses of space, longings, practices, institutions and forms of government were not to be simply replaced but met, understood, and entered into tense, violent, risky crossings and dialogues and negotiations that never happened. (p747)
When I think of myself a theorist of resistance, it is not because of I think of resistance as the end or goal of political struggle, but rather as its beginning, its possibility. I am interested in the relational/subjective/intersubjective spring of liberation, as both adaptive and creatively oppositional. Resistance is the tension between subjectification (the forming/informing of the subject) and active subjectivity, that minimal sense of agency required for the oppressing ... resisting relation being an active one, without appeal to the maximal sense of agency of the modern subject. (p764)

This uncontrollability of human agency even From a relational point of view practice and means are intimately, but complicatedly connected to outcomes. Predefined outcomes are not the [only] point of practice. Process is not a means to an end known in advance, practice in the present is a manifestation of change, the shape of which is not readily envisioned in advance and will be understood and experienced differently depending on positioning.

Principles to be enacted in WhiteSpaces encounters

This relational ethos translates into a set of principles as starting points for WhiteSpaces range of activities and offerings. These will often be face-to-face or digitally mediated gatherings between people. But according to relationality all offerings (including the ones we often view as static like documents for example) are living encounters of a sort [6], a gathering of ideas, people and other material objects. Therefore, there is a relationality to any offering or practice and this relationality can be enacted with more or less care and attention.

The following methodological principles are the fractured foundations of WhiteSpaces relational practice. They work interconnectedly through material, symbolic and affective aspects of each encounter and they are oriented towards producing encounters which are as caring and attentive as possible within the given context.

Relationship = Taking relationship and responsibility for its safeguarding as the starting point for any practice, or analysis, prioritising intersubjectivity, interdependence and interaction.

Difference = Making a commitment to being respectful and curious enough about ourselves to find out about and then to recognising our own power and vulnerability in the face of others. Carrying that commitment through to meeting people where they are located through their own power and vulnerability.

Situatedness = Using practice and relationship as a starting point for understanding the contested partial and fractured relationship between identity action and interaction.

Partiality = Accepting that intention, our own and that of others, is never transparently related to motivation and action means committing to paying attention to our impact on others as a way of understanding our unexpressed intentions.

Multiplicity = Paying attention to the multiple locations, practices and relations happening at the same time and within and external to the same entity whether it be a person or an organisation or a nation.

Connectedness = Tracing patterns and shifts in subjective, political and felt interdependencies.

Dynamism = Using dialogue, verbal or other embodied communications, as a way of generating ongoing and revisable knowledge which accounts for shifting positions and connections. This can include listening which is an important part of dialogue. (Gilligan, Back, Swan).

Generosity = Redistribution of resources material, symbolic and affective. Not only in one way as in away from an (already assumed) locus of power, but negotiated multiply, depending on activity, context, desire and ability to engage. The issue of affective inequality is of particular importance, because this continues to be downplayed, yet from the relational point of view above the uneven distribution of affect is central to the shaping of symbolic and material oppression.

Transformation = Not in the sense of revolutional. But in the sense of transformational justice as per adrienee marie brown's emergent strategy blends past-present-future in collaborative effort to prefigure something different and new in the world through every encounter.

Practical steps for encountering and gathering

These principles frame some practical steps we can take in developing our public conversations and collaborations in ways that account for the challenges of working through the contact zone. These practical steps recognise that there are no inherently safe spaces, and that working with power will always be discomforting and challenging. But that we can work from a position of love and care for one another whilst recognising and working against our implication in power asymmetries.

Practical steps used in WhiteSpaces for translating relational principles into responsible, respectful and caring but challenging group practice for WhiteSpaces activity include:

For everyone participating individually and also together:

1. Being clear about the goals and focus of conversations, events or interventions from the start so that choice to participate can be informed and the shape of participation, including the need for different roles within the event, can be framed in relation to this intention [7]. Flowing from this importance of clarity of aims, intent and shape of participation questions to ask of oneself before participating in an event could be: what is driving my desire to participate and does this desire align with the stated aims? If I am not sure I can ask. For organiser and facilitator participants this will require clarifying purpose and aims invitations and sharing information on how to ask questions and find out more in advance. It may also under certain circumstances be an idea to create policies for participation for participants to sign-up to before participating.

2. Generating collective knowledge about starting points in relation to the discussion or activity focus so that it is possible to be attentive to the different needs in the room and to avoid starting from assumptions about our own or others motivation for participation. This involves all participants being ready to share about their responses to 1. This might involves some basic self-contextualising practices like sharing preferred pronoun use and other important aspects of social locatedness.

For everyone, but especially for people who are authorised to embody a position of power in the context of their social and/or professional location, and for those authorised to take on a specific role in the context of the encounter in question.:

3. Being aware of the circumstances through which our power positioning and investments can lead us to dominate the conversation or event. For example for people who are racialised as white or complicatedly white, but who benefit from being read as white adrienne maree brown has written 'a word for white people, in two parts'.

4. Being aware of when it might be necessary to take a step back so marginalised people can speak and lead the conversation.

5. Listening to and believing people's accounts of their experiences of marginalisation. Honour people's vulnerability by not disputing their lived experience.

6. Listening for silences and gaps in participation. For organisers this may involve building space for check in points. This makes it easier for people to enact the next point 7. in a way which doesn't single them out or disrupt the group discussion.

7. Feeling ok to leave or step back from participation if you feel unsafe or need some time out for any reason.

8. Providing avenues for follow-up. For facilitator participants this will mean being available to be contacted for any follow-up.

9. Recognising that in public discussion full confidentiality cannot be guaranteed because of the public nature of the space. However, what is said in group discussion can be treated in confidence. Always ask permission to share experience which is not yours. If you cannot get permission do not share within the group, or outside of the group after the gathering. Extending the conversation via various forms of social media can also be encouraged when framed through this commitment to asking permission and respecting when permission to share is refused.

WhiteSpaces process is continually evolving as our ways of understanding power and vulnerability shift and grow. At the moment (in 2022) there is an awareness that we need to consider the power dynamic of assumed ability more carefully. The issue of time maybe relevant here.

WhiteSpaces takes continual inspiration from various sources that are useful to creating generative non binary group process.

A final note on academic spaces

Formal academic spaces are at present basically unsafe. This is because the massifications required in academic practice mitigates against the time and spaces required for the sorts of thoughtfully contextualised dialogue necessary to the translation of the principles of relationality into practice. Outputs are prioritised over input. Ownership and expertise privileged. This basic lack of safety is something that continues to be downplayed in academic contexts. At the very least

Notes and additional references

[1] From the essay 'The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House' for "The Personal and the Political Panel" at the Second Sex Conference, New York, September 29th, 1979. quoted from p111 of the 2007 Edition. New York: The Crossing Press.

[2] Sumi Madhok has written an extremely important paper articulating the importance of this 'feminist debt' owed to the establishment of the methodological importance of a critical reflexive politics of location. Madhok, S. 2020. A critical reflexive politics of location, 'feminist debt' and thinking from the Global South. European Journal of Women's Studies. 27(4) 394-412. The continued failure to acknowledge this debt contributes to the continued failure of in global North-Western social analysis of being which is repeated through the distinction between ontology and epistemology. A feminist historical ontology enables a critique of the 'genre' (Wynter, 2003) of knowledge production. From the point of view of WhiteSpaces it is the hall mark of a feminist decolonial knowledge production.

[3] Image Credit. Hannah Ferriera-Allen. Contact Zone #2 Oil on MDF 35 x 28 cm 2017 & Contact Zone Oil on dyed canvas 76 x 46 cm 2017

[4] I consider this issue of the inherently unsafe nature of social spaces in my November 2020 contribution to the Network of Women and Hallam Race Network event on Safe Spaces.

[5] Lugones, M. 2010. Toward a Decolonial Feminism. Hypatia. 25(4):742-759.

[6]Some of what I am thinking of here is outlined in my 2008 paper 'Living documents: a feminist psychosocial approach to the relational politics of policy documentation'.

[7] There is an important issue here about the potential 'lack' of or at least especially 'diminished' choice presented by formal educational encounters that I am considering in more detail for the amendments here.

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