Reflecting Allowed

Maha Bali’s blog about education

The Charitable Gaze

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I gave a workshop on critical pedagogy earlier this week… And you know it was a good workshop when the dialogue results in some consciousness-raising for the facilitator (in this case, me).

A participant made me think of the kind of power and potential harm exerted by the “charitable gaze”. She never used that term, but she was talking about people who visit orphanages in Egypt with gifts or to play with the kids. And how their visits did damage in multiple ways

  1. It reinforced in the mind of orphans that they were “different”
  2. It often carried what resembles (in my interpretation) colonial or patriarchal benevolence – assumptions about what the children lack or need… Which may be incorrectly placed, or when correctly placed, given from a position of superiority. It made me think of the great concept in Islam of giving charity while letting the recipient have the upper hand (literally and metaphorically to preserve their pride)
  3. It included forced hospitality. She told me that children in orphanages should have a say in who gets to visit them and when, and how they would receive them. Instead, orphanages often receive these visits and the administration are consulted, while children are merely informed and prepared to look a certain way and expected to interact. This would not normally happen to autonomous people, although, granted, kids aren’t usually consulted about their parents having dinner parties or such, nor do they constantly have control over who visits when. But occasionally they do, right, have a say in playdates for example. Orphans have no say.
  4. The look of pity in these charitable visitors’ eyes in itself influences how Orphans see themselves.

I’ve layered my interpretation on what she said, but those are essentially her ideas. I told her that her description made me feel it was akin to the gaze we give animals in a zoo. It was deeply offensive to do so to fellow human beings.

She mentioned how it would preserve their pride more if people sent them gifts without coming personally to deliver them. At first, that seemed odd. But I thought about pride again. Think about this. What feels better to your pride, getting a tip in your hand or a salary in a bank account? (privileged person speaking here)

Strangely, this whole notion of “gaze” (probably coz already tied in with postcolonial, racial and feminist discourses) led me to reflect on a few things related to my students’ intercultural learning experiences this semester. To be a Muslim and to be asked to respond about terrorism or sexism/patriarchy in your country… It is exoticizing and it pushes young people into a corner. You know why this is a big deal? Because there is so much that is dysfunctional about Western esp American society, race and gender and more…. And yet they manage to export a much more positive view on themselves, that Egyptian students do not immediately think of those things. Instead, they’re stuck trying to defend the negative stereotypes, which is all their (in this case) American counterparts “know” about them. And it’s a gaze that backs them into a corner. I felt it strongly on Twitter recently and I’m older and hopefully wiser than my students, and it’s an awful feeling.

This feeling of someone who knows nothing about you but one of your labels (orphan, Muslim) and uses it to corner you, stripping away all the other dimensions of your personality and identity.

And the one remedy I can think of for this is to replace these one-off or occasional interactions with the “other” with sustained, long-term, mutually agreed upon (formally or not) relationships that people can opt in or out of without blame. When you get to know someone, the whole person, over time, perhaps over mutual interests, it then becomes an entirely different conversation. In fact, you probably don’t have the same conversation. Cases in point? A friend who never discussed Islamic fundamentalism with me, but spoke (of his own accord) in defense of the majority of non-violent Muslims… Because he knows ME, and he knows I’m not an exception to a rule. Other examples? People who, without asking me, understand gender issues I face, and others who dig deep sometimes to try and understand better. But after they’ve gained my trust as friends.

One of the things people miss sometimes on a space like Twitter is that it takes time to build a relationship of trust so you can actually have meaningful dialog around controversial topics and not offend or cause damage.

The charitable gaze holds similar issues. It’s fleeting, pitying, not truly understanding all the dimensions, and thus potentially damaging and offensive under a mask of benevolence.

AND suddenly I think of all foreign aid that comes our way. And unlike charity, which can really be altruistic, if misguided, foreign aid has political agendas, and economic interests to uphold. And I wish there were ways to halt the dependence on foreign aid that sets our agenda for us, decides for us what we need from their own worldview and offer help in ways that are bound to benefit them back (take military aid, buy our weapons ; take education aid, buy our hardware and training expertise – but never enough that you can scale it and never need aid again!)

I’ll stop here before I go on more tangents. But yeah. Charitable gaze. Google doesn’t know it, but it’s a thing, I tell you.

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