In the Presence of “White Skin”: The Challenges of Expectations upon Encountering White Researchers
translated by Mary Bradley
Sharing different perspectives enriches academic research. Doing research as a team – especially if the team is made up of researchers of different disciplines, genders, and origins – can be a very enriching experience. In our own work, we have often had the opportunity to experience how valuable this can be. In some of the projects we have been involved in, the engagement of researchers from the Global North remained invisible during the field work. In other projects, these foreign researchers participated in data collection and thus were more visible locally. Despite the opportunities generated by sharing different perspectives in the field, this raises the question of what challenges the presence of light-skinned researchers bring to the field when collecting data?
As we have witnessed, the presence of a light-skinned researcher from the North can change the way we are welcomed in the field. It can facilitate access to the field, data, and circles of respondents that often remain closed. A white person seems to embody a certain authority or power that can breach certain limits or physical and mental barriers. For example, during a research project on agricultural production in a village in what was then the DRC’s Orientale Province, we noticed differences between the first phase of research, which was conducted by a team of local research workers, and the second phase, during which a mixed team of local and international researchers was in the field. During the first phase, the authorities to whom we wanted to pay our respects told us, “Those are students. Wait, leave them there. Do you think they have brought us anything?” In the presence of international researchers, the discourse changed immediately, “Let them in quickly. We’ll listen to what they have to say. Don’t you see that they’re with white people?” In other instances, the presence of white researchers can be an encouraging sign of security. As one of our interviewees in the Walungu region of South Kivu Province told us, “Omurhulaguishe, omuzungu arhaja aharhali omurula, ntacily’o ivita l’ya ciba.” (“Peace is coming. Whites don’t come to unsafe areas. Their presence means there won’t be war anymore.”)
In other cases, however, the presence of a white researcher brings numerous additional complications, related mostly to the perceptions attached to their presence by the population. Often, this presence increases the visibility of the research project and its associated stakes and expectations. For local authorities, this presence can offer an opportunity to demonstrate their power and position. For the population, these researchers embody several fears: they might be thought to be intelligence agents for foreign governments or mining companies or simply there to plunder natural resources, either of which risks creating mistrust and insecurity.
White researchers are also very often associated with development workers or believed to have significant financial resources, which can also complicate navigating the field. In such contexts, researchers aren’t considered just researchers but also donor representatives, thus raising expectations among respondents. One consequence can be the reticence or refusal to share information without a financial reward in return. We witnessed this during research in Kalehe, where interviewees told us, “Muyishe rhuyunvirize aba bantu bama hik’enomunda na bazungu lero. Nkaba ntacho barhulerhere lero rhurha derha nabo. Rhwana baleka bajire é’byabo bone. Omuzungu arhaka hik’enomunda, banave barhubwira oku ntacho arhulerhere.” (“Come on, we’re going to listen to these people who just arrived with the whites. If they didn’t bring us anything this time, we aren’t going to talk to them. We’re going to let them work alone. A white can’t come here without bringing us anything.”) And when these interviewees sensed that there wouldn’t be a project or any money related to the research, they said, “No one here is interested, we’re leaving. Our brothers here [meaning us, the local researchers] who brought them have already had their share for a long time without thinking about us.”
Sometimes, such disappointment can lead to threats to the local researchers, who are blamed because “the whites didn’t leave us anything.” On other occasions, research participants themselves are threatened during or after the data collection period. As one research assistant reported, “We had come to meet with someone who lived in the village. A few days later, passing through the village, I learned that respondents had been visited by robbers who wanted the money the researchers assumedly had left them.” And finally, the presence of white researchers can also give rise to conflicts with the local elites when the latter are not asked to be involved in the research project. In some cases, they may turn against the local researchers who they might consider responsible for their exclusion.
Consequently, although collaboration with white researchers can offer many advantages, it also includes challenges that risk compromising the research project as well as the researchers themselves. The presence of researchers from the North, often light-skinned, can be a source of insecurity and threats for the various stakeholders of the research project. It’s therefore crucial to be aware of these complexities from the outset, so as to minimise any risk as much as possible. It’s important to clearly explain what the presence of the researchers means, and which expectations are legitimate and which are not. It’s equally important to gain the necessary confidence of populations and authorities. And when things don’t go as planned, it’s vital that local researchers aren’t left to face this challenge alone but can rely on the support of their coordinators. After all, once the whites leave, it’s often the local researcher who has to return to the field and deal with people’s reactions.
Elisée Cirhuza is a researcher and programme manager at the Groupe d’Etude sur le Conflit et la Sécurité Humaine(GEC-SH)
Esther Kadetwa is an assistant at the l'Institut Supérieur de Développement (ISDR-BUKAVU)