White female privilege?

White female privilege?

How fieldwork is shaped by who we are and where we come from
By Eva Willems
March 4th 2019

Photo credit Eva Willems



Doing fieldwork for my PhD in the Peruvian Andes felt a bit like coming home, as if I were visiting a distant relative that I knew from the stories of my childhood. My parents – both white Belgians – worked and lived for many years in a small village in the Ecuadorean Andes. In contrast to two of my brothers who were born there, I was born and raised in a small village in Belgium, albeit in a home where (stories about) the Andes were never far away.


At the same time, during fieldwork I became very much aware of how my origin and my physical appearance defined my identity as an outsider. Stating that your race, class, gender, nationality, religion, age and education shape your position as a fieldworker is knocking on an open door. Yet, I would like to reflect on the specific advantages that I experienced as a white female researcher based at a university in the heart of Western Europe who is doing research in rural indigenous post-war communities in Peru.


"The ‘gringa’ should stay here to improve our race"

I probably chuckled foolishly as I was sure I had not understood well what was being said, the first time when during fieldwork someone jokingly proposed me to marry a local man so that they could “improve the race” of the community. The several times that this remark would come back in different places and circumstances made me painfully aware of what it means to be white (and in my case also blonde and blue-eyed) in a deeply racist society.

It means that, as a legacy of racial classification during colonial time, people have interiorized ideas on ‘inferior’ and ‘superior’ races. It means that, still today, the whiter your skin is, the more likely you are to get access to status, power, knowledge and resources. And I happen to unmistakably be a gringa - as my phenotype is referred to in Latin America. At the same time, it was remarkable how during our fieldwork, my Peruvian collaborator Gabriela - whose skin is light and who likes to dress in European fashion - would often be assumed to be Belgian as well. Being accompanied by me seemed to ‘Westernize’ her for the environment we were working in.


“What do your parents grow on their lands?”

Just like many of the people I work with during fieldwork in Peru, my grand grandparents were analphabet subsistence farmers. My grandfather used to remind us of our humble descent as he planted some potatoes in our garden. But when Peruvian farmers ask me the question what kind of crops my parents grow on their lands, I have to explain that my parents are not farmers but profesionales – as people that have higher education and practice professions other than farming are referred to in Peru. Becoming a profesional is the most probable way to escape poverty and gain access to status, power, knowledge and resources.

Next, after explaining how Belgian economy works and how few farmers we have left, I have to explain that I am using the stories of farmers in Peru in order to obtain an even higher degree of education than the one I already have. Moreover, in comparison to my fellow historians and anthropologists at Peruvian universities who conduct similar fieldwork, I will be more likely to build an international academic career on these stories as long as English is the academic lingua franca.


“Boys don’t cry”

Being a female researcher in a deeply machista society has faced me with situations varying from unpleasant sexist jokes to unacceptable sexual harassment. On the other hand, I have felt many times how being a woman has motivated people to share their stories with me. I guess these advantages in gaining access as a woman were also part of my motivation to work with female collaborators during fieldwork. For example, victims of sexual and gender-related violence, whether women or men, seemed unlikely to share these experiences with my male colleague. In general, male respondents seemed more likely to talk about sensitive and emotional topics to me as a woman, especially in the context of a machista society where “boys don’t cry”. In regions with slightly higher degrees of insecurity and mistrust because of illicit drug economy, I would as a female outsider at the very most be mistaken for a Jehovah’s Witness trying to convert the local population, while my white male colleague would mostly be suspected of being a North-American drug trafficker. Or, even worse, whispers behind his back would accuse him of being the pishtaco, a mythical violent figure in Andean tales, who is always described as a white male that murders and rapes locals in a particularly cruel way.

Being a woman also allowed me to become ‘one of the girls’ in order to gain access to the more intimate domestic sphere. Where I conducted my field research, women play particular and prominent roles in community life, especially in villages that suffered highly from forced disappearance during the war – a crime that almost exclusively affected men, leaving their women behind. As a woman, I could have conversations while doing what woman do - cook, wash, clean the harvest, play volleyball and chat with the lady selling oranges on the corner of the main square – and no one would question it.


Performing the outsider

Every fieldworker at some point wishes to be a chameleon in order to get access to the true knowledge of what it would mean to be one of the people that you are doing research with or about. At some instances, the environment where you conduct research can decide to ‘camouflage’ you by embracing you in such a way that for a moment you live in the delusion of being an insider. Nevertheless, for me, at some point I had to let go of the silly thought of maybe dying my hair and accept that I would never be an insider. At that same point, I realized how, on many occasions, I was mobilizing my position as an outsider. I could perform ‘the ignorant guest’, for example, who pretends to know nothing about the place, so that people would invite me to their houses and tell me stories. Or I could play out my position as an independent academic form a foreign country to counter the suspicion that I was working for the national intelligence service or the prosecutor’s office and gain more confidence.


Returning to the field

Inevitably, factors related to our race, class, gender, nationality, religion, age and education shape who we are as researchers and undeniably influence our fieldwork, whether in a positive or negative fashion. What can be beneficial in one context, will proof to be a stumbling block in another setting. Moreover, the accumulation of certain advantages or disadvantages can make it easier for some researchers to gain access to certain knowledge than for others. However, our identity as a fieldworker is dynamic as it changes over time and space. For me, returning to the same places and meeting the same people many times proved to be crucial for gaining both access to and insight in what we were doing. The moment when I had evolved from sitting somewhat shy next to the lady selling oranges on the corner of the main square, to being entrusted the task of selling the oranges myself while she was away, I realized that even my position as an outsider included many gradations and fluidities.

In sum, I have experienced that my position as a white educated Western female and thus an outsider, opened several doors during my fieldwork in Peru.  As fieldworkers – whether we are involved in so-called North-South, South-South or North-North collaborations – I think we should be very aware of how the knowledge we get access to constantly intersects with who we are and where we come from.


Eva Willems (Ghent University) is a historian conducting research on the legacies of the civil war in the region of Ayacucho in Peru. Since 2015, she has been working with Gabriela Zamora Castellares (Universidad Nacional San Cristobal de Huamanga) in conducting fieldwork with survivor communities in the Andes region on the one hand, and self-defense militias in the jungle region of the VRAEM on the other. Contact the author: eva.willems (at) ugent.be


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