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In the Presence of “White Skin”: The Challenges of Expectations upon Encountering White Researchers

October 5, 2021

     By Duncan Green     

Final post in the outstanding Bukavu Series of blogs on life for national researchers in the DRC, from Élisée Cirhuza Balolage and Esther Kadetwa KayangaIntroduction to the Bukavu series here. Search on ‘Bukavu’ for the other posts in the series or see list at end of this piece. Original post here.

We have seen how 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, “O’murhulaguishe, o’muzungu arhaja aharhali o’murula, 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 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 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 supposedly 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 blame for their exclusion.

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)


Previous Bukavu Series posts:

Invisible Voices in the Production of Knowledge: Introducing the Bukavu series

When You Become Pombe Yangu (“My Beer”): Dealing with the Financial Expectations of Research Participants

Epistemological Rupture, Detachment, and Decentring: Requirements When Doing Research “At Home”

“Donor-Researchers” and “Recipient-Researchers”: Bridging the Gap between Researchers from the Global North and Global South

When Focus Groups Fail: The Argument in Favour of Involving Local Researchers in Project Design

How Researchers Navigate in Armed Conflict Zones: Some Do’s and Don’ts

Armed Guides and Otherness: Vignettes from the Field

We Barely Know These Researchers from the South! Reflections on Problematic Assumptions about Local Research Collaborators

North-South Power Differentials and Competition in the Research Business

Remunerating Researchers from the Global South: A Source of Academic Prostitution?

When the Room is Laughing: From Female Researcher to Prostitute Researcher

October 5, 2021
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Duncan Green
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Comments

  1. Another great post. Curious to know if by “white skin” we mean “foreign”…just visualising how a brown person like me with largely “white” cultural upbringing and education may be perceived.

    1. Post
      Author

      Good question, Miriam – am guessing that the experience of researchers in DRC is largely foreign researcher = white.

  2. Very interesting article! From my own experiences in South Sudan, I also felt that there are both advantages and disadvantages to having a white person present during research fieldwork. I got the impression that some local officials were very happy to see a foreign (white) person come to visit them, and it afforded the research project a sense of prestige. However, some officials spent longer questioning my team than they probably would have done without me there, trying to find some problem with our documents or get us to contradict ourselves when explaining the research, I assume so that they could try to get a bribe. One local official I spoke to in his half-built office suggested that maybe I could bring some money next time to help him finish building it.
    When interviewing research participants it seemed to me that some people were very willing to confide in me and open up about their personal experiences (perhaps thinking that a foreigner was less likely to breach their confidence and share the information with other people they know?) while others were keen to impress me so were unwilling to share any negative feedback about our programmes.
    Another advantage was that on one occasion I was able to act as a good distraction for a large group of inquisitive local children to allow my South Sudanese colleague to continue with an interview undisturbed.

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