the snake charmer jean leon gerome
Painting: Jean-Léon Gérôme, The Snake Charmer, c. 1879, oil on canvas (Sterling Francine Clark Art Institute, Williamstown, Massachusetts) Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0
Orientalism – Jean-Léon Gérôme’s painting The Snake Charmer became known as a classic example of the imperialist vision of “the east”. 

I arrived in Netherlands one month ago to study a Masters’ Degree in Development Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of the Erasmus University of Rotterdam, in The Hague. As a program focused on global south issues from social justice perspectives, most of the students and professors come from developing countries in Latin America, Middle-East, Africa, India and South Asia, among others.

I come from a small city in the north of México, close to that [in]famous border known for being far from God and too close to Trump. Along with my other 150 classmates from 40 different countries, we left the warm days behind, said goodbye to our families and culture, and started the adventure of coming to the heart of Europe’s international politics, with the objective of enhancing our professional careers and hopefully bring back home that magic recipe for development that we are somehow still missing.

Overwhelmed by the cultural diversity in the classroom, the lessons started before lectures did. Despite most of us coming from academic backgrounds related to social issues, it was interesting to see how we were all immersed on what the Nigerian writer Chimamanda Adichie would call “the single story” about each other. The most incredible questions of preconceptions started to pop up among our eclectic student group. We realized we had a lot of single stories to deconstruct.

How to deconstruct single stories?

In a world where production and distribution of knowledge are monopolized by those in power positions, information formulated from top-down largely determines what it will be known about those in less powerful positions, ergo the more disadvantaged groups of people, nations, etc. As Chimamanda said, the single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. Entire existences are reduced into a single story: when we think of Africa, for instance, we cannot visualize beyond the images of starving kids and poverty. Mexico, in turn, is usually seen as a land of drug lords drinking tequila, constantly trying to escape to the other side of the border. The single-story deviates historically rich religions like Islam by merging terms like Muslim and terrorism into almost making them seem like synonyms.

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Photo:SarahTz (Flickr) Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 Poverty and underdevelopment in Africa is a recurrent scene in people’s imagination of the continent.

The danger of this Foucauldian “Power-knowledge” relationship is that it positions us as subjects incapable of producing or telling our own stories. We, therefore, become the spectators – shaped by westernized lenses – of the description of our own realities. Moreover, what the other pictured or said about us is not only generally adopted as a truth and thus institutionally systematized, but it also ends up being internalized by ourselves. The struggle is not only to decolonized the presented ideas of the other but also about ourselves. How do I see myself, my society, in relation to white Europeans? What images, which colours, clothes, do I associate with progress, success, development? I remember perceiving the scepticism in my own loved ones when I told them that, in Europe, my professors were from Iran, Palestine, Colombia. Undressing how we have interiorized western prejudices needs to be a constant individual and collective exercise.

Here is where academia plays an important part. The north is constantly producing a lot of material about the south. Injustices are being diagnosed from upper frames, as one of the many faculties of those whose voice is heard. Nevertheless, research as a product of these same monocultural and colonialized structures may be incomplete or irrelevant, when not damaging. Studying minorities issues without solidarity engagement becomes a double-edged sword that contributes in maintaining power imbalances.

We have seen the futility of trying to change these vertical dynamics by simply reproducing European models. But, how to emancipate from this discourse when is still seen as the official panorama of progress and modernity? The challenge is to create strong counter-discourses that help us build up our identity. But, how do we promote space for economic, political and social projects based on the recognition of our differences, in a system that is not interested in groups “on the other side” of the abysal line of western perspectives? As Boaventura de Sousa said, there cannot be global social justice without cognitive justice, which implies a struggle to democratize the exercise of producing knowledge.

I was dubious about the possibility of finding these answers in Europe. But it has been positioning myself in front of the so-called “first world”, along with the richness of cultural diversity of my classmates, that has reminded me that structural changes start by deconstructing us internally and reflectively; individually and collectively. And for that, we need the help of the other, of the different other. We need to go and learn new stories, in order to emancipate from the ones imposed and be able to rethink social change.

*Text inspired in the Ted Talk of Chimamanda Adichie “The danger of the single story”.


 Cover photo: TEDx (Flickr) Licence: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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    Adriana Pou Hernández is a Mexican lawyer specializing in International Law by the Universidad de las Américas Puebla. Her interests cover Human Rights and Indigenous and Women’s Rights in Latin America. She is currently studying a Master in Development Studies at the International Institute for Social Studies in The Hague, Netherlands

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