Feminist Parenting, Privilege and Ubuntu: Lessons from the Field and Our Own Backyard

The following is my keynote address on March 25, 2015 for the Penn State Global Programs/Global Connections annual International Women’s Day Breakfast. My daughter, Arianna (a PSU senior), received the Spirit of Internationalizaiton Award that morning, too, an honor I received in 2009.

My daughter has a tattoo. It reads, “We find ourselves through selflessness.” While I am not a particular fan of body art – reflecting an obvious mother/daughter generation gap – the words DO reflect a guiding principle that we share.

Arianna broke the news to me carefully, about her tattoo, worried about how I might react, much as she announced that she would not be home for this past Thanksgiving because she was participating on a Penn State research project in The Gambia. As a parent, this is one of those moments when you wonder if somehow you got it all wrong. What was I thinking? Raising an independent child who would one day go off on her own adventures and have her own life– without me!

Well, Arianna is 22-years-old, having worked with me on service or research projects abroad every single year since the age of 10. I’ve always told her that had I been a physics professor, her life might have turned out quite differently, filled with chalkboard calculations and backyard rockets instead of social justice pursuits. I do have small parental guilt over the limited options I presented as a scholar-activist and a single-parent. Kiddo, you never had a chance.

Recently we’ve had opportunities to give joint research presentations of our work, particularly as it relates to lessons learned from indigenous knowledge. This was a proud parent moment for me and I struggled to maintain composure in front of the audience. I’m sure people must have been quite confused as I teared up, and my voice cracked, while explaining the theoretical frameworks that guided our projects.

We’ve actually had a variety of reactions to our travels and work. Most people have expressed support, of course. There is curiosity and sometimes even a little envy of our mother-daughter adventures. But our joint work is a logical outcome of the feminisms that have always informed our daily lives.

Early photos of Ari as a toddler show her bundled up in a stroller as we headed out to a “Take Back the Night” march during my graduate school days. Later photos include picket signs as we participated in women’s rights and peace marches in Washington, DC and there are snapshots of her with my students on field experiences abroad. Now she ventures out on her own, texting me photographs from Kenya of her greenhouse projects with small-scale farmers and pictures of her with village elders discussing water issues for a research project in Senegal.

The first time she traveled as a university student to Africa without me, I was a bit taken aback. As someone who studies child and adult development, this should not have been a surprise, that she was striking out on her own. But I’ve always felt several stages behind and have struggled to keep up. Even when she first started walking, she was still wearing footie pajamas or socks for months. Then one day it dawned on me, “I need to buy her shoes!”

Divorce, in my pursuit of independence and freedom, Ari’s constant exposure to NPR or BBC radio news in our house and car, my critical feminist analysis of everyday life (ad nauseam), and our immersion in university life no doubt impacted Ari’s early development. We had no TV, we boycotted Wal-Mart, McDonald’s and Nike, and bought most of our clothes at thrift shops – all practices that I still engage in today. Now that Ari is an adult living on her own, she has wavered somewhat regarding our boycotts. And I try hard not to take it personally. Ari, in contrast, seizes the opportunity to challenge my social class privilege and hypocrisy with reminders that I can afford not to shop at Wal-Mart and that choosing Target instead, is no solution. Ahh, the proverbial (feminist) chicks have come home to roost! Her quick refrain of, “Mom, that is such a first world problem,” when I dither over trivial concerns, certainly puts our privilege into perspective, as well as makes me groan, albeit with a wee bit of pride.

Understanding privilege is an intentional pursuit for me, personally and professionally, in my research, in my teaching, and as part of a larger social justice pursuit. Consequently, Ari was exposed to this concept at an early age. She was also influenced by colleagues and friends, some of whom are in this room, people who model reflexivity or introspection and critical humility, and have certainly inspired us to new levels of self-awareness.

As a young teenager, during our multiple Penn State service-learning trips to Tanzania, Ari held her own, impressively, in discussions with my students about white and Western privilege. This was challenged, however, during her first trip with me to the Democratic Republic of the Congo when she was 17-years-old.

I had already been to the country several times to visit Panzi Hospital which is known for its exceptional holistic care of survivors of sexualized violence, led by Dr. Denis Mukwege, a pioneering surgeon, human rights activist, and founder of the hospital. It’s here that I still conduct research with survivors of assault and help support programs for women via Panzi Foundation USA, a non-profit I co-founded in 2010 with Dr. Mukwege and Peter Frantz.

Ari was very much aware of the situation in Congo, the on-going conflict, and the rampant rape that brought women to Panzi for treatment. She was savvy enough to understand the complexities of this failed state, the legacies of it’s brutal colonial history, the resulting poverty despite a wealth of natural resources, and the geo-politics of the Great Lakes region that fueled the conflicts. This reality was unsettling for her and despite my reassurances that I was safe in Congo, she still worried about mom. I knew that if I intended to continue my involvement with Panzi Hospital and the women, I needed to take Ari to the DRC and let her experience the country for herself.

Many people were critical of this decision to visit a country labeled as “the rape capital of the world” on the “dark continent”. Their implied judgment was clear, “What kind of a mother takes her daughter to a such a dangerous place and intentionally puts her child at risk?” While I appreciated the concern, this frequent criticism represented a very superficial understanding of the country’s context, culture, and gender. In turn, I tried to challenge the stereotypes of Africa and Congo, by comparing our level of safety in Congo to that of any major US city, for example. Or I would point out the unearned privileges that come with our white skin, and I’d talk about my personal commitment to collaborating for positive change at home and abroad. For me it’s not an either/or, it’s a both/and.

Ari and I spent two weeks in Congo during our first trip together. As outsiders, there is always much to absorb and process but I knew she was ready to embrace the experience after years of working with me in so many other international contexts. While I attended meetings and conducted research, she spent every day planning and delivering art and educational activities at the daycare for children who came with their injured mothers to the hospital. This was meaningful and great fun for her and the kids. But the daily exposure to people’s pain and suffering, individual’s legitimate pleas for money or food or travel to the US, the constant stares we drew, our constrained movement through masses of people on crammed streets trying to negotiate daily life, eventually took its toll.

There were late night tears and feelings of helplessness to work through, which I tried to counteract with hugs and discussion about the luxury and ineffectualness of white guilt, and our limited outsider “gaze” which sometimes overlooks all that is functional, healthy, and positive in Congo. I explained that if the women we were meeting and serving had hope, then we must have hope, too.

Our evenings spent with local youth her age, sharing meals, learning about each others cultures, and discussing politics in the Congo and US created new friendships and helped all of us better understand individual and global complexities. These interactions gave Ari perspective as these young men and women talked about not just their struggles but successes and pride for their country and people.

While I anticipated the difficulties Ari might have in Congo, I was not prepared for the negative reaction she would receive at home from some teachers and peers. This was actually a trend during her junior high and high school years in rural, central Pennsylvania where over 96% of the county population is white. Given her trips with me out of the country, she was quickly labeled “that Africa girl” and judged harshly for doing work abroad instead of in the US because, as her critics stated, “We have problems here, too, you know.”

Her close friends could not relate to these international experiences and most of her teachers expressed little to no interest or understanding. We were already treated as outsiders because we were not native to the area. I had not grown up here or graduated from the local high school. Our affiliation with the university and travel to non-tourist destinations in the global south further set us apart. As a parent, I never anticipated that giving my child a global perspective would somehow backfire – especially in a space dedicated to education. These were harsh lessons for her at a young age. But when we examined them through the lens of privilege, a larger perspective emerged. Now Ari was herself experiencing, to a certain extent, the outsiders’ gaze of unchecked whiteness, stereotypes, and American exceptionalism.

Navigating this situation and reconciling the tensions that are bound up in privilege, requires a constant introspection about how we, as white Westerners, might be positioned as dominant in a particular circumstance and marginalized in another. My tools for this process are found in feminisms, that help me think critically about the racialized-self and my position and complicitness in the oppression of others. Another tool in my toolbox is the African concept of Ubuntu.

Arianna was born in 1993, the same year South Africa ratified an Interim Constitution, which was followed in 1994 by the country’s first democratic elections and the historic selection of Nelson Mandela as president. As her mother, it is my prerogative to symbolically link these two very historic events in the narrative of her life. In the last quotation of the Constitution it states, “There is a need for understanding but not for vengeance, a need for reparation but not for retaliation, a need for Ubuntu but not for victimization”. The philosophy and tradition of Ubuntu is about our connected humanity. It was popularized by Desmond Tutu in his 1999 book, No Future without Forgiveness.

“A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, based from a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

When I think about various forms of privilege and my position as dominant or marginalized, Ubuntu gives me an added depth of understanding. It reminds me that in the pursuit for human rights and freedoms, for social justice through the dismantling of oppression, we must always be guided and inspired by human dignity and the preservation of our collective humanness. My daughter and I try to realize this in our work with, for, and in service to, others. It helps us stay grounded, centered, humbled and with our own privilege in check.

As a parent, I’ve tried to model a consistent life ethic that draws from feminism and Ubuntu to inform all aspects of our personal and professional, public and private lives. It’s fraught with tensions, contradictions, generation gaps, and hypocrisies as well as great meaning and joy. So I will close not with answers but a question, inspired by Arianna’s tattoo, “How can each of us find ourselves through selflessness?”

About Lee Ann De Reus

scholar-activist
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