Letter 6

In doing this study, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the role and meaning of my project, and what it might mean––presuming it has any momentary significance whatsoever––to the 130 or so individuals who have taken my survey. I’ve occasionally thought about whether how or what I think is appropriate, especially when I enter these safe spaces that are not for me and are not my own. At times I’ve reflected on my attitude: what do I have a right to feel?

I don’t really know what I am permitted to think of myself. I am not doing service work whatsoever, I am in no tangible way helping what is a very vulnerable population, and I feel that that lack of cushioning has given me very little space to maneuver and see myself and my work as a valuable, meaningful contribution. I’ve always thought of charity work as an exchange of sorts: a service, like food or labor, is traded for worldliness and the sense of doing good. This type of transaction is something I’m familiar with, that I’ve participated in throughout my pre-college years. It is a touchstone of Duke’s liberal arts endeavor.

But the study that I’m doing now, this research on psychological effects of legal status, has felt entirely extractive. I give people compensation, yes, but unlike community service, the focal point is not the $10 gift card––the resource of tangible value––but rather the information that I extract. That information, that research ultimately has little value to the people I am studying. If it does benefit them, it is only tangentially. And I’m not even entirely sure what, exactly, that benefit may be. The traditional framing of service is either convoluted or nonexistent in this situation.

This guilt and lack of do-gooder cushioning has forced me to compress myself, to make myself as small as possible when I enter these spaces. I presume it’s a type of “do no harm” mentality. I think it also helps greatly that I’m naturally a bit shy. Occasionally, when people have thanked me for doing the research that I’m doing or for asking them questions that no outsider has asked them before, I’ve tried to overwhelm their well-meaning comments with my own “thank you”s. “Thank you for doing this. Thanks for asking these questions,” said a self-identified DREAMer I’d interviewed a couple of weeks ago. “No, thank you,” I countered, “Thank you for taking time out of your busy schedule to do this. I really appreciate it. Thanks.” I tally it in my head. 2-3.

I think my sensitivity is somewhat rooted in my acknowledgement of anthropology as a historically racist––and presumptive––field of study. I am studying a community that is not my own, whose experiences I will never share. I know there is great danger in that, and I know that my acknowledgement of that danger does little to temper it. While doing this research, I was reminded of a short story I’d read in a Spanish class on Latin American literature I’d taken my first semester of freshman year. The title of the story, “El don rechazado”, has a double meaning in Spanish: it means both “the rejected gift” and “the rejected gentleman”. It’s about an anthropologist who presumes to know what’s best for a young indigenous mother he saves from a life of turmoil and despair, who later rejects both his advances and his offer of charity. What disturbed me the most about the story is the anthropologist’s apparent self-awareness, which does little to curb his blatant presumptiveness of the woman’s situation and needs. He still takes her life into his hands, cupping and nearly suffocating it. “Se colaran algunos elementos indeseables (some undesirable elements were incorporated [into the field of anthropology]),” he admits, and “ahora, los nuevos, estamos luchando por dar a nuestra Escuela un nivel digno (now, the new ones, we are fighting to give our field of study a dignified status). Yet he still does damage. He still decides how the woman should be treated, what life decisions she should make. His confession does little to save him.

In doing this study, I thought I should go a step further and present myself as a blank slate, to make myself as open and inactive as possible because doing so would preempt any interventionism. I tried to stave off this sense of paternalism by continually reminding myself of the extractive nature of my work. I was not the one to be thanked. Silence was key to the respect that was due.

This happy silence meant that any unseen realities of my own doing would be realized only after what was done had been done. I went to a church one weekend to distribute surveys. The pastor told me that the congregation would be small, so I only brought 12 gift cards. Evidently, the congregation was not small, and I ran out of the gift cards in just 20 minutes. One taller woman promised to me immediately after mass that she’d do a survey as soon as she got done with an errand. When she came 15 minutes later to take the survey from me, another lady stepped beside her. I had to quickly apologize to the latter and tell her that I was sorry, but I had run out of gift cards. The taller woman then turned to me and warmly said that the other mother should do the survey instead of herself. “That’s completely fine,” I said, with no indication of what I was or should have been thinking. I realized then, after having already visited several churches, that some people were doing my surveys not necessarily because they wanted to help me out or because they had nothing better to do, but because they highly valued the compensation, the gift card. I instantly felt guilty, and more so after I had to refuse a couple other people. I felt guilty for unintentionally creating a sort of inequality by not bringing enough gift cards, and I felt guilty because it was though I had taken advantage, and it had taken me too long to realize it. $10 means different things to different people, whether it be myself, the IRB officer reading my application, or a person doing the survey. I am privileged to think that $10 is a fair (if not stingy) exchange for a 30-minute survey (I was initially going to have $20 gift cards). I’ve been asked if the gift card can buy food.

Admission and acknowledgement of one’s own position as an outsider with power does little to stave off the guilt that is ever present. My silence doesn’t get rid of my power or my ignorance, even if it ensures I do not harm through needless intervention. My presence is enough. Blankness, open-mindedness is not a synonym for invisibility. It is simply an illusion of self-protection from guilt.

One aspect of distributing surveys that I failed to take into account was the whole concept of a written survey. During the rare times when people refused to take a survey from me, I always presumed it was because they were cautious or afraid. ICE raids are up, they’ve been up for the past two years, so I thought that any fear or suspicion would be justified even if I wasn’t taking down anyone’s personal information. It wasn’t until I visited several churches, and saw pairs of churchgoers sitting side-by-side with one individual reading the questions out loud for the other, that I realized I was mistaken. When people said no to a survey without giving me a reason and I’d ask them if they were sure, I was presuming to know their situation, their fear. While the literacy rate in Mexico is upwards of 94%, the countries of El Salvador (88%), Guatemala (81.5%), and Honduras (89%) have some of the lowest literacy rates in Latin America. Most of the congregations I’d visited were from this area, which is called The Northern Triangle. So in that moment of realization, I justifiably felt guilty. I had assumed to know someone’s situation, and that is the greatest ignorance of all.

My assumptions, well meaning or not, had fueled my obliviousness. What I thought was open-mindedness and respect was rather a beneficent presumptiveness that still does harm. I am not entirely sure how to write about my ignorance in a way that is not disrespectful to the people of whose situation I am ignorant. Paradoxically, I feel that my ignorance and whatever harm it may have caused is what has made me a better researcher and a better potential immigration lawyer to-be, but I do not know how to objectively weigh these harms and benefits when I’m the one’s who benefiting. And I feel that doing so would be another act of assumption.

Alizeh Sheikh is a T’21 Undergraduate and has participated in Project Change, Team Kenan, and a 2018 Kenan Summer Research Fellow 

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