January 27, 2011

Race and fieldwork: On not blending in

For my dissertation research, I need to observe public community meetings in my city. Usually, I just sit inconspicuously in the audience and quietly take notes. But I am finding that it's impossible to be inconspicuous when I travel to communities that have very few white people.

On Tuesday, I attended a meeting in a majority-black community, held at a black church. I was the only white person there, and even though I was dressed casually and not holding my notebook, I was immediately surrounded by officials and organizers who thought I was from the press. I said "No, I'm not with the media," and they asked, a little suspiciously, "Do you live here?"

"Um... no..."

I explained that I was a student, there to observe the event for a research project. Fortunately, when they heard "student" everyone responded very positively. They welcomed me and promised to help me however they could. One of the members gave me a little motivational speech about how I should keep following my dreams. Another gave me her home, office, and cell phone number so that I could call her with any questions I had for my project. They gave me candy, a membership form to join their group, and a ride back to the train station when the event was over. All night, people introduced themselves, asked if I was a journalist, and then encouraged me to join the group.

I felt overwhelmed and very thankful that they were so kind to me. They could have easily been annoyed that a white person from a different neighborhood showed up to watch them, but they were effusively welcoming. Researchers hope to blend in when they observe events, but getting warm offers of help and access is definitely not a bad thing.

Tonight, I went to a public meeting in a different majority-black neighborhood. When I arrived, they asked if I was a city official. "Oh no, I'm just here to watch." Are you from the media or something? "No, I'm not from the media." They seemed content with this answer, and then I walked in and sat with the other audience members.

I felt like I was lying just a little -- but I'm really not a journalist, so I told the truth. And if any of my observations make it into my dissertation, no identifiable details will be used. Also, it was a public meeting, and I saw a real journalist, so it's not like I was observing something meant to be private. But when people tried to figure out why I was there, I implied that I was a resident when I wasn't, so that made me feel dishonest. I just didn't want to go into it.

At both of these meetings, I walked in with many other people who were simply invited to sign in -- so it's not like they were asking everyone if they were from the Tribune. They only asked me. So apparently, I don't blend in very well in black neighborhoods. I knew I would be a minority in these communities, but it's not like these neighborhoods have zero white people. I could conceivably be a resident, so I thought I could just sit in the back and nobody would notice me. But apparently everyone notices me -- and I don't look like I live there.


  • Interesting to hear about your observations. I think that this probably happens more often than we realise..and will happen as people increasingly move to other parts of the world to live and work. But at the same time I think it needn't be race ..it could be having a different accent, using a different vocabulary, wearing radically different style of clothes, etc. The list is really quite endless.

    By Anonymous Anthea, at 1/28/11, 2:27 AM  

  • Yeah, a lot of things can make us more obvious than we'd like in the field. I've been more conscious of my clothes after these experiences, and I also wonder if when I walk in I'm inadvertently looking around like I'm a researcher or a journalist... and these things might interact with race to make people think "she's not a resident."

    By Blogger Di Di, at 1/28/11, 4:11 PM  

  • I'm planning on using this to my advantage in Kenya. My teacher was just killed and he had been arranging everything for me. I now have tons of scheduled meetings but no itinerary or way to know what has been scheduled.

    I'm gonna hang out in the middle of town and hope that the people who I'm supposed to be meeting with notice me: I'll be the white woman in town. Shouldn't be too hard, right?

    By Blogger Inksster, at 1/30/11, 11:54 PM  

  • Inksster, I'm so sorry about what happened to your teacher. I saw this on Facebook and started to write you a couple of times but deleted it because I didn't know what to say about something so awful. I can't imagine how devastating and difficult it must be, to be coping with the loss and having to work everything out on your own. Hopefully good people will help you every step of the way. Let me know if there's anything I can do -- I know there probably isn't, but if there is.

    By Blogger Di Di, at 2/1/11, 1:45 AM  

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