On experiential-based refugee campaigns & the performance of humanitarianism
Why must the experience be reconstructed, restaged, as isolated incidents all so that you can experience it through your body and consciousness? by Tania Cañas
Refugee campaigns that promote the opportunity to temporally occupy a minuscule segment of refugee, asylum seeker and ex-detainee lived experiences- within constructed, artificial recreations- are an exercise of privilege, not an act of solidarity.
Experiential-based campaigns rely on the philosophy of “standing in the shoes of a refugee” as a strategy which seeks to produce empathy, on behalf of refugees, by inviting or forcing individuals to experience part of the physical and emotional discomfort that refugees may experience. Examples include performances that use audience participation as a technique to recreate the limo of waiting upon an asylum claim or aspects of detention centres – for the audience to experience as part of the artistic performance.
As refugee week approaches a new campaign has appeared, the Ration Challenge, offering the opportunity to eat like a refugee for a week. The promotion will send you a kit with the exact same food rations a Syrian refugee receives and you will need to survive on the rations for a week, because, as the campaign suggest, “the way to a refugees’ heart is through your stomach”
Standing in the shoes of a refugee” is a fallacy that novelises our experiences.
Experimental-based campaigns that draw from the logic of “standing in the shoes of a refugee” are often the creation of white liberals in a misguided attempt to demonstrate solidarity. The fallacy draws its merit from a logic which argues a causational relationship between presenting temporary, constructed, sensorial experiences as an act of solidarity, empathy and critical understanding.
However, in centring the singular experience of the individual undertaking such a campaign, it actively silences the voices and experiences of the community going through the experience on a daily, ongoing basis.It exercises the privilege these bodies have in choosing to temporarily dwell within certain identities. The strategy also fails to provide a reflexive analysis of socio-political positionality,instead catering to the spectacle of the event, which ironically, through rations, actually feeds ego and self-appeasing consciousness rather than being a practice of consistent allyship.
In this way, such campaigns mask the systemic nature of contextual refugeeness. The strategy fetishizes and individualises the multitude of collective experiences of our community- packaging our entire, ongoing, real experiences,literally intobite-size, palatable novelties.
It privileges certain bodies and consciousness’s over others
Experimental-based approaches privileges the humanity, bodies and consciousness’s of certain bodies over others.Essentially such campaigns centre the white experience as lens and medium by which to measure the experiences of bodies considered ‘other’. They perpetuate a toxic, pervasive dynamic in which the suffering experienced by the ‘foreign’ body, needs to be translated, validated and legitimised through the white body.“Standing in the shoes of a refugee” thus premises the white body as the neutral unit of measurement- reiterating dominant discourse, norms and power-dynamics.
A recent example of this was provided by Norway’s Immigration Minister, who jumped into the Aegean Sea, donned in a full-body survival floatation suit. She remained in the water for several minutes before being hauled into the awaiting lifeboat, less than a meter away. All this, in an effort to understand the experience of refugees. Describing the incident as “special” the Minister further stated, “It must be absolutely terrible [for refugees].”
Questions about recreating scenarios aside, how does a slice of our experience tell you anything contextually meaningful outside of your singular sensorial moment? Occupying that identity, without the burden of actually carrying it, is offensive and problematic. Why must you stand in our shoes, jump in the ocean or eat rations for a week? Is the fact that these experiences exist; despite through ‘othered’ bodies, not enough? Why must the experience be reconstructed, restaged, as isolated incidents all so that you can experience it through your body and consciousness? Standing in the shoes of a refugee”, is thus the epistemological re-centring of bodies deemed more important. Essentially such campaigns become about you and your experience rather than developing your understanding of how to support self-determining processes.
It exercises your privilege to dwell
In the book Black Like Me (1961) journalist John Griffin recounts his journey as he travelled though the segregated south of the United Statesfor six weeks. Griffin was a white man who had his skin darkened to pass as a black man, stating “how else except by becoming a n****, could a white man hope to learn the truth?” concluding that “the best way to find out if we had second class citizens and what their plight was, would be to become one of them”
The entire premise of understanding refugeeness through momentary occupation, as this presumption by Griffin demonstrates, does not go as far as challenging your own positionality to exercise the privilege in the first place. The strategy acts instead as a way to manifest pervasive curiosity and uncritical good intent in the form of stranger fetishism. The individual knows they are not a refugee outside of the framed event and thus social roles, existing boundaries, essentialisms and reductionisms remain unchallenged.
It silences us
Campaigns based on the promotion of the experiential orientate itself as a compassionate, humanitarian act of helping ‘the refugee’, yet all the while affords no place for us. It is a discourse in which, precisely within the very inclusion process, remains inherently exclusionary. Such campaigns demonstrate the very voicelessness of our community is the effect of refugee discourse rather than the lack there of. It demonstrates the ways in which our visibilities are constructed and managed within the process of conditional inclusion.
Experiential-based campaigns market momentary, temporal, spatial occupation in a manner which fails to adequately frame these experiences within contextual, systemic understanding- all whilst legitimising the lens carried by privileged bodies. Ultimately campaigns such as the Ration Challenge, are an act of superficial solidarity, artificial advocacy and constructed compassion within a temporary performance of humanitarianism.