Making Room

Michael Onsando
26 September ,2017

When we force ourselves to fit within frames as defined by someone else there will always be spaces that we fail to fill. There will always be ways that we aren’t. Ways that we don’t measure up to the defined space – and others that we will be too much. It is with this knowledge. This is mostly because, when the frames are designed by someone else then all they have to work with is an external narrative of you. They see you from the outside and create indicators of good and bad based off the net result of whatever’s going in inside.

What does this mean though?

Violence is one of the best examples. In this age of nationalism we have seen leaders globally and locally use fear to drive people to very violent places. Because violence often comes from a narrative of self defense to incite to violence is often to make a case for insecurity and imbalance. If people feel under threat – they are more likely to act. And the things that make people feel threatened are often more abstract than solid. Like how Kenyans will “always have a kikuyu president.” Or how white police in the states are chanting “whose streets, our streets!”

When you are viewed through a lens that only sees you as a caricature of external results then you are unhumaned. Actions you take towards yourself can be seen as actions taken against another. In this way you’ll always have to question choosing yourself for the repercussions that are likely to come. I’d imagine this is how power works. In taking away your narrative, your experiences, your intentions and contexts your ability to make decisions is heavily impaired. Instead you find yourself running on the narrative that was given to you. The first questions becomes “how would this affect X” as opposed to “how do we do this?”

Perhaps this is why this word agency ends up being important. To maintain one’s agency is to insist on having control of your narrative – not necessarily of how your are perceived because to try and control that is an exercise in futility – but in how you perceive yourself. To make decisions towards yourself (or, at least, reach compromises that include your perspective).

The problem is that this assumes a balance of negotiation power. It assumes that everyone should be capable of sitting at the table and cohesively articulating their case. (Or, this solution is works perfectly for spherical horses in a vacuum.) And there are several problems with this. For this to work, first the space at the table must allow for a plurality of narratives – something I have written about here and here. Further we must begin by understanding that an imbalance of power means that not everyone has the space (or the confidence) to be as vocal. Especially for the people who are in the situation described. Living by rules as defined by others for a long period of time can often mean that you put yourself aside. How do you articulate what you need when you aren’t sure yourself? And how do you do this in spaces of negotiation when others, more certain, are pushing harder for their absolutes?

Maybe this would be easier to do if there wasn’t so much at stake. Afraid of being vulnerable, or our vulnerability being mishandled, we close up. And this makes sense, the people we can be vulnerable with are often the people who can hurt us the most. It’s in protecting ourselves that we find ourselves being the most violent (an odd circle isn’t it?)

Do no harm but take no shit.

There is no guarantee that in struggling for justice we ourselves will be just.

Ahmed, Living a Feminist Life.

In many ways, this becomes the struggle. Drawing strong parallels to a state’s right to self determination, including how messy it can become when begin to define what this self determination looks like we find ourselves question exactly what the face of freedom is. And how freedom and labour are intertwined (there is no absolute freedom from labour – the term for this is subjugation).

Maybe this is why mastery of self was placed above mastery of others in many cultures. In overcoming the things that plague you one can begin to see others clearer – as in their own stages of struggle and their own paths. Not necessarily to mean that one accepts their behavior but perhaps the approach will change. Maybe this is when we will be able to move away from  shutting others down and begin to allow others to operate – and engage with them – within their own frames. Within the paths they have chosen for themselves and within the narratives they have decided to pay respect to, highlighting the ways in which their narratives could be damaging to others while understanding that this internal narrative is born of circumstances, contexts.  And that these contexts are often born of lived experiences – grounded in pain, joy anger, love, sadness or whatever else. And that, when it comes down to it, we are all trying to unlearn things we have internalized about how to engage with each other and how to handle our vulnerabilities and the vulnerabilities of others.

Towards this, then, it seems choosing ourselves is the first step. For when we begin to chose ourselves we begin to see the ways in which others have been doing the chosing for us. And, in noticing this, perhaps we can step outside the frames defined by fear (of letting someone else down, of disappointment, of self destruction etc) and work towards creating the inclusive space that we would all like to live in.


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