Although the field of critical qualitative inquiry is saturated with literature on methodologies and theoretical orientations, there is less scholarship that explores the dynamics that prevail when women of color conduct critical qualitative inquiry with participants who share their identities. Using scholarly personal narrative (SNP), our project examines the intricacies of kinship found between women of color researchers and their research participants. More specifically, this article presents narratives of an African American scholar, a British Pakistani immigrant scholar, and two Latina (Mexican) immigrant scholars who explore dilemmas and rewards that surfaced in our research within our individual communities.
How does one understand the “other” when she is the “other” and few have been able to articulate a definition of “other” that is acceptable to her and from which she can begin the understanding process?1
We are four women of color who individually conducted feminist critical qualitative inquiry with participants who shared our respective races and gender. In the present work, we examine this intricate phenomenon, guided by the question quoted in the epigraph: How did we seek to understand the other when she, in many ways, is the other?2 Answering this question demanded that we position ourselves within the research to determine ways our identities influenced each aspect of the research process. By doing so, we exposed our subjectivities and acknowledged that our identities as researchers matter to the research, situating our work firmly within the nonpositivistic research paradigm. We reflected on our varied approaches to qualitative inquiry to identify ways we conformed to and diverged from conventional institutional practices. We accomplished these aims using scholarly personal narrative (SPN). Through SPN, researchers rely upon the power of personal storytelling to create knowledge and meaning.3 This narrative approach operates on the premise that researchers' research experiences are worthwhile objects of examination.4 SPN combines “scholarship, personal stories, and universalizable themes in a seamless manner” with the goal of impacting both writer and reader, both individual and community.5 This essay, then, is a collection of our scholarly personal narratives and is centered around a central line of inquiry articulated by Sofia Villenas: “What happens when members of low-status and marginalized groups become university-sanctioned ‘native’ ethnographers of their own communities?”6 In the next section, we explore extant scholarship on this topic.
REVIEW OF LITERATURE
Women of color scholars who engage in scholarly reflexivity about their qualitative inquiry into the lives of other women of color from their own communities mainly examine the same complex issues we do in this essay: identity, positionality, and reciprocity. Villenas reasoned that qualitative researchers who are members of marginalized groups can potentially be both the colonizer and the colonized, a dilemma requiring close examination of positionality, privilege, and power.7 In a similar manner, Valli Kalei Kanuha explored what it means to cross boundaries between being an insider-outsider and a subject-object in research with her “own kind,” defined as identity groups with whom she shares “historical, social, and ideological affiliation.”8 She described maintaining her role as a researcher in the face of personal subject matter that paralleled her own experiences as “the most profound methodological process” she had to learn as a research insider.9 Having to maintain research boundaries with people with whom she had a natural affinity resulted in what she called “artificial officiousness.”10
Although the insider role offers several advantages it can come with challenges as well. Roni Berger's reflexive work revealed that Berger, as an insider, struggled with determining how much to disclose about her personal migration story.11 After realizing that her hesitance to share her experiences with participants stemmed from her own need for self-protection, she began to increasingly respond to participants' requests for details about her own immigration experience, resulting in deeper and more intimate stories from participants. April L. Few, Dionne P. Stephens, and Mario Rouse-Arnett suggested that accountability is central to their scholarship because women of color researchers are “privileged to be the conduits” of their communities' experiences through their relative insider status.12 Moreover, they must also be cautious not to reinforce negative and problematic stereotypes of their communities to the academic and nonacademic world through their engagement with participants and their representation of their experiences in scholarship. Nadia E. Brown reported that her research participants—black female members of the Maryland General Assembly—became her “other mothers” who offered her personal and professional assistance beyond her scope of research.13
Priscilla Gibson and Laura Abrams selected three aspects of the research process with African American women and examined the influence of their races on these research tasks—engaging, recruiting, and interviewing.14 They found that their racial backgrounds vastly affected all three areas with the most distinct being interviewing: Research participants tailored their speech to fit the cross-cultural context when interviewing with the different-race interviewer, suggesting that participants were able to be more authentic with the same-race interviewer.15
Maxine Baca Zinn provided a unique and singular perspective on how she addressed the imbalance of her relationship with her participants.16 During her fieldwork, she found herself engaging with her participants in non-research-related matters because she wanted them to acquire something tangible from their research relationship. For Zinn, reciprocity took various forms, such as listening to their concerns, providing advice when it was asked for, helping their children with schoolwork, and performing duties as chairperson of the parent group. Notably, Zinn suggested that engaging with her informants in non-research-related issues may not always have advanced her research at that point in time and, indeed, at times may have placed her in a precarious position with her research institution; nonetheless, this did not deter her from fulfilling her responsibility to her participants.
Though our essay continues in this trajectory—probing our identities and positionalities—our project is distinctive in its in-depth examination of the emotional labor demanded by such work, our decolonizing language practices, and the ethical dilemmas that challenged formal institutional protocols. We describe the work we did as Women of Color Intimate Research (WOCIR). The subsequent narratives evince this type of feminist critical qualitative inquiry. Following the narratives is our conceptualization of WOCIR.
MONICA'S NARRATIVE: ON EXPERIENCING
One thing I urge you to do when you are reading and writing is to figure out, literally, where your feet stand … for whom are you speaking?17
I began my research project with undocumented Mexican women doing domestic labor in Texas with two main questions in mind. First, I wanted to know the ways Mexican immigrant women were constituted as illegal subjects. Second, I wanted to explore the effects of deportability on the family and working lives of these women. These research questions implicitly assumed that these women were illegal subjects and that for them deportability was central to how they lived their lives. It gradually became clear to me that to approach my research in this way would be to perpetrate a “kind of epistemic violence”18 that would only serve to erase what is true about their experiences. In quoting Gloria Anzaldúa in the epigraph for this narrative, I remind myself that, to avoid becoming an agent of the discursive power of immigration law and of ethnographic objectification, I must know for whom I speak. Thus, to begin to capture the complexities of their social worlds and to present a clearer picture of who these immigrant women are, the first task was to elucidate where I stood in relation to them. The second was to select a framework that would allow me to analyze their experiences as they told them. To that end, I utilized narrative analysis,19 a method rooted in the sociological tradition of symbolic interactionism. Proponents of this analytical framework argue that narratives are the sites where women make their experiences meaningful.20 In addition, scholars of this tradition argue that narratives are not only representational; they are also constitutive of identity.21 In the following sections I discuss my positionality as a feminist sister-scholar and how my work with Mexican women and my own experiences led me to embrace an ontology of experience as a way of knowing.
My Position as a Feminist Sister-Scholar
As Jill A. McCorkel and Kristen Myers write, “the researcher's positionality affects all aspects of the research process”22—from research questions to the management and presentation of data. They contend that while feminist standpoint theorists23 have provided us with crucial frameworks and methodologies to better understand the dynamics of identity and knowledge production, mainstream sociology has not seriously engaged with the theoretical and methodological implications of these theorists' contributions. McCorkel and Myers suggest that this reluctance may stem from the belief that dealing with these issues might open the door to bias and subjectivity,24 which in academic circles are overwhelmingly construed as antithetical to legitimate knowledge. As feminist scholars, however, we must critically examine our relationship with the subjects of our research and the positions we occupy in the academy if we are to disrupt the perpetuation of systems of differentiation and oppression that are involved in the creation of knowledge about people of color.
As an immigrant woman from Mexico in the United States, I have lived through many of the same situations the research participants said they experienced. I, like them, migrated to the United States at a time when the southern border was being increasingly militarized and tightly controlled.25 Both the research participants and myself migrated at some point during the 1990s, when the United States began to converge civil immigration law with criminal law, which had profound implications not only for border, but also for interior social control.26 To illustrate, most of the research participants who had migrated since the 1990s, had not visited Mexico since they first came to the United States due to the increasingly expensive, violent, and uncertain nature of border crossings. I, like the research participants, experienced the constraints of an immigration regime that for years set the conditions of possibility for my existence. In this sense, and consistent with Linda M. Alcoff's insights,27 doing research with women with whom I shared the same ethnicity, culture, language, and, in some important ways, immigration experiences, allowed me to understand the nuances and complexities of their experiences and to avoid the dangerous homogenization that so often occurs in academic research.
Being a Mexican woman who spoke their language and could navigate the peculiarities of the culture undoubtedly made the issue of access to this population easier. Perhaps, as Freyca notes in this essay, the mere fact of being a Mexican, and not a Mexican American woman in the United States, helped establish an instant and special connection between myself and the participants.
As I listened to the women and transcribed the interviews, it became increasingly clear the overwhelming sense of entrapment all of these women felt living in the United States without papers. Although these feelings were not always clearly articulated, they were usually palpable. Alcoff argued that one of the benefits of the researcher being part of the group being researched is that the researcher's social location may positively affect the focus and interpretation of what she identifies.28 Thus, having experienced the lack of job opportunities for older women, strict gender norms, deficient public schools, fear of violence, and cultural imperatives that shape what women can and cannot do in Mexico, I understood the ways the research participants may have felt hopelessly trapped in the United States. As I analyzed the narratives, it became evident that these women's personal predicaments had various origins, and while the condition of “immigrant illegality” exacerbated them, for many of these women, being undocumented in the United States was not the only source of fear and anxiety.
To understand the social and emotional complexities of these women's lives, I followed Anzaldúa's call to immerse myself in their worlds emotionally and intellectually29 and, through this immersion, understood that for these women, as for myself, their experiences were the site of their ways of knowing.
Listening with an Open Heart
As I abandoned my initial assumptions and allowed the women themselves to guide me,30 I trusted that they would ultimately tell me what was important to them. Relying on a narrative analysis framework,31 I realized, from the first few interviews, that religion was a very important aspect of their lives. Interestingly, nothing in the sociological scholarship on immigration and religion suggested what I would learn from the research participants, as this scholarship has focused on the diversity of immigrant congregations,32 the role of the church in the provision of social services,33 immigrant incorporation into mainstream American society, and so on.34 In talking to the women, I noticed the different ways Mexican immigrant women used religion and religious beliefs to navigate the boundaries of their “existence” and “exercise”35 imposed by the processes of illegalization. For these women, in addition to going to church, religiosity was a subjective reality firmly embedded in the contingencies of everyday life.
For instance, Maria, a 43-year-old woman, was faced with the task of raising a child on her own soon after migrating to the United States. After she learned that her husband had been unfaithful, she decided to get a divorce. During a period of great uncertainty, Maria arrived at an important realization. After a few sessions at a Charismatic Prayer and Life workshop that she began attending subsequent to her divorce, Maria realized that she need not worry any more that her child would grow up without a father. She came to believe that her daughter already had the father she needed. That father was God.
Listening to Maria with an open mind and an open heart36 allowed me to learn this fact about Maria's life and to understand how individuals pragmatically choose the meanings that fit their life circumstances that may help them achieve their goals. For instance, Maria said that being a volunteer at the Charismatic Prayer and Life group was very helpful because when “she took care of the things that are God's,” she felt no fear. Adapting this belief to her life circumstances allowed Maria to become brave and take risks, such as driving without a driver's license.
My research project began with questions that reflected the prevalent understandings of undocumented Mexican immigrants in the immigration scholarship. As I pursued this project, I shifted my approach to one that would allow me to practice emotionally engaged research.37 Being emotionally engaged is paramount in the type of work we do because, as Erika Fisher notes, as qualitative scholars who study lived experience, we are allowed into the most personal and vulnerable parts of participants' lives.38 This type of scholarship requires not only privileging the voices and the experiences of vulnerable women, but also the task of immersing oneself in a research journey that involves “a lot of emotional work.”39 This type of research endeavor, as Jodi O'Brien suggests, has the potential to radically alter our sociological understanding of vulnerable populations.40
ALTHERIA'S NARRATIVE: SISTERHOOD AND SOLIDARITY
and I really hope no white person ever has cause
to write about me
because they never understand41
My project was designed to present a more complete picture of African American womanhood by gaining insight about black women's lived experiences from the perspective of African American single mothers.42 In essence, I wanted to give single African American mothers an opportunity to teach others about how they experience African American womanhood and motherhood. I entered this project with a central belief that racism, sexism, and capitalism are not discrete arteries individually transporting injustice; instead, each manner of oppression bleeds heavily into each other, creating an interconnected system that distinctly wounds black women. I wanted to reveal how black single mothers are simultaneously and distinctly marginalized by this intersecting system.43 I selected life history research methodology44 because it allowed me to deeply examine life situated within the sociocultural-political context. With the goal of explaining the ways black women experience oppression as a result of intersecting oppressions, black feminist theory as a critical social theory was the ideal theoretical construct for my study.
I felt particularly well-suited to conduct this study because I was an insider who lived black womanhood. As the speaker in “Nikki-Rosa” professed in the poetic lines quoted in the epigraph to this narrative, I believed that in most cases white academics are outsiders who “never understand” the lives of black people who are poor. Like the three women in my study, my Mama was an unmarried teenage mother who suffered from the effects of poverty. I knew this life as a child. I would now seek to understand it as an adult, in a way that a white researcher couldn't. Despite my connetion to the topic, and sometimes because of it, the project presented complexities worth examining.
Are Sisters Really the Same?
Though the participants and I were African American women, I saw myself as different. In fact, they—single African American mothers who used government assistance—represented everything that I had worked hard to escape and prevent. Without intending to do so, I had positioned the participants as “others.” I was careful to not create a hierarchy where I was positioned at the top as the acceptable African American woman—educated, married, with no children—and they were the unacceptable at the bottom—uneducated, unmarried mothers. I had long before refuted politics of respectability, a term coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham to describe the policing of African American womanhood.45 Politics of respectability (or respectability politics) insist that African American women are polite, pristine, and pure, thereby deserving of respect, namely white respect.
Additionally, I could not conduct this research without recognizing our differences in socioeconomic status. I considered myself middle class even though I was a full-time graduate student. My husband was able to support our household while I attended a private university. On the other hand, my participants were impoverished single mothers. I turned to Audre Lorde's work for direction. Lorde, who consistently emphasized the need to acknowledge differences within black feminism, offered the following about class differences: “Unacknowledged class differences rob women of each other's energy and creative insight.”46 Similarly, Kimberle Crenshaw expressed the importance of recognizing distinctions beyond race and gender: “The problem with identity politics is not that it fails to transcend difference, as some critics charge, but rather the opposite—that it frequently conflates or ignores intragroup differences.”47 These differences allowed participants a unique standpoint from which to see and experience the world. In fact, these differences—their motherhood and socioeconomic status—surfaced as defining elements of their black womanhood.
Sister-Friends: Overlapping Identities
Despite these differences, as our relationship developed, our shared identity as African American women became evident. From our first interviews, our time together began and ended with hugs and smiles. We had immediately become sister-friends. This bond was established through mutual sharing of experiences. I was surprised by their interest in learning about my life. Their questions and my responses upended institutional expectations of only participants being story-givers. In a display of unintended shared authority, participants became researchers themselves with questions of their own. I had planned to evoke stories, not share stories, but when they asked, I answered, albeit reluctantly at first. We talked about our intimate relationship struggles, our mothers, and more. I, too, became vulnerable, and this vulnerability was part of what made us sister-friends.
We became so close, in fact, that it became difficult to separate my identity as a researcher from my identity as their sister-friend. I embodied them both, sometimes simultaneously. On several occasions, like when I bought groceries for a participant and her children who didn't have food, I questioned where the boundary was and if I had crossed it. Without a doubt, the line between researcher and sister-friend was blurred as I inhabited two worlds at one time. Anzaldúa's theorizing about identity helped me to make sense of these overlapping, or intersecting, identities. Anzaldúa staunchly rejected compartmentalization and fragmentation of her identity.48 I, too, refuted this fragmentation. Throughout this project, I had to exhibit flexibility and malleability in order to be who and what the participants needed me to be.49 I agreed with Anzaldúa: “For me there aren't little cubby-holes with all the different identities.”50 As sister-friends, we laughed about failed relationships, watched natural hair videos, and played with their children. This sister-friendship helped me to understand the participants in ways I would not have as a distant observer. Our closeness erased any inclination I initially had to see them as “others” and prevented me from forcing them into stereotypes.
Even though I knew this project would be intellectually rigorous, I was not prepared for the emotional investment it demanded. Having conducted prior ethnographic research, I expected to hear difficult stories that touched me emotionally, but when conducting research with sister-friends, I felt a range of emotions unique to this experience: fear, overwhelming sadness, guilt, ambivalence, and occasional bouts of anger. Three of the most poignant were fear, sadness, and ambivalence.
At the project's onset, I was fearful about what I might find. What if the data revealed that the stereotypes and portrayals of African American single mothers were true—that they are irresponsible, man-hating, promiscuous, and lacking in ambition? What if my project contributed to the mischaracterization of black single mothers? Then there was sadness. As I prepared to observe a participant in her home, I learned that she was locked out of her house for nonpayment of rent. Witnessing her struggle to find an immediate solution to her housing situation caused me deep sadness. Hearing stories of rape, molestation, and domestic violence was devastating. Though they varied in their degree of struggle, the participants' burdens weighed me down. In fact, after one particularly tough interview, I arrived at the hotel where I was staying and could not physically get out of the car. I felt paralyzed by grief.
Two situations put me in a position to question whether I should violate the confidentiality agreement and betray the trust of my now sister-friends because of what might have been perceived as neglect. This ambivalence took several days to resolve. In both cases, I decided that the situations were not severe enough to warrant being labeled neglect. The word neglect itself reflects judgment imposed upon mothers by those in positions of power. The women did not fail to provide for their children; they experienced an inability to provide for their children. Still, in future work with parents or caregivers, I feel that I must follow Fisher's guidance to explicitly state “that confidentiality will be broken under particular circumstances.”51
Beyond Ethical Practices: Caring for Sister-Friends
Since this project might have been described as threatening, defined as research that “intrudes into the private sphere or delves into some deeply personal experience,” I was intentional about exercising care.52 My commitment to caring for these participants extended beyond the recommended ethical practical for qualitative researchers who study vulnerable populations. My care was rooted in my own lived experience as a daughter of an African American single mother who used government assistance and my growing up in communities with these women. Caring for sister-friends mainly entailed creating an environment of emotional, physical, and political safety and well-being.53 Participants selected a private place for interviews, mainly their homes; they were reminded that they could end the interview at any time for any reason; they were invited to review interview transcripts to make sure their words reflected their intent; and they were made aware of their option to rescind their data any time before publication.
Care also showed in my attention to the language I used. Gail Crimmins cautioned, “Narrative researchers need to carefully consider if and how they might represent the words and worlds of people/s who do not yet have the power or capacity to make their narrative experience known.”54 Realizing the power of my words, I shifted from describing the participants in deficit terms—changing from poor to impoverished to draw attention to societal structures that make it difficult for them to provide for their children. In earlier versions of my essay, I characterized them as depending on government assistance as opposed to using government assistance in recognition of the fact that they were not solely dependent on these resources.
Retrospectively, I feel that I should have taken additional steps to demonstrate care and respect. Based on the “4 Ps” framework for a culturally safe research project—partnership, participation, protection, and power55—I later devised the following questions that I plan to use in any future research with black women and girls:
How can I make you feel safe during and after this study?
How can I make sure that your voice is heard when I'm writing about your life?
What do you expect of me during and after interviews and observations?
What would you like me to do with the knowledge you'll share with me?
What would you like to see happen as a result of this study?
What other ways would you like to participate in this study?
These questions will help ensure that participants feel included, respected, and secure enough to trust me and what I will do with the information they share.56
SANA'S NARRATIVE: “WHERE DOES THE PAIN GO WHEN IT GOES AWAY?”
And in the university, that is certainly no easy task, for each one of you by virtue of your being here will be deluged by opportunities to misname yourselves, to forget who you are, to forget where your real interests lie. Make no mistake, you will be courted; and nothing neutralizes creativity quicker than tokenism.58
Research with British South Asian Muslim59 women is static, typically focusing on forced/arranged marriages, kinship systems,60,izzat (honor),61 the “myth of return” to their country of origin,62 structural disadvantage, material deprivation,63 and the dilemmas of identity of British-born Muslim girls.64 Fauzia Ahmad suggests that this has led to a “fixed set of competing reductive problematizing discourses” about British Muslim women, even among those academics self-identifying as insiders to their participants' experiences.65
I was also cautious of echoing institutional language within my own research with British South Asian Muslim mothers of disabled children. This cautiousness has been a gradual realization as I often felt discontentment that I was becoming an institutional tool with each research project I conducted. I was reminded of Lorde's warning that, as university academics, we are constantly compelled to realign how we think, moving us away from our original research interests.66
In line with feminist ethics, I had to acknowledge and be honest about my background with my participants. While we shared some common overarching values that emanate from belonging to the Pakistani community, such as strong family ties, religion, the importance of hospitality, and our love of Pakistani food, I differed from my participants in terms of the languages we spoke at home, the extent to which I benefited from a less patriarchal and more coequal culture at home, my level of education and association with a research-intensive university, and the fact that I was a British Pakistani mother of a child without any disabilities. My participants were women from low socioeconomic backgrounds, many of whom had transnational arranged marriages or lived within patriarchal British Pakistani immigrant communities, who had stories to tell about their lived experiences. With each interview, I became closer to my participants' worldview. As Altheria highlights, merely following an institutional ethics checklist is insufficient.67 I struggled to maintain my identity as a researcher and a didi or baji (sister-friend) to my participants; merely sharing stories to reciprocate my participants' confidence felt inadequate. For instance, my sympathetic ear would not help Tahira, the mother of a child with profound disabilities married to an individual with learning disabilities, who also cared for two nondisabled children and two aging and abusive parents-in-law. In our final interview, Tahira disclosed she was being investigated by authorities:
We were painting our home, the kerosene was in a plastic bottle.… I was distracted, I didn't look before drinking. I thought it was water.… They [professionals] asked me, “Did you drink it intentionally?”… I experience difficulty, but that doesn't mean I drank it intentionally.
I felt that my Western-rooted feminism was falling short of emancipation and creating real change; I asked myself, Who am I liberating? What if Tahira really had been attempting suicide? How should I report this in my research? Tahira's experiences epitomized professional oversight that measures mothering using dysfunctionality. Although social workers ultimately concluded that Tahira's mental health did not endanger her children, they left her to look after two family members with disabilities single-handedly without providing extra support. I left the interview believing her but feeling powerless; Tahira had revealed her vulnerability, yet all I could offer her was my sympathy and signpost her to local support groups. Like Altheria, hearing stories of abuse, hopelessness, and mothering guilt was paralyzing. I was absolved from reporting Tahira since an investigation was underway, but what if my testimony was required as evidence against my sister-friend? What would feminist methodology advocate? Strangely, I felt validated by listening to my participants because they were speaking to some of my experiences of racism, misogyny, and mothering guilt; yet I needed their accounts to disseminate these concerns within my research. This contrasts with long-established claims by feminist researchers that they give “voice” to participants, thereby empowering women.68 Few, Stephens, and Rouse-Arnett suggest that for women of color researching other women of color, accountability and contextualization within the research process is vital to engage in consciousness-raising research.69 This is complex because accountability is imperative to our roles as researchers and sister-friends, despite the latter being unacknowledged by our institutions. This invisible emotional labor questions whether our research is worth the trauma experienced by our participants and ourselves.70 To answer Gloria Joseph's question, “Where does the pain go when it goes away?” the distress within my sister-friends' stories does not dissipate, but occupies an intangible space of conflict that must be legitimized. Echoing Lorde's words, as women of color we must “consciously study how to be tender with each other until it becomes a habit because what was native has been stolen from us.… [This is the] first step toward genuine change.”71
“Doing” Activist-Oriented Research
As scholars, we are conditioned to produce knowledge based on masculine or white feminist frameworks that risks internalizing oppression, impeding our own liberation.72 Numerous studies have utilized frameworks that challenge how knowledge is produced. For instance, Latina feminists have employed testimonio to analyze experiences of institutional and personal violence, and imperialism.73 Consequently, I engaged with intersectionality74 as a theoretical framework to understand my participants' experiences and how they resisted mainstream narratives. Patricia Hill Collins and Sirma Bilge argue that intersectionality has been colonized by mainstream white academics who generate self-indulgent “white guilt,” weakening its roots within feminist praxis.75 Intersectionality must be reclaimed by women of color scholars who are committed to intersectional praxis. Collins and Bilge suggest that feminist theorists must include those participant experiences excluded from mainstream literature and must challenge the norms that presume to theorize their participants' experiences.
The intersectional approach became central to how I understood my participants' experiences. I could no longer write about aspects that were central to their multiple positionalities as a background to the main issues presented within existing research. Rather, I had to discuss religion, immigrant history, gender, and culture as the most significant aspects that affected their mothering. For instance, mainstream literature has only considered religion as an impediment to Muslim mothers. However, in my research, religion was central to my participants' identities, serving as a frame of reference through which they positively articulated their experiences. For instance, Parveen was a mother who had suffered child bereavement:
As I see it, a gardener tends his garden but he must trim the plants.… If those plants called him cruel and started arguing for their place in the garden, they only see their own situation, not what the whole garden needs.… Only the gardener views the whole garden, and he doesn't want his garden damaged.
Parveen's progressive religious framework for navigating her child's death contrasts with how mainstream literature theorizes grief through the five stages of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's Model of Grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance.76 Parveen displayed a remarkable lack of bitterness, suggesting her daughter's death was inevitable considering her prognosis; she also made peace with her daughter's death in a religious sense, believing it served a higher purpose and should not shake her faith. By utilizing intersectionality, I illustrated how a factor previously regarded as problematic could become a site for transformation, challenging how disability and grief is theorized within mainstream literature.
Another meaningful approach when researching with women of color is to consider ways of creating a practical difference in their lives. As women of color academics, we are the gateways to investigating minority experiences for our institutions; however, if our research is detached from activism, we risk perpetuating oppression toward participants. I recognized early on that my research did not offer tangible benefits to my participants; my research would not pay their bills, perform physical labor, or help provide food. I needed to help my sister-friends in nonacademic ways, setting my own standards for ethical conduct. For instance, I helped enroll Tahira in a free-of-cost English language course conducted during her children's school day for her convenience; I contacted the municipal council to inquire about language schools close to Tahira's home (since she did not drive). I helped another participant, Alina, to prepare an appeal for better provisions for her son with autism; she had limited access to government funds due to her immigrant status.
My department occasionally reminded me not to overreach and to remember my research aims. However, I could not sit in my participants' homes, merely listening to stories of hardship; I wanted to honor the privilege of being invited to hear these mothers' personal stories. Collins and Bilge suggest we must recognize our research is not the primary goal, but only a means of empowering and transforming participants' lives.77 Activist research takes many creative forms, from organizing workshops to writing appeal letters to arranging food parcels—anything that creates real, positive change. Although working within our community may cause trauma, nonetheless, reaching out is liberating for both participants and ourselves as researchers.
FREYCA'S NARRATIVE: LATINA IMMIGRANT MOTHERS
By creating a new mythos—that is, a change in the way we perceive reality, the way we see ourselves, and the ways we behave—la mestiza creates a new consciousness.78
Who Am I as a Researcher?
The question of who I am chases me continually at a personal, professional, intellectual, and academic level, among others. As a transnational woman, I am constantly crossing borders to the point that it has become part of who I am. I am a woman, a Mexican, a professor at a predominantly white institution in central Pennsylvania, a Latina, an immigrant, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a friend, a colleague, an activist, and more. Each one of these identities entails different characteristics, different parts of me; some overlap, inform, or complement one another. Having all these roles has led me to develop or shape particular identities for them. However, these identities embody diverse aspects of me that cannot be separated, divided, or seen individually. Thus, they can be better understood through intersectionality theory,79 which helped me not only to make sense of my various identities, but also to comprehend the positionality that each of those identities has embedded, and how it influences my performance in each role. This understanding is pivotal when conducting research within our own groups, whether cultural, social, political, or professional realms. As a researcher, I need to question my identity, membership, and positionality and juxtapose them with those of the participants as it might influence the interpretation process. Here, I reflect on my experience of conducting research with participants whose experiences, in many ways, resembled my personal experience as a Latina immigrant mother, yet each one had something unique to contribute to the research study.
The Insider/Outsider Dichotomy
When conducting narrative research, scholars advise that a key aspect to consider is the relationship between the researcher and participants.80 They suggest that the researcher is to establish a relationship with potential participants and spend a long time with them to develop a trust that allows for personal conversations. Depending on the type of study, other scholars, such as Gloria González-López,81 did not spend a long time with them and used a different term: informants. Personally, I never considered the term “informants.” I think it implies a more distant relationship and a very distinct position between the researcher and the researched. I always see my participants as Latina immigrant women, just like me, sharing their life experiences with me. I see parts of me in them and their stories, in the same way that they could identify with or relate to my experiences. Furthermore, scholars such as Villenas,82 Lisa J. Cary,83 Susan Matoba Adler,84 and González-López85 have explored their own experiences in regard to the insider/outsider, colonized/colonizer dichotomies as the researcher's positionality. Drawing upon these works, I reflect on my experience as a Latina immigrant mother working with Latina immigrant mothers.
Being a Latina immigrant myself automatically made me an insider. Sharing that commonality provided me easy access to potential participants and facilitated gaining trust through shared language and culture. My position as an insider was almost never questioned by me, my participants, or the people who referred me to the potential participants. Even though I met some of my participants at the moment of the interview, whether our initial contact was by email or phone, we established rapport nearly immediately. There is something about being Latina in the United States that helps to form an instant and special connection with other Latinas. Some of my participants were introduced to me for the first time by a common acquaintance. However, as soon as we began the conversation, there was an immediate affinity between us. It is hard for me to describe the level of trust that we developed in such a short period of time. Our conversations flowed so smoothly and easily that sometimes I did not even need the interview protocol to keep the conversation going. I was surprised to identify personally with so many situations that these women shared with me. At times, it was as if they were telling my own story with different names and at another place. That was one of the factors that facilitated the empathy and understanding that we established during our conversations. Another key element for creating such a bond, and one that is very significant to this study, is the shared language. As some participants indicated, the fact that the interviews were conducted in Spanish was in some cases even a condition for agreeing to participate in the study. While they are all bilingual, if they were to share their experiences, they needed to be able to express them in their native language. Most of them expressed that had I said the interview was going to be in English, they would have declined to be interviewed. Hence, language was also another means to solidify my position as an insider.
Although my professional identity as researcher and my personal identity as a Latina immigrant mother were intensely intertwined during my study, my positionality differed between these identities. As a Latina immigrant mother, I was an insider and identified with my participants in experiencing the colonizing practices of the dominant culture, positioning myself as colonized alongside them. Contrariwise, as a researcher I have to embrace the colonizing practices embedded in academia and follow the systemic institutional structures of research in education, along with Institutional Review Board (IRB) ethics. This positionality was easy at the beginning of the research process when identifying, contacting, and interviewing participants. However, any strong connections had to disperse when I needed to give space to the academic voice; as mandated by academic rules in knowledge production, I had to be the outsider (colonizer) and allow this mentality to replace my insider (colonized) positionality. Being a researcher requires a temporary separation from my connection as an insider and an attempt to become an outsider in order to look at the study clearly and from a professional distance. This process is not easy, and less so without mentoring support. How can I embody a colonizer positionality as researcher when I cannot distance myself from being part of the minoritized group represented in the study? How can I be aware of my personal bias and maintain research objectivity and researcher subjectivity? How can I be intellectually rigorous, academically relevant, and at the same time maintain solidarity with my fellow Latina immigrant mothers? How can I reconcile my conscience and discard the “maquiladora syndrome”?86
In or Out/Us or Them? The Representation Dilemma
As mentioned earlier, my professional and personal identities are intertwined. Recognizing myself as part of the collective group I was trying to portray implies my strong and inherent identification with this part of the population and exposes my bias and sympathies toward the participants. The complicit role of the subject never leaves the self when it shifts to the role of the researcher. The intersubjectivity that both of these positions bring to the analysis is what enhanced the research process. To embrace each of these distinct positionalities, I had to embody the theoretical framework I used for my study and through which I analyzed the data. Such embodiment transformed me into a New Mestiza and a Nepantlera, two key conceptualizations developed by Anzaldúa.87 By embodying these two notions, I was able to critically reflect on my own personal experiences and question my responsibility and commitment to the participants—as part of the group that I want to represent and, at the same time, the one to which I belong. Yet, the constraints of completing an impeccable scholarly work to demonstrate I had fulfilled the requirements of academia and deserve to attain a doctoral degree still positioned me at a different place from them—a place that somehow entails power and privilege, and allies me with the colonizer or outsider. Negotiating these conflicting identities under the lenses of the theoretical and methodological framework pointed me to the use of testimonio to theorize about participants' narratives while allowing me to include my own insider story in the analysis. Using testimonio as an epistemology was a key component in theorizing about personal experiences of struggle, survival, resistance, and subjectivity and, through that, seeking solidarity with readers or audience, as it carries a political intent with a call for action to bring about social change. The embodiment of the theory and the use of testimonio allowed me to become the New Mestiza who creates new consciousness through the creation of a new mythos, one that situates Latina mothers as educators, as creators of a cultural curriculum of the home.
Similar to Monica's, and Sana's experiences with their participants, mine was one of empathy, interconnectivity, community, and solidarity, despite all of the difficulties and misadventures encountered in this foreign land. In testimonio, I found a means to give back to my participants and other fellow Latina immigrant mothers. Not only as a woman of color but, more specifically, as a Latina woman in academia, I feel the responsibility and commitment to be an activist in disrupting the stereotypes and prejudice against Latina women. Testimonio allowed me to contribute to unveil the magnificent resilience behind immigrant women that left their home country pursuing “the American dream,” the courage to keep their culture alive, and the legitimacy their mothering practices deserve. Testimonio as methodology validates participants as the holders of knowledge88 that disrupts the traditional modes of knowledge production.89 Through my work, I was able to demonstrate that these mothers indeed educate their children on their own terms regarding language and culture, but also validate other ways of being. Latina immigrant mothers construct their individual cultural curriculum of the home informed by their own personal experiential knowledge acquired through their own interactions with the dominant culture. My work in doing this research aims at challenging the representation and interpretation of Latina immigrant mothers as uninterested and uninvolved by presenting a perspective that is more complex and as multifaceted as their lived experiences and identities. My research study contributes to the legitimization of Latina immigrant mothers as educators of bicultural children through a scholarly work with a hue of social justice.
WOMEN OF COLOR INTIMATE RESEARCH
Our SPNs reveal that unique dynamics surface when women of color scholars conduct critical qualitative inquiry with participants who share many aspects of their cultural identity. We name this experience Women of Color Intimate Research (WOCIR). Four significant themes, extracted from our narratives, characterize WOCIR:
intimacy between researchers and participants,
intense emotional labor,
purposeful use of decolonizing language, and
complications related to ethical research guidelines.
To begin, our narratives are permeated with notions of intimacy and emotionality, terms not typically associated with scholarly or academic work. These intimate relationships complicated our identities and roles as insiders/outsiders and researchers/sister-friends. We see evidence of this closeness in extant scholarship as well. In her work examining the ethics of friendship in ethnographic work, Jodie Taylor designated herself as an “intimate insider.”90 Drawing upon Few, Stephens, and Rouse-Arnett,91 Brown92 described her interviews with participants as “sister-to-sister talks” that were possible because of shared positionality. In a similar manner, the use of words such as tenderness, care, bonds, solidarity, kinship, sisters, and affinity in our narratives suggests that university-sanctioned research relationships between researchers and participants can evolve into intimate sisterly friendships when we study “others” who reflect ourselves. They become our sister-friends. Consider Linda Prieto's critical reflection of her research with Latina maestras:
When I started to schedule my visits to her school and asked her about an affordable hotel in her area, she invited me to stay at her parents' home.… I was humbled by her invitation and accepted. I later wondered if I had been male and/or White whether I would have been invited to stay at their home.… After school, we ate meals together at her home and occasionally watched El Noticiero (the news hour) or a Mexican telenovela (soap opera in Spanish) with her parents.93
Prieto's anecdote typifies the caring bonds of sisterhood between women of color researchers and participants in WOCIR.
Second, navigating these complex relationships resulted in tremendous emotional labor for which three of us were unprepared and for which institutional support was lacking. The emotional demands we experienced occurred during and after data collection. For example, Monica felt as if she had to remain strong for participants, modulating her own feelings in order to provide a calming presence for these women. Altheria recalled feeling physically paralyzed by sadness when she returned to her hotel after a data collection session. Sana, and Monica coped with these emotional needs in similar ways—with the support of family and friends, especially our partners. Monica felt it necessary to include her partner in her experiences as he would often validate and value her work in ways that the university could not. Altheria was the only one to seek professional help from a licensed therapist, who helped her work through feelings of guilt and helplessness. Though the three of us saw this emotional aspect of our work as a necessary burden, Freyca felt that connecting with fellow participants on a personal level was emotionally rewarding for her and was a sign of solidarity, unity, and support. It was like an embodiment of una mano amiga, a friendly hand that one not only offers but also receives—a mutual moral sustenance.
IRBs are charged with protecting the rights and welfare of human subjects. As is evident from this essay, we as women of color conducting critical qualitative inquiry oftentimes become part of the research. As a result, IRBs should consider ways to extend their protection to researchers. They should consider what safeguards are needed to protect the researcher who might become a part of the research as participants themselves. Emotional labor in critical qualitative inquiry is an understudied topic and a devalued aspect of our work.
Next, our commitment to our communities caused us to be judicious in our use of language. For example, in our attempts at doing decolonizing research, we each referred to the women in our studies as participants rather than informants or subjects. Using the term participant suggested to us that the women were willing partners who collaborated with us in our research rather than just individuals simply providing information or being studied. To underscore our commitment to the sisterhood, we were also careful and thoughtful about our diction, selecting to use impoverished over poor (as in Altheria's work) or illegality rather than illegal inmmigrants (as in Monica's project). Similarly, Altheria re-transcribed interviews after a paid transcriber changed participants' language from African American Vernacular English to Dominant American English.
Last, we were challenged to meet institutional ethics expectations, for example, regarding boundaries between participants and researchers. Complicated research such as WOCIR requires a reconceptualization of ethical research practices because rigid ethical guidelines that do not allow for personal interactions to occur and for sisterly bonds to form are a hinderance to this kind of research.
As our review of literature reveals, we are certainly not the first women of color scholars to engage in research that requires us to, in Nayantara Sheoran's language, “return home.”94 Neither is our rigorous reflection on our projects singular. This essay is distinctive, however, in the naming of this phenomenon and the outlining of its defining characteristics. Such projects are not just sensitive research, described as involving topics that may be emotionally taxing or stressful for both the researcher and participants,95 they are also intimate. Our examinations of our research with women of color who shared our racial and gender identities revealed many dilemmas and rewards that illuminate, in a nuanced way, an intimacy involved in such projects. Our work contributes to limited scholarship by women of color describing the complexities of their experiences conducting critical qualitative research with participants with whom they share identities. While this work is intended to be instructive to women of color who endeavor to conduct research with women of color, it may also be valuable to anyone who endeavors to collaborate with marginalized individuals and populations for feminist critical qualitative inquiry.