Education and “the refugee condition”

Last week, I had the pleasure of examining Dr. Kate Haughey’s doctoral dissertation, “Rhythms of Life: The Revival of Sakela By Kirat Rai Refugees in Vermont,” in the Department of Music at Brown University. Her ethnomusicological study has important implications for educationalists who are interested in refugee education.

I taught Kate Haughey when I was a post-doctoral fellow at the Center for Public Humanities at Brown University in 2012-2013. While I am not an ethnomusicologist, our scholarship has some parallels. Kate is the Director of the Vermont Folklife Center that features prominently in her dissertation, and I was the Director of New Urban Arts, which features prominently in my book, The Creative Underclass. So, our research has to reckon with our own positionally within non-profit organisations that are intimately connected to our professional lives.

Haughey’s ethnomusicological study provides a rich and nuanced account of how Kirat Rai refugees inhabit third country resettlement in Vermont, USA through their musical and ceremonial practices. In her reading of the Sakela ceremony, Haughey challenges functionalist or essentialist readings of “the refugee,” as well as any monolithic interpretation of Butanese Nepalis as an ethnic community. As such, the performance of Sakela ceremony by various resettled Bhutanese Nepali refugee communities in Vermont are neither “authentic” per se (they cannot be). Rather, Haughey shows how Sakela ceremonial performances are an emerging and contextual instantiation of self-fashioning, world making, and community healing by various communities.

Her insights have important implications for institutional stakeholders, including folk arts funding bodies, non-profit organisations, health institutions, and schools. These institutions, for example, tend to rely upon narratives “based on a singular, generic, or standard refugee experience” (p. 156). She recounts several instances in her thesis of schools asking members of the group to perform reductive and essentialising renderings of being a refugee or being Nepali. And she shows how exhausting this demand was for one individual.

Refugees are asked in a post-resettlement context to put their refugee condition on display for a variety of reasons. In her book, The Gift of Freedom, Mimi Thi Nguyen uses the example of Vietnamese refugees in the United States to theorise how the “refugee condition” is used to animate subjectivities that sustain and expand liberal empire. For example, through their indebtedness to the citizens and state that accept them, those citizens become cast as benevolent even if they played a role in their displacement. This act of indebtedness perpetuates a relation in which refugees’ potential to become members of the state, or to become recognisable as agential participants in modernity, is always deferred. We can also imagine this deferral occurring through other means, including, for example, being asked to perform what Stuart Hall calls a “spectacle of ethnicity” in school assemblies.

Haughey points to similar dynamics in her study in which members of the  Bhutanese Nepali Cultural Heritage Dance Group were asked to perform traditional Nepali dance in schools or to narrate the experience of being a refugee. Their musical ceremonial practices were “often… audible to outsiders solely in terms of the preservation of traditional culture or as evidence for suffering that required the benevolent intervention of wealthy, liberal, white saviours to alleviate” (p. 101). But, for one of Haughey’s main interlocutors, refugee displacement and resettlement was only but one critical facet in his life story, and never the determining one. Moreover, the Sakela ceremony he enacted with his Dance Group was never an authentic continuation of a tradition, but a fluid and dynamic engagement with the social, political, and cultural context of Vermont.

One of the lessons I also gleamed from her dissertation defence is how important it is for doctoral students to read other doctoral students’ dissertations. Haughey’s dissertation is a good model for those working within the ethnographic paradigm. It is rich in description. In each chapter, it establishes a problem space efficiently and effectively, providing the reader with a few key concepts that provide a nuanced understanding of that problem space. And she states her intervention clearly at the top and defends it throughout. Perhaps most crucially, she does not overreach with what she sets out to do. So, for doctoral students situated in a variety of disciplinary homes, her dissertation is worth reading.

Congratulations to Dr. Haughey on her successful defence and thank you for including me in your doctoral experience!