«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
This is a prime example of how much my subjectivity has shaped the research. My journaling is replete with allusions to the spectre of the researcher in the research. As I wrote in May 2011, “I am left wondering about this entire project. How much of it is motivated by a desire on my part to be a better person? Is this the same as desiring to be absolved of white guilt?” Was I not only predisposed to ask questions about white guilt in the interviews, but also to see evidence of its existence in the data? In one sense, the answer is undeniably yes; the study has been intimately shaped—and limited—by my life experiences and social location. However, my “personal” experiences also provided a window into the collective dimension of discursive formations such as the “good white settler ally,” alerting me to their ubiquity in participant narratives.
At OISE: towards activist scholarship (and self-reflexivity)
I entered the MA program at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto (OISE) already oriented towards activist scholarship—“the production of knowledge and pedagogical practices through active engagements with, and in the serve of, progressive social movements” (Sudbury & Okazawa-Rey, 2009, p. 3). I attempted to theorize my “reallife” experiences in Central America, the years I had spent working with diverse cross sections of Guatemalan and Salvadoran societies including Indigenous women. In the process, I became more acutely aware of my white, liberal subject positioning and the ways in which I had/have tried to negotiate and, at times, erase it in Central America and since. I began to formulate a new question, which appeared in this journal entry of January 2011: “What gave me the authority to identify with Indigenous peoples when I, as a white person, was undoubtedly part of the problem? Was my concern ‘real’ or was I a fake, just another white gringa trying to assuage a guilty conscience?” As I mentioned earlier, I also sought refuge in the knowledge that I had grown up working-class. At the same time, I began to examine more critically my role as a human rights observer in Guatemala.
During my doctoral program at OISE (and parallel activist activities in NMS, which I discuss below), my presumption of having earned an affinity with Indigenous “Others” (in Central America in particular) continued to be challenged. With a refined conceptual schema, I was able to better articulate and critique my experiences and role as a white settler woman with good
intentions, whether in North America or beyond. Take this journal entry from 2008:
Radhika Mohanram (1999) addresses theories of nationhood and belonging. Are my longings somehow reflections of Western modernist influences, which simultaneously construct the “Other” as inferior and something to be coveted? Am I searching for a home, a place of belonging, because at some level I have come to understand my tenuous settler status on Turtle Island? Do I recognize within me the legacy of the wandering, disembodied imperialist subject who needs to establish a meaningful connection to place at the expense of the “Other?” Is this search a way to erase myself and what I have come to learn about the colonial reality in which I am implicated?
I considered anew how my attraction to (the plight of) Indigenous peoples was/is linked to how I negotiate my social location as a working-class, white settler woman. By identifying with Indigenous peoples and Indigenous women in particular, was I seeking exemption from my settler status, looking for redemption or forgiveness? (Later, in what is now this study, I would conceptualize that desire in terms of proximity.) To reiterate, in important inescapable ways, this study is about me—my need to grapple with how racialized colonial processes in North America have shaped me, endowing me with a degree of white settler privilege notwithstanding my working-class roots. At the same time, as I hope to make apparent, this study is decidedly not (only) about me, but rather concerns the reproduction of individual and collective subjectivities under colonial conditions of inequality. As Chris Crass (2013) notes in his activist memoirs, I grew up believing that I was a lone individual on a linear path with no past.... just a person, doing my own thing. Then I started to learn that being white, male, middle-class, able-bodied, mostly heterosexual, and a citizen of the United States meant that I not only had privileges but was rooted in history.... part of social categories embedded in and shaped by history. (p. 122) My own thinking has followed a similar trajectory; while not male or (born) middle-class, I have been seduced by the figure of the “lone individual on a linear path with no past,” i.e., the purportedly autonomous liberal subject (see below and Chapter 3). My seemingly personal experiences of white guilt and the desire for (white) settler exceptionalism, for example, while not shared by all white settlers, must be contextualized and historicized, that is, understood as comprising part and parcel of the liberal subject’s discursive repertoire in a colonial context.
As mentioned, my work with NMS predates this study, and has directly shaped my experience of solidarity’s tensions, challenges and possibilities, and thus the parameters of this study. Any hunch I may have had about my own desire to be (seen as) the “good whitey,” in the words of one NMS member, was confirmed in that work. And, what might have remained an intellectual quest to examine white settler colonial relations (and my structural position therein), became a more practical endeavour. While I had not yet acquired the scholarly language to express myself in these terms, I wanted to be able to explain how colonial power relations, including white privilege, are actually reproduced at the micro level of intersubjective relations.
In fact, concerns about how the proverbial elephant in the room—inequitable colonial relations—might have taken up residence in our group (and what to do about it), became central to our discussions. Not without strained relations among different members (between and across the categories of “Indigenous” and “white”) at different times and of varying intensities, we openly negotiated the ways in which allies could (and should) “take up the work” without “taking over” (D’Arcangelis & Huntley, 2012). As we temporarily morphed into a mostly white group, we seriously questioned our central role in organizing the annual February 14 strawberry ceremony to honour the murdered and missing Indigenous women in Ontario. (I refer to these deliberations in subsequent chapters.) As a scholar-activist midway through her PhD program, yet to submit a research proposal or formally initiate fieldwork, I was nonetheless taking stock of the questions being raised about solidarity relations among differently positioned women. I remember, for example, being deeply troubled by the insistence of some white allies that we should no longer organize the ceremony. I struggled to articulate to myself and others why this was the case. I understood (and agreed with) the reasoning behind the position—no one wanted to risk a rehearsal of white settler colonial power. But, I also did not want to abdicate my responsibility as a white settler woman to organize around the issue of violence against Indigenous women—a violence in which I was complicit by virtue of my settler status. That tension—between acting on one’s responsibility and overstepping the bounds into domineering behaviour—crystallized in my mind as something to be explored further.
At the same time, I eventually was gripped by two interrelated concerns. First, as I became more and more immersed in graduate school and the scholarship on white guilt (and the desire for innocence) (see Chapter 6), I began to doubt my commitment to the political aspects of solidarity work. Just as I interrogated the self-serving function of my identification with Indigenous peoples in Guatemala, I began to wonder about what “I” was getting out of volunteering with NMS—a self-righteousness that mitigated the guilt I had begun to feel about my white settler status? Second, I began to ask to what extent my involvement in NMS had become more about the research and less about a political commitment to raising awareness about violence against women. I had been involved with NMS for a few years when I began to consider making the group the focus of my doctoral research. Soon after, and well before submitting my research proposal, in the spirit of ethical transparency I approached group members both individually and as a group: Would they be ok with me doing such research and becoming a participant observer or scholar-activist? Receiving an overwhelmingly enthusiastic, positive response, I began to consider the possibility in earnest. However, niggling doubts surfaced about my ulterior motives: Was I now involved in NMS primarily to get a degree?
In hindsight, it is clear to me that I was in the process of identifying the “impulse to solidarity” that had progressively surfaced in my own life (and that I had witnessed in some others), an impulse with multiple facets, including white settler guilt and the related desire to be the exceptional (good) white settler ally. With this backdrop—a cursory look at how my hypotheses on intersubjective relations in solidarity work are entangled in my subjectivity—I turn to my methods and methodological approach.
Designing the Study
While I initially planned to do a case study of NMS, I expanded the study’s parameters to include Indigenous women and white women who had done solidarity work with or without an organizational affiliation. In this way, I decided to look at the “solidarity encounter” as a phenomenon in itself. Though I extended the scope of the research, I retained a commitment to infusing an autoethnographic sensibility into the study’s design, data gathering and write-up, therefore also retaining a certain centrality for NMS. I collected and analyzed data in the form of field notes, journaling and participant interviews. In total, I conducted 24 semi-structured interviews (Bernard, 2006) from April through July 2011 with 13 self-identified Indigenous women and 11 self-identified white women.9 Prior to the formal start of the research, I had attended community events and various organizational activities explicitly positioned as a white feminist activist (including the annual February 14 ceremony organized by NMS). Upon becoming a doctoral student, I continued to attend such events and publicly divulged my identity as a scholar-activist when it seemed appropriate (i.e., at smaller meetings as opposed to larger scale events such as rallies), and was more systematic in my self-reflexive journaling.
Throughout, I broadly adopted what Norman K. Denzin and Yvonna S. Lincoln (2008b) call critical qualitative “interpretive research practices,” which aim to turn the world into a series of performances and representations, including case study documents, critical personal experience narratives, life stories, field notes, interviews, conversations, photographs, recordings, and memos to the self. These performances create the space for critical, collaborative, dialogic work. (p. 5) In my reading, “interpretive research practices” so described are the mainstay of much qualitative research, my work being no exception, as it relied especially on field notes, interviews and memos to the self. While I had originally intended to include a “personal experience narrative” in the form of a separate chapter, I opted instead to weave selective elements of my story throughout the chapters to accomplish two things: to retain an acknowledgement of my social location and privileged role as researcher throughout the study (and not entirely bracket it off to one chapter); and to minimize the possibility of solipsistic selfrepresentation that effectively re-centres the white researcher subject (see below discussion).
I also drew on what in retrospect became a pilot project for this doctoral research. In the spring of 2009, after consulting with other NMS members, I submitted an abstract for an article, which was accepted for publication in a collection about feminist pedagogy (Manicom & Walters, 2012): “When approached about the possibility of an article about NMS, members agreed that it represented a chance to reflect together and gain direction for the future. We then held a series of [seven] one-on-one interviews during which members shared their understandings of NMS’s vision and internal dynamics” (D’Arcangelis & Huntley, 2012, p. 43). NMS co-founder Audrey Huntley and I then co-authored the chapter.10 This undertaking, which provided an opportunity for deep reflection for many group members, directly influenced this study. It pointed to salient issues relating to what I would later call the solidarity encounter (e.g., perceptions of and measures to mitigate white colonial privilege, such as adopting anticolonial political strategies;
the effects of colonial trauma; balancing white settler over- and under-engagement in solidarity work) that warranted more extensive research. These earlier interview schedules became a departure point for developing the interview schedules for this study.
As mentioned, I expanded the study’s focus beyond NMS to include women who self-identified as Indigenous or white, and who had been involved in solidarity work regardless of any formal affiliation with a particular social justice group.11 I opted not to make NMS the sole case study, despite its relative uniqueness as a “mixed” organization of Indigenous women and nonIndigenous women with no self-identified men, for several reasons. First, while not exhaustive, our examination of NMS (D’Arcangelis & Huntley, 2012) had uncovered a variety of themes that I felt could be better explored beyond the group’s confines. In fact, we had attained a level of familiarity between us as group members that I think would have disallowed a more critical exploration of these themes. Additionally, I felt that my own “insider” status in relation to NMS was limiting, in particular when it came to challenging my own assumptions about the perils and possibilities of solidarity work. As David Butz and Kathryn Besio (2009) note, “insiderness”
both enriches and complicates any research project: