«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
Although it may seem that [an insider position] would increase access, rapport, and analytical insight in relation to a social setting, much scholarship indicates that insiderness can make it more difficult to interact with and get information from research subjects, and limits researchers’ ability to develop insights that get beyond the taken for granted. (p. 1670) This consideration relates to my status within NMS, but also to my status within the solidarity world more broadly. On the one hand, my relatively long-standing involvement with NMS and solidarity activism familiarized me with the terrain of research and its protagonists. More to the point, as a member of NMS, I had achieved a certain insider status in the solidarity world (qualified and complicated by my position as a white woman to be sure), which in turn facilitated my access to research participants, both white and (especially) Indigenous, as I explain below. At the same time, my familiarity with NMS group members had certainly created blind spots, thereby accentuating the difficulty of seeing past what had become the “taken for granted” of solidarity work. Linda Tuhiwai Smith (1999) (Maori) relates this issue to (insider)
researcher arrogance. Her advice, although meant for Indigenous insider researchers, is apropos:
The comment, “She or he lives in it therefore they know” certainly validates experience but for a researcher to assume that their own experience is all that is required is arrogant.
One of the difficult tasks insider researchers take is to “test” their own taken-for granted views about their community. It is a risk because it can unsettle beliefs, values, relationships and the knowledge of different histories. (p. 139) It would have been an error to assume that my experiences and understandings of solidarity, or those of NMS group members, would be representative of all solidarity encounters. My decision to research the solidarity encounter per se was largely an effort to mitigate the limitations of “taken-for granted” understandings of solidarity—both challenges and possibilities. Broadening the study would enhance my ability to “test” my assumptions (and those of other NMS group members) about solidarity that had developed in a particular context. Thus, I used my own experiences “primarily as a point of departure” (Lofland et al., 2006, p. 12).
Perhaps most perniciously, my familiarity via proximity to other NMS members—Indigenous and white—had likely shielded me from recognizing my own relative privilege in the group and my overall complicity vis-à-vis the colonial encounter. One such blind spot was exposed in the process of analyzing interviews from the NMS pilot study. In listening to an interview I had conducted with another NMS member, Audrey Huntley (who had not been present at the time) noted an exchange in which I expressed relief at having been misidentified as a woman of colour by the interviewee. I then recognized this incident as an example of the “identificatory mobility” of whiteness (D’Arcangelis & Huntley, 2012; see also Chapter 6). As a settler researching Indigenous/non-Indigenous solidarity, I remain somewhat of an “outsider” (notwithstanding a focus on white settler subjectivity). It remains paramount for me to recognize (and hence guard against) my own “fantasy of innocence” as a non-Indigenous researcher (Razack, 2002, p. xi)—something that become clear to me in that instant.
Although researching the solidarity encounter between Indigenous women and white women also involved participant observation and self-reflection, I owe the most gratitude to the 24 participants whose interviews constituted the bulk of the data. I use pseudonyms (first names only) for 21 of the 24 participants. Three self-identified Indigenous participants—Zainab Amadahy, Lee Maracle and Wanda Whitebird—waived their right to anonymity and asked that their names be used in the write-up. Consequently, I refer to them by their first names throughout the study. For clarity, I indicate whether a particular participant self-identifies as Indigenous or white with each mention. While the majority of these women lived, worked or attended university in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA), there were five exceptions: three women resided in London, Ontario12 (two Indigenous and one white); and two women lived in Peterborough, Ontario (one Indigenous and one white). The participants in both London and Peterborough had connections with individuals and solidarity networks in the GTA. In fact, I had established contacts in both places through my involvement with NMS and also my studies at OISE. In my Call for Participants (CFP), I specified three criteria for involvement: potential participants had to identify as an Indigenous woman or white woman; be 18 years of age or older; and have done alliance/solidarity work for at least six months “around topics including (but not limited to) violence against Indigenous women, Indigenous land reclamations and environmental justice” (see Appendix A). In recruiting participants, I relied exclusively on participants’ self-identification as Indigenous women or white women rather than apply any external definition for Indigeneity or whiteness. I decided not to use the term “mixed” as an identity marker in the recruitment material in light of historical and ongoing settler state regulation of Indigenous identity and status (Lawrence, 2003) where “mixed” (or mestizo/a in the Latin American context) can be conveniently misinterpreted by government authorities and the broader settler public as “inauthentic.” As Morgensen (2011) notes, “Native identities of mixed blood Native people are invalidated by their racialization as white or black through the policing of Native status and the redrawing of the color line” (p. 20). Although I did not include “mixed race” as an identity category in my CFP, six (of 13) Indigenous participants noted at some point in our interview that, while they identified as Indigenous women, they also acknowledged their “mixed” (Indigenous and European) ancestry. While only one (of 11) white participants mentioned having Indigenous ancestry, several discussed their “mixed” European ancestry. Admittedly, however, the absence of “mixed race” as a possible identity in my CFP likely had the effect of excluding women who identify as such from participating in the study.
As I infer in my Introduction, I crafted the CFP with a purposively broad understanding of “political solidarity” in mind, describing the project as “research on the limits and possibilities of political alliances or solidarity between Indigenous women and white women.” Although I did not impose a definition of solidarity on participants, I did confirm that participants’ conceptions of solidarity work met my broad criteria. These criteria centre on the embodied, material practices commonly associated with political protest and mobilization for social change and less visible practices of groups such as NMS (e.g., behind-the-scenes lobbying, group meetings and/or social events, email exchanges and, increasingly, the use of social media).
When using the term solidarity in this study, I am referring to this broad spectrum of practices.
I pursued typical avenues for circulating my CFP and identifying potential interviewees: wide internet distribution of my CFP to community- and university-based groups; the mobilization of existing personal contacts; and the snowball method. The majority of white women (six of 11) were unknown to me prior to the study; they had heard about it through internet postings or word-of-mouth and contacted me to participate. I approached the other five white participants, because they were either known to me through my involvement with NMS or had been recommended by other participants.13 While internet postings were extremely useful for recruiting white women, my insider position in the solidarity world (and NMS in particular) proved invaluable for recruiting the majority of Indigenous women. Shortly after issuing the CFP, four Indigenous women I did not know asked to take part in the study. As time elapsed and I did not hear from others, I mobilized personal contacts to actively seek out Indigenous participants, speaking with Indigenous women either known or recommended to me. Taking these measures, I identified nine (out of 13) Indigenous women who agreed to become participants in the study. Although I had initiated contact in these cases, my overtures were met with much enthusiasm. I firmly believe that had it not been for my insider status in solidarity circles, this research as such would simply not have been possible.
Participants were quite diverse in terms of age, ranging from 20 to 65 years of age. However, beyond that, neither the Indigenous nor white participants constitute representative samples of their respective groups. There were a disproportionality high number of women in both groups with post-secondary education. Also, given the fact that I conducted the study in urban centres (primarily downtown Toronto, but also London and Peterborough, Ontario) meant that there was an overrepresentation of urban dwellers (though most Indigenous participants had ties with rural communities, whether a nearby reserve or Indigenous community outside the province). The vast majority of participants did not explicitly mention their sexual orientation, although two women (one from each group) self-identified as members of an LGBTQ community.
Another facet of participant involvement needs highlighting. Given that they had all committed at one point to engage in solidarity work, the participants in this study constitute a self-selected group likely predisposed to seeing the benefits of (attempting) solidarity between Indigenous peoples and (white) settler populations.14 This possible predilection would make the critical views of solidarity relations that emerge from the study all the more potent. Moreover, a high percentage—over half of Indigenous participants and just under half of white participants—had ten or more years of experience in political organizing. This combined knowledge is reflected in the narratives, which present a remarkable level of comfort and self-reflection in discussing the perils and promises of solidarity work. As well, a number of participants are fluent and fluid in their use of activist and academic discourse, perhaps best described as scholar-activist discourse.
This thesis attempts to track some of the more striking discursive patterns in these narratives.
Lines of inquiry: reversing the gaze15
I came to this research with two general questions in mind: How do white women/feminists grapple with our dominant structural positionality in the solidarity encounter, i.e., in a context of ongoing colonial relations?16 And, how could we negotiate our subject position in a way that minimizes the reproduction of colonial relations? Taking my cue from Sunera Thobani (2007), I sought to explore the re-enactment of white settler supremacy “at the level of daily life”17 in the intersubjective interactions of the solidarity encounter. From there, I developed two goals and lines of inquiry: first, to map the tensions and challenges of solidarity work between Indigenous women and white women, specifically in relation to the operation of gendered colonial subjectivity; and second, to explore how such tensions or challenges could be mitigated to create the conditions for non-colonizing solidarity and more effective political alliances between the groups. In summary, I sought to shed light on both the perils involved in and potential for building political solidarity between Indigenous women and white women in a context marked by colonial inequities. My broader purpose remains to add to our collective thinking about how to fashion non-colonizing forms of encounter between Indigenous and non-Indigenous peoples.
In elaborating the first line of inquiry, I was compelled by Indigenous women’s/feminist and postcolonial literature to consider what had become of the colonial roots of Western feminism (see Chapter 3). Therefore, many of my questions revolve around how white settler women are constituted (by themselves and Indigenous women) as subjects in the solidarity encounter. Are white settler women still apt to see ourselves as superior “helpers” of more “oppressed” Indigenous women? Are we still evasive about our complicity in settler colonialism and resistant to adopting an anticolonial imperative in solidarity work? Do we universalize our particular experiences and elide differences in identity, belonging and power in the process? As Moreton-Robinson (2000) contends, do we knowingly or otherwise insist in seeing ourselves as “autonomous independent individuals”? In short, what discursive practices typify, reproduce and/or reconfigure (feminist) solidarity relations in general and white settler woman/feminist subjectivity in particular?
To investigate my second line of inquiry concerning the possibilities for non-colonizing solidarity, I posed the following interrelated questions: Are white women allies more aware now (than in the past) of our complicity in settler colonialism, due in part to the feminist turn towards self-reflexivity? What is the role of self-reflexivity in moving towards the practice of noncolonizing solidarity? Are there white women who consciously try to disrupt white supremacy and colonial relations? What happens when we confront/are confronted with our settler status?
How can we avoid becoming consumed by white settler guilt, or the “stigma of white privilege” (Kowal, 2011)? In short, how could colonial scripts be (or how are they being) re-written, and what would be (or are) the corresponding practices of non-colonizing solidarity, even in the midst of a colonial encounter? Aware of the paradox—seeking non-colonizing solidarity while immersed in broader colonial relations—I sought to advance the theoretical and political project of “identifying the conditions for the production of a new kind of subject” (Razack, 1998, p.
5)—a new kind of white settler woman/feminist ally subject who would attempt such a feat.
Finally, I wondered, (how) could changes in intersubjective dynamics at this micro level change social relations at the macro level?