«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
Take, for example, Truth and Reconciliation Commissioner Justice Murray Sinclair’s repeated assertion that residential schools are a “Canadian problem” and not just an “Indian problem,” which implicitly calls for collective self-reflexivity on the part of the (settler) population.49 As a white anthropologist, Jeff Denis echoes Justice Sinclair to state unequivocally that his research on Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations in Northern Ontario requires a focus on the “white problem,” not the “Indian problem.”50 My own research puts the theoretical spotlight on white settler woman/feminist subjectivity. In all three cases, white settlers are called to acknowledge—through self-reflexivity—their complicity in racist and colonial frameworks.
Self-reflexivity, however, is a fraught technique for grappling with one’s privilege. Smith (2013a) disrupts assumptions about the inherent value of self-reflexivity in social justice
enterprises by exposing its quotidian conspiratorial role in reproducing privileged subjectivities:
Anti-racist/colonial struggles have created a colonial dis-ease that the white settler/white subject may not in fact be self-determining [i.e., legitimate]. As a result, the white settler reasserts her or his power through self-reflection. In doing so, his or her subjectivity is reaffirmed against the foil of the “oppressed” people who still remain “affectable” others [such as Indigenous peoples and people of color] who provide the occasion for this selfreflection. (p. 268) What Smith (2013a) calls the self-reflexive white settler/white subject—or more vividly, the confessing subject—is “frequently on display at various antiracist venues in which the privileged subject explains how much she or he learned about her complicity in settler colonialism or white supremacy because of her exposure to Native peoples” (p. 266). Ahmed (2004) links the self-reflexive turn to a “mode of declaration” in Whiteness Studies that often leads to the reproduction of that which it is designed to acknowledge. (It would be valuable to explore the same contention with respect to the relatively new field of settler colonialism studies.) As Ahmed (2004) explains, a politics of declaration also saturates state apologies and processes of reconciliation meant to address histories of colonial domination.
In Chapter 6, I discuss the non-performativity of such speech acts (Ahmed, 2004) and the white desire for proximity that is arguably in play, but for now highlight self-reflexivity as a possible tool for the reproduction of the (white/settler) autonomous liberal subject (see Chapter 3). Selfreflexivity becomes an instrument of privilege, a modality for ensuing declarations that in turn “become the political project themselves” (Smith, 2013a, p. 263). While Smith (2013a) is primarily focused on activist circles, I suggest in this chapter that her insights apply to the realm of research. She provides a compelling explanation as to why well-meaning privileged individuals often seem to capitulate to (white) solipsistic tendencies: they remain stuck in the act of reproducing their own privilege as autonomous individuals, albeit individuals with more insights into their subject position.
In delimiting the liberatory potential of a scholarly focus on subjectivity, Blackman et al. (2008)
allude to this and other risks:
Subjectivity as any other concept is seen as an active agent that shapes and is shaped by prevailing social, cultural and political spaces: The concept of subjectivity not only serves as a way to understand and tackle neo-liberal [and neo/colonial] power relations and inequalities but it could in a paradoxical way be reinforcing them. This because neoliberalism establishes a social order not primarily through liquidating otherness, inferiority or subjectivity, but by fabricating and regulating otherness and subalternity through the multiplication and assimilation of subjectivities that are created by one’s own reflexivity of one’s own positionality. (p. 14, emphasis added) This caveat invokes my own about the perils of a misguided focus on the white settler subject, which could reproduce inequalities among differently positioned subjects. It also pertains to my work in implicitly acknowledging the potentialities and limits of self-reflexivity as a mechanism for the achievement of non-colonizing subjectivity. With this caveat in mind, I conclude with some revelatory moments of my biography as well as the data gathering and analysis processes.
Reaching (beyond) the Limits of Subjection To reiterate, I share the widely-circulated premise in qualitative research that the researcher’s subject position matters to research design, assumptions and outcome. As Schick (1998) writes, The problem lies, of course, in not being able to think outside the limits of even [especially] large categories of possibility... The inability to think outside the limits of categories is surely one of the dilemmas in conducting research on identity formation in which hierarchical relations are normalized and inevitably reproduced by those doing the investigating. (p. 52) In articulating the limitations of critical thinking in research, Schick (1998) aptly describes how researchers are in fact bound by the discursive fields in which they are embedded. For Davies (2000), however, autobiographical writing can allow the researcher to understand “oneself as discursively constituted and at the same time... [push] at the boundaries of one’s own subjection. One explores the limits of subjectivity in order to find the ways of moving beyond such limits” (p. 9). My efforts in this chapter—to describe how my subjectivity as a white settler woman scholar-activist from the Global North has led to many of the questions posed in this study—certainly qualify as such self-exploration. Here, I contemplate the outer limits of my subjectivity as a Western liberal subject.
At all stages of this project, I have been concerned with engaging in ethical work that would have significance beyond my own immediate circles. My anxieties about achieving this goal have ranged from minor to acute. For example, I agonized over the questions I asked... were they eliciting “meaningful” answers? I ended up revising my interview schedules as I went along—refining, combining and even omitting questions (that seemed superfluous)—concluding that the modifications were acceptable and did not alter the overall gist of the study. Other methodological concerns, however, were not so easily mollified.
In my third interview of the study, I asked an Indigenous participant to recount if they had seen any “little bursts” of the “colonial story repeating itself” (Reinsborough & Barndt, 2010, p. 175) in the solidarity encounter, in an attempt to get at participant perceptions of the tensions and challenges of solidarity work. I had asked the question only twice before, and it “worked” well enough in that it seemed to evoke participant memories of tensions or challenges related to colonial relations. However, this participant’s response gave me pause: “I see [the colonial story] everywhere. I don’t see it as bursts; it’s constant [laughs]. Maybe there’s bursts of awareness of it, but it’s always there!” In that moment I realized the extent to which my location as a white settler filtered my world view and (lack of) understanding of just how much colonialism overdetermines Indigenous people’s lives as well as Indigenous–settler relations.
Despite intellectual knowledge of this fact, I had conceptualized the question as a reference to moments of exception, as had the white women activists I was quoting. (To reiterate, the exception, according to this Indigenous participant, would be those intersubjective moments that challenge the colonial nature of the encounter.) As I noted aloud at the time, “The question itself is coming from a non-Native worldview.” I would remember this exchange whenever in doubt about the validity of a central contention of my theoretical framework—that the solidarity encounter is firmly enmeshed in broader colonial relations.
This example in particular imparts a sense of how I came to grapple with the ways in which my subject position constitutes the content and tone of the research. This self-reflexive process, as I recall above in telling the story of how I came to the research, had begun even before starting fieldwork, finding expression in the form of anxiety, doubt and insecurity. More specifically, I doubted my political commitment to NMS... was it to get a degree? Immersed in graduate studies and the literature on white guilt (see Chapter 6), I questioned my reasons for engaging in solidarity work in the first place... was it to be (seen as) an exceptional white settler ally?
Once I started my fieldwork, the disquiet I felt about the relationality between my subject position and the study intensified, as did my insights into that relationality. As I theorized the existence of a “fantasy of transcendence”51 (Ahmed, 2004, para. 16) in some white participant narratives, I became more acutely aware of my own yearning to transcend my status as settler. I wondered if by telling my story, I was (or am) engaging in solipsistic self-reflexivity, despite knowing the risks. If so, how could I break the cycle of trying to reconstitute myself as the exceptional “good white settler ally”? Has this entire study and the activism from which it stems been driven, if only in part, by a quest for redemption? I gave way to a less individualistic reading of “my” desires through reading the work of Ahmed (2004); desires derive meaning and acquire force as part of a “cultural politics of emotion” (Ahmed, 2004), collective phenomena that inform individual subjectivities and hence motivations for telling our stories. Writing about the Australian context, Ahmed (2004) explores how public expressions of shame can fulfill a
collective white settler desire for transcendence:
Such public expressions of shame try to “finish” the speech act by converting shame to pride: it allows what is shameful to be passed over in the very enactment of shame....
[declarations of shame] may even assume that the speech act itself can be taken as a sign of transcendence... The presumption that saying is doing—that being sorry means that we have overcome the very things we are sorry about—hence works to support the racism in the present. Indeed, what is done in this speech act, if anything is done, is that the white subject is re-posited as the ideal. (para. 27, emphasis in original) Viewed in this light, white settler fantasies of transcendence are systemically forged, becoming collective instruments of nation building. It therefore would be more surprising if I had managed to sidestep these fantasies that work to disavow white settler status and privilege.
I conclude with a final conjecture about how my social location as a Western liberal subject inevitably informs this study. My sense of the depth to which the spectre of the liberal subject might haunt my work came early on. About midway through my third interview, which happened to be with an Indigenous participant, I asked: “Can you talk about what it means to be an ally?” Her response: “As a white person or as a Native person?” The question took me aback, leading to a proverbial “ah-ha” moment; I realized from this brief exchange that I had been conceptualizing allyship in unidirectional terms, that is, assigning white women the role of helper and by extension Indigenous women the role of beneficiary. My journaling from that point on is replete with reflections on what this exchange indicated/indicates about my understanding of solidarity (power) relations. Had I unwittingly framed the study to be an exploration of a one-way or unidirectional flow of “solidarity” where white women “allies” were the providers of support and Indigenous women the recipients of that support? Despite the general nature of my call for participants, which did not stipulate what the focus of the solidarity work should be, had I subconsciously assumed that it would be around an Indigenous issue?
Furthermore, I asked myself, had I so far conducted the interviews in a way that would tend to elicit responses positioning Native women on the receiving end of any solidarity encounter?
Was I re-enacting the “stereotypical, classic colonial move, ‘we-think-we-have-something-tooffer-you,’ but not the other way around” (journal entry, December 2011)? In other words, would my study end up reproducing the very hierarchical relations I had set out to trouble? Thus began a prolonged agonistic period in my fieldwork.
Given the structural inequalities between the two groups, it is a logical conclusion that the focus of solidarity work would more likely be around so-called Indigenous (women’s) issues.
However, the fact that this is the only framing that occurred to me until that particular exchange is significant. At the least, it says something about my own assumptions about solidarity work and the respective roles of Indigenous women and white women therein. Or, is something else in play—a collective naturalized assumption on the part of many white women, and possibly even some Indigenous women, about the nature of solidarity and allyship as unidirectional or a one-way street?
In subsequent interviews, I took pains to ask questions that would not presume a flow of solidarity from white woman ally (as subject) to Indigenous woman (as object). Another pivotal conversation occurred in a later interview with a different Indigenous participant. Despite having written pages of journal reflections on the matter, it seems in retrospect that I remained “stuck”—unable “to think outside the limits of categories,” as Schick (1998, p. 52) puts it.
Following my remark that “it’s kind of interesting that we don’t have a word to contrast with ally,” the woman responded “that’s because allies are, I thought, equal—so there shouldn’t be anything to contrast with ally.” Only when one sees solidarity work as charity, she clarified, would there be a contrasting concept: “the poor person, the injured, the grievance seeker, the person who has been aggrieved, the wounded, the victim, the helper versus the victim in the most classic patronizing way of doing solidarity.” I foreshadow my findings here to highlight certain salient aspects of my methodological process.