«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
It is important to note that in her work, Ahmed (2000) assumes (and critiques) the operative hegemony of a liberal model of subjectivity, whose quintessential form is the (propertied) white male individualistic subject endowed with reason, the capacity to know the (inferior) Other and unrestricted movement through social and geographical spaces—in short, the self-determining, authorial “I.” Likewise, and as I discuss in Chapter 2, Boyd (2004) distills liberal subjectivity into four characteristics: ontological uniqueness; symmetrical positioning; intentional rational agency; and capacity for transcendence (pp. 9ff). In the paradigmatically liberal approach to subjectivity, an individual’s ontological uniqueness—or discreteness—assumes the ability of that individual to transcend social relations, importantly, through exercising the “muscles of rational choice and intentionality” (p. 10). It is worth reviewing Boyd’s (2004) efforts to derail
the plausibility of a purely atomistic liberal individual:
Within liberalism, for all kinds of recognizable groups, the individual is ontologically prior to the collectivity.... However, in the case of social group membership the group is ontologically prior to the individual: it “constitutes” individuals qua members of the groups. From the perspective of social groups, embodied persons are ontologically embedded in pre-existing relationships (and always in several at the same time), and thus need to be understood as having a kind of subjectivity quite different from the idea of the “liberal individual.” (p. 14) It is precisely this liberal individual who is implicated in Ahmed’s (2000) theory of stranger fetishism.
Given Ahmed’s (2000) concern with the material and discursive effects of proximity (and distance) between subjects, I want to hone in on the aforementioned sense of entitlement that typifies the liberal subject. Critical whiteness scholars such as Shannon Sullivan (2006) theorize this sense of entitlement (to move freely) as constitutive of white subjectivity per se. With an implicit nod to the racial underpinnings of colonial subjectivity, she writes, One of the predominant unconscious habits of white privilege is white ontological expansiveness. As ontologically expansive, white people tend to act and think as if all spaces—whether geographical, psychical, linguistic, economic, spiritual, bodily or otherwise—are or should be available for them to move in and out of as they wish.
Ontological expansiveness is a particular co-constitutive relationship between self and environment in which the self assumes that it can and should have totally mastery over its environment. (Sullivan, 2006, p. 16) The white liberal subject’s desire for proximity, then, is quickly followed by the desire for mastery or dominance. In his work on representations of whiteness, Richard Dyer (1997) ties this desire (and presumed capacity) for mastery directly to imperialism. He explains that white embodiment has come to be understood as “involving something that is in but not of the body” (p.14). Therefore, being endowed with “whiteness” enables the white subject to transcend her/his body (and by extension, social relations). In this sense, Dyer (1997) explains, white embodiment merges notions of race and Christianity with imperial expansion: white people are endowed with an enterprising spirit or dynamism lacking in Others, rendering the former capable of ensuring the proper civilizational development of themselves and Others. Dyer (1997) argues that so far “the most important vehicle for the exercise and thus the display of this dynamism, this enterprise, is imperialism... This gave to enterprise an unprecedented horizon of expansion, of dangers, to face, of material—goods, terrain, people—to organise” (p. 31).
As discussed, Ahmed (2000) sheds light on how dominant liberal subjects perform their desire for mastery and dominance, performances that are otherwise at risk of remaining hidden from scrutiny. She explores the complex workings of stranger fetishism and the production of subjects therein through different techniques, formulations or “modes of proximity.” Threaded throughout is the desire (and belief in one’s capacity) to “know” Others. In the same way that settler subjectivity relies on, but is forever called into question by the presence of the Native Other (see Chapter 5), Ahmed (2000) claims that “it is by ‘knowing strangers’ that the ‘we’ of the epistemic community is established, even though that ‘we’ is called into question by the very proximity of ‘the strangers’ through which it comes to know [itself]” (p. 16). As discussed, the very histories of determination that have created contexts where some people are authorized to know (and speak for) Others (and where those Other are not so authorized), remain concealed.46 That is, the relations of social and political antagonism that have conferred authority on some (for example, the white researcher), while fixing others (for example, Native informants) firmly in place as objects (to be known), are at once concealed and reproduced by stranger fetishism.
A related discursive technique used by dominant subjects to negotiate their privileged subject position involves what I will call the logic of equalization. Ahmed (2000) cites an example of this, the “democratization of ethnography” (supposedly achieved through the self-reflexive turn in anthropology): “To argue that there has been such a shift [wherein ethnographer and informant are co-authors of knowledge] in the relation between ethnography and authority is to presuppose the possibility of overcoming the relations of force and authorisation that are already implicated in the ethnographic desire to document the lives of strangers” (p. 63, emphasis in original). In other words, the desire to know the Other is already a consequence of historical “relations of force and authorisation.” Ahmed (2000) argues not only that power relations cannot be overcome through such a gesture, but also that “the narrative of overcoming the relations of authorisation in traditional ethnography constitutes another form of authorisation” (p. 64). In other words, the epistemic authority of the dominant subject is reaffirmed while power relations are concealed.
Ahmed details “the Bell controversy”—a salient case for this study given that it involves a white
ethnographer and Indigenous woman, but in the Australian context—to further make her point:
Bell [the white ethnographer] is implicated in the postmodern fantasy that it is the “I” of the ethnographer who can undo the power relations that allowed the “I” [the authorial subject] to appear. Such a fantasy allows the ethnographer to be praised for her or his ability to listen well. So it remains the ethnographer who is praised: praised for the giving up of her or his authority. (p. 64) Ahmed (2000) notes a similar fantasy of overcoming structurally inequitable power relations, but in a very different scenario and through an analysis of a film, Dancing with Wolves. The fantasy is apparent in the actions of the main protagonist Dunbar, who exudes an explicit and quite literal desire for proximity in a “narrative of becoming.” Ahmed (2000) describes various techniques of stranger fetishism working in tandem in this passage, in effect summarising her
The narrative of becoming allows the agency of the white masculine subject to be reestablished through the proximity of the bodies of some strangers. Through becoming (like) them, he is able to undo the history of violence which fixes the Indians into the bodily life of strangerhood. Such a narrative of becoming the stranger or “going native” offers itself as a rewriting of a history: it deals with the shame of the colonial past by the very fantasy that getting closer to strangers can allow the “white man” to live for and as the native. Just as the multicultural narrative of the past reimagines violence as cooperation and the mutuality of difference... so too the narrative of becoming reimagines violence as the opening out of the possibility of friendship and love. The possibility of love is tied to a liberal vision of the white self as always open to others (“if only we’d get closer, there would have been love, we would have lived as one”). Not only do such multicultural fantasies of becoming involve releasing the Western subject from responsibility for the past, but they also confirm his agency, his ability to be transformed by the proximity of strangers, and to render his transformation a gift to those strangers through which he alone can become. (pp. 124–125, emphasis in original) In this deconstruction of Dancing with Wolves, Ahmed’s (2000) analysis of white settler subjectivity renders transparent the role of the desire for proximity in the colonial relation—a desire, it turns out, that is inextricably embodied and discursive. Confronted by his illegitimate subject status as a member of the white settler collective, Dunbar’s fantastical desire is to be exonerated for any wrongdoings vis-à-vis Indigenous Others, which remains impossible while he remains a settler. The (equally fantastical) solution rests on his ability to transform himself by displacing the Indigenous Other, a move that only confirms his (superior) status as agentic Western liberal subject. In sum, proximity as a mode of colonial encounter (Ahmed, 2000) is a useful way to think about how the colonial subject’s desire for confirmation of its autonomous and self-determining status is operationalized, that is, how colonial desire is actualized.
I take up the applicability of Ahmed’s (2000) ideas, including her account of Dunbar’s “narrative of becoming,” in Chapters 4 and 5 in particular. For example, I ask, what about gender? To what extent is the analysis of Dunbar’s subjectivity as a white settler man transferable to that of a white settler woman? What would an explicitly gendered account of the desire for transcendence indicate about the latter? In my considerations, I also draw on scholars such as Bergland (2000) and Morgensen (2011) who theorize the specifics of settler colonial subjectivity.
White Settler Women in the “Colonial Present”
In the introductory chapter, I discuss Indigenous women’s critical assessments of their encounters with mainstream feminism and white women/feminists, assessments which, when taken together, signal the importance of considering what has become of the colonial roots of Western feminism. In the ensuing chapters, my overarching goal is to do just that. Locating my analysis of the solidarity encounter within the theoretical contours described above, I ask questions about the contemporary workings of gendered colonial/liberal subjectivity in modernity and its foundational desire for transcendence and/through proximity.
Based on this theoretical framework, I argue that Indigenous women and white women enter and engage in the solidarity encounter as differently positioned subjects in historically determined, hierarchical power relations. I then attempt to illustrate how “the structural relationship between white society and Indigenous society” (Moreton-Robinson, 2000, p. xxv) is detectable and potentially reproduced through intersubjective relations in a particular site of colonial encounter. Presuming that settler colonialism overdetermines the contours of the solidarity encounter, I ask to what extent intersubjective dynamics in that encounter enable the reproduction of the Western liberal subject as autonomous/self-determining.
The theoretical framework I propose renders legible the central concerns of this study, providing avenues for a more substantive inquiry into the legacies of the colonial impulse: Does the colonially-derived impulse to “help” the colonized female Other persist in solidarity work between Indigenous women and white women despite any professed desires to mitigate this impulse on the part of the latter? What about the historical double positioning of the white settler/imperialist woman? Do we still position ourselves (or, are we still positioned as) both dominant in relation to Indigenous women (and men) and marginalized in relation to heteronormative patriarchy? If so, what are the repercussions for solidarity work? There are several possible, and not mutually exclusive, scenarios. On the one hand, this double positioning could impede attempts at solidarity with Indigenous women by facilitating a seamless slippage into over-identification with the oppressed/colonized, thereby obscuring/negating the power derived from being a white woman in the contemporary colonial encounter. Such slippage could well constitute a colonial manifestation of the “race to innocence” (Fellows & Razack, 1998), a strategy for maintaining white settler privilege. On the other hand, might some white settler women who are engaged in solidarity work, particularly to redress violence against Indigenous women, be ready to reckon with our assumptions of superiority and paradoxical (self-) positioning as innocent, virtuous settlers? Or, does being doubly positioned set off our latent colonial desire/need to reestablish ourselves as superior to, less oppressed than and the benevolent “helpers” of purportedly more oppressed Indigenous women? What is at stake? Is it (still) the revalidation of the white Western feminist subject qua modern liberal subject?
I seek to better describe the workings of intersubjective dynamics in the solidarity encounter between differently positioned women. Turning to Ahmed (2000) for assistance, I ask what discursive means white settler women may employ to reposition ourselves as “all-knowing subjects.” To what extent do assumptions about the right of access to Native communities figure into white settler women’s solidarity work? Does the idea of “white ontological expansiveness” help to make sense of intersubjective relations in the solidarity encounter? Is there a white settler desire for proximity operative therein?