«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
Most white participants grapple with our historic positionality as settlers, but find it exceedingly difficult to thwart the reproduction of our liberal subjectivity. Despite varying degrees of awareness of what to avoid—prototypical colonial helping behaviour—at one point or another most of us exhibit behaviours and attitudes characteristic of the gendered colonial subject. In other words, the colonial desire of the white settler/liberal subject to be transcendent, innocent, moral/good and capable of knowing and helping the Other, appears extremely hard to give up. I suggest that the staying power of settler colonial subjectivity can be attributed in large part to our collective location in the inescapable “colonial present” (Gregory, 2004), and the conundrum this presents: how can hierarchically-positioned subjects work together to foster equitable relations in a context of ongoing inequity? In this chapter, I look more closely at the effects of living in the “colonial present” on solidarity relations.
To lay the groundwork for my analysis, I begin with the observation that Indigenous participants and white participants respectively describe (and display) different modalities of entry into political activism/solidarity: the former tend to emphasize their identity and location as members of a collectivity whereas the latter tend to describe a more individualistic involvement. This suggests not only the effects of structural positioning on a subject’s engagement in solidarity, but also the ways in which Western individualism marks white women’s subjectivities. It also asks the question of how liberal subjectivity may hinder ongoing anticolonial political struggle.
This chapter considers if and how white settler women are bound by a default liberal location.
After a more in-depth discussion of the workings of proximity discourse in white women’s narratives, I turn to Native women’s narrations of the solidarity encounter and of white women’s comportment therein. I argue that the potentially colonizing effects of the white desire for proximity to Native women are most detectable in these narrations. While clarifying that all white women do not display the most extremely problematic behaviours all or even most of the time, Indigenous women emphasize the inevitable presence of the white woman who exhibits “needy do-gooder” behaviour, which Indigenous women often experience as invasive/colonial.
In describing white settler “neediness,” in other words, Indigenous women are vividly describing various manifestations of the white/settler liberal (individualistic) desire for proximity.
I conclude the chapter by discussing the “impulse to solidarity,” my characterization of the (latent) operationalization of proximity desires/discourses. I theorize this impulse as a complex nexus of the seemingly contradictory white desires to help and be helped by the Indigenous Other, whose presence facilitates white settler women’s self-making projects. I use the phrase “to be helped by” to highlight the constitutive underside of “helping” behaviour—an assortment of self-serving or, more accurately, self-making reasons why white/settler people in general and women in particular might engage in solidarity with Indigenous Others. To better reflect the specificities of intersubjective dynamics in solidarity work here (as opposed to there, i.e., abroad), I distinguish the solidarity impulse from the similarly fraught “helping imperative” (Heron, 2007).2 I infer throughout that un-interrogated solidarity impulses often generate tensions among women in the solidarity encounter.
A Methodological Note
In this chapter, I draw from participant responses mainly to questions addressing three broad themes: definitions of political activism/solidarity; reasons or motivations for engaging in political activism/solidarity;3 and understandings and examples of solidarity tensions.4 I also examine answers to questions posed in a specific way to white participants, including, what does it mean for you to be a non-Indigenous person/white settler in relation to Canada’s colonial past and present? Do you use the term white settler to describe yourself? Overall, I consider women’s self-presentations of their solidarity trajectories as well as their perceptions of other women’s motivations for engaging in solidarity work. Borrowing from Moreton-Robinson (2000), I use the term “self-presentation” to refer to “how one represents oneself through interpretation as opposed to how one is presented by another” (p. xxii). To reiterate, I ground my analysis in both Indigenous and white participant depictions of the solidarity encounter, that is, participants’ self-presentations alongside their analyses of what is at stake for other women.
As noted in the Introduction, I bring a purposively broad (and material) understanding of “political solidarity” to this study, and use the phrase with a loose set of practices in mind. In short, I mean to evoke the image of people engaged together in the pursuit of a political project.
I crafted the Call for Participants also in broad terms, describing the project as “research on the limits and possibilities of political alliances or solidarity between Indigenous women and white women.” In the interviews, I confirmed that all participants felt that what they were doing (or had done) met my broad criteria of political solidarity work. When asked, however, most said they generally use other terms (in addition to solidarity) to describe their involvement with Indigenous or white women respectively, such as relationships, alliances, collaborations or, simply, work. (This signals a possible avenue for further research: to tease apart the nuanced differences between these terms and the implications for solidarity practices.) In this study, my use of the term remains sufficiently broad so as to encompass the host of meanings that participants ascribe to the term. When quoting participants directly, I use their preferred phrase.5 In analyzing participant interviews—more precisely, by juxtaposing white women’s and Indigenous women’s respective narratives6—I was struck by how often the latter experience white women’s behaviours in (and motivations for) doing solidarity work as problematic, even invasive. Although they do not depict Indigenous–settler relations within the solidarity context in entirely negative terms, Indigenous women do identify white practices and attitudes that they experience as colonial and that they find compromise the effectiveness of political solidarity. In short, some of the desires/needs of white women doing solidarity work are often experienced by Indigenous women as colonial in nature and as sources of tension and conflict. However, these behaviours are not necessarily seen as problematic (let alone invasive) by white women.
Thus evolved a particular method for reading the data—the correlation of Native women’s descriptions of solidarity tensions with white women’s statements about the motivational factors that led them to the encounter. This analytical strategy led me to coin the phrase, “impulse to solidarity.” My presentation of the data follows this analytical strategy: I first discuss the desires for proximity evident in white women’s narratives; I then look to Indigenous women’s narrations of the solidarity encounter to shed light on Indigenous readings of these discourses as colonial.
The Importance of Solidarity
I would like to pre-empt an overly pessimistic and, I would argue, inaccurate reading of my analysis of intersubjective relations in the solidarity encounter. Following LaRocque (2010),
when I discuss the “negative,” I do so only to hasten the arrival of the “positive”:
And can we ever move past colonization, especially when it remains as an active toxin in the lives of Aboriginal peoples? Is it not better to try to understand its workings than to deny its existence or to judge its analysis as being necessarily “negative”?... Is it possible that in our peculiarly Canadian haste to find the positive (often confused with “avoiding the negative” or expressed as “two sides to a story”), we short-circuit our understanding of our history and our assumptions? (p. 6) My goal is to shed light on the more subtle ways in which colonization remains “an active toxin” in Indigenous and settler lives alike. I would also like to reiterate that Indigenous calls for non-Indigenous allies to support their struggles are increasingly audible. Indigenous participants in this study are no different; despite the ongoing challenges, they not only ask white settler
women to engage in solidarity, but often laud white women for their efforts:
I think a lot of work being done together is non-colonizing. I’m not saying that it’s not without its contentiousness... [or] that there’s never any colonizing behaviours in that context. But most of us get together to do something that is non-colonizing, like the solidarity with Aboriginal women on the West Coast. I think if you do nothing, that’s a colonizing behaviour. I think if you participate, that’s a non-colonizing behaviour. Even if you try to speak for us, it’s still a non-colonizing behaviour with an appropriation spin on it which can be a bit problematic. But the behaviour itself, of going out and stopping some kind of injustice, is a non-colonizing behaviour in this [colonizing] country. (Lee) Lee Maracle, while aware of the complexities of solidarity, stresses the importance of attempting it. Further, she thinks that non-colonizing solidarity is not only possible, but already underway, and that to not attempt solidarity is in itself a colonizing behaviour. Her message highlights the simple fact that non-colonizing solidarity won’t happen if people don’t take up solidarity of any kind.
Many Indigenous participants do not vilify or dismiss the motivation “to help” that seems
intrinsic to some white women’s decision to work in solidarity with Indigenous women:
I think [wanting to help is] just compassion, empathy and need. I don’t think it’s a dirty thing or a bad thing. I think it’s a beautiful thing. I think it’s terrible when people try to spin it into a bad thing. I mean isn’t that just something we innately do, is want to nurture and care for one another?... [But, helping can be destructive] if [white women] haven’t critically reflected on how their helping may actually hurt.... You really have to do your own work if you’re interested in genuinely helping. (Lydia) Lydia’s outlook is encased within a practical analytic: the work of solidarity has both positive and negative latent potential. (In the concluding chapter, I return to what a white woman ally’s “own work” might entail.) Teresa believes some women, whether Indigenous or non-Indigenous,
join movements out of political passion and a sense of urgency around the collective need to act:
It doesn’t matter whether you’re a white woman, but I think it’s got more to do with spirit and heart, and the reason why you want to join in solidarity towards a movement is because you feel passionate about the cause... As women, we’re all matriarchal, so we all have this nurturing sense about us, whether we’re mothers or not. We want to take care of things. We feel community’s important.... There’s this sense of urgency that we need do something for the sake of humanity and the protection of earth.
While both of these passages raise the issue of sex/gender essentialism, I’d like to highlight a different, and very significant, undercurrent of both—Indigenous women sometimes have a positive view of white settler women’s decisions “to join in solidarity.” A white settler woman’s commitment to solidarity is also seen as a tangible sign of “caring”
about Indigenous women, Lee’s broad point in a remark about solidarity and transformation:
I think always when people work together... [transformation] can be really limited or quite profound depending on the nature of the work together. I think the [white] women who are working with bringing attention to the murdered Aboriginal women, I think that transformation’s quite profound, because you’re fundamentally saying “We care about these women.” It requires that you care. So the people who are not caring are saying, “It’s appropriation” or “it’s this” or “it’s that,” they have a lot of reasons for not going, but the main one is they’re very scared to care. If you care about us, then it changes things. And I’ve talked with a lot of those women on those little marches.... They’re deeply caring people.... I think that change is the most important change... Because apathy is what got us killed. Apathy is a killer. So the caring is more important than anything to me.
What some call a healthy fear of appropriation, Lee considers no less than a pretext for settler colonial inaction. On that note, Teresa says, “I think a white woman who comes to the table in an attempt to work in solidarity towards an Indigenous issue is not complacent, and that’s why
they’re there.” Belinda responds likewise when asked what it would mean to be a white ally:
I guess really you care, that’s why you’re there, right? You want to do something even if you don’t know what it is you should be doing, but you want to engage somehow. You are open and willing to learn how to be a helper and you don’t necessarily have to have all the answers. You don’t have to be the expert; just your presence makes a big difference.... And just to show that people do care... in particular, what’s happening to a group of [Indigenous] women that maybe don’t show they care in the same way, but just can’t afford that time, maybe not be able to come to all these meetings.