«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
For Belinda, white women have a responsibility to work in political solidarity around the issue of the murdered and missing Indigenous women, especially in light of the economic barriers that constrain many Indigenous women’s (and men’s) political activism.7 While unequivocal in her position that white women should “care” about violence against Indigenous women, Belinda also sets parameters around that involvement: the white woman should be present as a peer, not an expert, and demonstrate a willingness to learn how to help. Indigenous leadership should be centred to mitigate the possibility of ally domination in the solidarity encounter.8 Importantly, these passages lack much of an analysis of how the white woman’s decision to “help” or “care” is risk-laden. My aim in this chapter and beyond is to elucidate this risk: the setting in motion of the liberal subject’s individualistic quest for legitimate (good/innocent) status. The white settler woman’s objective too easily veers away from the political one of dismantling colonial structures and towards the personal one of settler self-making.
The complexities of the fluid desire to “help” Others are perhaps most amply discussed by scholars writing on the sociopolitical, ethical dilemmas of international development.9 For instance, in line with several of the Indigenous participants cited above, Gada Mahrouse (2009) maintains that the inclination to help, when carefully and continuously examined, is warranted by the political exigencies of our times.10 In this chapter, I draw specifically on Heron’s (2007) analysis of the “helping imperative,” which she defines as the “desire for other people’s development” (p. 6) that drives white/Northern middle-class women to do development work in the Global South. Heron calls into question the prevailing notion that development is inherently good, and instead exposes the self-serving, self-making processes often at its core. The desire to help becomes a vehicle for the fulfillment of “a moral imperative in processes of white feminist identity formation” (p. 16). Tracing the historical contours of helping, she notes four discursive “colonial continuities” that persevere in the subject formation processes of such development workers: planetary consciousness, self-affirmation through racialized comparisons, a sense of obligation and entitlement to do the work, and a fascination with Others. She highlights the gendered dimension of these processes: “The operation of colonial continuities can also be detected in constructions of gender, which position middle-class white women as simultaneously subjects and non-subjects who may enhance their hold on bourgeois subjectivity through the performance of ‘goodness’” (Heron, 2007, p. 7). As I discuss in Chapter 3, white settler women have been doubly positioned as both dominant and subordinate, leading to our particular interpellation as subjects: helping is what white women “are socially mandated to do” (Heron, 2007, p. 44). Building on these ideas, through a careful reading of participant narratives, I tease apart the site-specific complexities of intersubjective dynamics in the solidarity encounter between Indigenous women and white women in Canada, which coalesce in what I call the impulse to solidarity.11
Positioned for/in Encounter
The saliency of the solidarity encounter and its subjects being embedded in broader colonial relations cannot be overstated. To sideline this fact leads to ignoring the hierarchical positioning of subjects within the encounter, which, as Ahmed (2000) reminds us, is “to refuse to recognise the constraints that temporarily fix subjects in relations of social antagonism” (p. 127). How are hierarchical relations between Indigenous women and white women brought to bear initially in the solidarity encounter? Do women in each group express correspondingly different reasons for engaging in political activism/solidarity in the first place? At first glance, there seems to be little difference; for instance, social justice is a central motivating factor for most participants, and several Indigenous women and white women (although fewer) talk about the existential importance of living and working together for all peoples. In looking more closely at the data, however, I noted a divergence between the two groups: Indigenous women typically position themselves as members of a collectivity and discuss their foray into political activism or solidarity as a matter of their responsibility to ensure the survival of that collectivity; in contrast, white women tend to position themselves as individuals and their involvement in political activism or solidarity as more of a personal matter. This suggests that participants’ stated reasons for entering into political activism/solidarity flow in part from their structural locations.
In this chapter, I analyze white women’s narratives in this regard and turn to Indigenous women’s tendency to position themselves as members of a collectivity in the next chapter.12 Why might white women be more apt and able to present themselves as individuals who make a personal choice to do solidarity work as opposed to members of a white settler collectivity who are obliged to do so? For Moreton-Robinson (2000), white women’s social location affords them a certain invisibility (the option to not see oneself as a member of a privileged collectivity), which enables a subject to preserve a sense of individualism: “Having a place in the centre of white culture confers privilege and the capacity to be able to make choices about one’s identity that is not accorded those positioned in the margins” (p. 147). Drawing a similar conclusion in her study of white pre-service teachers’ rehearsals of whiteness when performing Canadian national identity, Carol Schick (1998) comments on the regulatory forces forestalling such awareness: “Such are the sanctions against certain kinds of racialized discourse that elaborately circuitous routes are available to keep subjects from saying anything that would cause them to confront directly their own complicity and racial privilege” (p. 172). Both scholars suggest that given the structural power relations of the colonial encounter, one would not expect a sustained level of awareness among white women of their membership in a white settler collectivity. The data in this study also suggests that it is hard for white women to imagine ourselves as members of a collectivity because to do so would mean acknowledging our implication in colonialism. Despite our awareness of this difficulty, or perhaps because of it, many white participants are swayed towards seeing themselves as individuals standing outside of colonialism.
When asked if Indigenous women have a role to play as allies in the struggles of other women, Teresa contrasts her communal orientation to political struggle as an Indigenous woman with
what she sees as the Western tendency towards individualism:
I think that with the birth of Protestantism and capitalism and that sense of individual gain, a lot of Western women have isolated themselves from community struggles. And it’s become more of an “I” thing. [Another] student... asked me how I would define success, and it’s not a personal thing, really, at all. Success for me is sovereignty for our nations and other nations, the freedom to have access to their own ideology in academic institutions, freedom to access information, clean drinking water, proper housing. On an international [level] would be ideal. First we have to struggle for that for our own communities, but at the same time try and draw those parallels of international struggles.
To what extent are white participant narratives consonant with Teresa’s observations? How do white women depict their involvement in political activism/solidarity work?
For starters, no white woman describes her involvement in solidarity work directly as a matter of collective survival. Also unlike several Indigenous participants, white participants rarely talk of having found themselves propelled into solidarity work. Instead, they speak of having had the choice or the privilege of engaging in the work, as demonstrated in the following two narratives.
Alicia notes a similarity between her entry into political activism with Indigenous women and
the activism of second wave white feminists more generally:
Maybe... it’s a matter of me being spoiled that I have the luxury of time to be able to care about these things. Because I think that’s a criticism of feminism is that it was spearheaded by white middle-class women who had the privilege to go out and fight for something. They weren’t struggling with a baby on each arm and scrubbing a toilet at the same time and didn’t have other constraints that would stop them.... They were educated; they had relative affluence and so they had this privilege. In a sense, I see it for me as—maybe it’s a privilege that I have the opportunity to care about an issue.
In this passage, especially when read in the context of our overall exchange, Alicia clearly seems to see herself exercising her relative structural privilege as a white woman in choosing to “care about” Indigenous women’s issues and do solidarity work. But, even so, her tone comes perilously close to that of “helping” the less fortunate Other. As theories on the limits of white/settler self-reflexivity (Smith, 2013a, 2013b) suggest, admitting one’s privilege can amount to a “confessional,” individualizing act and not necessarily to a sustained grasp of one’s location in a white settler collectivity. The white woman subject who recognizes her privilege in individualistic rather than structural terms is apt to see Indigenous women as underprivileged rather than oppressed, and perhaps more likely to adopt a saviour mentality as opposed to an anticolonial critique. Wanda Whitebird, an Indigenous participant, recalls a white woman activist who did not appear to see Indigenous women as allies in struggle, but rather as in need of help: “I think she’d be surprised that [Indigenous people] live on the Queen’s Quay [in downtown Toronto]. I think that she thinks that we’re people who don’t say anything, and we’re all victims and we need saving.” The language of (individual) privilege and personal choice (as opposed to collective responsibility) can keep the white settler subject centred and lead to a politics of saving.
Another white participant correlates choice and solidarity, but without inference to structural privilege. For Eve, alliances or coalitions do not constitute examples of political solidarity absent the element of choice. She contrasts her current experience of solidarity-like relations
with Indigenous women with her past experiences of solidarity work:
It could be [that I’m doing solidarity work now]. I just don’t call it that and I feel different about it because it was something that I have to do, as opposed to I chose to do.
That for me feels like a pretty fundamental difference.... So it’s not like I don’t enjoy it; it’s not like I’m not learning from it or I don’t want to be there, but it was not something that we created together. It was something that I was brought into, in a way.
I think, just like in any activist organizing, I think you should have the choice of who you want to work in solidarity with. In a coalition, it’s much more difficult, but I would just make sure that I would have a choice in that. I think that’s really important. I would also make sure that there is a basis of unity, or common understanding, or basis of solidarity around the fundamental reason why you’re together, regardless to what that reason is.
For Eve, one should always be able to choose with whom to work in solidarity and presumably make that choice based on political conviction. In fact, NMS as a group took this same position (D’Arcangelis & Huntley, 2012). However, more striking is what Eve leaves unexamined, and what Indigenous participant narratives do not—the structural privilege that enables that choice in the first place. Both Alicia and Eve centre choice as a defining feature of their solidarity work in contrast with Indigenous women’s descriptions of solidarity as sometimes a default outcome or requisite aspect of political activism—whether because, as Belinda notes with ironic humor, there are “always white people involved, they always get in,” or because Indigenous people out of necessity seek white allies for viable political action. As Ardra notes, “We just don’t have the numbers to do it on our own anyways.”13 Citing an example of Indigenous women’s entrance into political struggle, Wanda alludes to how Indigenous peoples have always had to negotiate their structural positionality: “We had to go to university to become lawyers. It’s always an education in another system that taught us to do that.” Moreton-Robinson (2000) speaks to this
contrast in subject positions and corresponding subjectivities in the Australian context:
Indigenous women are the ones who have to negotiate and deploy different subject positions in processes of inter-subjectivity with white women irrespective of their class.
There is no such imperative for white women in their relationships with Indigenous people. The marginal position of Indigenous people in Australian society means that white knowledges and cultural practices always circumscribe our subjectivity. (p. 21) For this reason, Moreton-Robinson (2000) concludes there is a limited likelihood that white women will critically reflect on their structural positionality in white settler colonial processes.