«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
I conclude this section by discussing the narratives of two other white participants—Dawn and Chloe. Dawn’s description of Canadians’ collective responsibility vis-à-vis violence against women in general and violence against Indigenous women in particular leads to a starker
example of the complexities—and contradictions—of white settler woman subjectivity:
We’re doing a very bad job [of preventing violence against women], and you might say that the failure to address things at an early stage then escalates into a murder. So when you look at the Aboriginal women issue, that’s sort of like the worst of the worst. But you know what? Overall, it’s not so hot. It gets back to your issue of partnerships. So whose problem is that? It would be ours, because it’s the effectiveness of an essential institution [police and justice systems] in democracy, it’s the effectiveness of your security and protection, and how well is that working. So it’s not their problem. It’s our problem.
In this passage, Dawn accepts that the problem of violence against Indigenous women, indeed against all women, is the collective responsibility of (white) settler Canadians. She is also committed to doing her part to ensure Canadian democracy for all. In the next breath, however, she rejects the usefulness of colonialism as a term of political struggle. When asked if she had encountered power dynamics in solidarity work that she would define as colonial, she replies, I guess any time one assumes, which I think we all do, that our perspective is more informed than the other guy’s, that’s a form of colonialism.... My sense of colonialism is that if you read history, people are continually whacking people.... There is no race or group that has ownership of that thing. It embeds the “them” and “us” thing and it undermines really what you need when you talk about partnerships. Your partners can happen anywhere. This happened when I was very involved with women’s issues a long time ago. At that time, the women didn’t want the men involved.... If you are focused on an outcome, you find your partnerships wherever they are, and trust yourself to be able to identify them. [The term colonialism] has a lot of baggage to it. It’s them and us, and “All those guys did it to us, and we have to watch those guys.” And you do watch those guys. Why not? Watch them, but some of them are the ones who can be your allies. Any good warrior always figures out where your allies are.
Dawn not only eschews colonialism’s positive utility as an analytic, she implies that using it impedes partnerships (her preferred term for solidarity). To make her argument, Dawn uses the tactic of false equivalences; she attempts to establish distinct sets of social and political relations (temporally and thematically) as equivalent, an action that, as Ahmed’s (2000) theory of stranger fetishism suggests, would serve to conceal the specific histories of determination that constitute Indigenous/settler relations in Canada.19 Chloe registers a more striking refusal to acknowledge the complicity of white women in colonial processes, highlighting instead how
white women should benefit from the solidarity encounter:
You’re asking the white woman to do that and say [“I did this wrong and I did that wrong”]; that has no value to her. You’ve got to give her something for herself. And that’s not doing it. So she comes and talks to you and she talks to a Native woman. She is maybe able to help or suggest or even to listen to the Native woman, sit down and talk.
Suddenly her life becomes… she starts telling her stories. And it’s really all about telling your stories. And that gives her value. It lessens her load and she has more energy to do work with you too. Sometimes this nonsense about guilt (I hope we’re not getting to that)... and who’s the bad guys and who’s not the bad guys. We’ve all been bad guys at one time; we’ve all been good guys at another time.... Let’s tell our stories, listen to each other and get on with what we have to do together to make it better. I just don’t see any point in [guilt].... You’re going to tell some people who are nasty to Indians in Canada whose ancestors came from some place where they were starving to death in Europe.... There’s no value in doing that type of thing. It’s good to listen to everybody’s story though. Because you learn where they’re coming from and where you’re coming from.
Chloe’s insistence that “you’ve got to give [the white woman] something for herself” provides a perfect segue into my analysis of the self-serving/self-making aspects of solidarity for white women, aspects that I argue often involve the mobilization of discourses of proximity. And while Dawn’s and Chloe’s are minority responses in their at times blatant dismissal of the relevance of colonial relations to contemporary solidarity encounters, their sentiments align with other white women’s more subtle attempts to relativize histories and power differences through discourses of proximity, as we shall see. The alignment occurs along the same fault line, namely that the white collectivity recedes from view as critical white individuals take its place.
Proximity at Work: Reinstalling Colonial Logic/Colonial Selves Thank you for making me feel welcomed.
This rather ordinary statement takes on greater significance when understood in a settler colonial context. Lingering around after a film screening about violence against Indigenous women, I overheard this remark made by a white woman (who I had met before in passing) to two of the Indigenous women organizers of the event. After she’d gone, and after some mutual eye rolling, we talked about what had transpired. Left a bit confused myself, I was struck by the Indigenous women’s immediate clarity in response; they shared the interpretation that here was another white settler woman who wanted to feel welcome in what she saw as an Indigenous space. Far from being an isolated incident in their minds, this exchange represented something quite typical of the solidarity encounter. How do we make sense of the white settler woman subject’s desire to feel welcome? What anxieties underpin her desire? Why do Indigenous women find that such momentary expressions of white settler anxiety/desire undermine collective political struggle?
In what follows, I suggest that such desires are indicative of a deeper longing for legitimacy that haunts the (white) settler/liberal subject, a longing that by definition is never permanently satisfied in a settler colonial context. White settler women, therefore, enter into solidarity encounters as subjects haunted by the same longing. Although an aspect of collective settler subjectivity, this anxiety is often experienced by the liberal subject in individualistic/personal terms—rather than as arising out of structural power relations, i.e., as both personal and political. Further, the liberal subject pursues this seemingly individualistic desire for legitimacy through proximity to Others. Thus, I include statements such as “thank you for making me feel welcomed” under the broad rubric of proximity discourse, which can be deployed by white settler women in our quest to do away with inequality and recuperate a sense of ourselves as good, moral subjects. In pursuing proximity, we seek to sustain the “fiction of reciprocity” (Pratt, 2008) or equal power relations between ourselves and Indigenous women, and gain legitimacy.20 In my analysis, I ask to what extent this move to establish reciprocity is underwritten and enabled by the white woman’s historical, paradoxical gendered colonial position as both oppressor/colonizer and oppressed/colonized, together with her quest for liberal subject status.
Is the white settler woman in the contemporary solidarity encounter similarly interpellated? In other words, do we (still) seek to establish ourselves as the (relatively) liberated helpers of more oppressed women even as we sustain a belief in fictional reciprocity and our own innocence?
True reciprocity after all would negate the possibility of “helping” in its hegemonic colonial form—hierarchical relations between a dominant helper and subordinate recipient of help. Also, how does the pursuit of proximity assist the white settler woman subject in this endeavor?
Drawing mainly on Ahmed (2000), I explore if and how proximity discourses operate in white women’s narratives. I also draw on Heron (2007) and others who address the reproduction of white/Western privilege in various contexts. For example, Mahrouse (2009) describes white/Western citizen journalists’ attempts to perform themselves as the dominant subjects of racialized, hierarchal encounters with Others in the Global South.21 Directing her concern to the Canadian context, Schick (1998) describes white pre-service teachers’ investments in attaining closeness to Native bodies as “a modern day version of [the] colonialist presumption [wherein] the purpose of Native bodies remains in their service to dominant populations” (p. 184). First, however, I provide a brief overview of the contours of proximity in the solidarity encounter (see also Chapter 3).
Defining proximity in the solidarity encounter
My fundamental argument is that the colonizing relationship persists through the pursuit of proximity or closeness. That is, the (white settler/liberal) autonomous subject needs proximity to reproduce itself as such. In colonial contexts, to desire closeness (figurative or literal) reflects and maintains an individualistic standpoint. In making my assertions, I begin with Ahmed’s (2000) theory of colonial encounters as strange encounters that “involve, at one and the same time, social and spatial relations of distance and proximity” (p. 12). Strange encounters between subjects must be contextualized in terms of historical power inequities; encounters yet to come “also reopen prior histories of encounter that violate and fix others in regimes of difference.
Encounters are meetings, then, which are not simply in the present: each encounter reopens past encounters” (Ahmed, 2000, p. 8, emphasis in original). “Others” are constituted as such through ongoing social and spatial relations of proximity (and distance) marked by historical relations of force and contestation. I define the solidarity encounter as one such mode of proximity where “regimes of differences” (power inequalities) are concealed through stranger fetishism.
Through stranger fetishism, the existence or impact of such “prior histories of encounter” goes undetected, or rather, is obscured in/at the very moment of encounter, which then can fuel the fantasy (primarily on the part of the dominant subject) that power relations do not exist or can be equalized and/or transcended. It is this fantastical element of stranger fetishism that I find potentially revelatory for understanding intersubjective relations in the solidarity encounter.
Dominant subjects employ various discursive “techniques” that serve their reinstallation as autonomous, (all) knowing subjects by re-concealing how “the stranger” and the “I” come into
being. All techniques hinge on the “I’s” mobility vis-à-vis Others who are fixed in place:
The very techniques of consuming, becoming and passing are informed by access to cultural capital and knowledge embedded in colonial and class privilege which give the dominant subject the ability to move and in which “the stranger” is assumed to be knowable, seeable and hence be-able. In the end, “the stranger” becomes “the truth” insofar as it exists to confirm the ability of the Western self to find the truth. (Ahmed, 2000, p. 133, emphasis in original) These techniques, as reflective of the desire for transcendence, often present in combination and involve formulations of proximity or closeness: calls for friendship or collaboration; the acquisition of knowledge of “strangers” or “strange” communities; 22 and the promise of selfdiscovery or transformation wherein “the ‘stranger’ is the object of desire” (Ahmed, 2000, p.
115). The last category, self-discovery and transformation, involves consuming, becoming and passing, the “three key modalities of going strange, going native” (p. 115) through which the Western subject is constituted as having the “agency to become different, rather than simply be different (the authentic stranger, or the authentic spice)” (Ahmed, 2000, p. 118).
In my analysis, I note the operation of similar techniques/discourses of proximity in the solidarity encounter. In fact, desires for proximity (and hence the discursive renderings that I call proximity discourses) appear to saturate white participant narratives. I use proximity as a container concept to refer to a spectrum of self-making behaviours (in service of liberal subject reproduction) from quite subtle to more blatant. I include a host of intertwined desires/discourses under the proximity umbrella: the desire to be accepted by or included/welcomed into an Indigenous community (which incorporates desires for forgiveness or validation); the desire to be healed or empowered, to be valued or gain a sense of purpose; an attraction to or appreciation of Indigenous culture, tradition and/or spirituality (sometimes coupled with a scathing critique of Western societal lack); and the desire to learn or be challenged.23 Underlying much of this is a belief in the right to access Indigenous spaces, or those contexts in which Indigenous peoples predominate in number and presumably influence.
Another common feature of proximity discourses is the expectation of self-improvement or gain via engagement with the Other. In light of Ahmed’s (2000) observation that “contemporary Western culture is imbued with fantasies of becoming” (p. 119), I identify some of the “fantasies of becoming” (or fantasies of self-making) that imbue white participant interviews wherein seeking self-betterment is often at the core and which constitute a particular iteration of the quest to attain the status of self-determining subject.