«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
I want to hone in on the final part of Alicia’s passage where she says, “I was very intrigued as a little scientist.” Despite her transformation for the better (through proximity), Alicia retains a distance from the Other or, perhaps better said, puts the Other at a distance—what Ahmed (2000) describes as the “distancing perspective of the masculine, colonising gaze” (p. 120, emphasis in original). I am reminded of Dawn’s response when asked about her motivation for working on the issue of the missing and murdered Indigenous women: “There’s two aspects to it. One is, it has a face for me, and that face, really, is my [non-Indigenous] sister.” Earlier in the
interview, Dawn spoke about the impact of this sister on her own social justice leanings:
My sister had a difficult life. I don’t think she worked the [Vancouver] Downtown Eastside, but she definitely got involved with shady characters. She wasn’t an alcoholic, she wasn’t a drug user, but she hung out with people like that because she felt that that’s as good as it got for her. [...] That’s sort of all women in a sense, who are seeking to make it in the world, and there’s just a lot of pitfalls out there waiting for us in many, many ways. So there’s that. Then there’s another aspect, is I love... It’s fun to pick an issue, for me, that is stuck and say, “How do we unstick this?”... It’s a challenge to say, “How do we move this sucker?” I enjoy that.... It’s like, “Oh my god.” It’s an edge for me.
Initially, Dawn makes no distinction between the circumstances of Indigenous and nonIndigenous women, which could be problematic in and of itself, as I discuss above. However, she keeps Indigenous women at a distance in much the same way as Alicia when describing how she loves a challenge (also included in my proximity rubric). Not coincidentally, both narratives invoke the liberal subject’s rationale capacity and discernment. What sustains this persistent distancing of Indigenous women (and men) as Other? Moreton-Robinson (2000) provides
insights in her analysis of white feminist academics’ intellectual engagement with racism:
Here the person’s relationship to racism is one through which she enhances her transformative potential as a feminist. Her intellectual engagement with racism inspires her and enhances her personal development. However, racism here too is treated as something public and external to the subject position middle-class white woman; it is something that one gets involved in by choice. (p. 142) Through distancing, Moreton-Robinson explains, white feminist academics perform themselves as disembodied (i.e., rational), individualistic subjects who remain outside of power relations.
As I discuss above, white settler women subjects seem predisposed to seeing our involvement in political struggle/solidarity (including as academics) as a matter of personal “choice,” which in turn can “enhance [our] personal development” (Moreton-Robinson, 2000, p. 142).
I suggest that this distancing has an historical predecessor—what Yeğenoğlu (1998) calls the “simulation of sovereign masculine discourse” (p. 107) performed by the white settler/imperialist woman/feminist subject, also theorized by scholars such as Burton (1994), Grewal (1996), Lewis (1996) and Spivak (1985). Doubly positioned as both colonizer and colonized, unable to secure authoritative selfhood in the metropole, this subject turned to the colonies where she could simulate sovereign masculine discourse, but primarily with respect to Other women. By aligning herself with patriarchal empire—and performing a masculinized, universalizing gesture—the white woman could secure entrance into modernity as a universal, rights-endowed subject. Perhaps this explains the partial transferability of Ahmed’s (2000) treatment of white settler masculine colonial subjectivity—the white settler woman subject models her Self after the masculine subject, a subject who has yet to have his hierarchical status removed.
To summarize my theorizing thus far, the white settler woman sometimes mobilizes discourses of proximity to re-instantiate herself as the autonomous subject, the “I” whose liberal agency is exercised and confirmed through its capacity to access, observe, know and/or become like the Other. Ahmed (2000) explains, “Narratives [of becoming] which enable the one to get closer to the many... are premised on epistemic authority” (p. 125), which is concealed and thus resolidified through various techniques such as the strategy of claiming false equivalences. As an example, Ahmed (2000) cites academics’ efforts to re-designate informants as co-authors, as
happened in the “Bell controversy” (see also Chapter 3):
But to say that ethnographers should rename their informants as co-authors would be to conceal how this debt also involves forms of appropriation and translation: it would conceal that the ones who are known have not authorised the forms of writing and knowledge produced by ethnographers, but have been authorised by it. To say that Nelson was not a co-author in any “equal” sense of the term, is to point to the way in which Bell’s debt to her informants does not mean an overcoming of the power relations that allow the ethnographer to transform others into strangers, in order to mark out “a field (of knowledge).” (pp. 63–64) This brings to mind a scenario describe by Lydia, one of the Indigenous participants in my
When [a white woman] organizes an event in collaboration with other people, with [Native] women, I find that sometimes what the white women are doing is they’re working with a [Native] woman who will acquiesce to them... so it’s not genuine ally collaboration.... [a woman who will] cave to their needs, let them take the lead. [Native women] don’t have the same amount of power as that other person. Actually, that person has power over them.... Also, selecting abstracts with an Indigenous woman, where [the white woman has] power over her does not make it ally theory. You’re still exercising your power in selecting abstracts and who gets published in your book. Just because they have a body beside them that is an Indigenous woman, doesn’t mean it’s truly collaborative.
Here, Lydia renders hollow some white women’s claims of non-hierarchical collaboration attained through proximity—i.e., “they have a [Native] body beside them”—whether in event organization or academic publishing. Such claims work similarly to the ways in which statements of co-authorship can conceal the “forms of appropriation and translation” endemic to many academic/activist projects. Such claims can work to conceal preexisting power relations that establish the terms of the encounter.
To continue with my analysis, I turn to Chloe, who positions herself as a white woman in her response to my CFP and who when interviewed shares her life story with little prompting. Her “narrative of becoming” seems particularly suggestive of how the desire to transform the settler Self through the Indigenous Other can unfold, and is replete with the kind of fantastical
elements described by Ahmed (2000) in her analysis of Dances with Wolves:
The tale of becoming... involves fantasy at the level of the fascination with the “strangers” that the subject enters a relationship with through becoming. It involves fantasy at a more structural level in terms of the organization of the narrative itself by a particular self–other dynamic. In other words, the story of becoming involves not just a destructuring of white masculinity, but its restructuring in relation to the other, who ceases to be a stranger, but instead becomes one’s “native self.” (p. 122) The structure of Chloe’s narrative is indeed organized by a “particular self–other dynamic,” which includes both a de- and restructuring of white femininity, in this case. About a third into the interview, Chloe makes repeated mention of her “Native self,” explaining that she moved to
her current location in part to be closer to her distant “Native roots”:
I’m not an outsider working with [Indigenous women]. [...] I’m one who got by all the doors, through all the doors. I’m a little ahead of them in progression, in the good things of life. I’m trying to help. Again, it’s something that we’re trying to help people who we, where we’re related to them, there’s blood ties, get ahead too. It’s not a social service.
When we gender Ahmed’s theory, we find an example of the doubly positioned white settler woman subject “becoming” a “helper” of Other women through proximity. This “particular self–other dynamic” is further layered, however. When pressed, Chloe explains that she thinks of her work with Indigenous women as neither solidarity nor charity, but as a process of reconnection with extended members of a family. Chloe describes her desire and efforts to
change what she considers her estranged status in relation to a specific Indigenous community:
I feel that it’s more a family feeling than solidarity. I feel that they are relatives. [...] We’re not going [to the upcoming celebration in a nearby Native community] to stay strangers; we’re going there to see distant relatives. [Solidarity] is not the feeling I have towards Native people because I’m aware that there’s this link, family link.
Invoking (only to reject) the concept of “strangers,” Chloe seems to claim the status of Other, taking her out of the political and into the personal realm. In the process, she appears to perform a blend of the “three key modalities of going strange, going native: consuming, becoming and passing” (Ahmed, 2000, p. 115). Even as she appears in these passages to blur and thus level the Indigenous/non-Indigenous hierarchical relation, not unlike Alicia and Dawn above, she ultimately retains the distinction and her superior position therein: “I’m a little ahead of them in progression, in the good things of life.” Chloe manages to occupy two seemingly contradictory subject positions at once, bringing us back to the paradoxical positioning of the white settler/imperialist woman/feminist subject. How is this accomplished? Ahmed (2000) identifies passing as one of the techniques employed by the dominant subject to retain her superior position: “The difference [between self and other] is disavowed in the assumption that the subject has assumed the place of the other; and yet in assuming the place of the other rather than simply being the other, the difference is perpetually reaffirmed.... Passing is here the fantasy of an ability (or a technique) to become without becoming” (p. 132). In claiming Indigenous ancestry, Chloe comes perilously close to glossing over “the processes whereby [Other] subjects come to be seen as ‘having’ a prior and fixed identity” (Ahmed, 2000, p. 128). The question remains, is Chloe attempting to level the social antagonisms of colonial history that mark her as a privileged white settler subject?
A closer look at the “consuming” modality of “going strange, going native” is useful here.
Drawing on hooks’ insights into the racialized dynamics of intersubjective relations, Anderson (2000) discusses her experience of being Othered as a Cree/Métis woman in a colonial context:
“Sometimes people glow all over you about your heritage; others want to use you as some kind of showpiece. It is a sexualized identity, which, in my case, has, for example, resulted in the humiliating experience of being called ‘my little Indian’ as a measure of affection” (pp. 106– 107). “This syndrome,” Anderson (2000) says, is encapsulated by hooks’ (1992) seminal notion
of “eating the Other,” a phenomenon whose central logic involves the desire for proximity:
People with a desire for “eating the Other” do not see themselves operating within a racist framework; rather, they think they are progressive in their desire to make contact.
hooks suggests that relations of this nature may further be used to assuage guilt and “take the form of a defiant gesture where one denies accountability and historical connection.” (p. 107) There is a strong parallel between the “defiant gesture” of “eating the Other” and Ahmed’s (2000) depiction of “going strange, going native”: proximity is the vehicle for concealing historical relations of domination and subordination, and for re-establishing the autonomy and innocence of dominant subjects in both. Here too, I suggest, a gender analytic is needed. Given the hegemony of heteropatriachy, the white settler woman subject may be more likely to want to “befriend the Indian” (and then help her) rather than possess her sexually.29 Either way, two common denominators persist: “a desire to cross some kind of frontier [and] to be transformed by the experiences” and the hope that getting closer “is proof that we have all transcended the racism [including its colonial forms] that plagues the Americas” (Anderson, 2000, p. 107).
To make definitive conclusions about any one white participant’s “narrative of becoming” would be speculative (not to mention overly positivistic). I cannot know, for example, if Chloe or any other white participant is “consuming, becoming or passing” as Other in order to assuage their white settler guilt (in fact, Chloe flatly rejects the insinuation that guilt has been operative in any way in her own solidarity endeavors). Moreover, as I discuss in Chapter 3, a subject’s individual intentions are not always (or, often) relevant; by virtue of being structurally positioned, a subject is endowed with a certain privilege and role in power dynamics. That said, a generalized desire for proximity clearly traverses participant narratives, and one white participant, Peggy, clearly corroborates a main theoretical supposition of this study—that a desire for legitimacy undergirds settler subjectivity, notwithstanding settlers’ struggles to come to terms with that desire. Peggy has many decades of solidarity work under her belt and speaks
articulately to her own desire to be accepted by the Indigenous community: