«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
I will never be… I don’t think in my life time I will ever be completely accepted within an Indigenous community, not fully. And yet that could be my only community, if I moved in, lived there, whatever.... I understand. But, that’s the complexity of belonging and not belonging; being part of, not being part of. And I think we all have a yearning, certainly I find it in myself, for unity, for being one, for resolving the differences, for being fully accepted. And it’s hard to accept the limitations on that. And yet they’re real.
As noted earlier, Peggy has a social justice bent and clear understanding of her structural positionality as a settler, which is a large part of what has led her to solidarity work. Peggy poignantly describes the personal stakes that, for her, stand alongside the political stakes of an anticolonial project—a sense of belonging. As to whether or not most white settlers in solidarity work feel similarly, she answers, I really don’t know. I shouldn’t say that’s what all people feel. I don’t know… But certainly I know a lot of white activists have that desire [to be part of a Native community]. And I think it’s partly wanting to belong here on this continent; wanting to feel like you can be here legitimately, ethically, fully. And that also you can be proud of who you are, what your heritage is and what your ancestors did. I’d like to feel that.
In Ahmed’s (2000) lexicon, attaining such complete belonging would constitute the ultimate transformation for the settler subject. And Peggy comes close to, but stops just short of recognizing the degree to which this seemingly personal desire of white activists to belong— “legitimately, ethically, fully”—is in fact indicative of and undergirds collective settler subjectivity. When asked if she thought she would always have this desire, in particular, the
desire “to not be one of those bad settlers,” Peggy responds without hesitation:
Yes, of course! The way that you want to be part of [Indigenous struggle]. And you just want to be part of that excitement and positive change and creativity. But then it’s not quite yours. Or you think, “Oh this culture; I like this about this culture or I like that about the culture; it’s so much better in this or that way than my culture.” It’s really easy to feel this way. And if these people are your friends—some of these people are my best friends, and yet I can never fully join them in certain things. That’s painful.
Once again, Peggy recognizes, but can’t quite give up, her desire to belong. Her focus on cultural difference, as opposed to the structural imbalances in Indigenous/non-Indigenous power relations, keeps the liberal subject pursuit of proximity in motion. What would happen if white settler subjects acknowledged and then gave up this desire; (how) might intersubjective relations in the solidarity encounter then unfold? In Chapter 7, I take up these and other questions related to the possibility of non-colonizing solidarity. In Chapters 5 and 6, I continue to unpack Peggy’s statement both to further discuss white settler women’s mobilization of proximity discourses for the purposes of national belonging, and to take up the interrelated mobilization of exceptionalism discourse. In the remainder of this chapter, I analyze white settler women’s individualistic self-making practices from a different angle by looking to Indigenous women’s narrations of the solidarity encounter.
Indigenous Women and White Desire
Turning to Indigenous participant critiques of white settler women’s individualistic investments in solidarity, I’d first like to reiterate the position taken by many Indigenous participants: nonIndigenous solidarity is necessary, important and possible. What’s more, several Indigenous participants find that extreme cases of blatant colonial attitudes or behaviours, while they exist, are not the norm. Nonetheless, they recognize ever-present patterns of self-serving desires among some white women that they describe in terms of “neediness.” Moreton-Robinson (2000) found a similar observation “in the life writing of Indigenous women, [in which] white women are represented as being impersonal, individualistic and egocentric with interests to protect” (p.
19). In what follows, I point to how both the spectre of the liberal subject and notions of proximity figure into Indigenous participant critiques of some white women’s comportment in the solidarity encounter.
Among the less flattering phrases used in their critiques is the “needy do-gooder.” Several Indigenous participants note the invariable presence of the white woman “needy do-gooder,” a subject whose personal reasons (need/desire to do good) overshadow or displace any political reasons she might have for engaging in solidarity work. As Lydia puts it, “If you think about it, there are probably going to be some non-Indigenous women who feel compelled out of guilt and sympathy and empathy [to engage in solidarity]. I think that’s great, as long as you’re not a leech about it. As long as you don’t suck out of us, whatever that is.” When read in light of the intersubjective dynamics discussed above, it seems clear that Lydia is alluding to the act of settler self-making in relation to and at the expense of the Indigenous Other.
This brings me to what I consider a profound message to emerge from Indigenous narratives:
white settler women’s behaviours in the solidarity context (and beyond) are colonizing when they are invasive in either metaphorical or literal terms. In this way, Indigenous participants not only invoke the concept of proximity when describing white women’s “needy”/self-serving attitudes and behaviours, they also render its problematic aspects more comprehensible. Lee invokes the sacred in defining any attitude, belief or behaviour that transgresses the bounds of
the “cherished space” between us as colonizing:
Well, [there’s colonizing] when there’s invasion involved and the other person has to push back to get a space. [Carol Lynne: Whether that’s in a solidarity encounter or…] Exactly, or anywhere else. So there’s a space between us that’s the cherished thing. In my language, this is the home of the breath that we share. Both our breath is here. Not just my breath, not just your breath, but our common breath. The sound we make here is going to go around the world. It’ll take a hundred years. It’ll come right back to this spot.
That’s sacred. You can’t get more sacred than that. So this is what we cherish. So when you come too close and take up this space, then the cherished thing is gone. So [solidarity] requires non-invasive behaviours.
I do not intend here to compare or contrast my use of “sacred” with that of Lee’s, but rather to provide a sense of how her use of the concept fits within a broader Indigenous literature. For example, Lee’s reference to breath can be situated in what Goeman (2008) calls “the intergenerational philosophy of the breath,” which, in her study of Native women’s literature, “connects all living entities to each other as relatives” (p. 298). Shawn Wilson (2012) conveys a similarly relevant message of connection in describing the “spaces between things” (e.g., between people, or between people and concepts) as sacred.30 In his words, “when bridging that space,” we are “entering the sacred.” Within such a paradigm, our intersubjective performances as subjects in the shared, mutually constructed space of the solidarity encounter or contact zone (Pratt, 2008) matter, and ineluctably so. The task for white settler would-be allies becomes how to strive for ethical relations in a space always already marked by colonial power differences.
In what follows, I recount how white women’s deportment and practices in the solidarity encounter, particularly when overdetermined by do-gooder “neediness,” are often read by Indigenous women as invasive, that is, as embodying the desire to “come too close and take up” the sacred space that is “our common breath” (Lee). By taking into account the Indigenous woman subject’s experience of the white desire for proximity as “neediness,” I make visible the constitutive underside of the white settler woman’s desire “to help,” which is the desire/need to “be helped” by Indigenous women in her process of self-making.
Adamant in their assertions, Indigenous participants perceive some white women as entering into the solidarity space to pursue their own agenda, however defined, at the expense of Indigenous political goals. White women are seen as pursuing their personal interests in both blatant and subtle ways. When asked about what causes tension in the solidarity encounter between Indigenous women and white women, Lydia mentions a range of behaviours on the part of white women who seem to be in solidarity primarily, if unconsciously, for
White women not being able to handle it, and they run to the patriarchy, or they have their own agenda, and so they know that there’s too many layers of lateral violence to deal with women, so they go to the men, so they push a patriarchal agenda. Again, they’re not standing in solidarity. They’re not being collaborators. They’re not genuinely being allies. They’re not standing behind us and saying, “What do you want us to do?
And we’re willing to deal with all the oppression that you have... We know you’re going to be angry towards us. We know you’re going to even possibly be racist towards us, but we’re going to stand behind you instead of running away from what you’re going to do to us to a patriarch.”... That’s, I think, my most crucial analysis of what white women are doing to us. It’s because they’re not coming to us to be true allies and collaborators. They’re coming to us to see what they can get.... Academic gain, economic gain, political gain. A lot of them have their own issues, and they feel like they need to be Indigenous people’s saviours. A lot of them, I think, are spiritually disenfranchised, so they run to Indigenous people to get their spiritual enfranchisement..
.. I find they’re impinging on us, and we don’t have the resources to help them with their issues.... They shouldn’t be coming to us for help. But that’s no better than academics who come to us for a topic.
Importantly, Lydia’s comprehensive portrayal of the self-interested white settler woman ally in solidarity work—in pursuit of academic, economic, political and spiritual gain—invokes the concept of proximity: “I find they’re impinging on us, and we don’t have the resources to help them with their issues.” Lydia is the only participant to note a gendered moment of encounter where white women “run to the patriarchy” and then “push a patriarchal agenda.” Lydia’s observation suggests that privileging the political stakes of solidarity work (over the personal) would assist white settler women to withstand personal criticism and stay engaged.
For three other Indigenous participants, Danielle, Kellie and Gabriela, the composite figure of the “needy do-gooder” personifies misguided white settler investments in solidarity work with Indigenous women. According to Danielle, this (usually, but not exclusively) white settler ally often appears arrogant and egotistical; they “need to have a cause; they need to do good; they need the attention; they need the power; they need the control.” This subject resembles Heron’s (2007) development worker in that they both embody the need “to construct a sense of self in moral terms” (p. 34). Also noting do-gooder arrogance, Kellie describes a case of solidarity
gone wrong wherein a self-ascribed white woman ally is spurred on by a sense of entitlement:
[The two Native men] were saying, “Do you know how disrespectful this looks?” And she was like, “But I’ve got every right to own this because this is the feather that I have and I’m studying in the shaman school and you’ve got no right to criticize me and my ability to be a shaman.” [They went on,] “But you understand that you’re trying to make this a welcoming solidarity space, but the first thing a Native person sees is that? They’re going to want nothing to do with you.... You don’t even deserve to own this [feather].”... The worst part is... maybe if she was like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know”—[but] she just didn’t care.... It was her damn right as a white person to do whatever [she] wanted.
... She’s claiming she’s in solidarity... [that this is] a solidarity space.
Kellie’s observation provides a glimpse into a local manifestation of the colonial continuity that Heron (2007) calls “planetary consciousness”: “Both as individuals and as national subjects, white middle-class Canadians and other Northerners continue to construct through the prism of a planetary consciousness a sense of self in moral terms that expresses the entitlement and obligation bourgeois subjects feel to ‘help’ Others” (p. 34). As Danielle, Kellie and Heron (2007) point out, the liberal subject feels both entitled and obliged to engage in activities that would establish her moral rectitude. Such feelings of entitlement and obligation conjure up a related aspect of liberal subjectivity—the arrogant belief that we, as individuals, have the power (and hence must act) to effect change. To clarify, I found little indication of such a brazen approach among white participants in this study, which suggests either that they are exceptional or more likely, that entitlement in the contemporary solidarity encounter is nuanced in its manifestations (see also Chapter 6). Moreover, as noted above, most white participants seem to remain troubled about having an entitled role in solidarity work.