«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
Reflecting on her coalition work with non-Indigenous women in particular, Gabriela uses strong imagery to describe the ultimately debilitating effects of the need to do/be good on solidarity efforts: “There are [non-Indigenous] people... who are really needy and want to engage with you in a way that you want to really move away rather than toward... well, kind of like a succubus, the ones who are kind of... You know what a succubus is? It sucks the blood out.” Gabriela hones in on a central feature of the gamut of needy behaviors described by Indigenous women: its invasiveness, whether metaphoric (e.g., draining Indigenous women’s psychic or emotional energy) or embodied (e.g., taking up too much physical space). Long-time Indigenous activist Lee also identifies a settler desire of proximity that can interfere with solidarity efforts.
While this passage does not include a gendered analysis of the solidarity encounter (which Lee provides elsewhere in the interview), it suggests two things: the existence of a generalized settler desire for proximity that takes specifically gendered and racialized forms; and that
colonialism is indeed an over-determining factor in Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations:
The Oka Crisis required a higher level of engagement, and nobody I worked closely with saw themselves as anything but a settler in that moment, because it required that kind of deeper understanding of what the relationship was, a deeper understanding of what we were doing, a higher level of commitment. All of that sort of looking inside and looking outside, and understanding history, and understanding what the future...all of this....
But to do a project that’s got an anticolonial outcome, you don’t have to have a view of yourself as a settler. But I will tell you that you will run into difficulty working with Aboriginal people unless you’re clear about that. Because I think the expectation is that they’ll get close to us. People who don’t have an understanding of the colonial relation want to be close to us. That’s been my experience. And that doesn’t happen and then they'll be disappointed.
In this passage, Lee raises the intriguing idea that (white) settler investments in solidarity happen along a continuum, a point to which I return in the final chapter. She also touches on several key arguments of this chapter and overall study. First, she notes the desire for proximity that infuses settler solidarity work, especially among those who do not have a solid grasp of their historic subject position as settlers. She also identifies the disappointment of some settler allies when they do not achieve closeness, a scenario which resonates with my experience of solidarity work recounted above. Finally, Lee corroborates the importance of anticolonial analysis. She implies that a “higher level of engagement” in solidarity work is sustained by “that kind of deeper understanding of... the [colonial] relationship.” Another common feature of Indigenous narratives on white desire is the undue burden it can place on Indigenous individuals or groups to assume a caretaking or educative role in the presence of white subjects. Indigenous women are asked to educate, take care of, cede space and/or take a back seat to white women (and men) in meetings or events. Indigenous women describe these particular white pursuits as a major limitation to the solidarity encounter that is temporarily overcome in rare instances—where the burden is lifted, where Indigeneity doesn’t have to be explained or where whiteness doesn’t “matter.” To be clear, the issue is not whether or not Indigenous women are up to the task. This articulation of the problem risks reproducing the Indigenous subject as damaged and inferior—and in need of helping/saving. Rather, the point is not only that such demands are experienced by Indigenous women as invasive/colonial, but that they can impede solidarity efforts. Further, as manifestations of the white desire for proximity, these demands can set in motion, as discussed above, the reproduction of the white settler woman as autonomous subject.
According to Indigenous participants, certain white settler comportments in the solidarity encounter can “hijack” what should be a space dedicated to Indigenous political concerns. In what follows, some participant narratives refer to “mixed” spaces of women and men. As with the above examples, however, they provide valuable articulations of generalized white settler
desire. I begin with Kellie:
The meeting was over, essentially. He hijacked it with his own pain.... That’s where I think it becomes, not cultural appropriation, but there’s a boundary that’s been crossed which you haven’t been invited over. Because suddenly it wasn’t about the meeting, it wasn’t about that one woman sharing her pain or why she felt the word genocide was important and her story and her collective cultural story she was telling. Once again a white man has hijacked the whole space. [As someone said], “Now, again, we have to stop what we’re doing in our own healing to make sure you’re okay. Even though you’re our oppressors, we have to make sure you’re okay?”... What a waste of energy that is.
Rubina, quoted earlier, reacts to a similar scenario: “It’s that settler people and white people, white people specifically, get to cry about [Indigenous oppression]. Why the fuck do they get to cry about it and I don’t?” For her part, Lydia mentions having “to moderate my emotions about what colonization has done because it’s offensive to a lot of people, but I feel like I’m extra burdened.” Ursula provides one last example in recalling a workshop on decolonization during which a white woman stood up and said “something like... ‘I just feel so bad.’ And then she would start crying, ‘But it’s not really my fault because I was born into this.’... Then having to tiptoe around really naming things or calling people out because we don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.” In these scenarios, Indigenous women are once again impinged upon, as Lydia puts it, by the personal investments and corresponding self-making processes of white settler subjects— women and sometimes men—at the expense of the political agenda on the table. Further, the onus is on Indigenous women not only to control their emotive responses (e.g., anger) to Indigenous dispossession, but also to comfort the emotive reactions of white settlers to the same.
A subset of Indigenous women mentions how they are repeatedly asked to teach (white) settlers about Indigenous peoples and/or their struggles. Zainab Amadahy, while recognizing that white settlers will likely need guidance in some form at some point to engage effectively as allies, draws parallels with the similar, long-standing critique of women of color in North American
Take your supports where you can find them. I know you need healing, but I’m not going to heal you. I’m not here for that. It’s kind of like that whole question African Americans used to say, “I don’t want to be your anti-racist teacher.” So it’s kind of like, “I don't want to be your healer. Deal with that. I understand you have to go through it...
. Come to me when you’re ready to deal with it.” That’s how I feel about it.
Relatedly, Indigenous women are commonly asked to frame ideas in white settler terms. Rubina associates the demand that Indigenous women speak in terms palatable to white settler audiences with colonial subjectivity more broadly: “So much of my world, I find, is that. We’re not listened to until we can put ourselves in the ideas of the colonizer. That happens no matter where we are, be it solidarity, be it... Very rarely have I found that my experience as an Aboriginal person can stand as just that unless it’s equated to something the settler can
understand.” Mahrouse (2009) traces a similar tendency on the part of citizen journalists:
Furthermore, if one pays attention to how the activists described their political and moral commitments... it becomes evident that some understood themselves to be arbiters of trustworthiness and automatically assumed the role of judge or truth arbiter. Their determination to obtain the truth, however well-intentioned, resulted in an “investigative tenor”... insofar as they often doubted what they were being told and felt the need to discern the authenticity of the personal stories they heard. Most helpful for the purposes of understanding this dynamic is Said’s (1978) observation that racialized binaries “naturally” set up the Westerner not only as a spectator, but also as a judge of the Others’ behaviour (p. 109). In this sense, the activists’ presence is imbued with a racialized function of surveillance and a measure of accountability. (p. 667) Despite being the learner seeking knowledge, the Western citizen journalist adopts a doubtful, “investigative tenor” and positions herself as capable of judging (knowing) the Others’ truths.
Both Rubina and Mahrouse are not alone in alluding to a seeming paradox in white settler subjectivity that nonetheless adheres to colonial logic: the dominant (white settler’s) need to learn from the Other can often coexist with an unrelenting desire to re-constitute oneself as the one-who-knows (in contrast to the unknowing Other).31 Echoing Rubina, Zainab explains how the need to retain the ethnocentric parameters of white settler knowledge production and white
Western supremacist identity can be linked to the practice of tokenizing Indigenous people:
I think that there’s been a difference for the most part... in working with people of colour, because I think people of colour kind of understand the position that I’m in and the nuances and the complexities and the contradictions of the position that I’m in [as Native to Turtle Island, but not Ontario]. That’s a generalization, because it’s not true with everybody. With whites, I kind of felt like they were looking at me through a set of lenses that said “Indian.” So if they needed a token, or a representative, or an interpreter, or a door-opener, I was the go-to person for a very long time for many, many people because they didn’t know any other Indians, or they didn’t like the other Indians that they knew, or they didn’t think that the other Indians that they knew were competent, or could function in their world and could understand their analysis or share their analysis.
Writing about Indigenous/non-Indigenous relations on a broader scale, Janet Conway (2011) similarly posits that Indigenous movements, especially smaller-scale, rural-based movements, are less intelligible or even unintelligible as political movements to non-Indigenous movements
unless they can negotiate their participation on Western terms:
The diversities and particularities arising from place-based, cultural, cosmological and linguistic differences among the political discourses and practices of indigenous movements render some of them more intelligible and recognizable as “political” movements and groups of civil society, including to the leadership of the [World Social Forum]. Some indigenous movements’ discourses are more articulated to those of major non-indigenous/Western/modern political traditions. (p. 25) Noting the depth of decolonization work awaiting white settlers, Ryah speaks to the extensive temporal and contextual reach of Western (white) thinking that seems to mark Indigenous/nonIndigenous relations: “I really over-simplify things sometimes, but it’s such a deep level of white supremacist thinking that their reality is the only reality that could possibly exist in the universe.... Everyone goes through their own process [of decolonization] where they’re in
denial for a bit.” She cites repeated displays of white settler guilt as a typical scenario:
[White settler guilt] impacts [the solidarity encounter] because if somebody who’s nonNative reveals an aspect of their guilt too much—I mean, you could do it once and we can all help and talk through things—if you continue to have the same mental block, where the Indigenous person has already explained to you once why they might feel this way, or why it should be done this way... then I think that will stop further conversation. The Indigenous person’s not willing to invest even more time because it’s your issues.... When I say “you,” I mean non-Indigenous or white women. You need to have your own journey.... It’s like white people, they want you to prove to them something, prove to them the impacts of colonization. (Ryah) When asked to define what would constitute a colonial dynamic, Teresa also alludes to white supremacist thinking and ties this thinking to the host of personal/individualistic desires that can
accompany white women into the solidarity encounter:
Whenever there is a [colonial dynamic], it comes from that... learned place: the need to be the authority when they’re not the authority, or the need to be heard and to be recognized when usually you’re the only one who is heard and recognized. Well now’s the time to be a bit complacent in that need.... Yeah, it’s always, always coming from that place. The other stages of colonization that Burgess talks about are surface accommodation and tokenism. I think that happens a lot in circles. There’s only a token understanding of what’s going on. Indigenous women are only accommodated on the surface, but when it comes to Indigenous women delineating any type of structure of solidarity, it’s not easily understood by a Western woman, because the structure is so completely opposite. Like the structure of the medicine wheel versus the patriarchal, capitalist structure of the pyramid. It’s a process of thought that needs to be undone in order for solidarity to really work well.
In Teresa’s theorization, white women are bound by the dictates of a Western authoritative mentality to re-centre themselves as agentic, knowing subjects. In citing “the need to be the authority,” she also broadens the field of characteristics that can be embodied in the figure of the needy do-gooder. Such references to the arrogance and ethnocentrism of white settler subjects are consistent across Indigenous women’s narratives.