«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
The constitutive link between desiring to learn from the Other and asserting one’s status as superior (white) knower is not always easily discernible. The link becomes less opaque (and the paradox lifted) when understood in terms of Heron’s (2007) colonial continuities, more specifically “the interrelated pulls of dread and desire, and fear of and fascination with racialized difference which has marked white engagement with the Other from the era of empire” (p. 34). She describes how imperial subjectivity operates to maintain hierarchical
The desire to know the Other takes various forms: romanticizing, identifying with (being “at one with”, caring for, saving, being seduced by, and being transformed through this relationship. Nevertheless, binary relations remain unchanged throughout: it is a question of “them” being known by “us,” and being assessed by and understood through “our” standards. (Heron, 2007, p. 34) Ahmed (2000) further clarifies how the desire to “know” the Other constitutes, rather than breaks down, the binary relationship between the “we” and those constituted as “strange/strangers.” In fact, the constitutive link between white settler superiority and the desire to learn from/know about the Other became evident during my fieldwork. I was at a public event organized primarily by Indigenous women when the MC, given the short time remaining, invited one final question/comment from the audience. Without hesitation, a white woman took the floor and proceeded to ask a question only tangentially related to the event’s topic. After getting an initial response from the panel, she asked a follow-up question, whereupon the MC intervened and gave the final word to an Indigenous woman. In my recollection of the event, the tension in the room was palpable and left me wondering about Indigenous women’s reactions to the white woman’s words, which included a declaration of her self-ascribed status as ally.32 When asked about this event that she too had attended, Indigenous participant Wanda shared her thoughts on the colonial nature of the exchange. First, she felt that the white woman asserted her own agenda (asking a question not central to the topic) and her will to be heard: “We were down to the last five minutes. [Her] question should take 20 minutes to answer... and it had nothing to do with the film.” Wanda continued as if speaking directly to the woman, “We weren’t here to educate you on our issues. We’re here to get support on our issues.” For Wanda, “that’s a woman who wanted to be heard.” Second, in Wanda’s assessment, the white woman made a judgment veiled as a question, which was in turn laced with the desire to instruct in the proper ways of being—a behavior associated with a much unchanged historical, and gendered,
I guess it’s that she was trying to change us. Or she was trying to blame us. So blame us for being on the highway, blaming the women for being raped and murdered.... We were savages. We didn’t know any better. So when [the missionaries] got here, they had to change us. We don’t know any better. We don’t know what we’re doing, so you need to change it.... “So you can do it my way, because I know what I’m doing, and it’s better than you, and it’s what we’re going to do.” Last, Wanda took issue with the white woman’s self-ascription as an ally to Indigenous women, explaining that an ally is “somebody that I don’t have to educate every day of the week about who I am. They just understand and get it and respect that. That I’m not always defending myself or who I am and why I think the way that I think.” For Wanda, as for Ryah and Rubina, the white settler woman ally’s need to learn from Indigenous women often—although, importantly, not always—is accompanied by the desire for confirmation of one’s own knowledge/superiority, i.e., an affirmation of her liberal/colonial self. Wanda’s comment suggests that learning about Indigeneity should not be the focus of solidarity work, a point to which I return in Chapter 5.
Indigenous women launch firm critiques of white settler desires to be healed by and/or to learn from Indigenous women, desires that can lead to invasive, parasitic behaviour through the depletion of resources (time, energy, physical space) that would otherwise be controlled and directed in Indigenous terms. At the same time, several Indigenous participants are sympathetic to the challenges of negotiating the dominant positionality of white settler woman. In pointing out the immensity of these challenges, Lydia suggests that it is difficult to operate with a solely
analytical understanding of allyship/alliances:
You can have the intellectual understanding or the critical capacity to understand what it is to be a good ally, but at the level of practice you’re not manifesting it.... I think embodied knowledge is hard to change, even if you have a critical awareness of it, because what you are beneath the surface is so much greater than what you are intellectually. It’s gigantic.
While Indigenous women recognize the potentially paralyzing effects of white settler guilt, for example, they ask that white women find the appropriate venues, people and occasions for meeting these personal needs. In this passage, Lydia falls just short of conceptualizing these personal desires as expressions of collective white settler subjectivity.
In my reading, the majority of Indigenous (and white) participant narratives do not explicitly make this connection, which risks limiting discussions to healing or appropriate/inappropriate settler desire and behaviour, instead of to what drives that behaviour in the first place—the white settler desire for legitimacy/belonging via the reproduction of the liberal subject. For example, Ardra refers to one man’s display of white settler guilt: “For me it’s also about time and place. I guess that would have been a repeat of the colonial story if he had done that in an inappropriate setting, say at a public event, and he had taken up a bunch of space and dominated the discussion.” Teresa reinforces the distinction made by Ardra about appropriate and inappropriate times and spaces for white women to seek assistance. That said, Teresa begins to address this as an issue of collective white settler subjectivity by adding, “It’s kind of like [white] women come into the circles in order to find a prescription for their own guilt, which we recognize, and I don’t think they recognize.” (In Chapter 6, I look more closely at intersubjective dynamics involving white settler guilt.) In other words, white women often seem to lack an awareness of the self-serving/self-making reasons that may propel them to seek solidarity encounters. The next step is to explicitly highlight that these so-called individualistic reasons emerge out of deeply embedded collective practices (see Chapter 5). In a post-interview conversation, Teresa adds that, despite the fact that as a white woman, you may well need “to process what you’re feeling and what you’re going through,” she has gotten increasingly tired of dealing with this scenario: “I find [Indigenous women] struggle too much to be able to take on another’s burden and sickness and when I lived in Toronto I tried assisting non-Indigenous women and I just became too burnt out.” What we should be doing, concludes Teresa, is “giving precedence to the Indigenous cause” for which people are organizing. In the concluding chapter, I elaborate on how white settler women allies might approach solidarity in a way that would more effectively do just that.
The Impulse to Solidarity
In discussing their perceptions of white settler desires for proximity, Indigenous participants hone in on the constitutive other side of the desire to help, which is the desire to be helped, a relation most vividly encapsulated by the phrase “needy do-gooder.” The white settler woman’s desire to help Indigenous women often seems accompanied by the need to be helped; that is, the white settler woman subject needs to “do-good” for one central self-serving/self-making reason—to ensure her transformation into the legitimate, autonomous subject who belongs. As Heron (2007) infers in her exploration of the subjectivities of Western/Northern development workers, this seeming paradox has been a permanent fixture in the lives of “helpers” of the less
Development work still is, as it has been from its inception, axiomatically assumed to be altruistic. It is [also] touted as a “life-changing” experience for us, and its constitutive effect on Canadian and other Northern development workers’ identities is considered indisputably laudable. The enduringness of these understandings about what it is to do development work is an effect of discourse circulating in Canada about the “Third World”/“developing countries,” “development,” and what “we” are doing to “them” over “there.” (p. 2) Heron’s observation invites us to think about the specific intersubjective desires—in her example, the desire for affirming yet life-changing experiences—that may propel solidarity work “here” in Canada as opposed to development work “there” in the Global South.
To capture the specificities of intersubjective relations in the solidarity encounter, I use the term “impulse to solidarity.” By this, I am referring to a latent or operationalized bundle of white settler desires (including to desire/need to “help” and “be helped by” the Indigenous Other) that when materialized often result in problematic white settler investments and intersubjective tensions in the solidarity encounter. The solidarity impulse, as reflected in white participant narratives, is realized through the mobilization of discourses of proximity (and sometimes in terms of exceptionalism as I discuss in Chapter 6).
In coining the phrase solidarity impulse, I make an analytical distinction in relation to Heron’s helping imperative to highlight how the decision to engage in solidarity as opposed to, for example, development work (both of which involve a desire to help), turns on a somewhat distinctive constellation of intersubjective dynamics. That said, there are important parallels
between Heron’s (2007) development workers and the white settler women allies in my study:
Longing for relationships with the Other and experiences of Otherness are implicit in participants’ acknowledgement of wanting adventure, the experience of living in another culture, of “something different.” However, the encounter with the Other that is sought—that seems to count—can only be obtained by going to the spaces of the Other.
The same Othered people on our home ground do not satisfy our need for these engagements with difference.... To some extent this is a craving for a fictional space, but it cannot be separated from a longing for a fictional/fantasy Other. (p. 51) Despite Heron’s own assertions to the contrary, the solidarity encounter that takes place “on home ground” as it were, does seem to “satisfy our need for these engagements with difference.” In other words, even as it occurs “here” (in Canada) and not “there” (in the Global South), the solidarity encounter provides a site for the construction by white settler allies of just
such a fictional space filled with fictional/fantasy Others. This begs some important questions:
Does “here–there” logic operate within the boundaries of what is now called Canada? Do “we” (non-Indigenous settlers) constitute as “there” those spaces in which Aboriginal peoples predominate?33 My study of the solidarity encounter would suggest that it does and that we do.
There is a way in which Heron’s (2007) “here–there” distinction does apply to the solidarity encounter, however, although perhaps not in the way she might imagine. White settler allies “here” are obliged to reckon with their illegitimate status as settlers in a way in which Heron’s development workers “there” are not. This crucial fact—that the solidarity encounter occurs “here” on contested land—makes all the difference, rendering Heron’s (2007) comprehensive analysis incomplete in terms of its applicability to the solidarity encounter.
In short, whereas the helping imperative denotes the archetypal colonial desire to help/save the Other, the solidarity impulse arguably connotes an inclination among settlers to disassociate from such stereotypical behaviours by placing themselves in the supposedly non-hierarchical position of exceptional (innocent) allies, a point I develop further in Chapter 6.
In this chapter, I discuss the function of proximity discourses in white participant narratives, identifying the ways in such discourses are mobilized by the white settler woman subject in her pursuit of liberal subjectivity—that is, to achieve a transcendent position beyond structural power relations. In other words, I reveal the white settler woman subject’s self-serving/selfmaking processes at work in the solidarity encounter. My argument rests on the premise that the desire for transcendence, which is central to white settler/liberal subjectivity, insinuates itself into white women’s negotiations of the solidarity encounter and remains stubbornly resistant to disruption in the colonial present. When the self-serving aspects of white women’s participation in solidarity are left unexamined, invocations of social justice notwithstanding, the effectiveness of the political work being attempted can be overshadowed and undermined. In effect, I suggest that through mobilizing proximity discourses, the white settler woman subject seeks to maintain the default (purportedly) individualistic positioning she enjoys prior to the solidarity encounter.
Importantly, to offset an overly pessimistic interpretation of my research on intersubjective relations in the solidarity encounter, I emphasize Indigenous participants’ calls for and their appreciation of allies.