«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
I begin the chapter with this point—that as white women we tend to position ourselves as individuals who have made a personal choice to enter into solidarity relations, rather than as members of a (white) settler collectivity with the obligation/responsibility to do so. At the same time, I highlight the fraught nature and complexities of white settler women’s subjectivities in solidarity work, pointing to the ways in which we struggle with our historic settler positionality and complicity in colonial relations. Even so, at every turn, the white settler woman’s objective veers too easily away from an anticolonial political project and towards the self-making project.
I discuss the workings of a range of proximity discourses, from desiring acceptance by an Indigenous community to desiring a challenge. I also explore how the white woman’s historical double positioning as both oppressor and oppressed facilitates her paradoxical rendering as superior helper. I also suggest that, while experienced as personal, proximity desires are better thought of as (in part) arising out of one’s precarious position as white settler/liberal subject.
The problematic, invasive nature of white women allies’ desires for proximity becomes clear when reading Indigenous women’s depictions of the solidarity encounter. Reflecting a deeply analytical attentiveness to power relations, Indigenous women note that white desires for proximity often manifest as the desire to “do good,” but also as the desire to be cared for or healed by Indigenous cultures—but in ways that preserve settler dominance. For several Indigenous participants, the composite figure of the “needy do-gooder” personifies misguided white settler investments in solidarity work with Indigenous women. In describing white settler “neediness,” in other words, Indigenous women are vividly describing various manifestations of the white/settler liberal (individualistic) desire for proximity. By making this analytical connection (“needing” to “do good”), Indigenous women point squarely to the self-making imperatives bound up in the white settler woman ally’s desire to “help,” that is, the white settler subject’s desire for autonomy. Importantly, Indigenous participants clarify that extreme manifestations of “neediness” are not the norm, but that there is invariably a needy do-gooder present in solidarity settings.
Drawing on Heron (2007), I note a number of striking parallels in the “colonial continuities” manifest in the (Western) subjectivities of both development workers and the white participants in my study—primarily that women from both groups (then and now) desire to reaffirm our standing as good/moral individuals and to reassert ourselves as intact, agentic subjects. In both contexts, the desire to help or “do good” is readily apparent. However, I argue that the solidarity encounter turns on a distinctive constellation of intersubjective relations, encapsulated by the phrase the “impulse to solidarity.” I suggest that this specificity is derived from two main factors: the discourse of solidarity (as opposed to development) and the geographical location of the solidarity encounter (“here” as opposed to “there”).
First, solidarity discourse presumes the goal of securing non-hierarchical, decolonized relations between Indigenous women and white women. In fact, I would argue that most white participants actively avoid stereotypical helping/saving behaviours, and are more likely to note the perceived benefits for them/us of doing solidarity work. In this sense, while not necessarily recognizing these motivations as problematic, many white participants openly acknowledge the more personal aspects of why they/we engage in solidarity. Moreover, many white participants struggle one way or another with their dominant positionality and proceed to question their role as allies. (Notably, however, this move would not necessarily disrupt a unidirectional understanding of solidarity, but rather, induce settler allies to exit the work.) In fact, I would suggest that many of us experience a heightened sense of our precarious status as settlers through participating in solidarity work. (This raises a question for further study: Does a clearer understanding of one’s settler status intensify the white settler/liberal desire for legitimacy?) The very tendency to trouble one’s role as ally can mask the invasive, colonial aspects of the white woman subject’s comportment in the solidarity encounter. Awareness of one’s dominant subject position and colonial realities notwithstanding, the white settler woman ally who acts on the impulse to solidarity can reproduce the very relations solidarity is intended to dislodge.
Second, geography matters when discussing the particular constellation of intersubjective dynamics that constitute the solidarity encounter. Because the solidarity encounter occurs “here” (on Indigenous land in the context of ongoing settler colonial relations) as opposed to “there” (somewhere in the Global South) (Heron, 2007), there is much at stake for the white settler woman subject ally. Directly confronted by colonial inequalities and her complicity therein (although with varying degrees of awareness), the white settler ally’s deep-seated desire to attain legitimacy/belonging via proximity to the Indigenous Other acquires unique dimensions. She must negotiate competing desires: the desire to belong “here” on Indigenous lands on the one hand, and the desire to pursue decolonized Indigenous/non-Indigenous solidarity relations on the other. The result is a fraught subjectivity where desires for proximity abound. Indeed, as Indigenous participant Ardra notes, the desire for proximity seems most intense among “radical” solidarity activists: “The people who see it as a good thing to be liked by Native women, who see that as giving them more cred, those are usually more radical people than people who are helping in a paternalizing… those people don’t really want to be friends with Indians, they want to be seen as helping Indians, right?” It would seem that one of Heron’s (2007) core contentions—that “Othered people on our home ground do not satisfy our need for these engagements with difference” (p. 51)—needs revision. The data suggests otherwise—that solidarity encounters do provide a setting for engagement with difference, a point to which I turn in the next chapter.
See Chapter 3 for more on how I theorize the solidarity encounter as one possible space where the self-making needs of white settler women subjects are met, and thus our liberal (autonomous, self-determining) status resolidified. I also make a distinction between the solidarity encounter and other sites of colonial encounter such as development or missionary work.
As I discuss below, Heron (2007) defines the “helping imperative” as the “desire for other people’s development” (p. 6) that drives white/Northern middle-class women to do development work in the Global South.
I asked about participant reasons for doing solidarity work in various ways: What lead (or personally motivated) you to work in solidarity with Indigenous or white women respectively; Why did you get involved in solidarity work; and/or Why do you see the need for solidarity? All permutations rendered quite similar responses. See Appendices B and C for a look at the complete interview schedules. About one-third of white participants offered up narratives describing their reasons for doing solidarity work without any prompting—what Schick (1998) describes as an “unbidden” response (p. 162) and significant in that it could indicate, in the case of my research, a desire on the part of white women to perform themselves, and be “seen” by the interviewer, in normative ways.
To explore the power dynamics of the solidarity encounter, I rephrased what was essentially the same question at different junctures during a given interview—asking about challenges, tensions, power dynamics and/or colonial dynamics to better elicit participant understandings of intersubjective relations in the solidarity encounter.
When interviewing, I incorporated the preferred term of the participant in question alongside the term solidarity.
See Chapter 2 (methodology) for a more detailed description of what I mean by this juxtaposition.
Other Indigenous women mention the structural constraints on Indigenous women’s (and men’s) participation in political activism, however defined. Ardra, for example, refers to “the crisis management and business that most Indigenous lives are filled with” (personal communication, October 14, 2011).
In Chapter 7, I discuss further the parameters of what I call non-colonizing solidarity.
A thorough review of this literature is beyond the scope of study. For more information, see Michael Barnett and Thomas Weiss (2008); Erica Bornstein and Peter Redfield (2011); Melanie Bush (2004); Heron (2007); Mahrouse (2008a, 2008b, 2009a, 2009b, 2011); Debra Mindry (2001); Saldana-Portillo (2003); and Randall Williams (2010).
Mahrouse (2009) critically appraises white/Western citizen journalist practices of international solidarity with people from the Global South. Even as she illustrates how racialized hierarchies are reproduced through the “witnessing, documenting and reporting practices” of white/Western citizen journalists who travel to areas of conflict in the Global South, she also “refutes the simplistic resolution that people with Western privilege must not participate in such practices. Instead, in examining up close some of the contradictions that arise in citizen journalism efforts, [the article] aims to identify some of the nuanced ways in which relations of racialized power might be better negotiated in specific circumstances” (Mahrouse, 2009, p. 670).
Heron (2007) acknowledges that the helping imperative would have different contours depending on context. In her work, she attends to “the larger forces that produce a bourgeois or white subjectivity with a particular desire for development, and the stake that white middle-class women have in this particular helping imperative” (p. 8).
More specifically, I discuss the ways in which discourses of survival, responsibility and choice figure (or not) into Indigenous women’s and white women’s narratives.
One other Indigenous participant explicitly mentioned entering into relations of solidarity for strategic or practical political reasons.
In the concluding chapter, I also use the term “fraught” to describe the difficult task of locating oneself as a member of the white settler collectivity without, as several Indigenous women put it, taking things personally, which I read as a call to avoid self-referential thinking/behaviour that would reproduce the liberal subject.
As I elaborate in Chapter 6, both Julia’s and Alicia’s acknowledgements of their positionality as white settler women are somewhat dampened by the way they simultaneously position themselves as exceptions—i.e., different from most white settlers and/or uniquely situated to act as a liaison between white and Native peoples.
As noted in the Introduction, Leanne Simpson referred to the unresolved matter of stolen Indigenous land as the “elephant in the room” during a public talk on May 13, 2014 in St. John’s, Newfoundland.
As I explain in my methodology chapter, a consideration of the subject position of people of colour in white settler societies is beyond the scope of this research.
For methodological purposes, I draw a distinction between motivations and investments in solidarity work, although the difference in practical terms is rather murky. When interviewing participants, I did not ask about their investments in solidarity work. In my analysis, however, I refer to investments as the various ways in which (mostly white) women describe the stakes involved for them in doing solidarity work, gleaned from responses to questions about motivations and tensions/challenges in the solidarity encounter.
See also Clark Mane (2012) on how a “syntax of equivalences” leading to the “flattening and proliferation of difference” (p. 81) is mobilized in third wave feminist texts to reproduce white privilege. Citing Patricia Hill Collins (2000), she writes, “Through the deprivation of history, a syntax of equivalences is enabled: all differences and marginalizations become theoretically equivalent and thus interchangeable. As a result of this flattening of difference, Hill Collins... notes that ‘socially constructed differences emerging from historical patterns of oppression’ are ‘submerged within a host of more trivial differences’” (Clark Mane, 2012, p. 81).
Richard Milligan and Tyler McCreary (2011) note how the fiction of reciprocity is sustained through the settler institutional practice of museums: “With this placard, the museum attempts to establish a version of national origins based in a shared history between Indigenous peoples and colonizers. It offers a story free of gross inequities of power, violence, and dispossession.... The museum uses this passage [about Hearne’s whiteness] from the exploration literature of colonization to encourage its visitors to remember a past of mutuality, to embody an ideal of reconciliation but not to acknowledge the vast dispossessions of a continent and the racial motivations that justified and ennobled this violence” (pp. 147–148).
Mahrouse (2009) writes, “Despite the activists’ good intentions, as Westerners who are inscribed with authority and neutrality, they easily and frequently slide into a position of dominance. Undeniably, the ascendancy of whiteness keeps activists in the centre of the reporting and documenting efforts in which they engage. Furthermore, they maintain a hierarchical positioning as experts and as objective truth-tellers, in ways that reproduce power relations rather than challenge them” (p. 671).
As I mention in Chapter 3, scholars whose work is associated with critical whiteness studies link assumptions of access to white privilege (Sullivan, 2006).