«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
The data is peppered with examples of and commentaries on what I call white settler exceptionalism discourse, which I propose is bound up with the white settler desire to achieve the status of “good white settler ally.” Participant interviews further suggest that white settler guilt can infuse the impulse to exceptionalism (and the intertwined desires for legitimacy and transcendence arguably at its core) in amorphous ways. None of these suppositions would likely surprise scholars who have theorized whiteness in various social and historical contexts.
For example, Mary Louise Fellows and Sherene Razack (1998) develop the concept of the “race to innocence” to encapsulate how and why hierarchical relations among women are too often sustained in feminist political solidarity work. The race to innocence refers to the process initiated by competing marginalities.... Women challenged about their domination respond by calling attention to their own subordination. The impasse that results depends on the idea that if a woman is subordinate herself, she cannot then be implicated in the subordination of others. (p. 339) According to Fellows and Razack (1998), dominant subjects (such as white settler women in the solidarity encounter) engage in a race to innocence in order to keep a “toehold on respectability,” i.e., normative subject status, but at the expense of Others marked as degenerate.
Following Fellows and Razack (1998), striving for exceptionalism can be theorized as a move towards respectability, and reflective of a deeper desire to transcend and/or dissolve inequitable power relations (requiring a move to innocence). To recall Loomba (2005) and others (see Chapter 3), the white settler woman subject embraces the subordinate aspect of her “double positioning” within settler colonial/imperial relations. Writing about the settler colonial context in Australia, Moreton-Robinson (2000) contends that the ability of the white woman/feminist
subject to thus reposition herself rests on a misunderstanding of white race privilege:
White race privilege is not perceived [by white academic women feminists] as being inscribed on white bodies. Here one’s personal relationship with racism is through a moral position that allows one to put distance between oneself and other members of the dominant group who are evil and racist. By implication one is not an evil person, therefore one is not racist. One can deploy the subject position middle-class white woman to signify virtue and purity, because racism is perceived as racial hatred, not as racial supremacy in which all members of the dominant group are systemically implicated. (p. 143) Moreton-Robinson (2000) suggests that the fantasy of exceptionalism—defined as residing at a “distance between oneself and members of the dominant group,” which assumes one can operate as an unfettered liberal subject—is conceptually achieved only by failing to understand the embodied, collective nature of structural white privilege.
Although colonialism is not one of its central analytics, Robyn Wiegman’s (1999) notion of white disaffiliation also has relevance for my study of the solidarity encounter. Like MoretonRobinson (2000), Wiegman (1999) notes a delinking of white privilege and white embodiment in the constitution of “liberal whiteness” in the US. She writes, Integration, no matter how failed in its utopian projections of a nation beyond race division, nonetheless powerfully suspended the acceptability of the public display of white supremacy, so much so that the hegemonic formation of white identity today must be understood as taking shape in the rhetorical, if not always political, register of disaffiliation from white supremacist practices and discourses. (Wiegman, 1999, p. 119) That is, the vast majority of white people in the post-segregationist US fashion their identities by distancing or disaffiliating from white supremacy. Wiegman’s (1999) analysis, however, does not necessarily address the nuances of self-styled white progressive subjectivities.
This is more precisely the aim of Emma Kowal’s (2011) work on “White anti-racist” subjectivity in the Australian settler colonial context, a focus that resonates with my own on the solidarity encounter, despite its lack of gendered analysis. Kowal (2011) argues that white antiracist subjects experience a “voluntary stigma” upon acknowledging their role in colonization and are then prompted to employ strategies of stigma management in an attempt to diminish their agency/power and assume a “proper” role in a “post-colonial” space—i.e., “a space where there is an attempt to invert colonial power relations” (p. 4).2 By this definition, the solidarity encounter would certainly qualify as a postcolonial space. Moreover, for Kowal (2011), white
stigma is only produced through the Indigenous–settler encounter, that is, through proximity:
For White anti-racists, the colour of their skin marks them as “colonisers.” If we are to see this ascription as a stigma, it is a stigma of a special, highly contextualised form. It is a voluntary stigma, applying only to those White people who accept responsibility for the effects of colonisation on Indigenous people. It only takes effect when these White people are engaged in Indigenous issues, usually in the context of paid employment, but also through activism, education and personal encounters.... Only upon entering postcolonial spaces such as the Institute or remote communities does the stigma of Whiteness come into play. (p. 8) Following this line of reasoning, the white settler woman subject’s move to exceptionalism in the solidarity encounter becomes a strategy to manage the discomfort of white stigma, which is generated by the encounter itself.
While it may not be apparent to many white settler subjects, the embodied, collective nature of white settler privilege is unmistakable to Indigenous subjects (Moreton-Robinson, 2000), a fact of which I was reminded at a public film screening I attended on violence against Indigenous women. A prominent Indigenous organizer critiqued the general belief among white settlers that, as she puts it, “I couldn’t possibly be part of genocide or racism [because] I’m good and want to help.” As if responding to us directly, she said, “You do represent [colonialism] until you show me something different.”3 Indigenous women observe that these sorts of claims (of not being a part of structural colonialism or racism) are unfailingly linked to the desire to be “good.” In fact, critical whiteness scholars theorize goodness as a “sincere fiction” or defining feature of white subjectivity: “‘Sincere fictions’ and ideological constructions lead to self-characterization as a ‘good person’ or ‘non-racist’ or ‘colorblind,’ all the while individuals hold beliefs and support positions that presume an assumption of white superiority” (Bush, 2011, p. 17). Barbara Applebaum (2010) notes that white subjects maintain a characteristic belief in our “white moral agency,” a firmly cemented “conviction in regard to [our] moral innocence or goodness” (p. 17) and our beneficence. In fact, Applebaum (2010) argues, “White denials of complicity are an illustration of whitely ways of being” (p. 18). Referring to the Canadian context, Razack (2002) conceptualizes whiteness as innocence as a “quintessential feature of white settler mythologies,” which manifests as “the disavowal of conquest, genocide, slavery, and the exploitation of the labour of peoples of colour” (p. 2). White claims of innocence—i.e., of exceptionalism—would appear to be the rule. To begin to describe the workings of exceptionalism discourse, I first take up the discursive role of white settler guilt in participant narratives.
White settler guilt
In their article “Decolonization is not a metaphor,” Tuck and Yang (2012) identify settler guilt, and the settler moves to innocence made to alleviate it, as a relentless/haunting and inevitable outcome of settler colonial systems: “Settler moves to innocence are those strategies or positionings that attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all” (p. 10). Importantly, while they do not provide a specifically gendered account of settler guilt, they do note that settlers are racially diverse and may enact different moves to innocence.4 Postcolonial feminist scholars Lewis and Mills (2003) highlight the racialized component of white settler guilt, historicizing it
as a collective white response to nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonial exploits:
“White guilt” has developed as a term to describe white inertia in the face of the problematic of race.... This white guilt developed from an awareness that Western powers within the nineteenth century had subjugated a large portion of the world and exploited these territories and their populations for material gain, and that white people had benefited directly and indirectly from that exploitation.... The link between past exploitation and present affluence, and indeed the deeds of past colonialists and oneself, is one which white people have found difficult to deal with in constructive ways. White guilt is one of the least productive responses to this history. (pp. 7–8) As Lewis and Mills (2003) suggest, while often thought of as a personal feeling, “white guilt” is better explained as part of a historically constituted white collective subjectivity. In other words, although often experienced by white subjects on the individualistic register, white guilt is one possible facet of white settler subject interpellation.
Lorde (2007) makes the different, but complementary point that white guilt is an almost
inevitable outcome of the persistence of hierarchical difference in social relations:
Many white women are heavily invested in ignoring the real differences [between themselves and women of Color]. For as long as any difference between us means one of us must be inferior, then the recognition of any difference must be fraught with guilt. To allow women of Color to step out of stereotypes is too guilt provoking, for it threatens the complacency of those women who view oppression only in terms of sex. (p. 118) Recognizing difference in such a context is to recognize inequity and one’s complicity therein, hence the guilt. Elaborating on Lorde’s (2007) work, Ahmed (2004) explores how guilt then becomes the narcissistic performance of whiteness, pointing to “how feeling bad about racism or white privilege can function as a form of self-centeredness, which returns the white subject ‘back into’ itself, as the one whose feelings matter.... Guilt certainly works as a ‘block’ to hearing the claims of others in a re-turning to the white self” (para. 32).
The centrality of guilt in white subjectivity (and the desire to alleviate it) posited by such theorists and the substantial space it occupies in participant narratives suggests the possibility, if not probability that guilt is operative in those moments when a given white ally strives to prove her exceptional status. In fact, the data suggests that white settler guilt can infuse the impulse to exceptionalism (and the desires for legitimacy and transcendence arguably at its core) in amorphous ways. Indigenous and white participants alike note the propensity of some white women to engage in solidarity out of guilt, knowingly or otherwise. Given the white settler/imperialist woman subject’s historical interpellation as “helper” of the less fortunate, guilt could well have gendered manifestations, although I do not glean this clearly from the data.5 Recall the composite figure of the needy do-gooder (often with a penchant for appropriation) in Indigenous participant narratives such as Ardra’s, who depicts the global
appeal of white settler guilt (at least in Western countries such as Germany and Canada):
[Solidarity work] can just be a place for people to appropriate, romanticize and project their wishes on others. I think what [Bonita Lawrence] is talking about is how people will use Indigenous struggles in particular as this utopia, this idea of this place to project their deepest desires... especially white feminists in Germany who just eat that stuff up, but then they go pay for a sweat lodge; then they want their Indian name; they want [Indigeneity] to give them something; they want it to give them healing; they want it to make them better people. I kind of had that suspicion about people in [the group] sometimes.... Like this desire to work with Native women is about wanting to be better people and be seen as better people: “I’m a better person because... I’m being validated by these Native women as a good ally,” you know? “That makes me feel better about myself and alleviates my white guilt” and that ends up not being very transformative at all... if that person doesn’t ever question or become aware of that dynamic happening to them—if that’s what is happening.
Ardra makes clear how the white settler woman’s desire to be “a good ally” materializes in and can be satiated through the desire for proximity. Ardra explains the allure of solidarity for some white women in terms of their desire to alleviate white guilt—the desire to be validated as a “good ally” and comparatively “better person” who is then assuaged of her white guilt.
(Notably, Ardra leaves open the possibility that guilt may not be what is happening.) Another Indigenous participant, Teresa, also ties solidarity work to guilt, adding that white women often seem to fail to make this association: “I understand that Western women have a sense of needing to do [solidarity work] for themselves as well.... It’s kind of like 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.” Both Ardra and Teresa question white women’s powers of discernment when it comes to white settler guilt. Wanda, another Indigenous participant, emphatically states, “It just bugs the hell out of me” when she finds guilt to be the main motivator for white women to do solidarity work. Like Lewis and Mills (2003), Wanda sees guilt as ineffectual in political
activism, an unproductive response to colonial inequity: