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«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»

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They’re there because they think they understand that we’ve been done wrong and they want to change it, right then and there. They can’t change it. They can’t change history.

You can come with all the guilt you like, but you can’t change that. What you can do is, like I said, stand with us as an ally. That’s how you can change it. Don’t come to try to appease your own guilt. So you’re feeling bad about, “Oh, I read about how you were put on reserves, and my ancestors did that.”... The only thing we can do is go forward.

One of the things is [to] accept that it’s happened and change it.

Wanda also astutely identifies the unfettered liberal subject lurking behind the scenes—the “I” who wants and conceives of herself as able to “change it, right then and there.” For Wanda, this guilt often arises out of the non-Indigenous person’s newfound “understanding that [Native people] have been done wrong” by one’s ancestors. While careful not to speculate about the role guilt plays for any particular settler, Lee, another Indigenous participant, sees guilt as resulting from a combination of religious influence and non-Indigenous people’s recognition at some level of the illegitimate conquest of Indigenous land: “I think that the guilt in this country is from having acquired a continent from the people that don’t have access to it.” In explicitly ascribing guilt to settler awareness of colonial land theft, Lee lines up with Tuck and Yang (2012) in suggesting a fundamental way in which settler colonialism overdetermines white settler–Indigenous relations across genders and sociopolitical contexts.

Some white participants are attentive to the role white guilt can play in solidarity encounters.

Carla, for example, alludes to a white desire to be “let off the hook” that may be attributable to guilt. She writes, “I think some [white] people do solidarity the wrong way, like they think they’re doing solidarity, but they don’t really know what they’re doing and they think very problematic things: ‘I want to work on Native issues therefore I’m scot-free.’” Applebaum (2010) theorizes the relative ease in which some “well-intentioned white people”6 shift to deeming themselves “off the hook” as a consequence of three discourses that inform white subjectivity: white moral agency (noted above), the conflation between direct guilt and complicity/responsibility, and a belief in the white capacity for transcendence (of structural

injustices/social location). Applebaum (2010) describes these beliefs as mutually reinforcing:

Many accounts of complicity in the philosophical scholarship rely on a notion of responsibility that emphasizes causality, knowledge, control, choice and/or intention.

Such notions of responsibility, however, when applied to white ways of being whose ethical relationship to systemic racism can be disputed not only cannot capture how such ways of being are connected to the perpetuation of structural injustice but also focus on whether guilt or blame is attributable to particular individuals. The consequence is that well-intentioned white people are able to effortlessly let themselves off the hook since they can honestly claim they did not intend to perform anything wrong, and they were ignorant of or had no control over the wrongful outcome. (p. 7) Based on Applebaum’s (2010) analysis, it is more accurately an express lack of guilt (when guilt is defined as direct culpability) that allows some white subjects to claim a position of innocence.

As an Indigenous woman, Gabriela has witnessed such posturing by white activists (women and men) and calls for the same detangling of guilt and complicity as Applebaum (2010). She

responds with ironic humor when asked about the existence of white guilt among settler allies:

I can say that I know a couple of people, but that’s it. [Carol Lynne: Okay, what do you mean by that? Do you want more people to feel guilty?] Absolutely. Not Jewish guilt or something.... Catholic guilt isn’t what we want either. But it’s realizing that you’ve got to get beyond the guilt too, in the sense of moving beyond that because you don’t want to be stuck in it, but it’s recognizing that you’re part of the problem, even if you’re not a bad person, you know what I mean, or somebody who’s racist. A bad person is racist. So I think there are a whole bunch of people—non-Aboriginal people—who either tell you to just get over it, “This is where we are now, and you don’t have such a bad deal, we’re not doing that anymore,” or you have people who want to be in [the group] but they don’t really see themselves as being part of the problem.

These narrative excerpts suggest that Carla and Gabriela converge in their thinking. They identify both a white predisposition toward claiming innocence—for Carla, the ally tendency to think of oneself as “scot-free”; and for Gabriela, the ally tendency to not see oneself as part of the problem—and the need to thwart that disposition by foregrounding the structural privilege of all white settlers, even “good” white settler allies.

Other white participants point to the range of reactions that white settler guilt can elicit—from complete withdrawal or paralysis to feeling awkward or self-silenced to an overzealous impetus to take action. After admitting to having felt guilt, when asked how this has affected her activism, Alicia notes her variable responses: “It has probably made me a little bit more shy to reach out all the time. It has also forced me to be more engaging then I would have otherwise been, because I’m trying to make up for something.” What’s notable is not precisely what “that something” is or could be (defining it would be speculation), but rather that Alicia felt compelled by guilt to be either “more shy” or “more engaging.” Another white participant, Julia, notes her own vulnerability to feelings of guilt. She is nonetheless alarmed when white guilt is assumed to be operating in the solidarity encounter. Below is an exchange that follows Julia’s depiction of having been “raked over the coals” by an Indigenous woman for asking about the correct terminology to use to refer to Indigenous peoples. Julia notes that after this, the atmosphere in the group changed for her, and she no longer felt comfortable posing such questions.

Carol Lynne: What impact do you think white guilt has had on the solidarity encounter?

Julia: I think the biggest piece is that, for me, trying to push the envelope a little bit, asking the tough questions, being vulnerable to ask that question, and then the response was so abrupt. So that when you go, that white guilt really kind of becomes a filter for the questions that you’re going to ask, the critique that you might give, and that sort of thing. I think that comes into play. Yet being very conscious of, that’s not what I want this to be. That will have a life of its own, but that’s not what I want this to be about.

Carol Lynne: You don’t want it to be about assuaging your white guilt?

Julia: No, what I don’t want is for that guilt to be a filter.... I don’t know that it’s necessarily that you feel white guilt, but it was like, “God, if I ask that question, is it going to look like white guilt? Is it going to look like that’s where it’s coming from? Or will it be taken for what it truly is: me asking a question, wanting to be better, to do better and to learn?” Not that it’s anybody’s responsibility to teach me. I’m taking responsibility for that. I’m trying to figure out this piece, and I want to—with you, in solidarity—tease that out. What is that?

Julia’s concern—taken together with my discussions about guilt with other participants— suggests that Indigenous and white participants alike perceive white guilt as influencing intersubjective dynamics in the solidarity encounter. Certainly white settler women’s motivations for engaging in solidarity cannot be reduced to the existence of guilt or to the desire for its alleviation. My working supposition in this analysis, however, is that white guilt, to the extent that it exists in the solidarity encounter, can also be a factor in the impulse to exceptionalism.

Making Exceptions to the/Settler Rule

In addition to the question of what drives the move to exceptionalism (e.g., white settler guilt), there is also the matter of its operationalization. In my analysis, I attempt to trace the workings of at least two such mechanisms in participant narratives: non-performative declarations (Ahmed, 2004) and what I call white solipsistic self-reflexivity (Rich, 1979; Smith, 2013a). To set the stage for my analysis, I provide a brief overview of these ideas, starting with Ahmed (2004) on the “politics of declaration” and the discursive role therein of white guilt/shame.

Ahmed (2004) describes the use of the declarative mode in speech “as a way of doing something, [which] involves a fantasy of transcendence in which ‘what’ is transcended is the very thing ‘admitted to’ in the declaration: so, to put it simply, if we admit to being bad, then we show that we are good” (para. 54). In this way, seemingly harmless (and individualistic) declarations can function in decidedly political ways to perpetuate a collective fantasy of transcendence on the part of dominantly positioned subjects. In summary, certain “utterances” or “speech acts” have political effects. A “politics of declaration” is enacted when institutions or individuals “‘admit’ to forms of bad practice, and... the ‘admission’ itself becomes seen as good practice” (Ahmed, 2004, para. 11). By way of example, Ahmed (2004) notes six types of “non-performative” declarations by the white subject seeking anti-racist status, where each declaration of whiteness is assumed to put in place the conditions in which racism can be transcended, or at the very least reduced in its power. Any presumption that such statements are forms of political action would be an overestimation of the power of saying, and even a performance of the very privilege that such statements claim they undo. (para. 54) Through the conflation of “saying” with “doing,” such declarations are non-performative. Along with other scholars, Ahmed (2004) implicates the field of critical whiteness studies in these politics in facilitating the birth of the “anxious white subject” who openly acknowledges and frets about her white privilege.7 The claim of the progressive “race traitor” as theorized in whiteness studies is similarly (and complexly) non-performative. As explained by Wiegman (1999) the “race traitor” claims

whiteness as “a racialized particular” that she can then reject:

This is, it seems to me, the performative force of the race traitor question, “What makes you think I am white?” which simultaneously and paradoxically refuses the position of the universally unmarked by ultimately claiming to be no longer marked by it. In asserting the particularity of white racial identity as a preamble to refusing it altogether, the race traitor passes through both the universal and the particular in order to found a new minority of former white people. (p. 143) In the final analysis, Wiegman (1999) would likely agree with Ahmed (2004) who concludes that “putting whiteness into speech, as an object to be spoken about, however critically, is not an anti-racist action, and nor does it necessarily commit a state, institution or person to a form of action that we could describe as anti-racist” (para. 12).

Ahmed (2004) uses an example from the Australian settler colonial context to explain how nonperformative declarations can employ shame at the level of the collectivity to great effect. NonIndigenous (white) Australians were asked by their government to acknowledge the forced

removal of Indigenous children from Indigenous communities:

Those who witness the past injustice through feeling “national shame” are aligned with each other as “well meaning individuals”; if you feel shame, then you mean well. Shame “makes” the nation in the witnessing of past injustice, a witnessing that involves feeling shame, as it exposes the failure of the nation to live up to its ideals. But this exposure is temporary, and becomes the ground for a narrative of national recovery.... The transference of bad feeling to the subject in this admission of shame is only temporary, as the “transference” itself becomes evidence of the restoration of an identity of which we can be proud. (para. 23) Through admissions of “national shame,” settlers are constituted as legitimate members of the body politic, cleansed and inoculated against further “bad feeling” in the process. Ahmed’s (2000, 2004) broader point here is that “non-performative” declarations are mechanisms of stranger fetishism; they can work to conceal the histories of determination that have placed subjects in hierarchical relation in any and all configurations (see Chapter 3). Following Ahmed (2004), Applebaum (2010) elucidates the “complex and thorny” ways in which white subjects deny complicity in structures of inequality, and like Lee above, notes the religious overtones of the process: “Confessions of whiteness, therefore, constitute a form of pleasurable relief because what has produced the discomfort of learning about complicity is removed and one is purged of wrongdoing” (p. 19). My research tracks the narratives deployed by a subset of the Canadian body politic—well-meaning white settler women allies in the solidarity encounter. And though the narratives I examine do not always contain utterances of the exact sort evaluated by Ahmed (2004), I apply her theory when relevant to shed light on exceptionalism as a discursive tactic.

Smith’s (2013a, 2013b) work on self-reflexivity complements Ahmed’s (2004) on the nonperformativity of certain (anti-racist) utterances. As in social justice circles more generally, there are widespread calls in the solidarity encounter for those with privilege to acknowledge it.

In this study, participants across the board agree that it is important for white settler women allies (and for all settlers) to acquire knowledge of colonial history. And, self-reflexivity is often assumed to be the methodological linchpin for guaranteeing that settlers will concede their privilege.

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