«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
(See Chapter 3 for an overview of the historical production of the white settler/imperialist woman/feminist subject vis-à-vis her Indigenous Other). Are there “colonial continuities” (Heron, 2007) in the contemporary solidarity encounter? What discourses and discursive practices do white settler women employ and to what effects? Are we still apt to see ourselves as superior “helpers” of purportedly more oppressed Indigenous women? Is there a “new missionary” impulse among us that “uses secularity as a guise behind which lurks the imposition of values no less damaging than Christianity” (Kowal, 2011, p. 323)? Are we still evasive about our complicity in settler colonialism and resistant to adopting an anticolonial imperative in solidarity work? Do we universalize our particular experiences and elide differences in identity, belonging and power in the process? As Moreton-Robinson (2000) contends, do we knowingly or otherwise insist on seeing ourselves as “autonomous independent individuals”?
The second line of inquiry sought to highlight the possibilities for non-colonizing solidarity: Are (whitestream) social justice activists more aware in contemporary solidarity encounters of our complicity in settler colonialism (partly due to the feminist turn towards self-reflexivity)? What happens when white women confront/are confronted with our settler status? Are we consumed by the “stigma of white privilege” (Kowal, 2011)? What about the impact of white settler guilt as discussed by scholars as diverse as Alfred (2005), Barker (2010) and Regan (2010)? What else besides self-reflexivity is required to move towards non-colonizing solidarity practices? In short, (how) can colonial scripts be re-written, and what would the corresponding practices of non-colonizing solidarity look like? How can white women negotiate our subject position in solidarity encounters to minimize the reproduction of colonial relations? More broadly, how would changes in intersubjective dynamics at the micro level change social relations at the macro level? I am brought back to the problem/paradox of political solidarity and its necessity for bringing about lasting social change (see also the below section “Key terms and concepts”).
This study is an autoethnographically-informed analysis of the solidarity encounter between Indigenous women/feminists and white women/feminists in the GTA. Rather than do a case study of a specific group, I decided to investigate the solidarity encounter as a phenomenon in itself, by interviewing women who had done solidarity work with or without an organizational affiliation. I drew on ethnographic methodology to define the solidarity encounter as a “social institution” (Spradley, 1980) marked by broader colonial power relations. I then completed fieldwork, engaged in participant observation and conducted in-depth interviews. Finally, I used discourse analysis to evaluate the data. My research is autoethnographic in that I weave into the narrative relevant experiences from my involvement as a white feminist in social justice and human rights activism in the US, Central America and Canada—especially my time with NMS.
I collected data in the form of field notes, self-reflexive journaling and participant interviews. In total, I conducted 24 in-depth interviews from April through July 2011 with 13 self-identified Indigenous women and 11 self-identified white women. Because my solidarity work predated my doctoral research, I had already attended community events and various organizational activities for several years, having annotated some of those experiences in a personal journal. I also had on-file lots of NMS-related documents including emails and minutes dating as far back as 2006. My thinking on the topic of political solidarity is inescapably shaped by all of that history. Once I became a doctoral student, I continued to attend community events and NMS group meetings, and from that point on systematically took field notes and kept a journal.
This research poses methodologically challenging questions. It was difficult if not impossible to ask participants directly about their subjectivity (e.g., asking white women to explain how they negotiate their structural positioning in colonial relations). Therefore, I relied on a combination of inductive and deductive strategies for data analysis, as interviews were my primary method of data gathering. In Chapter 4, for example, I undertake an inductive analysis of participants’ responses to questions about their reasons for entering into solidarity relations and about the tensions, challenges and/or power relations therein. By placing participant “self-presentations”43 alongside their perceptions of other participants’ involvement in solidarity, I was better able to glean a sense of the encounter’s intersubjective dynamics. For instance, Indigenous women describe some behaviours by white women in the solidarity encounter as invasive and thus as sources of tension and conflict, whereas these same behaviours are not necessarily seen as problematic (let alone invasive) by white women. By juxtaposing the two sets of narratives, I was able to identify an underexplored, often problematic aspect of gendered colonial subjectivity in solidarity work—white settler women’s desires for proximity to Indigenous Others. Finally, I applied theoretical insights from relevant literatures in a deductive analysis of participant interviews to identify other possible manifestations of gendered colonial subjectivity.
Key terms and concepts
My study begins with the theoretical premise that settler colonialism provides the central frame for understanding the hierarchical relations between Indigenous peoples and non-Indigenous settlers, and thus for mapping the intersubjective dynamics between Indigenous women and white women in the solidarity encounter. Furthermore, following scholars such as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang (2012), I identify settler colonialism as a distinct colonial formation in that “there is no spatial separation between metropole and colony” (p. 5; see also Wolfe, 2006).
Thus, in the text I refer to settler colonial relations. My intention is not to reify Indigenous/nonIndigenous relations, or essentialize and/or ascribe malevolent intentions to subjects in either
category, but rather to centre the fact of colonial encounter as does Emma LaRocque (2010):
I believe the majority of non-Native peoples in our country want to be fair and caring, not just replicating a history full of mistakes and some malefaction. Native peoples, a dynamic and engaging peoples [sic], also take exception to being restricted to colonial models or experience. Nevertheless, our encounter is informed by colonization. (p. 14) Additionally, my analysis recognizes the evolution of colonial policies over time. Writing about policing policy and practice vis-à-vis Indigenous peoples in Australia, Chris Cunneen (2001) uses the term neocolonial “as a way of bringing together both the continuities of policing in the colonial period with an understanding of the political changes which have occurred in the legal context of citizenship, equality and the rule of law” (p. 8). And, while I do not review particular colonial policies in this study, I acknowledge both the consistency and changing nature of Canadian settler state colonialism over time, and also signal what Deborah Bird Rose (1996) calls the “deep colonizing” practices that occur in a context of ostensible equality under the law.
Having been reminded early on in the research process of the fundamental fact that Indigenous peoples across Canada remain dispossessed of their land, I decided to stick to the term colonial to highlight this central continuity in colonial policies.44 I use the modifiers “Native” and “Indigenous” interchangeably in this study to denote the descendants of the first inhabitants of the territories now called Canada. I am mindful of the risks in using overarching terms (as opposed to naming specific nations)—the re-homogenizing, essentializing and othering of many distinct peoples or what LaRocque (2010) calls the “lumping effect” (p. 142). LaRocque rightly insists on seeing Native peoples (her preferred term) as diverse along geographical, linguistic, cultural, religious and political lines even as she emphasizes “the common experience of [colonial] invasions in our lives” (p. 32).45 In this same spirit, I have opted to use the terms “Indigenous” and “Indigenous peoples” (in the plural) as they are employed by many in the global Indigenous rights movement and in international human rights laws and standards (Amnesty, 2004). I do so as an inclusive gesture to acknowledge the heterogeneity of “status” and “non-status”46 First Nations, Inuit and Métis peoples across Turtle Island (see Monture-Angus, 1999). Following Alfred (2005) and various Indigenous activists I have known, I do not use the term “Aboriginal” precisely because of its official usage by the Canadian settler state.47 I make an exception and use terms such as “Aboriginal,” “First Nations,” and “Indian” when they appear in the material I cite.
I contrast the category of Indigenous/Native with that of non-Indigenous/non-Native, even while acknowledging a parallel risk of homogenization. Importantly, I understand such categories to be socially constructed and thus “historically porous” (Morgensen, 2011, p. 20) in accordance with the political project of settler colonialism. However, as Scott Morgensen (2011) asserts, “no degree of complication... removes the meaningful difference indigeneity continues to make in a settler society” (p. 22). In Chapter 3, I argue for the importance of retaining the Native/settler binary, a now conventional categorical distinction in the postcolonial canon.48 I also frequently use the term ally. At the start of my research, I ascribed to a definition provided by Anne Bishop (2002): “[An ally is] a member of an oppressor group who works to end a form of oppression which gives her or him privilege. For example, a white person who works to end racism or a man who works to end sexism” (p. 152). Over the course of the research, however, I have come to see this definition as limited, a point deserving of more study (see Chapter 2). This definitional logic could preclude the involvement of Native allies in many instances and inadvertently sustain hierarchical relations between differently positioned subjects. That said, I retain all mentions of ally in my write-up to best represent the research process as it unfolded.
The concept of political solidarity, as opposed to social solidarity, is central to this research.49 And, I bring a purposively broad and explicitly material understanding of political solidarity to the study; by using the phrase, I allude to a loose set of practices in which people engage together to pursue a political project. This definition includes common evocations of political protest and mobilization for social change, and the less visible material practices of grassroots groups like NMS (e.g., behind-the-scenes lobbying, group meetings and/or social events, email exchanges and, increasingly, the use of social media). Along with bell hooks (2000), I conceive of solidarity in temporal terms—as “sustained, ongoing commitment” in contrast to occasional support, which “can be given and just as easily withdrawn” (p. 67). Importantly, my focus is on theorizing the intersubjective relations that comprise political solidarity. That is, the stuff of political solidarity—the embodied, material encounters of differently positioned subjects— constitutes a site for the study of intersubjective relations in a settler colonial context.
The feminist notion of working across difference, encapsulated here by Audre Lorde (2007), is also foundational to this study: “We sharpen self-definition by exposing the self in work and struggle together with those whom we define as different from ourselves, although sharing the same goals. For Black and white, old and young, lesbian and heterosexual women alike, this can mean new paths to our survival” (p. 123). Bernice Johnson Reagon’s (1983) work also infuses my own: she tells us that despite being indispensable to the pursuit of social justice, coalitions are neither inherently easy nor safe, but threatening “to the core” for those involved (p. 356).
I work with the related concept of intersecting/interlocking oppressions as developed by Kimberlé Crenshaw (1991), Trinh T. Minh-ha (1989), bell hooks (2000), Patricia Hill Collins (2000) and others.50 Sherene Razack (1998) conveys the core message: in failing to understand oppressions as mutually constitutive, “we fail to realize that we cannot undo our own marginality without simultaneously undoing all the systems of oppression” (p. 14). I also adhere to the praxis embedded within the theory: dominant subjects (in this study, white settler women) are called to acknowledge historically-derived, structural power differences (as opposed to only cultural differences51) and the ways in which they are sustained, in part through subject formation processes (Razack, 1998).52 Another linked idea is the “race to innocence” (Fellows & Razack, 1998; Razack, 1998), where subjects focus on their subordinate rather than structurally dominant positionality, an idea of which I make use, particularly in Chapter 6.
Further to this is the denial of differences (of identity and oppression) that facilitates and validates the race to innocence and the problematic claim of women’s common oppression.
My notion of working across difference owes much to hooks (2000), specifically her critique of the “myth of sisterhood” alongside an insistence on the need to strive for feminist political solidarity. Similarly to Reagon (1983), while acknowledging the exceedingly difficult nature of the task, hooks sees solidarity as necessary for transforming (as opposed to reforming) society.
Lorde’s (2007) and Trinh’s (1997) remarkably similar visions of difference complement those of Reagon and hooks. For both scholars, it comes down to how we conceive of difference, and what we do with the undeniable differences between us: our transformative potential is unleashed not through the formation of power-laden hierarchies out of our differences, but rather through the creative mingling of non-hierarchical (what Lorde call’s “nondominant”) differences.