«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
Smith (2013a, 2013b), however, explores why self-reflexivity is not guaranteed to function in this way (see Chapter 2). She argues that self-reflexivity, enabled by proximity to the Other, can result in the reproduction of “white settler/white subject” structural privilege. A circular logic is at work: the same self-reflexive gesture through which the dominant subject comes to know and “confess” her privilege “proves” her status as a self-determining subject capable of selfreflection. These are “rituals of confessing privilege... that rest on a white supremacist/colonialist notion of a subject that can constitute itself over and against others through self-reflexivity” (Smith, 2013a, p. 278). The self-reflective mode and the declarations it facilitates must be interrogated as productive of power relations, so as not to “become [or be mistaken as] the political project themselves” (Smith, 2013a, p. 263). When such confessions stand in for political practice, they become examples of non-performative speech acts (Ahmed, 2004). In my analysis, I suggest that moves to exceptionalism consisting mostly of acknowledgements of settler status and little else, risk becoming nothing other than manifestations of “white solipsistic” self-reflexivity (Rich, 1979).8 These theories help to explain why (white) social justice activists are frequently charged with navel-gazing—they often remain stuck in individualistic acts of self-reflexivity.
My analysis of moves to exceptionalism in white participant narratives begins with the notion of friendship. As a strategy of exceptionalism, it involves a blended formula of self-reflexivity and/in proximity—the capacity to open oneself up, “to go in with a good mind, an open mind and an open heart,” as white participant Darcie says, in order to learn from/about the Other.
The use of friendship as a strategy to establish oneself as exceptional (in the solidarity encounter and beyond) is relatively rare among white participants, but important for two reasons: the powerful attraction it seems to have for those who use it and the way in which it involves the pursuit of proximity (e.g., seeking access into or the acceptance of an Indigenous community).
To set the stage for the discussion, I begin with Audrey Thompson’s (2003) work on the discursive role of friendship in constructing white antiracist subjectivity in the US. Fittingly for my research, Thompson (2003) alludes to colonial history to explore how seeking friendship can be both a manifestation of the desire for proximity and a strategy for demonstrating white
We [white people] have embraced the idea that whites can be “friends of people of color.” It is not a new idea; Custer himself declared that the white man was “the Indian’s best friend.” But we mean it differently, not that way. We mean that we are supporters of people of color, that we understand about white racism and that we are against it. We are not that sort of white; we are good whites.... It is because whites are uncomfortable with the implications of acknowledging white racism that (whether or not we use the term) we are tempted to position ourselves as “good whites.” Although we can acknowledge white racism as a generic fact, it is hard to acknowledge as a fact about ourselves. (pp. 7–8) While white resistance and settler resistance to acknowledging complicity in structural racism and structural colonialism respectively are not collapsible, they are arguably hard to disentangle in the white settler colonial context. Thompson (2003) herself notes the historical construction of white settler desire (that would later be disavowed by “good whites”). Further, since racism and colonialism are historically co-constituted, it follows that white settler “moves to innocence” would involve the inextricable disavowal of racism and colonialism (Tuck & Yang, 2012, p. 4; see also Silva, 2007). Tuck and Yang (2012) note that in settler colonialism “Indigeneity prompts multiple forms of settler anxiety” (p. 9), which leads to a “relentless” desire to reconcile on the part of the settler subject. I propose that friendship is a particularly conducive form of reconciliation for the (apparently) individualistic white settler woman subject.
Similarly to other white participants, Darcie discusses her solidarity experiences (mostly from a university context) in transformative terms. Moreover, her “narrative of becoming” seems to presume the right to access and learn from Indigenous communities. And, despite (or perhaps because of) her substantial knowledge of colonization acquired in various contexts such as Native studies classes, Darcie can think of no examples of power relations in solidarity work that have involved her personally. Unlike Alicia, who admits to having been negatively received
by some Indigenous women, Darcie reports only positive experiences:
When I first got involved [with a Native students group], I wanted to learn; so, I went there... feeling like an outsider and sort of being apprehensive about that, but then realizing that if you go in with a good mind, an open mind and an open heart and you’re sincere, people respond to that very well, and you can become a part of that community.
... I think just having the ability to listen and exchange ideas when that needs to happen.
... If I wanted to get involved in the Indigenous community, I’m not Indigenous, I don’t have that background, so I need to learn to try and understand. Because you can read books about what’s happening and what needs to be done, but until you actually talk to people from those communities, then you actually find out.... It’s sort of like going to the source to try and figure out what is best.
Later in the interview, Darcie explicitly ties friendship (along with knowledge of and acceptance
by Indigenous communities) to engaging in effective, meaningful solidarity:
I think it’s hard for people to be involved in work around Indigenous people without really getting involved in the community. You can do it, but for me I don’t feel that that’s right. I wouldn’t be comfortable doing that. That’s why I’ve always tried to make friendships and get to know people and get involved in [Indigenous interest] groups when they’re available. So, that was kind of frustrating this year to try and encourage [non-Aboriginal] people to come out, especially people who are doing work around Aboriginal people. It’s like, “You should come be part of this group,” not just for their own… but also to support the group. Because if we can expand and get more members, then it will increase visibility on campus—all those sorts of things. Plus all the people who are participating will learn things.
In summary, Darcie approaches solidarity work in terms of achieving proximity, i.e., she emphasizes the importance of establishing friendships and getting involved in the community.
And, she establishes herself as exceptional in this regard. However, by adding that “nonAboriginal people” should get involved “not just for their own [sake],” she complicates the narrative by acknowledging that there are political reasons for settler allies to do solidarity work.
Darcie’s consistently uncomplicated account of her solidarity relations harkens back to Thompson’s (2003) work on the antiracist claims of some white academics and graduate students in the US, herself included: “Indeed, we often take it for granted that our studied antiracism is the standard to which other whites should be held; at the same time, however, we may anxiously try to prove our antiracist credentials by positioning ourselves in unproblematic solidarity with scholars of color” (p. 10). Thompson’s (2003) insights seem especially applicable to Darcie’s situation given that they concern an academic setting. Does Darcie’s unproblematic account of solidarity indicate the persistence of her settler anxieties (Tuck & Yang, 2012)? Despite her “studied” anticolonialism and ability to make friends with Indigenous people, does she remain what Ahmed might call “the anxious white [settler] subject?” Ahmed’s (2000) work on the role of friendship in radical feminist ethnography also sheds light on this particular aspect of intersubjective dynamics in the solidarity encounter. Ahmed (2000) proposes that “the ethnographic desire to know the stranger” is often “rearticulated as the transformation of strangers into friends” (p. 65). While Darcie is not a “professional stranger” (ethnographer), she aspires to learn about Indigenous realities and ultimately, through engaging with a good mind and heart (i.e., making friends), to be accepted by an Indigenous community.
Another white participant, Alicia, has in fact acted in the capacity of “professional stranger” and
also explicitly refers to friendship to describe an encounter with Indigenous women (and men):
I definitely appreciated when I was at the... language camp, and they referred to us as [Native people] and friends of [Native people]. It made me feel that sense of solidarity.
That there was a place for me, not as a [Native] person, but as a friend—someone they saw as aligned, someone in solidarity, someone who was not hurting them.... I felt like there was a place for me in that construction of this kind of work. That really felt nice.
In this passage, Alicia’s seemingly personal stake in the experience of solidarity is transparent;
she acknowledges feeling accepted by the Indigenous people in the encounter. The white women settler subject’s desire to attain the status of good “helper” is also palpable. Alicia’s later
response to a question about decolonization is also telling:
I think [decolonization] is part of the experience of participating in community events, doing spiritual events, learning the language, learning about other cultures, not just Indigenous cultures here. I went [abroad] and met some Indigenous peoples there....
You totally reorient to a different world view that’s not rooted in West-is-best and Eurocentric values.... It’s like learning to walk in more worlds. I feel comfortable walking into a Native community event. I understand the protocol, the cultural constructs. Likewise I’m comfortable being around white people. I understand. I grew up with a lot of black friends; I’m comfortable going to my black friends’ homes for family events and the dynamics of their families too.
In describing the steps she has taken to decolonize, Alicia comments on her remarkable skill in making friends with strangers; decolonization (and solidarity work) for Alicia is suffused with the desire for proximity. My aim is not to state definitively that Darcie or Alicia are acting on the assumption that Indigenous–white power relations between women can be neutralized through friendship. Rather, I highlight the centrality for both women of establishing friendship (through proximity) with the Indigenous Other as a primary means of achieving solidarity. In this sense, there is a near conflation of (individual) friendship and (group) solidarity in both narratives.
Wiegman’s (1999) work supplements my analysis of friendship as a technique of exceptionalism in the solidarity encounter. To recap one of her main points, post-civil rights challenges to white supremacy in the US have forced “liberal whiteness” to remake itself in opposition to less acceptable, ostensibly more egregious acts of white supremacy. Through disaffiliating from segregationist forms of white supremacy, the white liberal subject disavows the ways in which it continues to enjoy white privilege. Wiegman’s (1999) theorization of disaffiliation, while not wholly transferable to the settler colonial context, suggests that white participants like Darcie would not lose a sense of white settler privilege as much as gain a sense of exceptional status—the progressive white settler able to engage in friendly, “unproblematic solidarity” (Thompson, 2003). I suggest that a comparable desire to disaffiliate underwrites white settler subjectivity, a desire which is pursued through proximity in a number of ways, including the desire for friendship. For Darcy, by interacting “sincerely” with a “good mind, an open mind and an open heart,” the white settler ally can successfully engender friendship, solidarity and exceptional (individualistic) status. Notably, Darcie extends the invitation of exceptional status to other settler allies.
Do white settler subjects (attempt to) convince ourselves that colonial power relations cease to matter when we meet certain conditions, including the establishment of friendship and trust?
Peggy’s narrative on the question is insightful. In the interview, Peggy continually wrestles with her status as a white settler woman in the solidarity encounter and beyond. She has developed lasting friendships with Indigenous women through her activism, a point she emphasizes when asked how her solidarity work with Indigenous women has changed over time: “I have deeper more trusting relationships with [Indigenous women]. They’re complex, deep rich relationships that aren’t just working as allies, they’re friendships. We love each other. That’s what it comes down to.
That’s taken time to build.” Recall also her affirmative response when asked if she would always not want to be “one of those ‘bad’ settlers.” She explains that her sense of being a “bad settler” would remain since she cannot “fully join” her Indigenous friends:
And you just want to be part of that excitement and positive change and creativity. But then it’s not quite yours. Or you think, “Oh this culture, I like this about this culture or I like that about the culture, it’s so much better in this or that way than my culture. It’s really easy to feel this way. And if these people are your friends? Some of these people are my best friends, and yet I can never fully join them in certain things. That’s painful.
Peggy acknowledges the deep-seated desire of the settler subject to belong (she does not want to
be “one of those bad settlers”). Further, she acknowledges her inability to give up that desire: