«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
her longing to shed bad settler status and attain good settler status will continue because she can “never fully join” her Indigenous women friends. By assuming and lamenting the impossibility of belonging (something that may or may not be possible, I would argue), Peggy inadvertently upholds the good/bad settler dichotomy. Her narrative implies that if she were able to “fully join” her friends, she would no longer be/feel like a “bad” settler. By extension, this implies that colonial power relations would be eradicated. In other words, her narrative links the status of bad settler to not-belonging, and by extrapolation, good settler to belonging, instead of conceptualizing settler status full stop as a consequence of her structural position in a white settler collectivity. In other words, we remain settlers complicit in colonial relations irrespective of our ability to connect to individual Indigenous people or communities. In what follows, I consider other examples of exceptionalism discourse that uphold the good/bad settler dichotomy and therefore the white settler/liberal fantasy of transcendence.
As expressed in participant narratives (and in my self-reflections), the white settler ally move to exceptionalism often combines two components: an impulse to highlight the fact that we are generally more informed than the “average Canadian” about colonial legacies and contemporary manifestations thereof (which may or may not be true); and a tendency to compete for the status of more/most progressive ally in relation to other white settler women (or men) allies in the solidarity arena. In fact, the latter desire—to be (considered) better than other solidarity activists—seems more pronounced than the desire to distinguish oneself from the so-called average Canadian as the “good settler cum ally.” While noting the possibility that a sense of entitlement (to be in the solidarity space) and self-righteousness can underpin these tendencies, I also suggest that these often coexist alongside a sense of responsibility to engage in the work.
I begin with an instructive excerpt from Alicia’s narrative, which is part of her response to being
asked about her responsibility as a non-Indigenous woman to do solidarity work:
With respect to what’s my place within this work, I had a bit of an epiphany once. This last winter I was struggling with my place in this work and as a white woman, and would I continue this kind of work... Should it kind of be left to Indigenous folks to sort out where they want to go? Am I kind of interfering?... I was at this nature camp. I was doing what they call a night walk through a forest.... When I was in that forest I kind of had this moment where I felt like I had just as much right to care about these important issues relating to Indigenous cultures—globalization, Westernization, environmentalism.
... I have just as much right as a child of this world to care about these things and it doesn’t matter that I’m white. And that there is a role for me to play, even if it’s just helping other white people learn, get out of their bubble, get out of their Western construct, their narrow construct of “I need to get a job, get a car, buy a boat, go to the cottage.” There’s more to life. There’s a different way to be living on this planet, to be more in tune with themselves, to be more in tune with nature, to understand colonization, to try some decolonizing work. To get back to our roots. To know what a community means.... I feel I’ve been given this gift of awareness from the Aboriginal cultures or communities that I’ve been a part of, and maybe there’s a role for me in sharing that same awareness with other non-Native people who continue to be Westernized and colonized in their way of thinking.
This passage along with others in Alicia’s narrative demonstrates the complexities of white settler woman subjectivity. She is rightly concerned about globalization, Westernization and environmental sustainability as issues that affect all peoples; she see herself as responsible for “helping other white people learn,” something long called for by marginalized communities. She is mindful of “interfering” and questions her “place in this work and as a white woman.” At the same time, she answers a question about her responsibility as a non-Indigenous woman in Canada with commentary on her right to do solidarity work, suggesting an attempt to mollify her own doubts about her “place in this work.” Does this suggest Alicia feels entitled to do solidarity work? Let’s consider the applicability of Heron’s (2007) insights into the role of
entitlement in white/Northern women’s decisions to do development work in the Global South:
Not only do participants feel morally obliged to intervene, and through planetary consciousness see the world as our field of action; not only do we position Others as amenable to our intercessions; but we take for granted that we can go to, live in, and be active in other people’s countries—and lives—if we choose to do development work. In a sense, our altruism becomes our passport to the South, and we think this is as it should be. (pp. 45–46) On the one hand, Alicia’s arguably defensive posturing suggests that her approach to solidarity is rather fraught or infused with settler anxiety (Tuck & Yang, 2012). On the other hand, Alicia’s claims to entitlement cannot be divorced from the broader narrative of becoming (Ahmed, 2000) that frames her solidarity work. She considers herself a privileged person who has been bestowed the “gift of awareness” (an achievement of proximity), rather than as a white settler woman who developed an anticolonial analysis. Enabled as an autonomous subject, she then positions herself as uniquely poised to bridge the Indigenous–settler gap and to teach other settlers about the perils of “their Western construct.”9 Despite an admittance (earlier in the interview) of ignorance about Indigenous issues in the not-so-distant past, Alicia now emphasizes that she is different from the general Canadian public, whose lack of awareness remains a source of anger to her. Unlike some of the more involved claims of anti-racist nonperformativity discussed by Ahmed (2004), Alicia’s anticolonial claims constitute direct appeals to exceptionalism.
When asked the same question about what responsibilities come with being a white woman in Canada, Rachel provides a strikingly similar response. She cites her elevated levels of awareness and understanding of Indigenous issues relative to most of her (white) friends, and alludes to the educative role (raising awareness of “interesting events”) she has taken upon
herself to assume:
In a way I’m almost an interesting bridge for you. I’m guessing you have talked to a lot of people with a strong sense of responsibility. Or at least they have chosen to commit a part of their life to work or alliance in that way. When I look at myself I am unusual within the context with the friends I have from a variety of contexts. They would perceive me as more socially and politically engaged than themselves. “You work, do good work, work with a soul. We work in marketing, publishing, law, business.”... It’s interesting because I don’t think that 99 percent of the people that I know in this world think that they have any responsibility to do with the context of Canada’s colonial history. I know people who would say, “You know what, Native people need to get over it.” I know people who would say that. I know people who would say, “I’m an immigrant to Canada. Native people don’t know or care what I went through.” In a really distorted way, that’s like a settler. I don’t even know how paradoxical and complicated that statement is. I think in all of those contexts I’m one of the voices of “that’s an interesting event, maybe we should hear about this Indigenous speaker from Burkina Faso about what traditional knowledge is.” I’d go with a few friends and we’d have an interesting experience.
Like Alicia, Rachel positions herself as exceptional in relation to “99 percent of the people that I know in this world [who do not] think that they have any responsibility” when it comes to Canadian colonial history. Rachel’s focus, however, as portrayed to her friends, boils down to an interest in learning about cultural difference rather than structural oppression (see Chapter 5).
In presenting what Wiegman (1999) might call an example of white disaffiliation, Schick (1998) notes a parallel tendency to that of Alicia’s and Rachel’s among white pre-service teachers, who describe themselves as having exceptional levels of cultural awareness.
In the following, Schick (1998) explains why she considers such statements to be “positive”:
These are “positive” statements... not because I either disapprove of or admire them, as they stand as claims irrespective of how I judge them. Neither are they positive because they actually convince the listener/reader of their intent as purposed by the subjects.
These are the credibility claims or warrants which participants call upon to construct for themselves a sympathetic, positive identity with regard to racial and cultural awareness.
By these claims, subjects show that they are agents in the production of their own identity—and not objects, not one of “them.” (p. 174) Ironically, such “positive” statements, presumably meant to differentiate the subject from other white people, reveal an aspect of collective white subjectivity: the pervasive desire to present oneself as an atypical, individualistic agent capable of resisting negative societal influences, i.e., the “I” who remains distinct from “them,” the “evil and racist” members of one’s own group (Moreton-Robinson, 2000).
When asked if her relationship with an Indigenous woman (an outside advisor on a work
project, described as “the ally” below,) has transformed her organization, Rachel answers:
When [a co-worker] and I talk, she sees value in the way the ally and I have constructed our relationship.... I think that there are other people who don’t necessarily have a direct relationship with my ally who have seen the way that I’ve modeled partnership development within the project and will borrow from that in having a broader awareness in their way of maybe interacting with people particularly from maybe marginalized communities, whether that would be Indigenous or immigrant or otherwise.
As previously noted, in Rachel’s narrative, interpersonal friendship is collapsed into solidarity.
To be fair, Rachel describes her experience of political solidarity as limited and had doubts about its applicability to my research. Nonetheless, her story provides a window into how a less experienced ally might conceptualize solidarity on individualistic terms that facilitate the move to exceptionalism.
What is accomplished by such claims to exceptionalism? How might such claims reflect and enable the (white) settler desire for and pursuit of innocence (i.e., the transcendence of structural power relations)? Exceptionalism discourse is perhaps most clearly demonstrable in participant responses to questions around the acknowledgment of settler privilege and usage of the term settler.10 Here are two white participant responses to the question of how they would position
themselves in relation to colonialism.11 When asked if she identifies as a settler, Peggy answers:
I would say yes, I’m a descendant of settlers, and a member of that culture. I would say at this point I don’t see myself only as a settler through my activism. Definitely still embedded and implicated, but I’m trying to create an alternative, as opposed to someone who’s unconsciously a settler, who has made no effort to change the dynamic.
In this excerpt and others, Peggy presents a nuanced understanding of her positionality as a settler. And while she recognizes and resists the risk of claiming transcendence (she acknowledges being “definitely still embedded and implicated”), she nonetheless seeks to differentiate herself from “someone who is unconsciously a settler who has made no effort to change the dynamic.” Whether or not Peggy is different is not the point; what I want to highlight is the desire and act of claim-making. To recall Schick (1998), “By these [credibility] claims, subjects show that they are agents in the production of their own identity—and not objects, not one of ‘them’” (p. 174)—“them” in this case referring to the average settler.
Another white participant locates herself in Canada’s settler-colonial relationship as follows:
That’s a good question. Well, obviously I’ve benefited from settler colonialism and I’m aware of that, so I think that maybe places me on the fringes of that? I don’t know.
Because, you know, a lot of people aren’t aware or don’t want to be aware of the ways they’ve, everything that they’ve gained from that system, because a lot of negative things have happened and it brings up these feelings of guilt and nobody really wants to feel guilty. But I think that doing the work that I do and just trying to be the person who I am and working towards alliances with not just Indigenous people, but other people as well, and trying to bridge that if I can. I try to educate my family and friends about those sorts of issues. So I’m hoping to try and be a positive influence or a force for good.