«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
(Darcie) The white settler woman subject’s gendered desire to be “a force for good” is clearly evident in Darcie’s narrative. It also provides a more straightforward example of exceptionalism discourse as a white settler strategy to overcome one’s implicatedness in colonial relations. Her discursive moves correspond in sequence to those of other white participants. First, like Alicia, Rachel and Peggy, she cites her awareness of settler colonialism as the factor that distinguishes her from “a lot of people” and that (possibly) places her “on the fringes of” colonial power. Darcie also claims to be exceptional in not having succumbed to “feelings of guilt.” Second, she describes herself as “trying to bridge” Indigenous–white settler difference (while adding a third category, “other people”). Like Alicia and Rachel, she describes the educative roles she has assumed, including “trying to educate my family and friends about those sorts of issues.” In “just trying to be the person who I am,” Darcie credits herself with moving to the fringes of settler colonialism, a fantasy that could only be sustained by the subject who imagines herself as autonomous.
Further, Darcie’s claim to exceptional status initially rests on the same declarative logic that
Ahmed (2004) finds is often reinscribed through whiteness studies:
The argument that we must see whiteness because whiteness is unseen can convert into a declaration of not being subject to whiteness or even a white subject (“if I see whiteness, then I am not white, as whites don’t see their whiteness”). Perhaps this fantasy of transcendence is the privilege afforded by whiteness, as a privilege which disappears from sight when it has itself in view.... When whiteness studies becomes a declaration about whiteness, then it constitutes its subject as transcending its object in the moment it sees or apprehends itself as the object (being white). (para. 16, emphasis in original) In this case, Darcie transcends her privilege at the moment it comes into view. Given the slippery nature of privilege, it is unlikely that Darcie would recognize her utterance as a fantasy of transcendence. Eve, however, speaks to this paradoxical rendering of privilege in our exchange about the extent to which the term settler is used in activist versus social service
I feel like that language really comes out of activist communities... I think it’s quite common language that doesn’t necessarily have a negative... well, I guess it does still have a negative connotation to it. But not negative in a bad way. Do you know what I mean? [Carol Lynne: Yes. You’re supposed to acknowledge your settler complicity.] Exactly. So it’s kind of bad that you’re a settler, but it’s good that you acknowledge it.
Whereas I think that in [a] more social service context, [Indigenous people] don’t want to piss off the white people who are their funders, right?
As became apparent in our ensuing conversation, Eve and I agree on two points: first, there is the general expectation that as white settlers (women and men) we will declare our status as such in the solidarity encounter; and second, a certain street cred is seen to flow from that declaration—one’s enhanced status as progressive settler ally (if only among other settler allies).
This practice does not seem to be gender specific, but may well take gendered forms.
Ahmed (2004) explores the paradoxical rendering of such an achievement with relation to racism:
The paradoxes of admitting to one’s own racism are clear: saying “we are racist” becomes a claim to have overcome the conditions (unseen racism) that require the speech act in the first place. The logic goes: we say, “we are racist,” and insofar as we can admit to being racist (and racists are unwitting), then we are showing that “we are not racist,” or at least that we are not racist in the same way. (para. 20) Based on a shared analysis, Eve and I agree that a similar non-performative logic operates in the solidarity encounter between women and in mixed gender groups, although perhaps differently.12 We have each learned in our respective settings to declare our dominant status (be it white, settler, middle-class or combination thereof) and to recognize the moral importance attached to such declarative practices.
Speaking as an Indigenous woman from elsewhere, Zainab hones in on the discursive limits of
such declarations while not completely dismissing their importance:
I think it’s what you do with that acknowledgement that matters to me. I acknowledge it, too. I’m a settler here, too.13 This is not my land. I’m benefiting from the genocide as well. It’s what you do with it that matters. And I’m not interested. I don’t really care. I’m tired of people saying, “I’m a settler” and doing the whole [Carol Lynne: Confession thing?] Yeah. I don’t care about that. Tell me what you’re prepared to do to fix things.
Combining the insights of Ahmed (2004) and Smith (2013a), I suggest that such declarations are perhaps best classified as non-performative confessions—frequently, though not inherently or inevitably, leaving a disjuncture between speech and action in their wake.
Eve and I also both register an awareness of competing declarations of allyship (and hence of transcendence) among white women activists in the solidarity encounter. In fact, Indigenous and white participants alike depict a propensity toward competition in this ambit as fairly common.
As Kowal (2011) suggests, white anti-racist strategies to manage white stigma include “criticising other Whites, including other White anti-racists” (pp. 8–9). As an Indigenous woman, Rubina has sometimes found “that solidarity work [among white women allies] is a competition of ‘I am so much better an activist than you,’” noting this to be particularly the case in academic activism. When asked about the origins or purpose of such competition, Rubina answers without hesitation: “Oh, it’s about the guilt. If I can be a better activist, obviously, I’m not doing as bad stuff.” Rubina’s response (common among Indigenous and white participants) corroborates the theorizations of white settler guilt/white stigma reviewed above. It also speaks to Ahmed’s (2004) theory about what white people “do” (make declarations) with/about “bad feeling.” A long-time ally working with Indigenous communities, Peggy speaks to the layered nature of non-Indigenous activists’ discursive attempts (counting her own) to show “I’m not one of
Peggy: You can’t take off your whiteness, your privilege, the benefits you’ve inherited— it’s stuck to you. You’re fooling yourself if you think you can leave it behind. I think a lot of people think that when they first become activists, that there’s this denial, this appropriation of a Native identity, because it’s painful. You’d much rather be able to identify with the oppressed. [There’s] a certain self-righteousness that you can’t have as one of the oppressors…You can see it in some activists in the way they really denounce and shun other non-Indigenous people that don’t have quite the same politics.
Carol Lynne: Could you give me an example of that?
Peggy: It doesn’t just happen in this context, in any sort of activist politics. People consider themselves the vanguard. The best analysis, the most radical, everyone else is a sell-out just reinforcing the colonial agenda. Personally, I don’t like that binary thinking;
I don’t think it’s accurate. I think that there are many ways to be an activist, to contribute to decolonization. It can be really small, it can be quiet, it can be loud, it can be visible.
I’m wary of people who are extremely judgmental in that way. It’s one thing to say “I don’t agree with what they’re doing,” but there’s a degree of put down and condemnation. I think it’s part of the same dynamic that “I’m not one of them.” Carol Lynne: You’re denying the fact that you can’t take off that colonial imprint?
Peggy: Yeah, you will discover at one point that you still have it.
Peggy begins by noting “a certain self-righteousness” that comes with identifying with “the oppressed,” a self-righteousness she has seen across activist circles that enables the settler ally subject to feel superior to and be judgmental of other activists who (in solidarity encounters with Indigenous people) are seen as “sell-outs just reinforcing the colonial agenda.” The settleractivist who depicts herself as part of “the vanguard” with the “best analysis” and “most radical” politics resembles Ahmed’s (2004) “learned white” subject who makes a specific kind of
declaration of whiteness—“I/we have studied whiteness (and racist people are ignorant)”:
If learning about whiteness becomes a subject skill and a subject specific skill, then “learned whites” are precisely “given privilege” over others, whether those others are “unlearned whites” or learning or unlearned non-white others. Studying whiteness can involve the claiming of a privileged white identity as the subject who knows. (para. 40) The better settler-activist (the “atypical” settler) is (one who considers herself) more informed, having acquired a sophisticated analysis of colonialism, which can include a process of cultural appropriation. Applying Ahmed’s (2004) lens to this example reveals a belief on the part of settlers that colonial status/power, like white status/power, can be shed or at least mitigated through becoming the “subject who knows.” Peggy’s insights also provide an example of how discourses of exceptionalism (vanguardism) and proximity (appropriation) are co-constitutive.
Competition can reach an even more disturbing level, according to long-time Indigenous activist Zainab, who notes that “[white] supporters often compete with each other to impress each other as well as Native people about how much they know, how involved they’ve been, who they know in Native struggles.” Her sketch of what took place during the organizing of a political action in Toronto that involved Indigenous groups from outside the city illustrates the potential fallout of white ally competition. By “white interpreters” she is referring to representatives of non-Indigenous solidarity groups (also based outside of the city) who had established
relationships with the affected rural Indigenous communities:
So here we had urban Native people wanting to talk directly with the [rural-based Native] activists... who had to go through these white interpreters. So the white interpreters were always kind of competing with each other: “Well, I spoke to the elder.
.. and she said this.” “Well, I’m sorry, but I spoke to someone in [another place] and they said that.” So the whole conversation was kind of like that. It was very “my Indian says this” and “my Indian says that.” This kind of stuff. Yeah, they like to compete with each other about who they know, how much they know, how long they’ve been doing this, how respectful are their relationships, and whether “their Indians” are taking more leadership than “your Indians.” It’s like, holy fuck.
In their self-appointed role as intermediaries between the rural Indigenous communities and urban-based Indigenous activists, Zainab’s “white interpreters” essentially claimed ownership over Indigenous individuals and communities. This provides us with a stark reminder of the insidious ways in which colonial dynamics can be reproduced despite the good intentions of non-Indigenous people who see themselves as supporters of Indigenous political struggles.
Unlike in most examples I cite, men (by which I mean any male-identified person) were predominant in number among Zainab’s “white interpreters,” which leads to other questions about the gendered dimension of white settler ally competition. Does it manifest differently in mixed gender groups, particularly in its public dimensions? How might patriarchal relations unfold? Not having broached the topic with participants, I raise these as questions for future research.14 Some participants’ narratives dovetail even more directly with Ahmed (2004) in the way that they hone in on the non-performativity of public declarations of allyship. For example, Carla
analyzes the work done by the self-congratulatory declarations of some white allies:
Carla: But that as an ally means never allowing yourself to say that you’re off the hook, that you can’t do and appropriate things because you’re an ally. And knowing that it’s a constant process your whole life. That it’s something you have to consistently selfreflect on and be conscious of your actions.... So for instance, there’s a guy I know who is white, who would always see himself as a good ally to people of colour groups.
And he was in a relationship with one of my friends who was a woman of colour, and at one point said to me: “You know my girlfriend is a woman of colour; I’m off the hook— I can’t be racist.” I think that can be really damaging to say to someone who wants to think that because of an association you are sort of guilt free. It eases your conscience.
Carol Lynne: What is the danger of having an eased conscience?
Carla: Well, you know racism and all forms of social discrimination can replicate themselves in intimate relationships, in friendships, in activist circles, so I think it negates that. I think it says, “I am a lefty, therefore I am absolved of any harm.” You could actually still be doing things that are quite harmful and actually use it as a shield to say like “You can’t attack me, I am not racist because...” Carla’s analysis provides another example of how discourses of friendship as proximity can constitute the move to exceptionalism.
The “lefty” subject’s eased conscience also reminds me of Ahmed’s (2004) work on white subject attempts to do away with “bad feeling” (Ahmed, 2004):