«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»
One wonders again what happens to bad feeling in this performance of good, happy whiteness. If bad feeling is partly an effect of racism, and racism is accepted as ongoing in the present (rather than what happened in the past), then who gets to feel bad about racism? One suspects that happy whiteness, even when this happiness is about antiracism, is what allows racism to remain the burden of non-white others. Indeed, I suspect that bad feelings of racism (hatred, fear, pain) are projected onto the bodies of unhappy racist whites, which allows progressive whites to be happy with themselves in the face of continued racism towards non-white others. (para. 34) The problem with this, as with all moves to exceptionalism, is the manner in which it can sustain the white settler subject’s fantasies of autonomy and transcendence.
In exploring what solidarity means for her as a white woman, Eve builds on Carla’s critique of the use of public declarations and self-congratulatory language in the quest to be (seen as) a
good settler ally:
I think solidarity and allyships are really similar in a sense. It’s language that has to be given to you, not that you can take. I think I would never call myself an ally of a particular community unless the community has called me an ally.... Because most of my work now... is around sex work politics, I see a lot of people calling themselves sex work allies, and they’re not. They’re really, really not. It’s the thing that the community has to give you that language in order for you to be able to claim it.
For Eve, the act of declaring oneself an ally involves a certain level of appropriation. Perhaps not as extreme as the pitched battles over “my Indian” described by Zainab, unilateral claims of allyship nonetheless are examples of the white ally taking something that has not yet been given
or earned. As an Indigenous woman from elsewhere in the Americas, Ursula would agree:
I consider myself Indigenous, but I’m not from this territory, so I also work in solidarity and I’m an ally as well to the Haudenosaunee people and Anishinaabe people of this territory. I also think that you need to be careful when talking about allies. A lot of people can say “I’m an ally,” but I think you need to be named as an ally by the Native community themselves, not just call yourself an ally willy-nilly. So that’s like an honoured title.
Recall also Wanda’s conclusion about the hollowness of one white woman’s declaration of allyship made at the end of a public film screening (see Chapter 4): “By the tone, by the question, she’s not an ally... because she doesn’t understand what that means, and she has her own agenda, obviously.” Unilateral self-ascriptions do not lay claim to Indigenous individuals or communities to precisely the same degree as the competitive posturing of Zainab’s “white interpreters,” but they are still expressions of colonial subjectivity. As such, they are nuanced manifestations of both the settler/liberal subject’s sense of entitlement to engage in solidarity, and the pursuit of proximity that serves, as Wanda says, the white settler ally’s “own agenda.”
Exceptional struggles (with the politics of declaration)
My analysis of discourses of exceptionalism has relied up to this point on participant observations mostly of others. In fact, white participants rarely self-disclose moves to exceptionalism and/or competition they might have made. Most white participants do not comment one way or the other on any desires they might have had (or continue to have) to attain exceptional settler ally status. Are such omissions indicative of a lack of self-reflexivity? Or, do they themselves constitute moves to exceptionalism? It appears that white settler women sometimes go to great lengths—and take circuitous paths—to prove our exceptional status. By limiting our observations to the actions of other settler-activists, are we claiming superior status to those who declare themselves exceptional? To consider these questions, I turn to the minority of white participants who raise the matter of their own exceptionalism and/or competitive impulses or, to make matters more complex, the lack thereof.
In the following exchange, Julia reflects on why she had not used the term solidarity to describe
the work she does around Indigenous issues. The excerpt begins with my question:
Carol Lynne: You answered the call for participants, and it said “solidarity” in the title, so why don’t you use the term?
Carol Lynne: Does it have negative connotations for you?
Julia: No, it’s really a benign… Carol Lynne: So, if it’s not solidarity for you, what is it?
Julia: Oh, it is. If I were to think about it, it absolutely is. It’s just not if I refer to... I guess maybe now that I’m talking about it and I’m saying it out loud, I think it seems if I used the word, whether it be within my own social circles or if I’m talking to Indigenous folks, “Aren’t you a good little white lady, working in solidarity. Isn’t that good for you.” That’s not what it is for me. I don’t need to make a public declaration.
Carol Lynne: What’s wrong with a public declaration of solidarity for you? What is it?
Julia: I don’t want it to be seen as self-serving for me. I am really okay with a public declaration around anti-racism work and political activism and that sort of thing, for the cause and for the reason that I’m there. I don’t need to be congratulated for that. So I guess maybe when I say, “working in solidarity,” then it becomes about me.
Carol Lynne: Have you seen that happen?
Julia: Yes... That’s a big piece for [the anthropologist], is that she’s seen as working in solidarity. But I think for me, a lot of what she does is... I don’t ever want to be seen as an expert on Indigenous culture. I’m not Indigenous. I’ve lived a white life. I worry that for some white folks, they see themselves as experts on Indigenous experiences and life and culture. I’m the expert in my own life and that’s about it.... I’m the expert of nobody else.
Julia’s concern about being misread as someone seeking recognition and validation as “a good little white lady” suggests not only the ubiquity of such a desire, but also of the measures taken by some white settler women to quench it—issuing public declarations about one’s solidarity.
Julia’s utterances at first seem to depart from Ahmed’s notion of non-performative speech acts wherein one admits to being racist or white in a bid to assert the contrary. Julia does not confess to a desire to be seen as “a good little white lady.” However, in asserting the opposite, she makes a series of declarations about whiteness and the potentially flawed practice of some white people who claim to be “Indigenous experts.” Julia’s assurances about her difference (i.e., that she does not seek recognition as an ally nor consider herself an expert on anything but herself as a white woman, assurances she issues repeatedly during the interview) evoke Ahmed’s (2004) notion of the anxious white subject who “would come into existence in its very anxiety about the effects it has on others, or even in fear that it is taking something away from others” (para.
7). Julia is clearly worried about practicing the “wrong kind” of solidarity, just as some scholars in critical whiteness studies worry about doing “the wrong kind of whiteness studies,” (Ahmed, 2004, para. 8) which explains their deployment of the term “critical.” Is the discursive effect of Julia’s worrying to “evoke the promise of” her anticolonial status (Ahmed, 2004, para. 7)?
Julia is not alone in struggling to position herself vis-à-vis the “politics of declaration” in solidarity activism, nor to express a “lingering unease” (see Heron’s analysis of Carol below) with how colonial relations can be reproduced via speech acts.15 Like Julia, Eve notes a generalized desire among settler-activists to be/feel like a “great white ally.” She also points out
the non-performativity of some declarations, in this example, related to “decolonizing”:
Reading as much as you can. Taking people’s advice. Trying to listen, trying to be silent.
All of that is really important decolonizing work, if that’s how people are understanding decolonizing. Those are obviously so significant, but they are also so insignificant compared to the kind of decolonizing work that needs to happen in Canadian society. So me listening to some Aboriginal women and saying, “I’m decolonizing myself” makes me feel like a great white ally, when it fact what I probably should be doing is struggling against the Indian Act or supporting people trying to change the reserve systems—things that are maybe a bit more significant than me just listening.
Eve’s vision of a more substantive act of decolonization goes beyond the individualized steps of any one person, i.e., it includes, yet does not remain focused on the liberal subject. When asked soon after about the role white guilt might play in the desire to feel like a “great white ally,” Eve
repeats her point that declarations of decolonization can be non-performative:
Maybe that’s part of why I say [great white ally] mockingly, because I don’t feel like I’m a great white ally. I don’t feel that’s an important part of my struggle.... The impetus for me being an ally to Indigenous communities is not to feel like I’m a good white ally. It’s for social justice reasons, for feminist reasons, for anti-racist reasons, for a bunch of stuff. But it’s not to appease my own self. Maybe that’s the question, when you were asking about, have you done decolonizing work, it’s very easy for white people to say, “Oh, I’ve decolonized myself because I read a few books.” It’s like, “Well, that’s kind of bullshit.” It’s an easy out. That way I don’t have to deal with my white privilege.
I think I’d rather just deal with my white privilege and keep that in check, rather than say I’m decolonized because I read a few books.
Eve does not appear as worried as Julia about being misidentified as someone seeking the status of “great white ally.” But, in critiquing the “easy way out” taken by some white activists involved in decolonizing work, does she position herself as exceptional, as embodying the bonafide activist who takes action as opposed to one who makes empty declarations?
“So, ‘Why are you into solidarity?’ is the thing you should be struggling with throughout this work you’re doing right now.” Directives such as this one from Lee, a seasoned Indigenous activist, have kept me vigilantly self-reflexive in this research, giving me pause to ask, for example, to what extent my own solidarity efforts have involved attempts to prove my exceptional status vis-à-vis other white women/feminist activists. The irony of making declarations about my own competitive impulses to be the better, most exceptional (white) settler ally does not escape me. Will they constitute non-performative utterances designed to exonerate me for committing acts of competition in the solidarity encounter? I risk this in the hope that my self-reflections will provide insight into the nuanced nature of competition among allies.
I begin with the telling reaction that Zainab’s story about the “white interpreters” elicited from me: “At least my competition is mostly in my head. I don’t do that shit out loud, which makes me superior, of course.” Attempts at ironic humour aside, the kernel of competitiveness that has consistently germinated in my own activist practices is clearly detectable in this statement. And, despite keeping it to myself, my indignation has put me in league with the “left-wing
intellectuals” critiqued by Alfred (2005):
They claim the right and privilege of indignation and the power to judge those cruder colonizers among them and attempt to use this rhetorical posture to release themselves of their own responsibility for the colonial enterprise, both historically and in the way it has affected their own lives, their families’ privileges, and their communities’ formation. (p.
105) In other words, judging others becomes a “rhetorical posture” for attempting “to release” the self. The research process—in particular, interviews such as the one with Zainab during which I was able to share experiences and hypotheses—has presented me with ample opportunity to note the constancy, depth and complexity of my own impulse to competitiveness and the ways in which it springs (or not) from guilt. Another of Zainab’s statements, which links guilt to what she describes as a reactionary overzealousness that can accompany competitive behaviours among white women, rang true for me: “If someone does make an ignorant comment in public, it’s really interesting to me how sometimes the white people will be angry, more impacted than the [Indigenous] people who the comment’s directed at.” I was immediately brought back to my reactions to two different situations: a meeting at which a white woman took the lead during an Indigenous women’s singing circle and a public symposium on Native/non-Native
reconciliation. I mention both in my exchange with Zainab:
Even though I don’t vocalize it, I’ve been that person... getting more upset about that white woman taking the lead on the song than anybody else seemed to, for example....
Or at the... symposium on reconciliation, and I just felt like a lot of the Native people there—not all of them, by any stretch—the people who were speaking and the sort of main message being conveyed was not critical enough in terms of naming colonialism. It was all about looking forward. There was one Native man who came and spoke who was really critical of the land claims process, and the negotiation process that was going on, and he named names, and some of the people were there in the room. Afterwards, I heard these two guys talking, two Native people... saying things like, “Oh, that doesn’t help anybody. Two steps back. He didn’t need to be like that. He didn’t need to be so critical.” I found myself getting angry, like, why wasn’t the bad stuff talked about more?