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«The Solidarity Encounter Between Indigenous Women and White Women in a Contemporary Canadian Context by Carol Lynne D’Arcangelis A thesis submitted ...»

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Approaching Solidarity: The Research as Encounter This study undertakes a qualitative, auto/ethnographically-informed analysis of the “solidarity encounter” between Indigenous women/feminists and white women/feminists in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) in order to explore its constitutive intersubjective relations.1 For the purposes of this study, I define the solidarity encounter as a site of colonial encounter or “contact zone” (Pratt, 1991, 2008) where discursive meaning making and power relations among differently positioned women quite literally take place (see Chapter 3). That is, I analyze how colonial relations between Indigenous nations and the Canadian settler state manifest themselves in a particular “ethnographic moment” (Agar, 2004). In short, I theorize the solidarity encounter as a microcosm of wider Indigenous–settler relations in a context of ongoing colonialism, that which renders attempts at solidarity necessary in the first place.

The study combines complementary elements of Indigenous/feminist2 and auto/ethnographic3 methodological approaches to research, including self-reflexivity as method—the act of “engaging in an ongoing process of reflecting ideas and experiences back on oneself as an explicit acknowledgement of one’s locatedness in the research” (Cole & Knowles, 2001, p. 42).

Following this integrated methodological approach (its feminist tenets in particular), I aim to render visible the knowledges and concerns of differently positioned women. Incorporating an Indigenous/feminist sensibility into the mix, I seek to take into account the (socially constructed) specificity of Indigenous women’s positionality and centre colonialism as an analytic. For this, I draw on the work of feminist scholars Gaile Cannella and Kathryn Manuelito (2008) who blend “Native epistemologies and marginalized feminisms” to engage in what they call anticolonial, egalitarian social science. Finally, I adopt an auto/ethnographic stance throughout the study both to locate myself as researcher and to shed light on the dynamics of the solidarity encounter. More broadly, by adopting this blend of methodological approaches, I endeavor to adhere to certain methodological imperatives in this study: to view the “researched” as active participants endowed with subject status; to integrate participant concerns into the investigative agenda; and to incorporate an explicitly activist component in the research.

In short, with this amalgam of methodologies, I ascribe to the position that academic research should ultimately further a social justice agenda for the community or group in question.

While I theorize the solidarity encounter per se in subsequent chapters, in this chapter I discuss the research as encounter—an encounter of differently positioned subjects that likely involves intersubjective dynamics that mimic those of the solidarity encounter. Put differently, the research process functions as a microcosm of the encounter I attempt to theorize, presenting me with a particular methodological challenge: How do I, as a white settler woman researcher, avoid reconstituting the colonial encounter via the study’s design or implementation? In fact, the very act of providing an autobiographical sketch of why I chose to do this study is fraught with the related risk of re-centring the white settler subject. Nonetheless, a feminist, anticolonial study such as this one demands that I consider my subject position and relationship to the research. Thus, I write with/in tension—alert to the necessity of discussing my subject position and also of the possibility that I will re-centre whiteness and reproduce white settler privilege in the process.

By risking the fall into solipsistic, confessional tales, I hope to impart a sense of how my involvement as a white feminist activist (and subsequently, scholar-activist) in social justice and human rights initiatives in the US, Central America and Canada has shaped my approach to scholarship and the direction of this study. To quote Nestel (2006), “I have not occupied the role of distanced and ‘objective’ researcher in this project. My anxieties, both potential and real, have shaped these pages in innumerable ways” (p. 16). For one, many of my research questions emanate from my work as an ally member of No More Silence (NMS), a group of Indigenous women and allies dedicated to raising awareness about the disproportionate numbers of missing and murdered Indigenous women across Turtle Island.4 More fundamentally still, my lived experiences inevitably infuse the lenses through which I “see” solidarity work. This study bears the imprint of my life history and reaffirms my unabashed commitment to a social justice agenda. However, it is equally if not more important to contextualize my anxieties, motivations and desires as not uniquely my own, but rather reflective and productive of the collective social relations in which I am ensconced. Thus, I also discuss how these “personal” experiences have brought me beyond the self to consider how a subject’s structural positionality overdetermines (but never absolutely or seamlessly) the contours and possibilities of her political commitments.

In this examination of the research as encounter, first I draw on key autobiographical moments to explore how my subject position and life experiences have shaped the research. Second, I outline the study’s design as well as lines of inquiry, and identify some of the persistent methodological challenges of the project, in particular the risks of pursing research as a white settler woman. Third, I describe the methodological approaches I adopted from the outset to render as transparently as possible my subject position and relationship to the research and also to mitigate hierarchical power relations in the research process. Fourth, I discuss data analysis, beginning with the conceptual framework of subjectivity that underlies my reading of the data. I conclude by considering the extent to which the very hierarchical relations that the study examines (i.e., the gendered, racialized and colonial relations of the solidarity encounter) might infuse the study itself—despite methodological designs to mitigate this risk.

Reflections of a White Settler Woman Researcher

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How have I arrived at this particular point of departure? In what ways have my investments in solidarity work as both a white feminist activist and scholar affected the research? To answer necessitates “reflecting upon the ways in which [my] own values, experiences, interests, beliefs, political commitments, wider aims in life and social identities have shaped the research” (Willig, 2001, p. 10). In what follows, I explore how this study’s subject matter reflects my personal and professional journey of over three decades, its concerns springing directly from my solidarity work as a white woman feminist. In the process, I underscore my commitment to understand and undo the various matrices of power relations in which I figure. I also interrogate how my desire to be a “good white settler ally” (discussed at more length in Chapter 6) has figured centrally in my life and scholarly work. To do so, I rely on memory “as a form of personal, intellectual and political work,” which enables, as Ahmed (2000) notes, a return to “‘unsettling encounters’ that one may have had in ‘public life’ (Goffman 1972); those moments when one is faced by others (especially others that have a relationship to the law such as parents, teachers or the police) in such a way that one is ‘moved from one’s place’” (p. 189).

Unsettling colonial encounters were uncommon for a child like me living in rural upstate New York in the 1970s. Only well into adulthood would I wonder about growing up in Fort Plain, the site of what a bluish-black metal sign with yellow lettering bluntly referred to as a “Mohawk Town. An Indian Village occupied top of this hill.” The signification of what was supposed to be an historical marker was profoundly unintelligible to me for many years. In light of such beginnings, this study represents a certain culmination in self-reflexivity, the result of a gradual and intensifying recognition on my part of the “oppressive logic of colonial modernity” (Lugones, 2010), i.e., the logic of erasure that rendered the reality of violent conquest and ongoing colonialism of/in my “home” quite unremarkable to me as a white settler on the land of the Kanien’kehá:ka (Mohawk). In the following pages, I describe key autobiographical elements that define me as a white settler woman researcher and that are hence pivotal to the study’s framing, e.g., questions asked to generate and lenses used to read the data. More specifically, I track the gradual emergence in my own life of what I have identified and analyzed in retrospect (in this study) as an “impulse to solidarity,” replete with white settler guilt, a competitive spirit and desire for exceptionalism (as the “good white settler ally”), self-serving motivations and the fear of exposure—many of which became principle themes of investigation in this study.

Class ceilings/white colonial privilege

I grew up in a working-class Italian American family, my father the quintessential immigrant who instilled in his children a belief in the power of education to lift them out of poverty and into the expansiveness of American upward mobility.5 The youngest of eight, I absorbed this unspoken message and headed off to university. No one had prepared me for what would ensue—the indelible forging of my working-class identity spurred on by the particularities of US class stratification. I took note of, but did not share, the sense of entitlement that comes with (white) class privilege. As Ruth Behar (1993) writes, “We cross borders, but do not erase them;

we take our borders with us” (p. 320).

While my commitment to social justice cannot be ascribed neatly to any one factor, or to any static combination of factors, a working-class identity is nonetheless central to my engagement in solidarity work and interest in ending oppressive and marginalizing systems. In this, I relate to the genesis of Nestel’s (2006) research into the movement to legalize midwifery in Ontario.

Her experience of occupying contradictory subject positionings (a Jewish woman, yet able to benefit from structural white dominance) parallels (although not exactly) my own as a woman who grew up “poor” while enjoying white privilege. I also detected vestiges in my own life of “how deeply committed we who enjoy race privilege are to versions of racism that allow us to refuse being implicated in the racialized order of things” (Nestel, 2006, p. 13), in my case by embracing a working-class identity. One of my goals here is to point out these contradictions.

Six months after graduation, I became a Rotary International post-graduate scholar at Melbourne University. Having left the US for the first time, I was immersed in a foreign, yet familiar environment; my increasing awareness of the violent colonization of Australia’s Indigenous peoples (eerily similar to what I would later learn about Canadian residential schools) drew into sharp relief the racist and colonial realities of the place I had always called home—upstate New York. Citing an example from her journey into “the messiness of solidarity and responsibility” (p. 2), Richa Nagar (2014) attests to the power of embodied exposure to different sociopolitical settings to shift and deepen one’s analysis: “Rethinking and articulating the dreams and struggles of SKMS6 while breathing and moving in the sociopolitical spaces of the United States reshape[d] our understandings of race and caste, of belonging and citizenship, or borders and border crossings” (pp. 9–10).

Throughout my time in Australia, I deepened my knowledge of Indigenous peoples and settler colonial realities, and had an epiphany of sorts: How could I not have seen the oppression of Native Americans and African Americans in “my” own backyard? After this “unsettling encounter,” to evoke Ahmed (2000), I distinctly remember taking a silent oath to not make things worse, even if I couldn’t make them better. My growing awareness aside, however, I had not yet learned that invoking class is often a way to sidestep thorny questions about race and white privilege (Grillo, 1995; Grillo & Wildman, 1991).7 It would take a series of other encounters for me to better grasp how white privilege and settler status interlock and my own location within that nexus.

Un/becoming a (white) gringa

My involvement in solidarity work began in earnest in San Francisco, when I worked with a grassroots group to end US military aid to El Salvador. Two years later, a six-month stint to learn Spanish morphed into a seven-year stay in Central America. One of my more formative (i.e., unsettling) encounters in the region was as a human rights observer with MINUGUA, the United Nations Mission in Guatemala.8 My cumulative experiences with Indigenous peoples in Guatemala marked another pivotal moment in the maturing of my commitment to social justice and to what I would come to see as a deeply personal and simultaneously collective matter— decolonization. In Guatemala, I was forced to reckon further with the hierarchical and white supremacist thinking of Western societies. As I reached a “point of white racial incoherence” (Noble, 2009), my academic and activist interest in anticolonial praxis started to coalesce.

Bobby J. Noble (2009) describes instances of white racial incoherence that transpired in a graduate seminar on masculinities that he taught in 2007: “Such unthinkabilities function as a moment of destabilizing unknowingness that whiteness cannot endure knowing” (p. 160). In my case, my white Northern self was challenged by the realities of a North–South racialized, imperial encounter, my working-class positionality having lost its redeemable value. In retrospect, I am able to read my response to this “self-unhinging” as rather common, i.e., as a fallout of my subject position. I wanted to be (seen as) exceptional—a good foreigner who was different from the other gringos/as—a desire that would resurface in me and, not incidentally, also in the data analyzed in this study.

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