Scales of Activism, Allyship, and the Embodiment of Resistance: a dialogue

by Morgan Clare and Sarah Hunt

One of our intentions for this blog is to explore relationships as places where we put our politics into practice. Here, we share a conversation we’ve been having about relationships and allyship, based in our own experiences of what allyship looks and feels like in our own lives.

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Sarah: Recently, we were talking about examples of people being allies in ways that feel good. For me, the first example that comes to mind is being in a class on gender and sexuality during my undergrad. On the first day, the professor reviewed a list of racist, sexist and otherwise problematic terminology, including the term ‘Indian’, and explained the histories of these words. We then discussed why we were not going to use these terms in class and agreed that if students used this language, we could remind each other why they were not to be used. A few weeks later, when one student was making racist comments about ‘Indians’ and being really aggressive towards me, the professor took action without me having to say anything. I felt like the professor would have addressed this with the student whether I (an Indigenous student) was in the class or not, because of this foundational social justice framework. Unlike in other classes I’d taken, it wasn’t put on my shoulders to take the racist student on. The teacher also addressed the problem outside of class so that I wasn’t further targeted or ‘othered’ as the only native person in class. I didn’t need to explain a bunch of historical, political and personal things in order for the teacher to understand why this language was a problem, or how this impacted my ability to come to class. And I felt supported before a problem even emerged. For me, this changed the learning environment, because I felt that the teacher got it right from the beginning.

This reminds me of other situations where people brought an already existing understanding of local Indigenous culture, colonialism, and contemporary Indigenous issues to the spaces we share. In general, this kind of self-education means Indigenous people don’t have to do the work that enables others to act as allies to them. I was at a music festival where one of the activities for kids was making feathered ‘Indian’ headbands. A bunch of friends came up to me throughout the festival, and afterward, to tell me they were going to write a letter or say something to the person in charge of that activity. I felt a great sense of relief to see people taking initiative to address this issue of ‘playing Indian’ at festivals because I am, quite frankly, tired of explaining why it’s racist. So often, people who point out the workings of systems of oppression (racism, ableism, heteronormativity and so on) are made to feel out of place for being the one to disrupt everyday societal norms. We end up being seen as ‘the problem’ instead of the material realities of oppressive systems themselves being problematized. So in this case, it felt good that people had listened to what has been written about this phenomenon, had heard the calls to challenge other non-native people about this, and were taking action. They let me know that the otherwise normalized racism was going to be made visible without me having to be the one to point it out, and that they would have taken action whether I was there or not.

Morgan: Your comments are really powerful and I’m struck by what you said about how people, especially those that are marginalized themselves, who point out problems of marginalization in operation get perceived as ‘the problem’. I also appreciate what you said about the importance of taking responsibility for learning. My own positive experiences of solidarity and support in relation to disability have been with people who engage meaningfully with radical disabled perspectives and critiques of ableism, and who work to dismantle ableism materially at multiple scales. One example is from my friendship with you where not only do you take initiative to find out about the physical accessibility of spaces whenever we hang out, but you also think about access in a broader way that goes beyond just physical access and that values my disabled embodiment and embodied political perspective. This is in contrast to ableist social relationships that constitute disabled people as burdens who can at best be tolerated ‘in spite of’ our embodiments, and at worst must be exterminated through eugenics.  I think what’s really powerful is that you help to normalize a broad kind of accessibility that is, as Mia Mingus says, in the service of disability justice. In other contexts, I find that access is often understood in a pretty narrow way, as if the inclusion of a wheelchair ramp means that a gathering will be accessible to disabled people. That kind of basic physical access for people with mobility related disabilities is absolutely necessary, but access for disabled people is actually a much more complex, ongoing process and way of relating to each other, not something that begins and ends at the entrance to a space.

Having said that, there are many ways that organizers can as a starting point improve physical accessibility at gatherings. One small but also really significant thing is to have an enforced scent-free policy so that chemically sensitive and environmentally ill people can attend. Disabled people with Environmental Illness and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS) experience extreme levels of isolation that MCS activist Peggy Munson says “amount to nothing less than socially sanctioned torture”, and these forms of illness/disability are becoming more and more widespread as a result of the ongoing violence of environmental racism, colonialism, and capitalism. It is so important that activists commit to building scent-free spaces, and understanding this in a political framework rather than an abusive charity model where these forms of access are seen as ‘gifts’ to be given or taken away at the whim of nondisabled people.

At the same time, I don’t think that I should actually feel totally comfortable or ‘good’ as a disabled person who’s a white settler in ongoing colonialism and white supremacy. I think white supremacy and colonialism get reproduced through white people’s insistence that we should always feel comfortable and like we’re ‘innocent’ – that our comfort, perspectives, and experiences should always be centered. So I’ve been trying to think of examples of people working toward complex kinds of disability justice that situate ableism in a wider context of colonialism, white supremacy, and racial capitalism. One example that stands out for me is a disability justice gathering I went to that centred queer and trans disabled women of colour, and that focused on how ableism is bound up with white supremacy, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and cissexism. While antiracist perspectives were centred, what stands out to me now thanks in large part to conversations with you is the exclusion of decolonial and anti-colonial perspectives. Obviously these situations are a lot more nuanced than my comments suggest, but what is reaffirmed for me again and again is the importance of keeping anti-colonial perspectives centred when working for social justice in the settler colonial spaces now known as Canada and the United States. And as Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang argue, centring Indigenous decolonization might actually require non-Indigenous activists to confront the incommensurability of our political objectives with decolonization.

Thinking about resistance at the level of everyday, embodied processes and relationships brings me back to some of our recent conversations about the gendered division of ‘public’ and ‘private’ life in determining what counts as ‘real’ political or activist work. Do you want to talk about this at all?

Sarah: Yes, I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, and I really like how you frame this as ‘the embodiment of resistance’. So much of my own understanding of resistance, social justice and decolonization has emerged at personal and interpersonal levels, yet the work that happens at this scale often goes unseen. Since we’re talking about allyship, I think it’s important to talk about the various scales of activism. I have seen a lot of people claiming to be ‘Indigenous allies’, highlighting their involvement in public actions such as going to rallies, writing articles, or participating in protests. I don’t want to minimize the importance of these, but equating this type of activism with allyship can render invisible the quiet interpersonal work that is also needed in order to be a good ally. And, importantly, it can reproduce the idea that activism only happens at the highly visible, public scale of protests, rallies and actions, where many of us engage in activist work in our daily lives but it goes unseen, unacknowledged and untheorized as ‘activism’.

I also think we need to ask ourselves about the impact of ‘Indigenous allies’ getting more credit for their activism than the unseen, everyday, uncelebrated work of Indigenous people working to sustain our communities (or any ally getting more props than the groups to whom they’re an ally). We might ask ourselves how allies can best work to make visible the groups they’re aligning themselves with, rather than reproducing their own privilege. I’m reminded of this every time I go to a loonie twoonie fundraiser or an event to support local youth, where Indigenous people are coming together to better their communities on a local scale. You don’t see this broadcast on the news or show up in articles crediting the great work of these parents, grandparents and friends. Yet this is the everyday work of sustaining Indigenous communities and making small scale changes. It is very political, in my mind. How would we have survived without this unseen labor? And where are the allies when we need to make 150 salmon sandwiches?

Morgan: Making those sandwiches is incredibly important work and, like you said, it doesn’t get recognized as political in dominant value systems. I think allies also tend to draw on these kinds of value systems when constructing their own involvement in these struggles, so they don’t always do this kind of work. I agree that a lot of important activism happens at the scale of everyday life and we need to recognize things like preparing food and doing the dishes as important political activities in communities.

A lot of sick and disabled people struggle with the daily activities required to socially reproduce our lives/ourselves/our communities. We’re also usually marginal to formal labour markets (one of the reasons why the state and capital have largely abandoned social reproduction for disabled people), and we can’t withdraw our labour power as a form of protest. Often political struggle consists of helping each other to survive day in and day out, trying to organize informal networks of care to keep us alive (there are also many disabled people who don’t have access to necessary care and who die out of sight of other activists). So when I’m awake at 4 a.m. because I’m in a chronic pain flare-up, it means a lot to me when my housemate sits with me and massages my arms. Or when I can’t get out of bed and someone brings me food and meds and ice packs and will just be there with me while I’m ill and hurting. It’s powerful when allies can really be present and supportive of disabled people in these moments instead of trying to pretend that our difference doesn’t exist because it’s easier or more comfortable. I know it can be difficult for people to face disability in this way, like the actual materiality of disabled people’s bodies that are ill and unruly and that challenge myths about independence and bodily control because ableism teaches us to fear and avoid these things at all costs.

At the same time, I think it’s important to recognize that disability is not a monolithic thing, with all disabled people having the same experience and positionality. Taking ableism as a singular and autonomous system to organize around can obscure how ableism comes into being in/through a wider web of power relationships.

Sarah: For me, this raises the question of speaking and acting from within multiple places of privilege and oppression at once, while acknowledging colonialism as the framework in which all other forms of power operate here on Turtle Island. For myself, it’s also important to acknowledge that ‘Indigenous’ is not a homogenous category. Despite the attempts of colonial systems to turn us into a monolithic group under federal law, Indigenous people have always been culturally and politically diverse, and individually we also occupy our own complex subject positions. I’m Kwagiulth as well as being Ukrainian and English, I have a university education, I live in an urban center, I’m physically abled (a new term to me, thank you), and have to account for all of these dynamics (and more) in how I understand my responsibilities.

I find it’s through conversations like this one we’re having now that I have learned how to speak from within the complexities of my identity and history, while forming mutual allyships with friends across these dynamics. This makes me think about the limitations and barriers of identity politics (which may be a topic we revisit another time) that I encountered in my undergrad, and still encounter in some politicized spaces. Being in spaces or groups that are formed only around one axis of identity (like ‘gender’, ‘race’, sexuality and so on), the complex embodied and shifting nature of power is lost. And I find it requires a lot of ongoing work to push back against the force of these discrete identity categories. Like when I’m at an Indigenous event, but it’s totally heteronormative and makes two-spirit people invisible, it requires constant work to question who ‘counts’ as Indigenous. Within the overlapping communities we all identify with and belong to, I wonder how we can avoid these kinds of exclusions in the first place, building our role as allies to one another into our everyday worldview and actions as we create community together.

As you talked about earlier in approaches to normalizing access, I see this as an example of working at the scale of interpersonal relationships to account for the shifting and relational nature of power and privilege. In my own daily life, I have experienced a lot of support from allies who are there for me when grief or sadness overwhelms me. Doing work on colonial violence for over 15 years now, I sometimes unexpectedly get triggered or talking about violence just gets to be too much. And I am thankful to have friends in my life who, again, I don’t need to explain everything to but can just talk about what I’m feeling and they just sit with me. Maybe part of what they’re doing is recognizing that I don’t need them to try to change the situation (unless they can wave a magic wand and get rid of widespread brutality, which would be most welcome!), but that I just need to be cared for and heard. Maybe part of it is not trying to understand or identify with what someone else is going through, but being a witness to what someone is experiencing. Does this resonate with what you were saying earlier about people normalizing conversations about disability and access rather than avoiding their own discomfort?

Morgan: Yes! This resonates deeply, especially what you said about just needing to be cared for and heard sometimes (by people who you don’t have to explain and teach everything to) and how “maybe part of it is not trying to understand or identify with what someone else is going through, but being a witness to what someone is experiencing”. Listening and witnessing in this way are so important and you put this really beautifully. It also makes me think about how to approach my own responsibilities to other people and the role in this of listening and witnessing. I think it’s also important to be a witness in the more formal sense of the word. In contexts where I hold privilege, I think it’s important to learn when to be silent and when to speak when called on to be a witness to important events and issues. Annie sums this up well in the title of her other blog: “Noisy and Quiet: when’s it a time to speak up and when’s it a time to shut up and listen?”

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As we think about how to strengthen and deepen our relationships of responsibility, these conversations with one another can help to define what that responsibility looks like in action. As our examples hopefully show, it is at the level of relationships and friendships that we can begin to enact relational responsibility by being witness to one another and by taking action to normalize access, confront racism or otherwise act as allies to one another. Part of our responsibility becomes engaging in self-education so that we can better recognize the norms that allow certain bodies and lives to be valued over others, and so that we can engage in embodied resistance and activism. Colonial power in general depends on normalizing the invisibility of certain people and groups, so by being witnesses for one another, maybe we can begin to challenge that invisibility in these spaces between us.