Different spaces: whiteness and some pitfalls and possibilities of settler solidarity work

To follow along on our thread here about allyship, this post is a reflection inspired by many conversations, interactions, workshops, other blogs, and words shared by many people over the years (thank you) and also in part by my experiences and conversations started and had at last year’s Unist’ot’en Action Camp, where I was very privileged to be visiting Wet’suwet’en territories and spending time with people and families who are protecting their lands from encroaching, neocolonial corporations and industry. I am deeply grateful to everyone who has shared their knowledge with me and the Unist’ot’en and the guests at camp who shared their land and/or their knowledge with myself and with the other visitors during the week we spent there. The 4th Annual Unist’ot’en Action Camp just wrapped; please check out the Unist’ot’en’s website here.

I write this as a person who identifies as a white settler. This to me means that I am a person with European ancestry who benefits from white skin privilege and who is also a settler on Indigenous territories. The combination of these parts of my identity means that I hold a great deal of privileges. I also have places where I experience oppression. Here I strive to make clear some of the pitfalls and possibilities that I and other people who share my social location are likely to encounter, especially when attempting to be “in solidarity” with Indigenous people and people of colour.

I am writing this not only to provide critiques of the possibilities for white people in working against colonialism and racism, but in order to reflect on the work that I am currently doing in my own life in order to do that work better. I recognize the trap of ineffective critiquing, whereby any movement or action is frozen through the fear of “doing it wrong”. I write this with hope that these issues are things that can be addressed and discussed.

Clearly, not at all settlers are white and there are multiple ways that people came to live on the Indigenous territories currently occupied by “Canada”. My writing here is focused around white settlers because that is what I identify as, while recognizing the tendency towards a binary white-Indigenous conversation that does not acknowledge that there are racialized and mixed-race settlers as well as people who came to “Canada” by way of slavery, indentured servitude, in exile, or as refugees. This writing is only one part of a much larger conversation about all people living in “Canada”, with a wide variety of identities, though hopefully some parts may be relevant to not only white settlers.

The following are examples of ways that I have, and have seen other white settlers, take up space in ways that are harmful or that recreate oppressive dynamics.

Taking up space

a). Taking up of cultural space

There are certain things that for me to do or perform as a white settler are not acts of solidarity but instead of appropriations of cultural acts or space. Ceremonial spaces are all too often assumed to be open to anyone and there is a tendency of white people that I have myself enacted, that of expecting to be able to access any space that I wish to be in, without any thought of what my being there might feel like for other people. It is important to take into account the very recent and still-lasting impacts of the­­­­­ legacies of the banning of ceremony and language and the abuse that was perpetrated by white people at residential schools against Indigenous children for speaking their language.

Additionally, there are many spaces made for someone like myself, who identifies as someone seeking to work as an “ally” in many struggles. This can include being asked to participate in panels, conferences or to write about my work. Many times, my voice may be elevated above those who I strive to work in alliance with. It is a constant practice to think about who is being centered and why. Is it easier for other white people to hear what I have to say, rather than an Indigenous or racialized presenter or speaker? Sometimes it is my place to do the speaking, like when the topic at hand is white people or white supremacy, but when I am receiving cultural kudos for being an “Indigenous ally”, this can be a dangerous example of taking up of cultural space, space that is more appropriate for someone who is directly impacted by the issues that I claim to work in solidarity with to speak, receive acknowledgment and be considered an expert on their own experience. [I’ve had a few conversations about this with Sarah, who is currently working on another blog post on allyship with Morgan – check back again for more thoughts on this from her perspective as an Indigenous person.]

b). Taking up of literal space

“How can you miss our brown & golden in this sea of pink. We’re not as many as you. But we’re here.” – Chrystos, “Maybe We Shouldn’t Meet if there are no Third World Women Here”

Due to the impacts of genocide, white supremacy, racist immigration policies and continued racism and colonialism, white people numerically are often the largest group in towns, cities and provinces in “Canada”. In the city where I grew up, so-called “Victoria, BC” on Lekwungen, WSANEC and Esquimalt homelands, despite these lands being historically home to Lekwungen, WSANEC and Esquimalt people since time immemorial as well as the early communities of Chinese, South Asian and black settlers, white settlers’ numbers exceed these and other communities’ numbers. Some of the reasons for this include the ongoing genocide committed against Indigenous people by white people (in the forms of smallpox, environmental destruction, residential schools, the prison industrial complex, and the list goes on) and the enforcement of racist immigration laws such as the Chinese head tax by the Canadian governments and supported by many white citizens. This numerical majority of white people in many places in Canada means that people of colour and Indigenous people are often outnumbered.

Even in spaces deemed “progressive” or “radical”, the over-representation of white people can mean that they are heard most often, that the focus of the speaker or facilitator will turn towards the interests or understanding of white people (i.e. “translating” certain ideas so that they can be understood by white settlers), or that the questions, comments and ideas shared will come mostly from white settlers or will concern mostly white settlers.

Additionally, and perhaps the most fundamental of settler dilemmas, is that of ongoing occupation. As much as white settlers may want to “act in solidarity” with Indigenous people, there still remains the fundamental issue of invasion and ongoing colonial occupation and settlement, which all of us who are settlers are still participating in, despite our desire to act as allies.

c). Taking up of experiential space

“But I have had it hard, too!” is a common refrain amongst white people, especially when confronted with discussions of white supremacy and privilege. I know that I personally have done this; I can remember clinging strongly to my identity as a queer person, as it helped to assuage some of the white guilt that I felt. I was not able to accept the full responsibility of white privilege and so it comforted me to find that I too had an “oppressed status” to revert to. For me, it created a barrier between myself and my white skin and settler privileges, because I felt I had almost a “pass” due to my being queer. While it is true that understanding the forms of oppression that I experience can absolutely contribute to my ability to act in alliance with others experiencing different forms of oppression that my own, when I was using queerness as a shield from acknowledging the oppressions that people around me experience, I was not able to access the transformative potential of joint struggle.

Additionally, it is deeply dismissive to immediately have to respond to another person’s sharing of their experiences of oppression by attempting to prove that I “have had it hard, too”. We all have places where we experience privilege and oppression and just because someone is sharing their experience of oppression does not mean that I must immediately “prove” that I too experience oppression or that I cannot possibly be part of the oppressor group. Instead of responding immediately or allowing my own guilt or fear of being part of the systems that have created this oppression for the person describing it, it’s critical to first listen to what the person who is speaking is saying to me and to let their truth sit with me a while before responding, especially if my response is coming from a place of guilt, fear or defense.

It is critical to recognize what having forms of privilege, like white, class or male privilege, means. White privilege is a huge determinant of many things, including health, wealth, and life chances and is not something that can be ignored. Additionally, white settlers have long been beneficiaries of racist and colonial policies and practices (such as the Indian Act, the Canadian government’s interpretations of the treaties, resource extraction on Indigenous territories, the scooping up and adopting out of Indigenous children, and on), and have access to education, health care, and other resources that are underfunded or not provided at all to Indigenous people and communities or racialized immigrants and refugees.

Space for reflection

This conversation, as I mentioned earlier, is part of a much larger conversation and one I know I will be engaged in throughout my life, so there is no definite end or answers here. However, I do want to provide links to several statements that scholars, authors and activists have put forward as things to think about and keep at the forefront of any supposed “solidarity” or “decolonization” work, from three articles that have greatly influenced my thinking and actions.

In “Listen, take action and stick around: a roundtable on relationship-building in indigenous solidarity work”, Zainab Amadahy compiles thoughts from a table of people doing anti-colonial work. An activist involved speaks to the foundational importance of looking at decolonization; “[p]retending that the indigenous struggle is just one of many struggles is a problem. It’s fundamental to any efforts to achieve justice in this country.”

And in “Decolonizing together: Moving beyond a politics of solidarity toward a practice of decolonization”, author Harsha Walia suggests that the notion of leadership is a key principle in Indigenous solidarity organizing. Accordingly, settlers must be “accountable and responsive to the experiences, voices, needs and political perspectives of Indigenous people themselves.”

In the same article, contributor Jaggi Singh states that the only way to oppose complicity with settlement is to actively oppose it. This only happens in the “context of on-the-ground, day-to-day organizing, and creating and cultivating the spaces where we can begin dialogues and discussions as natives and non-natives.”

In this struggle, often the questions of what will happen to settlers and what will decolonization look like for settlers are centered. In “Decolonization is not a metaphor”, Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang suggest that instead of focusing on “what will happen to settlers”, it is critical that decolonization struggle be accountable to Indigenous people and communities.