I just got back from a workshop entitled, "Indigenous Solidarity 101". The description promised a safe space where non-indigenous allies could begin to open up a discussion regarding decolonization. While it wasn't clear in the description who would be facilitating the workshop, I figured I'd go anyway, but go with an open mind (and a few grains of salt, just in case).

To be frank, I have had little to no experience working on indigenous issues. However, I have been peripherally involved in this work. It's difficult to talk too much about this without compromising my anonymity so I won't go into much detail, but I do want to mention that I'm not new to the practice of debunking whiteness and understanding my position as a colonizer/white settler in "canada", a nation-state whose borders seem to be more and more arbitrary as I continue this process.

Being that I often enter these kinds of conversations with my back up, I can only imagine what it must have been like for the people of colour who were present, and in particular, the single individual who self-identified as indigenous (and, importantly, as an indigenous-setter; that is, she explained, one who is indigenous but not to the territory she was currently on).

I'm not sure at what point the atmosphere in the room became tense. The tone was definitely set for awkward/difficult interaction when our facilitator self-identified as a white ally (also notably able-bodied and male). I think it must have thickened when the remark was made by a white woman of Italian ancestry that while she didn't feel the recent apology made by Stephen Harper regarding the residential school system in canada was sufficient, she also sensed that she was supposed to feel blame for "...a system [she] didn't create as a second generation immigrant".

Not surprisingly, many of the people of colour in the room (and white people, though admittedly, not until after the issue was raised by POC first) reacted negatively to this. The space, which was supposed to be anti-racist (and anti-oppressive in general) started to become hostile. My friend, who identifies as South Asian-canadian , commented that she was starting to feel extremely unsafe and that she was not going to "yet again teach white people about their guilt". I completely and totally empathize with her position (I too was feeling upset/uncomfortable with this woman's comments). And it also got me thinking. This was a workshop about indigenous solidarity run by a white man, without any indigenous people helping to run it, and up until this point, was deemed pretty "okay" by the participants in the group. However, once my friend brought up the fact that she was feeling unsafe and that this wasn't the place for white people to work through their guilt, I started to wonder whether it was possible to "do" solidarity without also doing harm.

Let me clarify -- I am completely sympathetic to my friend's position, and really, REALLY don't ascribe to the belief that it's anyone but the person in the position of power's job to do any kind of educating about privilege. However, I am wondering how as a white person it is possible to unpack my privilege in a way that doesn't recreate an imbalance of power. This is a tricky subject, one that to a certain extent I even feel uncomfortable delving into in this forum, despite the fact that I am writing under a pseudonym. Still, I think it's a conversation that needs to happen in any community that claims to be anti-racist (and in all communities, really).

It's a conversation that's brewing in the feminist blogosphere recently. Something I have noticed, however, is that it seems to be only happening in a reactionary way. Over at the Livejournal community "feminist", (which has a reputation for being more than a little unfriendly to POC) "solidarity" -- or, what white people believe to be acting in solidarity -- is something that seems to be almost a weekly struggle that even the community moderators have been implicated in. How and where do white allies unlearn privilege? Is there merit to having ally-only spaces for this unlearning so that broader communities don't become dangerous for POC? Is it imperative that people of colour are part of white people working through the process of building anti-racist solidarity, or is there some unlearning that needs to happen within communities of white people first? Is this unlearning impossible without "minority consultation", so to speak, and the missteps that may, although painful, be productive results of these interactions? Does characterizing this as a "misstep" trivialize the very real racism happening in these spaces? And what of the idea of "consultation"? Does it simply serve to recreate an uneven power dynamic where people of colour must put themselves in difficult and potentially painful situations for the sake of educating white people about shit they should already know? Or is it actually an empowering thing, where whites are put in their places? Is it both?

When I was writing this, after that last paragraph I wrote a note to myself in the margin that said, "FACE MELT/BRAIN EXPLODE". I guess in other words that means, "Am I looking for answers where there are none?". I'm not sure I have any yet and clearly this is not something that will be solved overnight. But I do feel that it's vital that in opening up these kinds of dialogues, we do it in such a way that doesn't a) alienate or do violence to people of colour and/or b) alienate white people that really do want to unpack their privilege, or as was discussed in the indigenous solidarity workshop, "use it wisely" -- that is, to recognize when to step back, and when to step up.

Creative Commons License