84. Clare Land, Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles
In Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada, Emma Battell Lowman and Adam J. Barker suggest that it’s not possible for Settlers not to make mistakes when trying to show solidarity with Indigenous peoples (118). Despite that warning, though, when I saw the title of Clare Land’s Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles, I thought she might suggest ways those mistakes can be avoided. I think it was the word “Directions” that brought that idea into my head. And that first thought was incorrect. What Land does in her long book (and a long book inevitably means a long summary, for which I apologize) is suggest the complexity involved in Settlers attempting to show solidarity with Indigenous struggles. Her focus is on southeastern Australia, but those complexities exist elsewhere, too, above all in western Canada.
The book’s foreword, written by Dr. Gary Foley of Victoria University and the Gumbaynggirr Nation in Australia, begins with these words:
This is a book about a difficult topic that is rarely discussed in contemporary Australia. It addresses situations and ideas that few non-Aboriginal Australians who say they are supporters of Aboriginal peoples’ quest for justice ever really consider. And yet these issues are major problems for those who seek a role as empathetic and constructive allies for the Aboriginal cause. (ix)
In his work over nearly 50 years, Foley writes, “many of the most difficult conversations I have had have been with people who insisted that they were supporters of the Aboriginal struggle rather than with those who were opposed to our cause” (ix). These are cautionary words for any Settler who intends to show solidarity. The problem, Foley contends, is that non-Aboriginal activist supporters sometimes don’t “comprehend notions of Aboriginal agency and self-determination” (x). Foley believes that if Land’s book “can help to eliminate many of the unfortunate misunderstandings that invariably develop between Aboriginal groups and their white supporters then it will have served an admirable purpose” (xi). If that’s true in Australia, then it will be true in Canada as well.
In her introduction, Land notes the disconnects she has seen and experienced between Aboriginal people and white activists, which often go unnoticed by the latter group (1). In addition, “there is a discernible pattern in non-Aboriginal peoples’ journeys of involvement in the field”; after meeting with obstacles or problems, “[s]ome retreat to look in the mirror, adopt a questioning attitude and reaffirm their determination to stay involved,” while others “walk away thinking ‘It’s too hard” or “stalk away thinking Aboriginal people are ungrateful or unreliable” (2). “From an Aboriginal perspective, there can sometimes seem to be a revolving door of non-Aboriginal people,” some of whom will “rapidly reveal themselves as a missionary, a mercenary or a misfit” (2). “Is there anything to guide non-Indigenous people, a way of being beyond the limited repertoire of available subjectivities—guilty liberals, conservative nationalists, or honorary blacks—that could be more appropriate for cultivating a collective, political project?” she asks (2). “This book,” she responds,
provides an urgently needed new framework for action by non-Indigenous people in support of Indigenous struggles” and “sheds light on the dilemmas facing non-Aboriginal people seeking to play a role in addressing the situation in which Aboriginal people people find themselves in Australia today, exploring ways Aboriginal community leaders and non-Aboriginal activists have negotiated relationships of solidarity. (2-3)
The complexity of those relationships is the focus of Land’s book.
Land notes that Decolonizing Solidarity “was written and is situated historically and politically in a settler-colonial context in which Britain declared sovereignty illegally and against the interests of Indigenous polities on the continent now known as Australia” (3-4). That process of colonization, she continues,
is entrenched and continuing. Cognizant of these colonizing conditions, this book is concerned with interactions between Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people who are at once struggling against two things: these overarching structural conditions, and their interpersonal expression. This book sets out what kind of politics could frame this two-part struggle. Solidarity should be directed to decolonization; and the way solidarity is undertaken needs to be decolonized. (4)
Aboriginal peoples in the south-east of Australia have been engaged in a long struggle “against colonial invaders’ murderous possessiveness in relation to land, and, crucially, for survival as distinct peoples” (4). That is the context in which the conversation about the politics of solidarity takes place. That conversation, Land argues,
is not about being accused of being good or bad, right or wrong. In this, the generosity of people like Foley who invest so much in those who locate themselves as supporters or potential allies, but who inadvertently display their privilege and power, should inspire others engaged in the conversation to be similarly generous with each other, or at least to think about what the end goal is. One of the tactics for achieving the end goal is to build and nurture the support base, to get more people onside and get them to understand the issues and in turn become good, strong, well-informed, effective organizers. The work of educating those who are giving you headaches is debilitating—non-Aboriginal people should be helping Aboriginal people out by educating each other, taking responsibility for each other. (5)
Foley identifies “patronizing and paternalistic” treatment as a common experience, and suggests that white supporters don’t understand the importance of “Aboriginal control of aboriginal affairs” (7). That lack of understanding is a fundamental problem, both in Australia and in Canada as well.
Land’s book is based on interviews with activist leaders and supporters in south-east Australia (8). “Specifically,” she writes,
I interviewed Aboriginal people who engage politically with and work to educate non-Aboriginal people, and non-Aboriginal people who are regarded by the Aboriginal people in my critical reference group, or whom I interviewed, as reflective about the issues at stake. They are members of a particular political community—Aboriginal people from south-east Australia who have pursued land rights, community control and sovereignty—and their supporters. The contradictions inherent in relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people in the context of struggles for land rights, sovereignty and community control are particularly stark because people are positioned in opposition: as colonized and colonizer; as dispossessed and beneficiary; as community members or not. My focus on this particular context enables a consideration of the impact of colonizing societal conditions on interpersonal relationships in a context in which these conditions are explicitly the focus of critical attention. (8-9)
In this summary I will tend to skip over the details of those interviews and focus on the conclusions Land draws from them, if only in the interests of trying to keep it relatively short (even though, as I’ve admitted, it’s actually quite long). Because of its focus on southeastern Australia, Decolonizing Solidarity has a “grounded specificity to a particular place, struggle and practice,” which “provides a credible basis from which to theorize” and “gives the book the ability to be read from and be applicable to other contexts” (9). It also draws on her own experiences and reflections before and during the research, and discussions with activist and academic peers, along with responses from the examiners of the PhD thesis that is the basis of the book (10).
The detailed historical context of the first two chapters is necessary because it shows “how the politics of solidarity outlined in later chapters are inflected by their context,” and because “it indicates what sort of contextual knowledge is needed for those wishing to come to grips with the politics of solidarity in different contexts” (11), and although I understand why that context is important, I must admit that I skimmed those chapters. They did leave me wondering if there is as rich a history of Settler solidarity with First Nations, Métis, and Inuit peoples in Canada as there appears to have been in Australia. Land cites Lynne Davis’s writing about the Canadian situation, which suggests that little has been written about relationships between Indigenous peoples and social movement groups (16). That’s not the case in Australia, where “there has been some important writing on relationships between Indigenous peoples and other political actors,” although that work is primarily historical and tends not to be “explicitly self-reflective” (16). “Davis’s observation in Canada that it is the people who are engaged in Indigenous-non-Indigenous political alliances who are contributing the most to understandings of it,” Land writes, and that seems to be true in Australia as well: “activists themselves continue to be the key theorists of their own practice” (16). Indeed, without her own activist involvement, she would not have been able to write this book, because no one would have talked to her (17).
Land suggests that this book “is particularly useful in suggesting ways for more recently involved non-Indigenous activists to come to grips with the politics of solidarity” (12). She notes that the reconciliation process and apology issued by the Australian government
have worked to restore a sense of comfort to settler Australians but are empty of structural or material redress for Indigenous people. Working against this complacency, and striving for substantive change, a key strategy in Aboriginal struggles for land rights, self-determination and economic independence in south-east Australia is to nurture a critical and committed support base among settler Australians. (13)
That sense of comfort and complacency is no doubt present in this country as well. Land also envisages this book “as being supportive of this Indigenous strategy as it is expressed in the social justice activist community in south-east Australia” and notes that it is
intended as a resource to support the efforts of Indigenous people who have had to contest with each new generation of non-Indigenous supporters the mode of their solidarity. Knowledge of genuinely productive and transformative modes has until now been discerned by individual actors largely through a process of repeating the mistakes of the past. The book clearly explains the modes of solidarity that Indigenous people have identified as problematic, and explains the alternative frameworks they offer. This includes a critique of romantic, sometimes ignorant, conceptions of Indigenous people that are expressed in the national settler pastime of worrying about Indigenous people and that underlie the impulse to “help them.” (13)
“The book is envisaged as a kind of reply to Indigenous people’s assertions about the nature of non-Indigenous support or engagement with their struggles,” she writes, suggesting that it is “part of an ongoing conversation directed towards understanding the challenges, dilemmas and even the impossibilities of this work and how these can be shifted, worked through or lived with” (20).
The politics of solidarity between Settlers and Indigenous peoples are complicated and difficult. “Through an early conversation with a member of my critical reference group, I came quickly to recognize that Indigenous people ‘put up’ with a lot from non-Indigenous people,” Land writes. “I have come to think of the forbearance of Indigenous people in dealing with their supporters as under-recognized work” (20). The need to challenge non-Indigenous supporters “is borne, of course, from the pain of dealing with supporters’ ‘whitely’ ways, ways of relating that are dominated by white stereotypes of Indigenous peoples” (20). To be “whitely,” she writes, is to behave in a way that reproduces white privilege (20), and she wonders if it’s possible to be a white critic of whiteness, if one can gain sufficient critical distance from the subject “to contribute usefully to its critique” (22). “My engagement with the workings of my own whiteness and my own colonial complicities in both my research and my attempts to contribute to Indigenous struggles is an informed and crucial element of my critique of whiteness,” she writes, suggesting the necessity of understanding that one is part of the problem one is trying to articulate (22).
One of the issues she contends with is research itself. “The politics around research related to Indigenous peoples has significant implications for the way I thought about and went about my research,” she writes, quoting Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s comment that the word “research” is one of the dirtiest words in the Indigenous vocabulary (26). “Given the implication of research in the colonization of Indigenous peoples and the appropriation of Indigenous knowledges, the prospect of undertaking research in connection with Indigenous peoples is problematic,” she acknowledges (26). For that reason, she designed her research “to correspond with principles, where they have been articulated, for culturally appropriate research by non-Indigenous researchers,” and drew on her own sense of ethics “to establish additional boundaries” (26-27). She also “sought to be appraised of, cognizant of, informed by and working to promote, or at least not undermine, and Indigenous research agenda,” although she doesn’t imagine that her work “could necessarily advance that agenda” (27). “If non-Indigenous activist work supporting Indigenous rights is ideally located in parallel with, and informed by, the Indigenous decolonization agenda,” she continues, “then I see it as necessary, in a moral and intellectual sense, to have the same orientation to Indigenous research agendas in proceeding with my research” (27-28). She acknowledges the importance of Smith’s Decolonizing Methodologies in her research—another book I need to read—and suggests that her own book “is probably best understood as making a contribution to an imagined progressive non-Indigenous research agenda” that is “supportive of Indigenous agendas” and contributes to them indirectly (28-29).
For Land, Settlers need to examine our complicity in colonialism, “including by interrogating who we are in terms of identity, culture and history, and the shape of our lives” (29). That examination, she continues, “is part of a practice of critical self-reflection and of dealing honestly with the impact of dominant culture on Aboriginal people. This is a non-Indigenous effort in parallel with the Indigenous project of indigenizing” (29). Her research looks for “Indigenous ways of addressing difference that innovate against imperialist ways of addressing difference”—this was a way of promoting “a recognition of Indigenous efforts at reframing” (30)—and “acknowledges the Indigenous project to restore Indigenous well-being,” challenging “the lack of understanding by non-Indigenous people of their/our collective and individual impact on Indigenous well-being, and their/our inherent privilege” (30).
Part of this project involves understanding white privilege, but understanding isn’t enough; one also has “to consider ways to undo it,” to try to unlearn it and to be cognizant of it (31). One needs to internalize “an Indigenous view of whiteness, a recognition of the historical and political specificities of the moment in which it is salient . . . and the struggle to overcome the self-hate that can flow from that,” she writes (33). Writing this book, she continues, “has changed me as much as it has generated the ideas set out. I now undertake to return these ideas to fellow activists and those who have challenged, worked with and educated me” (37).
Land’s first chapter, on land rights, sovereignty, and Black Power in south-east Australia, is primarily a history of developments since the 1960s, providing the context of her research, but also touching on events prior to that decade. A “self-conscious engagement with the history of non-Indigenous support for Indigenous struggles in any particular area is key to the contemporary politics of solidarity by those of colonial backgrounds with Indigenous struggles in that area” (50), an insight which leads in to her second chapter, “A Political Genealogy for Contemporary Non-Indigenous Activism in Australia.” “Non-Indigenous people attempting to support Indigenous struggles in Australia today do so in relation to a history of efforts by non-Indigenous groups and organizations to advance the cause of Aboriginal people; yet this is a history of which they may not be aware,” she suggests (51). Some of those efforts were paternalistic or undertaken without consultation with Aboriginal activists or intellectuals or any appreciation of their agendas (51). “While there are a lot of cautionary tales to be drawn from problematic ‘black-white’ interactions in past campaigns and organizations during recent history, there are also many inspiring and instructive histories,” Land writes (52), noting that it’s important to know about and celebrate “pro-Indigenous actions and efforts by non-Indigenous people” that were not paternalistic, because they show that paternalism was not inevitable, since “alternatives were being lived out publicly in the same period” (52). “It is important to be familiar with the work of those who have made significant contributions, and as well as those whose practices have been either particularly problematic or particularly positive,” she suggests (53). It’s also crucial to “foreground Indigenous peoples’ solidarity with each other’s struggles, and with anti-racist and anti-fascist struggles” as well (54). She provides examples of individuals, groups, and organizations that showed solidarity with Indigenous struggles (55-65), such as the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders and the “infamous contest over Aboriginal control within the organization” (65). She also discusses the role of student activism in the late 1960s (71-72) and “the history of non-Indigenous women’s interactions and relationships with Indigenous people and non-Indigenous feminists’ political connections with Indigenous women in Australia” (72-75), as well as the creation of “white support groups” in the 1990s (75). “The boom in white support for reconciliation—of which the ‘bridge walks’ of the year 2000 are often invoked as the high water mark—has been greeted with both pleasure at its extent, and criticism at its lack of efficacy in bringing about substantive changes to Indigenous-state relations,” Land writes (75-76), noting that despite such critiques, “the willingness of non-Indigenous people to sign up in large numbers was also regarded as proof of a reservoir of goodwill held by non-Indigenous people towards Indigenous people” (76). However, after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd delivered an apology to Indigenous peoples in 2008, “community action in support of Aboriginal struggles lost urgency” (76). Land also touches on the difficult relationship between environmental groups and Indigenous struggles (76-78), and the collaborations between Indigenous activists and the anti-globalization movement and anarchist groups (79-81).
All of that activity, Land writes, suggests that it is self-evident ““that Indigenous people desire political support from non-Indigenous people” (81). “In general,” she continues,
Indigenous people outnumbered in settler-colonial nation-states have worked hard to nurture their support bases, believing the realization of their political aspirations rely on the ability to win significant non-Indigenous support. Yet the question of how much to prioritize the project of engaging with and educating non-Indigenous people continues to be a subject of debate for Indigenous people. (81-82)
However, she points out, support is different from control: “to institutionalize Aboriginal control” of Indigenous political movements “seemed the only way to ensure that the efforts of non-Indigenous members of, or supporters of, the movement were directed to Indigenous priorities: economic justice, land rights and racism” (83). That distinction is central to the argument she makes in the rest of the book.
In chapter three, “Identity Categories: How Activists Both Use and Refuse Them,” Land explores the complexity of identity. “When non-Indigenous people and Indigenous people come together in pro-Indigenous, pro-land rights political spaces,” she writes,
they are establishing a relationship based on a critique of colonialism. This is a setting in which individuals’ social locatedness in relation to colonialism is salient: for instance, Indigeneity matters in terms of who has a claim to restitution based on the theft of land. Therefore it makes sense to talk in terms of categories such as colonizers and the colonized, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, dispossessed and beneficiary. It also makes sense in these settings to be attentive to how structural categories are so often emulated in the way people interact and to use strategies to avert this. (84)
And yet, she continues, “one of the most powerful expressions of a colonial mindset is to establish and police a sharp divide between ‘Indigenous and ‘non-Indigenous’” (84): “It is not only that the idea of a discrete binary with total purity on each side is both ridiculous and impossible; the Indigenous-non-Indigenous distinction and the treatment meted out in accordance with that distinction is one of the most pernicious manifestations of colonialism,” and to think in those terms “is to be beholden to colonialist logic” (84-85). This argument immediately left me thinking about questions of appropriation, and the way that some Settlers pretend to be Indigenous. Doesn’t the distinction between “Indigenous” and “non-Indigenous” do important work? Is there a point to deconstructing this particular binary opposition?
“People engaged in decolonizing and pro-land rights politics negotiate this dilemma by at times using and at times refusing these categories,” Land continues, and “Indigenous theorists working in the academy, the community or both have offered crucial innovations against this dichotomy” (85). The “imperial binarism” that insists on “a distinction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous cannot be sustained,” and there are “many instances of interaction and intimacy between the two sides,” as well as “internal diversity within each” (85). Instead, Land advocates for a focus on “relationality”—“in particular the recognition that Indigenous people’s lives are shaped by interaction and change”—which challenges notions of those lives lived in separate realms (86). “I highlight new forms of relationality which go beyond a critique and dissolution of the ‘us’ and ‘them’ identity though of imperialist culture on that culture’s own terms,” she continues (86).
Beyond those questions, “non-Indigenous people who are relatively privileged” and who wish to show solidarity with Indigenous peoples “will either be asked, or will find it profoundly important, to come to terms with a number of propositions” (86). These include “coming to see and to deeply know our/their social location and its implications,” which are psychological, material, structural, and legal (86); “coming to see that how we see ourselves and those interests we share has been constructed and inherited” (87); and “coming to see how the idea of racial difference has been created and made real—as reflected in harsh lived realities” (87). “To come to terms with these propositions is to gain insight into the strategic and psychological dilemmas that colonization has created for those challenging it,” Land argues (87). “One part of the challenge for white people is to see ourselves/themselves both as individuals of conscious and as members of a group with unearned privileges and a history of colonialism with which to reckon” (87). This is the central point of her argument, I think. However, she continues, there are different ways “to approach, manage and resist internalized colonialist views of difference and identity” (87). One way is to recentre and listen for “Indigenous cultural resources and knowledge as they are deployed by Indigenous people engaged in this politics” (87). That means, in part, understanding and accepting the fact of one’s privilege (87-88). Settlers need “to learn from Indigenous people critiques of systems of white supremacy and the privilege that accrues to white people” as a strategy for challenging white privilege (88). “To understand one’s relation to Indigenous people or any other group is a process of locating oneself in the social relations of domination and oppression,” (88) although “people with access to multiple levels of privilege can also use their privilege in order to contribute to social change” (89)—a notion Land later complicates. We also need to be able “to take an intersectional view of privilege and oppression because it is true to lived realities, and because it informs a broad moral and political framework for non-Indigenous people’s support for Indigenous struggles” (89). Solidarity with Indigenous struggles, then, is part of working towards meaningful social change for everyone (89-90). In other words, non-Indigenous people need to see their work serving their own interests, not just helping Aboriginal people (90): “to change the system that oppresses Indigenous people is to change the system that also oppresses some non-Indigenous people in one dimension or more” (90). However, the tendency of white people “to appropriate the position of victim in order to avoid confronting complicity with colonial and racial oppression” has to be challenged (90).
Land pays attention to the language she is using, and notes that using “the words ‘Indigenous’ and ‘non-Indigenous’ is far from neutral”: they can “reproduce stereotypes, do regressive discursive work, and create certain traps. The Indigenous/non-Indigenous binary imposed by colonialism has rightly been harshly critiqued by many scholars who have identified the inbuilt ideas of superiority and inferiority in such ways of thinking” (91). Nevertheless, she asks, “how can critics of colonialism talk about the politics and lived realities of colonialism without describing the contrast in treatment that the state has meted out according to these categories?” (92). “The terms ‘Indigenous’ and ‘non-Indigenous’ (which, to my mind, can be twinned with the structural categories ‘colonized’ and ‘colonizer,’ yet not with the racial categories ‘black’ and ‘white’) helpfully foreground the colonial relation of the two groups in Australia,” Land argues (93), although she notes that when she invokes this binary she is referring to “political and historical categories, not racial, biological ones” (93). Whiteness itself is a political category, rather than a biological one (93).
“It is not possible to sustain an uncritical use of an indigenous/colonizer binary, and it is necessary to clearly identify the advantages and drawbacks of using these terms,” Land writes. The term “Indigenous” can be a basis for collaboration and strength, despite its colonizing work in effacing national or tribal differences; in addition, the distinction between Indigenous and non-Indigenous “reflects a material, historical reality (a ‘social fact’) for many people: to use it keeps in view a socially constructed division that has real consequences for many people” (93). However,
[a]n uncritical use of a binary distinction between Indigenous/non-Indigenous and colonized/colonizer is unsustainable. I maintain that it is necessary to invoke them and that when I invoke them it is as political, structural categories, not “natural,” “racial” ones. I also maintain that such a framework is appropriate for my study, which focuses on a political practice and space in which structural categories are less important in locating people than the way colonized and colonizer interests are identified and served. (96)
Land then considers alternative ways of thinking about this distinction, including the postmodern focus on hybridity (96), which she finds wanting:
non-white groups have been reluctant to let go of identity categories as central organizing principles. . . . The political/strategic danger associated with discussion of hybridity comes . . . from the way hybridity is postulated as inevitable. For one thing, this view forecloses agency by Aboriginal people, because hybridity is happening/will happen on someone else’s terms. Also, a deterministic view regarding the increase of hybrid subjectivities . . . is attended, politically, by the threat that the legitimacy of claims for measures of justice (redistribution of land and/or political power) on the basis of rights inherent to Indigenous people exclusively will be diminished. Further, demands that Indigenous people embrace a hybridist approach to identity appear as a double standard, given that ‘white’ people don’t have to. Hybridity in white people is not demonized in the same way as it is in Indigenous people in colonialist discourse. (97-98)
The “postcolonial orthodoxy”—the positing of hybrid subjectivities—neglects anti-colonial actors: “Supporters of Indigenous struggles in settler nations are likewise anti-colonial actors; focusing on how identity categories are used, refused and innovated against in such scenes brings helpful frameworks into view” (98-99).
Neither option—“either habitually invoking the binary towards anti-colonialist ends or relying on the postmodernist hybridity approach to identity”—is satisfactory, Land suggests (99). She cites the work of Leela Gandhi, whose focus on British critics of the British empire as the ones who “stood with” external critics is “informative for a decolonized theoretical framework for solidarity” (99). “The collaboration between Indigenous critics of empire and the ones who stood or stand with them blur the colonizer-colonized boundary through their practices,” Land suggests. “When members of the colonizing culture act to further the interests of the colonized while standing to gain no material advantage from this themselves, their relationship to their structural location changes”—from one of loyalty to treason (99-100). “This transformation can also be understood through the notion of identifying and resisting or reducing complicity” (100). Land is interested not in borderlands (which suggest hybridity) but in the creation of new or different spaces which depart from the Indigenous/non-Indigenous binary (100). “Colonization created and then policed difference in its own interest,” she argues (100). “Indigenous peoples have used various strategies to respond to and manage the presence of outsiders—drawing, of course, on Indigenous culture and values to do so” (101). Colonialist approaches to difference have focused on assimilation, the eradication of Aboriginal people as peoples (101), but Indigenous peoples managed relationships with outsiders “through the expression of cultural ethics, diplomacy and political agency” (101). “In the face of the colonial encounter, Indigenous people continue to innovate in approaches to containing and/or accommodating incursive people,” Land continues (102). “A structural view of difference and colonial relations is crucial, yet so is a process of complicating this view. This is about making sense of lived experience and developing a practice for operating within a world in which the mechanical application of this view does not suffice” (103-04).
One example of a complication came out of her interview with Krauatungalung activist Robbie Thorpe, who told Land, “I don’t see it as Indigenous and non-Indigenous for starters. It’s: if you’ve got issues with the crime of genocide, well, I’d want to know you” (107). Thorpe considers non-Indigenous “allies” as “warriors,” language which “sidesteps the colonialist division ‘Indigenous’-‘non-Indigenous’” and therefore “functions to confuse, critique and transcend the binary between family (filial relationships) and friend (relationships with outsiders, strangers),” according to Land (108): “The warriors in this space are not united by filial ties (to blood/kin/caste), but are united by a loyalty to ideals that is filial in its degree” (108). “When non-Indigenous activists serve anti-colonial interests, they manifest a subjectivity that refuses the colonial logic that rigidly treated people according to the ascribed categories of Indigenous and non-Indigenous,” Land argues:
In order to understand the logics and consequences of settler colonialism, it is necessary to see how this colonial formation metes out fundamentally different treatment to colonizers and indigenes, which is why I so often invoke these categories. Yet, within the social world of people pursuing social justice against the workings of settler colonialism in the south-east of Australia, these categories are at different times used, refused and critiqued, and, crucially, innovated against: not so much blurred as departed from. Their use reflects ‘social facts’: that is, their social and material consequences. The way that critics of empire negotiate their/our use of these terms reflects the struggle to resist such powerful discourses from within their force field (that is, the area in which they operate. (109)
“My way of addressing this binary,” she continues,
is to see it as the object of critique, for the colonizing work such binaries have done, as well as to acknowledge the social facts in the colonizing context of south-eastern Australia. To sum up: I don’t resolve the tension by coming down on one side or by finding middle ground. . . . Rather, I see this tension as reflective of an imperfect (because colonizing) world and the challenges and dilemmas produced by it. I see its realities accepted by, and actively negotiated by, those I interviewed. (109-10)
Such negotiation, she continues, “is a difficult process of confronting ‘the state within the self’” (110). That process generates “a grounded, innovative set of possibilities for radicalized/transgressive ways to relate (and ways to understand relating)” which “includes non-Indigenous people seeing their interests as linked in with those of Indigenous people, though not in a way which appropriates Indigeneity” (110).
After this exploration of the surprisingly thorny issues around identity, Land moves on to her next chapter, which asks a surprising question: “Collaboration, Dialogue and Friendship: Always a Good Thing?” “Many positive-sounding words have come into use to describe relationships between Aboriginal people and communities and settler individuals, groups, organizations and governments and the processes that hold them together,” she begins. Partnerships, collaborations, alliances and coalitions might be sought, and they are seen to be held together by dialogue and especially by trust” (115). However, she continues,
“[i]deas informing white anti-racist practice and community organizing suggest how complexities relating to trust and accountability can be managed. In south-east Australia this could be more honestly described as a process of trying to do good work in disputed sovereign space, or transacting under colonizing condition.” (115)
Relationships can take many forms and “might be maintained for the purpose of communication between collective efforts made in parallel, rather than as part of directly working together” (115-16). “No matter what the form or function of the relationships, attentiveness to notions of representation, voice, difference, dialogue and power is key to reflective practice,” Land continues. “It is important to consider a variety of perspectives on collaboration, dialogue and difference in order to foreground the contradictions inherent in collaboration and dialogue across difference” (116).For instance, non-Indigenous supporters need to “locate themselves so that they may be challenged by those they are supporting” (116). And Indigenous people may manage relationships with supporters in different ways:
Some approaches are quite optimistic and risky, and others are more pessimistic, with risk managed through structures and boundaries which are put in place. There is a tension between the long track record of white untrustworthiness and the need for Indigenous people to be optimistic about the possibility of developing trusting relationships with allies. (116)
Such optimism, she writes, “keeps alive the promise of collaborations towards meaningful social change” (116).
At this point, Land asks a surprising and yet necessary question: “How could positive qualities like friendship, knowing and sharing possibly be a problem?” (117). The answer begins with the assumptions non-Indigenous people may bring to relationships of solidarity:
For example, they might assume that they will be gratefully and enthusiastically welcomed, and may not anticipate being held in suspicion by Aboriginal people initially, for quite some time or forever. They might think that they will gain friends among Aboriginal people they work to support politically, or work with towards some political goal. (117)
None of those assumptions may be grounded in reality. Friendship may not be part of cross-race ally relationships; instead, it might be an unexpected bonus coming out of years of work (117). That work needs to be done out of a sense of satisfaction from doing it, or as “an expression of love in a wider public sense,” not out of a desire for friendship or related desires that are ultimately about eliminating difference—wanting to be the same, or to inhabit “a self-identical reconciled community” (118). “In the context of contemporary Australian politics the desire of a non-Indigenous person to be friends with or to be loved by an Indigenous person (any Indigenous person) may be a depoliticized impulse associated particularly—though not exclusively—with the parliament-generated discourse of reconciliation,” Land contends, which is often seen “as an agenda to empty out or depoliticize Indigenous demands for justice and truth” (118). The failure of that discourse is becoming ever more apparent in this country as well.
In fact, Land argues, knowing the Other is itself suspect; it’s a “one-way sharing that benefits only non-Indigenous people” and could be read as an appropriative impulse; reaching an understanding with Indigenous peoples might rather involve learning about difference (119). After all, “[i]mperialist ways of addressing difference include indulging the urge to discover the strange and novel as familiar, or trying to erase or negate difference; aiming for unity or sameness, for self-identical community; even trying to get to ‘know’ the Other” (120). For that reason, she continues, “the radical possibilities of adopting a politics of friendship” which is motivated by political solidarity and a “principled distaste for racially exclusive worlds” are much more promising (120). “A politics of friendship in a settler colonial context is possible where Aboriginal people continue to assert radical title and continue to express concern for the rights of all people,” she suggests. “This generosity—this ethic of unconditional love—is evident and humbling for those who will see it” (121-22). Land suggests that, rather than inviting Aboriginal people as guests at dinner parties with her middle-class white friends, her objective ought to be changing the shape of her life by “spending and investing time and energies differently, so that over time my life and social world become more reflective of my values. An example of investing time and energies differently is to volunteer with anti-racist and non-white community initiatives”—but “spending time with people not of my ‘own kind’ needs to be on others’ terms, rather than on mine” (122-23).
Some contexts for working relationships have been experienced by Aboriginal people as “anathema to friendship,” Land points out (123): for example, working with non-Indigenous people in government bureaucracies or universities (124). Often there are demands that Aboriginal people answer a barrage of questions mainstream organizations and individuals have about Aboriginal culture (123-25). Collaborations are particularly fraught; they generate questions about who wants and who benefits from collaboration, and often the benefits only accrue to one side of the relationship (125-26). There is also the question of whether dialogue can be sustained across differences (126). “To attempt dialogue across difference is not to presuppose either understanding or reconciliation; nor is the only goal of dialogue to reach a convergence of meanings,” Land argues:
To attempt dialogue is not to presuppose the attempt will succeed; nor is it to be naive regarding the risk of further harm. Failed dialogue or conflict might still produce greater understanding. Certainly it is not aimed at eliminating difference or the domination of one particular perspective. The politics of solidarity which this book discerns and discusses entails attentiveness to the many possibilities and limits in collaboration, dialogue and conflict. (128)
It’s not clear to me how a failed dialogue might produce understanding, unless it’s a negative understanding, one rooted in failure and frustration. Perhaps my lack of understanding is emblematic of a failure to comprehend the realities of difference. I don’t know.
Land asks how support relationships can be managed. It’s important, she suggests, to “learn from the existing repertoire of frameworks that are available for understanding our/their work. This includes questioning apparently unproblematic frameworks and values such as friendship and dialogue, as well as learning from Aboriginal people’s suggestions regarding how to manage dynamics that commonly arise within solidarity contexts” (128). Non-Indigenous supporters need to think about such issues as initiation, participation, and control, which means, in part that “you don’t do anything unless you’ve been asked to do it” (128). In other words, “Aboriginal people must initiate a project or collaboration”: this is “one of the three key ingredients of genuine community control” (129). “The principle of Aboriginal people initiating and being in control of their own struggle is politically, concretely important. It is not just arbitrary exclusion based on identity politics” (129). Rather, it is a way for them to solve their own problems, to add to pride and self-confidence in a context of denigration and oppression (129). In addition, conditions are not always right for dialogue and collaboration (130). “Alliances with non-Indigenous people and groups could be better negotiated and entered into on the basis of internal Indigenous community strength and organization,” Land suggests (130). “Depending on the conditions, separate work might be more appropriate than coalition, collaboration or dialogue” (131).
The ongoing history of colonialism affects attempts at dialogue or collaboration: “even within a situation of collaboration and solidarity, rather than forced dialogue, the workings of power and contrasting relationships to colonialism eventually reveal themselves” (132). That history also can make trust, cooperation, and inequality difficult:
There is clearly much that precedes Indigenous-non-Indigenous interactions: the legacy of Australia’s colonizing past and present as it manifests in relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous people working to transform relationships between each other and the state. . . . This context must be expected to prefigure possibilities for trust, which is elsewhere assumed to be a necessary starting point for working together. (132)
In practice, this context means “that non-Indigenous people must strive to be trustworthy (and enter into constructs for enforcing this), but not expect to be trusted in return. This acknowledges our colonizing past and present, as well as the riskiness of trust across colonizing power differences” (132). Deep-seated assumptions “will inevitably manifest in day-to-day interactions, despite non-Indigenous people’s . . . good intentions” (132), and the ongoing history of colonization “plays into present interactions” (133).
Land also argues that in relationships of solidarity there’s no such thing as partnership between equals:
Aboriginal people have developed strategies for managing relationships with supporters across a range of contests, from activist settings to agencies and government. These can be seen in the way Aboriginal people negotiate deliberate but informal relationships, in the expectations placed on non-Indigenous people working within community-controlled organizations, in the adoption of formalized partnerships, agreements, MOUs (memoranda of understanding), contracts, protocols and treaties. (133-34)
“[T]he fundamental inequality in power between Indigenous and non-Indigenous individuals or organizations that collaborate means that agreements must enshrine Indigenous rights rather than equal rights,” she continues (134). “It is important that Aboriginal people—as the non-dominant group—are the ones who dictate the terms of any partnership, agreement, contract, protocol, alliance or treaty and are believed when they say this has been breached” (136). Taking a secondary position would no doubt be difficult for Settlers, but Land argues that it’s absolutely essential, no matter how it might make Settlers feel. In addition, Land argues that deliberate arrangements “to ensure the accountability of members of dominant groups to members of marginalized groups” need to be created as a way to build trust (136). She cites the work of Robert Jensen, who “attributes his moral and political growth,” as a white man attempting “to operate in an anti-racist manner,” to “people across identity lines” who hold him accountable and help him move forward (137). “Accountability constructs can be formal or informal but must be real,” she continues (138).
There are benefits to Settlers developing relationships of collective responsibility with each other. For example, such relationships
potentially reduce the burden on Aboriginal people of such education work. In addition, this can increase allies’ political sophistication in both recognizing and dealing with racism through experiential learning; and crate a structure for critical self-reflection towards reflective ally practice, which should both encourage and extend this work. (139)
For that reason, Land suggests that “white people . . . take responsibility for other white people, a process which includes the perhaps uncomfortable step of acknowledging them as ‘my people,’” although there are dangers “in the practice of white people taking responsibility for each other’s developing practice” (139).“The whole point of accountability processes is to facilitate the responsibility of dominant groups to deconstruct their dominance,” Land states (139-40), but discussions within the dominant group could simply end up reinscribing privilege (140). “Anything occurring within the accountability process which works to replicate domination is to be guarded against,” she cautions (140). In addition, “the onus for monitoring should not fall only on the marginalized culture” (141).
All of this is difficult, and some non-Indigenous activists, because they don’t trust themselves to identify their own racism, end up withdrawing from working with Aboriginal communities (150). “This could be read as reflective of the ultimate privilege, which is for members of dominant groups to keep out of engaging with social justice struggles in order to avoid making mistakes,” although it can also be a concern to avoid hurting people (151). Critical self-reflection must go along with concrete political action, and yet holding oneself accountable by relying on self-reflection and guesswork can, for some non-Indigenous people, “lead to a sense that it is better not to engage with Indigenous people. I have suggested that collective approaches to accountability could offer possibilities in these situations. . . . A key feature of accountability processes is that they locate non-Indigenous people as challengeable by both Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people” (152-53). For Land,
it seems that non-Indigenous people orient them/ourselves towards establishing relationships with Indigenous people as a condition of or as an aim of supporting Indigenous struggles. Non-Indigenous people derive a sense of legitimacy from having a connection with “the right” or even just “any” Aboriginal people or person. Non-Indigenous people crave the approval of Aboriginal people, and disassociate from other non-Indigenous people just in case they are one day accused of racism by an Aboriginal person. . . . In these ways non-Indigenous people resist responsibility for each other’s racism. (153)
How can all of this be avoided? Land suggests that the focus ought to be on the work itself, rather than potential ancillary benefits:
In working relationships between people of colonial backgrounds and Indigenous community leaders it is obvious that there should be useful work happening that supports Indigenous agendas. Utility is the raison d’être for these relationships, which, approached from the perspective of how friendships work, can also be understood as reflective of some kind of deal. The deal—the give-and-take—between friends is constantly, if silently, negotiated, and is really only understood from within the logic of the friendship, so that one friend might listen to another’s worries, and the other might provide company when needed. (154)
At times, Indigenous people might only find allies useful on a short-term basis; at other times, networking and engaging with non-Indigenous people might be an important tactic (154-55). Non-Indigenous people need to be honest about their motives: do they find pleasure in the work itself, or are they hoping for friendship, redemption, or some other “assumed dividend” (155)? “For some non-Indigenous people, activism could be experienced as fulfilling for the way it expresses love in a wider public sense” (155)—an idea to which she returns. I found it surprising to see this form of love invoked in Land’s argument, perhaps because it suggests a latent or hidden appeal to Christian ethics that never surfaces in her text.
Land notes that it is difficult to conduct conversations about race under racist conditions, and white people can end up demanding that people of colour “talk nicely about race” and make them feel safe when they raise issues of race (156). She also suggests that, for Indigenous people, relating to non-Indigenous people can be “an exercise in forbearance” that is difficult and stressful (156). “To expect Indigenous people to put up with relentless expressions of racism and ignorance is unjust,” she points out, and there can be a “tension between the pain of this and the need to continue the struggle through educating people” (156). One way to manage these tensions is through “benign faking”:
This is integral to the struggle to unlearn ways of thinking and being: that is, a struggle against those ‘unconscious habits of white privilege’ that they were coming to know in themselves. Knowing that one’s reactions are scripted by a racist world, it seems important to hold back from expressing them. This is a kind of faking, familiar as a strategy within friendships. . . . However, there is a more sinister type of faking: pretending to be a fantastic ally, but in other worlds conforming to whitely ways. This underscores the importance of personal integrity and courage: the importance of reckoning with complicity, of challenging racism in white settings, of admitting and interrogating the limits to what you are prepared to do in solidarity. . . . I suspect many existing relationships would be impossible without benign faking on both sides. Relating in activist relationships . . . involves pain and hard work, particularly for Indigenous people. (156-57)
“What is unsaid and what is let slide probably enable some activist relationships to exist,” she continues. “Even within accountability constructs, dissimulation of the kind that someone uses to hold him- or herself together when experiencing the pain of racism would still be needed to enable difficult conversations” (157).
Chapter five, “Acting Politically with Self-Understanding,” begins with quotations from Albert Memmi and Steve Biko which suggest that white people cannot escape being identified as oppressors because they “are allowed to enjoy privilege whether or not they agree with white supremacy” (159). Nevertheless, Land writes,
it is possible for some white people to come to know the various ways in which their lives and actions are manifestations of white privilege and to start to reject or redeploy some of those privileges. Some work can be done from within the “oppressor camp.” But this relies on the ability of members of dominant groups to move from one place to another within their white, or colonizer, or other dominant subjectivity. (159)
Supporting Indigenous struggles doesn’t guarantee that your actions will be supportive (160). “There are politics around how to be a supporter,” Land contends (160). Part of those politics involve addressing white privilege:
Prevailing social relations cause unearned privileges to accrue to white people. This is something that white non-Indigenous activists are challenged to work at undoing, having realized that political support does not confer immunity from manifesting the privileges of whiteness. There is a range of responses to these challenges: to what extent to non-Indigenous people recognize our/themselves as addressed by such challenges? And to what extent to we/they accept and manage to work through such challenges?
Non-Indigenous people are being asked to act politically, but to do this on the basis of self-understanding. (160-61)
“These two projects—acting politically and gaining self-understanding—are linked and must be maintained and held in balance over time,” Land writes (161).“Members of privileged groups must be [engaged in both] developing self-understanding through the practice of critical self-reflection and committed to collectivist and public political action if they are serious about working as allies of Indigenous struggles,” she continues. “Commitment to these ongoing projects is the basis on which members of privileged groups can work towards acting politically, with self-understanding” (161).
Understanding one’s complicity and/or privilege is difficult, but “this self-understanding is crucial for members of privileged groups who want to challenge discourses or practices in which they are implicated,” Land acknowledges (162). “For non-Indigenous people this can be thought of as the process of ‘decolonizing ourselves’—our own thinking, our own minds” (162). However, such self-understanding needs to be accompanied by collective and public political action that addresses structural privilege (162). “This ethic applies to institutions as well as to individuals who seek to manifest a commitment to anti-racism” (163). That is because racism can only be unlearned through activity, by “living out a commitment to end racism through contributing to anti-racist campaigns and causes” (163).
Land presents a list of questions that can help Settlers develop self-understanding regarding their support of Indigenous struggles, including “What happened to Aboriginal people where you now live?” and “Why are you interested in being supportive of Aboriginal people?” (163). These questions can lead to critical self-reflection, which is one of the first steps non-Indigenous people should take if they are serious about being involved in the struggle for justice for Indigenous people (164). After all, Land suggests, “[f]or Aboriginal peoples’ status to change, non-Aboriginal people will all need to change” (164). (“All” is a huge word in this context.) “An engagement with the project of developing self-understanding as a non-Indigenous person will include interrogating one’s social location as a colonizer, albeit a reluctant one,” Land argues. “It should involve interrogating the workings of unconscious habits of white privilege,” habits that are deeply ingrained but that “are not natural and are possible to shift” (165).
But Land emphasizes the fact that critical self-reflection needs to happen alongside “public political work”:
Each can be seen to inform the other. Some people from privileged groups have talked about how their public political activism developed self-understanding and resulted in a deeper level of understanding of the issues faced by oppressed groups. . . . Some have also described feeling that they have become less free to choose not to be involved (freedom to choose the level of activist involvement is understood as a privilege). (165)
In addition, she notes that “developing self-understanding can also help to direct public political work. Work that enables non-Indigenous people to see more clearly their/our complicity with the structures and logics which they/we purport to oppose can feed political strategy” (165). Public political work can take many credible forms, but it needs to be sustained: short-term involvement, Land writes, is “a source of frustration among many Indigenous people I interviewed”; it “may reflect non-Indigenous people wanting or expecting a situation to change quickly, and losing their staying power when they realize that it will be a long haul” (166). “Long-term struggles need long-term allies,” she argues (167). At the same time, long-term commitment can also become a problem, leading to “the phenomenon of people working for Aboriginal organizations who start to believe they are Aboriginal, or speak and make decisions on behalf of the community” (168-69).
“Another key challenge for non-Indigenous people is accepting the complexities and boundaries around what they need to know and find out to inform their political actions,” Land suggests (169). In other words, some non-Indigenous activists may want to know too much. For instance, “there may be intra-Aboriginal politics relevant to a campaign that it is not strategically wise to make public, and that cannot therefore be shared widely with supporters” (169). “There can also be issues within Indigenous communities that make projects go slower, but it may be fair enough that the details of these are not shared with supporters”—including lived realities such as homelessness, poverty, incarcerated relatives, frequent funerals, or community processes that need to be followed (169). According to Land, “non-Indigenous people do not need to know the details of all the issues” (169). Furthermore, the sense of urgency non-Indigenous activists may feel can conflict with “the situation of Indigenous people running campaigns while also engaged in a day-to-day struggle to survive” (169).
What, then, should Settlers who want to show solidarity with Indigenous struggles do? Land notes that actions can be as small as sharing with other white people what you have learned (173). Bigger actions are best taken alongside other people and groups already active in the work, rather than being attempted by individuals (173). She also suggests that Settlers be responsible for challenging racism despite the repercussions they may face from other non-Indigenous people (173). “Beyond challenging incidents of interpersonal or institutional racism are more sustained anti-racist practices,” she continues. “These are driven by the suggestion that non-Indigenous people—in particular white people—direct their activist energies towards anti-racism work and organizing among their own communities” (175). However, many non-Indigenous people perceive such work as “less exciting” than working with Indigenous people (177). “[T]he seemingly modest action of talking to friends or family about colonialism may reveal itself as a challenging task, and may lead to more insights, including the likelihood that the would-be ally does not know enough to be able to argue against the racist opinions of others,” she notes (178).
In addition, being attentive to local struggles is crucial (179), because “[f]ocusing on ‘faraway places’ avoids a confrontation with more direct complicity” (180). Attending to the local, on the other hand, “resonates strongly with Indigenous epistemologies, and with the work of Indigenous and other educators who challenge conventional education” (182). Land cites David Gruenewald arguments on the need for a “critical pedagogy of place” that would “ground education in local social experience and ecological concerns (182). Gruenewald advocates asking two questions: What happened here? What will happen here? (182). “[T]he first question leads inevitably, in the critical tradition, to the second question about possible transformation,” Land suggests (183). “Supporting local struggles is key to the politics of solidarity,” she argues. “It is a decolonizing move and ethic because it resists the colonialist notion that land is an unknown wilderness and that its people are undifferentiated” and “it is interlinked with the projects of developing self-understanding and reckoning with complicity, as well as with self-education and sharing what you’ve learned with others” (183).
Land refers to the “Pay the Rent” idea in Australia (183-85), something I only knew about from the reference to it in that Midnight Oil song from the 1980s. “There are many strengths to the Pay the Rent concept, and it certainly provides an opportunity for non-Indigenous people to ‘put your money where your mouth is,’” she suggests (185). I wonder why that idea hasn’t taken root in Canada. “Another strategy for settler populations looking for ways to act politically is to seek out Indigenous-led alliances,” she continues (185). Nevertheless,
there are a number of issues to be attentive to. Indigenous people may have different ideas about how to address which particular problems, raising questions about which Indigenous people and which issues get support. Further, within a given Indigenous community there may be differing views on prevailing issues. . . . Within the collectivity I am concerned with, Indigenous people are working on a range of different levels, directing their activist work at a range of targets. Who, then, decides what issues non-Indigenous people will lend their support to? (186)
That’s an interesting question, but Land provides no answers. She goes on to raise the problem of non-Indigenous supporters who want to pursue their own ideas rather than focusing on what Indigenous people in Australia consider fundamental—the issues of genocide, sovereignty, and treaty (187). “One factor that might be turning non-Indigenous people off issues like genocide, sovereignty and treaty,” she writes,
is a sense of powerlessness to address such fundamental issues, including a lack of knowledge of how issues such as genocide, sovereignty and treaty could be addressed strategically and practically, beyond just demanding that the government address them somehow. There are in fact practical steps one can take, such as supporting projects like Pay the Rent . . . and finding out what genocide, sovereignty and treaty mean for Aboriginal agendas. (187-88)
There might also be a deep, even unacknowledged, fear and reluctance to address those problems (188). That might be connected to a desire to avoid acknowledging the appropriateness of the word “genocide” itself, as Canadians saw in the media attention around the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls’s use of that word in its final report.
Another way to contribute is by directly assisting “individual Indigenous people in their activist work” (188). This might involve an apprenticeship, a cross-cultural learning experience, or an opportunity to accept an Indigenous person having power over oneself (189), but it can also be difficult and uncomfortable (191-92). “Servant-like support for Aboriginal people was understood differently among non-Indigenous people I interviewed,” Land writes. “Generally, an experience of sustained, intimate work directly supporting one or more Indigenous people was valued by non-Indigenous people as an opportunity for deep learning” (192-93). In addition, she continues,
[t]he practices and qualities of humility and an equivocal relationship with the practice of self-effacement are a great preoccupation for reflective allies. Humility underlies many of the behaviours of allies: not saying anything, listening, believing, doubting one’s own paradigm/relearning other ways, not thinking of oneself as “good” and “benevolent.” It is also connected to important issues such as realizing that many allies have come (and gone) before, realizing how much Aboriginal people know about white culture, and how prevalent racism is. (193-94)
Keeping silent is an aspect of humility:
Holding your tongue can be an appropriate way for a prospective ally to start out. It can be a strategy for limiting the harm that can be done by speaking from a place of ignorance and/or limiting the expression of ingrained habits of white privilege such as taking up too much speaking time or space. Given the importance of humility, it is worth exploring various views on the advisability of practising self-effacement and holding back one’s opinions versus the value of “talking straight” and being honest about what you think. (194)
I’m not sure that “talking straight” has many advantages if you don’t know what you’re talking about. However, Land continues, while “[h]umility is associated with some of the qualities of being a guest,” there is “a balance to be struck between the humility that is proper for a guest and an unhealthy subservience that stems from never disagreeing, even when key principles seem to be at stake” (194-95).
Another issue is anxiety about doing something wrong, which Land suggests can be seen “as reflecting a position of privilege in that white people don’t act or say anything because this leaves them vulnerable to criticism” (196). “[I]ronically,” she continues, “the attempt to ‘be the good anti-racist’ by questioning oneself and curtailing one’s own culturally specific and white-privileged conditioning” can be seen “as a disadvantage in relating in relating to Aboriginal people” (197). What she thinks happens frequently is that
a non-Indigenous person is in a position of some power, knows enough to be aware of the possibility of getting into a political mess, yet does not know enough to navigate the situation, or is too scared to criticize an Indigenous person, or to ask more questions, or to take a risk. Instead, the strategy is to stall, to end up doing ‘nothing,’ which is essentially a form of passive aggression. (198)
I have to say that Land’s conclusion here is both unkind and unfair: confusion or apprehension are not the same as passive aggression.
There are times, Land concludes, when
it seems necessary for non-Indigenous people to manifest some kind of humility or self-effacement, and times when it seems necessary or possible to let go of self-consciousness, or to talk straight and be honest. This shows that everything is context-dependent, and that it is not possible to lay out rules to be followed universally. Instead, it is necessary to maintain a practice of critical self-reflection which enables competing priorities to be balanced, and to be brave about thinking for oneself when key principles seem to be at stake. (200)
Acting politically with self-understanding “means conducting critical self-reflection and committing to public political action,” and both of these “should be informed by a decolonizing ethic of attentiveness to place and local struggles” (200). She also returns to the relationship between critical self-reflection and public political action:
Critical self-reflection by non-Indigenous people is directed to knowing ourselves, understanding ourselves, interrogating where our focus should be, and developing cognizance of the workings of race and privilege. Public political action can take a variety of forms, and these may have some attendant challenges and dilemmas. It is the ability to apply and prioritize a range of sometimes contradictory principles in a particular context that is the mark of a sophisticated ally. (200)
While critical reflection is important, one also needs to retain a sense of humour: “To laugh at oneself as a non-Indigenous person is to eschew the pride of being ashamed . . . to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth, and to know that one has to get over it under one’s own steam,” she writes. “Another way in which this can work politically is that it does not demand an Indigenous person to help, forgive, approve of or make non-Indigenous people feel better” (201).
Chapter six, “A Moral and Political Framework for Non-Indigenous People’s Solidarity,” begins with the reasons Settlers want to express solidarity with Indigenous peoples. How is that expression in their own interest? Land lists some “uninterrogated, suspect motivations for getting involved in pro-Aboriginal politics”: “dealing with some deep psychological problem; finding working with black people exciting; and wanting to make friends with or even have children with Aboriginal people” (204-05). “In some cases,” she continues,
allies are operating on assumptions about receiving “incentives” such as access to Aboriginal knowledge and recognition from Aboriginal people. The main characteristics that make these motivations or assumptions ‘suspect’ are their seemingly unconscious nature (people don’t seem to be aware of them, show no ‘self-insight,’ and may see themselves as virtuous). (205)
Land insists that “helping” Indigenous people is not a good basis for ally work (205):
wanting to “help” usually indicates that the would-be helper has an under-articulated political analysis, and a lack of insight about their underlying desires and, probably, narcissism. It is important for non-Indigenous people to be clear about their reasons for wanting to be an ally. (206)
An ally, she argues, is a “change agent” not a “helper,” and one needs to be involved or engaged because it is in one’s own interest or because it is for the greater good (206). For that reason, “[n]on-Indigenous people who display an understanding of a broad agenda for social change, not just a focus on Indigenous people, are regarded as having a sound basis for supporting Indigenous struggles” (207).
“Indigenous people often describe their relationship with Indigenous struggles as one of inheritance,” Land writes (208). Non-Indigenous people often use similar language; they suggest they have no choice in being involved (210-11). “Experienced and reflective non-Indigenous people are generally able to articulate their interests and their personal sense of a framework for their activism,” she continues. “This includes an awareness of the basis for their involvement and their relationship to Indigenous struggles” (211). It is important that Settlers come to understand their interests as aligned with those of Indigenous people:
When the interests of Indigenous people and non-Indigenous people are understood as opposed, non-Indigenous people are understood as having “too much to lose” to be reliable allies of Indigenous people. It is not difficult to imagine that many non-Indigenous people would perceive our/their interests in land as opposed to Indigenous people’s interests in land, and conversely difficult to see those interests as congruent. For non-Indigenous people to support Indigenous interests (in land) would be to defy the central logic of the prevailing system, of which each of us is—individually—a constituent. (214-15)
Settlers, Land writes, “are part of the system, we are the system, we are colonialism” (215). For that reason, being a reliability is “to critique the system, to attempt to change the system, to reduce our level of colonial involvement, to undermine its logics, and to try to convince ourselves and others that the system—which does its most violent work on Indigenous people—is also not in our (enlightened) self-interest” (215). Supporting Indigenous struggles could serve non-Indigenous interests in a number of ways: “making us feel happier”; “increasing our sense of personal integrity as ethical beings”; match principles like justice or “more concrete beliefs such as the notion that ‘exterminating people is wrong’”; helping to undermine a system that creates ecological damage; “trying to undo the system that does oppressive work on all/most of us” (215). “The last point is perhaps the one through which non-Indigenous people might best come to see how our interests are served by our support of Indigenous struggles,” Land contends, because the ecological damage caused by colonial systems “is ultimately imperilling our survival” (216).
“How can change committed to reconstructing the interests of members of dominant groups be achieved?” Land asks. This question is one of “the biggest questions of strategy in solidarity politics,” one engaged with by both Indigenous people and “experienced allies” (217). Those allies need “to find ways to use white privilege against itself,” partly by “trying to understand one’s own complex relationship—and complicity—with white privilege,” Land writes, quoting Shannon Sullivan (218). Being uncomfortable leads to deep learning, according to Paulette Regan (218-19). “Another strategy for tackling the reluctance of members of dominant groups to undo their privilege is to highlight the costs of not doing so,” Land suggests (219). There is, she contends, a downside to that privilege: “all people in Australia are diminished by white racism: both its victims and white people, through our/their apparent tolerance of racism, are diminished as ethical beings” (220). Settlers also experience a spiritual and ethical impoverishment from unsustainable relations to land (221). Nevertheless, while white people feel guilty about their unearned privilege, they tend not to be invested in changing things (223).
“For some members of privileged groups, involvement in supporting struggles for justice begins to reconstruct their subjectivity,” Land points out. “This can be permanent, such that a new sense of self makes it impossible not to remain committed to supporting struggles for justice” (223). That reconstruction can be marked by discomfort and anxiety, but for some, there is no way back to a previous state of comfort; in other words, some non-Indigenous people reach a point of no return (224). “A subjectivity structured around principles of justice and equality between fellow beings would mean it is hard to walk away from activist commitments” (224). However, a focus on the costs of whiteness can feed into the tendency of white people to make everything about themselves (225).
The motivations of Settlers may involve both altruism and self-interest. “Altruism is seen as a more worthy, because generous, reason for members of dominant groups to support social justice struggles than self-interest,” Land writes. “On the other hand, with pragmatism in mind, educators and community practitioners have found that appealing to ‘ethical and moral arguments on their own’ may not provide members of privileged groups with enough motivation to overcome material interests linked to privilege” (225-26). However, altruism alone may not be enough to motivate change: “Acting in someone else’s interests does not seem to be enough to secure the commitment of a member of a privileged group in supporting the struggle of a dominated group” (226). “[I]f members of dominant groups really see that we/they are working to change a society that, in its colonialism, does oppressive work on (all/most of) us, then we/they are, ultimately, beneficiaries of that activism,” Land suggests (226). Reconstructing one’s sense of one’s own interests “is to change the basis of the relationship with others who struggle,” from being a relation based on a division between “us” and “them”—a connotation of the term “ally” (226). “[T]his change is not directed to denying differences which still divide those committed to achieving ‘meaningful social change’; nor does it avoid the central issue of land,” she contends. “However, reconstructing the interests of members of dominant groups does bear the potential for different modes of relating: modes marked by a greater sense of mutuality” (226).
For Land, focusing on the struggle to get to the same political destination opens up “the potential for a different personal interaction,” which might mean “that some of the problematic dynamics of paternalism, racism and dominance are less intrusive on relationships across Indigenous-non-Indigenous difference in the activist context” (227). However, “if non-Indigenous people and white people simply reclassified ourselves as victims we would be forgetting that we are socialized by and transacting with a racist world and that this has material and relational consequences which we need to struggle against” (227). For that reason, Land argues,
this is not about reclassifying ourselves at the level of discourse, but about redirecting our efforts and our energies towards serving reconstructed interests. Interests cannot be read objectively from structural location. It is germane to consider how a person’s actions and the shape of a person’s life serve the interests of the dominant group and whether this can be transformed. (227)
She quotes Albert Memmi’s suggestion that such a transformation is a process of “becoming a turncoat” (227). Such a transformation is essential. “Indeed, the predominant impulses that drive middle-class settler activists to support Indigenous people,” Land concludes, “cannot lead to successful and powerful alliances with Indigenous people and to meaningful social change unless they are significantly transformed through a process of reconstructing interests and undertaking both public political action and critical self-reflection” (228).
In chapter seven, “Reckoning With Complicity,” Land argues that the necessity of understanding one’s complicity is “[a] key element of the politics of solidarity” (229). This necessity, she continues, “cuts across the projects of acting politically with self-understanding and reconstructing interests” (229). Specifically,
[n]on-Indigenous people are challenged to confront our complicity with colonialism and dispossession. This begins with being aware of complicity and for many involves dealing with discomfort about that. The challenge is to admit it, to resist it, to undo it, yet also to see how it provides us with opportunities to resist the workings of colonialism. (229)
Complicity is inescapable: “This is a contradiction that must be factored in and reflected upon continuously” (229). “The challenge around complicity is directly related to the need for non-Indigenous people to reconstruct their/our interests,” Land writes:
It instigates a questioning of how non-Indigenous people are bound up in the system, what we would “risk” or “lose” if we were to abandon it, and, from another perspective, what we would ‘gain.’ It also involves interrogating the range of contrasting actions that discomfort about complicity can prompt. . . . It cuts across the agenda of acting politically with self-understanding, because if discomfort is felt, dealing with it becomes an element of the work of critical self-reflection. A suggested strategy for avoiding its sometimes debilitating effects is to engage in public political action. . . . becoming actively involved in political projects can itself result in a different perception of one’s own self-interest, potentially generating new inspirations to confront complicity. (229-30)
“The hard work of reckoning with complicity springs from the recognition by non-Indigenous people that Australia is on Aboriginal land,” Land points out (230). That recognition, she continues,
should not only form our public political action . . . but should also be reflected in the shape of our lives. . . . Interrogating and reconstructing the shape of one’s life represent a project of reckoning with privilege, reckoning with being on the land of certain Aboriginal people. It is about reckoning with knowing that being there was enabled by their dispossession and displacement—or even extermination—and is enabled still by everything that keeps things that way. (230)
Such a recognition is difficult, of course, but it is also necessary.
In order to accept that settler colonialism involves genocide, it is helpful to think of settler colonialism as a process rather than an event (231). “Aboriginal spokespeople are clear about their struggle being one of survival, and survival as distinct peoples in the face of an amorphous but omnipresent process of settler-colonial genocide,” although a “[w]ider recognition of the ongoing process of genocide in Australia is a long way off” (231). There are ways to interrupt this process of genocide, and “the social location of non-natives implicates us in colonialism, providing us with ‘opportunities to disrupt it,’” Land writes, quoting Canadian activist and writer Tom Keefer (232). That genocide is foundational to settler colonialism:
Living on Aboriginal land is enabled by genocide, and genocide is recognized as ongoing, a process inextricable from the settler-colonial logic of Australia. A politics of solidarity in this context must recognize that Indigenous people ‘live among’ settlers whose colonization has brought genocide. Non-Indigenous people might as, in reckoning with complicity, how does the shape of my life keep the system intact? How does the shape of my life reflect the acknowledgement of sovereignty and/or the dismantling of privilege? (232)
According to Land, asking such questions “goes further than the critical self-reflection work . . . and the public political work. . . . It goes to actual material sacrifice, to questioning everything about our lifestyles. And it also goes to being—and being regarded as—a genuine ally” (232-33).
The discussion of material sacrifice involves very difficult questions. According to Land, there are “three key sites for non-Indigenous people’s work. Non-indigenous people are challenged to undertake critical self-reflection, to commit to public political action, and to do personal-material work: to change the shape of our lives” (233). That “personal-material work” involves “actual material sacrifice.” “In long-term relationships between non-Indigenous supporters of and Indigenous instigators of Indigenous struggles, politically salient differences in the shapes of their/our lives become more obvious,” Land points out. “For example, lives are shaped by unequal distribution of morbidity and mortality, and in the unequal distribution of wealth” (233). This is a challenge for non-Indigenous people: “our agency in relation to privilege and life choices becomes a site of interrogation” (234). Is it possible to abandon owning property or paying taxes to an illegal government “or to stop voting in elections (that is, cease reiterating, at regular intervals, our consent to being governed by an illegitimate sovereign)? Would these actions be politically effective?” (235). (Well, one might stop paying taxes if imprisonment for tax evasion were a useful strategy, as it was, however briefly, for Thoreau.) That’s the crux of the challenges made by the Indigenous activists Land interviewed (235). Is working outside of the system one wants to change politically useful? Or should one use one’s privilege in the service of others? (236). “There is a balancing act between rejecting the system and its privileges and taking this ‘too far,’ resulting in self-marginalization and losing the ability to deploy the privilege one does have for progressive ends,” Land suggests (237). “This contradiction (between surviving within the system but being an agent seeking to change it) is one of the things . . . that might be reflected on or negotiated by non-Indigenous people cognizant of the politics of solidarity” (237). “The contradiction between developing a critical analysis of a system that oppresses Indigenous people and recognizing one’s involvement in maintaining that system,” Land continues, “certainly raises questions for some non-Indigenous people. Coming to realize that unearned privileges accrue to white people reveals that as racism puts some at a disadvantage, its corollary is to put white people at an advantage” (238). Settler inaction in the face of that face, she continues, “enables the system to be maintained” (238).
Land cites an article by Adam Barker, where he argues that “there are two typical strategies employed by settler people to ‘restore comfort’ without having to sacrifice personally”: “empty apologizing” and limiting their engagement with injustices to those happening “somewhere else” (239). Feeling guilty or ashamed can allow settlers to feel better, to be proud of recognizing the brutality of their history, according to Sara Ahmed (241). “Affluent Westerners confronted by problems with settler society often feel discomfort,” Land continues. “Strategically, generating discomfort and distress among members of dominant groups can function to shift people out of their complacency and encourage a confrontation with complicity or privilege” (242). However, Barker goes further, advocating “actual personal sacrifice” (243). Land suggests that “it is important to wind back immoral levels of consumption and to reject wealth and status accumulation as the guiding logic for life,” and yet even living modestly is to remain wealthy “compared to most Indigenous people in Australia” (243). This contention leads to many questions. How should non-Indigenous people respond to this reality? By giving money to people? By refusing to buy property? By trying to match the wealth of people one has a relationship with? “Is there even any point (in strategic terms) in reshaping our lives on an individual basis, if there is not a critical mass of people doing so?” she asks. “Is developing personal integrity an unwise priority in the face of the argument that privilege can be used strategically for progressive ends?” (244).
Land has found Robert Jensen’s answer to the the problem of moral levels of consumption to be helpful. Jensen suggests that “people limit themselves to a level of consumption and wealth that is globally attainable according to the limits of the Earth’s resources”; for example, since there is not enough metal on Earth for everyone to own a car, doing so is immoral and cars should be shared (244). (Jensen clearly lives in a place with adequate public transportation; unfortunately, I do not.) “Clearly individual decisions must connect with work to generate collective action,” Land continues. “This underlines the importance of critical self-reflection, public political action and personal-material work, and their interrelatedness” (244). The demand that individual Settlers avoid owning property or automobiles, while it might make political or ecological sense, is probably too much to ask, particularly given the fact that, in Canada, our houses are typically our biggest financial asset and what we will end up relying on when we retire. If Land hopes to encourage Settlers to get involved in supporting Indigenous struggles, this is not the way to go about it. And, in addition, it smacks of a drive to purity—even a certain Puritanism—that undercuts her suggestions that Settlers get engaged in these issues out of self-interest. Nobody wants to wear a hair shirt, and nobody ought to trust anyone who claims to want that–at least, that’s been her argument throughout the book.
At this point, Land piles complicity upon complicity in a way that, while it might be honest, is also discouraging. “Even non-Indigenous people’s active political solidarity work may produce new complicities,” she writes. “They may benefit from their activism in support of Indigenous struggles in a variety of ways, while Indigenous people may remain no better off” (244). They may gain opportunities to identify as “good whites” or receive acclaim because of their work (244-45). They can end up being considered experts or gaining enhanced reputations (245). “In academic settings, in particular, I find problematic the element of ‘display’ entailed in my or any other non-Indigenous person discussing an Indigenous person with whom I have worked or interacted,” she states. “Displaying relationships with Aboriginal people may function as a crafty appropriation to bolster one’s own authority to speak and, especially, as a strategy for evading criticism” (245). Other tangible benefits include employment opportunities (246)—or graduate degrees, something she ought to have acknowledged, since this book came out of her PhD thesis. “A proposed Code of Ethics for Antiracist White Allies suggests donating a portion of any salary, speaker fee or other income received for challenging racism,” she writes (246). That idea suggests “the importance of non-Indigenous people being attentive to the ways in which privilege might be reinscribed through the very process of trying to bring about the societal change that would undo it” (246). “Reckoning with complicity,” Land concludes,
is multifaceted, involving admitting one’s embroilment in a society that provides unearned dividends to certain groups of people, and admitting that one operates from within the structures that one critiques. It involves confronting the fact that colonialism creates local problems, not just faraway problems. This more directly implicates the self, begging more urgent questions about what actual personal sacrifice might be needed to address such problems and injustice. (246-47)
That discussion of the thorny question of complicity leads into Land’s conclusion: “Solidarity With Other Struggles.” “[T]he practice of solidarity in other contexts is an active one: a practice of knowing the principles that apply and actively negotiating and balancing them when circumstances and questions of strategy throw them into conflict,” she writes (249-50). International community development workers, for instance, face “many of the same dilemmas as settler supporters of Indigenous struggles” (250), as do Israelis who wish to express support for Palestinians (251-53) and people working towards solidarity with refugees (253-55) and with trans-people (255-57). “In several interviews conducted for this book, people reflected on intersections between privilege and oppression in their own experience,” Land observes:
Specifically, notions of intersectionality connect to the importance of identifying a broader agenda for social change in which many non-Indigenous people’s interests are reflected; to questions about the way in which this research invokes a binary distinction between “Indigenous” and “non-Indigenous”; and to the politics of how people may at times problematically call on or disavow their experience of oppression and privilege. Importantly, this complicates the way people reflect on and live out their struggles and their solidarity, and provides another perspective on the applicability of solidarity politics in and between Indigenous struggles in the south-east of Australia and elsewhere. (257)
“An intersectional view is enriched by considering how oppression and privilege might play out in even more complex, contingent and shifting ways within and between distinct social worlds,” Land continues. “Key to this enriched understanding of intersectionality is the sense that aspects of identity may be valued differently in (and among) some Aboriginal social worlds from how they are valued in dominant culture” (257). In her interviews, “instances of difference were not only or always Indigenous-non-Indigenous difference, but were just as much about class, education, consumption of different media and diets, age, and status across distinct worlds. These factors cut across each other in complex and contradictory directions” (261). “This discussion of reflections on Indigeneity, class, sexuality, embodied privilege, gender and age which arose in my interviews shows how an intersectional approach—complicated through place, colonialism and culture—is an important part of a critical engagement relating under settler colonialism,” she argues (263).
Land’s conclusion suggests that it is important to broaden one’s involvement to other political struggles as well—for example, refugee solidarity work (263-64). “People with access to multiple privileges have the greatest responsibility to contribute to social justice struggles,” she argues (264). And that’s what this book has really been about—becoming engaged with the politics of solidarity: “this book is both a response to Indigenous people’s challenges and an attempt to draw non-Indigenous people into further conversations about the nature of such engagement” (264-65).
Decolonizing Solidarity leaves me with a lot to think about. Some parts of Land’s argument are easier to take than others, but I suppose that my discomfort with some of her ideas might be (or become) productive. To be honest, while I think my work is related to the issues of solidarity with Indigenous struggles that Land discusses, I’m not an activist. Maybe that’s a sign of a personal failing, or maybe it’s just the kind of person I am (pessimistic and introverted). I don’t know. I do know that the questions this book raises are ones I need to consider, both in my work and in my life. They aren’t going to be easy questions to think about, but they are necessary.
Land, Clare. Decolonizing Solidarity: Dilemmas and Directions for Supporters of Indigenous Struggles, Zed Books, 2015.
Lowman, Emma Battell, and Adam J. Barker. Settler: Identity and Colonialism in 21st Century Canada. Fernwood, 2015.