By Dan Morrison
If you’re reading this, hopefully you’ve read Brendan’s piece (or if you haven’t, stop reading this, read his piece, then come back and finish reading this).
I met Brendan just over a year ago at a camp for incoming international students, of which I was one. He talked to us about a few things, varying from the “treaties” between First Nations communities and the settlers to Sacred Fires. Before that, I hadn’t known anything about, nor really been aware of, Canada’s First Nations communities.
After I asked if he would write the piece for us, I asked him what he thought about me writing a piece about the guilt and responsibility that somebody from a settler country can feel. I did not do anything, but those before me did – do I have a responsibility?
We talked about “truth and reconciliation”, commissions set up in Canada and post-apartheid South Africa, for example, aimed at interrogating past wrongdoings to help countries heal and move forward more united. We pondered how this might work on a global level; for colonial powers towards all the countries they previously colonised, powers that, many would argue, are only so strong because of slavery, exploitation and colonialism. On a personal level too, in a way that Brendan and I might discuss the acts of Brits and the settlers before me and what they meant for indigenous people.
The idea of responsibility and guilt – neither word is quite right – has nagged at me for a few years.
In the year before uni I travelled a bit and there was the joke, “oh, the British again eh”. Sometimes this was about an amusing oddity, like the Jordanian army band having bagpipe players, but often it was ‘perfidious Albion’ screwing over a bunch of people in its own interest.
On a couple of occasions I attempted some sort of apology to somebody, but it would be batted away by a local person laughing and pointing out, rather obviously, that it wasn’t my fault.
Fair point. I did not declare this as somebody else’s land, promise you something other people thought was theirs, or take the land and resources for myself, dispossessing you in the process.
But, as Brendan wisely pointed out to me, we cannot escape the narrative into which we are born. As a middle-class, mildly well-educated, straight, white British male, a large portion of the recent history of my identity/identifying group involves the direct or indirect domination of the “other”.
This ‘other’ is a group set up as weaker and/or alien by the dominant group. Often, this dominant group can end up defining itself in terms of the ‘otherness’, setting itself up as the ‘One’ of society. The ‘other’ is the object to the dominant group’s subject.
Throughout the last few centuries this identity has been complicit in not only the oppression of indigenous peoples, but women, sexual minorities and others, including those unfortunate enough to be oppressed on more than one level. While conditions in each of those groups have improved, there is still work to be done.
When thinking about these struggles today, white feelings of guilt or responsibility should really sod off. By incorporating them, you end up projecting these feelings onto the oppressed folks who you are keen on liberating and helping. Then, they’re dealing with your stuff as well as their own dislocation.
This risks reinforcing colonial sentiments, but in an inverted form. It becomes a patronising white fawning, where you in a dominant group can end up ‘fetishising’ the people you want to help- or maybe it is more the idea of helping them you fetishise. This is similar to white people who spend a lot of time talking about how awful straight white people are: they continue this narrative of the one strong group and the other weak group. It doesn’t change anything.
Instead, we should do two things: listen and disrupt our identity’s narrative. We can reappropriate what our identity should mean in today’s world.
If we don’t want it to be bound up in dominant and dominated, let’s change the narrative. This also has the effect of delegitimising ever more those who stupidly cling to the notion of some white, western natural hegemony or superiority, because it no longer fits in. For instance, the beliefs and practices of a middle-class, mildly well-educated, straight, white British male that I identified myself as is more likely to be a progressive, open-minded, positively indifferent and engaged with the world beyond this identity group.
An effort to appeal to this breaks the narrative and opens up greater possibility for constructive cooperation.
Second, oftentimes it can be uncomfortable hearing about how white folk have fucked over one group or another. But that is how it should be. Being told that ‘white people don’t get it’ is not racist, as some would say, it is pretty bang on.
Even trying to put yourself in someone else’s position is futile- all you do is reflect your perception or what it would be like, not actually what it would be like. We are best off listening to our friends and doing our best to understand. If nothing else, it is just respectful.
I’d like to thank Brendan for his piece and for helping me through this one. I’ve probably misrepresented some group, idea or feeling- apologies if so, and feel free to get in touch if I have.