Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Review: Conquest

[Andrea Smith. Conquest: Sexual Violence and American Indian Genocide. Boston: South End Press, 2005.]

Something happened.

A point experience of human suffering, a node of harm -- it happened.

Yes, its very occurence may be contested by those who dominate and those who don't but who cast their lot in that direction nonetheless. But let's ignore them for a moment and consider those who would resist domination, or at least claim to oppose it -- for us, then, the individual experience of suffering, the node of harm, is accepted as the starting point for resistance.

Of course, a starting point only gets you so far, which is not very far at all because it is a point. It exists in the vast field that is our tremendously complicated world, that web of relations, that torrent of causes and effects and intruding randomness, and it is produced by them. Analysis is the process by which we try to see lines. We try to understand how this point was produced by this field, web, torrent -- a necessary part of acting if we want to intervene in ways that make sure similar points are never produced again. What points are the same? What points share related origins and similar experiential quality? What other points is this one connected to? How is it connected to them? What patterns do these connections form?

The starting point for Andrea Smith's work is the experience of sexual violence, and her touchstone for going from this point to an analysis is a commitment to putting indigenous women and women of colour, particularly the most marginalized among them, at the centre. She challenges the ways in which the mainstream white-dominated women's movement and the often male-dominated anti-racism groups based in racialized communities have historically understood and responded to sexual violence.

She begins the "Introduction" by writing:

Women of color live in the dangerous intersections of gender and race. Within the mainstream antiviolence movement in the U.S., women of color who survive sexual or domestic abuse are often told that they must pit themselve against their communities, often portrayed stereotypically as violent, in order to begin the healing process. Communiteis of color, meanwhile, often advocate that women keep silent about sexual and domestic violence in order to maintain a united front against racism. In addition, the remedies for addressing sexual and domestic violence utitilized by the antiviolence movement have proven to be genreally inadequate for addressing the problems of gender violence in general, but particularly for addressing violence agianst women of color. The problem is not simply an issue of providing multicultural services to survivors of violence. Rather, the analysis of and strategies for addressing gender violence have failed to address the manner in which gender violence is not simply a tool of patriarchal control, but also serves as a tool of racism and colonialism. That is, colonial relationships are themselves gendered and sexualized.

The book begins by demonstrating how sexual violence was and is a primary tool of genocide and colonization in North America. Sexual violence was used to mark indigenous bodies as inherently rapable or violable, and as part of the process that constructed ideologies of inferiority, savagery, and uncleanliness around indigenous peoples in the settler imagination. It was one lever for forcing the radical reorganization of gender relations in indigenous societies, many of which were very egalitarian and even matrilineal before contact, and forcing them to adopt the violent European patriarchy, which was important in subordinating indigenous nations as a whole to European/white settler domination -- "Thus in order to colonize a people whose society was not hierarchical, colonizers must first naturalize hierarchy through instituting patrarchy" [p. 23]. Smith also talks about how the heightened oppression experienced by indigenous women and women of colour has functioned to enhance the control of white women by white men. Despite this, many strands of white-dominated feminism (a prominent recent example being the disgraceful behaviour of the Feminist Majority Foundation in the lead up to the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan, with plenty of others visible in the blogosphere over the last couple of years) have accepted colonial logic uncritically. While Smith centres the experiences of indigenous women, she also connects her analysis to the experiences of women of colour in the United States as well.

Much of the rest of the book is devoted to elaborating an expanded understanding of sexual violence and how it functions as a part of broader oppressive relations. The book talks about residential schools, environmental degradation, systematic attacks on indigenous women's reproductive health, the use of indigenous communities for medical experimentation, and the connection of appropriation of indigenous spiritualities to sexual violence. Smith then devotes a detailed chapter to potential directions for anti-colonial responses to sexual violence. She calls for a move away from the kinds of state-based responses that have been central to the agenda of the mainstream antiviolence movement, particularly ones that empower the so-called justice system and end up strengthening state attacks on racialized communities while never really performing as advertised to protect women, especially women of colour. At the same time, she does not downplay the challenges of creating new models, models that are truly liberatory. Most interesting of all, she makes frequent reference to currently ongoing efforts to build models and movements that oppose gender violence in anti-colonial and anti-racist ways. She ends the book with an argument for why anti-colonial struggle by indigenous nations within the United States needs to see itself as connected with broader struggles against U.S. empire and the capitalist heteropatriarchal organization of domination within it, and why all such efforts need to name and challenges how power works while at the same time building holistic, grounded alternatives.

I have been reflecting on how to apply the lessons in Smith's book to my own activity. I have never begun from the place that Smith begins -- that is, from the experience of sexual violence understood in ways that centre indigenous women and women of colour. Nonetheless, I think think there are lessons that can be applied to social change work that starts in other places as well.

Perhaps the most obvious lesson (though not necessarily the easiest to act on appropriately) is a reminder that whatever point or points I start with, and however I go from that to build an analysis of how those points came to be, I cannot forget the broadly understood sexual violence she writes of -- it is guaranteed to be relevant in some way to the various issues of poverty, homelessness, racism, war, empire, the environment, indigenous solidarity, and the media that I have been active in over the years.

It is also useful to go beyond that lesson, which is about what, and see what Smith's approach to going from her starting point to her analysis can teach about how. Her approach to how begins by centring the experiences of those who are most marginalized in any situation. In the specific case the book talks about, she explains this by pointing out how centring sexual violence against indigenous women leads to a more complete and accurate picture of how sexual violence actually works, socially speaking -- in particular, it allows for an understanding of the role of sexual violence in colonial oppression and not just in patriarchal domination.

However, I think there is another aspect to her particular commitment to centring as well. She doesn't say it in this way, but I think it is in part a commitment to recognizing the right of people to engage as whole people in struggle that shapes their lives. For example, for women of colour to enter into a struggle against sexual violence and against their oppression more generally purely under the terms reflective of the standpoints of white feminist women or of anti-racist men of colour means having to endure a fragmentation of self as a precondition for entering into a process of struggle that ideally should lead to a recovery or healing or enhancement of self. I'm sure it isn't always so simple in practice, but I would imagine that it is often experienced as a strength of women-of-colour spaces created based on the approach that grounds this book that they create at least a possibility for proceeding from a sense of wholeness and an empowerment of self.

However, most -- not all, but most -- of the spaces in which I have been politically active have been at least partially centred around experiences of power and privilege that are very far from the most marginalized. The details of why this has been the case and how it has played out have varied a lot -- in some cases, for example, it hasn't been true of the external focus but it has played a role in the internal functioning -- but generally it has been true. This isn't necessarily a terrible thing, because we all have to start from where we are at. However, the idea of centring the most marginalized in the sense Smith advocates, and of being very expansive in the search for connections and tracing down oppressions to-the-root, has quite a different impact in such spaces. Certainly there is the potential for the same experience of wholeness: my whole-personness includes my own role in racial relations of power, in gendered relations of power, and so on, and coming to a point of being able to act consciously from those spaces of privilege can be profound in a way different from but related to how Smith and the women she works with and writes about experience wholeness in the spaces they have created. However, while that is possible, it is not likely to be the consensus response from a group of randomly selected activists with privilege of whatever sort. In fact, resistance to such an approach can destroy groups quite easily, though it needn't.

Part of this is the defensiveness and resistance we all feel when challenged to begin basing our viewing of the world and our acting in the world on a conscious recognition of our own privilege as well as whatever oppressions we experience. There's all kinds of stuff in your head and your body to navigate in trying to do that, and at times it is neither easy nor pleasant.

However, it is not just that. I would connect it to a tendency that I have experienced over and over again in different ways in different contexts. There is this powerful, uncritical impulse towards a certain kind of politics that in different times and places I have thought of as united front politics, shallow coalition politics, and politics of politeness (that is, avoiding difficult conversations for the sake of preserving a group whose ability to act in the world in liberatory ways you have just compromised, perhaps fatally, by avoiding difficult conversations). Such politics may be the best path sometimes, but in my experience they are rarely chosen consciously. One of my frustrations with political involvement I had in a number of spheres when I lived in Hamilton, for example, was this tendency to automatically fall into shallow coalition-style politics even when there were no functional base collectives/affinity groups to act as the basis for a real coalition. I have encountered a different but related tension again here in Sudbury as the anti-war group that has formed recently has been talking about its direction -- we haven't necessarily done as well as we could at having those discussions, and certainly there are things I wish now I had done differently, but I think it is fair to say that one of the underlying (and never really articulated) tensions in some of those discussions was between a vision based in united front politics and a politics that is not the same as Smith's but that shares with her an interest in centring the most marginalized and in actively exploring connections. The former seeks to have a clear and narrow focus to attract as broad a range of groups and individuals as possible, and it is how most of the anti-war movement in Canada is organized, for very practical reasons whose appeal I can certainly understand. The latter may not have as wide appeal at first glance, but it has the potential to be more dynamic and to spark other folks to do their own thing too if one particular group doesn't suit, and road to a deeper sort of coalition politics down the road.

Now, in all the spheres in which I have experienced permutations of this issue, I know that many people would regard trying to move towards a politics such as Smith elaborates to be divisive and even sectarian. I am thinking back to stories I have heard from people centrally involved in organizing a huge event a number of years ago. There was disruption from white leftist men who were behaving in patriarchal and sectarian ways, and actually getting anything done required finding ways to not let them dominate the process. However, my impression is that the same impulse to get things done and avoid divisiveness resulted in communities of colour being excluded from the process once again. I can think of countless other spaces where gestures towards a broader politics were met with negativity at a very micro, inerpersonal level. I also know I have done similar things, as unlearning the middle-class white Canadian tendency to just avoid it if it might be difficult is a long and ongoing process. The thing is, fostering such a politics can function in sectarian ways, in ways that alienate people who are not already in that headspace, and I know I've done that too. I'm not sure the political spaces I have been in so far in my life have trained me to do it all that well, either -- to do it in ways that put the focus on people and on builidng/organizing sustained relationships between people for the purpose of creating change and as a context in which ideas can be discussed and acted on and that doesn't require political muzzling for the sake of unity, rather than to focus too much on ideas and on talking the "right" kind of game in a way that isn't always conducive to building the (liberatory forms of) relationships that are the basis of any collective action.

I think I've wandered a bit in my effort to explore connections between various point experiences. Sorry about that. To return to the book itself, I hope it gets read far and wide, both because of its expansive and radical analysis of sexual violence, and because of the window it provides into a powerful model for doing social change. Doing radical politics won't necessarily look identical where I'm socially located, and it shouldn't necessarily, but the vision presented in Conquest illustrates a way of acting in the world that has a lot to teach me, and a lot to teach everyone who has been socialized into the kind of politics that usually happens in more mainstream radical spaces.

[For a list of all book reviews on this site, click here.]

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