Last week I went to a symposium on my campus called “Indigenous Foucault” (https://nativestudies.ualberta.ca). A number of brilliant First Nations and indigenous scholars reworked the influential theories of French philosopher Michel Foucault (d. 1984). It was an inspiring and challenging occasion, though not a particularly relaxing one for me. I focused on listening, which is not my strong point, and shutting the fuck up, which is always hard for a white person to do. Dr. Kim TallBear began by giving a striking talk about the increasing claims made by white people to have “Indian blood,” based on mail order DNA tests. While these tests are highly dubious, they also confuse identity with a particular version of genetic heritage. Dr. TallBear argued that people claiming to be Native Americans had many motivations, but were ultimately extending a longstanding strategy of appropriating and absorbing the exotic other. This colonial tactic is yet another example of white possessiveness, another effort to fill up the emptiness of whiteness.
A subsequent talk by the Dean of the Faculty of Native Studies, Dr. Brendan Hokowhitu, extended this consideration of identity politics. He focused on the embodied aspects of identity, discussing the physicality of his Maori childhood in New Zealand. His arguments considered how the body is imprinted by history, through activities and physical labour. Identity cannot be suddenly revealed by some kind of test. It is what you do. It is formed within your relationships with other people, as an ongoing process. Identity is also shaped by the places in which you live, which include such non-human yet fully animate entities as land, trees, and oceans.
This way of understanding identity makes sense to me, though I tend not to think of the environment as animate. During the lunch break, one of my colleagues, who is a First Nations scholar and artist, said that when she looked out the window, she saw trees that were actively vibrating with life. They were co-inhabitants with real effects on her everyday existence. I looked hard at these trees but did not see the same thing. To me, the beautiful trees were objects that had somehow survived the calamitous production of a nearby asphalt parking lot. They were lucky but unrelated to me. This realization made me sad even as it shed light on why white people like myself might want to pretend to be Aboriginal, at least in certain cases. Giving up white privilege is another matter and something few white people want to do, even when a mail order test reveals that they supposedly have “25% Aboriginal genetic material” in their bodies.
I considered how my body and therefore identity were shaped within certain spaces. My childhood primarily featured restraint, with regulations that constrained me at home and school, exacerbated by gender policing. I was told to be quiet, sit still, line up, eat with my mouth closed and so on. More significantly, my teenage years made me understand that as a girl I was “naturally” subject to attack at any moment because of my body. I had to keep my guard up at all times, never call attention to myself, and be “safely” back home before dark. In many ways, this kind of gendered experience of space is standard, but what about my current situation? I considered where I feel most at home, most at one with my identity, realizing that it was in such institutional spaces as universities, gyms, airports, hospitals, polling stations, and even flu shot clinics. I know the rules about bodily movement and comportment at these places and also expect to be treated with respect. These spaces recognize and reward me as a white person, intersecting with and potentially trumping questions of gender. I know, for instance, that I will not be harassed when entering or leaving Canada. I am considered harmless; my body conveys the lack of threat. No one will assume that I am homeless, a drug addict, or of low intelligence. No one will deny me treatment. Although my documents will be checked, they will not be double checked. Would I change these spatial productions of white privilege to embrace the living trees as my ancestors? No way.
Why am I blathering on about my recent thought processes in this blog post? Well this way of approaching identity as a physical and experiential process, formed in a broader context that includes the natural world, is at odds with neo-liberal arguments. According to the current “common sense,” you can simply choose your own identity, making rational decisions that will transform you as an individual. “Decide to be happy!” “Transform yourself now.” “Every moment is a new moment to create the life you want.” The assumption is that isolated individuals are fully responsible for their lives, without reference to historical, cultural, and social circumstances. Their lived experiences and embodied knowledges are erased and denied in this neo-liberal discourse. While I have taken issue with these messages before (see a post called “Fitspiration Brouhaha,” published in October 2013), I now see that there is a certain violence in these supposedly motivational statements. They deny the past lived experience of those individuals, asking them to ignore or remove traumatic and other experiences, acting as if they never happened. Such statements erase the environment, erase the places and activities that have created us. They erase the recognition of oppression but also of privilege, asking us to pretend that these things do not matter. They also make people feel like shit about themselves, like failures, instead of encouraging them to reflect on the spaces, places, and people who made them.