My Writings Have Moved!

I have a new blog – It’s called Illness & Intersectionality: Writings of a Chronically Ill Anthropologist.

I am honestly not too sure when, if ever, I will get back to using this one. I’ve changed a lot over the past 7 years since initially starting this blog as a methodological experiment during my masters degree. The new one suits me better now, and the move is best explained by this post.

In addition to resources related to chronic illness and coping, I will also be posting about:

  • Conceptualizing the relationship between chronic illness & disability justice
  • Ableism & microaggressions in anarchist & feminist organizing
  • Chronic illness & intersectional oppressions
  • Anthropologizing chronic illness
  • Chronic illness, disability & academia – accommodations beyond formal university protocols

And more, but these are probably the things readers of this blog are most likely to be interested in.

Hope to see you there!


Reflexivity, Positionality, Shifting Subjectivities & Situated Knowledges

Some Background, Perspectives & Historical Context

(this is from an old paper i wrote a long time ago. I almost deleted it but remembered how many of you lovely strangers found it useful and told me so. It was originally published on here as a “page” but i’m decluttering and thought I’d move it.  Sorry for losing all the previous comments! I’m not tech savvy enough to figure out how to convert from page to post without losing the comments… :S) 

Reflexivity can be understood as the constant awareness and assessment of an anthropologist regarding his or her own contribution and influence on research and the consequent findings.   Philip Carl Salzman provides a brief recent history of reflexivity in his critique of the concept.  According to Salzman (2002), the concept of reflexivity began developing in the 1960s and 1970s, and became popular in the 1980s and 1990s, when reflexivity began to be widely accepted and was frequently evident in the works of anthropologists.  The value of reflexivity in anthropology has become widely accepted in the past two decades.  Robertson (2002) also notes that reflexivity is now commonplace.

Bob Scholte, in Toward a Reflexive and Critical Anthropology, argues for the use of reflexivity on the basis that anthropology is never only scientific, but always has presuppositions regarding culture.  He argues that we must subject scientific traditions to “further reflexive understanding, hermeneutic mediation, and philosophical critique.” (Scholte 1972:431)  Scholte (1972) also saw reflexivity as part of a paradigm shift: from a scientific to interpretive approach, from objectivist to relativist, and from value neutrality to normative interests.

A number of researchers claim that reflexivity allows better research. In her classic ethnography, Never in Anger: Portrait of an Eskimo Family, Jean Briggs (1970), argues that observing and thinking about her own feelings, assumptions, personality, and actions have been invaluable sources of data.  Salzman (2002) agrees with Briggs, in that reflexively considering ones own feelings and reactions will give impressions and ideas about the happenings in the societies being studied.  Renato Rosaldo (2000), in his work on grief in headhunting societies notes that reflexivity provides insight into emotions that are not available by observations or other means.   In addition to the benefits of reflexivity in research, it also has benefits for the listener or reader.  Salzman (2002) has pointed out that reflexivity provides the listener or reader of ethnographic reports with the necessary information for assessing their validity: the reader can see the angle and viewpoints from which the research was conducted.

Ways of knowing: Objectivity, Subjectivities, Positionality…Some Definitions.

(Skip to “Shifting Subjectivities & Situated Knowledges” if you already know all this.)

Objectivism is the philosophical doctrine that knowledge is reliably based on observations of an objective, external reality.  Empiricism is simply the doctrine that knowledge is derived from sensory experience.  Realism is the doctrine that the existence of objects perceived in the external world is independent of one’s perception of these objects.  Positivism is a form of empiricism, in which all knowledge should be based on perceptual experience rather than intuition or revelation.  In terms of language, for objectivists/modernists, language is simply a system for transmitting real knowledge about the external word (Baker 1990).

Douglas Kellner (1999), in summarizing the debates between modern and postmodern theory, has described postmodernism as challenging the modern conceptions of society, history, and politics, and as advocating new approaches, discourses and practices.  He describes postmodern as contested terrain, or as ‘a force-field of struggle between those who would define and occupy it, and those who would discredit or demolish it.’ (Kellner 1999:639)  Kellner (1999) and Salzman (2004) describe postmodern theory as dedicated to such concepts as epistemological relativism, perspectivism, positionality, subjectivity, and moral and political commitment.  Baker (1990) in his discussion of postmodernist epistemology and the postmodern condition also mentions one other consideration in terms of epistemology: the relationship between language and knowledge.

Epistemology is the study the origin, nature, methods, and limits of human knowledge, and as such, epistemological relativism indicates the belief that knowledge is relative, and as such, there can be no absolute truth. Adherents to epistemological relativism hold that there is no one universal truth that can be known objectively as inherent in some external world, but rather, truth is relative.

One other aspect of epistemology is postmodern theory is the relationship between language and knowledge. Baker (1990) discusses the place of rhetoric in postmodern theory, stating that in the postmodern perspective, language determines knowledge.  Language is not seen for many postmodernists as symbols that convey an exterior truth, but rather that the origins of knowledge can be found in acts of naming by humans.  In this way social reality is thus seen as constructed by humans symbolically (Baker 1990).  Baker states, “Therefore humans enact or construct truth rhetorically through persuasive symbolic action at the individual, social, and cultural levels, both in the moment and across epochs” (Baker 1990: 233).

Perspectivism is related to epistemological relativism, and can be traced back to Nietzsche. Briefly, perspectivism is the doctrine that there is no one absolute truth, and reality is best known through as many perspectives, or points of view as possible.

Shifting Subjectivities & Situated Knowledges

Positionality is the practice of a writer or theorist delineating his or her own position in relation to the study, with the implication that this position may influence aspects of the study, such as the types of information collected, or the way in which it is interpreted.  Positionality has been criticized as using general characteristics, such as gender, religion, class, or race—characteristics that may or may not say much about the actual perspective of any particular individual (Salzman 2002).  Others argue for the usefulness of positionality.  For example, Robertson, though she is critical of positionality as generic fixed categories, or as “ready to wear” products of identity politics (2002:788), also states that:

“Family history, ethnicity, sexuality, disability, and religion, among other distinctions, can be usefully woven into an ethnographic narrative, but only if they are not left self-evident as essentialized qualities that are magically synonymous with self-consciousness, or, for that matter, with intellectual engagement and theoretical rigour.  Their usefulness must be articulated and demonstrated because such distinctions are not fixed points but emerge and shift in the contiguous processes of doing and writing about fieldwork.” (Robertson 2002: 790)

In other words, then, positionality is only useful if one’s position is reflected upon, and articulated with respect to its influence in terms of fieldwork.

Feminist scholarship builds on the debate about positionality and the usefulness of using fixed, essentialized markers to delineate how one’s position influences the production of knowledge.  I find Donna Haraway’s “politics and epistemology of locations” particularly useful (1991:195).  Diane Wolf has the clearest and most concise summary of this that I have ever read, so I won’t bother to paraphrase:

This politics and epistemology is based on situating, location, and positioning, “where partiality and not universality” is the basis for knowledge claims. “Situated knowledges” are “marked knowledges” that produce “maps of consciousness” reflecting the various categories of gender, class, race, and nationality of the researcher (Haraway, 1991:111).  They reflect our locationality (historical, national, generational) and positionality (race, gender, class, nationality, sexuality), acknowledging how the dynamics of where we are always affects our viewpoint and the production of knowledge without privileging one particular position over another…Our positionality is not fixed, but relational, a “constantly moving context that constitutes our reality and the place from which values are interpreted and constructed” (Geiger, 1990, 171).“Feminist objectivity is about limited location and situated knowledge” (Haraway 1991: 188), which allows for a multiplicity of viewpoints.  This perspective not only allows and encourages feminist researchers to bring their own particular location and position into the research, but makes it imperative for them to do so before any discussion of another’s reality can be introduced (see Bhavnani, 1991:97-98).  This approach goes beyond…and encourages us to think in terms of multiple perspectives and mobile subjectivities, of forging collaborations and alliances and juxtaposing different viewpoints.  (Wolf 1996, 14-15)

Wicked, Serenity, & Silencing Colonial Pasts

Right now I’m working on my comprehensive exams, which, in anthropology, involves a few big giant papers exploring some theoretical concerns that will be relevant to the eventual field research.  My question has to do with looking at how anthropologists and their interlocutors have explored the silencing of colonial/imperial pasts.  (to be finalized next week, fingers crossed)

On a related note, last month I rewatched Firefly & Serenity, and I came to realize that maybe the reason I like it so much (besides amazing space-cowboy-pirates, c’mon) is that it resonates completely with the big questions that seem to be at the root of my academic and organizing inquisitiveness.  So I wrote a thing, teasing out those connections.  I’m hoping it can be part of the introduction to my comp, maybe.  Either way, it felt good to write it.


“Half of writing history is hiding the truth.” –Captain Malcolm Reynalds, Serenity/Firefly

“[Where] I Come From, We Believe All Sorts Of Things That Aren’t True. We Call It History.”
— The Wizard of Oz, Wicked (the musical)

Anthropologist Camilla Gibb describes writing fiction as a means for exploring truths that she was never able to express through ethnography—truths about her feelings and experiences during fieldwork in Ethiopia that when left unsaid caused her to become undone.  Diane Nelson takes up the use of fiction within her anthropological work, exploring her theoretical concerns through a number of popular culture examples in her examination of Guatemalan postwar politics. She elaborates on the plots and implications of a number of popular films and television shows as “good to think with”, as helpful in allowing her to elaborate on arguments, concerns and theory.  It is with this rationale in mind that I beg the patience of the reader as I briefly discuss two fictions that I believe will help to illustrate my theoretical concerns before diving into anthropological theory with respect to the production of historical truths and silences.

Fiction can be a useful tool for disrupting what we think we know, for illustrating truths inexpressible through other means, as well as providing us additional tools with which to think.  It is with this in mind that I turn the Wizard of Oz, or, more specifically, to Gregory MaGuire’s retelling of this familiar story through the perspective of the Wicked Witch of the West.

Assuming you know the plot of the more familiar version of this story, I begin with questions.  What happens we come to understand the happenings in Oz from the perspective of Elphaba? When we come to understand the Wicked Witch as not only the visibly marked (green), subversive (and wicked) Other, but when we come to know her name, feelings, actions, and motivations? What happens when we come to understand how and why it is that Elphaba and her comrades chose to rebel against the dominant order in Oz, or that they rebelled at all?  As we read how Elphaba is slandered by those in power in Oz, how her perspective comes to be distorted, depoliticized, and erased, and her very personhood comes to be delegitimized—how does this affect how we understand the process by which a given history becomes the dominant history, and whereby another comes to be muted, or silenced?

Moving away from revised retellings of familiar childhood stories, and into the realm of dystopian science fiction, another example that helps to illustrate my theoretical concerns is that of Joss Whedon’s Serenity/Firefly. The crew of Serenity seeks to discover why it is that the Alliance[1] has, through painful and nonconsensual means, experimented with and altered the brain of a brilliant young girl, River Tam, thereby turning her into a psychic, a potentially dangerous weapon, and leaving her psychologically scarred and fixated on something called ‘Miranda’.  [SPOILER ALERT].  Official Alliance histories would have us believe that Miranda, a previously terraformed planet in the outer rim of the universe, had been abandoned due to war or some sort of natural disaster.  The crew of Serenity, after a suspenseful and dangerous journey through Reaver territory to reach Miranda, discover otherwise.  On Miranda they find a planet in which it appears as though everyone has simply laid down in the midst of their daily tasks, and have ceased moving, breathing, living.  There was no war, no natural disaster.

Upon further exploration, the crew finds a recording left by an alliance official before her inevitable demise.  In this recording, she explains how an official plan for calming and subduing the population has gone terribly awry.  The Alliance had introduced a drug into the air supply with the intent of creating a more calm and compliant population.  This drug ultimately caused 90% of the population to stop everything altogether—not just conflict and animosity, but breathing, living. In the remaining 10% of the population, the drug intensified aggression, turning the survivors into the sort of monsters of which myths are made.  They became Reavers.

“Half of writing history is hiding the truth,” Captain Malcolm Reynalds observed as they set their course for Miranda, to discover the secrets the Alliance had been so intent on keeping through destroying River Tam and the rest of the crew of Serenity.


These examples are fiction, but in these stories, I see truths.  These stories resonate with my own research concerns, and they remind me of processes on this planet that serve to mute, hide, or erase uncomfortable pasts while other histories are emphasized, and become dominant.  I think of patronizing ideologies of colonial governing bodies that treat indigenous populations as dependent wards.  These stories remind of me official interference with the bodies of colonial subjects.  I think of experimental, biological, and pharmacological means of subduing troublesome populations in rarely spoken about histories on Earth[2].  These fictions point me toward truths, truths that have little play in dominant histories in the places that I live, breathe and work.  They illustrate the processes by which certain stories become dominant while others come to be silenced.

It is with this in mind that I turn to exploring how anthropologists and their interlocutors have examined processes by which imperial and colonial pasts come to be silenced. (in real life)

[to be written…]

[1] Dominant interplanetary governing body

[2] Small pox, tuberculosis, residential schools, enforced sterilization of Native women in Canada and the United States.  All those experiments that make up what has broadly been termed ‘scientific racism’ on the bodies of black women.  These are the examples that immediately come to mind, though there are many, many more.

Gluten Free Savory Muffins…Cheddar, Kale & Sundried Tomato

I came up with this recipe trying to imitate the delicious cheddary muffin things at a coffeeshop near my house.  It’s so torturous to walk past all sorts of delicious bakeries everyday, and know that if I succumb to my desires I’ll be poisoned by evil yet delectable gluten.  I also can’t do corn.  Or sugar.  So baking presents some challenges.  My housemate assures me, however, that these particular muffins are even MORE delicious than the muffins that inspired them. Warning: they are super labour intensive.  Only make them if you’re feeling patient enough for all the chopping, grating and sautéing, as well as the usual measuring, mixing and baking.

Step 1: Sauté veggies

First, you sauté some veggies, which you will then put in the muffins.  Onions and garlic are pretty key.  Other than that, there’s a lot of flexibility.  The first time I made them, I used grated zucchini and chopped up broccoli.  The zucchini allowed for lots of lovely moisture, which can sometimes be tricky with gluten free baking—gluten free stuff dries out faster.  This morning I made them with kale and sundried tomatoes.  Delicious both times. I can’t give you exact measurements for this part ’cause I didn’t measure anything–you’ll have to experiment with what you have on hand, and also with the proportions.  I used 1 onion, 5 cloves of garlic, 1 zucchini and about a cup of broccoli the first time.

Step 2: Mix up the dry stuff

1 ¼ cup potato starch

1 cup brown rice or sorghum flour

½ cup quinoa flakes

½ tsp baking soda

½ tsp sea salt

1 tsp guar gum

1 tsp basil

1tsp oregano

Step 4: Mix the wet stuff

½ cup oil

1 cup yogurt or sour cream

2 tsp maple syrup or agave

2 eggs

Also, 1 cup of grated cheddar cheese

Mix wet and dry stuff together.  Scoop into muffin pan.  Cook for about 40 mins at 350F.

Consume, adore, enjoy.

Film Screening & Discussion: Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance

Film Screening & Discussion: Kanehsatake: 270 Years of Resistance

Monday July 25th 6-9pm

Skydragon Centre: 27 King William St. Hamilton



Alanis Obomsawin’s award winning documentary about the 1990 Oka Crisis, featuring in depth footage of the 78 day standoff involving Mohawks, Police & Military, as well as background to the standoff, including treaties, agreements, and the history of land appropriation.

The screening of this documentary follows last term’s screening of Sewatokwa-tshera’t: The Dish With One Spoon, by Dr Dawn Martin-Hill, regarding Six Nations land reclamation at Kanonhstaton/Caledonia.

In our discussion we will consider colonialism, land expropriation, blacklash, racism, and the role of the police and military in Indigenous land occupations, as well as the roles and reactions of government officials and non-Native neighbouring communities, paying attention to the continuity and consistency with recent, ongoing, and contemporary struggles for indigenous land and sovereignty.

It is my hope that by recognizing these connections we can better understand contemporary struggles and how to move forward, rooted in a critical understanding of colonial histories and ongoing injustices.

This film screening is brought to you by Hamiton FreeSkool’s Practical Solidarity, and the Hamilton Centre for Teaching Peace as part of Edu-Macation Mondays.

For more information about this event or additional Practical Solidarity events contact Niki:

Film Screening: The Dish With One Spoon –Feb 25th

The Hamilton Centre for Teaching Peace & Hamilton FreeSkool’s Practical Solidarity present

Film Screening, Discussion & Art Making: 5th Anniversary of the Reclamation at Kanonhstaton

What: Showing of Sewatokwa’tshera’t: The Dish With One Spoon, Dr. Dawn Martin-Hill’s documentary regarding Six Nations land reclamation at Kanonhstaton/Caledonia

When: Friday, February 25, 2011 at 7:30pm

Where: The Skydragon Centre (27 King William St, Hamilton)

On February 25th, just a few days prior to the fifth anniversary of the reclamation of Kanonhstaton, join us for a discussion, art making, and a screening of Dr. Dawn Martin-Hill’s documentary, entitled Sewatokwa’tshera’t: The Dish With One Spoon.


On February 28th, 2006, in response to continuing encroachment of land, and after beginning with an informational campaign, a group of people from Six Nations blocked the development of the Douglas Creek Estates subdivision and reclaimed Kanonhstaton (loosely translated as “the protected place”).  The reclamation was followed by racist backlash, often rooted in a refusal to acknowledge Six Nations rights to the land, and the history of land claims on the Haldimand tract.  This documentary explores the history, events of the reclamation, the OPP raid, as well as backlash and racism.  The documentary will begin at 7:30, followed by questions and discussion, including a discussion of the current context of the reclamation and state of land claims on the Haldimand Tract, settler solidarity, and announcements regarding anniversary events in Caledonia and at the reclamation site.  Following the discussion, there will be opportunity for making art for these events (materials provided).

For more information about this event contact Niki Thorne (


Conceptualizing and Illustrating the Workings of Race as a Discourse: Angry White Men, Anxiety, Masculinity, and Anti-Land Claims Activism

A rough draft of a course paper.  Comments welcome esp. with regard to clarity. Plan on handing this in tonight.  Sources are from the 90’s, as I needed to stick with reflecting on what we’ve read in the class.

By Niki Thorne for Anthropology 5175: Discourses of Race & Racist Discourses


In this paper, I work through some beginning ideas about the workings of race as a discourse, in at attempt to illustrate the grids of intelligibility that run through self-stylized civil rights discourse that is in opposition to land claims activism.  I also discuss the performance of these discourses in terms of representations of Native bodies and constructions of white (male) identities. In conceptualizing this paper as a response or reflection on our course readings, I have found it interesting and productive to bring in some thoughts on how certain course readings have enabled re-thinking of issues within my field site.

By way of introduction, since Six Nations’ reclamation/occupation of Kanonhstaton/Douglas Creek Estates almost five years ago I have been grappling with understanding the reactions, responses and backlash of many Caledonians, politicians, and other white (hegemonic, “unmarked”) Canadians.[1] In the months following the reclamation, hundreds of (white) people gathered in weekly opposition to direct action at Six Nations, singing the national anthem, waving Canadian flags, holding signs and chanting, separated from the reclamation site by police lines. Some warmed their hands over barrels of fire while chanting “Burn, Natives, Burn” while others held signs that said “What would John Wayne do?”  These first rallies brought to mind the old frontier towns depicted in American Western films.

In the months and years following, there have been shifts in the reactions, responses and rhetoric to Six Nations direct action, what Ali Rattansi has called “complex and ever-changing reconfigurations” (1994:56). Ruth Frankenberg (1997:16) talks about white patriot and militia movements and their “eery resonance with more “mainstream” white fears and fantasies” as well as ways in which racism is sometimes explicit while at other times it becomes recoded in nationalist and cultural terms.  I have continuously found myself bewildered by the manner in which common public discourse around these issues negates colonialism, racism and deep seated epistemic violence while convincingly remaking (white) small town citizens into ‘helpless victims’ of ‘land-claims terrorism’ perpetuated by ‘violent’, ‘dangerous’ Natives while calling for ‘rule of law’ and erasing all historicity.[2] For example, many of the self stylized “civil rights activists” involved in organizing against Six Nations land claims in and around Caledonia reference Native lawlessness, terrorism, and the fear of Caledonia townspeople. See, for example, Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford’s book about Caledonia entitled “Helpless: Caledonia’s Nightmare of Fear and Anarchy, and How the Law Failed Us All.”

Gary McHale, editor of Caledonia Wake Up Call and cofounder of CANACE (“Canadian Advocates for Charter Equality”) describes himself as “a full time Civil Rights Advocate working to stop violence and the OPP [Ontario Provincial Police] racially based policing during Aboriginal land claims.” [source?]. McHale also served as spokesperson for the Caledonia “Militia”, later renamed the Caledonia “Peacekeepers”, before running for mayor.

I have written more extensively about the history of land expropriation and resistance at Six Nations, as well as the backlash and discourses elsewhere[3], but I always feel as though my analysis is never quite complete, and as though I am always missing something about the ways in which civil rights discourses are mobilized and transformed to make claims of white vicitimhood.  Rattansi discusses these mobilizations and transformations in the context of the Ku Klux Klan, the British extreme right, British popular culture and British National party statements, in terms of how racializing exclusionary discourses can take anti-racist language and principles and egalitarian appeals, becoming “transmuted into a defence of the rights of white cultures…conjoined with claims that the real problem is that whites have become ‘second-class citizens’ in their own countries” (1994:56).  Furthermore, Frankenberg states that “notions of race are closely linked to ideas about legitimate “ownership” of the nation, with “whiteness” and “Americanness” linked tightly together” (1997:6).  This statement seems applicable to all settler nations, including Canada.  Further, Frankenberg cites the “repressed memory of the brownness of he original residents of this land…and of the immigrant origins of white United Statesians” (1997:6).  In terms of silencing the violence of settlers (i.e. in the westward expansion in North America, in the transformation of slaves), Frankenberg points to “a morass of erasures, inversions, distortions, and partial namings of actual historical and sociocultural processes” (1997:15).

In order to illustrate the workings of race as a discourse, and grids of intelligibility as well as representations and identity, I focus on trying to understand angry white men and anti-land claims activism, paying particular attention to anxiety and white masculinity.  For this discussion, I draw from Anne McClintock and Judith Butler to talk about racial anxiety, as well as from Ali Rattansi to discuss anxiety and attraction, and constructions of masculinity and femininity. I also draw extensively from David Wellman’s piece about performance of white masculinity in terms of minstrel shows and affirmative action.  In addition to being about race and racial imagination, Wellman argues that minstrelsy addressed white America, and that it “provided an opportunity for white, heterosexual, male American identities to be fashioned and expressed…Minstrelsy linked global political-economic forces to the everyday experiences of white (male) Americans.  The minstrel show soothed white anxieties, they reassured white men who they were not: not black, not slave, not gay” (Wellman 1997:312).  Wellman discusses anti-affirmative action and the language of “fairness,” “colour-blindness,” and “meritocracy” as another way of constructing and expressing white male identity.  Performing this language “assures white men who they are not: not unqualified recipients of unfair advantage, not responsible for past racial injustices, not beneficiaries of government assistance” (Wellman 1997:313).  Wellman’s analysis of anti-affirmative action discourse as a performance that soothes white anxieties is suggestive of how to think about anti-land claim narratives.  These narratives are framed in the language of special rights, i.e. with regards to tax status, and rule of law, claiming that Natives are given preferential treatment.  Like Wellman’s examples, these narratives are full of distortions and misrepresentations in which data, facts, and histories of colonialism, dispossession and exploitation are ignored: “Assertion substitutes for argumentation; anecdotes pretend to be systematic evidence; mystification masquerades as social science; and fantasy is treated as truth.  It is a remarkable performance” (Wellman 1997:313).


Part 1: Whiteness & Anxiety

Before discussing ideas on how contemporary forms of minstrelsy function in terms of white identity and racialized representation as well as soothing white anxieties, I think it is productive to first discuss racialization and anxiety in more general terms.  A number of the authors that we have read this term have cited the role of fear, chaos, paranoia, and anxiety as critical to the success and prevalence of projects related to processes of racialization and racism.  In this section, I use ideas around anxiety and racist structuring of perception to help illustrate grids of intelligibility with respect to constructions of Natives as violent and threatening as well as to understand constructions of white victimhood, and Caledonians in need of protection from violent Native intentionality.  First, however, a few notes about theorizing whiteness.

In terms of anxiety and racialization, Frankenberg cites American fears of immigration, tensions about places of origin, and fears that whites will be culturally and linguistically overwhelmed, with some places of origin, cultures and languages perceived as more threatening than others.  Anne McClintock points to the significance of uncertainty and threat, but in the rise of soap as a fetish commodity during imperial expansion, and its role in the maintenance of racial boundaries. In “Soft-Soaping Empire: Commodity Racism and Imperial Advertising,” McClintock discusses soap as a fetish within the cult of domesticity that persuasively mediates “the Victorian poetics of racial hygiene and imperial progress” (1995:209) and is “central to industrial modernity, inhabiting and mediating the uncertain threshold zones between domesticity and industry, metropolis and empire” (1995:210).  As a commodity representing social value, soap did not flourish when colonialism was at its peak, but rather through uncertainty, through “an era of impeding crisis and social calamity, serving to preserve, through fetish ritual, the uncertain boundaries of class, gender and race identity in a social order felt to be threatened by the fetid effluvia of the slums, the belching smoke of industry, social agitation, economic upheaval, imperial competition and anticolonial resistance” (1995:211). Fascination with clean white bodies and the consumption of soap acted as a fetish ritual to preserve threatened order: “soap took shape as a technology of social purification, inextricably entwined with the semiotics of imperial racism and class denigration” (1995:212).  This illustrates the importance of anxiety and fear in the construction and maintenance of racial difference.

Judith Butler draws on notions of white paranoia and anxiety to make sense of violence and racialization, namely, how the video of the beating of Rodney King was used by defense attorneys representing the police as evidence that Rodney King was dangerous.  In “Endangered/Endangering: Schematic Racism and White Paranoia”, Butler discusses how “what many took to be incontrovertible evidence against the police was presented instead to establish police vulnerability, that is, to support the contention that Rodney King was endangering the police” (1993:15).  Butler takes up the question of how this feat of interpretation was achieved.  According to Butler, “that it was achieved is not the consequence of ignoring the video, but, rather, of reproducing the video within a racially saturated field of visibility” (1993:13).  Butler insists that racism pervades and structures white perception.  From multiple interpretations–i.e. a position that sees Rodney King brutally beaten by the police and another that sees him as dangerous and threatening the police–emerges “a contest within the visual field, a crisis in the certainty of what is visible,” produced through “the inverted projections of white paranoia” (1993:16).[4] This “seeing” is actually reading—“culled, cultivated, regulated—indeed, policed—in the course of the trial.  This is not a simple seeing, an act of direct perception, but the racial production of the visible” (Butler 1993:16).  Butler argues that the visual field “is itself a racial formation, an episteme, hegemonic and forceful” (1993:17).

Butler references Franz Fannon’s description of how the black male body is constituted through fear, naming and seeing. She calls this a racist interpellation in which the black body is circumscribed as dangerous while the white body is infantilized as helpless and in need of protection.  Furthermore, “within this imaginary schema, the police protect whiteness, their own violence cannot be read as violence; because the black male body, prior to any video, is the site and source of danger, a threat, the police effort to subdue this body, even if in advance, is justified regardless of the circumstances” (Butler 1993:18).  In this racist episteme, Rodney King is hit for blows he did not deliver, what Butler calls the splitting off of violent intentionality, which is then reproduced through the racist pedagogy of the defense attorneys.  Through the trial, jurors identify through white paranoia with a white community that is protected by the police from this violent intentionality: “Attributing violence to the object of violence is part of the very mechanism that recapitulates violence, and that makes the jury’s “seeing” into a complicity with that police violence” (Butler 1993:20).

Rather than reading only this “event” in terms of violence, Butler argues for the reading of “the racist schema that orchestrates and interprets the event, which splits the violent intention off from the body who wields it and attributes it to the body who receives it” (1993:20). This reading points to implications beyond Rodney King regarding police and state violence against the racialized other in terms of the intensification of police violence against people of colour and the repeated exoneration of police and state.

Thus, Butler provides an interesting and productive (and enraging) lens for understanding how, through the pervasiveness of racism that structures white perception, anxiety and paranoia lead to reading the black male body as a source of violence in contrast to white bodies in need of protection.  This article is good to think with in terms of grappling with some of the puzzling narratives that are bound up in my field site with respect calls for law and order, in which white Caledonians are framed as in need of protection by the OPP, RCMP and military, and Natives are read as violent terrorists.[5] For instance, on May 2nd, 2007, residents of Caledonia opposed to the ‘occupation’ of Douglas Creek Estates (Kanonhstaton), staged a slow moving convoy to Queen’s Park, rallying to encourage the provincial government to intervene and bring a stop to what some referred to as “land claims terrorism”.  I brought a video camera and recorded some of the speeches.  Craig Grice, a member of the Haldimand council, received much support as he addressed the gathered crowd. According to Grice, “The people of Ontario and the nation need to recognize that we have witnessed police inaction and been subjected to acts that have caused a very real sense of community panic.”  He spoke about the “threat” of blockades, the “anguish” of community members. He questioned “the reliability of the police to protect us” and  to much cheering said, “Truly stated the residents of Caledonia are the victims…we must be allowed to return to our lives, free of intimidation and immediate concern for family safety.” Marie Trainer, mayor of Caledonia until this past October, performed a similar narrative, appealing for the safety of the children: “People of Caledonia need normalcy back in their lives.  Children need to be able to splash in their backyard pools and camp out in their tents and the sixth line needs policing.”  Trainer spoke of the “fear, intimidation, helplessness” of the Caledonians.  It is worth noting that the reclamation of Kanonhstaton was unarmed, supported by the clan mothers, and led by the women, beginning with information pickets months before stopping construction.  This sort of information, however, has often been ignored through racist episteme that structures much of white perception and paranoia with regards to the reclamation and blockades.


Part 2: Whiteness, Anxiety& Minstrelsy: Performance of Race, Masculinity & Identity

Wellman provides further analytical tools for thinking about how narratives of white victimhood and accusations of special rights are performed by white Caledonians, politicians and journalists.  Before getting into the specifics of this, it may be useful to talk more generally about whiteness and identity, drawing from Ali Rattansi with regards to the formation of Western identities as well as the sexualization and gendering of colonial discourse.

Rattansi discusses how ‘Western’ identities have continually been formed through relations and encounters (whether actual or imagined) with non-Western Others of modernity.  In particular, Rattansi (1994:36) argues that:

it has become increasingly clear how the formation of ‘Western’ identities has been a process profoundly shaped by European encounters with those other ‘Others’, met, pillaged and subjugated during voyages of ‘discovery’.  The ‘discoveries’ the West made were as much discoveries, and productions, of itself as of the people and lands encountered.

Rattansi also discusses fantasies and anxieties, repulsion and desire, for example, about  ‘mythic figures, and ‘monstrous races’, “invested with lascivious sexuality and extraordinary sexual powers” (1994:43).  Fears of ‘miscengenation’ fed into anxieties about racial degeneration, which were in turn underpinned by discourses of eugenics as well as class discourses about codes of breeding.  These discourses constructed white women as the reproducers of the race, mothers who belonged in the domestic sphere.  Rattansi also discusses “the selective effeminization of the non-European Others, and their spaces, legitimating their penetration, appropriation and subjugation (a discourse which often overlapped with their infantilization)” (1994:44).  This selective effeminization of the Other is quite paradoxical.  For example, Christopher Looby argues that normative white manhood depends on a complex set of projected fantasies, for which the Black man serves as the contradictory other. According to Looby (1997:71):

Black males, in white cultural discourses, are often feminized by virtue of their status subordination and by a host of racist denegations (stereotypes of childishness, simplemindedness, etc.), but at the same time, paradoxically, a hyperbolic masculinity is attributed to them by virtue of their mythic investment with phallic enormity, savage and uncontrollable lusts, and so forth.  This complex of projective fantasies, an imputed combination of masculine lack and masculine excess, constructs the black man as the contradictory Other of white masculine identity.

According to Rattansi, “constructions and representations of masculinity and femininity were part of a process of cultural and political reconstruction of sexual difference both at ‘home’ and in the colonies, displaying the very complex interplay between the formations of ‘the West’ and ‘the Rest’” (1994:44-45).  Furthermore, according to Rattansi (1994:45):

The masculinism of the imperial project enabled a reinforcement of the construction of middle-class English women as chaste, frail and in need of protection, a representation which in the colonies and at home could be played off both against the sexually predatory native and the sexually available ‘native’ woman…Moreover, the supposed threat to the white woman in the colonies enabled a legitimation of some of the most repressive measures against ‘natives’, usually at moments when colonial authority seemed particularly vulnerable.

Thus, Rattansi points out how imperial constructions of masculinity enabled the reinforcement of ideas about a certain kind of middle class English woman, and how the supposed threat towards these white women enabled the legitimation of repression against ‘natives,’ showing the formative influence of actual and imagined Others on imperial culture as a whole. [6] Another way to think about this is to consider how the performance of certain kinds of discourses (such as anti-affirmative action discourses or anti-land claims discourses) engage simultaneously in the process of racializing the other while constructing identity in opposition to this exaggerated and distorted difference.

Ruth Frankenberg cites the tremendous risks of failing to critically engage whiteness, including the continued failure to displace it in terms of its status as an unmarked marker.  Furthermore, “to leave whiteness unexamined is to perpetuate a kind of asymmetry that has marred even many critical analyses of racial formation and cultural practice” (1997:1). Authors involved in conceptualizing whiteness seek to displace it, resituate, and reemplace it.  Whiteness is conceptualized as a process which is plural in nature, as “ensembles of local phenomena complexly embedded in socioeconomic, sociocultural, and psychic interrelations” (1997:1).  As a process, whiteness is historically constructed and internally differentiated, contested, and contestable.  Further, according to Frankenberg, “whiteness must be viewed both as emergent from multivalent historical processes and through multiple dynamics of alterity” (1997:4). Frankenberg also notes the “fundamental coconstitution of whiteness and racial domination” (1997:4).  She emphasizes the making of whiteness: “to view whiteness as “unmarked marker,” as empty signifier, is to universalize a particular, and rather recent, historical moment” (Frankenberg 1997:15).  Rather, “whiteness is always constructed, always in the process of being made and unmade.  Indeed, its characterization as unmarked marker is itself an “ideological” effect that seeks to cover the tracks of its constructedness, specificity, and localness, even as they appear” (Frankenberg 1997:16).  Whiteness is always in the process of being made, rather than self-evident.  Furthemore, Frankenberg discusses “the marking of putative others—constituted by means, again, of race, culture, or nation—as sites for the resolution of contradictions faced by white selves, sites onto which that which is feared or desired may be displaced” (1997:10).  Significantly, “whiteness makes itself invisible precisely by asserting its normalcy, its transparency, in contrast with the marking of others on which its transparency depends” (Frankenberg 1997:6).

Wellman’s “Minstrel Shows, Affirmative Action Talk, and Angry White Men: Marking Racial Otherness in the 1990s,” focuses on a discussion of anti-affirmative action narratives as minstrelsy, which soothes white anxieties and serves as another way to construct and express white identity.  According to Wellman, the “audience members” of this minstrelsy (i.e. white people, men in particular) “have constructed identities for themselves based on narratives of perseverance, toughness, independence, and self-help” (Wellman 1997:318).  Wellman also discusses the figures who give credible performances of this minstrelsy: Figures who, through scientific sounding discourse and earnest, measured, authoritative tones, invoke the historical “record”, weaving together “the necessary symbolic and discursive elements” to make the performance credible (Wellman 1997:318).  According to Wellman, “The performance is so well executed that very few people detect the distortions, manipulations, and omissions necessary to make it believable” (1997:318).

But, as Wellman states, “The gap between myth and reality is not surprising when one realizes that anti-affirmative action talk is minstrelsy, not serious intellectual political discourse.  The traditional minstrelsy is not about facts or scholarly evidence.  And neither is its contemporary counterpart” (Wellman 1997:319). According to Wellman, this minstrel show is not just about the facts performed in the skits.  Rather, other unacknowledged issues are at stake: economic and cultural dislocations, such as increasing economic inequality, fiscal mismanagement, layoffs.  Moreover, “None of the symbols, narratives, or imagery constructed by affirmative action discourse explains these troubles” (Wellman 1997:320).  But, as Wellman (1997:321) notes,

that’s not what the talk is supposed to do.  Like the earlier period when minstrelsy first emerged, economic and political dislocations are only one part of the story.  The other part is that national and personal identity issues were/are surfacing at the same time.  At the very moment when the political-economic landscape is being radically reconfigured in disturbing directions, whiteness and maleness are becoming increasingly visible and marked.  Thus, political-economic troubles are experienced as racial and gendered, rather than class, grievances.

Wellman discusses how categories of “white” and “male” have been taken for granted as “normal”, and how privileges have been experienced therefore as “normal” rather than as advantages.  If these advantages are challenged, they are defended.  According to Wellman, this defense is “not because they[the anti-affirmative action minstrels] are antiblack racists, but rather because they are defending normal, routine institutional practices, which, in their experiences, are racially neutral” (Wellman 1997:321).  Thus, Wellman (1997:321-322) states,

Given the European American experience—historically and sociologically—equal opportunity for people of colour feels like reverse discrimination.  Not because whites literally experience discrimination.  They don’t.  But because, until recently, “equal opportunity” meant that white male Americans faced virtually no competition from blacks and women.  That was “normal.” Normal used to mean exclusivity; it meant white and heterosexual male.

This suggests to me taken for granted, normalized privilege in terms of appropriating Native land.  Developers are told the questionable history and legally of the land they purchase, but nonetheless frequently go ahead with development.  The Canadian government does not negotiate the return of settled land.  Recent disruptions to what had been “normal” and “natural” rather than experienced as racial privilege (i.e. appropriation and development on contested land on the Haldimand Tract) feels uncomfortable and unnatural, i.e. like reverse discrimination, special rights, and so forth.  With these disruptions to exclusionary privilege, previously experienced as “normal” and “natural” many (white) Caledonians become upset and angry, feeling as though they are being treated unfairly.

As issues regarding what it means to be white and male become unsettled as whiteness and masculinity lose their status as unmarked categories, they become “either settled symbolically or deflected on the minstrel stage” (Wellman 1997:324).  Related to this, and not unlike Rattansi’s discussion about how imperial culture and identities are formed in relation to actual or imagined others of modernity, Wellman discusses how affirmative action discourse enables the production of new (male, white) social selves.  Wellman (1997:324) states:

Affirmative action enables Americans to fashion a new set of social selves; to construct whiteness and masculinity as not-affirmative action, or as the opposite of affirmative action.  The modern minstrels represent these new identities as being self-made, self-sufficient, self-reliant, independent, hard working, disciplined, and tough.  They mark white guys as guys to play by the rules, live by agreements (even when they are unfair), and don’t whine or complain.  They are stoic and autonomous.

This provides another lens for thinking about what might be going on with the performance of anti-land claims narratives.  In constructing Natives as undeserving recipients of welfare and as criminals (i.e. mayor Marie Trainer’s infamous welfare comment, signs at the April 28th 2006 townspeople protest of the blockade that read “We Agree With Marie” and “We work and pay taxes…How do you contribute”), outspoken (white) Caledonians construct themselves in opposition, as self-sufficient and hard working, and as playing by the rules.

Furthermore, Wellman (1997:324) states,

For white men, affirmative action discourse symbolically settles traumatic private troubles caused by public global-political dislocations.  It encourages them to feel superior.  Perhaps, at least in this discourse, they can assure themselves that despite the ravages of increased income inequality, loss of jobs, and the devaluation of whiteness and masculinity, they are still—unlike weaker affirmative action recipients—independent, in control, and in charge.  Real Men, the discourse tells them, don’t need affirmative action.

In this way, whiteness comes to be marked as not-affirmative action, while Black is constructed as affirmative action recipients: as dependent, undeserving and unqualified. There are compelling and suggestive links between this and the performance of anti-land claims narratives, in which white identity is performed and marked in opposition to constructions of Native racial difference.  Furthermore, as Frankenberg notes: “In examining whiteness, in seeking to account for its variable visibility, one must recognize how continual processes of slippage, condensation, and displacement among the constructs “race,” “nation,” and “culture” continue to “unmark” white people while consistently marking and racializing others” (1997:6).

[1] This was the topic of my undergraduate field research, under the supervision of Dr. Eva Mackey and funded by McMaster’s Experiential Education Department through an undergraduate student research award.

[2] See, for example Globe and Mail columnist Christie Blatchford’s new book entitled “Helpless: Caledonia’s Nightmare of Fear and Anarchy, and How the Law Failed All of Us”.  Blatchford repeatedly asserts that her book is not about land claims.

[3] I.e. on the Media Coop website, for Mayday Magazine, in Platforum, University of Victoria’s graduate student journal, and as the primary author of a forthcoming book chapter entitled “Oh Canada, Our Home on Native Land: Violence, Delegitimization and Dismissal of First Nations Rights to Land and Sovereignty”

[4] Butler uses the phrase white paranoia not to describe totalizing ways of seeing, but as theoretical hyperboles for an aggressive counter-reading.

[5] I have much more data to draw from in relating this, but I left a fair bit out in order to try and stay focused on the readings/theory.  I also found Butler’s discussion good to think through in terms of other events of this past year.  I.e. the death of Junior Manon by the 52 division police.  I also find myself wondering about separating the pieces about violent intentionality from racially structured field of perception to think about police and state violence during the G20.

[6] Andrea Smith makes arguments along these lines in her book “Conquest: Sexual Violence and the American Indian Genocide”.  I’m compelled to quote her here, but am resisting the temptation and trying not to turn this into a research paper…As per the instructions…which  I am mostly trying to follow…