Great White Father knows best: On privilege, power and Chief Spence's hunger strike

| January 24, 2013
Photo: Regina Southwind

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Imagine, if you will, that there was a white man born of wealth and privilege sitting beside Rosa Parks on the bus that momentous first day of December in 1955. Let us suppose for a moment that like many others he was disgusted by the treatment of blacks in Montgomery, Alabama, and that he wanted nothing more than to witness the end of racial segregation.

Imagine that he nevertheless counselled Rosa Parks in that moment to give up the righteous position she had taken up -- to relinquish her seat and conclude her protest. Maybe it was so that Parks would have the energy to fight another day, or fight in more effective ways.

It doesn't matter. Like the white clergymen who were sympathetic to Martin Luther King but advised him not to protest in Birmingham lest he provoke the ire of an angry public, we recognize that this man has misjudged his responsibilities.

But how obscene is this proposition, that a privileged white man would seek to advise those in marginalized communities to 'give up their seat' of protest. How heedless and insensitive, not to mention (given the benefit of historical hindsight) tactically misguided? Martin Luther King wrote in his rebuke of the concerned white clergymen – the now famous 'Letter from Birmingham Jail' -- that the counsel of sympathetic but prudent 'white moderates' was more of an impediment to progress than the jeers of ardent racists.

King understood that the Civil Rights movement was not at its core a public relations battle, but rather a Constitutional struggle. Public opinion of King and his protest tactics got worse not better as the struggle progressed. As a result, sympathetic whites tried to direct King into 'more productive' channels. Productive for whom, we might ask.

Today, King's writing and activism have provided non-Indigenous people who wish to support the current Indigenous rights movement with keen lessons on our responsibilities.

Yet today we learn that another privileged group of white men, including politician Bob Rae, have been helping negotiate an end to Theresa Spence's fast. Presumably contented with her effectiveness thus far, Rae has been active in co-authoring this concluding chapter: "I've been involved for some time now in trying to allow Chief Spence to end her fast with dignity."

Entertain for a moment that the man from my opening example had intimated to the press that he had "been involved in allowing Rosa Parks to give up her seat with dignity." If there is one thing women around the world have learned, it's that if you want to do something with dignity it is best to consult a wealthy white man.

Let's be clear. Whether or not Spence, Parks, or King ultimately decided to end or to continue their protests is irrelevant to the problem of the privileged white male interloper. Nor does it matter how tenderly the wealthy gentleman asks a woman of colour to give up her seat, or how sympathetic a face he wears as he escorts her away. It doesn't even matter if they exerted a great deal of pressure.

We honour Spence's decision either way.

 What matters is that Rae and others who could be highly effective agents of change within dominant society at this moment have chosen instead to insert their 'expertise' into the circles of Indigenous decision-making. They have asserted themselves as agents and authors of an Indigenous moment and in doing so they have misjudged their duty to stand and educate among their own, or to sit beside the righteous in silent solidarity.


Tobold Rollo is a PhD Candidate in the Department of Political Science and the University of Toronto. He specializes in democratic theory and Canadian politics. 

Photo: Regina Southwind



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