Building Unlikely Alliances: An Interview with Andrea Smith

Andrea Smith is cofounder of the national organizations INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence and The Boarding School Healing Project. She is author of a number of books, including and Native Americans and the Christian Right: The Gendered Politics of Unlikely Alliances. She also co-edited the celebrated collection The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-Profit Industrial Complex. This interview was conducted by Sharmeen Khan, David Hugill, and Tyler McCreary in January 2010 while Smith was in Toronto giving a talk entitled “From Academic Freedom to Academic Abolitionism: Decolonizing the Academic-Industrial Complex” at Ryerson University.

You often talk about the need to have a broader vision that brings together the 95 percent of people not at the top of societal hierarchies. But that 95 percent is not homogenous. How can we negotiate some of the fractures that are tied to whiteness and class privilege?

Well, obviously it’s not easy. I find it helpful if you start from the framework that everybody is a potential ally. It changes the way you do organizing and it makes a difference.

I’ll give an example from when I was involved with the spearfishing struggle in northern Wisconsin. When the Chippewa had their rights to hunt and fish recognized by the state of Wisconsin, all of these local, white, racist mobs would gather around and shoot at them. They would say things like, “Save a fish, spear a squaw.” It was very easy to see these people as the enemy. And when you see them as the enemy, you are not trying to engage in dialogue with them, you are trying to defeat them. But one of the key organizers said, “Wait, they are not the enemy. They might be shooting at us now but ultimately the enemy is Exxon. Exxon is probably funding these groups.”

Previously, there had been a united Indian and non-Indian front against mining in the area, and this organizer thought that Exxon was probably funding these racist groups to divide the opposition so that no one would protest their mining ventures. So that’s why he developed a different strategy than I would have. He felt that we needed to de-escalate the violence because we wanted them to be our friends later on. He was right, and I was definitively wrong in that case, because doing it in that way enabled potential coalition building later on. And that’s precisely what happened when Exxon and other companies made a bid in the area. The people who used de-escalation did a huge grassroots organizing tour to reach out to the same people who had been shooting at them. They said, “Look, we are not the problem. Exxon is the problem.” And they got the support to pressure the governor who is very pro-mining to sign a mining moratorium.

At certain points you might be at an impasse in a conflict, but the way you deal with that impasse can be useful if you don’t assume that the other person with whom you’re in conflict will always have to hate you. An opportunity may come up where you are able to say, “look, we do actually have something in common.”

In my teaching, I find that when I talk about issues of racism which are the most difficult to address it is easier to talk about capitalism first. When everyone begins to see that they are not part of the five percent, it gives them the investment to start addressing the other privileges. They realize that addressing issues of class entails their own liberation too. This realization enables everyone to see that the reason they need to deal with racism is not so that they can be nice to people of colour, but so that they can dismantle a larger system that oppresses them too.

Where we go wrong with questions of privilege, I think, is that we tend to individualize them. I remember how, in the ’80s we used to have these circles where we all had to confess our privilege. What it ended up doing was making everybody feel bad. It would make people say “I wish I could be quadruply oppressed too.” What we didn’t realize was that these oppressions are about larger logics that make us all complicit. They need to be collectively, rather than individually, addressed.

The emphasis thus shifts to how the group addresses the question of who is being privileged. So, for example, if in your group the only people being asked to speak are people with college degrees, then you need to ask yourself if there is a different way you can run the group so that doesn’t happen. It’s not to make the person with the college degree feel bad. Rather, it’s to put a structure in place to hold that person accountable. When that happens you don’t feel guilty because you have privileges. Rather, you see a collective project to transform these conditions so that everybody has privileges, everybody has skills, and everybody has power to make decisions.

One problem that has tended to come up when we think about being less hierarchical is that we think this means being less structured, but the problem is actually the opposite. If you have a go-with-the-flow approach, then you tend to replicate the same hierarchies that already exist in society. If you want to change the hierarchies in your group, then you must have structures in place that address those tendencies. I think this helps with issues of privilege.

You’ve argued that there are three pillars of white supremacy: slavery and its legacy, genocide/colonialism, and Orientalism. You suggest that different communities of colour experience white supremacy in different ways, and that these various communities often have different and conflicting strategies of resistance as a result. Can you elaborate on this?

We had a major conflict at the Durban conference on racism.1 The African-descendent group said that they wanted reparations in the form of land in the United States. Native people said, “Look, you can have the mule, but the 40 acres are ours.”2 We had to lay a bit of a smackdown on them. Innumerable conflicts arise in people-of-colour organizing because many people assume we share a common oppression.

The idea underlying the three pillars of white supremacy is that in fact we are not commonly oppressed. White supremacy doesn’t operate through a singular logic. It operates through multiple logics. I offered three logics, but maybe there are ten, I don’t know. The point is to see that these distinct logics are related to each other they intersect and inform each other but they are still distinct. When these distinct logics of white supremacy are recognized, we can also see that our goal should not be to organize around a common oppression, but rather to organize around building strategic alliances based on where each one of us is situated in the political economy.

This understanding of the distinct logics of white supremacy also helps us realize that people-of-colour organizing can no longer be solely about organizing where we are oppressed, but must also involve organizing around where we are complicit in other peoples’ oppressions. These pillars don’t simply oppress you in whatever sphere of white supremacy you might be located. They also oppress you by making you think that the way to survive is to take part in the other pillars. So, for instance, Native peoples attempting to survive genocide often join the military and fight Orientalist wars abroad. People-of-colour organizing, therefore, must simultaneously be about organizing around complicities.

Can you discuss your involvement with the Boarding School Healing Project, and its relationships to the feminist anti-violence movement and the international reparations struggle?

I work with a steering committee of the Boarding School Healing Project. Our goal is to build a movement in the US to obtain collective reparations for boarding school survivors, that is, reparations that would be made on a collective basis, rather than on an individual basis, as has been done in Canada. In fact, we have looked at what’s happened in Canada, and individual lawsuits are not the model that we wish to follow. I am sure people will file individual lawsuits and that is fine. But that isn’t the process we want to promote. It didn’t seem to us that the process involved in filing individual lawsuits was empowering for Native peoples in Canada. Also, since the harms done by boarding schools happened collectively, the process of reparation should be collective too. Native communities have been completely unsettled by the experience of boarding schools; if someone isn’t a survivor himself or herself, then he or she is likely the descendant of a survivor. In other words, everyone has been affected. Boarding schools have changed the way Native communities work.

We have articulated this as a feminist project, but I have to say that feminist foundations don’t really get it. They say that this isn’t a feminist issue. But to me, it’s a different way to frame issues of gendered violence in Native communities. A lot of the time particularly with issues of sexualized violence people don’t want to talk about the experience of sexual abuse because there is so much shame attached to it. I think when you begin to articulate sexual violence as a continuing human rights violation perpetrated by the state, it puts the violence into a context that makes it easier to talk about. It helps us realize it’s not an individual problem but a collective problem.

Situating the experiences of survivors of boarding schools in the context of sexualized violence perpetrated by the state requires a collective strategy for people to openly address gendered violence as integral to colonization. The reason why we frame it as reparations although we just had a critical reappraisal where we looked at some of the problems with this framework, and reparations can be a conservative strategy as much as a progressive one is that it is important not to individualize Indigenous struggles but to see that genocide and colonization are part of a larger global framework of domination. We need to build alliances with people who have been enslaved, people who have suffered under imperialism in their countries. So our goal is to see this as a larger project. Decolonization doesn’t happen in a vacuum, it happens in a framework of global liberation.

What’s the relationship between Christianity as a tool of colonization and Christianity as a source of identity for many Native people today?

The abuses that took place in, and were an integral part of, the boarding or residential schools enable us to identify Christian imperialism as a critical axis of domination. That is something churches need to be accountable for. In the process of doing this accountability work, however, we discovered a critical error. We were informed by the Historic Trauma movement that says that if you’re going to address substance abuse, sexual abuse, suicide, or whatever in communities, you have to put it in a larger context of historical colonization. Hence, often what is emphasized is that healing modes should focus on revitalizing traditional spiritual practices. This sounds good, but when we did a workshop on this with boarding school survivors who had followed this model, they said that they felt like they were back in boarding school again, except that this time they were being told they had to be “traditional,” instead of Christian. So that’s when we realized that sometimes in our efforts to be decolonial we can be equally colonial by imposing certain ways that people are supposed to think or feel.

There is one group based in Canada called the North American Institute of Indigenous Theological Studies that is kind of an intellectual centre for Native evangelicals who include decolonization as part of their project. They explicitly call their project decolonization. They are also taking on the issues of boarding and residential school abuse. So that’s what’s happening within evangelical circles not all evangelicals but certainly a movement within evangelicalism. This takes us back to the original supposition that revolution starts where people are at, and a conversation begins with where they are at rather than where you think they’re supposed to be.

Would you comment on how the left and anti-colonial movements have tended to draw on tradition in a way that entrenches a different kind of fundamentalism an authentic idea of what an Indian is and how this leads to the demonization of certain groups as not being “real” Indians or “really” colonized?

I actually think the left does the opposite of that by seeing tradition as backward and as something that people need to dispense with in order to get the proper leftist consciousness. People on the left tend to do that, in my experience, through Marxist developmentalist presuppositions. I would say that in Native communities there can be a kind of uncritical upholding of tradition without an interrogation of what it means. Or there is the assumption that even though generations have gone through boarding schools, tradition can be easily accessed and we can re-shape what we remember our tradition to be.

I think there’s great work out there on these issues. Jennifer Denetdale has done some brilliant work. She’s a Navajo scholar who has looked at how tradition has been used to uphold homophobic practices, anti-black racism, and US patriotism. She is calling not for dispensing with tradition but rather for critical engagement with it. Lee Maracle has also brought this to the table. At one conference she asked, “is tradition an Indian tradition?” In other words, haven’t Native communities always been changing, doing different things even before Columbus showed up? What we did in 1491 wasn’t the same thing we did in 991. So there is something about colonization that “fixes” things: everything in 1492 and earlier is the same and good, and everything since is not traditional. Isn’t tradition a living thing that depends on current circumstances and adaptation to what’s going on?

So again, I don’t think tradition is bad. In fact, it is a critically important part of Indigenous decolonization. However, I have noticed in the evocation of tradition that what gets lost is a relationship to land. To me, traditions are about having an ongoing relationship to land and living in a good way with the land.

One of my friends was talking to a Native youth in a meeting where people were discussing relocation. I thought he was brilliant when he said, “when people relocated they had to re-establish their relationship with the land.” So, in his description, tradition was less about cultural authenticity and more about an ongoing relationship with land. Native peoples may sometimes have to re-establish that relationship. The time period of establishing that relationship sometimes gets disrupted, but that doesn’t mean you can’t go back and re-establish those prayers, those relationships, those ceremonies. If we think of it in that way, then we can stop feeling less authentic like something has been lost to us and realize that we still have the ability to discover how to live in a good way with the rest of the world.

How is Native struggle connected to class struggle?

I think that it’s critical to put the two together. On the one hand, other struggles don’t address settler colonialism, but then, on the other hand, Native people focusing on settler colonialism sometimes don’t see how it intersects with capitalism and white supremacy. Consequently, things get articulated as sovereignty projects that really are not that great. Your sovereignty comes to be defined as economic development by any means necessary let’s exploit the resources, let’s build a class structure within Native communities and that ends up destroying the land as much as multinational corporations are doing. That goes against the principle of having a radical relationship with the land. And it’s self-defeating ultimately, because multinational corporations are not going to let you do what you want to do with the land because they want the resources. It ends up hurting your communities. So I think it’s critical to see where Native struggles and class struggles intersect.

How does a feminist anti-violence movement intersect with methods of direct action? To what extent is anti-violence a non-negotiable value?

Anti-violence is different than non-violence. I use the term “anti-violence” because I don’t think non-violence exists. I think that a purist politics of non-violence tends to look at certain forms of violence and not others. I don’t use the term “non-violence” because I think we are all complicit in a violent system. Anti-violence is non-negotiable because our goal is to create a society that is not based on violence. But that doesn’t presume to say which particular strategies people should adopt at a particular time.

I don’t believe in having a fundamentalist party line that says, “these are the strategies you must use until the end of time.” I can’t predict what will happen in 20 years, and what seems like a good strategy now could radically change. We may say, “no, we should be doing this in another way,” whatever that may be. I think that we always have to be flexible and open-minded, looking at our current circumstances, and realizing that they may change in ways we can’t yet see. I don’t believe in foreclosing things from the beginning.

You’ve said in the past that the non-profit industrial complex tends to construct a permanent enemy. Would you explain what you mean by “permanent enemy” and why this is a problem?

A lot of the non-profit system is built on funding certain strategies. And when you fund very specific strategies it tends to create a permanent problem or permanent opposition, rather than funding a “global” vision where you might realize that the problems of today are not necessarily the problems of tomorrow, allowing you to decide who you are going to work with, etc.

So, for example, you will have the pro-choice movement in which the “pro-lifers” are the enemy. They are always the problem. Or, it might be a “fight the right” thing where right-wingers are always the problem. Each of these strategies is always opposed to a specific group of people that have to be the perpetual problem. NARAL (National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws) could never have an alliance with anybody pro-life because they would no longer have a reason to exist. They are funded specifically to fight pro-lifers. When I was on the board of Chicago NARAL, we basically had a kind of women-of-colour coup in that chapter. We didn’t want to look at it that way, so we started working on issues of informed consent with people who defined themselves as pro-life. But when we started to shift the game, we got orders from national NARAL to cease and desist. We were hindering their niche marketing strategy for doing organizing work. That is an example of the problem I am talking about.

You often talk about the idea of not trying to take power but rather of developing movements that create power and can start to squeeze the state out. But when you chart the histories of Orientalism, slavery, and colonization, it seems that states have actually gained much of their power by destroying those alternatives. How do we build alternatives and protect them from the state?

I would say it’s about taking power through making power. The goal isn’t just to have an alternative to the system; it is actually to dismantle the system. The goal is to take power through the impetus of building alternatives. But how do we do that? The state is not going to just let you dismantle it.

I don’t have the answer but I think that in this context, where we haven’t actually built alternatives, we need to focus on those rather than simply being oppositional. We don’t have anything that can replace the status quo. I say this particularly in the US context. It’s a pressing question, but we are not even at the point of addressing it. As other people have pointed out, if, when we build the alternatives, we have the sense that eventually the state will try to crush them, then maybe it will change the way we build the alternatives. I think that is an ongoing thing to consider but I don’t have a solution yet.

In terms of the “making power” approach, we have been working with the idea that “another politics is possible.” This means rethinking how we have naturalized hierarchies in our own movements and created a kind of elite structure, whether it’s the “revolutionary vanguard elite” or the non-profitindustrial complex middle managers who are prepared to tell everybody how to end global oppression. This also means rethinking and organizing in terms of a more horizontal approach.

Thinking outside of the world we now live in requires a critique of current systems of governance which are based on a nation-state model and the belief that the state can rule by means of power, violence, and domination. Here is where I think Indigenous people have a critical role to play as they have in Latin America especially in questioning the assumption that nationhood equals the nation-state. We can understand nationhood not as a kind of ethnic cleansing model “we’re in, you’re out, screw the rest of the world” but rather as a radical relationality to land, in which land is no longer a commodity held by one group of people but something we must all care for.

To give you an example, at the World Social Forum there was a collective statement made by Indigenous peoples in Latin America that said, “the one thing we want to put on the table is the nation-state form of governance: it hasn’t worked for the last 500 years and we don’t think it is going to start working now.” And they said and this is very telling “we are facing physical genocide as we speak. It is not metaphorical. We are being shot at and killed and we could actually go extinct in a generation or two.” Even with that, they said, “the reason why we are here is not to fight for ourselves, but to change the world.”

And so they saw themselves as part of a larger project of global decolonization, which they felt required a different way of living together with a radical relationality to the land. “Our goal,” they said, “is not to say, therefore, that everybody else should leave the land. You are all welcome but you must live differently with the land. In doing so, we can then live together through principles of true democracy rather than fake democracy where somebody else supposedly represents our interests.” Many people in the US, Canada, etc., are learning from these models and asking how we can operationalize them in the work that we do.

You’ve said that you saw the Obama election as a moment for social movements to build themselves. What are your thoughts about electoral politics and the role of the state in terms of the question of power?

Until you have an alternative system, then there is no “outside” of the current system. I don’t think there is a pure place in which to work, so you can work in many places, including inside the state. I think there is no reason not to engage in electoral politics or any other thing. But it would probably be a lot more effective if, while we are doing that, we are also building alternatives. If we build the alternatives, we have movements to hold us accountable when we work within the system and we also have more negotiating power. It can actually be helpful.

In terms of, say, state repression, if we have some critical people within the state then we might be able to do something about it. We might think about them as a way to relieve some of the pressure while trying to build the alternatives. I don’t think it is un-strategic to think about it like that. I am just not the kind of person who ever says, “never do ‘x’.” You always have to be open-minded and creative. It may not work out. You may get co-opted or something bad might happen. But if we really knew the correct way to do something we would have done it by now.

You challenge the US Social Forum motto “another world is possible, another US is necessary” by raising the question that, if another world is possible, then why is another US necessary? What happens when we organize around a state-centered framework?

Well, our political imaginary gets captured by the state. I think that the world we want to live in is something we can’t imagine now. We just assume that the US must be necessary, but does anybody really feel liberated here? It’s almost common sense. Do we really think the United States demonstrates the best way to organize the universe? Why is that the limit of our imagination? I am not necessarily saying we can never do electoral politics or be strategic in certain ways. The problem is when that strategy becomes the long-term vision itself. So, for example, Obama’s campaign becomes the goal rather than a means to another goal. To me, that is what that question is really asking. Can we free up our imaginations about what we really want?

Would you touch on the role of Indigenous national imaginations in this context?

I think Native peoples are helpful in this area. Native peoples do have a memory of something different. I don’t want to be essentialist and say all Nations did the exact same thing and everything was rosy, but there is still a memory of a different way of living that didn’t have to be hierarchical, wasn’t based on domination and violence, and was based on having radical relationships with the earth and all of creation, with all other peoples. I think the critical thing here is not so much that in the future we will go back and look exactly as we did 600 years ago, but that things were not always as they are now. And that means they don’t have to always be this way in the future. I think these memories tell us that the present no longer has to be assumed. These memories denaturalize the present.

At the World Forum of Theology and Liberation, a group of Indigenous peoples from Bolivia said, “we know another world is possible because we see the other world every time we do our ceremonies.” I don’t think it is only Indigenous peoples that can do this but, in a certain way, it may be more tangible. For other people, it might not be something they can have a historical memory about but the fact that you can remember something differently tells us that things don’t have to go on this way forever. H


1 The United Nations World Conference on Racism, Xenophobia and Related Intolerance was held in Durban, South Africa, in the fall of 2001.

2 In the aftermath of the American Civil War, recently freed African-American slaves were promised “forty acres and a mule” mostly on lands confiscated by Union troops during the war as partial compensation for generations of unpaid labour.