1/20/2015 33 Comments
That White Woman’s Gaze
I had an experience that is telling in terms of a white woman’s interference in the relationship between Indigenous knowledge holders and Indigenous community members. I offer my story as it is illustrative of what many Indigenous women, Indigenous communities, and Indigenous organizations are contending with. It is worthy of noting here first, though, that this experience of mine happened within a very politically powered and gendered, and thus a very socially stratified, organization.
White Woman Gaze Switching
On this particular occasion I found myself in one of life’s special moments walking with an Indigenous elder and wisdom holder. Building relationships, I have come to know, sometimes take place in fleeting moments such as these. Walking side-by-side in the direction of the building we were heading toward, we exchanged small yet heartfelt pleasantries. As we entered the doorway and began to walk down the ramp deeper into the interior of the building a white woman was situated at the bottom of the ramp. This white woman looked at me and then at the elder and then back at me. My process of observing this woman looking back and forth was disturbingly telling. Through this process of observing her gaze-switching back and forth, I was able to observe how some white women look at Indigenous elders, in comparison to how they look at other Indigenous people such as me.
As this white woman looked at me her face was pretty much neutral and not too expressive. Yet when her gaze shifted to look at the Indigenous elder her entire facial expression turned to one of juvenile happiness and joy. Again, when this white woman looked at me her face shifted to the more neutral expression. Then, as she once again shifted her gaze to look at the Indigenous elder, her facial expression once again shifted – again and again to one of childish adoration. By the time we made it to the bottom of the ramp, I had the opportunity to watch this cycle of her shifting gaze three times.
How Her Gaze Switching Made Me Feel
Although I knew this white woman, and I did have a somewhat friendly relationship with her, when we arrived at the bottom of the ramp, the Indigenous elder stopped to speak with this ever adoring fan. I, though, feeling ill, kept on walking. I was ill with disappointment because it was at that very moment that I realized I could never do for an Indigenous elder what this needful and pitiful white woman was able to do. Oh how I loathed this woman’s pitifulness, a pitifulness that any man would enjoy.
As an Indigenous woman I have a right to, and need of, the Indigenous knowledge I seek. Indigenous communities are very much dependent on the emancipation of Indigenous women. The problem is that sometimes when we encounter elders we are unable to engage in the same pitiful childish adoring way that white women, and for that matter white men, are able to. And when our neutral facial expressions are compared to one such as this white woman’s expression, we are perceived as not deserving of the knowledge that may emerge.
White Gaze of Interference
When I think about my experience further, I recognize this white woman’s behaviour for what it is: an interference. Although there are many other reasons, a huge barrier in the transmission of Indigenous knowledge within Indigenous communities is what I call “white-woman-settler-gaze-of-interference”. This ramp experience with a white woman’s gaze was the moment when I realized how it is that white women are sometimes able to gain greater access to Indigenous knowledge than indigenous people. White women should not be impinging on the relationships that Indigenous knowledge holders have with Indigenous community members in this way. Indigenous people and Indigenous communities are dependent on the re-building of our nations and knowledge structures. Certainly, the white-woman-settler-gaze-of-interference should not be the mortar that solidifies and fortifies yet another inadequate patriarchy.
Indigenous Women Are Vulnerable Enough
In further thinking, I have also come to understand that within any organization where one resides at the lower end of the social stratification hierarchy, one is as vulnerable, if not more vulnerable, than the most vulnerable person. Clearly this white woman was needful and the problem is that through her pitifulness, she makes other people, such as myself, more pitiful as we are not able to compete in terms of offering juvenile adoration to an Indigenous knowledge holder.
The Privilege of a White Woman’s Gaze
Later I came to realize that in fact this white woman comes from a very privileged family and position in society. She has had, and continues to have, the love, support, and guidance of her parents, grew up in a home in a nice area of town, and thus had great access to economic resources. Regardless of her privileged position over Indigenous women this white woman is selfish.
There is the Need to End the Selfishness of the White Woman’s Gaze
White women, and white men, need to critically reflect on, and be cognizant of, their actions and respond in a way that assures they do not hurt Indigenous women and people in their emancipation efforts. In Indigenous women’s goal for emancipation we need genuine allies and collaborators, not women who interfere through their white-woman-settler-gaze-of-interference.
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Lynn Gehl, Ph.D. is an Algonquin Anishinaabe-kwe from the Ottawa River Valley. She has a section 15 Charter challenge regarding the continued sex discrimination in The Indian Act, and is an outspoken critic of the Ontario Algonquin land claims and self-government process. She has three books: Anishinaabeg Stories: Featuring Petroglyphs, Petrographs, and Wampum Belts, The Truth that Wampum Tells: My Debwewin of the Algonquin Land Claims Process, and Mkadengwe: Sharing Canada's Colonial Process through Black Face Methodology. You can reach her at email@example.com and see more of her work at www.lynngehl.com.
1/20/2015 03:49:35 am
Your points are extremely valid and make me sad as well. The gazes we all cast continuously can cause either joy or sorrow in our fellow human's. Last fall I spent a few days in Muskoka and drove to Bala to look at the Scenic Fall's soon to be destroyed. After taking photos I stopped at the beer store where for the second time that afternoon I saw an Indigenous man who for the second time that day averted his eyes. I had first seen him leaving the local bar and later as he got into his friends car at the beer store. I thought "The poor guy, he will never know that I respect his people and abhor canada's treatment of all his people. If I could have had a beer before driving I would have visited the bar too as it was a beautiful September afternoon. This man was doing nothing wrong and yet felt guilt for no reason other than colonial stereotypes." Try as we might the damages made both past and present will take generations to heal.
6/30/2015 02:00:38 am
Your interpretation of guilt may not be correct.
1/13/2018 07:30:54 am
Every single person's truth is correct.
1/15/2018 07:38:19 am
Actually it is not that every person's truth is correct. It is more that every person has a personal truth. Personal truth is only one teaching or model of truth. Personal truths still need to be vetted through a broader understanding of truth.
1/20/2015 04:14:00 am
This is so succinct, beautiful and important. Thanks.
6/30/2015 02:01:11 am
1/23/2015 09:16:14 pm
White folks embody settler colonialism in so many nuanced, deep rooted ways. The process of unsettling myself via self-examination can take a long, long time. A lifetime, actually. Thank you for speeding up my process with your insight and willingness to write publicly.
6/30/2015 02:02:00 am
Miigwetch for reading my work and for valuing it.
1/24/2015 06:46:20 am
What a great piece. My favourite part is this...
6/30/2015 02:05:02 am
Keep in mind that Elders are only one source of Indigenous knowledge. There is also the land, stars, animals, trees, and today many books and online lectures.
2/4/2015 10:36:50 am
Very much so, I have experienced this myself and I don't, as a native man, accept the statement about any man enjoying this situation. I have not played the game and carried on with what I was doing and found that the pitiful needy person became openly offended even though I was pleasant and respectful in letting those women know that I was busy right now. Good to bring these things up though as I see this fairly often.
6/30/2015 02:06:14 am
I am happy to read that you are only interesting in genuine relationships with people.
3/5/2015 03:14:05 am
It is - of course - the ultimate privilege of those in a superior position to "look kindly upon" those they wish to grace with their beneficence. I'm reminded of the beaming face of "il Papa" as he looks upon those who live so far below him - and even washes their feet. The whole ritual of beneficence means nothing without the presence of the strong structures of power and superior rights which give the gift meaning. Thank you for peeling back the meaning here: it is an important thing to be mindful of in dealing with other people.
12/21/2022 08:24:25 am
Key words--"the ultimate privilege of those in a superior position..."--well, as they perceive themselves to be, anyway. Without knowing how Dr. Gehl knew this individual, I suggest the following: the white woman's gaze on the Elder is one of beneficence indeed but it isn't a genuine gaze of admiration or even respect. Instead, she (the Elder) poses no challenge(s) to the white woman and what she knows so she, the Elder, warrants the gaze that the white woman bestows on her. Possibly more a patronizing one that not. In the meantime, directing a different look to Dr. Gehl, the beneficence is missing b/c Dr. Gehl is someone that does not fit into the stereotypical Indigenous individual context that the white woman thinks she knows; one that fits with her knowledge of what an Indigenous person is, or should be. Dr. Gehl varies from the knowledge base that the white woman knows and is comfortable with. This poses a conundrum to her thus the differing gazes she projects onto the pair. I ran across this in my many years as an educator. Authority figures from that predominantly white world (of public education) didn't quite know what to do with me b/c I am obviously Indigenous in psychical appearance while presenting as an educator who continued to demonstrate success in their world as an educator. I once had a principal refer, to my face, that I was "a diamond n the rough". Well, I ain't nobody's diamond and neither do I exist in the "rough". I believe he thought he was offering me a compliment in his backhanded way. He had no idea! In this, I put him in the same category as the white woman in this writing. I suggest that we present an issue to those white individuals such that they don't quite know what to do with us. We don't fit in their thinking. I believe it is conflicting for them, challenging their thinking and their way of looking at the world. I also think we remain very much the "other" for those types.
3/5/2015 04:52:39 am
Sorry to hear this. I have seen the very same darn thing. I think it might have a lot to do with how we are taught, traditionally, about respect. As a man I have experienced the same thing - when a woman works their magic whether unconsciously or consciously - with an elder when I was in a former relationship. It always happened right under my nose and, to be fair, I don't think the woman truly realized what she was doing or what was happening. Very often, like you, I felt I (as a man) was not getting the same attention from an elder due to what you refer to as "interference". I guess it's all just a subtle part of human behavior. I don't truly believe people do this on purpose, it's just how some people have been conditioned and taught by our society at large. When this happened to me, I had to be very honest with myself. I had to ask myself what the real issue was for me, the deeper truth that was happening inside me. I had to face it. It was my fire, my own emotions. Soon I came to see that I was upset because I felt that I was not getting the attention I deserved. So, in the times that this would happen to me, I chose to embrace our traditional teachings in those instances. I would do my own personal, emotional work with my own inner fire. And, for me, that was the best medicine to take.
6/30/2015 02:14:14 am
Thank you for sharing. I agree with you that some people are doing this gaze while not being aware of it. But it is my experience that many are very well aware of how their gaze is a manipulative tool. I like your story about looking inward to best deal with situations such as this, but I also know we are 'people within relationship with others' and so this person, and people like her, really needs to deal with their issues and privilege and stop interfering.
4/19/2015 12:29:42 pm
It's difficult to read this, wanting to be an ally to Indigenous peoples. I can see what this woman did; she expected "payment" - attention, shared wisdom - for her "services" being an ally, and obviously this is distasteful. Worse, she selfishly hogged attention away from an Indigenous woman who could have put received wisdom directly to work, within her community, to sustain and strengthen the culture. Her selfishness is clear.
6/30/2015 02:21:29 am
Of course he owns some of this bad behaviour, but here I am talking about a woman who needs to learn her place, rather than use her 'special powers' to manipulate men. It is harmful to Indigenous women. There are many ally resources on my website that you can read and pass on to others. "Follow the Turtle" is a good beginning. You should also be aware that Elders are not the only source of Indigenous knowledge. There is the land, the stars, the trees, the animals, and there are also many books and online videos. There is no reason for this type of manipulative interference. None.
4/20/2015 10:49:08 am
I have seen this also, from the other side... I am proud of my Cherokee heritage and am learning the language, as I travel the Red Road. I have been told I didn't look native, being too light. I have also been acknowledged & treated with great respect. A lot of this is due to cultural conditioning, on both sides. I don't take this personally, as Tim mentioned... work with your own inner fire, that is indeed the best medicine.
6/30/2015 02:22:35 am
Thank you for sharing. Please see my response to Tim above.
5/5/2015 08:50:40 am
I'm a little confused. Was the white woman's manner toward the elder too gushy and phoney looking? Some white women are pretty emotional. What could the white woman do differently for next time?
6/30/2015 02:24:21 am
Yes, her gaze was not genuine. What can she do? Stand behind Indigenous women. See "Follow the Turtle".
6/29/2015 10:32:42 pm
Thank you Lynn for your reflection on this!
6/30/2015 02:27:32 am
Yes, I think the gaze is stereotype as "wannabe". Indigenous knowledge is not just located in Elders and humans, rather it is in many places and today this is discussed in books and online lectures. I think reading ally resources is a good choice.
6/30/2015 02:51:20 am
Yes, thank you for adding helpful ally links as well. As i begin to reengage again and delve into the fears and confusion...as well as the blessings associated with this learning, they will be very helpful
6/30/2015 03:37:57 am
Here is a link to some ally resources: http://www.lynngehl.com/settler-ally-resources.html
6/30/2015 03:11:08 am
I hope this particular blog post will be read and understood by many who like to think of themselves as settler allies. Those who express "the white woman's gaze" expose the shallowness of this kind of "allyship". : (
6/30/2015 03:38:30 am
miigwetch for your words
6/30/2015 09:22:14 pm
I am aware of that problem. There is something that is not healthy when a settler like me becomes over-enthusiastic about a culture not her own.
5/20/2017 05:19:02 am
I know this gaze and I appreciate your bravery and honesty to talk/write/work on this. Some thoughts (from the viewpoint of a now middle aged Native woman, because where I've been in age, knowledge, power, changes through life): the white lady is just replicating the way she knows how to kiss up to the power, what happens in white society. Because the power & knowledge in Native community comes from elders she's doing what she knows but using the pitiful gaze bc elders are to be pitied-- they're old and fragile to her. Elders, in my experience, share wisdom with whom ever seeks it from a truthful place because it's not theirs to own or keep. Elders don't discriminate, in my experience. You have this challenge in front of yourself. You're becoming an elder. You are vulnerable as you said, yes, but you also hold power, wisdom, and incredible strength. You're probably faced right now with the challenge of teaching others (I found your work, you're teaching people). You'll have to decide how you will teach the white woman too. With her gaze. I wished you wouldn't have walked away. Next time stay. Be at the side of the elder. Watch, observe, be there in that moment. Learn how you can best teach in all situations.
4/6/2019 07:53:18 pm
Greetings, Lynn. I read this with great interest. It reminded me of my thoughts from years ago, when observing, with different elders, interacting with different white men and women, a similar pattern. I came to the conclusion that that the white adoration they were experiencing is based in racism (the exotic 'other) and the elder's response is also based in racism (internalized ~ racism makes us essentially invisible/worthless, to the point that we can be in a room full of people and have no-one speak to or make eye contact with us because we have been identified as Native/person-of-colour). The power of this kind of attention, of becoming VISIBLE, of being recognized as valuable/knowledge holder by those from whom we have lived among as non-persons... In my experience I've seen elders do amazingly incautious things to keep that attention on them. It acts on them like a drug. Don't get me wrong, these are elders who I continued to respect, but with understanding that they are victims just as much as any of us. Ego is a powerful factor.
2/20/2023 04:40:32 pm
8/29/2022 04:22:26 pm
This article is illuminating, to me, as one who seeks to learn how to become an ally. I agree that the teachings of the elders should first go to their younger relations, and then, as the culture is recovered, those younger people (such as yourself) should teach people such as me, so that together we may effect true reconciliation. This woman did interfere, and it is sad that the attention of the elder was diverted in this fashion. That said, I dislike this woman, who seeks to curry favour and shows in her gaze-switching that she does not actually wish to ally herself, but to insinuate herself into the culture, in my opinion, something like a jealous sibling. I also abhor any person who so clearly discriminated in her gaze, between two people. She is a power-seeker and you saw her truly for what she is. Migwetch, Lynn!
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