chapter  6
18 Pages

Transforming meanings and group positions: tactics and framing in -white relations in Northwestern

WithOntario, Canada Jeffrey S. Denis

Antiracism research often examines how stigmatized groups transform the meanings associated with their group. In Lamont’s (2009,

p. 151) terms, destigmatization strategies are ways of ‘challenging stereotypes that feed and justify discriminatory behaviour and rebutting the notion of [group] inferiority.’ They include the expansion or contraction of ‘symbolic boundaries’ between ‘us’ and ‘them’ (p. 157), ‘normative inversion’ in which ‘the category of the excluded and despised comes to designate a chosen people who are morally, physically, and culturally superior to the dominant group’ (Wimmer 2008, p. 988), and various forms of ‘social creativity’, such as comparing groups on alternative dimensions (Tajfel and Turner 2001, p. 104). In the Indigenous-settler relations context,1 Vasquez and Wetzel

(2009) show how Potawatomi Indians in the US Midwest ‘challenge contemporary institutional racism through elaborating symbolic boundaries and articulating moral discourses. By emphasizing authentic traditions conceived of as values, roots, and cultural toolkits these historically and currently subordinated racial groups distinguish themselves from the American mainstream’ and thereby uphold their dignity (p. 1557). My research, based on eighteen months of fieldwork with Abori-

ginal (First Nations and Me´tis) and non-Aboriginal (mostly white/ Euro-Canadian) residents of Northwestern Ontario a vast but sparsely populated region also known as ‘Treaty 3 Territory’2 shows that Indigenous peoples in Canada engage in similar processes from reclaiming their Anishinaabe3 names and languages to reviving longsuppressed customs and ceremonies4 to priding themselves on their commitment to the Seven Grandfather Teachings.5 Yet, much of this ‘boundary work’ seeks both social inclusion and recognition of their cultural diversity, national sovereignty, and treaty rights. For example, Native elders explain how the ‘Medicine Wheel’ (a circle with red, white, black, and yellow quadrants) teaches that all peoples have a place in the circle of life; they are distinct but connected and give the circle balance; removing one or painting them all white would disrupt that balance. In short, each nation has equal worth, but also a right to sovereignty and difference. This dual emphasis on inclusion and differentiation is also, in part, a

response to the dual pressures Aboriginals face both boundary enforcement and forced assimilation, as epitomized by the residential school system.6 The message Natives historically received from whites was: ‘You must be like us, but you can never be like us.’ Consequently, they fight two battles: one, to demonstrate their equal worth and be fully accepted in mainstream society; the other, to practise selfdetermination and sustain their unique identities and rights. A complementary approach to antiracism research investigates the

tactics that historically dominant as well as subordinate groups use to negotiate their positions in situations that threaten the status

quo. Given ‘social competition’ (Olzak 1992; Tajfel and Turner 2001, p. 104) over scarce resources, how do groups defend or alter their relative positions on salient dimensions of inequality (in this case, land ownership)? Recent research illustrates the relevance of group position theory

(Blumer 1958) for explaining anti-Native prejudice. Using multivariate analyses, Bobo and Tuan (2006, p. 172) show how white opposition to Chippewa fishing rights in a 1990s’ Wisconsin case was driven by ‘a feeling of group deprivation’ rooted in ‘whites’ fear of losing . . . status and power.’ My research builds on this insight by revealing that despite widespread intergroup marriage and friendship, many northern Ontarians still express prejudice, particularly against Native leaders and activists (Denis 2010).7 Although overt categorical hostility is rare, resentment of Aboriginals who defy the racial structure prevails. Yet, the question remains: how do whites defend and Natives challenge their group positions in concrete situations that threaten the status quo? Political sociologists have documented numerous strategies that

the (relatively) powerful and powerless use to test or shift the balance of power. Although criticized for intimations of ‘false consciousness’, Gaventa’s (1980) study of quiescence and rebellion in an Appalachian mining community provides helpful tools for analysing group positioning tactics. He describes how the powerful inhibit challenges to the existing order through the use of force, the threat of sanctions, the invocation of existing norms, rules or precedents, the creation of new rules or barriers, and the use of discrediting labels such as ‘radical’ or ‘troublemaker’. Over time, the historically marginalized group may internalize a sense of powerlessness, anticipate defeat and fear reprisal, thereby preventing it from pursuing its (self-defined) interests even when it has a chance to alter the status quo. In another classic study, Scott (1990, p. 198) highlights how

subordinate groups frequently do resist domination, even if ‘offstage’ or in ‘disguise’. He distinguishes openly declared acts (i.e. protests, petitions, public assertions of worth by gesture, speech, or dress) from ‘everyday forms of resistance’ (i.e. poaching, squatting, foot-dragging, gossip, rumour, euphemism, world-upside-down imagery).8