When I think of feminism and violence against women, the first images that come to mind are of young, university-educated, mostly white women protesting the lack of justice for victims and survivors of rape on university campuses. Surely this is an important issue, and one relevant to me—a young woman and university student; but when I think of violence against women, I rarely think of Indigenous women. Indigenous women—who, according to Amnesty International—are three times more likely than non-indigenous women to be victims of gendered violence, rarely cross my mind. How can a statistic of such gravity be so invisible to me? Me, an educated person, a feminist interested in Indigenous issues. Why am I so surprised? This unnoticing is what critical race scholar john a. powell says is “really slick about whiteness.” As a non-indigenous person, and a white person, I don’t need to confront race because my race is the dominant, normative one. In a PBS interview titled “Race—The Power of an Illusion,” powell said, “You don’t even have to be aware of [your whiteness] to receive the benefit.” It is precisely my unawareness of race that allows me, and many other predominantly white people in this country, to believe that Canada doesn’t have a race problem.
Canada does have a race problem though. A race problem that is hidden in Regina’s ‘Stroll’ (the city’s streets of sex work), Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the cold and inaccessible North, places where middle-class white people rarely set foot because they are spaces relegated to the Other, namely Indigenous people. These are spaces where alcohol and drug abuse, prostitution, and violence happen, spaces ‘unfit’ for the white middle-class person, but acceptable for the Other. I do not see the Indigenous woman, who is at least three times more likely than me to be a victim of gendered (and of course racial) violence, because she is hidden in the places that I ‘should not’ go. She is literally out of sight and out of mind, and so in my white slickness I construct an image of feminist justice that does not include her.
What is so slick about whiteness in this instance is that although the white middle-class person should not, or need not, occupy these Other spaces, they can. The word slick, which powell uses to describe white privilege, is very accurate in the sense that white people can move across these borders of space without resistance. The 1995 murder of Pamela George, a woman of the Saulteaux (Ojibway) nation, is a perfect example of the ways in which white slickness can permeate boundaries that are impermeable to the Indigenous woman. George had no option to take off her Indigeneity and escape the Indigenous spaces of Regina, Saskatchewan, to which her race, and subsequently her class, had confined her. Conversely, Steven Kummerfield and Alex Ternowetsky—the two white, middle-class men who murdered her—were able to come from a white, suburban space of privilege into ‘the Stroll’ and still dominate the space. The murder of Pamela George is an extreme, though not uncommon, example of white domination and occupation of space.
To a lesser degree than the violent domination of Kummerfield and Ternowetsky, I too have slickly slid in and out of Indigenous spaces without question. I’ve driven through Native reserves, taken what I’ve needed, and left. My white privilege, my white slickness, has allowed me to do so, thinking “Canada doesn’t have a race problem,” while the Indigenous women that I rarely see are stuck there, three times more likely to be a victim of gendered violence. Canada has a race problem—race problems. Quest has race problems. It’s just invisible to most of us.