An Interview with Harsha Walia
K’JIPUKTUK (Halifax) - Harsha Walia is an activist, writer and founder of the Vancouver chapter of No One is Illegal. She has organized in migrant justice, Indigenous solidarity, Palestinian liberation, antiracist, feminist, anti-imperialist, and anti-capitalist movements and communities for over a decade. Naomi Klein called her “one of Canada’s most brilliant and effective political organizers.”
I spoke with Harsha in late November of last year when she visited Halifax to promote her book Undoing Border Imperialism (AK Press, 2013), a book about immigrant’s rights movements that takes seriously issues of capitalism and settler colonialism.
I asked her to talk about some of the themes that have been important to her work, including Indigenous solidarity, feminism and the role of reflection within movements.
I began by asking her why Indigenous struggles, which are often ignored by migrant justice movements, are so central to her work.
Most, if not all, movements have ignored Indigenous sovereignty, and in fact historically one of the ways in which settler colonialism and white supremacy operates is to actually invisibilize a lot of the alliances that have been built historically between migrant communities and Indigenous communities. So there’s actually a long and vibrant history, but often not known.
For example, (in Vancouver) there are really deep and meaningful alliances between early Chinese Canadians and Musqueam communities. For example, during the Chinatown riots a lot of Chinese Canadians were taken in by folks in the Musqueam community. Conversely when de-facto segregation was occurring in various Vancouver neighbourhoods, where lots of restaurants wouldn’t serve Indigenous people, Chinese restaurants, small family businesses would feed a lot of Musqueam folks.
So the work that I’m doing is not new, it’s built on a legacy of ancestral relationships between communities. Its central to organize our movements in solidarity with Indigenous struggles and to understand that we can’t have any social or environmental justice movement that doesn’t deal with the reality of settler colonialism because every system of oppression is organized, within Canada at least, around settler colonialism.
So if we look at poverty, poverty is deliberate in the settler colonial experience. Indigenous communities face deliberate impoverishment. It’s not a coincidence that Indigenous communities and predominantly communities of colour face mass impoverishment.
Patriarchy within settler colonialism is organized around the destruction of Indigenous nationhood, Indigenous families and the deliberate targeting of Indigenous women. Obviously land destruction and environmental degradation is also part and parcel of settler colonialism.
So we start to see that various seemingly diverse issues and seemingly diverse social movements can actually strengthen themselves by understanding settler colonialism as a pillar of all of these forms of oppression.
So for me, one of the ways in which I imagine myself as fighting colonialism globally is very much to be rooted in a local struggle against colonialism. And secondly is of course the responsibility, which is on all people, to align ourselves with anti-colonial struggles on Turtle Island, and to understand the ways in which we’re complicit and hence we become responsible for those forms of allyship.
Q. Feminism is another topic that’s important in your work and I was wondering if you could talk about that.
I can speak broadly to the ways in which I think feminism needs to urgently re-imagine itself. There’s certainly the waves of feminism that have been critiqued for being primarily white and middle class and being really colonial in their conceptions of feminism, so this idea that feminism means equality for women, and equality for women is prescribed to achieving greater economic success, and is essentially about being accommodated and achieving gains within capitalism and colonialism, for example.
But even within what people imagine as a radical feminism or third wave feminism or post-colonial feminism, or all these different kinds of labels, even within those forms of feminism there’s a lot lacking, because those forms of feminism understand anti-oppression, for example, so the necessity to include the leadership of women of colour, of poor women, of trans women, of Indigenous women, of single mothers etc, but I think what’s lacking even still is that those forms of feminism don’t understand how patriarchy is differently organized to affect these communities and to impact these communities. So it’s not simply about understanding feminism as having this universal impact, this equal impact across different communities of women, but actually understanding patriarchy as being actively differently organized.
In the context of colonialism for example, patriarchy is organized in deep connection with violence against the land, yet feminism has not articulated the relationship between settler colonialism and patriarchy as organized around dispossession of land. And how colonialism very much deliberately targets Indigenous women and Indigenous women’s bodies, not simply as a form of patriarchy but also as a form of colonialism, because dispossessing women from the land means removing the front line of defense from the land.
Or within labour, for example, feminism has traditionally understood fighting patriarchy or articulating feminism as simply meaning better working conditions, for example, or more formal recognition within the labour market, but again, without understanding how capitalism is actually organized through patriarchy and that the very conception of capital accumulation is rooted in an understanding of fundamentally anti-communitarian social organization of labour.
This sounds like a lot of jargon but we can look at the examples of reproductive labour, domestic labour, emotional labour, all these forms of labour that have traditionally been carried and continue to be carried by women in their communities, but are not recognized as labour because of both patriarchy and capitalism. Because capitalism only values as labour that which can be commodified and privatized, and these forms of labour are fundamentally rooted in community, which capitalism means to destroy through privatization and social isolation.
So those are just some examples of how I think feminism has not yet articulated a deeper understanding of how patriarchy is actually organized, as not just something that’s about violence against women or lack of equality between genders but as actually organized through various forms of domination and oppression.
Definitely what I was saying is not an articulation of how everyone understands feminism or feminisms, and definitely I think, in particular, women of colour and Indigenous women and poor and low income women – and poor women being a large category of women including women in the sex trade and other women in the informal economy, single mothers etc – are definitely at the forefront in articulating their version of feminism.
I think what isn’t happening though is the Big F Feminism understanding and embracing those as actually feminism. So often times struggles of women of colour are seen as intersectional… I think intersectionality is not something that’s helpful in some ways because it means that we don’t understand how things aren’t just crossing each other they’re actually organized through each other, and so that’s what I was trying to elude to, that Big F Feminism has understood to incorporate more voices but not understood the deep ways in which these systems actually inform each other.
Q. Why do you think reflection within social movements is so important?
Reflecting on social movements is important primarily for the reason that we just don’t do it enough, and if we do it, it’s within small, insular networks, like our own collectives, our own groups, our own friends. It’s a strange thing because there are lots of lessons that we can learn from our failures and there’s a critical need to share them. I find for me the best ways I’ve learned to organize have been in sharing of strategies, so we don’t come up with these things in isolation. We do this work collectively. So if we recognize that we do this work collectively then we also need to reflect and share on this work collectively.
I think part of our hesitation around this is in the nature of organizing. Organizing is really crisis oriented and immediate so we don’t often have the time, we go from one thing to the other, and sometimes we don’t have the luxury to stop in between.
A lot of times its also because a lot of movement theory has unfortunately come from within academia. Because people see movements being researched all the time, people conflate reflection and the process of theorizing about movements as typically something that’s been abstracted from movements, something that outsiders do to movements. So then there’s an aversion to wanting to engage in that process at all.
And there’s also varying layers of reflection that are needed – layers around strategy, around tactics, around internal organization. The ones that I feel have been reflected upon most strongly have to do with forms of internal organization. And I think that’s often the hardest one to reflect on, because those are the ones that are the most personal – its not about how the world is operating out there and how we deal with it; its how we deal with each other in our personal relationship and dynamics and organizing. So sometimes coming up with things that work and stumbling and failing and falling but working through it, but I do feel hopeful particularly on that front.
On the left there’s been a lot of conversation about leadership and how do we understand leaders, we don’t want any leaders, there are no leaders, and on the flip side there’s the really hierarchical leader – and so within No One Is Illegal (Vancouver) we’ve spent a lot of time talking about leadership, recognizing that anti-oppression calls on us to actually encourage leadership rather than deny it, because one of the things, particularly within anarchist circles, is that the denial of leadership has meant that it just reproduces systems of oppression.
So when we pretend that everyone is equal and there are no leaders then we reproduce hierarchies around race and class and gender, etc. So it’s understanding leadership as actually encouraging leadership from marginalized and frontline communities rather than denying those forms of leadership.
So I think those are the challenges around movement reflection and reflexivity, but obviously it’s critical.
Its also particularly important if we want to build intergenerational movements because – especially in North America where the transience in movements is endemic and a lot of that is structural, that movements aren’t able to sustain people as they get older, because they’re not organized in such a way, which is its own challenge – but recognizing that this is the reality, reflexivity becomes particularly important so that each generation isn’t coming up with the same challenges and thinking that they’re alone in dealing with them.
And to address the fact that a lot of burn out also comes from being jaded and seeing the same mistakes being made over and over again. We may not be winning any war but if we can at least see ourselves thinking more critically about how we’re engaging in our movements then I do feel we’ll be more likely to be present within movements because we see some kind of shifts within our organizing.
Click the audio link (below the headline) to hear the full conversation between Harsha Walia and Candida Hadley. Recorded and produced by Pierre Loiselle, praxis media productions