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  • Writer's pictureLiz Cooper

Positionality- And Why it Matters

I started off my graduate training in Religious Studies. I worked very hard to make sure that my own spiritual and religious ideologies were kept as far away from anything I wrote as I could. At that point in time in the early 2000’s, we were really focused on seeing ourselves as objective actors. We were not part of the discussions or debates. You leave your positionality at the door as it were.

When I switched in 2005 into Indigenous Studies (at that point it was called Native Studies), one of my very first assignments was to write a positionality statement discussing something along the lines of: who are you, where do you come from, why are you here, what do you bring to the table or perhaps, why should you even be at the table.

And I failed the assignment. I failed 3x. There was NEVER a question about if I was lying about who I was on the surface (a woman of settler ancestry, a musician, a writer, a family member, a friend) or where I came from (my ancestors are from Europe, I am 7th generation Canadian on my fathers fathers side and 3rd generation Canadian for the rest- with 3 grandparents having been born in Winnipeg, the city I was born in)- - the feedback was that I wasn't clearly articulating my motivation. That my positionality included that I am a person who truly believes in the need to be an advocate and activists to unsettle the academy. I am a person who knows that we must question colonial norms and that we need people from every background and experience to be able to address issues of social injustices.

The message my professors had for me was you cannot leave who you are and how you see the world at the door. You are never truly impartial. You need to ALWAYS ensure people know who you are, where you come from, and what motivates you to be in a space/place. A message I have taken very closely to heart and try to do (as you can see from the information about who I am on this website).

When I teach, I sometimes ask students to write a positionality statement. I push them to answer these same questions: Who are you? What really drives you? What do you bring to the table and do you deserve to be there? How will all the things that make you ‘authentically you’ help to shift society in a good way?

The biggest thing with positionality statements is about being authentic and not tokenistic. That is part of a concrete action each person can take at an individual level to undo the ablest, patriarchal, colonial discourse that surrounds us.

We do need to watch out for those seeking to hurt people to satisfy their own ego. We do need to watch out for those who claim the hurts and traumas of others as their own. However we also need to watch out for those seeking to discredit the lived experiences of others because of a lack of a paper-trail. For example, we need to stand up for and with those who have been made vulnerable through systemic acts, for example 60’s scoop survivors, people who are neurodiverse, or many members of the 2S/LGBTQAIP+ community. We also need to try to identify the motivation that some people use to discredit others as well as efforts to categorize people and put them into narrow boxes.

The basic tenant that ‘your word is all you have’ rings true regardless of where you work, live, or play. The lesson I try to live by is that everyone has a story. We all have positionality statements (we just don't all call it that). We need to ask people what their stories are and we need to be able to have space to tell our own. And no matter what, we need to listen with open minds, ears, and hearts for authentic positionality statements of others before passing judgement on someone else about their actions, experiences, or opinions.

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