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White Settlers and Indigenous Solidarity: Confronting White Supremacy, Answering Decolonial Alliances

May 26, 2014

by Scott L. Morgensen

This article is also available in mp3 format.

White settlers who seek solidarity with Indigenous challenges to settler colonialism must confront how white supremacy shapes settler colonialism, our solidarity, and our lives. As a white person working in Canada and the United States to challenge racism and colonialism (in queer / trans politics, and solidarity activism) I am concerned that white people might embrace Indigenous solidarity in ways that evade our responsibilities to people of color and to their calls upon us to challenge all forms of white supremacy. This essay presents my responsibilities to theories and practices of decolonization that connect Indigenous and racialized peoples. I highlight historical studies by Indigenous and critical race scholars — notably, those bridging black and Indigenous studies — as they illuminate deep interlockings of white supremacy and settler colonialism. I call white settlers to become responsible to these, and related projects, so as to challenge the authority we might claim, or have conferred upon us, to appear to lead discussions of decolonization. White settlers do not lead the work of decolonization, in practice or in theory. I want white settler critics to act as respondents to projects that displace whiteness: here, theories and movements generated from struggle by Indigenous and racialized people who are pursuing solidarity and decolonization. By writing this essay, I illuminate how these stakes drove my prior scholarship, and I recommit to ensuring that they express clearly in my ongoing work.

The concerns I address arose in Canada where, amid rising interest in Indigenous solidarity, engaged white people identified with and critically deployed the singular term “settler.” This term carries important legacies in Indigenous studies, as a trenchant tool to expose power relations, cultural logics, and subjects formed by white-supremacist settler colonialism.[1] As well, Indigenous and racialized scholars elaborate how the term is creased by racialization. For instance, after Haunani-Kay Trask (Hawaiian Nation) called for solidarity from those whom she termed “settlers of color,” Candace Fujikane responded by inviting Asian-Americans in Hawai’i to critically account for themselves as “Asian settlers.” In another instance, Jodi Byrd (Chickasaw Nation), in The Transit of Empire, examines the relations linking Indigenous peoples both to “settlers,” a status imbued by whiteness, and to “arrivants.” [2] By using “arrivant,” Byrd signals that racialized non-natives inhabit Indigenous lands while experiencing colonial and racial subjugation, and that her accounts of their participation in colonization and their responsibilities to Indigenous decolonization call for a term distinct from white people. These accounts acknowledge close ties of “settler” status to whiteness while they trace distinctive relations to settler colonialism borne by variously-situated non-native peoples of color.

If white people who practice Indigenous solidarity miss, or never consider these nuances when invoking “settler” status, I am concerned that we then leave its whiteness normalized and unchallenged within our theories and activism. Reflecting on this has led me to a number of questions about how white people embracing the singular or uniform term “settler” may obscure differences among non-natives and reinforce our formation by white supremacy. For instance, if white people self-define through an oppressor role with respect to Indigenous people, does our emphasis on this let us evade naming our oppressor roles with respect to peoples of color? Or, if we think that these latter roles are subsumed or explained by the term “settler,” do our analyses and actions then demonstrate how this is so? Furthermore, if we ever use the term “settler” to refer to people of color, does our initial definition of the term by reference to ourselves project whiteness as our basis for explaining our relations with people of color and their locations as arrivants? Notably, if white people ever assign “settler” identity to black people, how does this enact the white-supremacist violence of anti-blackness that we, as namers, already represent? In effect, if on identifying as “settlers” white people then apply the term uniformly to people of color, or school people of color in their capacity to oppress Indigenous people, how do these acts perform white supremacy, and the epistemic violence of whiteness as foundational to knowledge of the human? I am interested in these moves not just to challenge their potential violences, but to ask how they may perform what George Lipsitz called “possessive investments in whiteness.” White people may participate in Indigenous solidarity as a way to shore up our political authority, whereby addressing one violence seems to relieve us of addressing our culpability in others, while our self-presentation as anti-colonial insulates us against criticism of our racism.

A key area where these processes arise is when white people invoke Indigenous solidarity in ways that evade addressing black subjugation as integral to white settler colonialism in the Americas. For instance, Rinaldo Walcott illuminates how Canada’s relationship to blackness is erased when nationalist sentiments assign responsibility for slavery or anti-black racism to the United States, thereby framing Canada as an exceptional site of liberal inclusion. As a result, when Canadian state multiculturalism welcomes the productivity of immigrants, or highlights growing Caribbean and African communities, blackness in Canada appears to ‘arrive late’: erasing the longstanding presence of enslaved and free black people under French, British, and Canadian rule. In light of this, if white people in Canada singularly address our aspirations to Indigenous solidarity, then our efforts to challenge white settler rule readily converge with its nationalist form: casting black peoples and their subjections under transatlantic slavery and racism as secondary, or irrelevant to the colonization of Indigenous peoples, which we then may proceed to address alone.

What if white people who practice Indigenous solidarity recognized that settler polities in the Americas also formed through sustained practices of transatlantic slavery and the subjugation of diasporic black peoples? Or that whiteness arises here through these and more relationships that both intersect and exceed our ties to Indigenous peoples? One example of such integrative thinking appears in Sunera Thobani’s challenge to Canada’s founding upon the necropolitical erasure of Indigenous peoples. Thobani invokes a process (“necropolitics”) that Achille Mbembe traced to the Atlantic world’s subjection of Africans and Indigenous peoples of the Americas to spaces of death.[3] She then argues that colonial legacies in Asia and in the Americas inform how Asian migrants to Canada become subject to white settler citizenship, which both marginalizes them and offers its embrace if they participate in Canada’s erasures of Indigenous existence. Following Thobani and Walcott, and the work of Jodi Byrd, how can white settler critics address how, in the Americas, white supremacy depends upon anti-blackness, Orientalism, and Indigenous genocide acting together to produce settler whiteness? How can our aspirations for decolonization effectively lead us to challenge all forms of racism and colonialism that produce white settler power and rule?

In recent years, as I considered these matters with colleagues and in public discussions, I found a useful tactic for drawing white people to address white-supremacist settler colonialism multidimensionally in a term from critical race and Indigenous studies: “white settler.” Like Sherene Razack’s use of “white settler state,” my application of “white settler” invokes a nexus of racial and colonial power. With it, I do not propose a terminological shift in either Indigenous or critical race studies, where the term “settler” continues to be useful. Instead I suggest a potential tactic in current discussions to illuminate the power relations producing white settlers, our investments in the singular term “settler,” and how our use of that term can reinforce rather than challenge our power. Also, as a social researcher, I am less inclined to define statuses than to sustain inquiry: by asking how social conditions in a given time or place invest persons with the power to represent or enact settler colonialism.[4] I finally invoke “white settler” here for two purposes: to call white people in Indigenous solidarity to challenge our desires to be central to decolonization; and to direct us towards the leadership of Indigenous and racialized people who challenge white supremacy and settler colonialism connectively while forming solidarities that displace whiteness.

For instance, while Idle No More targets the Canadian state as the engine of white settler capitalism and nationalism, Indigenous people and people of color are dialoguing about relational responsibilities and are contesting state efforts to incorporate them.[5] Harsha Walia, a co-founder of Vancouver’s No One Is Illegal, addressed such ties in 2012 when she wrote “being responsible for decolonization can require us to locate ourselves within the context of colonization in complicated ways, often as simultaneously oppressed and complicit.” As an example, she argued that within No One Is Illegal “we go beyond demanding citizenship rights for racialized migrants” and “challenge the official state discourse of multiculturalism that undermines the autonomy of Indigenous communities.” In “Building Connections Across Decolonization Struggles,” Luam Kidane and Jarrett Martineau (Cree/Dene) recently critiqued co-optations of black and Indigenous revolutionary movements by state reformism, and argued instead that in black and Indigenous communities, “we need to seriously, purposefully and with urgency begin to look to each other — not to the state — for our self-determination.” In these examples, solidarity around decolonization within settler states generates theories and movements that displace white settler agency by centering ties among Indigenous peoples and racialized non-natives.

As I study critiques of white settler power, I also answer accounts of colonization in the Americas that address the linked subjugations and, potentially, linked decolonizations of black and Indigenous peoples. For instance, Frank Wilderson argues that white supremacy in the Americas creates the “Settler/Master” as a foundation of law and humanity on these lands, through the connected dehumanizations of black and Indigenous peoples. In their works Shona N. Jackson and Tiffany Lethabo King trace how white settler capitalism and law offer false humanizations to black and Indigenous people. Jackson critically examines how, in Guyana, the effects of settler colonialism, transatlantic slavery and global capitalism ground Creole postcolonial nationalism in “native displacement … as the necessary or enabling condition of black being” (p. 28). Jackson calls for Creole subjectivities to be transformed by defying the racial and colonial logics of modernity: through responsibility to Indigenous decolonization, and “a rejection of being in terms of capitalism and its continued requirement of master/slave modes of being,” which “cannot account for Amerindian epistemologies” (p. 215). In her recent dissertation, King shows how centering black female embodiment will “tell us more about how the landscapes of slavery and settler colonialism are created” (p. 15). Reflecting on possibilities for black and Native feminist alliance, such as in the history of INCITE Toronto, King connects black and Indigenous critical theories to ask: “How are the imagined and material spaces that are currently over determined by a discourse of conflict (genocide, sovereignty) between white Settlers and Natives also shaped by black presence? How are the landscapes and analytics of slavery that currently are over determined by Master and Slave relations also structured by Native genocide and settler space-making practices?” Centering Indigenous and black critical agency, these projects interrogate logics of labor and property that make persons and land fungible; and they invoke relational forms of humanity based in decolonization. By negotiating tensions and ties among black and Indigenous communities, they also resonate with extensive U.S.-based literatures that address enslavement, removal, disenfranchisement, settlement practices, and black-Indigenous intermixture under white settler rule.[6] I review them to highlight how they synergize black and Indigenous critiques, theorize white supremacy and settler colonialism, and in these ways challenge the power of settler whiteness.

While the cited works raise complex insights for deeper discussion, I close by tracing how these and other projects decenter white settlers not only in Indigenous solidarity but also in the critique of settler colonialism. As a white scholar of settler colonialism, I emphasize this point to indicate how I understand solidarity to impact knowledge production. The recent rise of conversations surrounding “settler colonial studies” raises the stakes for considering how critiques of settler colonialism will proceed. In Indigenous studies, longstanding “Indigenous critiques of colonialism” (to use Byrd’s phrase) and their ties to other anti-colonial projects inform how Indigenous scholars theorize settler colonization.[7] As noted above, recent works in black and Asian diaspora studies explain white settler colonialism by tracing power-laden ties among Indigenous and racialized peoples. When white settlers critique settler colonialism, do we or do we not acknowledge and center such works and their fields of study? This question also bears on how our work gets cited. If Indigenous scholars adapt our work to serve decolonial knowledge, then the work is resituated within and made responsible to Indigenous projects that exceed our own. But if non-natives in particular trace the critique of settler colonialism only to white scholars, how are Indigenous critiques of colonialism erased, and white epistemic authority entrenched, in the very attempt to challenge colonial power?

I ask these questions because they direct me to revisit my work, notice if turns within it re-center whiteness, and confront how the power of whiteness does not cease: even, or especially once I try to challenge it. My reflexivity is inspired by those who came before me — Allan Bérubé, Mab Segrest — by practicing, and interrogating white anti-racism within queer and feminist politics.[8] Like them, I engage critical race and Indigenous studies by answering the intersectional work of Indigenous and women of color feminisms, queer / trans of color theories and activisms, and Indigenous LGBTQ / Two-Spirit movements. In my book Spaces between Us and other past and upcoming works, I narrate a politics of accountability to projects that are prior to and greater than my own, and to which mine present as secondary responses. I sought to ground my work not only in the substantive matter of white settler colonialism, but also in the methods through which white knowledge production confronts the demands of decolonization. To cite my claims about settler colonialism but not the responsibilities they name to Indigenous and racialized feminist / queer / trans / Two-Spirit theories and movements is to miss part of their full meaning and the reason for their existence. With this in mind, I end by asking: how can critiques of settler colonialism proceed so that white scholars do not appear to be their origin, their proper authors, or their possessors? I intended this essay to argue and model how a white settler critic might answer Indigenous people and people of color whose linked anti-colonial and anti-racist projects precede, exceed, and contextualize any contributions we make. By writing questions and open-ended reflections, I signal that these issues exist within living dialogues, and that the work to which I am calling myself and other white settlers does not end. Rather than a conclusion, then, I offer a continuation: white settlers redoubling our efforts to challenge white supremacy in our lives and work as we become responsible to movements for decolonization.

– – – –

I want to thank my many colleagues — including Shona N. Jackson, J. Kēhaulani Kauanui, and Dana Olwan — who read and commented on drafts of this essay. The final product is entirely my responsibility. This essay is based on an individual paper delivered at the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association (June 13, 2013) and on a paper delivered at the Critical Ethnic Studies Association (September 19, 2013) as part of the panel “Impasses of Racial and Colonial Genocide” (Dylan Rodriguez, organizer). I am grateful also to my co-panelists and to our audiences for productive discussions.



[1] See, for example: Taiaiake Alfred. Wasáse: Indigenous Pathways of Action and Freedom. Toronto: University of Toronto Press (2005); Bonita Lawrence. ‘Real’ Indians and Others: Mixed-Blood Urban Native Peoples and Indigenous Nationhood. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press (2004).

[2] Here Byrd cites Kamau Braithwaite’s term.

[3] Achille Mbembe. “Necropolitics.” Public Culture, V. 15, No. 1 (Winter 2003), pp. 11-40.

[4] Elsewhere I discuss at length this concern regarding terminology and social research: Scott Morgensen. Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2011), p. 20.

[5] A particularly compelling example was a set of panels at the 2013 Canadian Political Science Association on decolonization and solidarity, organized by Rita Kaur Dhamoon, and with participation from scholars Taiaiake Alfred (Kahnawake Mohawk), Isabel Altamirano-Jimenez (Biniza from Oaxaca), Abigail Bakan, Himani Bannerji, Davina Bhandar, Glen Coulthard (Yellowknives Dene), Jeff Corntassel (Cherokee Nation), and Jakeet Singh.

[6] Among recent works, see, for example: Tiya Miles. The House on Diamond Hill: A Cherokee Plantation Story. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press (2012); David Chang. The Color of the Land: Race, Nation, and the Politics of Landownership in Oklahoma, 1832-1929. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press (2010); Malinda Maynor Lowery. Lumbee Indians in the Jim Crow South: Race, Identity, and the Making of a Nation. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press (2012).

[7] See, for example, Byrd (2011); Glen Coulthard. Red Skin, White Masks: Rejecting the Colonial Politics of Recognition. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2014); Jean O’Brien. Firsting and Lasting: Writing Indians Out of Existence in New England. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press (2010).

[8] Allan Bérubé. “How Gay Stays White and What Kind of White It Stays,” in The Making and Unmaking of Whiteness, B. Rasmussen, E. Klineberg, I. Nexica, M. Wray, Eds. Durham: Duke University Press (2001); Mab Segrest. Memoirs of a Race Traitor. Boston: South End Press (1999).


Scott L. Morgensen is Associate Professor in the Department of Gender Studies and the Graduate Program in Cultural Studies at Queen’s University. He is the author of Spaces between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization (University of Minnesota Press, 2011). 

5 Comments leave one →
  1. May 27, 2014 1:24 pm

    Thank you for this work. As I read it, I found myself wondering what this inquiry does to shape your personal life. Specifically, how do you act in daily life in a way that embodies this study and its results? Or rather, how does the effect of doing this work show up in your daily life? I hope you have some observations of this. It seems a very edgy place to live.


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