Where are the Settlers of Colour?

By Shaista Patel, from Upping the Anti:

Dear UTA,

Thank you for your critical and thought-provoking journal. I would like to address Kate Milley’s article, “Where is John Wayne when you need him? Anti-native organizing and the Caledonia Crisis” (UTA 9). I learned a lot about mobilizations of white settlers against Six Nations from her article. However, what remained with me was her very important claim that “ordinary” white settlers are actively engaged in ongoing colonialism and that “the moral distance is uncomfortably narrow between those who are easily cast in the category of white supremacists and those who comprise the majority of white Canadians.” In other words, there is no race to innocence, and the are no good white settlers for Milley.

Milley’s article has made me once again question the binary of white settlers versus the Indigenous peoples of Canada. Where do I, a settler of colour, and other settlers of colour like myself, fit into this equation of white settlers versus Aboriginal peoples? Are we innocent just because we are people of colour and do not have a relationship of conquest to this land? Is our relationship to First Peoples colonial? I recently conducted a workshop for people of colour on how we see ourselves in relation to this land. While the enthusiasm of the people present at the workshop was wonderful, one of the questions that generated the most debate and discussion was whether or not people of colour are indeed settlers, or if whiteness is a precondition for being considered a settler. Some of the questions that came up included whether we were being too “academic” in using this vocabulary. How would we tell poor, racialized women of colour, for instance, that they were settlers here? My purpose in mentioning these questions is not to somehow claim that I am better than those who do not see themselves as complicit in routinized violence against Aboriginal peoples. Rather, I write these questions because these are important discussions that settlers of colour need to engage in.

The narrow moral distance that Milley discusses in her article has made me ask myself what that distance is between people of colour here and white settlers. I have often heard people of colour with left politics claim that “our relation to this land is different.” How is this difference lived differently by bodies of colour? On one hand, people like me fight for justice in the name of being Canadians. We often stand in various anti-racist rallies to claim our rights as Canadians, and some of us – especially those born here – feel offended when we are asked where we are “really” from. On the other hand, we also claim innocence. We say that we are coming from other post-colonies, and that we too are victims of direct or indirect European colonization. Even when we recognize that we are settlers, there is no sense of urgency for most of us to organize with the Indigenous peoples and nations here.

I think that we not only need to question where we are coming from but more importantly, also consider the place we have come to. What does citizenship mean for racialized people in a white settler-colony? What does it mean when we demand these citizenship rights, which are rights based in white supremacy, dispossession, and genocide of Aboriginal peoples? For instance, when Muslims today (and I include myself here) write and organize against legislation like the AntiTerrorism Act or against acts of racial profiling, do we look at what the Indian Act is still doing to continue genocide against Indigenous peoples here? Do we look at how Indigenous activists have a long history of being labelled as terrorists? Do we ask ourselves why Aboriginality and urbanity are still framed as mutually exclusive? If we think that we people of colour have a right to be here, then where do we think people of native nations belong?

There are a few clarifications I would like to make here: I am not saying that we share the same power as white settlers, or that race, class, gender, and citizenship do not define where and how bodies are organized in Canada. Milley stresses the significance of white settlers mobilizing for Indigenous sovereignty in a white settler colony; I recognize that in such mobilizations the risks for people of colour are far greater than they are for white people. But we still need to discuss what our organizing against racism and colonialism looks like and carefully map out strategies for doing this work. So, what I am saying is that people like me who have the privilege of mobility, and have the resources, and whose status here is not as tenuous as that of refugees, should definitely engage in serious political action. Whether we first came to this land as freed slaves, refugees, or under the racist policies of the Immigration Act, we are all here now, and we benefit from the settlement process. We need to re-imagine and re-work our anti-racist efforts in ways that do not continue the erasure of Aboriginals. We need to stop paying mere lip-service to Indigenous sovereignty and recognize that the forces that dehumanize us as racialized people are the same forces that continue the genocide of First Peoples. We need to stop being defensive when we are told by Aboriginals or other people in or outside our activist groups that perhaps we need to be more critical of how we are working for Indigenous sovereignty in our organizing.

Having said this, I do want to say that bodies of colour are marginalized in most activist settings, with white people claiming the centre for themselves. Women of colour have time and again written about how white women and especially white men appropriate various anti-racist/colonial struggles to talk on behalf of people of colour. So, white people need to listen to the First Peoples as well as to us non-Aboriginal people of colour. White settlers need to stop and listen every time an Indigenous person or a person of colour tells them that they are being racist or self-congratulatory. If these important negotiations and discussions do not happen in the organizing of all settlers here, then there can be no real fight against the racial and colonial violence that this country was built on.

I am, once again, sincerely grateful to Kate Milley for her brilliant and thought-provoking work.

In complicity and solidarity,

Shaista Patel, Toronto

Unsettling America note: Also see the article “Privilege vs. Complicity: People of Colour and Settler Colonialism”

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