By Maya Mikdashi, Jadaliyya
On Thursday millions of families and friends and colleagues will gather together to celebrate Thanksgiving in the United States. Universities will be closed, and classes will be cancelled. Every year, this holiday weekend poses challenges to professors and students who are critical, and critically aware, of the fact that Thanksgiving is, foundationally speaking, a celebration of the ongoing genocide against native peoples and cultures in the United States.
As a newly minted professor who mainly teaches on questions of law, power and gender in anthropology courses centered on the Middle East, I admit that this week causes me anxiety. How do we recognize and teach, in constructive and productive ways, the relationship between US settler colonialism and Israeli settler colonialism, for example? How do we do so in classrooms and institutions where many of our students and colleagues are critical of Israel’s colonial practices? How can we use Thanksgiving to underscore that we, those who live work and love in the United States, are ourselves settlers (even if critical settlers) within a settler colonial society and state? How might this understanding force us to think critically about how to teach the Middle East and issues related to that region from the geographic location of a settler colony that happens to be the world’s strongest state and a state that is locked in an imperial relationship with the contemporary Middle East? Most importantly, how do we underscore these connections in a way that empowers our students and their critical faculties and activities, rather than immobilizes them?
I do not think that there are answers to these questions, at least none that are satisfactory. In fact, I think it is impossible to have “the answer,” as pedagogy is always more about interrogating rather than resolving. I still believe, however, that is important to think and ask that which cannot, and can never, be satisfactorily answered. As a teacher, I struggle with ways to recognize and engage deeply with US settler colonialism—not only in ways that segregate its lessons to the week of Thanksgiving and not only in ways that confine the analysis to a comparative framework with Israel or colonial projects that included settlers, such as French Algeria (although these connections are vitally important). For example, it is important to continue to underscore the ties between the birth of liberalism and capitalist understandings of land ownership on the one hand, and the settling of North and South America and its attendant genocides on the other. Robert A. Williams’ work has been instructive on this point. This is not to somehow write off liberalism and capitalism as ontologially racist and built on dispossession (which clearly they are) but rather to understand and sit (perhaps uncomfortably) with how what we call “civilization,” and the ways that our very grounded and quotidian attachment to liberal modernity, is built upon and sustained through barbarity towards others. Thus studies of capitalism and liberalism, and their colonial trafficking in the Middle East, are always already imbricated historically with the practices of settling the North and South America and the racial logics undergirding that genocide—just as they are imbricated with histories of slavery, indentured servitude and capital logics and accumulations.
Throughout history, colonized people have been tasked with proving that they are, and deserve to be, part of the “family of man”—to prove themselves worthy of independence and freedom. From Sudan to India to Palestine to Haiti to Ireland, the colonized—whether in a settler, slave, or franchise colonies— have been asked the same question: Are you human (enough)? The answer, provided by the colonizer, has almost inevitably been: You could be when I am done with you—but not yet. It is this deferral of recognition, coupled with a redemptive teleology of an enlightenment that can only come from outside— that has undergirded some of the most violent aspects of colonial history—as Frantz Fanon, Ward Churchill, Robert Williams and Michel Roulph Trouillout have demonstrated. A progenitor of this question was perhaps “are they human?” Across the United States and Australia during early moments of colonial contact, for example, the answer was an emphatic no. An entire body of early European Christian jurisprudence was built around the question of whether or not Native Americans were human, whether or not they had a soul, and if that soul could be redeemed even if the body was expendable. Just as with jurisprudence that was formed through engagement with the transatlantic slave trade, we are still living and struggling within those legal legacies. After all, the concept and architecture of “human rights” emerged from the horrors of WWII, after the ability to both alienate and collapse the rights of citizenship from the rights of man enabled a Holocaust. Law and violence are inextricably linked and in fact produce and reproduce each other. This is true even for laws that purposely try to mitigate violence. While the legal category of “genocide” emerged too late to retroactively encompass much of settler colonial violence, this social science “fact” can leave one deeply uncomfortable. After all, just because “3/5th” clause was removed from the US constitution in 1865 does not mean that prior to that slavery in the United States was not a crime against humans—even if at that time such a statement was legally (though not ethically) impossible. These are ways of rendering the past complete and drawing lines in the sand between us, who (now) know better, and our ancestors, who lived within a different epistemological universe.
Faced with such ambiguities, it is crucial to continue to underscore the fact that the United States is today actively engaged in settling and colonizing native lands and people. Patrick Wolfe’s formulation concerning the temporality of settler colonialism: [that] invasion is a structure not an event, is instructive. As he and others have suggested, settler colonialism is ongoing—and it is precisely the definition of settlement as temporally bounded that enables it to continue with ease in the United States, as Scott Morgensen recently argued. Once relegated to the past, the catastrophe of settlement is tamed and we appear helpless before it. In this framework the settlement of the United States is not our problem, and it is we who inherit this past and must then distance ourselves from its’ gross inequalities and violences.
A similar sentiment operates in in Israel, whereby generations that have been born as Israeli citizens do not consider themselves “settlers” because they did not travel to Israel from elsewhere. They did not physically displace Palestinian towns and villages. They merely live on and in the ruins of that past violence But as many scholars have argued (see Wolfe, Piterberg, Smith, Kauanui, Morgensen, Barker, Elia, and Shafir to name but a few) being a settler does not require consent to the colonial project, it merely requires birth (or immigration) into a settler colonial structure that privileges the new indigene (the citizen) at the expense of native peoples. This is perhaps the most challenging aspect that I face in my classroom. How to teach the fact that we, sitting around a seminar room, are settlers—even if we are differently positioned, racialized and gendered settlers? What utility might this recognition bring?
The ongoing catastrophic destruction of indigenous life worlds in the United States makes us, even the progressives among us, radically uncomfortable—perhaps because we realize that we are complicit in this ongoing Nakba. Thinking critically about our implications in settler colonialism can seem paralyzing. But as in all alliance based political action, we – critical settlers—should take our cues from indigenous peoples’ ongoing activism. It is not our place to determine what these politics should be; rather we should stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples in the United States, just as we stand in solidarity with Palestinians against the colonial machinations of Israel. Solidarity and activism look different in each context because the United States and Israel are at different stages of settlement and genocide. In the context of the United states, for example, we could respond to the call to “save Wounded Knee”—the site of a massacre of indigenous peoples by the federal government in 1890, and again in 1973, and a site of deep historic and spiritual importance— from being sold by a private [white] owner to the highest bidder on the “free market.” We could demand, alongside native peoples, the end of racism as a sports branding strategy. We could support the Lakota peoples in one of the longest running and still ongoing lawsuits in US history— the unlawful taking and settling of the Black Hills. It should not be a surprise to students of the Palestinian Nakba to know that upon taking the Black Hills from Lakotas, the US federal government built a national monument – Mount Rushmore – in order to establish facts on the ground. One could continue to list ways to stand in solidarity with indigenous peoples as critical settlers (see Idle No More). We might even struggle for the rights of Native Americans to be recognized as sovereign nations at the UN, just as we have struggled for the recognition of Palestine at the UN. The stakes between these two UN campaigns are not different, but our positionalities are—if Native Americans gain such recognition, they would be able to sue the United States for crimes against humanity, for genocide, and for colonial occupation.
Thanksgiving is only more one day of settlement, and the normalization of that settlement, in the United States. But it is also a day where millions of well intentioned families, friends and colleagues get together to “celebrate” a moment of colonial contact that had resulted in both genocide and nation building. Thanksgiving has perhaps been re-signified, and perhaps it can now be practiced without any connection to “our past.” But this thanksgiving weekend, the Washington Redskins will play football and their rivals with taunt them with the words “scalp them!”, chocolates and figurines will be sold in the shapes of pilgrims and Indians, cranberry, corn and yams will be consumed in a quintessentially “American” meal, and millions of Native Americans will continue to live on and off reservations, under colonial conditions.
As someone who lives and teaches in the United States and is both Arab and white and Native American, this time of year causes much anxiety. I want to believe, however, that my anxiety is not soleley due to my geneology, that my radical discomfort is more capacious than that. As someone deeply committed to anti-colonial struggle and de-colonial pedagogy, this time of year is loaded with potential; it could be an opportunity to think about the daily ways in which we practice and teach the twinned technologies of presence and erasure, of nation and of genocide, of law and violence, self and other, and of celebration and mourning. It could be a day where we unpack and dismantle the origin story of this holiday. Instead of canceling class, we could screen or listen to documentaries and interviews (and make sure our universities buy such documentaries) that reconstruct US nationalism, this time from the standpoint of its victims, to paraphrase Edward Said.
Thanksgiving is supposed to be a day of thanks, but rather than being thankful for the successes of settler colonialism (successes that make our lives as US citizens and residents possible), I am thankful for the continued anti-colonial struggles waged on this land (the US) and on others. I desire to be thankful for the ways that being attentive to American settler colonialism has given me strength, perspective and humility while teaching the Middle East from New York City. My desire to be thankful for new and emerging pedagogical frameworks is active, because there will always be more questions than there are answers and because teaching and learning, at their core, can be ethical practices that build and rebuild notions of the self and of community.