We Settlers Face a Choice: Decolonization or White Supremacy

We Settlers Face a Choice: Decolonization or White Supremacy

This is a guest post by Dr. Devin Zane Shaw, who teaches at Douglas College in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada.

We settlers face a choice: decolonization or white supremacy. We have made excuses for too long. We already have ample evidence of the recent rise of the far right in North America. On the one hand, we have seen the normalization of white nationalism and white supremacy in political discourse; on the other, the mobilization of the alt-right and other fascists in the streets of our cities at, for example, the Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia in August 2017. We have seen, with the death of Heather Heyer, the threat. Canada is not immune to this process of normalization, but often in forms that lend themselves less to spectacle. Nonetheless, in both countries white supremacy exists whether or not people mobilize for it. The immediate impetus for this essay was the RCMP raid on the Gidimt’en checkpoint on Wet’suwet’en land on January 7th, 2019. As I revise this text, news has broken that inspectors from the Archaeology Branch of the Ministry of Forests, Lands and Natural Resource Operations and the British Columbia Oil and Gas Commission have trespassed on and stolen artifacts from an archeological site proximate to construction for the Coastal GasLink pipeline that is designed to run through Wet’suwet’en land. Now is the time to heed the voices of Black and Indigenous community members, scholars, and organizers who contend that the possibility of fascism always lurks in settler-colonial states premised on white supremacy. These voices have often been dampened or ignored in political organizing or academic engagement. I teach philosophy, and like anthropology, philosophy has yet to account for the ways that its Eurocentric, colonial roots have shaped its modern discourses. In philosophy, for example, Africana or Indigenous philosophies are treated as addendums to the canon, when indeed acknowledging them as philosophy demands that we reorient the very idea of the canon itself. The theoretical and practical choices of white settlers might cease to frame what we know and what we can do and become objects of scrutiny. We settlers face a choice. The question is: where do you stand?

The answer, whether it’s unceded territory or shared jurisdiction under treaty, is Indigenous land. And we stand here on Indigenous land in a present that is but the most recent moment in the long history of European settler-colonialism. And we struggle to explain by what right our interests are the interests that ought to be protected and cultivated on this land. We repeat any number of homilies: we are a liberal, democratic, multicultural society; we are a land of the rule of law, our present is one of a long history of human progress; that with enough hard work and attention, past injustices can be recognized and corrected, and thus reconciliation between settler and Indigenous is possible, that all people on this land are able to flourish.

We have made excuses for too long. We have focused on convincing ourselves that these homilies are more than mere self-edification. We should heed, by contrast, Indigenous voices if we want to understand our situation. Let us listen to the late Arthur Manuel, of the Secwepemc Nation. In The Reconciliation Manifesto: Recovering the Land, Rebuilding the Economy (2017), Manuel argues that white supremacy is the law of the land in Canada. At its basis, Canada as a settler-colonial project, a settler-colonial invasion, is premised on the dispossession of Indigenous land and the replacement of First Nations, Métis, and Inuit through genocide or coerced assimilation. Even recent court cases that are largely considered to be legal victories for Indigenous nations, our colonial courts continue to assert the primacy of Crown sovereignty even though they acknowledge Aboriginal rights that pre-existed colonialism. From the Supreme Court’s decision in Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia (2014):

At the time of assertion of European sovereignty, the Crown acquired radical or underlying title to all the land in the province. This Crown title, however, was burdened by the pre-existing legal rights of Aboriginal people who occupied and used the land prior to European arrival.

In sum, Aboriginal title precedes Crown sovereignty, though from the point of its assertion forward Crown sovereignty takes precedence over and is “burdened” by Aboriginal title. “The decision is still a decision of a colonial court,” Manuel writes. A colonial court will never extinguish the legal basis of its own jurisdiction. He continues:

Here the court is saying, without any explanation or reasoned argument, that settler property rights are higher than Indigenous property rights. In fact, there is no “reason” at all….What is at its heart is racism—the idea that white people have the inherent right to claim title to Indigenous lands, or the lands of black or brown peoples, and rule them as colonial masters. (110–111)

Similarly, almost a century ago, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote, “I am quite straight-faced as I ask soberly: ‘But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?’ Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”[1] Both Du Bois and Manuel contend, nearly a century apart, that whiteness marks the right to possession—whiteness is not biology, not phenotype. And we may conclude that privileging white futurity over the futures and prospects of, as Du Bois also wrote, “the darker peoples” of the earth, rests on the same underlying white supremacy that grants the Crown underlying title to lands presently occupied by the Canadian settler-colonial state. These futures are under direct assault when the Royal Canadian Mounted Police storm the Gidimt’en checkpoint on Wet’suwet’en land. The RCMP statement situates their invasion as enforcing the injunction issued by the British Columbia Supreme Court “against protesters who interfere with the Coastal GasLink project.”[2] Thus responsibility and culpability for this intensification of settler invasion begins to evaporate: the RCMP is merely enforcing injunctions and maintaining rule of law as if this law was not already itself the implementation of settler-colonial power, which itself is a manifestation of white supremacy, as if the Wet’suwet’en were trespassers rather than people on their land.

We settlers face a choice: decolonization or white supremacy. The status quo is settler colonialism: a project of white supremacy, capital accumulation, resource extraction, and Indigenous dispossession. We, settlers, have made excuses for too long. For too long we have repeated our homilies as settler moves to innocence: “strategies or positionings that attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all.”[3] In Canada, we celebrate Reconciliation because Reconciliation ensconces colonialism in the distant past. When Indigenous peoples reoccupy Parliament Hill during Canada’s sesquicentennial, we say that we gave them the former U.S. embassy for a cultural centre. When Indigenous peoples demand the recognition of Indigenous title, we deliver land acknowledgements. When Gerald Stanley is acquitted for the death of Coulton Boushie, we say that while there are concrete flaws in the judicial system, due process is fundamentally sound. When the RCMP invades unceded Wet’suwet’en territory now, we say that all peoples must recognize the rule of law. But Wet’suwet’en claims to title were legally recognized in Delgamuukw v. British Columbia in 1997 (the precedent, in fact, of the Tsilhqot’in decision of 2014)—though without the adjudication of their specific land or territorial claim. Every time Indigenous peoples are given to wait, for justice will come, only the RCMP shows up.

We settlers cannot place the burden of decolonization on Indigenous peoples alone, though we must also recognize that decolonization demands that we uproot long-standing structures of our world, that we must struggle against our own self-interests and our identities, for we have come to recognize ourselves in the institutions of settler-colonialism and in the prospects of settler futurity. Such a struggle will be fraught with numerous failures. But given the status quo, our choices are either decolonization or white supremacy.

Perhaps I have cast the choice as too stark a dilemma. I would suggest, however, that we begin from this dilemma to measure our responsibility for the status quo. Black and Indigenous voices demand this of us. But our own intellectual traditions do, too. I think here of Jean-Paul Sartre’s existentialism, which emphasized the freedom, agency, and responsibility of every human being. In Being and Nothingness, Sartre also asserts that our individual freedom and the choices we make only make sense in our given historical and social situation. Given that he was writing in the early 1940s, Sartre characterizes human freedom and responsibility in the context of the Second World War and the Occupation of France. He writes:

the situation is mine  because it is the image of my free choice of myself, and everything which it presents to me is mine in that this represents me and symbolizes me….Thus there are no accidents in a life; a community event which suddenly bursts forth and involves me in it does not come from the outside. If I am mobilized in a war, this is my war; it is in my image and I deserve it. (708)

I teach philosophy. Often students learn existentialism and consider this freedom and responsibility as if they were making choices in Sartre’s circumstances as if we could readily transplant those circumstances to our present situation. They consider the responsibilities attendant on joining the military to fight Germany, to become an accomplice of Occupation, to ignore the war because it would not affect them. In each case, they learn to see how each is choice impinging on them due to circumstances that are not of their choosing. But the choices are easy, for we will never be forced to choose in those precise historical circumstances.

However, if we take Sartre’s concept of responsibility seriously, we ought to consider our own situation before its possibilities have been decided. We ought to consider moral choices that implicate our actions and our responsibility. North America as we know it is premised on centuries of settler colonialism, but the future of settler colonialism has yet to be decided. We settlers have for too long made excuses. We have buried colonization in our past, but as Patrick Wolfe argues, settler colonialism is a structure (with legal, cultural, and social ramifications) and not an event (a moment in the past, now over). That is, settler colonialism is an ongoing project, and thus it is a situation that demands that we make a choice. For too long, we’ve evoked the politics of civility and tone-policing to silence the legitimate anger and indignation of Indigenous peoples. For too long, we’ve evoked the rule of law, as if it weren’t already the law of the settler-colonizer. For too long, we’ve pointed toward historical progress and social justice, as if it will arrive inevitably, regardless of our actions and choices, but not now. For too long, we’ve chosen the status quo because we have refused to imagine an alternative—or imagine, pitifully, all the alternatives to be worse. And for our pusillanimity, we bear responsibility for the ongoing project of settler colonialism, white supremacy, capital accumulation, and Indigenous dispossession. These choices have led us to our present, which prioritizes yet another pipeline over the rights of the Wet’suwet’en, or, writ large, white settler futurity over Indigenous futurity. It does not have to be that way. Now, we settlers must choose our future. The question is: where do you stand?

[1] Du Bois, Darkwater: Voices from within the Veil (Oxford University Press, 2007), 16.

[2] See https://www.houston-today.com/news/rcmp-statement-on-enforcing-pipeline-injunction/

[3] Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization is Not a Metaphor,” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education and Society 1/1 (2012), 10.

Bio: Devin Zane Shaw teaches philosophy at Douglas College. He is currently completing a book-length manuscript on philosophy and antifascism. He is author of Egalitarian Moments: From Descartes to Rancière (2016) and Freedom and Nature in Schelling’s Philosophy of Art (2010). He writes about philosophy, political theory, and social movements.

2 Replies to “We Settlers Face a Choice: Decolonization or White Supremacy”

  1. There is much more to this story. It includes continuing deals between church, state, royal family holdings as well as red apple Indians who many hold the positions of elected council. When a person sells out his / her own brother/sister or another tribesman the greatest of treachery is committed. The TRUTH part of the Reconciliation movement has been negated and the other part is a sham .. quick silencer to pay off those who may or may not have suffered. Look at the Indian Act. Native people are still considered ‘wards of the court’. Much more here going on. The settlers are no longer the ghost face and therefore the address here must include giant Asian, Indian from across the oceans and other immigrants into the lands once referred to as Turtle Island. The missing Indigenous women is linked to the land grab deals still going on. Complacancy and a sedated conciousness keeps anyone who isn’t interested in their children’s future from getting actively involved much less caring about the Indigenous people who live in worse conditions than the third world and who are mistreated by their own councils. There is nothing democratic about the majority of reservations. Give back to the First Peoples what was taken… period. No such thing as ‘crown land’ anymore. THAT is ALL Indian land. Lets start with that and ensure the traditional Elders and traditional Chiefs are the caretakers of the land. CARETAKERS not exploiters.

  2. Thank you for this article. Succinct. Easy to read. Not so easy to put into action, but it’s clear. The time for making change is now. Decolonize…there is no other option.