Decolonize This? Properly Defining Settlers Part 1 of 2

Published by: C-101 Editors

stokely-carmichael-civil-rights-activist-resigned-as-prime-minister-of-the-black-panther-party

I want to talk about European settler colonies because, again, we’re dealing with land. A settler colony is an area of land where the European leaves Europe, comes to that area and takes over the land, and dominates the traditional owners of the land. My wife is from South Africa. South Africa is a settler colony. Europeans changed the name of Zimbabwe to Rhodesia, change the name so that it appears as if they have always belonged there. Because if they say they’re Rhodesians and they come from Rhodesia you never question it and it appears as if they are the traditional owners of that land …. But, my brothers and sisters, more importantly for you and for me, we must come to understand that America and Canada are settler colonies. You have been white-washed into believing that there was such a thing called the American Revolution. There was never such an animal. It was just sons fighting their parents for who’s going to take the loot. George Washington was born in England. He was fighting to control this piece of land. He wasn’t fighting a revolutionary fight. Revolution overturns systems, destroys, it’s bloody, it knows no compromise. What system did they overturn? None. They had slaves and they were taking this land from the red man …. After committing genocide, they changed the name to America. When you call them Americans, you make it sound as if they belong here. You do that because you want to call yourselves black Americans and you want to feel that you belong here too. But if we analyze history and if we agree that revolutions are based on historical analysis, we will see that they are not Americans, they are in fact European settlers. That’s all they are. Now I know what you will say: “Oh, but that happened a long time ago.” It might have happened five thousand years ago. I’m talking about history and fact. It is a fact that they are European settlers. And our ideology must analyze history.   – Kwame Ture1

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What is Settler Colonialism?

On the March 29, 2013 episode of the video podcast “It’s the End of the World As We Know It and I Feel Fine” entitled “Decolonize This!” produced by Frank Lopez, an Indigenous organizer named Amanda Lickers attempted to define colonialism and a settler. As we watched this segment, it became clear that despite a person’s claims of radical politics, an incorrect analysis can lead to a parochial sense of nationalism2 which results in anti-radical, and in this particular case, anti-Black sentiments.

The fundamentally disconcerting aspect of her definition was Lickers contention that, “A fucking settler is someone who is not Indigenous to Turtle Island [North America]. Meaning that their ancestors came here either by choice or coerced….” She proceeds to expound on a concept of there being different “types” of settlers whereby there are skin privileges within the settler group. Throughout her explanation there is a montage of white people such as the Canadian Prime Minister; and when she explains this concept of the “type” of settler who was coerced, exploited, and whose autonomy was violated, the montage cuts to various images of African people in chains.

Sale

Whoa! How can you be a settler when your ass is being sold as a commodity?

So how does one become a settler when they have no autonomy and were captured to be servile labor to SUPPORT a settler society? How is it that throughout her explanation she can call Africans in the Americas an indigenous population within a Diaspora (in an indirect/direct way…) but still concludes that Africans in the Americas are settlers? The inconsistency is apparent when you examine the true definition of settlerism and analyze her myopic view of indigeneity. Lickers uses the same colonial framework that she decries to bolster her idea of Africans being a lower class of settlers. She is essentially declaring that the nations of Turtle Island are the only indigenous entity held captive within this settler society and that African people only suffer from a race problem. By extension Africans do not suffer colonialism; we are only denied the ability to assimilate. Where we agree with Lickers is that North America is a settler society, but if one is required to assimilate, then you are NOT a settler (i.e. you don’t have to act like someone or something when you are that someone or something).

Defining Settler Colonialism

In the book Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century, Caroline Elkins and Susan Pedersen define settler colonialism as:

The presence of a settler population intent on making a territory their permanent home while continuing to enjoy metropolitan living standards and political privileges… In the Unites States, South Africa, Australia, and elsewhere, settlers sought to construct communities bounded by ties of ethnicity and faith in what they persistently defined as virgin or empty land.3

This definition is consistent with the historical record and the current position of African people in the Americas and within otherSettler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century-Elkins-Pedersen-C101 settler societies. The reality is that no African has political privilege when the human rights of our ancestors and those of us living now are always contentious and require legislation (i.e. The Civil Rights Act of 1964). Ensconced within the confines of the European settlers’ polity, whatever privileges Africans in America accumulate will serve to benefit a few at the expense of the masses of African people. The so-called “advancement” of this small few is an exception to the rule and can only be attained if the primary benefits accrue to the European settler society. For comparison, consider the Civil Rights struggle as analogous to striving for assimilado status in Portugal’s African colonies.

Africans and other oppressed nationalities in the Americas who hold high and management positions in mainstream society may enjoy more material benefits than Indigenous people, however, since these individuals are not involved in decolonial struggles and function via the status quo, they serve the needs and objectives of the true Pan-European settler society. This makes Africans captive since we lost our traditional ways of life, and constantly lose any new manifestations of Africana through usurpation and cooptation as occupied communities. So, knowing that a settler is an agent of colonialism and colonialism is a process whereby an alien culture undermines another nation’s sovereignty, in what ways can an African be called a settler? It should be noted throughout the interview Lickers is speaking ENGLISH, not a YORUBA language (similarly, the editors are writing in English, not an African language).

Returning back to a key portion of Elkins and Pedersen’s definition, we must make it clear that Africans and Europeans do not come from the same ties of ethnicity. Europeans colonized and enslaved Africans under a pseudo-science whereby Europeans created the “white race” for political objectives. In the settler colonies of the Americas, this “white race” included all the ethnic groups of Europe. Africans were transformed into “negros”, “property”, “chattel”, “tools”, and “things.” As Elkins and Pedersen succulently point out:

Extermination and assimilation… were two sides of the same coin: both aimed at protecting the culturally (and not simply racially) white character of the population, and of utterly destroying the indigenous world.4

Africans were so utterly destroyed as human beings within ourselves, people feel comfortable enough to label us “chocolate covered” white people….oops, I mean settlers. Let’s be real, any racial epithet thrown at Africans is to remind us of our supposed, ontological atavism: “Go back to Africa!”, “African booty scratcher”, etc. Are these not parallel to making Indian nations mascots for football teams or referring to people indigenous to North America as “Dirty Injuns” or “Drunk Injuns?” There is absolutely no ethnic political ties that substantiate Lickers claim that Africans are settlers of Turtle Island and it is a fundamental error to confuse an African who is a victim of settler colonialism as being an agent of settler colonialism.

  1. Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), Stokely Speaks: From Black Power to Pan-Africanism (Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2007), 199-200.
  2. We deem a parochial sense of nationalism to be an overriding concern with a person’s national identity*. This is in contrast to a revolutionary sense of nationalism whereby one places their concerns and political projects within the context of the group to which they derive their national identity in addition to other groups that are similarly situated.

    *Note that national identity is not tied to the construction of nation-states, but is determined by a person’s origin.  The concept of nation-states is a settler colonial construction; thus, when one identifies their national identity with the nation-state where they are geographically located they politically fortify settler colonialism.  For instance, if an “African-American” and a “Haitian” get caught on a dark road in Vidor, Texas (a notoriously racist Sundown Town) the treatment they would receive would be based on these people’s national identity of origin (i.e. Africa) which trumps their national identity as defined by modern nation-states.

  3. Caroline Elkins and Susan Pedersen, Introduction to Settler Colonialism in the Twentieth Century:  Projects, Practices, Legacies, ed. by Caroline Elkins and Susan Pedersen (New York: Routledge, 2005), 2.
  4. Ibid., p. 3.