Andrea Smith’s plenary talk at Critical Ethnic Studies and the Future of Genocide, Thursday, March 10, 2011
So what we’ve often seen in the development of Native Studies and Ethnic Studies is that there’s been a suspicious relationship between both of them. And in particular Native scholars have often argued that we should not be part of an Ethnic Studies project because Ethnic Studies positions native peoples as ethnic minorities rather than as peoples seeking decolonization. Now while there is much to say about this critique, it often presumes that Ethnic Studies is working for everybody but Native Studies. But our old school-five food groups model is not really working for anybody. Because in fact it sets us on the project of seeking racial representation whereas Denise da Silva says “We will discuss never before heard languages, spoken by never before heard things that will actualize a never before known consciousness” so in this project we then seek representation in the ideological state apparatus otherwise affectionately known as the Academic Industrial Complex. And as a result of that we don’t actually then engage in the process of dismantling white supremacy and settler colonialism. Instead we seek representation within the state and within its ideological apparatus known as the Academic Industrial Complex through our claims of specialness. That is, “Give us a government grant because we are quadruply oppressed in a way that nobody else is oppressed, and therefore recognize our claims to specialness through this process. Consequently we cannot then engage in any solidarity or strategic alliances because then we won’t be special anymore. This then is apparently under the idea that if the powers-that-be understood how cool, interesting and spiritual we were, they would like us and we would be free. So consequently we have failed to develop an analytic of how white supremacy and settler colonialism intersect, and this then stops us from being able to build projects that will dismantle both of them. So first to begin with an idea of how an analytic of settler colonialism can inform our work.
So we heard the proposition last night, “We need to dismantle the United States.” This sounds kind of preposterous and silly to most people but the question is, “Why? Why does it sound so absurd to say that we don’t want to live under a settler state founded on genocide and slavery?” That the proposition seems silly shows the extent to which we have so completely normalized genocide that we cannot actually imagine a future without genocide. Even our political radical imaginaries are founded on the premise of a continuing genocidal project. So the result of this then is often work that focuses on critical race theory, often marks slavery but not genocide as a central contradiction in U.S. society. It talks about the permanency of racism in the U.S. while praising racial progress at the same time because it can’t imagine dismantling racism outside the confines of the U.S. state. And consequently even radical thinkers and activists make the Constitution this ceiling for our visions of liberation. After 9/11, it seemed like even radical activists and theorists were complaining about Bush because he was unconstitutional. As similarly not too long ago there was a big flurry of anger when Scalia was quoted as saying that the Constitution does not guarantee protection for women and LGBT communities. So now all I can say now that I’ve been reading constitutional law is that 1) we need to seriously re-read it because it doesn’t say what we think it says, and 2) if our vision of gender and racial justice is going to be framed by the Constitution, we are in very serious trouble. So there’s a problem when the constitution becomes the ceiling for our visions of social justice when at very best it should be the floor. So I think that this is why those engaged in critical race theory need to see the essential importance of addressing settler colonialism, not because native genocide is bad simply because of its impact on native communities but because it naturalizes logics of domination for all society. When we look at the colonial project what we see happening is that native societies pose a threat because they pose an alternative vision for self-determination that threats the security of the European white settler state. It shows that the logics of domination under which we operate are in fact not natural, so genocide becomes essential for eliminating an alternative not just for native peoples but for everybody’s. What settler colonialism does is that it sets a ceiling on what the future can be such that we cannot even imagine a future without genocide. This tendency then leaves us to develop critical visions only within the constraints of the possible and then infects all the work that we do.
For instance if we look at the Academic Industrial Complex. We whine and complain about how racist it is. As if the only problem is a few racist administrators who need to be fired. And if we just convince them how great Ethnic Studies is, they’d just give us more money. But if we were actually to imagine a liberatory educational system would this be it? Professors, do we say, “Tenure was the most fun thing I’ve ever done, I wish I could do it again”? Do students say, “You know, I love it when I work really hard for my finals and then get a bad grade anyway, how empowering was that”? We don’t even try to imagine building an alternative to the Academic Industrial Complex. We act as if the problem is that there is racism in the academy, not that the academy is structured by racism. And here’s where we can learn from the Prison Industrial Complex. Is not that the organizing against the Prison Industrial Complex puts forth a model of abolition that doesn’t just say that it’s about tearing down prison walls now but it’s about building alternatives that squeeze out the current system. Similarly, while we might have day jobs in the academic system, why can’t we start building alternatives to this system, build the educational system that we would actually like to see that could then squeeze out the current system as it develops. So, for instance, when Arizona says something like they’re going to ban Ethnic Studies, we think, “Oh no, there’s not going to be Ethnic Studies because the State says so!” We presume the state owns Ethnic Studies and it actually can ban it. We don’t say, “Uh, whatever, Arizona! Ethnic Studies is not a gift from the Academic Industrial Complex or from the state. It’s a product of social movements for social justice, and as long as they exist there will be Ethnic Studies wherever and whenever we go.” And did we ever really think Ethnic Studies was going to be legitimate in a white supremacist and settler colonialist academy? And if ever did become legitimate, we would know we had failed in our task.
So similarly on the other side, an analysis of white supremacy then shapes the work we do for decolonization because what I found in Native activism and Native organizing is that we say the same terms, “sovereignty” and “self-determination,” but there’s no political content behind those terms. Somebody working for George Bush will say the same thing as somebody opposing capitalism.
… our projects for self-determination and recognition are actually presupposed on a temporal claim of prior occupancy rather than on a spatial framework of radical relationality to land. This temporal framework of prior occupancy becomes co-opted by state discourses that enable Native peoples to address land encroachment only by articulating their claims in terms of land ownership. Essentially, it’s not your land, it’s our land because we were here first. In doing so, land must become a commodity that can be owned and controlled by one group of people. But if we understand Native identity as spatially- rather than as temporally-based then these claims to land would be based not on claims of prior occupancy but based on radical relationality to land. As Mishuana Goeman and Patricia Monture-Angus argue, indigenous nationhood is not based on control of territory or land, but is based relationship and responsibility for land.
Although Aboriginal Peoples maintain a close relationship with the land… it is not about control of the land…Earth is mother and she nurtures us all…it is the human race that is dependent on the earth and not vice versa…
Sovereignty, when defined as my right to be responsible, … requires a relationship with territory (and not a relationship based on control of that territory). … What must be understood then is that Aboriginal request to have our sovereignty respected is really a request to be responsible. I do not know of anywhere else in history where a group of people have had to fight so hard just to be responsible.12
This then entails an epistemological project akin to Denise da Silva’s book, Toward a Global Idea of Race, that we understand the self not to be a self-determining subject not subject to what everyone else wants to do but instead understanding the self as radically connected to rest of Creation. When we have a self that is understood in this way, the nation we build from that self radically changes. It doesn’t become a nation based on “This is our territory, we’re in, you’re out, screw the rest of the world,” but it becomes an expansive, inclusive concept that’s based on being responsible for all of the world.
So fortunately, there are now many Indigenous scholars and activists that are articulating an indigenous politics based on these kinds of frameworks. At the 2008 World Social Forum, the Indigenous Peoples of Latin America put on the table the issue of the nation-state. They said the nation-state has not worked in the last 500 years so we don’t think it’s going to start working now. The way they were articulating indigeneity was about that everybody needs to go home, which is what is presupposed. They said, no, all are welcome to the land but you have to live in a different relationship to the land. You have to understand yourself as radically connected to the land so we can develop systems of governance that are sustainable so the earth can survive. And when many of these activists are speaking from communities that are facing literal genocide now, it’s not a metaphorical in any way, and yet they are able to say we are here to save the world and not just us, then who are we not to take up this charge that can take up a politic that can be liberating for everybody?
So essentially indigeneity then in this framework becomes a praxis rather than a static identity that focuses on the building of relationships between people and all creation. This then intervenes in our debates on whether we should consider people of color as settlers, because this then changes the problem from migration to land commodification. In other words, when land is a commodity is not possible to migrate without displacing somebody else. But when land is not a commodity, migration doesn’t become the problem that it becomes when we have to have these artificial borders.
This makes us rethink our idea of indigenous peoples as having a natural relationship to land that is becoming irrevocably lost. Marcus Briggs-Cloud, a Muscogee scholar, argues that indigenous relationships to land happen through practice ceremony and the living of right relationship to land. “The fact that many indigenous peoples have suffered relocation, loss of language and historical discontinuities does not preclude them from reestablishing relationships through prayer and ceremony. Tradition is not static; it is the historical accumulation of communications with the land. These traditions may be severed but communications may always begin again.”
As Scott Lyons argues, “We must critically examine the ‘genocidal implications’ that are always inherent in the notion of Indian identity as timeless, stable, eternal but probably in the minds of most people still vanishing. ‘Being’ vanishes and doing keeps doing.”
So then I think that by engaging the analytics of white supremacy and settler colonialism together we can then begin to develop a different model for liberation. In some of these components, I think there’s not a program because if we all knew how to end global oppression we would have done it by now. So let’s just admit that we really don’t know what we’re talking about but we’re going to give it our best shot through revolution through trial and error.
But I propose some things that might occur by bringing these two syntheses together is that (1) we would start to see the project of liberation as a creative project where we don’t just oppose something but create the world we want to see. We want people to join the revolution and it’s hard for people to join the revolution if we subject them to four-hour meetings with no food, on hard chairs, and yell at them that they’re being counterrevolutionary. I suspect that liberation will involve many trips to the Glen Ivy Day Spa, so please go sign up…. But we want to make the revolution so fun that people can’t wait to join. And I think we see this happening in Egypt and in other places: they aren’t just opposing state powers but creating a different way of living together.
(2) I think this would also put us in a system of seeing nationhood as a collective project that’s expansive and open-ended and based on the principles of radical relationality rather than “we have the party line and you must join or there’s something wrong with you.”
(3) Our work in the Academic Industrial Complex then would be based on an actual project to dismantle logics of white supremacy and settler colonialism, and we might build the educational system that we want to see. First, we would realize that it’s not just enough to think cool, groovy revolutionary thoughts; we have to work collectively together. The system can handle a million oppositional activists as long as they don’t work with anybody else. It only changes if we work together. We might change the way we do work in the academy.
We often to think of the revolution as content and not process. We don’t often question the capitalist logic of the grading system or the pretty fascist way we tend to teach most of our classes so it’s no wonder that people revolt when they come to Ethnic Studies 101 when they’re treated like crap. We don’t think of the process as being important as the content.
And then in addition we need to critique the individualized way we do the work. This is why academics are always complaining that they can’t join the revolution because they’re too tired, busy and depressed. But we’re going to end global oppression if everybody’s not tired, busy and depressed and we have two people left to end global oppression. What this suggests is that instead of thinking of organizing as something you have to leave your life to do, we need to change the way we live our life so that our lives becomes organizing. What if we collectivize the teaching, we collectivize the research, what if we make organizing integral to the teaching we’re already doing. We wouldn’t have to leave our lives to do it; it would become part of the academic project itself.
And I think this would stop the split we always say: you know, academics and activists are two very different things. Well that presupposes is a very certain way of doing academic work. We don’t have to accept the terms of the debate. We can change the academic work that we do to make it inherently revolutionary.
And finally while we’re trying to do our day jobs, we don’t have to do just that. We can start to create alternatives to the educational complex. We can work with organizations to ask, “What are the educational systems we’d like to do?” It would keep us be more accountable to the work we do in our day jobs but it would also give us more power to negotiate in our day jobs as well. This is why the system can pick us off, it’s easy to pick off one academic after another because as Barbara Major states, “When we go to the table without a base, your demand becomes a request.”