by Adele Thomas
Settler privilege, as I’ve understood it broadly, is having specific rights, advantages or immunities granted or available only to a particular group of people (settlers), while the Indigenous groups are excluded from those benefits. But when you are neither the colonizer nor the Indigenous group, where do you fit in? More specifically, can African Americans claim access to this privilege?
Often, I find myself feeling the guilt of anti-Indigeneity and Native erasure, contemplating my role in systems oppressive of Indigenous people alongside colonizers who are also charged with African genocide. Taken or sold into bondage and used to develop a global economy, most Africans did not arrive in this country by choice but instead for the purposes of chattel slavery, and while it may be arguing semantics, if Black people cannot claim economic, educational, financial, or cultural privilege, what exactly defines our privilege on stolen land?
The open ended use of the word “privilege” lends it to be used without regard for how much power a person or group has in relation to their culture or geographic habitation. That which many are describing as privilege is more accurately described in the case of African descendants of slaves as willful complicity: the act of submitting to systemic oppression of the self and of others.
It could be argued that many African descendants of slaves do have a sense of false ownership of this country and its fruition. However dangerously dismissive certain sentiments are, some Black folk, particularly those who desire for patriarchal power, share views or can rationalize the type of shit like, “Our ancestors built this country with blood, sweat, and tears! This country was built by us but not for us.” But what country are we talking about if not the one Indigenous people have been struggling against since its inception?
It can’t be ignored that African enslaved people in the U.S. have also set into motion movements that have inspired and continue to inspire uprisings against the oppressive status quo. They should always be acknowledged so that their work lives on. But what happens when you use that work to pave the way for you to demand settlers and their decedents let you into their oppressive systems? Hold chairs and offices in their branches of government? Put the faces of anti-capitalist freedom fighters on the oppressor’s currency?
What might such behavior mean to a group of people also oppressed by white supremacy, capitalism, genocidal practices, and forced assimilation—who have likewise said from the beginning that “muthafuckas never luh’d us”?
In many social justice and progressive spaces for Black and Brown people, these conversations can quickly turn sour. Cross accusations of cultural appropriation, anti-Blackness, Native erasure and a lack of necessary nuance in describing people of the diaspora as “settlers” on their captor’s occupied land doesn’t create a space for productive criticism. The belief in “Black hypervisibility” perpetuates the idea that we purposefully garner an unfair amount of attention for our struggle comparative to others.
This same “hypervisibility” is, in my opinion, often for white entertainment and placation. The struggle for “visibility”, framed as anti-racism, distorts the effects of racism and white supremacy on Indigenous people and creates a strong arm in Black people that is forced to bear the weight of others’ oppression.
When I think about reciprocity, solidarity and equity for the African Diaspora in a revolutionary framework, I grapple internally with wanting to speak within the country, about the country, in criticism of the country, but very much enjoying the benefits of living in the country that was lived on first by Indigenous and Native people. This land is connected to their descendants, some of which are my neighbors, friends and co-workers.
When someone calls me, a Black woman, on settler privilege, it can seem like a classic oppression Olympic tactic. But when I sit on my laptop, enjoying WiFi and Hulu, daydreaming about home loans and renovations to a cute historic ranch house, what am I really doing? Am I imagining my “American dream”? Where land still belongs to settler communities under anti-Black decree? In this context, the problem is not defined as an either/or—of either being oppressed or oppressing—but rather being complicit either willfully or negligently to the oppression of Indigenous and Black people alike, a type of complicity Indigenous people can fall into as well.
Immediately, I’m brought to the stark realization that as a child of the diaspora, I could also be seen as a settler if I returned to any place in Africa, where most of my ancestral lineage is. But is that what ties you to the land? Is the land what ties you to your personhood and your identity? Where does a radical Black American woman like myself exist in this moment?
Searching for the answer brings me face to face with a difficult reality—a reality that means it is understood and acknowledged that I am here as a result of theft of life and culture. This feeling is hollowing and a specific loss of self and personhood unique to that of a non-Indigenous slave descendant. The denial of ever having a true anchor even if able to completely dismantle the settler system.
Jared Sexton reframes anti-racism and anti-settler colonization as movements with a need for nuance in the understanding of oppression under colonialism, with specific acknowledgment of the effects of chattel slavery on the African diaspora as it pertains to land sovereignty. In The Vel of Slavery: Tracking the Figure of the Unsovereign, Sexton states:
Is it possible that we could understand our mutual trauma of continued colonization and oppression to have a solution outside of a “claim” to land? I have seen Black and Indigenous people reckon with these issues without hostility. So where is this sense of enmity created? Is it another example of movements not deconstructing the colonial framework of their revolutions, dooming them to repeat the same mistakes, which are both anti-Black and anti-Indigenous? Perhaps acknowledging what I choose to call willful complicity rather than charges of African American settler privilege is a chance to take an organic next and very radical step toward revolution in solidarity and reciprocity.
Adele Thomas is a social media content creator and contributing editor of Consciously Decolonizing on Facebook, Tweets too much @Whogivesabibble and takes supportive donations from readers and followers via Paypal.me/whogivesabibble. She is a human and birth rights activist, member of the APSP and African National Women’s Organization, and a Black African Femme Geek by day… revolutionary mother by night.