Stolen people on stolen land: decolonizing while Black.

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 assimilationwho 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:

‘What if the problem is sovereignty as such’ (Moten, 2013)? Abolition, the political dream of Black Studies, its unconscious thinking, consists in the affirmation of the unsovereign slave – the affectable, the derelict, the monstrous, the wretched – figures of an order altogether different from (even when they coincide or cohabit with) the colonized native – the occupied, the undocumented, the unprotected, the oppressed. Abolition is beyond (the restoration of) sovereignty.


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 ThomasAdele 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  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.

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  1. I love Adele Thomas ‘ line of questioning.

    As I looked up settler colonialism, I could not find a definition that applied amply to black people. So I don’t allow myself to be called settler. Our people were stolen and brutalized , forced into labor , and then were dehumanized in the minds of everyone else; subsequently we were trapped here. The whole of modernity rest squarely in the occasion of European imperialism and the founding of chattel slavery and anti blackness. Meaning that there is nowhere possible to escape anti blackness. Even most of the indigenous peoples of the world are black. So when it comes to being a settler, not only did we not put the Machinery that produces slavery and genocide into motion we also are not allowed power in any sort of a way that would allow us to not participate. Just like any consumption and the use of most technology and the contribution to any land mass now known as the Western Country directly contributes to the subjugation of black and brown people around the planet. So, as people who are never given any sort of bargaining rights with whiteness , any participation in the settler Colonial project is social manipulation and coercion. So the focus on Black people as enemies and willful participants (even if they seem so) is not factual and is anti Black…a perverse kind of victim blaming.

    So there are the structural revolutions that need to take place. But this alone won’t succeed and decolonizing if we are to use the definition of decolonization that is removal of all non-indigenous power and property holders and repatriation. This would set up a geographical reality very similar to what existed prior to colonialism which is to say that colonialism would still be a possibility should people regroup and fortify themselves. So then there must also be a shift in the current ontological underpinnings of modern day Society. Slavery , the vehicle by which imperialism happens , must become an impossibility in the minds of people. Because slavery makes colonization possible, I really don’t rightly understand how abolition isn’t a larger part of decolonization or a consideration.

    So in this, I understand the need to talk about interracial abuses… But I also see decolonial and abolitionist movements as transcending these intercommunal interactions.

    I would also like to add how utterly impossible this conversation would be to have in any place South of the US where populations are mixed a great deal more.

    In my own thinking, what I do is imagine what globalization would have looked like had white men never gotten involved. Because it was already beginning to happen. We know pretty solidly now that Africans had made it to the new world and seem to have lived and died peacefully. Are there any imaginings that could happen around that? I believe that there are but it also takes will. Perhaps there is a greater Revolution to be waged… And a greater freedom to know. I will probably never see either but I can go there in my mind.

  2. Just want to say that this is wonderfully critical piece that asks some of the most important questions of our age. As a White sis-gender male, who studies historical capitalist expansion, colonialism, and global indigenous knowledge, it is really exciting to read a young woman digging into it like this! Good work!!!! These are the kinds of essays I am always trying to get my students to read.

  3. I really appreciate your critical thoughts on this, as my indigenous comrades argue and discuss how to respond to the Olmec African “theory” which is held to be so true by Black Nationalist groups. It seems to me like theories and beliefs like these are easy for some to grasp as they seek some legitimate, or rather, a more empowered claim to stake on this continent. This conversation or debate we have been having stems from this exhibit: “where black is brown”

    What we found on this art exhibit page was a flyer sporting an Olmec head which announced “Where Black Is Brown” an exhibit that “explores the African diaspora from the Olmec to modern times”. The curator is a Dr. Humber (doctorate in socio-linguistics) who seems to specialize on the subject of the African Olmec “theory” which she presents as fact. As you will see she has changed the description from Olmec to “ancient”, this is a slippery move for sure, is 500 or 300 years considered ancient?

    The heart of the matter is of course the idea that civilization was seeded by Africans who came to be called the Olmecs, this is a hurtful idea because there is no more proof of this than there is of the Ancient Alien theory, which I might add is very disrespectful. Even one of the commenters above said “We know pretty solidly now that Africans had made it to the new world and seem to have lived and died peacefully”, really? There is no proof of that yet the idea is prevalent and accepted as fact; it has been debunked thoroughly but the debunking is seen as merely anti black.

    Thank you for asking these questions, for being mindful and for sharing. I identify as Indigenous from Mexico even though I am “mixed” with Filipino, Black and Native DNA.

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