A Decolonized America Is No America | Notes on Tuck and Yang's "Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor"

February 14, 2021
7 min read

The structures and constructions by which people are discriminated against in today’s society are numerous. Oppression based on race, gender, sexuality, ability, and other systems are frequently discussed in social justice circles, and once you’ve spent some time in them, you get the gist for how to tackle them: educate yourself and others; acknowledge your privilege; advocate and work to dismantle the oppressive systems and constructions. (Much easier said than done, of course.)

Yet, even in a BIPOC affinity space with members who were no strangers to critical theory and radical liberation movements, trying to understand settler colonialism was, as Tuck and Yang put it in their well-circulated article “Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor,” “unsettling.” Settler colonialism intersects with other systems we know well: race, gender, capitalism. But while other liberation struggles seek to build intersectional solidarity, these liberation struggles actually move in opposition to the struggle of decolonization.

Tuck and Yang argue that settler colonialism is more foundational to American society (and other settler colonialist nation states) than race and even capitalism[^marx]. To dismantle and undo colonialism is not something that can be equated with other liberation struggles. Rather, decolonization, in addition to the repatriation of land, wealth, and power to Indigenous people, requires an “ethic of incommensurability,” in which the interests of settlers – other minoritized and oppressed groups among them – are not taken into consideration.

Movements against economic inequality aim to empower the 99% at the cost of the 1%, but decolonization would impoverish 99.1% of those living in America.

“There is no ‘decolonizing’ UChicago,” wrote Kelly Hui in a piece in *The Chicago Maroon. “Nothing short of abolition of the University as we know it will suffice.”

Blowing up the scope: there is no “decolonizing” America, or any other settler colonialist nation state: nothing short of its abolition as we know it will suffice.

What Is Settler Colonialism?

Tuck and Yang identify two general forms of colonialism: external and internal. In external colonialism, Indigenous people, land, plants, animals, etc. are made into resources to be exploited for the gain of the colonizers. In internal colonialism, systems like prisons, policing, and ghettos are used to oppress people within the colonizing nation’s “domestic” borders.

Settler colonialism describes the situation where the colonizer comes to settle on the colonized land, eliminating the spatial separation between the colony and its parent. Settler colonialism results in a complex mix of both external and internal colonialist systems, Tuck and Yang write.

The characteristic task of a settler colonialist project is to establish the settler as “the anthroprocentric normal,” “more developed, more human, more deserving than other groups of species.” Indigenous worldviews and societies are cast as backwards and savage, while settler ones are asserted to be more advanced and civilized. Tuck and Yang refer to capitalistic views on land and property in particular: “In the process of settler colonialism, land is remade into property and human relationships to land are restricted to the relationship of the owner to his property…‘civilization’ is defined as production in excess of the ‘natural’ world.”

“Settlers are not immigrants,” Tuck and Yang write. “Immigrants are beholden to the Indigenous las and epistemologies of the lands they migrate to. Settlers become the law, supplanting Indigenous laws and epistemologies,”

Settler Futurism and Indigenous Erasure

Yet, just casting Indigenous people as inferior is not enough for a settler colonialist society. Rather, to establish settlers’ full ownership and control over the colonized land, Indigenous people must be eliminated from the present reality completely.

“The settler wants to be made Indigenous,” Tuck and Yang write. They quote historian Philip Deloria: “Americans wanted to feel a natural affinity with the continent, and it was the Indians who could teach them such aboriginal closeness. Yet, in order to control the landscape they had to destroy the original inhabitants.”

Yet the idea of Indigenous people and culture, if highly appropriated and bastardized, feature prominently in the American imagination. Celebrities and politicians oft claim 1/32, 1/64, or what have you Indian heritage (overwhelmingly on the maternal side, Tuck and Yang point out; an “Indian princess” is an exotic object, while a male Indian warrior is a threat). Are these gestures somehow anti-colonial, if settler colonialism aims to erase Indigenous people?

Far from it. Tuck and Yang identify this behavior as “settler nativism,” which functions to erase Indigenous people by relegating them strictly in the realm of the historical past and out of the present. “Settler nativism is about imagining an Indian past and a settler future,” Tuck and Yang write.

This mechanism was in play as early as the 1830s. During the execution of Andrew Jackson’s Indian Removal Act and Trial of Tears, settler America’s imagination was captured by James Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales, of which The Last of the Mohicans we are likely all familiar with. Written in 1826, the book tells a story of the fictional Mohican tribe, whose chief Chingachgook adopts a white man, Natty Bumpo, as his son, renaming him Nathaniel Hawkeye. When Chingachgook dies, he hands over his son Uncas, the last member of the tribe, to Hawkeye. When Uncas dies, Hawkeye, an “Indigenized” white man, becomes the last of the Mohicans.

Hawkeye’s story reflects the same settler nativist fantasy that drives celebrities and politicians to claim Indian heritage, in doing so acknowledging Indigenous people only as existing in the past, the reference now conveying a sense of legitimacy to the superceding settler.

An extra kicker? The Last of the Mohicans was set in 1757, a blatant construction of Indian people and culture being extinct in the distant past, while at the same time as the book’s publication and consumption tens of thousands of Cherokee people were being violently forced off of their land. “The Tales are not only silent on Indian Removal but narrate the Indian as vanishing in an earlier time frame, and thus Indigenous people are already dead prior to removal,” Tuck and Yang write.

Indigenous Racialization

The construction of how Indigenous people are racialized in comparison to those of other racial minorities in the US is a further illustration of settler futurism and Indigenous erasure.

Functioning to reinforce slavery, Black people in America are racialized through (in historian Patrick Wolfe’s words) “the ‘one-drop rule’, whereby any amount of African ancestry, no matter how remote, and regardless of phenotypical appearance, makes a person Black.” The purpose for Black racialization is to continuously subjugate and exploit: the more Black people there are, fully inhereting the Black slave/criminal status, the more their oppressors benefit. Thus, Black racialization, and the racialization of most other visible racial minorities in America, is expansive.

In contrast, Indigenous racialization, functioning to erase Indigenous peoples from the present reality and reinforce settler futurism, is subtractive. “Non-Indian ancestry [compromises an Indigenous person’s] indigeneity,” Wolfe writes. “Indgenous pepole obstructred settlers’ access to land, so their increase was counterproductive. In this way, the restrictive racial classification of Indians straightforwardly furthered the logic of elimination.”

“Native Americans are constructed to become fewer in number and less Native, but never exactly white, over time,” Tuck and Yang write. “Native American is a racialization that portrays contemporary Indigenous generations to be less authentic, less Indigenous than every prior generation in order to ultimately phase out Indigenous claims to land and usher in settler claims to property.”

There are many racial groups who are minoritized in America, but in terms of colonial relations, the racialization of Indigenous people serves a fundamentally different purpose than the racialization of other marginalized groups.

Tuck and Yang bring up literature about the societal positions of other minoritized groups in America, framing their critiques as centering around “the impossibility of fully becoming a white settler” through such concepts as glass ceilings, “forever foreign” status, and the model minority myth. While this literature “offers a strong critique of the myth of the democratic nation-state,” Tuck and Yang argue that the endpoint being strove for – “the attainment of equal legal and cultural entitlements” in a settler colonialist society – “is actually an investment in settler colonialism.”

“For many people of color, becoming a subordinate settler is an option even when becoming white is not,” Tuck and Yang write. In the possibility for minority excellence, or the conception of a model minority, non-Indigenous minorities are positioned in colonial relations in such a way that the settler status is attained, or attainable, for them. Furthermore, struggles for racial liberation strive for liberation within a settler-colonialist nation-state, reinforcing settler-colonialist structures rather than working to decolonize them.

This is what makes settler-colonialism so complicated, and decolonization difficult, write Tuck and Yang. Settlers, i.e. those who uphold settler-colonialist structures, can be white, or brown, or Black, or enslaved, or even subjects of other colonialist structures, as many American immigrants cum settlers are.

Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor: An Ethic of Incommensurability

In the face of this complexity, the default behavior for guilty settlers (i.e. all of us who are not Indigenous), as is the case for guilty racists or misogynists or what have you (i.e. all of us who consciously or unconsciously uphold these structures), is to make “moves towards innocence.” These moves function to center the privileged, guilty individual, alleviating them of their blame rather than taking any sort of action or responsibility for the society they uphold.

Settler nativism, discussed earlier, is one such move: settlers claiming Indian ancestry or some sort of Indigeneity, placing them outside of the settler-Indigenous relation and absolving them of their guilt, while further strengthening Indigenous erasure and settler futurism.

Tuck and Yang discuss several more forms of settler moves to innocence, falling under the titular theme of turning decolonization into a metaphor. Decolonization is not a general term to call other social justice efforts by. Decolonization is not an action of the individual mind or individual instituion.

Decolonization is straightforwardly the repatriation of all land, wealth, and power to the Indigenous people.

Decolonization is not reconciliation, rather requiring an ethic of incommensurability. “Reconciliation is concerned with questions of what will decolonization look like? What will happen after abolition? What will be the consequences of decolonization for the settler?” Tuck and Yang write. “Incommensurability acknowledges that these questions need not, and perhaps cannot, be answered in order for decolonization to exist as a framework…decolonization is not accountable to settlers, or settler futurity. Decolonization is accountable to Indigenous soveriengty and futurity.”

What does decolonization look like in practice? Beyond education, scholarship, and discourse, Tuck and Yang acknowledge that the answer is unclear. “The answers will not emerge from friendly understanding, and indeed requires a dangerous understanding of the uncommonality that un-coalesces coalition politics.”

Like other frameworks, the power of this radical understanding of decolonization is in imagining what has been made unimaginable. “The native futures, the lives to be lived once the settler nation is gone – these are the unwritten possibilities made possible by an ethic of incommensurability,” Tuck and Yang write. “Decolonization offers a different perspective to human and civil rights based approaches to justice, an unsettling one, rather than a contemporary one. Decolonization is not an ‘and’. It is an elsewhere.”