I first came across the term “white optics” in an anthropology paper on the distinction between female genital cutting and female genital mutilation. The term “white optics” describes the way the entire world is interpreted through the lens of white privilege. The more I write about indigenous resistance and decolonization, the more I am reminded in the knee-jerk push-back to my writing, of what this term means in concrete practise. I am going to attempt to explain what’s going on in my head here. This entry (the first of two) concerns the phenomenon I have come to understand as an attempt to contain colonialism to a problem of racism, as it is a common trait of the response my writing elicits in alleged white allies — people who claim to agree with the need for indigenous resistance, seeing the injustice faced by those communities, and yet who continue to try everything in their limited power to undermine any voice speaking to those issues that just happens to come from a white person.
This entry deals with people who either consciously or unconsciously try to contain any conception of colonialism to racism alone (people who often don’t even have the word colonialism in their vocabulary, but claim to be allies to indigenous resistance).
Part II deals with people who, rather than engaging with structures of colonialism to interrogate them more deeply, engage with the idea of colonialism itself as if it needs to be proven first before they can take it seriously.
Containing The Spectrum of Colonial Oppression to White Supremacy & Nothing More
Colonialism is a complicated system of oppression with multiple faces. White supremacy is just one of those faces, and while it plays a prominent role in colonial oppression, it is not the only structure of systemic injustice embedded into a greater narrative of colonialism. The distinction between racism in and of itself and colonialism is a critical one for any white person attempting to ally themselves with the cause of indigenous resistance. The deeper my involvement, the more often I find that a majority of white “allies” really haven’t searched any deeper within themselves, and are unable — or perhaps most sadly, simply unwilling — to make this distinction. These are the people who see themselves as allies primarily because they do not see themselves as racist, and thus choose to defy Racism With A Capital R.
A lot of these people have an intelligent and thoughtful analysis of racism to offer, as they understand very well and rather intuitively, exactly what white privilege is. They readily accept that white supremacy is embedded in the infrastructure of society itself, because they know full well that the society in question was constructed on the institutionalized enslavement of indigenous peoples from at least four separate continents. They may even know and accept that the Holocaust pales in comparison to what took place on North American soil upon contact from Europeans other than the Vikings. But they do not accept that this is just one facet of a much greater atrocity that continues on to this day, and that they play an oppressive part in during every single moment of their lives until they actively begin to resist the whole of it.
Many will have learned just what to say to placate the indigenous peoples for whom they believe they are fighting. Whether it is that they “work with” indigenous youth, or that The Indian Act is a racist piece of legislation that needs to be abolished — many stop short of calling it genocidal (I don’t and the linked post is about why), and this is no small distinction but actually a fairly significant one that should raise all sorts of red flags for anyone who has actually taken the time to read the 80-page bill originally implemented in 1876 (many haven’t and continue to refuse to) — it’s as if anti-racist allies, who conceptualize the oppression faced by indigenous peoples as one of racism alone, have memorized a small script of lines to recite in order to prove their credentials as activists fighting for the same side. But without conceptualizing colonialism (a word many of these same people don’t even have in their vocabulary) in much greater in scale and magnitude, and much more pervasive, these self-appointed “allies” to indigenous resistance are reinforcing a much more significant problem.
That problem is colonialism. And as non-indigenous peoples (i.e., Settlers), they possess an enormous set of privileges associated with that status. The result of simply avoiding the work of understanding the problem in this manner is reinforcing colonial privilege. Not only that, but many indigenous people have been subject to the same colonial brain-washing in the classrooms of Protestant and Catholic schools on reserves as Settlers experience in their public schools. A Settler who does not understand what the term Settler even means in terms of Settler privilege is unable to see the workings of this internalized colonialism in the voices of indigenous people who have yet to decolonize themselves. Thus, the solution to the crisis of white people who speak out against colonialism becomes a simple one: find any indigenous person who voices disagreement, and call any subsequent criticism of that (carefully chosen — for being easily manipulated by anti-racist white people) individual a form of racism or lateral violence.
Problem solved. No need to begin to understand colonialism further, since it ought to go away now that the conversation is itself a disincentive to that white person who started it. White Person Who Started It is just mad and frustrated and uninterested in educating “ally”, since “ally” refuses to do it themselves. and thus, is the True Ally in this conversation. For they did not losing their temper, did not perpetuate a form of criticism against internalized colonialism (that in the infinite wisdom of the True Ally is a form of racism or lateral violence, no matter who it is directed at — if that isn’t Stacking The Deck, I don’t know what is), and therefore no longer face a continued threat to their colonial privileges by slowly becoming aware of them and where they come from. The problem of colonialism breaching reinforced containment to white supremacy (and the associated crisis of privilege) has been averted. We can all go home now. At least, those of us who have homes can go to them.
Who really wins in this situation? It certainly isn’t indigenous peoples who are willing to put their lives on the line defending their lands, waters, air, children, fish, flora, fauna, and treaty rights (since they are already conscious that all of these things are slowly being legislated out of existence, they have nothing to lose by fighting to the death to stop it). It isn’t the white Settlers who ally themselves with equal passion to this cause. In fact, it isn’t even to the benefit of indigenous peoples who disagree that what is happening to them and their families is greater than Racism With A Capital R — that is, indigenous peoples who have so deeply internalized a colonial narrative that they can’t see the forest through the trees even as they are all being cut down faster than they can grow back; turned into our currency, our legislation, the millions of reports generated annually on reserves and mailed to the Minister of Aboriginal Affairs & Northern Development, paper advertisements plastered on virtually every visible surface in our capitalist wealth-worshipping society, a never-ending supply of new translations of The Holy Bible, IKEA furniture that winds up in a landfill within one year of purchase, and housing for the wealthiest among us all to live on top of the burial sites of indigenous ancestors.
No, the only people who win in this situation are the self-appointed anti-racist allies who can bask in the comfort of having taken one of their own allies down right at the knees, for the transgression of daring to disagree with… anyone.