I’m going to spoiler alert this right off the bat: one of these things is not like the other. That doesn’t mean, however, that they are in any way simply unrelated or completely disconnected. That’s not how the world works: all oppressions and privileges are woven into one another, and all these intersecting twists and turns of inequality are what constitute the fabric of our society.
Colonialism, Settler Privilege, And Decolonizing
In 1492, indigenous peoples on Turtle Island found Christopher Columbus lost at sea. Only we’re always told and telling each other this story from the perspective that assumes subjectivity of the colonizer. We’ve been perpetuating the myth of the benevolent explorer rescuing the Godless heathens, barbarians, and savages from primitive society since 1493, and it is quite simply one of the most inaccurate records ever written, in all the world’s history. This is colonialism, and it is a genocidal process that has yet to stop. Columbus and other European colonists of Turtle Island wiped out 100 million indigenous people with smallpox, and enslaved everyone who survived in order to build what would very rapidly become North American society on the land they simply didn’t have enough people left to defend. The only means of escape were to assimilate into Western European culture, or die trying not to, and this is still true today. Then came the treaties which were just one among many aspects of a supplanted government. The earliest treaties, which are responsible for the bulk of indigenous loss of rights to ancestral territory and resulting displacement, were often coerced through a combination of alcohol, treaty agreements written entirely in languages the indigenous parties could not even begin to comprehend, and deliberately choosing tribe members who did not have the proper authority to sign away the rights of their entire tribes. This is colonialism, and it has yet to stop.
Thus, when I have written somewhat obliquely about Settler privilege and the Settler identity (e.g., intraracial inequality among whites, the construction of whiteness in this society) before this is exactly what I have been referring to. Understand first, however, that you are a Settler here, whether you like it or not and whether or not you or your ancestors came here willingly, if you are not Indigenous. This is determined entirely by the question of who benefits from the supplanted colonial governments that maintain the explicit and express purpose of either fully assimilating (i.e., erasing) or systematically dis-empowering (i.e., wiping out) indigenous peoples (there is no grey on this matter), the back-stabbing and under-handed treaties system that has remained essentially unchanged for over 500 years, the slavery and trafficking of indigenous people that built the foundation for the society we live in today (which was also subsequently furthered by the slave labour of many other colonized ethnic groups from around the world, who unlike indigenous people, were brought here from elsewhere), and the displacement of indigenous people from their ancestral territories (which is still maintained to this day, and which frequently puts them at significant risk both of being invisible to the colonial government and of being quietly poisoned by the apathy and carelessness of colonial institutions). If you are not Indigenous, you are a Settler here, you are benefiting every day from this systematic oppression against indigenous peoples, and this is not a personal insult so much as an objective statement of fact.
Decolonizing, then, begins when we acknowledge our many privileges as Settlers, and commit to daily interrogation of how we can individually and collectively subvert them — such as by sharing insights like these, about what colonialism is; and by standing where you feel in your heart you need to be (whether it be in front of indigenous people to prevent them from being targeted for assassination by hostile demonstrations of the colonial military, or behind them while they impart their insights, wisdom, traditions, spirituality, and culture onto you), in order to defend the sovereignty, respect, and dignity of indigenous peoples.
You can also subvert your privileges as a Settler by learning a thing or two (and sharing that insight at available opportunities) about racialized language. Since language shapes our thoughts and perceptions, which are ultimately a significant basis for how we interact with the rest of our world, it is important to understand concepts like racializing, and that this process applies to language too. Racializing is a cognitive process of constructing racial identities — sometimes this is unconscious (i.e., internalizing the idea that whiteness in North America is homogeneous, despite every indication to the contrary in our Eurasian homelands) and sometimes this is conscious (i.e., literally fishing for “race”, such as by asking someone where they or their parents “come from” for no reason other than that their skin does not feature a pale complexion or they speak with an accent). Sometimes racializing is useful, such as when a forensic anthropologist analyzes characteristic bone structures to determine the very likely identity of a person whose remains are found long after decomposition, or when one is analyzing the social construction of race in society in a legitimate academic exercise of understanding privilege and oppression — such as this very blog post you’re reading right now!
Most of the time, however, racializing is simply oppressive. Most of the time, racializing is little more than a projection of a racial identity onto someone deemed — often rather arbitrarily — a suitable target for stereotyping, profiling, verbal and/or physical bashing, fetishizing, and/or objectifying. Many times, this Projection For An Excuse For Oppression is misdirected, resulting in an even more complicated experience on the part of the person being targeted, such as when my Indigenous friends are socially read as Chinese, and subsequently subjected to racism against an ethnic group to which they actually do not even belong. Or when Chinese people are misread as Korean, my former girlfriend who is Polish being misread as Russian, and people asking me if I’m Aboriginal because of the way I talk about how deeply I comprehend and am moved by their collective oppression (to my ultimate benefit). And so on. I’ve written about being frequently mistaken for a trans woman because the sound of my voice and the shape of my body are misinterpreted as some sort of mismatch that it is decided, inside of an instant, must be caused by a secretly hidden penis that I in fact do not and have never had. Well, these experiences are the racialized equivalent of every time I am misgendered. This is what is meant by “Race/gender is a social construct.” That these social constructions are taken as so real and so concrete, that people can be compartmentalized and sorted out by them, is both a cause and and effect of colonialism.
So what does it mean when an artifact of language is racialized? It means words like “exotic”, “heathen”, “barbarian”, and “savage” connote a racist and colonialist perception of the people who were once described by these terms by the first colonizers and every subsequent wave thereafter — whether or not you are conscious of this history, or intended to re-open this wound. It means a word like “slut” presents a far greater danger towards any racialized woman than to a white woman, because the perception of the viewer who gazes upon a racialized woman is that her entire sexuality revolves around her exclusive and innate, immutable value as an “exotic” sexual commodity. That her body is a special kind of body, because it’s from afar (even if she was born and raised next door), and because it challenges the viewer to colonize and conquer her. To tame her and raise her up to civilized status by teaching her the expectations associated with her gender in North American (Western European) culture. Through any means necessary, including the use of violence. It means these words have power whether we want to admit it or not, and that intent isn’t fucking magical. Most especially when you’re benefiting every time that power is wielded over individuals it explicitly targets for emotional and spiritual violence.
The Victim-Envying Complex of (Many) North American Atheists
And this is where I finally come to the thing that isn’t like the others. A few days ago on Twitter, an atheist I can only assume is white based on how persistently he avoided conceding the answer when prompted multiple consecutive times, declared while directly addressing me, that atheists in North America are perceived as “Godless heathens” by the “mainstream” of society. This man is making a false claim of oppression, whether he is aware of it or not, and whether or not he is actually willing to accept the fact that he is not systematically oppressed by virtue of his identity as an atheist. By carelessly using racialized language, he is claiming that white atheists like him and I are treated totally exactly like indigenous people always have been and still are, and I called bullshit on this without pulling any punches. One simply does not get to pick and choose who the mainstream or average of society is, so that s/he can exclude hirself from said group and then claim victim status or oppression when other people either disagree that there is no God or simply fail to adhere to the expectation that atheism is objectively superior to faith (rather than objectively different), in the event they do concede that there is probably no God.
But what is the effect of using racialized language to claim false oppression, exactly? Well, for one, it quite literally trivializes institutionalized genocide, to the point of a punchline. It also so dramatically over-emphasizes the importance of whatever hurt, pain, and suffering atheists like him and I have faced in this society, that it makes a caricature of itself. It dilutes the power of the very concept of oppression, which allows him to evade any sort of privilege-checking when confronted about how insensitive his language choice was — and that’s all I asked him, by the way. If he’s even aware of how racially insensitive his particular choice of words was. And subsequently, when he evaded, deflected, and derailed as much as possible within the confines of Twitter’s character limit per post in his own defense, I asked him twice if he is white like me and emphasized the fact that despite having asked him twice, he has yet to answer. Because if he is white like me, and I believe he is, that means he is the very mainstream he claims looks upon him the way it scowls upon an indigenous person as though s/he was subhuman or a different species entirely. That’s when I had a brainwave like never before, in all this writing about why atheists aren’t oppressed simply by virtue of their absence of faith in a higher power.
Religion isn’t the cause of systemic oppression. It is no more privileged than atheism is oppressed (spoiler alert: it’s not). There is no real need to dismantle religion, as if it was the One True Source of all bigotry within communities that share common faith-based reasoning and beliefs (and that is at the crux of why I’m not anti-theist). Bigotry is in no way exclusive to religious communities, and the kind of bigotry I just described being exhibited by an atheist is evidence of that. Take my word for it, this happens often enough that I’ve lost friends over my efforts to confront it, and this is the third blog post I’ve written on the subject. The enemy we should all be confronting, challenging, and fighting is colonialism, not religion; and we have all internalized it over the entire duration of our lives on Turtle Island. Colonialism is the root cause of all inequality in our society, from the fleeting but extremely patronizing moment of baseless prejudice or mistrust, all the way up to systemic oppression.
Work with me, here. Decolonize yourself before you wreck yourself.