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 second of two) concerns the phenomenon I have come to understand as an attempt to engage the idea of colonialism from a misplaced sense of skepticism, 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.
Part I 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).
This entry 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.
Engaging the Idea of Colonialism From a Misplaced Sense of Skepticism
Colonialism is a huge idea with very real consequences for the day-to-day lives of billions of Settlers, virtually across the world, though perhaps no greater in effect than in North America. There are productive ways to engage with this idea, which reflect a conscious willingness to keep an open mind to learn new things about the world and the lives of people unlike ourselves. And then there are many unproductive ways of attempting the same, which ultimately stem from varying degrees of conscious or unconscious insincerity. No useful ally to indigenous resistance has failed to learn this distinction, for it is the very ability to recognize which conversations are productive and which are unproductive, that makes an ally of any race/ethnicity useful to the cause. Someone who is unable to distinguish between what is productive and what is unproductive will very rapidly become engulfed in a vociferous airing of colonial hatred that non-consenting eyes and ears are being exposed to as it proceeds.
A useful ally keeps in mind at all times that the people whose rights they are fighting for may be watching, listening, and reading everything without saying a word. They are mindful of the fact that indigenous people are subjected to a fairly constant barrage of this same bullshit every day, simply for existing, and as such, choose their opportunities to educate others with due care and discretion. They know when to pick their battles and when to disengage to spare anyone else the additional stress of a disparaging exchange. They also understand that even if they are fighting for indigenous peoples, if they are doing so in a spiteful, petty, childish, or angry manner, they are taking valuable energy, not only away from themselves but from anyone who stands to witness as well. A useful ally understands what is a practical expenditure of energy and what is just a theft of energy that could be better expended upon something more constructive, such as learning, or teaching someone who is actually ready and willing to learn from them.
A particularly useless ally does not keep these things in mind at all times, or really at any time at all. They spend a great deal of their time getting angry and airing their frustrations, thus taking space and placing demand for resources on the community for which they are supposed to be creating space and demanding greater resources. We all get angry, and we all feel frustration. We all need to vent at times, but a particularly useless ally does not know when to keep it to themselves (and listen), to find their own outlet through which to release their negative energies (such as taking five minutes alone to just breathe and let it all go), or to take up less space so that a more powerful voice with more important things to say (such as an elder) has the space to be heard by the community. A useless ally taxes the very community to which they should be contributing. A useless ally may make meaningful contributions, but these are overshadowed by how much space and energy they take up in the process. To put it another way, a useless ally’s very involvement in the community prompts the question, “Allies, but at what cost?”
Useful allies produce a net good, and useless allies produce a net drain. In the same vein, productive conversations about colonialism produce a net benefit, and unproductive conversations about colonialism produce a net debt that is lumped onto the backs of the people who are most oppressed. A specific example of a productive conversation about colonialism engages a sense of skepticism directed at colonial structures themselves, whereas an unproductive conversation engages a sense of skepticism directed at the very notion that those structures are inherently colonial. Thus, in the latter case, I refer to this as engaging the idea of colonialism from a misplaced sense of skepticism. The priority in that case is not to keep an open mind and have a meaningful exchange of ideas between people who share fairly basic points of unity about the subject matter in their conversation — it’s to close one’s mind off and shut down any possibility for a meaningful exchange of ideas because the purpose is to project ideas into the conversation in one direction only.
It is a glaring contradiction of the very concept of skepticism, structured around the assumption that the person being silenced is not a worthy speaker, has nothing to teach anyone, and does not deserve to take up that space. It is also incredibly arrogant and equally presumptuous, as it stems from and reinforces the belief that they have nothing to learn themselves. These are all qualities we find in other — perhaps more obviously — unproductive conversations, such as those we have with people who reveal that they harbour a racist attitude or the belief that indigenous peoples would all be doing themselves a favour if they just assimilated into the Superior Culture (failing to acknowledge, of course, that this would be suicide—for what the Superior Culture is by its very nature is a colonial institution that seeks to wipe out all indigenous peoples, and has already tried to do so repeatedly over its relatively short history here).
The problem is not colonialism, at least not in the eyes of the person engaging the very idea of it from the assumption that the idea itself should be subject to constant speculation, rather than the social structures the idea challenges to be interrogated more closely. No, the problem is the validity and credibility of the person writing or speaking about colonialism. It’s the “Show me some hard data about that genocide you’re talking about” attitude of entitlement to unlimited time, energy, and resources from the person making the argument, to prove that they are worth listening to at all as an individual speaker; while simultaneously refusing to do any of the work of self-education with their own time, energy, and resources. They want all the answers handed to them, and if that work is refused by the person who started the conversation, then it is assumed that it is because those answers and that data do not exist. It couldn’t possibly be that this is an enormous expenditure of time and energy, especially on the demand of someone who is already resistant to the idea that there is something there. It couldn’t possibly be that being conscious of colonialism, enough to actively resist and challenge it, already takes up most of the supply of internal resources available to that individual from within themselves.
Problem solved, then. At least in theory, if not also in practice. Any attempt to converse with even the most remote sense of sincerity now is just personally taxing, and thus a disincentive to either continue the conversation or continue any display of civility. And thus, the person engaging in this conversation has done nothing productive and contributed nothing meaningful to the cause for which they may even claim they agree (at least in principle, but not in practice). Cue slow clap. That’s about all I’ve got the energy left to do.