Decolonization is not a Metaphor: Settler Colonialism

(De)Constructing Knowledge: Decolonization is not a metaphor

I encourage Engage! readers to follow the (De)Constructing Knowledge blog, a great resource for (un)learning racism, sexism, white supremacy and colonialism.

We Are Theorists highlights that marginalized people are experts in their own experience. Theory creates frameworks used to examine and explain social phenomena. Theory does not need to be inaccessible and use heavy academic jargon. It does not need to have been created by aging white male scholars to be legitimate knowledge production. Indeed, the lived experiences and reflections of marginalized people on their own oppression and worlds is theory in and of itself. If you would like to contribute a piece to We Are Theorists, please email

By Abaki Beck, POC Online Classroom

In order to further engage with the resources, the second Tuesday each month we’ll “deconstruct” one of the texts featured on POC Online Classroom. This month, we’re looking at Decolonization is not a metaphor by Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang. 

Wait! Before we start, let’s quickly define “settler-colonialism,” since it is used frequently in this article. Unlike other forms of colonialism, settler-colonialism is when colonists come not only to exploit resources and people, but to stay and “create” a new nation. This makes decolonial practices in the United States and other settler-colonial nations unique, because the colonists will never leave and there will be no “post-colonial” United States. Patrick Wolfe, a well known settler-colonial theorist, argues that settler-colonialism is not a historic “event” (as we typically think of colonialism), but is instead a structure. Its violences permeate every aspect of American culture and politics. 

To summarize the text in thirteen words: Land was taken, so decolonization does not occur until that land is returned. But what does it mean to do the work of decolonization? Does it mean centering indigenous knowledge or ways of being? How can land be “given back” in a settler-colonial nation, in which the settlers aren’t going anywhere? In this piece,Tuck and Yang address an issue that they see within discussions of decolonization: that it is often relegated to the metaphorical realm, enabling settlers to “move to innocence”.

For Tuck and Yang, decolonization is not just about privileging indigenous ideologies (see “decolonize our schools” and other expressions), it is quite literally about returning land and restoring indigenous relationships to that land. As they say, “critical consciousness does not translate into action that disrupts settler colonialism” (19). That is, even if an indigenous person is empowered, they are still in a “subordinate” position in a settler-society. More must be done than simply ensuring that indigenous people are “equal” within a society that thrives economically off of land stolen from them. This does not mean returning to “how things were” or attempting to rewrite history, but giving indigenous people agency and control over their homelands. Of course, many may argue that in a place like the United States this is not possible or even necessarily desirable. The authors emphasize that decolonization must be uncomfortable and indeed “unsettling.”

However, both white people and people of color can make “moves to innocence” that decenter indigenous peoples in these struggles and erase them in settler society, making decolonization even more difficult to attain. For white settlers, this often takes the form of “becoming” native (lowercase n). For example, it is a well known phenomena for settlers to claim indigenous heritage even if they do not have a familial or community connection (please see white people who are descended from “Cherokee royalty”). In addition, white people being adopted by/into Native American tribes is a common trope in U.S. literary history (please see Dances with Wolves or the Last of the Mohicans). Both of these work to erase actual indigenous people, instead replacing them with settlers who are somehow more “deserving” of being native than Natives are. This wanting to become and replace the Native is a very different racial construction in the U.S. than blackness. Because historically black people were property in the U.S., the authors argue that blackness is expansive, which brought about the historical “one drop rule.” Indigenous people in settler societies, however, are not “valuable” in the same way – in fact, they are a barrier to settlers access to land and thus must disappear.The erasure of indigenous people was/is both physical (through warfare, allotment, boarding schools, and other policies) and social (through adoption fantasies, settlers claiming Native heritage, etc.).

Because of these distinct racial formations, struggles for black versus indigenous racial justice movements cannot and should not be collapsed, or the specific marginalization of each community may be overlooked. The authors note that this often occurs in social justice settings, in which decolonization is placed under the umbrella of social justice or racial justice, even if the unique marginalization of indigenous people is not specifically addressed. This allows racial justice activists to “move to innocence;” to claim inclusivity even while they refuse to address their own privilege as settlers. Similarly, non-indigenous people of color can be complicit in settler-colonial structures of power. The authors note that people of color often express the need to “decolonize their minds,” even if they are not indigenous people. Tuck and Yang call this “colonial equivocation.” Colonial equivocation enables people of color to remove themselves from the position of settler, a position of power and dominance in U.S. society. As the authors note, “for many people of color, becoming a subordinate settler is an option even when becoming white is not” (18). They argue that diluting the word “colonization” by using it as a replacement for any kind of racial oppression works to further erase indigenous people.

As this text expresses, there is a lot of work to be done to decolonize the U.S. Though this piece is an obviously “academic” text, to me it is just as much about theory as it is about how to be an ally in decolonial struggles. It would be remiss of me not to mention that I did not agree with everything I read in the article. Even as an indigenous person who thinks myself to be very liberal, some points made by the authors made me slightly uncomfortable and seemed too “extreme” (I will not elaborate to allow readers to form their own opinions). However, I want to sit in this discomfort. This work will be challenging for indigenous people as much as it is for settlers and non-indigenous people of color. Because indigenous peoples and histories are so often left out and erased from school curriculum, policies, and other measurements of “existence” in U.S. society, work to decolonize and bring justice for indigenous peoples must be proactive, and in many ways, confrontational. By addressing some of the “moves to innocence” that Tuck and Yang discuss, decolonization becomes less daunting. When our society begins to recognize the worth, rights, and power of indigenous people, granting them the ability to control their lands and destiny becomes a more accessible idea, and perhaps even realistic.


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