When they hear talk about “decolonization,” white people get nervous. They think the idea is that someone will come and throw them out of their homes, or maybe send them back to Norway. (Although frankly, if we could take our cats and Norway would have us, that doesn’t sound all that bad). This did, in fact, happen to indigenous peoples in the U.S., which is probably where this fear comes from. I’ve read different Indigenous writers who’ve drily noted that this very idea comes from the colonizer’s mindset, not the decolonized one.
What it does mean, though -- at least in part -- is that we commit to a legal and mental framework that stops colonizing. We, through our government, are continuing to colonize right to the present day, and it needs to stop.
A lot of white people get hung up on this idea of “it’s not my fault, I wasn’t there, I didn’t do it.” Maybe not, but that doesn’t explain why it’s still happening. In most cases, when I’ve heard someone say this, it’s in a situation when no one is talking about the past: they’re talking about wrongs that are happening right now, which could be prevented.
What do I mean by “stop colonizing”? Well, it means no pipeline through Indigenous territory or its water sources. It means not using eminent domain, legal loopholes, or economic pressure to take public land, or land belonging to Indigenous tribes or individuals, for use by the government or by private business interests backed by the government. It means not taking land at all. I’ve always been a huge supporter of NASA and a fan of astronomy, but once I heard from Indigenous Hawaiians that the Mauna Kea telescope site is on their sacred land, we’re done. It shouldn’t be put there.
Of course, once you start asking what “empty” or “unused” land could be used, that doesn’t really belong to some Indigenous people, then you might get the smallest window into the scope of the issue.
I can hear white people already: but this isn’t fair! Does that mean we’re going to protect Indigenous lands, but not our land?
In the first place, these actions are already unfair, since they disproportionately target Indigenous lands, while mostly keeping far away from white-dominated places. It doesn’t matter what scientific research could be done if the Notre Dame Cathedral was torn down; no one would suggest doing that.
Well, not yet, anyway. Because in the second place: the idea of decolonization would also protect whtie people!
The same forces, and the same weapons -- legal, economic, and just plain old weapons, like guns, that are used so readily against Indigenous and Black people in our society, can and are also used against white people. And increasingly so, as the doers face no consequences, and in fact are rewarded in some way. We are seeing this with police shootings. The heavily militarized, “warrior training” culture has long treated Black and Indigenous people as intrinsic threats, to be dealt with using maximum force for the most minor of reasons, while being socially conditioned to be nicer and more understanding to angry white people, or traffic stops when white people speeding in a nice suburban neighborhood. But this cognitive dissonance can’t go on indefinitely. The mindset sets in. So in the past few years, there have been more high-profile police killings of unarmed white people, and inexcusable uses of force. We can certainly expect this to continue.
Same goes for having eminent domain used against you to profit a small, already wealthy minority. Any weapons that you allow to be used against others can eventually be turned against you. It’s like that scene in Iron Man 3 when Rebecca Hall boasts that she can leave the bad guy’s lair any time she wants, because she’s collaborating with him … just before he kills her.
There’s also the fact that white people can lose their “white pass” by being in the wrong neighborhood, dressing in certain ways, or engaging in behaviors that white people have historically gotten away with. An example of what I mean: statistics have always shown that white people use illegal drugs at much higher rates than all other groups, but have faced the least legal consequences for it. However, using illegal drugs tends to put people in places and situations where an aggressive police force can attack, and as a “criminal” drug user, their white pass might not help them the way it used to in the past. That means while YOU, white adult, might have bought drugs without consequences in college, your child may be more likely to face police violence for the same thing, even when the crime is technically a minor one, maybe not even garnering an official police record.
A friend of mine died during an arrest on drug charges: like so many of these cases, he just seems to have had a heart attack or something while being wrestled out of his home and maybe tased. What a coincidence! But we’ll never know for sure. He’d lost his white pass because he was criminalized as a drug user. Any white homeless person, or obviously mentally ill white person who’s on the street, has lost their white pass. Even if you’re simply a white person in a predominantly black neighborhood, you can lose your white pass, because police are conditioned to respond to anything in that zip code as a threat
Your white pass is always contingent on conditions which can change, which can be outside your control.
If white people have stuck with me, they’re probably rolling their eyes. A lot of white people don’t think the white pass exists. They think the world is stable and makes sense, and that it somehow works in their favor. At this point, in the year 2021, I feel like this belief is willfully delusional, and I don’t know how to counter that.
Most of you, if you’re self-reflective, and honest, will remember a time in your life when you were screwed over by the system. By your school, your job, your landlord, the bank -- when the white pass failed you, when you were a victim of injustice. You know it can happen, when the power difference is too great. But you’d rather forget all about that, because it makes life easier.
If you refuse to face facts, if you refuse to look at history, at evidence of what’s going on … well, all I can see is a society collapsing because people seem to want it to.
I swear, it’s like you want the boat to sink.
All of this is why the Combahee River Collective statement, an essential document, pressed for full equality and liberation for black women: because if they’re protected, everyone’s protected. Or as Martin Luther King, Jr, said, ““Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Justice is a process that works by precedent and consistent use. If you turn a blind eye to sexual harassment of people with less power, then if you’re harassed by someone with more power, then a blind eye will be turned to that.
So yes: protecting Indigenous lands from greed will also protect your own lands from greed. Protecting Black lives will protect your own lives. That’s not why we should do it, but if you need a reason beyond justice and our common humanity, well, there it is.
Decolonizing, which I’m viewing not as a toothless buzzword but as a real transformative process, would mean all sorts of positive changes. We would keep industrial activities away from black-majority residential areas the same way we do from wealthy white neighborhoods. We’d probably stop building pipelines altogether. We’d view Indigenous people gathering socially in urban areas as the rightful owners of the city, rather than calling the police to move them from the front of our businesses. And then we can get down to the nitty-gritty of a real land-black movement.
(Yes, I’m using the white “we.” I know it’s not all white people. If you’re planning on arguing this point, go home and rethink your life).
Update: I just came across an excellent succinct definition of "land back," from Jessica Hernandez's 2022 book Fresh Banana Leaves: Healing Indigenous Landscapes Through Indigenous Science, so I'm quoting it here: "Land back means returning the autonomy and right to manage and steward our landscapes back to the Indigenous peoples and communities who were displaced from their lands due to settler colonialism" (p. 226).
Good Books to Read on the Subject
An Indigenous Peoples' History of the United States, by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz (2017)
The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America, by Khalil Gibran Muhammad (2010)
As We Have Always Done: Indigenous Freedom through Radical Resistance, by Leanne Betasamosake Simpson (2017)
How We Get Free: Black Feminism and the Combahee River Collective, edited by Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (2017)
What Does Justice Look Like?: The Struggle for Liberation in Dakota Homeland, by Waziyatawin Angela Wilson (2008)