Loving, Working, and Living on Stolen Land: People of Colour, Settler Colonialism & White Supremacy

This past August, I participated in the Blanket Exercise organized by the Faculty of Law University of Windsor with our incoming law students. The narrative exercise, designed by KAIROS (though slightly modified by Windsor Law), is intended to educate participants of the brutal genocide of Indigenous Peoples of Turtle Island. It illustrates how they were treated by European settlers. The exercise more importantly demonstrates the ensuing effects of the colonial policies and practices of the Canadian white supremacist settler state on Indigenous Peoples.

Windsor Law has included the Blanket Exercise for the past two years as part of our ongoing efforts to implement the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) Calls to Action. In volunteering to help with the exercise, I indicated that I would be happy to take on any role the organizers needed. Subsequently, I was designated the role of a European settler.

At first, I was dismayed. I am a queer Person of Colour, a Tamil refugee to Canada from the Northern Province of Sri Lanka. Now I would have to pretend to be a white European settler?

My apprehension with playing the role of the European settler opens a window into the role of People of Colour not only in the legal profession but in the ongoing settler colonial project. I am a refugee settler of colour living, loving, and working on the traditional territories of the Three Fires Confederacy. I also own a house and land in Windsor, Ontario. The land is Anishinaabe land.

As we move forward in implementing the TRC’s Calls to Action I find myself engaged in deeply complicated conversations. These conversations are animated by what Professor Jeffery Hewitt (a colleague at the Law School) has framed as the anti-violence work of decolonizing our disciplines, our institutions, our private spaces, and our lives. Communities of colour are also responding to the Calls to Action in our own ways. I imagine there are two strands of thought within the communities of colour about the recent attempts to decolonize and indigenize the academy (and other spaces). Though likely many more that I still have to engage with and learn about.

The first strand is hopeful and helpful: we are finally addressing the white supremacy that many People of Colour and our community members have had, and continue, to face. It is great that we are focusing on the First Peoples of this land, their experiences with the criminal justice system, the prison industrial complex, and how the legal system has so abysmally failed Indigenous women, are a few examples. This hopeful and helpful framing belies an uncomfortable truth articulated by Professors Bonita Lawrence and Enakshi Dua in their 2005 essay “Decolonizing Antiracism” on the erasure of Indigenous Peoples from antiracist practices, theories, and analysis. They argue that People of Colour have not taken seriously the impact of colonization on Indigenous Peoples and this has resulted in a bifurcated set of anti-racist practices. Building from this framing, we can comfortably note that People of Colour, in various gradients and iterations, continue to benefit from the violence of colonization of Indigenous Peoples and their respective territories. People of Colour are full-fledged participants in the systems of oppression that continue the process of settling on Indigenous lands and the genocide of Indigenous Peoples (by purchasing Indigenous lands, for example). This strand of thought then is about dismantling white supremacy in solidarity with Indigenous Peoples.

The second strand is even more complex, if not nefarious: How can we argue that People of Colour are complicit in the ongoing process of settlement? Are People of Colour not marginalized too? Do People of Colour and their marginalization not need the same kind of attention that is being garnered towards Indigenous Peoples on this land? Of course, the very framing of People of Colour as a discrete and homogeneous category is contested. Descendants of former enslaved peoples in what is now Canada do not bear the same kind of complicity as ‘new arrivants’ and they do not benefit in the same ways either (see Eve Tuck, Allison Guess and Hannah Sultan).

From my own perspective, I was a refugee that fled a war-torn country in the late 1980s with my mother. We had to leave our village of Vilan near Jaffna, Sri Lanka because the Tamil Tigers had set up a camp next door (quite literally). We were afraid of the Sri Lankan government helicopters and the bullets and bombs they dropped on us. So, we fled to Colombo first, and then to Canada and claimed asylum (via various other safe ‘third countries’) in search of a safer home. Of course, the role of Western countries and their allies in the bloody war in Sri Lanka should not be forgotten. The colonization of Ceylon (what is now known as Sri Lanka) began with the Portuguese, the Dutch, and then the British. In my scholarship, I have argued that this conflict in large part erupted as a result of the policies of former colonial masters. Moreover, the bombs and bullets used in the Sri Lankan conflict were produced by the military industries of the former colonial powers, who profited.

The questions I have raised are tremendously difficult for me to unpack and I confess that I do not have a complete answer. As I continue to learn about the Anishinaabe and the Three Fires Confederacy in whose territory I am now a guest, I cannot ignore the location of our new home that I recently purchased with my partner – as though broadcasting to me every day to remember. Our cross road is Mohawk Street. We park our car on Mohawk street. I see the road sign each morning as I leave for work (the University of Windsor is also located on Anishinaabe land). When I bike to work, I take Seneca street. My office is in the Ron Ianni Law Building (named after a former Windsor Law Dean), overlooking both the United States (more colonized land), and Assumption Church, which is just in front of the law school. The church’s history is complicated at best and is tied to a land claim (which encompasses vast parts of the area) by Walpole First Nation.

Irrespective of how I got to Windsor, Ontario and my various struggles to reach this point, I cannot ignore the fact that I live, work, and love on stolen land. This is a difficult fact to digest for People of Colour. Shaista Patel has eloquently captured this sentiment when she writes: “While we may share some histories, it is critical for us Muslims and other non-indigenous peoples here to not fall into the trap of equating the struggles of Muslims with that of Indigenous Peoples in white settler colonies, where Indigenous Peoples who have been living here since time immemorial have now been outnumbered by whites through illegal land grab, dispossession, and outright genocide”.

White supremacy on Turtle Island is built on what the TRC has coined the twin justification for the colonial and imperial violence: “In short, it was contended that people were being colonized for their own benefit, either in this world or the next”. Through violence and forceful removal of Indigenous Peoples, European settlers built the tapestry of infrastructure that would become Canada and the United States. At times, the process of settling was based on the labour of enslaved peoples and indentured workers from various parts of the world.

Even though I have thought about colonization and settler colonialism in various ways, it is easy to succumb to the divide and rule policies imbedded within our societies built upon white supremacy. The European settlers built this vast infrastructure for one purpose, and one purpose alone: to eliminate Indigenous Peoples and replace them with white settlers. The tapestry that has been carefully crafted then encompasses various imbedded codes of performance. These include the need for recognition of diverse forms of oppression through legal doctrine like antidiscrimination laws.

Western law works, so I have been taught, to create equality between and amongst various peoples. But the demand for equality is left up to the different marginalized groups to articulate. Human rights violations are then to be decided by decision makers invested in white supremacy. Tribunals and courts are set up by the white supremacist settler state with decisions makers devoted to maintaining white supremacy. Indigenous scholars have described this phenomenon as the politics of recognition. Inevitably, this has caused a competition between different marginalized communities, once vividly captured by Professor Patricia Williams as “oppression Olympics”.

My unease with playing the part of a white European settler setting up white supremacist infrastructure in the Blanket Exercise then goes to the root of the second strand of thought (that I referenced at the start). It is a reaction to the recent attempts to implement the Calls to Action of the TRC. The uneasiness is tied to what Devon W. Carbado and Mitu Gulati have coined as “acting white”. Those from the margins seeking recognition will inherently engage in oppression Olympics. It is a competition for resources and space within a market of adjudication. The market built on white supremacist values decides whose discrimination matters more. Oppression Olympics ignores and obscures the historical context by which white supremacy became a reality. Moreover, oppression Olympics hides the fact that marginalized groups are in fact seeking redress from those that continue to oppress and discriminate. This is learned behaviour, dished out via our educational institutions (including law schools).

In a recent talk to researchers at the University of Windsor on decolonizing research methodologies, Professor Hewitt challenged participants to reflect on our own complicity in the ongoing process of colonization. He suggested that we engage in greater self-reflection and pay closer attention to how our own systems and behaviours deeply impact and contribute to the ongoing colonization of Indigenous Peoples.

By engaging in oppression Olympics, People of Colour are helping to maintain white supremacist structures. These structures continue to oppress Indigenous People and People of Colour. We can however, as People of Colour committed to dismantling white supremacist practices, work with Indigenous Peoples on our respective campuses, and in our respective spaces and places. We can foreground Indigenous Peoples’ struggles as a means to achieve our own emancipation. By participating in the Blanket Exercise, building thick relationships, learning more about the lands we inhabit, and supporting the TRC Calls to Action through our words and our actions, we can work alongside Indigenous Peoples in dismantling white supremacist practices for everyone’s benefit, “either in this world or the next”.

Sujith Xavier, Faculty of Law University of Windsor (I am grateful to Amar Bhatia, Fathima Cader, Tyler Dunham, Jeffrey Hewitt and Adrian Smith for their comments)