By El Machetero
“Precisely at the point that you begin to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.” –James Baldwin.
”The primary difference between the western and indigenous ways of life is that we relate to and experience a living universe, whereas western people reduce all things, living or not, to objects.” –Vine Deloria
For those of us settlers who may have our own oppressions to survive, engage and heal from in this place and time, as we struggle to locate ourselves in what has over time become an alien environment for most of us, there are the dilemmas which come along with being complicit in these crimes, even if we do not tend to always be among the main beneficiaries. Complicity, as a concept, “hasn’t been circulated in the same way as privilege. Nor are there many handy pedagogical tools or checklists for thinking about complicity. Complicity is a messy, complicated and entangled concept to think about; it is not as easy to grasp and, because of this, it requires a much deeper investment on our part. This would demand, for example, that we think about settlerhood not as an object that we possess, but as a field of operations into which we become socially positioned and implicated.” (2)
As Beenash Jafri notes in his essay “Privilege VS. Complicity: People Of Colour and Settler Colonialism”, not much often changes with the acknowledgement of privilege; the beholder(s) may perhaps become a little more mindful of taking up things like space, leadership, or about some of the ways in which they interact with those who perhaps may not share said privilege, but in actual practice, very little changes in the form of how a person lives their life, and even less changes in the ways of systemic inequities, or in how this land is related to.
Given these limitations of what is referred to in equity-based academic jargon as the “privilege model”, there are some more possibilities that emerge in engaging complicity as a conceptual reality.
“Thinking in terms of complicity suggests a reformulation of strategies/tactics, rather than the moral reformation of an individual with privilege. To think in terms of complicity shifts attention away from the self and onto strategies and relations that reproduce social and institutional hierarchies.
The issue then is not about individual absolution of responsibility, guilt, and culpability (‘checking’ privilege) but, rather, one of reexamining strategies through which we give ourselves that responsibility and become accountable in the first place…..this might open up spaces for thinking about tangible ways that colonial relationships are supported, reproduced and reinforced, rather than how we carry the burden of colonialism on our backs.” (2)
In many respects, understanding the state of this constructed world along the lines of the things one willfully chooses to participate in and allows one’s self to be a complicit party in the face of has always made more sense to me, and has always provided much more of a potentially transformative model to work with, defined more by deeds and initiatives than by words or by platitudes.
Approaching things from this framework has always felt much more action-oriented, with more allowance for agency and conscious decision-making, as opposed to being passively relegated to a closed and pre-determined binary which inherently situates one person or one group of people in a perpetual state of victimhood, hopelessly condemned to be forever oppressed and dominated, as the other perpetually plays the role of privileged parasitical settler, either oblivious to the atrocities committed daily in one’s name, actively and willfully participating in and celebrating such atrocities, or at best feeling guilty while repeating a fallacious self-pitying narrative of powerlessness while doing the same things every day.
It also focuses much less on individuals, and much more on this system and its accompanying parasitical lifestyles, understanding that this is an arrangement which is violent, genocidal and ecocidal (since it increasingly involves the actual destruction of the land itself) and which makes accomplices of us all. What matters more than where such a system would choose to locate us for its own ends is what we choose to do together with one another, the strength and quality of the relationships and communities we build, and our knowledge of the context in which we live and our foresight towards the consequences which emerge from the choices we make within it.
This is the principle of what Andrea Smith refers to as taking power through making power. (3) It has been well established at this point that it is an entrenched characteristic of this particular system that it does not play well with others; it is predicated on domination and control and does not allow for any alternatives to it to exist and flourish; therefore, our ultimate goal must be its dismantling.
Yet at the same time, where we have not yet built alternatives, it is best for those to be our focus, rather than simply being oppositional.
“In terms of the “making power” approach, we have been working with the idea that “another politics is possible.” This means rethinking how we have naturalized hierarchies in our own movements and created a kind of elite structure, whether it’s the “revolutionary vanguard elite” or the non-profit–industrial complex middle managers who are prepared to tell everybody how to end global oppression. This also means rethinking and organizing in terms of a more horizontal approach.
Thinking outside of the world we now live in requires a critique of current systems of governance which are based on a nation-state model and the belief that the state can rule by means of power, violence, and domination. Here is where I think Indigenous people have a critical role to play – as they have in Latin America especially – in questioning the assumption that nationhood equals the nation-state. We can understand nationhood not as a kind of ethnic cleansing model – “we’re in, you’re out, screw the rest of the world” – but rather as a radical relationality to land, in which land is no longer a commodity held by one group of people but something we must all care for.” (3)
1. Harold Johnson, Two Families: Treaties and Government. “The Adoption Of Your Family By My Family.” Pg. 29. (Saskatchewan, Purich Publishing Ltd., 2007.)
2. Beenash Jafri, Privilege VS. Complicity: People Of Colour and Settler Colonialism.
3. Churchill, Ward. Struggle For The Land: Indigenous Resistance to Genocide, Ecocide and Expropriation in North America. “I Am Indigenist: Notes on the Ideology of the Fourth World.” Pp. 432-433. (Toronto, Between the Lines Press, 1992)
4. “Building Unlikely Alliances: An Interview with Andrea Smith.” Upping The Anti: A Journal of Theory and Action. Number 10, May 2010.