93. Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang, “Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor”
My walking is finished, and even though I ought to be exploring the sights here in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, I’m in the hotel room, working. These texts won’t read themselves, after all, and I’m not going to hit my goal of 100 texts by the end of August. I’ve just been having too much fun walking!
“Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor” is one of the key texts in the study of settler colonialism, and for that reason it’s important that I read it. It begins with two epigraphs from Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth on decolonization, which in Fanon’s case meant the departure of the imperial power (France, since Fanon wrote The Wretched of the Earth in Algeria during that country’s struggle for independence) from a colony and the creation of an independent national government. (The Wretched of the Earth is the next thing I’ll be reading for this project, mostly because one of my supervisors suggested that it would be valuable.) The first epigraph suggests that decolonization is “a program of complete disorder” (qtd. 2), which reflects (I think) the authors’ argument that the goal of decolonization is open-ended and undetermined, and that it is a historical process, which cannot be understood unless we “discern the movements which give it historical form and content” (qtd. 2). The second epigraph, which suggests that “the settler knows perfectly well that no phraseology can be a substitute for reality” (qtd. 2), reflects the authors’ contention that the word “decolonization” needs to be understood literally rather than rhetorically.
Tuck and Yang begin by noting that their area of research is education, and in particular the ways that “settler colonialism has shaped schooling and educational research in the United States and other settler colonial nation-states” (2). That work requires an engagement with the meaning of decoloniation, “what it wants and requires” (2). Tuck and Yang object to “the ease with which the language of decolonization has been superficially adopted into education and other social sciences, supplanting prior ways of talking about social justice, critical methodologies, or approaches which decenter settler perspectives” (2). Decolonization must not be subsumed by those projects, they argue, noting that decolonization is often discussed without mentioning Indigenous peoples or their struggles for sovereignty or “the contributions of Indigenous intellectuals and activists to theories and frameworks of decolonization” (3). “[T]his kind of inclusion is a form of enclosure, dangerous in how it domesticates decolonization,” they write. “It is also a foreclosure, limiting in how it recapitulates dominant theories of social change” (3). The rhetorical use of the word “decolonization” is therefore “another form of settler appropriation” (3).
This essay, published in the first issue of a journal called Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education, & Society, is an attempt “to clarify that decolonization is not a metaphor”: “When metaphor invades decolonization, it recenters whiteness, it resettles theory, it extends innocence to the settler, it entertains a settler future” (3). “Our goal in this essay is to remind readers what is unsettling about decolonization—what is unsettling and should be unsettling,” they suggest (3). The notions of unsettling (of theory, of politics, of identity), of decentring whiteness, of denying both innocence to settlers and a future to the settler identity, are central points in this essay. So is the notion of difficulty: anything that seems to be too easy is, according to Tuck and Yang, a wrong approach to or misunderstanding of decolonization.
“There is a long and bumbled history of non-Indigenous peoples making moves to alleviate the impacts of colonialization,” Tuck and Yang write. “The too-easy adoption of decolonizing discourse (making decolonization a metaphor) is just one part of that history and it taps into pre-existing tropes that get in the way of more meaningful potential alliances” (3). Those tropes are “moves to innocence” for settlers; they “problematically attempt to reconcile settler guilt and complicity, and rescue settler futurity” (3). A discussion of those moves to innocence is at the core of this essay. Those moves to innocence include:
- Settler nativism
- Fantasizing adoption
- Colonial equivocation
- At risk-ing/Asterisk-ing Indigenous peoples
- Re-occupation and urban homesteading[.] (4)
“Such moves ultimately represent fantasies of easier paths to reconciliation,” they write:
attending to what is irreconcilable within settler colonial relations and what is incommensurable between decolonizing projects and other social justice projects will help to reduce the frustration of attempts at solidarity; but the attention won’t get anyone off the hook from the hard, unsettling work of decolonization. (4)
For that reason, they continue, they have also included “a discussion of interruptions that unsettle innocence and recognize incommensurability” (4).
First, though Tuck and Yang distinguish between external colonialism (colonial activities outside the borders of the imperial nation) and internal colonialism (colonial activities within the borders of the imperial nation). However, neither of these definitions adequately describe the form of colonialism in countries where the colonizers have come to stay. “Settler colonialism operates through internal/external colonial modes simultaneously because there is no spatial separation between metropole and colony,” they write. “The horizons of the settler colonial nation-state are total and require a mode of total appropriation of Indigenous life and land, rather than the selective expropriation of profit-producing fragments” (5). What makes settler colonialism different from other forms of colonialism is the fact that “settlers come with the intention of making a new home on the land, a homemaking that insists on settler sovereignty over all things in their new domain” (5). That homemaking means that the most important concern of settler colonialism is land, “both because the settlers make Indigenous land their new home and source of capital, and also because the disruption of Indigenous relationships represents a profound epistemic, ontological, cosmological violence” (5). They cite Patrick Wolfe’s famous dictum: settler colonialism is a structure rather than an event (5). That structure remakes land into property and restricts human relationships to land to property ownership. “Epistemological, ontological, and cosmological relationships to land are interred, indeed made pre-modern and backward,” they write. “Made savage” (5).
“In order for the settlers to make a place their home, they must destroy and disappear the Indigenous peoples that live there,” Tuck and Yang write:
For the settlers, Indigenous peoples are in the way and, in the destruction of Indigenous peoples, Indigenous communities, and over time and through law and policy, Indigenous peoples’ claims to land under settler regimes, land is recast as property and as a resource. Indigenous peoples must be erased, must be made into ghosts. (6)
They also suggest that “settler colonialism involves the subjugation and forced labor of chattel slaves,” a claim that is not true of all settler colonial states; while slavery was legal in what is now Canada until the early 19th century, for example, it was not a central part of the economy there as it was in Spanish colonies in Central and South America, as well as in the United States. Nevertheless, it is true that the settler “sees himself as holding dominion over the earth and its flora and fauna, as the anthropocentric normal, and as more developed, more human, more deserving than other groups or species” (6). (That way of thinking is the root of the planet’s current ecological crises.) “The settler is making a new ‘home’ and that home is rooted in a homesteading worldview where the wild land and wild people were made for his benefit,” Tuck and Yang continue. “He can only make his identity as a settler by making the land produce, and produce excessively, because ‘civilization’ is defined as production in excess of the ‘natural’ world (i.e. in excess of the sustainable production already present in the Indigenous world)” (6). For Tuck and Yang, that excess production requires slavery, although in the part of Canada where I live it actually required mechanized agriculture. Moreover, “[s]ettlers are not immigrants,” Tuck and Yang contend. “Immigrants are beholden to the Indigenous laws and epistemologies of the lands they migrate to. Settlers become the law, supplanting Indigenous laws and epistemologies” (6-7). That is, I think, Harold Johnson’s point in his book Two Families: Treaties and Government: when the Cree chiefs who negotiated Treaty 6 engaged the Crown representatives in a pipe ceremony, they were adopting them (and the settlers who would follow) and expecting they would behave like the immigrants Tuck and Yang describe here, rather than like settlers.
Decolonization in settler colonial situations is complicated, Tuck and Yang contend, “because empire, settlement, and internal colony have no spatial separation. Each of these features of settler colonialism in the US context—empire, settlement, and internal colony—make it a site of contradictory decolonial desires” (7). Thinking of decolonization in metaphorical ways “allows people to equivocate these contradictory desires because it turns decolonization into an empty signifier to be filled by any track towards liberation. In reality, the tracks walk all over land/people in settler contexts” (7). For Tuck and Yang,
decolonization in the settler colonial context must involve the repatriation of land simultaneous to the recognition of how land and relations to land have always already been differently understood and enacted; that is, all of the land, and not just symbolically. This is precisely why decolonization is necessarily unsettling, especially across lines of solidarity. (7)
“Settler colonialism and its decolonization implicates and unsettles everyone,” they conclude (7). I agree that repatriation of land is central to decolonization, and that idea certainly unsettles me, because although I was born on stolen land, it’s also the only home I’ve ever known, and I have nowhere else to go. The notion that “all of the land” must be repatriated is a political impossibility for that reason. Yes, that’s what must be done for decolonization to take place in a settler colonial context; but it is also what will not happen, because the settler majority will not stand for it. That contradiction implicates all of us and ought to unsettle us as well.
“Everything within a settler colonial society strains to destroy or assimilate the Native in order to disappear them from the land,” Tuck and Yang argue. That is the reason Settler society can have “multiple simultaneous and conflicting messages about Indigenous peoples, such as all Indians are dead, located in faraway reservations, that contemporary Indigenous people are less indigenous than prior generations, and that all Americans are a ‘little bit Indian’” (9). These fantasies constitute desires to erase Indigenous peoples, “because the death of pre-modern ways of life is thought to be inevitable,” and that erasure would provide a resolution to the colonial situation “through the absolute and total destruction or assimilation of original inhabitants” (9). The failure of that destruction “prompts multiple forms of settler anxiety,” because the presence of Indigenous peoples, “who make a priori claims to land and ways of being,” is “a constant reminder that the settler colonial project is incomplete” (9). The metaphorical use of the term “decolonization” is “a form of this anxiety, because it is a premature attempt at reconciliation”; it is “one way the settler, disturbed by her own settler status, tries to escape or contain the unbearable searchlight of complicity, of having harmed others just by being one’s self” (9). “The desire to reconcile is just as relentless as the desire to disappear the Native,” they continue: “it is a desire to not to have to deal with this (Indian) problem anymore” (9).
Tuck and Yang take the idea of settler moves to innocence from the work of Janet Mawhinney. These moves to innocence are the result of a desire “to find some mercy or relief in the face of the relentless of settler guilt and haunting” (9). “Directly and indirectly benefitting from the erasure and assimilation of Indigenous peoples is a difficult reality for settlers to accept,” they contend, and so Settlers “hurry toward any reprieve” (9). “Settler moves to innocence are those strategies that attempt to relieve the settler of feelings of guilt or responsibility without giving up land or power or privilege, without having to change much at all,” they continue. “In fact, settler scholars may gain professional kudos or a boost in their reputations for being so sensitive or self-aware. Yet settler moves to innocence are hollow, they only serve the settler” (10). Their discussion of these moves to innocence may make their Settler readers embarrassed or uncomfortable or feel implicated, and it seems that’s the point. Their goal in this discussion “is to provide a framework of excuses, distractions, and diversions from decolonization” (10). That framework is intended to make us “more impatient with each other, less likely to accept gestures and half-steps, and more willing to press for acts which unsettle innocence” (10).
Tuck and Yang then discuss the moves to innocence they listed earlier in the essay. The first move is claiming to have an Indigenous ancestor. This “is a settler move to innocence because it is an attempt to deflect a settler identity, while continuing to enjoy settler privilege and occupying stolen land” (11). “Settler nativism, through the claiming of a long-lost ancestory, invests in these specific racializations of Indigenous people and Black people, and disbelieves the sovereign authority of Indigenous nations to determine tribal membership,” Tuck and Yang argue. “Ancestry is different from tribal membership; Indigenous identity and tribal membership are questions that Indigenous communities alone have the right to struggle over and define, not DNA tests, heritage websites, and certainly not the settler state” (13). “Settler nativism is about imagining an Indian past and a settler future,” they continue, while “tribal sovereignty has provided for an Indigenous present and various Indigenous intellectuals theorize decolonization as Native futures without a settler state” (13).
The second move to innocence is settler adoption fantasies. “These fantasies can mean the adoption of Indigenous practices and knowledge, but more, refer to those narratives in the settler colonial imagination in which the Native (understanding that he is becoming extinct) hands over his land, his claim to the land, his very Indian-ness to the settler for safe-keeping,” Tuck and Yang write. “This is a fantasy that is invested in a settler futurity and dependent on the foreclosure of an Indigenous futurity” (14). They discuss James Fenimore Cooper’s Leatherstocking Tales as an example. “In the unwritten decolonial version of Cooper’s story, Hawkeye would lose his land back to the Mohawk,” they write. “Hawkeye would shoot his last arrow, or his last long-rifle shot, return his eagle feather, and would be renamed Natty Bumppo, settler on Native land. The story would end at the moment of this recognition” (17). That ending, though, would leave a number of questions open: “Would a conversation follow after that between Native and the last settler? Would the settler leave or just vanish? Would he ask to stay, and if he did, who would say yes? These are questions that will be addressed at decolonization, and not a priori in order to appease anxieties for a settler future” (17). Is it likely, though, that settlers would “just vanish”? Where would they—we—go? Isn’t that a rather tidy resolution to a pretty big problem for decolonization?
It seems to me that Tuck and Yang are merging two separate ideas here. Isn’t the adoption of Indigenous practices and knowledge different from the narratives in which land and identity are given to Settlers “for safe-keeping”? Is reading Indigenous writers, as Tuck does, not a way of adopting Indigenous knowledge? Isn’t it necessary to acquire that kind of knowledge in order to understand settler colonialism and its effects? Moreover, I’ve heard some Elders describe some ceremonies as open to anyone. For instance, I recently had a conversation with an Elder in which she was surprised to hear that I was reluctant to smudge on my own, even though I find it helpful and grounding. “Why not?” she asked. “I don’t want to appropriate customs that aren’t mine,” I answered. She didn’t think that was a good reason. Clearly not everyone is focused on issues of appropriation or adoption.
The third move to innocence is colonial equivocation, by which Tuck and Yang mean “the homogenizing of various experiences of oppression as colonization” (17). They want to separate those experiences of oppression from colonization. The “logical endpoint” of antiracism, they suggest, “the attainment of equal legal and cultural entitlements, is actually an investment in settler colonialism,” presumably because it accepts the authority of Settler society. “Indeed, even the ability to be a minority citizen in the settler nation means an option to become a brown settler,” they continue. “For many people of color, becoming a subordinate settler is an option even when becoming white is not” (18). They also distinguish between anti-colonial critique and “a decolonizing framework”:
anti-colonial critique often celebrates empowered postcolonial subjects who seize denied privileges from the metropole. This anti-to-post-colonial project doesn’t strive to undo colonialism but rather to remake it and subvert it. Seeking stolen resources is entangled with settler colonialism because those resources were nature/Native first, then enlisted into the service of settlement and thus almost impossible to reclaim without re-occupying Native land. Furthermore, the postcolonial pursuit of resources is fundamentally an anthropocentric model, as land, water, air, animals, and plants are never able to become postcolonial; they remain objects to be exploited by the empowered postcolonial subject. (19)
I’m not sure I follow the shift from anti-colonial critique to resource exploitation here, particularly since the rest of the argument in this section of the essay focuses on the inadequacy of multicultural approaches to oppressions, which do not address Indigenous sovereignty or rights. Perhaps the shift to resource exploitation comes from the need for decolonization to include “unsettling/deoccupying the land” (19). Any arguments short of that recognition, they argue, are equivocations: “That is, they ambiguously avoid engaging with settler colonialism; they are ambivalent about minority/people of color/colonized Others as settlers; they are cryptic about Indigenous land rights in spaces inhabited by people of color” (19).
Conscientization, a focus on “decolonizing the mind,” is the fourth move to innocence. Tuck and Yang note that Fanon argues that decolonizing the mind was a first step, not the only one. “Yet we wonder whether another settler move to innocence is to focus on decolonizing the mind, or the cultivation of critical consciousness, as if it were the sole activity of decolonization; to allow conscientization to stand in for the more uncomfortable task of relinquishing stolen land,” they write (19). “[T]he front-loading of critical consciousness building can waylay decolonization, even though the experience of teaching and learning to be critical of settler colonialism can be so powerful that it can feel like it is indeed making change,” they continue (19). Decolonization will only happen when “stolen land is relinquished” (19). And yet, isn’t the development of that “critical consciousness” necessary to relinquishing that stolen land? Wouldn’t developing a collective understanding that the land has been stolen and needs to be returned be an essential step in the decolonizing process? Besides, how would that stolen land be relinquished? What would happen afterwards? I realize that Tuck and Yang argue that there is no Settler futurity—that we ought to have no future on the stolen lands we occupy—but that is an extraordinary thing to ask people to accept, especially if they have not yet developed a “critical consciousness” regarding settler colonialism.
Tuck and Yang describe that project of developing critical consciousness as settler harm reduction” (21). This project, they write, “is intended only as a stopgap”:
As the environmental crisis escalates and peoples around the globe are exposed to greater concentrations of violence and poverty, the need for settler harm reduction is acute, profoundly so. At the same time we remember that, by definition, settler harm reduction, like conscientization, is not the same as decolonization and does not inherently offer any pathways that lead to decolonization. (21-22)
All of this would be easier to understand, or perhaps accept, if Tuck and Yang were able to offer concrete examples of pathways that would lead to decolonization, defined as the return of stolen land.
The fifth move to innocence, “A(s)t(e)risk peoples,” has to do with the ways that Indigenous people are rendered invisible by social science research, either by being defined as “at risk” peoples, “on the verge of extinction, culturally and economically bereft, engaged or soon-to-be engaged in self-destructive behaviors which can interrupt their school careers and seamless absorption into the economy” (22), or by being left out or “represented by an asterisk” in statistical data sets because of small sample sizes (22). I’m not sure how to respond to this argument. On the one hand, it’s important that Indigenous peoples not be defined only by the social problems caused by colonization, but on the other, it would be foolish to pretend that such problems do not exist. Those self-destructive behaviours don’t just interrupt the “seamless absorption into the economy” of Indigenous youth, for instance; they can end their lives. Yes, becoming part of the economy may not be the resolution Tuck and Yang would like to see for those youth, but it’s better than some of the alternatives, and I don’t think it’s the role of privileged academics to tell people struggling to survive what their goals ought to be. The other problem appears to be without a solution: sample sizes need to be large to be statistically valid, and where a population is small—their example is urban Indigenous youth in schools—it is likely to be submerged in the data. Perhaps the answer would be to engage in more qualitative research than quantitative research, but that’s not where Tuck and Yang end up. Rather, they argue that because most Indigenous youth live in cities, “[a]ny decolonizing urban education endeavor must address the foundations of urban land pedagogy and Indigenous politics vis-a-vis the settler colonial state” (23). That may be true, but it doesn’t address the problem of large-scale population surveys which make “collecting basic education and health information about this small and heterogenous group” so difficult, or how those difficulties can be overcome in order to “counter the disappearance of Indigenous particularities in public policy” (22).
The last move to innocence, “Re-occupation and urban homesteading,” has to do with the failure of the Occupy movement to acknowledge that its occupations took place on stolen land, or that the source of the wealth that Occupy demanded be redistributed was that stolen Indigenous land (23). “For social justice movements, like Occupy, to truly aspire to decolonization non-metaphorically, they would impoverish, not enrich, the 99%+ settler population of [the] United States,” they write. “Decolonization eliminates settler property rights and settler sovereignty. It requires the abolition of land as property and upholds the sovereignty of Native land and people” (26). Again, that would be an extremely difficult proposition to sell to that settler majority. Tuck and Yang compare the Occupy/Decolonize movements to the French and Haitian Revolutions of the late 18th century. They note that Haiti was the richest French colony before its revolution, and the poorest afterwards, due to the French demand for reparations as a condition of recognizing Haitian independence. This comparison is a way of introducing the notion of incommensurability: the Occupy and Decolonize movements are incommensurable, because while Occupy sees the United States as composed of 99% Occupiers (I doubt Occupy ever claimed that 99% of the population was participating in the movement) and 1% Owners, the Decolonize movement sees the primary distinction as between the 0.9% Indigenous peoples and the 99.1% Settlers (27). “Occupation is a move towards innocence that hides behind the numerical superiority of the settler nation, the elision of democracy with justice, and the logic that what became property under the 1% belongs to the other 99%,” they write (28). They also connect Occupy’s demand to “occupy everything” to what they call “urban homesteading,” which I think is another way of thinking about the gentrification of poor neighbourhoods. Surely there is a radical distinction to be made between the Occupy movement and gentrification? Perhaps not. “In contrast to the settler labor of occupying the commons, homesteading, and possession, some scholars have begun to consider the labor of de-occupation in the undercommons, permanent fugitivity, and dispossession as possibilities for a radical black praxis,” they write, citing Fred Moten and Stephano Harney (28). I’ve tried to read Moten’s and Harney’s book The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, but I ran aground on the impossibility of their ideas, and frankly their unappealing nature. Who would want the instability of “permanent fugitivity” or of “dispossession”? I found this section of the essay to be quite weak, with the excursion into the history of Haiti an unnecessary detour, and I think that Craig Fortier’s book Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Within, Against, and Beyond Settler Colonialism to be a much clearer discussion of the contradictions between the Occupy movement and decolonization.
The last section of the essay, “Incommensurability is unsettling,” presents
a synopsis of the imbrication of settler colonialism with transnationalist, abolitionist, and critical pedagogy movements—efforts that are often thought of as exempt from Indigenous decolonizing analyses—as a synthesis of how decolonization as material, not metaphor, unsettles the innocence of these movements. These are interruptions which destabilize, un-balance, and repatriate the very terms and assumptions of some of the most radical efforts to reimagine human power relations. We argue that the opportunities for solidarity lie in what is incommensurable rather than what is common across these efforts. (28)
They describe what they call “an ethic of incommensurability, which recognizes what is distinct, what is sovereign for project(s) of decolonization in relation to human and civil rights based social justice projects” (28). There are, they continue, “portions of these project that simply cannot be speak to one another, cannot be aligned or allied” (28). Those portions are incommensurable. They suggest “unsettling themes that challenge the coalescence of social justice endeavors broadly assembled in three areas: Transnational or Third World decolonizations, Abolition, and Critical Space-Place Pedagogies” (28-29). For each area, they provide “a bibliography of incommensurability” (29).
First is the discussion of Third World decolonizations. “The anti-colonial turn towards the transnational can sometimes involve ignoring the settler colonial context where one resides and how that inhabitation is implicated in settler colonialism, in order to establish ‘global’ solidarities that presumably suffer fewer complexities and complications” (29). They invite their readers “to consider the permanent settler war as the theatre for all imperial wars,” and provide a bibliography of texts that address a number of issues, such as “discovery, invasion, occupation and Commons as the claims of settler sovereignty,” “heteropatriarchy as the imposition of settler sexuality,” and “U.S. imperialism as the expansion of settler colonialism” (29).
Second is a discussion of the abolition of slavery. They note that freed slaves in the United States were promised 40 acres of land that belonged to Indigenous peoples as reparations. “[W]e urge you to consider how enslavement is a twofold procedure: removal from land and the creation of property (land and bodies),” they write. “Thus, abolition is likewise twofold, requiring the repatriation of land and the abolition of property (land and bodies). Abolition means self-possession but not object-possession, repatriation but not reparation” (30). I find the word “repatriation” rather ominous here; what of the formerly enslaved Africans in the United States who did not choose to be repatriated? What would happen to them? And why is this discussion of the abolition of slavery, something that happened in 1865, being considered a contemporary issue? I am missing something in this argument.
Third is critical pedagogies, something that engages Tuck and Yang, since they are professors of education. They suggest that place-based, environmentalist, and urban pedagogies are incommensurable with land education, and suggest several resources. So far, though, they have not explained how “opportunities for solidarity lie in what is incommensurable” (28). Perhaps that is the reason they provide a lengthy, italicized explanation of incommensurability. It is, they write, “an acknowledgement that decolonization will require a change in the order of the world” (31):
This is not to say that Indigenous peoples or Black and brown peoples take positions of dominance over white settlers; the goal is not for everyone to merely swap spots on the settler-colonial triad, to take another turn on the merry-go-round. The goal is to break the relentless structuring of the triad—a break and not a compromise. (31)
“There is,” they continue, “so much that in incommensurable, so many overlaps that can’t be figured, that cannot be resolved” (31). From this point the essay becomes a list of those apparently impossible to resolve issues: “Settler colonialism fuels imperialism all around the globe. Oil is the motor and motive for war and so was salt, so will be water. Settler sovereignty over these very pieces of earth, air, and water is what makes possible these imperialisms” (31). What is the connection between settler colonialism and oil? Isn’t settler colonialism a feature of places (I’m thinking of New Zealand) that don’t have oil reserves? Why bring salt into the discussion? Do Settlers have sovereignty over the air? Yes, the uranium mined near the Laguna Pueblo reservation in New Mexico was used to build bombs, and yes, the radioactive debris has poisoned the land, but how is that incommensurable? With what? How are the borders of the U.S. examples of incommensurability? How is the high rate of incarceration in Louisiana an example of incommensurability? There’s no question that prison farms and private prisons are contemporary forms of slavery, but how are they incommensurable? I don’t understand the connections Tuck and Yang are expecting their readers to make; nor do I understand how issues that are impossible to resolve can become the grounds of solidarity. That idea seems to have been dropped entirely.
Finally, Tuck and Yang provide a short conclusion that begins with this statement: “An ethic of incommensurability, which guides moves that unsettle innocence, stands in contrast to aims of reconciliation, which motivate settler moves to innocence” (35). Reconciliation, they continue, “is concerned with rescuing settler normalcy,” and with “rescuing a settler future” (35). Reconciliation asks questions like “what will decolonization look like? What will happen after abolition? What will be the consequences of decolonization for the settler?” (35). “Incommensurability,” Tuck and Yang write, “acknowledges that these questions need not, and perhaps cannot, be answered in order for decolonization to exist as a framework” (35). But won’t decolonization require an engagement with Settlers, given their sheer numbers (which Tuck and Yang have discussed)? How could such an engagement take place without answering those questions, or at least acknowledging that they are legitimate? My questions, however, are the wrong ones to ask, and my suggestion that Settlers need to be engaged is off-topic: “decolonization is not accountable to settlers, or settler futurity,” Tuck and Yang write. “Decolonization is accountable to Indigenous sovereignty and futurity” (35). Moreover, they argue, the answers to the questions Settlers might ask “are not fully in view and can’t be as long as decolonization remains punctuated my metaphor” (35). I’m not sure that argument makes sense; one can imagine giving back stolen land without resorting to metaphor, and the questions Settlers would ask about their future would still exist. The authors’ next point makes more sense: “The answers will not emerge from friendly understanding, and indeed require a dangerous understanding of uncommonality that un-coalesces coalition politics—moves that may feel very unfriendly” (35). The point, I think, is that uncommonality is built into this issue; that decolonization will be a struggle between Indigenous peoples and Settlers, not a coalition that includes both parties. The unfriendliness they acknowledge is simply part of the structure, and the struggle, of decolonization.
“To fully enact an ethic of incommensurability means relinquishing settler futurity, abandoning the hope that settlers may one day be commensurable to Native peoples,” Tuck and Yang write:
It means removing the asterisks, periods, commas, apostrophes, the whereas’s, buts and conditional clauses that punctuate decolonization and underwrite settler innocence. The Native futures, the lives to be lived once the settler nation is gone—these are the unwritten possibilities made possible by an ethic of incommensurabiity. (36)
“Decolonization is not an ‘and,’” they write, not something that can be made a part of other human or civil rights approaches to justice. “It is an elsewhere” (36).
After reading and summarizing “Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor,” I have mixed feelings. I see the need to give back the stolen land that I—we—live on. I see the moves to innocence that Settlers use to protect themselves from the knowledge that despite their enlightened qualities and their apparent lack of innocence they are actually part of the colonial problem. But I am confused by what Tuck and Yang mean by “an ethic of incommensurability” (36), or how incommensurability can be the grounds of solidarity. It’s just not clear to me. I’m not sure how one can deny anyone anyone’s future, either, although denying settler futurity is not uncommon in texts about settler colonialism, perhaps because this essay has been so influential. (I think denying Indigenous futurity is a crime.) Certainly that’s not a way to get many Settlers onside with the decolonizing project, although perhaps the way this essay begins and ends with Frantz Fanon’s The Wretched of the Earth is a clue to what Tuck and Yang mean by decolonization—that, like the anti-colonial revolution in Algeria, it will be a violent struggle in which alliances between Settlers and Indigenous peoples will become null and void. That interpretation, though, runs aground on their apparent insistence that alliances between decolonization and other social-justice movements is possible, apparently through incommensurability. And while I understand their reluctance to offer any pathways towards decolonization—probably because they don’t actually know how it might play out, or how one might begin to set the process of returning land in motion—isn’t it a serious weakness to suggest that conscientization (consciousness raising might be a better word) or gestures towards decolonization are insufficient, without providing any positive alternatives? I don’t think the work of Moten and Harney is likely to lead to workable alternatives; like Tuck and Yang, their thinking is too utopian and not grounded in the unpleasant reality of politics in settler colonial states to be of practical use. I suppose what I ought to do is take what is useful from the essay and leave the rest behind, although some of what I would have to leave behind is frankly baffling. I must be misunderstanding something central to their argument, but I honestly don’t know what it might be. So I’m left confused and frustrated—probably not for the last time, either. Some of the stuff I’m reading is confusing and frustrating. I need to get used to it.
Fortier, Craig. Unsettling the Commons: Social Movements Within, Against, and Beyond Settler Colonialism. ARP Books, 2017
Harney, Stefano, and Fred Moten. The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study, Minor Compositions, 2013.
Tuck, Eve, and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization Is Not A Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society, vol. 1, no. 1, 2012, pp. 1-40.