The differential impacts of colonialism across race and whiteness

Anastasia Kanjere is a white settler scholar, writer and activist born and raised on stolen land in Narrm.  Hit me up on twitter at @a_kanjere


Colonisation hasn’t, and doesn’t, impact people along binary dimensions.

In so-called settler colonies, it’s common to use the binary of settler/First Nations as a rough way of distinguishing who has been dispossessed by, and who is in the position of benefiting from, colonisation. This is, in my opinion, a very useful turn of phrase. It puts the focus on colonisation, rather than the less inflected category of race, and also avoids erasing the existence of settlers of colour through a binary of white/Indigenous.

But, of course, things aren’t so simple. The benefits of colonisation and privilege are accessible to different people in different ways because such access is further delineated by other aspects, including whiteness. In North America, because of the more visible history of the slave trade, people can identify that colonisation not only dispossessed Indigenous people of their lands, but also displaced other Indigenous people to other lands. In Australia, we have our own history of slavery (see, for example Violence and Colonial Dialogue: The Australian-Pacific Indentured Labor Trade, Tracey Banivanua-Mar (2007)) – although this is much less recognised or discussed. Even outside of slavery and indentured labour, though, there are vast differences between the experiences of non-Indigenous people in this place.

How do we make sense of these differences?

I’m going to offer a couple of – very academic – paths into thinking through these questions. As a Critical Race and Whiteness scholar, these texts come up for me on an almost-daily basis, and I still find them fairly challenging! On the other hand, theoretical approaches like these can also be very illuminating, so persevere if you can. I’m choosing some of the best, and will try to talk it through as we go. If there’s one thing you take away from this, I hope it will be that colonialism is global. While the most compelling political commitment must be to the colonialism manifesting where we stand, we can see colonialism stretching beyond that and inflecting all forms of global power.

In The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty, Goenpul scholar and leading theorist of Critical Whiteness and Critical Indigenous Studies Aileen Moreton-Robinson writes that non-white migrants to Australia ‘can belong, but they cannot possess’ (p. 6). Moreton-Robinson’s argument focuses on the idea of white possession being the underpinning logic of the violent formation of Australia as a nation-state. Possession was the logic with which British colonisers related to this land. Unable to see evidence of a concept of possession in the original inhabitants, they declared this place terra nullius – no one’s land. Since it was not owned it was not anyone’s, as the colonisers were unable to conceive of any other kind of relationship that might exist between people and land. Going yet one step further, the colonisers took the absence of ownership in Aboriginal societies to be evidence of their deficiency – even their non-humanness. Possession is a core attribute of human society, they argued, therefore beings who do not possess are not human beings. In this way they were able to rationalise their occupation and theft of Aboriginal land.

So the concept of possession is crucial in the colonisation of this land and the founding of Australia. Importantly, Moreton-Robinson explains that possession is an idea that is always inextricably tied to whiteness: ‘Race indelibly marks the law’s possessiveness’ (xii). Elsewhere, she writes:

Australia was acquired in the name of the King of England. As such patriarchal white sovereignty is a regime of power that derives from the illegal act of possession and is most acutely manifested in the form of the Crown and the judiciary. The crown holds exclusive possession of its territory, which is the very foundation of the nation­ state. The nation ­state in turn confers patriarchal white sovereignty on its citizens through what Carole Pateman argues is the sexual contract (1988). However, not all citizens benefit from or exercise patriarchal white sovereignty equally. Race, class, gender, sexuality and ableness are markers that circumscribe the performance of patriarchal white sovereignty by citizens within Australian society.

‘The Possessive Logic of Patriarchal White Sovereignty: The High Court and the Yorta Yorta Decision,’ (2002) borderlands, vol. 3, no. 2, p. 5

This leads us back to her argument about what kind of relationship settlers of colour have to the spoils of colonisation in Australia. Non-white migrants do have a legal and emotional state of belonging that is predicated upon dispossession, she writes. They are therefore tied to the logics of terra nullius and capital that undergird Australia. However, she writes, ‘whiteness is the invisible measure of who can hold possession’ (p. 6). Therefore the ability to possess is denied to those settlers who are not white, while the ability to belong is granted. Settlers of colour can belong, but they cannot possess.

Moreton-Robinson is writing here about possession of the nation-state in a metaphorical sense – of course settlers of colour are legally able to acquire property. Her account speaks to the way that First Nations peoples’ very existence is seen as a threat to the nation, which needs to be expunged or silenced, whereas the migrant can be generously welcomed in a way that does not threaten white ownership.

On the other hand, many migrants of colour feel that they do not – even cannot – belong. At best, the experience of belonging that is offered is one that is constantly contingent upon white approval. This is what Moreton-Robinson calls ‘[patriarchal] white sovereignty’ – the assertion of sovereignty by whiteness. White sovereignty means that it is only white people who have the right to determine who belongs here: who is welcomed and who is suspect; who, as John Howard put it, will come to this place and the circumstances in which they shall come. Ghassan Hage refers to this as ‘governmental belonging’: a habit of whiteness which asserts its belonging to the nation through a managerial scrutiny of those non-white others who seek inclusion. In this context, the belonging available to non-white migrants seems tenuous at best.

Complicating things further, many settlers of colour in Australia are (or are descended from) Indigenous peoples of other places: displaced by force, by war, by poverty, by environmental devastation, or by persecution. Therefore someone may be a part of colonising processes here due precisely to their own (or to their ancestral) experiences of colonisation elsewhere.

To make sense of this contingency, it’s useful to turn to the work of Peruvian postcolonial scholar Aníbal Quijano, and his theory of the ‘coloniality of power.’ Quijano’s article ‘Coloniality of Power, Eurocentrism and Latin America’ is a crucial text for postcolonial thought. He argues that colonialism was an event of key importance in founding the structure of the modern world. Colonisation cemented theories of racial hierarchy, established practices of labour exploitation, built capital and expropriated land – and did all of this with the accompanying ideological work of establishing Europe as the centre of knowledge and the repository of modernity. As a result, all kinds of aspects of global power – labour, capital, land, knowledge – can be understood as mediated by colonialism. ‘The model of power that is globally hegemonic today presupposes an element of coloniality,’ he writes (p. 533). Because of colonial history, power, race, and money continue to operate in a colonial model.

Bringing this back to our question, Quijano’s work can help explain why it shouldn’t be surprising to observe that patterns of migration are often intermingled with forces of colonisation. The forces of interglobal money and conflict fit into the model of the coloniality of power – which is to say that money, war, and environmental destruction can be understood vectors of that coloniality which inflects them. A global understanding of colonialism shows how people may be in the position of colonisers (or at least settlers) on this land, but have been led to that position by practices of colonisation and power enacted upon them. This isn’t by any means to diminish the momentousness of colonialism, but only to extend the reach of how we conceive of it.


Some further readings:

The White Possessive: Property, Power and Indigenous Sovereignty, by Aileen Moreton-Robinson (2015):

A collection of her essays over the last decade or so, organised around the central principle of her theory of white possession. One trouble is that Moreton-Robinson writes in very dense theoretical language. Her work really is the leading in the field but be prepared to invest some time!

Undoing Border Imperialism, Harsha Walia (2013):

A small handbook produced by anti-border activists in Turtle Island (Canada), this book does a beautiful job of discussing the connections between the struggles of First Nations peoples and racialised migrants. Written in an accessible manner and with a variety of voices and types of texts (poems, essays, memoir).

White Nation: Fantasies of White Supremacy in a Multicultural Society, Ghassan Hage (1998): 

This is from several years ago now, and Hage himself has observed that his engagement with the issue of First Nations dispossession in the book is inadequate. On the other hand, this is a superbly readable book which presents an analysis of whiteness in Australia that is still highly relevant.

This article appeared in our Just Voices magazine (issue 15, 2018) on Decolonisation and Indigenous Solidarity.

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