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Privilege vs. Complicity: People of Colour and Settler Colonialism

Vintage Poster: Indian Land for Sale

I want to reflect on the conversations around communities of colour and their relationship to settler colonialism in North America and, specifically, how these conversations have taken shape within activist and socially progressive spaces. Over the last several years, in particular, these sometimes difficult, often fraught, conversations have challenged activists working on anti-racism, migrant justice, and community advocacy projects to consider how their own work is implicated in settler colonial projects.

One point of analysis that we tend to hear is that people of colour have ‘settler privilege’ and that this makes them complicit in settler colonialism. I want to think through how we use these two interrelated and frequently conflated frameworks – privilege and complicity – for understanding power dynamics. Does being complicit in the marginalization of Indigenous others necessarily entail that one is also privileged in relation to those Indigenous others? While privilege generally suggests complicity, is it also possible to be complicit within a system of hierarchical power without at the same time accruing its benefits? An emphasis on complicity shifts our focus to the strategies that produce hierarchies, in contrast to privilege, which frequently re-focusses on the self.

While these questions are part of a broader conversation about how we think about power and difference, the distinction between privilege and complicity is made particularly acute in conversations about the role that people of colour – non-Indigenous people – can play in supporting Indigenous struggles for self-determination in Canada and across North America. Let’s consider the notion of ‘privilege’ and how it is used. As an analytic to describe relations of power, ‘privilege’ has been used across a wide range of social movements. The term was popularized by Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay, White Privilege and Male Privilege: A Personal Account of Coming to See Correspondences Through Work in Women’s Studies. In the essay, McIntosh describes ‘white privilege’ in order to start a conversation about ‘male privilege.’ She writes that “I have come to see white privilege as an invisible package of unearned assets that I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was ‘meant’ to remain oblivious,” and that further, “Since I have had trouble facing white privilege, and describing its results in my life, I saw parallels here with men’s reluctance to acknowledge male privilege. Only rarely will a man go beyond acknowledging that women are disadvantaged to acknowledging that men have unearned advantage.”

McIntosh’s essay goes on to detail a ‘checklist’ of unearned white privilege. This checklist is used frequently as a teaching tool in workshops on anti-racism and anti-oppression, as well as in formal classroom settings. It has also been expanded to consider other systems of oppression based, for instance, on ability, body size, sexuality and religion. Most of you are probably familiar with the general structure of the social privilege checklist: It includes a list of everyday experiences that are taken for granted by those who have such privilege. So, for example, those with white privilege can take for granted that when they turn on their televisions they will see people like themselves represented. They can take for granted that in schools and universities their children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race. They can go shopping without being harassed. They can go walking or driving and not be racially profiled.

Generally, we can understand privilege as referring to material, structural advantage. I am privileged when my social location(s) give me access to social treatment, lifestyles and relationships which are conversely not available to those who don’t share my social location(s). When people refer to ‘settler privilege,’ they are referring to the unearned benefits to live and work on Indigenous lands, and to the unequal benefits accrued through citizenship rights within the settler state. However, for people of colour the benefits of being a settler are accrued unevenly. These privileges or social advantages are contingent on things like nationality, class, gender, and migration status. When we account for systemic inequities, underemployment and the racialization of poverty, for most people of colour there are few ‘benefits’ associated with being a settler. Thus, if we follow the logic of a settler/non-settler binary, an argument about people of colour having settler privilege quite easily falls on its face. Many people of colour are settlers without (or with limited) settler privilege.

The privilege model has been critiqued for its simplicity and for its failure to account for, among other things, an interlocking or intersecting analysis of oppression. It often flattens out differences, including the ways in which nation intersects with indigeneity, race, gender and class. Yet, as we can see from the “ALAS: A List of Privilege Lists,” this kind of model remains a popular on-the-ground approach to conceptualizing power among and between Indigenous peoples, diasporic peoples and settlers.

Complicity 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.

There are any number of reasons to problematize a privilege checklist approach to power dynamics and social inequity. As a pedagogical strategy the privilege model has its limitations. Consider this typical scenario in an anti-oppression workshop: participants run through a list of privileges which they experience on an everyday basis. Upon completion, they are able to confront a previously invisibilized aspect of their identity – whether this is their settler-status, being white, or being male. Following this exercise, they are conscious of their privileged identity and declare this privilege within their organizing work. Sometimes, but not always, this means being mindful of taking up, for example, space, leadership, and working with those without the same privilege. Other times it means continuing along with more or less the same work while admitting to having privilege. Not much changes in the ways of systemic inequities.

Similarly, to return to the issue of settlerhood, the recognition of oneself as a settler, while notable, does little to dismantle colonization. We can’t simply shake off or ‘check’ our privilege at the door. And it’s not simply about being mindful of a knapsack we’re carrying. In fact, declarations of privilege can just as easily re-inscribe dominant subject positions, by centering the focus on the unlearning process of the dominant subject.

I’ve observed this dynamic in some discussions in Toronto that take up the issue of communities of colour and Indigenous solidarity. In one such discussion, several people identified themselves as settlers, but expressed feeling uncertain as to what to do with this realization. The mood was heavy at the end of this discussion – as if the burden of being a settler was too much to bear. I was reminded of sociologist Sarita Srivastava’s work on the emotional responses evoked by a therapeutic model of unlearning racism within social movement organizations. Such an approach defuses anti-racism critique into “issues of individual emotion and personal style,” while foreclosing the possibility for structural transformation to take place. Similarly, over-investment in the settler subject risks re-centering the subject rather than destabilizing the settler/native binary through which the settler’s social power is constituted in the first place.

By way of closing I’d like to discuss some of the questions and possibilities opened to us through a framework of complicity, given all the limitations of a privilege model. 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.

In the context of people of colour and their relationship to settler colonialism on Turtle Island, 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. This might be a way to think about Indigenous solidarity and forging new decolonial relations in a manner that is less about ‘us’ going to support ‘their’ struggles, and more about recognizing Indigenous sovereignty and dismantling settler colonialism piece by piece.

Beenash Jafri is a PhD candidate in Gender, Feminist and Women’s Studies at York University in Toronto. Her dissertation looks at how racialized identities are constructed in relation to settler colonialism, through an examination of Black and South Asian Wild West films.

A version of this piece was originally published on the blog of the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences.

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